Rocco Carbone’s Bodyguard
(from Bandiera Rossa in Coralville)
by Antonije Nino Zalica
Dato gave me a pair of sunglasses today. Chris told me I looked like a war criminal, but it seems to me I look just like an ordinary one. Earlier on we had a group photograph taken, we were all there except for the youngest one, who went off with a girl, I suppose he even fell in love. The photographs were taken on a lawn by a river called Iowa. Actually, we are in a state called Iowa, in a city called Iowa, in a memorial centre called Iowa, in a hotel called Iowa situated, as I have already mentioned, on the banks of a brownish river called Iowa. Most of the people around us were wearing T-shirts with “Iowa” printed across the chest. Dato has bought a pair of shorts to play football in, so he has “Iowa” written across his bum.
Rocco Carbone could have been a perfect gangster, his name is definitely right for it, and he sort of looks like one; black, combed- back hair, sparkling eyes, a restless spirit, a puzzling melancholy surrounding him like an aura, strange and volatile. Rocco is from Calabria, which fits perfectly as well, however, he does not live in Chicago, but in Rome; of course, he is not a gangster, or a consigliere, nor a burglar, gambler or pickpocket. Rocco is a forever futilely in love melancholic, partial to a drink; he is a writer too, of course, as are we all here, in Iowa City. I did not play football with him because, as I was told, he got so into it during the first game that he tripped over his own leg and spent the rest of the programme limping.
Although he is well into his adulthood, Rocco Carbone is still constantly in love and suffering for it. Sometimes it seemed to me that the “right to suffer” was more important to Rocco than love and being in love. He would try anything, he begged and knelt, in an old- fashioned way, before the objects of his adoration. He was ready to sacrifice everything for a bit of requited love or for, at least, some sign of it. Then he actually resembled romantic outlaws and ancient poets: Propertius, Tibullus or, at least, Petrarch—his consciousness muddled by the ecstasy of amorous longing. It need not be mentioned that this love was unrequited, and that the “Lauras” and the “Cynthias” changed in a strange and quickened rhythm. At the time I was hanging around with Rocco, the position was temporarily held by a beautiful and, they say, intelligent American poetess of Irish origin. She lived somewhere in Iowa, but had a boyfriend in Illinois whom she visit every Friday. That gave a perfect excuse to Rocco for even more passionate bouts of suffering and drinking. And so Rocco was consumed by amorous agony, and we, of course, drank with him, as if to help him.
Friday nights were the worst, every once in a while Rocco would desperately cry out: “Dato, do you know where she is now?” He always addressed Dato, as if he were a personification of us. Dato would reply with the wonderful understanding that only the people from Caucasus posses: “Yes, I know my friend, I know.” Rocco would then almost squeak: “And do you know what is she doing now?” And so it went on every Friday, to the point where we substituted the word “Friday” for the word “Illinois”—by which it was understood that the current “Beatrice” was getting off with some guy in Illinois. “Tomorrow’s “Illinois,” Rocco would sometimes say, the trace of appropriate sadness already in his voice. “Yes,” Dato would reply, “tomorrow’s Illinois.” “She’ll go to Illinois tomorrow, do you know why she goes to Illinois?” “I know, I know,” Dato would reply with empathy unique to him. And, after midnight, Rocco would cry out in his drawn-out Italian accent: “She is now in Illinois!” He would always draw out that word, he would sing it, Italian style, emphasize it with a strange self-agonizing pleasure. And so one night, we had already had a few, and Rocco wailed about Illi-no-i-s for the seventh time. I asked him, almost seriously: “Rocco, you must have some relatives here, in Chicago or Cleveland, some of your Calabrese. Maybe they could help you to solve that minor problem, with the girl?” Rocco stared at me with drunken, hurt eyes, then shrugged and nearly cried: “But Nino! I’m here in-cog-nito!” And then he started explaining how he would have no time for writing if his family knew he was there, he would have to call everyone, visit them, buy flowers for aunts, kiss the hands of grandfather’s relatives and bring chocolates for countless children.…He talked, and then paused, sighed with a long awaited relief, his face beamed with an ecstatic smile:
“Yes, I know! We’ll kill the guy!”
