Excerpt

“Captain Renzi”

Alessandro Spina, Trans. by André Naffis-Sahely

March 30, 2018 
The following is from Alessandro Spina's story collection, Colonial Tales: The Confines of the Shadow, Volume II. The stories are set in Libya between the late 1920s and 40s, as control of the country is transferred from Italy to Great Britain. When the book was first published in full, it won the Bagutta Prize. Alessandro Spina was the pen name of Basili Shafik Khouzam. His work was shortlisted for the Strega and Campiello prizes.

Captain Renzi’s gaze was lifeless: instead of establishing a dialogue with his interlocutor, he’d been tasked to ensure it wouldn’t happen. Even his way of talking put people off: he meticulously avoided any kind of intimacy, which made any dialogue with him as abstract as a carpet’s geometric patterns.

Major Anastasio claimed that Renzi was a mercenary: he never gave his opinion on any matter and limited himself to performing his duties to the letter. Even though he’d only just arrived, he knew the outskirts of the city better than any of the other officers, all of whom had been in Africa far longer than him. He appeared sensitive to the beauty of their natural surroundings, at which point his typically unyielding composure would vanish for an instant.

Yet when it came to his relationship with his fellow soldiers and subordinates, appealing to that aforementioned sensitivity was bound to end in failure. Other officers were far stricter, some were even intractable, a few were even cruel. Captain Renzi, on the other hand, was fair-minded: yet one couldn’t rely on his indulgence, understanding, or pity. He was simply calm and collected, in full mastery of his feelings.

Privates Danisi and Ranieri had no luck with him. They happened to infringe one of the military’s rules and wound up being judged by the very same Captain Renzi. Sergeant Major Sanzogno burst into Captain Renzi’s office in a state of obvious excitement. He had caught the two soldiers in an indecent act. Truth be told, he tried to blame it all on Danisi, who was a bad egg and whom he’d keeping his eyes on for a while. Ranieri instead was a good soldier, honest and sincere, and he honestly had no idea how he’d fallen into such a trap. He wasn’t very sociable or outgoing, but was serious and honest. (Sergeant Major Sanzogno had actually played no part in the discovery; in fact, most of the soldiers had known for some time. Yet a certain Capresi had snitched to the Sergeant Major. This Capresi didn’t like Ranieri at all.)

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The Sergeant Major’s excitement led him to overstep his bounds and advise the Captain to punish Danisi and forgive Ranieri. It was a groundless hope. While still in the midst of talking, the Sergeant Major confusedly began to realize this: if he’d been truly invested in the matter, he should have brought it to the Captain, but should have resolved it in his own way; if there was no way to exonerate Ranieri, then he should have kept his mouth shut. But now it was up to the Captain to decide—and Renzi would certainly not keep his advice in mind. Not that he allowed his real intentions to transpire, just that there would be no surprises.

Nevertheless, the Sergeant Major was to be surprised regardless, not that he dwelled on it much, given the disappointment he experienced the moment the Captain opened his mouth. He cited the rule the soldiers had broken verbatim from memory—and this act of total recall did surprise the Sergeant Major—but merely by reciting the flouted rule he made it clear he would not be indulging either of the two privates. The rules had to be applied.

By the time Captain Renzi should have reasonably forgotten about the entire incident, a high functionary from the administration whom he’d met in Italy happened to walk into his office to talk to him about Danisi and Ranieri. Unlike the Sergeant Major, the functionary had come to exonerate Danisi, who was his son. After all, they were merely twenty-year old kids (in actual fact Danisi was twenty-two and Ranieri was already twenty-four), it had all just been a mistake. What point would there be in casting a light on a momentary lapse of reason instead of turning a blind, indulgent eye to the whole affair and drop the matter entirely? That punishment would just ensure they were publicly pilloried, and what was the point of mortifying them like that instead of trying to reach out to them? Why bring them to the brink of desperation and make their mistake seem even bigger in their eyes, would it really help put them back on the right path?