Yes, really, an idea struck Rocco, the problem could be solved in an instant, of course, the entire problem is in the boyfriend—if it were not for him, she would go to Rome with Rocco and would not live here in bloody Iowa, but in the centre of the world and in the city of all cities! And she would not be going to Illinois on Fridays to get her fat portion of passion!
“Dato, shall we kill the guy?”
“Of course Rocco, we will kill him for sure,” replied Dato practically in passing, while rummaging through his notes written in ornate and strange Georgian letters. Dato was the only programme participant who had not wanted a computer and only wrote in hand.
“It is so simple. We just need to kill the guy!” Rocco kept on repeating this sentence with a strange happiness, which even Robert de Niro would find difficult to act out so convincingly. Rocco was not acting it out. He was just in a position to imagine that remote possibility of realizing his dreams, or, maybe, he saw that his suffering could come to an end?
Although we spent almost three months in the USA, we did not kill anyone. Rocco soon became infatuated with someone else, so the fellow from Illinois was allowed to continue living happily, and we later heard that the Irish-American poetess had dumped him; nevertheless, she never did end up in eternal Rome. And I decided, once and for all, to become Rocco’s, my idol’s, personal bodyguard.
In Rome, Rocco had a weird job. Of course, he was a writer as the rest of us were, but unlike many of us, he was even acknowledged and read—however, he could not live from it. After he had become bored of teaching literature in a high school, Rocco found a job at a women’s prison. Every afternoon he would go behind bars and give literature classes to murderesses. Actually, those were not real classes. He would read selected texts to them and then they would discuss the contents. Once he told me how he had read an excerpt from a Tolstoy novel and one of the inmates said she could not listen to it any more and ran out. Later she admitted to Rocco that she had done away with her husband in exactly the same way, with an axe. “You know, that one was not evil at all, she freed herself from her tyrant, and that’s it. He had abused her terribly, you know.” I asked him whether he had fallen in love with any of the inmates. “Yes,” he said, “but nothing could be done about that.”
“And did any of them fall in love with you?”
“They were all, of course, in love with me!”
I truly believe that all of those women had really been in love with Rocco Carbone, but his destiny was such that some mysterious net had always found itself between him and requited love. In this case, it was the prison bars. God Eros was simply too mean to Rocco Carbone, and that is probably why he had described the god as a wicked and worn-out tramp in one of his novels. And gods are, as you know already, too egotistical and vain.
We were once, I remember, sitting in our common room on the third floor of the Iowa City University campus, a bit idle in our conversation, with a bottle of tequila, a little salt and lemon and, of course, a whole pile of ice. (Those ice machines on every corner certainly seemed to be the height of American civilization!) Quite a few of us were there. We talked about our childhoods and similarly silly topics. As a child I was, of course, a “pioneer.” I do not know how much people know about this, but in socialist countries everything had to be organized and collectivized in some way, so all the children above the age of six or seven belonged to the pioneer organization and they had to swear the “pioneer oath,” swear to listen to the elders, to be good and faithful to our leader and to the ideas of socialism and progress. And all the pioneers had similar “uniforms”—black trousers/skirts, white starched shirts, red scarves and hats with red five-pointed stars. At some point, I realized that most of the writers present in the room should have some experience of the pioneer past, and I asked each one if they had been pioneers as kids. Andrej Stanislavovič Bičkov from Moscow said: “Of course I was. Could it have been any other way?” and he laughed. Bičkov was a very entertaining and hilarious guy. We all had to give some kind of lecture to the students, and Bičkov started his in a very unusual way; as soon as he reached the lecture theatre pulpit, he admitted that he was not only a writer, but a murderer as well. Yes, yes, a real murderer who had killed two people! Everyone in the theatre stared at him confusedly, even with a feeling of unease (what if he really was, and you never know with the Russians, do you?)—and he did not let himself be disturbed, he calmly continued his confession and described both murders in detail—the first one he pushed under a tram without remorse, and watched him get crushed by the wheels, and the second one he stabbed several times with a kitchen knife and then decapitated him with one stroke! The American students stared at the strange little man who spoke English with an accent worthy of James Bond films’ worst villains. And he stood there at the pulpit of one of America’s universities with a smile on his face as if nothing had happened. And when everyone was really shocked, Bičkov added:“But I’ll have to emphasize that the two were writers as well! Postmodernist writers! And I hope that you can fully understand me now.”