 

The Captain secretly envied those soldiers for having found peace and solace in their punishment.”

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The functionary had very little sympathy for Renzi. It had required some effort of him to come all the way to his office; all the more so since he had now realized that while Renzi was listening to him attentively, he nonetheless did so in the coldest manner possible. Had he spent an additional hour making his case he would have still walked away empty-handed. Thus, cutting himself off randomly in the middle of a sentence, and attempting to strike a cordial tone, he asked Renzi: “Well, what have you decided?”

Captain Renzi appeared slightly surprised by the question, the functionary’s thoughts were on an entirely different wavelength since he had not given this particular question any consideration. Sure enough, he said:

“The punishment I’ve dealt them is a disciplinary measure, just as though they’d left their barracks without leave, I didn’t attach any moral judgement to it. We officers must ensure that the rules and regulations are followed, we haven’t been charged with looking after their souls. Once they have received their punishment, they will return to their usual ranks as ordinary soldiers, and if they won’t make any further mistakes, I’ll think of them as exemplary soldiers . . .”

“What do you mean?” the functionary exclaimed, suddenly frustrated, “do you really not understand the implications of your judgement? Do you really believe that this kind of punishment has nothing to do with their being morally judged? This may very well be true as far as you’re concerned, but you do not seem to grasp that by revealing an indiscretion which others tend to judge not only from a regulatory, but above all from a moral point of view, you have assumed a great responsibility here? By dealing with the matter publicly, you have encouraged others to think along these lines, and it was wholly in your power to avoid that.”

“I am profoundly and sincerely sorry for the way in which the situation unfolded: as I have already mentioned, this was not my intention . . .”

“Do you finally see how flippant you’ve been?” the functionary passionately interjected.

“I haven’t been flippant,” the Captain sternly replied. “I only did my duty. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Discipline is . . .”

“But no,” the functionary bitterly retorted, “you’re mistaken, because . . .”

“Perhaps my one mistake was to consent to talk about the matter,” the Captain calmly replied, and that sentence brought the conversation to an end. “It is the strict purview of my superior officers to judge my decisions.”

“So be it, even if I have to take this all the way to the King,” the functionary bursted out, “but I’m not prepared to let this go.”

He left, without even saying goodbye. The Sergeant Major simultaneously entered through the door opposite the one the functionary had used. He had also come to discuss the matter of Danisi and Ranieri. It appeared as though he was no longer kindly disposed towards Ranieri. In fact, the two soldiers had been caught while attempting to communicate with one another in prison. Having intercepted a message, which for that matter contained nothing important, the Sergeant Major had called them into his office. He couldn’t say that they’d been too brazen or impertinent, instead they had been calm. It looked as though their punishment had lifted a weight off their shoulders.

“My actions didn’t go far enough.” the Sergeant Major concluded, “they must be permanently kept apart.”

He was giving the Captain advice again, and he bit his lip, vexed with himself. The Captain said nothing, neither yes nor no. It seemed as though Sanzogno’s words had left an impression on him, but in a completely different manner to the one the Sergeant Major had expected. In fact, he didn’t seem displeased in the slightest. He dismissed the Sergeant Major without saying anything, headed over to the mirror to ensure his appearance was in order and left to inspect the troops.

He mulled over what the Sergeant Major had told him. Hearing the functionary speak, one might have believed his account of the soldiers’ desperation and if he didn’t experience any regrets it was only because he was convinced that he’d merely done his duty. However, the Sergeant Major’s speech had agitated him. His observation that the soldiers looked as though a great weight had been lifted off their shoulders had struck him as truthful and accurate. The Captain secretly envied those soldiers for having found peace and solace in their punishment.

No pleas or supplications were forthcoming from Ranieri, and there wouldn’t be any either. When he had seen the functionary before him, he had originally assumed that Danisi had sent him to intercede on his behalf. Instead, he had been mistaken: they had accepted their punishment. In fact, as the Sergeant Major had so eloquently put it, they felt liberated.