But, let us continue with the topic of pioneers: Mileta Prodanović need not have answered. He said something like: “Give us a break,” with a grin. Ghassan Zaqtan from Ramallah looked at me over his cigarette he had just lit, showed with his ever-beautiful smile, which could have meant both confirmation and negation. So I was not able to find out whether Palestinians had a similar organization, but that they were a part of the “progressive humanity” was unquestionable. And Ghassan also had his “Moscow years,” and talked about them often. Aida, instead of an answer, started singing a well-known, Yugoslav partisan song, which, I later learned from a klezmer band in Poland, was actually a Ukrainian song. Aida was an Arab from Israel, and had problems introducing herself. I was plagued by similar difficulties. The most difficult thing was when they asked me where I was from, and they kept on asking that. People normally have a short and simple answer to that, two or three words and all is clear. But I have to take a deep breath first, take a short break—and then I start explaining slowly; I come from Holland, from Amsterdam, but actually I am from Sarajevo, from Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which used to be a part of Yugoslavia, I mean, former Yugoslavia….I go on explaining, not because I have to, but because I feel a vague compulsion to. Aida is always edgy; a muted frustration is constantly eating at her. The way in which she is addicted to nicotine reminds me of Sarajevo and Bosnia. As if we had gone to high school together and had smoked in secret, hiding from teachers, I get carried away sometimes and want to address her in my language. I started talking to Dato in that language once without realizing, and I also got his name mixed up, as if we had served in the army together somewhere in Slovenia.
Antonia always gives out a strangely calm aura. Just for a moment, I notice that her voice faltered, that her jaw imperceptively quivered; in the blueness of her eyes I notice a slight wetness. She has a similar problem as Aida and I, she explains where she is from—she is an Irish citizen, but, actually, she is from the Northern part: “Derry, not Londonderry, we call it just Derry.” She grew up and lived for a long time in Belgium. Poor thing, she never even had a chance of becoming a pioneer.
Viet, from Vietnam, as his name implies, laughed his ever childish laugh—a definitive confirmation of his pioneer past and not only that—children there are probably still some kind of pioneers, and our Viet may never have ceased being a member. And our friend from Laos, Tongbay, smiled in a similar way and continued nodding with approval for a long time. Su Tong, probably the biggest literary star among us, the author of the novel on which the famous film “Raise the Red Lantern” was based, did not have to confirm anything. Clear as day—of course he was a pioneer! Even Marius from Lithuania, although the youngest among us, admitted to having been a pioneer for a few months. Young Polish poet Dariuš, said something similar.
Only Marek Zaleski, although quite a few years older than Dariuš, refused, with resignation, any possibility of ever having anything to do with pioneers. We tried to “explain” to him that we still thought it impossible, but he kept on denying it with a harsh, neurotic twitch in his face. He was not, period! There was something there that pained him too much, and we stopped insisting. Only Dato admitted to asking his mother to iron his hat the night following his admittance to the pioneers, and he showed us how he had slept with it under the pillow, gently folding his hands under his cheek.