That evening, Captain Renzi headed over to the Officers’ Club. On the night of his arrival from Italy, Colonel Tarenzi had invited him there. He hadn’t returned to that place since. He had been expected to attend a lunch with all the other officers to mark the visit of two navy units to the colonial city. Ever since then, he had become a tireless devotee of the club. He arrived punctually each day at nine, headed over to the bar, from which vantage point he could see who was coming and going, strolled through the rooms, climbed up one of the turrets, and then went home. More often than not he didn’t exchange a single word with anyone. At first he had become an object of curiosity, but as time went nobody paid him any heed.

Once he reached the club, he went to the bar and asked for gin with a splash of orange juice. This was his favourite drink and the bartender would prepare it for him as soon as he saw him enter the establishment. He was always one of the more elegant officers, except that he lacked the fatuousness which distinguished all the others and wasn’t smugly proud of his appearance. One only had to look at him when he stood in front of the mirror: meticulously well-kept, but absent-minded, he seemed no more interested or pleased than if he’d been putting his desk in order. Tw officers made for the bar with the sole purpose of greeting him.

“Do you know we’re leaving?”

The regiment had been transferred to the border. In those days, there was constant talk of war brewing on the horizon, and their orders appeared to confirm this.

Captain Renzi was keen to know all the minuscule details of their departure date, taking the two soldiers by surprise. Yet his curiosity stopped short there. He merely wanted to know at what hour and on what day the regiment would be departing. Nothing more.

“He’s such an oddball,” one of the officers said as they walked away.

The Captain remained sitting at the bar for a half hour. Then he stood up, ambled distractedly from one room to the other, and then went up to the terrace. He left shortly afterwards and swiftly made for a corner of the garden. There was a group of officers there talking animatedly. They were exchanging confused comments about the war, of the lodgings they would find in that distant border town, of the families they would have to leave behind. As for the younger officers, they commiserated over having to leave their city and club behind. Everyone had drunk their fill and conversation flowed easily.

“Is it true that you’re leaving?”

“Of course! You heard that too?”

“I did, Major Fontana told me.”

“Some pretty excellent news, eh?” the young officer said sarcastically.

“Why do you say that?”

“What do you mean, why?”

“Are you afraid of war?”

“Not at all. I don’t have any confidence in this war. They’ll leave us stranded out there for a year or so: to rot.”

“Are you upset you’re leaving the city?”

“But of course I am.” the young officer answered, off the cuff.

The Captain observed him for a moment. The young man was twenty-two years old, he was a second lieutenant in the artillery. He wasn’t very tall, and his hair fell over his eyes. He wore his uniform with elegance. There was only that hair, dangling above those always alert, darting eyes, which stood in stark contrast against his regular features, and otherwise serene limpid eyes. They betrayed the fact that he was still oscillating between restlessness and mischief.

 

Scandal is necessary, he thought to himself, and while one probably shouldn’t go looking for it, its arrival is still a blessing.”

 

“I heard the regiment is leaving on Saturday.”

“Right, but I have to leave tomorrow. It’s either going to be me or Lieutenant Fermi, since he’s still not feeling well.”

They were still standing in the midst of all the other officers. Captain Renzi would never have talked to anyone in a secluded space. He didn’t indulge himself any further. He addressed a few words to one of the officers in his regiment, and then withdrew.

*

It was almost midnight. The officers were talking loudly, and laughing even louder, and they were no longer as composed as they had been earlier in the evening. Captain Renzi never stayed up that late. He always went home at ten thirty. Instead, on that night he stopped at the bar on his way out and ordered another gin. Yet he was composed as ever, and he was the only one who had remained cold and distant while the ghost of general excitement excited everyone else’s spirits. There was more commotion than usual since the officers who were leaving for the border were being feted by their comrades.

“Won’t you toast our companions?” Colonel Tarenzi asked him, slapping him on the shoulder. He was a very cordial officer, they called him batiushkai because everyone said he was more like a priest than a commanding officer, as had been the case—as far as some were concerned—with all the colonels serving under the Russian Tsar.

The Captain raised a glass to the health of the departing soldiers. The young second lieutenant wasn’t there, he must have still been outside in the garden. Once the toast had been drunk, Colonel Tarenzi told him:

“By the way, dear Captain, come to my office tomorrow morning, I need to speak with you.”

The Captain replied that he would do as ordered. I struck the good Colonel that the Captain took to his tasks far too seriously. “But don’t give it any more thought,” he added, as though wanting to reassure him, “it’s nothing important.”

At that exact moment, the Captain spotted his young friend leaving the club. He treaded lightly, as though he’d been an officer from a distant bygone era, when a military commission was still a worldly career. He was still brushing his hair away from his face with that same impatient gesture: it looked as though he was ruffling it up rather than smoothing it out. For the past few moments, the Captain had experienced a kind of envy at the thought of Danisi and Ranieri, who now felt liberated, as though the punishment had freed them from a terrible burden, just like the Sergeant Major had said. Scandal is necessary, he thought to himself, and while one probably shouldn’t go looking for it, its arrival is still a blessing.

*

The following day, at exactly nine o’clock, the Captain was standing in the Colonel’s waiting room. He had to wait for him for an entire hour. The Colonel never arrived before ten. As soon as the Colonel had entered, he greeted the Captain amiably and personally ushered him into his office. He talked about his various illnesses, of the city’s humidity, which wasn’t doing his health any good, and that he had in fact already put in for a transfer. The Captain listened to him respectfully and gave a brief reply when appropriate.

“By the way,” the Colonel suddenly said, as though he’d just remembered the reason for having summoned the Captain into his office that very moment, “—came to see me . . .” meaning the high functionary who had paid Renzi a visit the previous day, “that incident between the two soldiers has become the biggest piece of gossip in the city. I’m not quite sure how that happened, and who took it upon himself to ensure everyone heard about it, but there’s hardly anyone who isn’t talking about it. Nobody really knows the two soldiers in question and nobody bothers to try to. But we’ve heard about your refusal to…deal with the man who took an interest in them. It’s not worth our while to squabble with this man. Naturally,” he quickly added, in order to forestall the Captain’s objection, “the matter is under the purview of army discipline, and they shouldn’t stick their noses into these affairs. But there we have it, dear Captain,” and here the Colonel resumed his captivating, almost embittered, paternal tone, “we’ve had to make so many compromises already that it wouldn’t make sense to dig our heels in on so trifling a matter. We can either agree or mutiny, and since we have no intention of mutinying, let’s agree to this request. As such, you must rescind your order and let’s not discuss the matter anymore. I don’t like that bastard at all, probably more than you do, and I would like nothing more than to keep those two in prison just to vex him, but . . .”

Having realized that the Captain didn’t feel the need for that conversation to continue, the Colonel suddenly stopped short in mid-sentence. Especially since he had been compromising himself by making all those statements.

“Are we in agreement?”

The Captain hadn’t liked the Colonel’s speech, but there was nothing left to discuss, this was an order, and the tone in which it was delivered was besides the point. Had he refused the Colonel’s order and taken the matter up directly with the General, the latter would have invariably taken the Colonel’s side. As soon as he got back to his office, he would rescind his order. However, he was still certain that he’d done his duty and had applied the rules as intended. Colonel Tarenzi, on the other hand, was a bad officer.

“We are.” the Captain said, taking his leave. The Colonel observed him. He looked as he always did, and he didn’t betray any peevishness. He was calm, in that cool manner for which he was universally known.

__________________________________

From Colonial Tales: The Confines of the Shadow, Volume II. Used with permission of Darf Publishers. Translation copyright © 2018 by Alessandro Spina.




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