Dato was some kind of a “mobile Georgia,” wherever he was a small Georgian colony would form around him. And so he found some Georgians in Iowa, who kept on coming round to see him and take him out; among them, a strange type of closeness and openness was present already at the first meeting. Georgians are great patriots; they adore their country and everything Georgian, and, of course, each other, or at least it seems that way when they are far from Tbilisi, the Black Sea or the Caucasus. Once we had a real spectacle on our campus: some important demonstrations were taking place in Georgia, they had liberated themselves from a lot of things, but the local dictator still remained, and he wanted to shut down the only remaining independent TV station, and the people revolted. Dato had been a leader of an important student revolt in the nineties; he received a call in Iowa during the demonstrations, the phone was connected directly to a loud speaker on the square and he addressed the masses in the streets from his hotel room. We awaited him eagerly in the common room, he came back quivering, flushed:
“I told them—don’t worry, Rocco Carbone’s with us!”
I do not know whether he did that, but I do know he was crazy enough to do it. Then, one night, Dato told us we had all been invited to a barbecue by a Georgian family in nearby Coraville. All of us, more or less, accepted the invitation, except Chris Keulemans, whose excuse was that he wanted to stay in and work on his novel, “The American I Never Was,” only to admit later that he got stuck again and spent the entire evening staring at the TV. The Georgians came to pick us up and we piled into cars the best we could, some of us even sat in the boot of a large Cherokee jeep. On our way Dato explained to us the rules of a Georgian party: the booze up is always headed by a person called the tamada, who is often the host or one of the elders. Our hosts had several of Dato’s books on their shelves. They loved him and respected him very much and insisted on him being the tamada that evening. Dato hesitated. He thought that the honour belonged to the host, but they were persistent. The tamada dictates the evening, from what should be drunk and eaten and when, to the order and content of toasts, which are an unavoidable and the most important part of the festivity. He explained that everyone had to, unconditionally, accept the authority of the tamada, do everything that was asked of them, almost blindly and unquestioningly. He told us how he had once drunk in a village somewhere high up in the Caucasus. The tamada had been an old man, the head of the village, and in a moment of excitement he had said: “And now we will drink the Georgian soil!” and had poured a handful of soil into his wine. Everyone had followed him immediately, without any dissension. They had drunk the strange mixture of thick red wine and reddish soil.
We arrived in Coraville, a pretty town with terraced houses. The hosts were excited and everything had been ready for a good while. Iced vodka from the freezer was being drunk from long “test tube” glasses. On a large, semi-spherical barbecue, above practically “volcanic” embers, something resembling our own meat on skewers, ražnjići, was roasting. However, the skewers were shaped like sabres and each peace of meat was the size of a hand. Later we drank wine, Georgian of course, which is probably the best in the world, alongside our “blatina.” Our tamada, Dato, skilfully maintained the level of celebration. We drank to everyone—our mothers, those we loved but who were no longer with us. We toasted and drank copiously. The last toast Dato dedicated to our home countries and I have to admit that he dedicated a part of the toast to me alone. He said: “We will all return to our homes soon. Only Nino won’t, he does have a home and a family, but no longer has his fatherland. This is why I dedicate this toast to him above all!” As a matter of fact, until then I had not realized how right he was; Holland is a fine country, a country that had, actually, adopted me happily. But, Dato was right—a mother is a mother, and a stepmother is, after all, a stepmother, no matter how good or kind. It is strange, but, in the tamada ritual, nothing feels fake, or pathetic or sentimental like in our quasi-folklore rhyming toasts, which were always a sort of recited paroles, closer to sleazy sycophancy than frank camaraderie. But, putting that aside, Dato in the end asked everyone to give everyone else something from their country. Rocco, even though he was drunk as a lord to begin with (what can you do, it was the first day of “Illinois”), recited some Tasso or Petrarch—clearly, without stopping for a breath. Sergio talked about the secrets of Argentinean tango; Antonia said something about Dublin and the painful beauty of her native North; Ben, if I can remember correctly, was very eloquent on the topic of his childhood—Oxford I think it was, something resembling the “Dead Poets’ Society.” Everyone gave something beautiful, honest and warm. Finally, it was my turn; I said that, well, despite everything, I still held my mother tongue dear, no matter what they called it, and that it was that language that was some sort of my only remaining fatherland, and that I would try and give them some of the melodiousness and beauty of that practically nameless language; and I delivered, in a long and slow rhythm, the only poem I could remember then, and probably the only poem I ever knew of by heart, but most probably the best fitting one for the occasion: Pučina plava spava / prohladni pada mrak / vrh hribi crne trne / zadnji rumeni zrak….
Later we went out to the terrace, we also took a guitar with us. I played La Bamba (the only one I can play even when completely drunk). Ben sang a few fantastic songs (Simply Red? Pink Floyd?), one of which he wrote himself, and in one of the verses he improvised something about a man speaking, as he called it, Serbo–Croatian. Sergio played some strangely tender Argentinean love songs, Tango again, with knives thrown in, just like in Borges. So, that was that one starry night in Coraville.
Rocco sat in a corner of the terrace, drunk enough to be close to crying. He would sing an Italian song, he was not much of a singer, but the song would reach us all with its beauty. I took hold of the guitar, already drunk enough to have difficulty finding the strings, and asked Rocco:
“Do you know which is my favourite Italian song?”
Although a definitely hopeless singer, I neighed without a trace of inhibition:
Avanti o popolo alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa
Avanti o popolo ala riscossa
Bandiera rossa trionferà
Everyone took up the spirited rhythm of the song. And once we reached the refrain, Rocco got up on his feet, which could hardly hold him, his eyes full of tears: “You’re trying to provoke me, Nino,” he said while a smile fought with a tearful ache on his face.
“You don’t know that I, truly, was a communist.”
With a bitter, hoarse voice he began singing “The Internationale,” in Italian, of course. It sounded truly touching. In my drunken brain, bits of old films started whirling; horsemen shooting peasants asking for land from double-barrelled shotguns in Bertolucci’s “Twentieth Century,” bandit Guliano, who, in “The Sicilian,” hews down red flags on rocky ground with a heavy machinegun.
We all started singing with Rocco, and to be honest, our hearts somehow grew bigger in the middle of the state of Iowa. Marek Zaleski stopped us, his hands shaking with rage and some innate fear. He said it was the same as singing a fascist song, the same as crying “zieg-heil.” It is not the same—we tried explaining. It is not the same when The Internationale is being sung by Rocco Carbone, drunk on a terrace in Coralville and when it is being sung by a choir on a Warsaw radio during the Soviet occupation. This was in vain. Marek was still shaking. Although he was in the wrong, we had enough respect for his frustration and we started singing Dylan and The Beatles again, and I definitely decided to be Rocco Carbone’s trusty bodyguard for the rest of my life (which is why Dato gave me a pair of sunglasses, which, he swore, he was given by the biggest Georgian rock star).
But I never kept another promise I made to Rocco while walking through Little Italy in Manhattan; I told him I would write a story entitled, “I was Rocco Carbone’s Bodyguard,” which will tell a story of a young Bosnian, a war veteran and a refugee in New York, who, when he realizes how much respect the man is given (and the event took place during a book signing in an Italian book shop), mistakes the writer Carbone for a big mafia man and offers to be his bodyguard, just for a seven-day trial. In the story, a drunken Rocco agrees to the crazy idea, of course, and they become friends over those seven days. The concept was not bad at all, but every writer has to have a story that remains unwritten.
And then, I imagine, like a scene from an unmade film: the orchestra is playing The Internationale, unassumingly—some violin, a tempered piano. We slowly peruse the audience and notice—a gangster is sitting in an ornamented theatre box. We get closer and realize it is Rocco Carbone himself, and I am with him—I stand behind him in a black pinstripe suit and dark glasses of a Georgian rock star and take notice of every wink.
The Internationale is playing, the gangster is breathing in the smell of a red carnation. And he is crying, quietly, as if it were Ridi Pagliaccio.