A Cure for Serpents
Alberto Denti di Pirajno
A Cure for Serpents
Alberto Denti di Pirajno
In 1924, the irrepressibly curious Alberto Denti arrived in Libya to work in Italy’s African colonies. With a natural ear for a story and a passionate interest in his work, he must have been as good a doctor as he is a writer. Though equally at home in an embassy or a brothel, Denti preferred the company of Berbers and Eritreans to that of his fellow Italians. He conjures up the dignity of local chieftains, the palpable charms of celebrated courtesans, the excitement of Tuareg entertainers and the love lost between himself and a wounded lion cub with all the charm of a man who boasted of the ‘inestimable satisfactions known only to those who have lived in Africa’.
‘In the class of book one wants to keep on a special shelf.’ - Good Book Guide
‘... a cure for a great deal more than serpents.’ - Guardian
A Cure for Serpents
Format: 276pp demi pb
Dr Alberto Denti, who later became the Duke of Pirajno (the first Duke of Pirajno, from Sicily, had been created in 1642) began a promising career near the university of Florence and Rome. In 1924 he went to the remote coastal station of Buerat el Hsun on the Gulf of Sirte, as medical officer to a group of men led by the Duke of Aosta, posted to Tripoli by King Victor Emmanuel III. He spent several of his African years in Ethiopia, eventually becoming Chef de Cabinet to the Duke of Aosta when he was appointed Viceroy of what was then Abyssinia. In 1941 he became the last Italian governor of Tripoli and handed over the town to the British army two years later. He also wrote A Grave for a Dolphin, a collection of stories drawn from his experiences in Africa.
Extract from Chapter One
ONCE UPON A TIME there was a King. When I was presented to him I felt sorry for him; he seemed to me
to be a prisoner of the surroundings into which he was born, to be humiliated by the tallness of his guards, resigned to the rascality of his servants and wearied by the vanity of his court.
Those admitted to his inner circle knew him as a man of keen intelligence and wide culture, a natural sceptic with a pungent sense of humour tinged with pessimism.
He was very short – but he had some extremely tall cousins.
One of them – even taller than the rest – would have filled the role of a demigod had he lived in pagan times; in the heroic Christian era he would have been a crusader or a knight errant. But in this greedy age, when knights are no longer brave, when cowardice mocks at valour, when ideals perish, done to death by ignoble expediency, and the ambitious frog puffs itself up but acquires none of the attributes of the ox except its presumptuous and stubborn obtuseness, this goodly young man was out of place.
He had an extraordinary quality – a radiance seemed to emanate from him and he had the gift of infusing into those around him something of the vitality of his own happy nature, which expanded in the glow of warm, human contacts and withered in the shadow of conventionality and compromise. He was grave or gay as his mood or the occasion demanded, and his humanity caused him to be interested in everything and everyone; he was sensitive to both the joys and sorrows of others, intolerant only of complacency, meanness and pomposity – which last he knew how to deflate with a single biting remark.
One such remark was repeated to the King.
Probably His Majesty – who was King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy – had no desire to become angry with the cousin he loved, but he lacked the energy to resist the zeal of some of his more realistic courtiers.
Perhaps, too, he thought that the punishment would be acceptable rather than otherwise to this Tall Young Man – who later became the Duke of Aosta – and who was always ready to engage enthusiastically in activities in distant lands. Or perhaps it was merely that at that particular moment the King found it impossible to forgive him his enormous height.
Whatever the reason, the cousin was posted to Tripoli, and on an August day which now seems fabulously remote he found himself in exile at Buerat el Hsun, in the Gulf of Sirte, with three officers, one of whom was a physician.
Thus it was that in Buerat el Hsun I opened my first African dispensary.
The time was 1924. In those days our colonies were interesting places – either because Rome had not yet made any attempt to regulate the lives of those who lived in them, or because, seeing that there were no prospects of easy and rapid enrichment, the Italians who went there were few, and endowed with unusual qualities and singular defects.
There were few colonial civil servants, for bureaucratic inflation had not yet extended to the colonial service. In general, officials were drawn from other departments and from the armed forces, and to a large extent they were men of undeniable worth and of an unimpeachable honesty which today would be regarded as quixotic.
The younger officials were trained in the school of men to whom honesty was as the breath of life, who took their responsibilities seriously and were imbued with a high sense of duty which nowadays seems to belong to the realm of make-believe. Labouring as they did for an ungrateful country, which at that time seemed to have a definite aversion for those who served her with loyalty and enthusiasm in places where everything was hostile, they found their recompense in those inward and inestimable satisfactions known only to those who have lived in Africa.
During the last war most civil servants in the African colonies were withdrawn to the towns, but many remained in the outlying districts, and many lost their lives there. In Tripoli, after the Italian and German troops had retreated into Tunisia, all the civilian officials remained at their posts pending the arrival of the British. These officials, with the help of a quantitatively negligible but qualitatively invaluable police force, succeeded in maintaining order and preventing outbreaks of violence even in those areas where the withdrawing military authorities light-heartedly abandoned shops and stores bursting with food, equip- ment, arms and ammunition.
Many of those whom the regular civil servants and the Army called ‘civilians’ were at that time pioneers in the real sense of the word. Later, owing to the undue multiplication of this category, the term ‘pioneer’ was used ironically, but those early adventurers were pioneers indeed – concessionaires, professional men, tradesmen, artisans, who succeeded in making a life for themselves on the desert shores of Libya and formed the nucleus of the Italian population. There was also, of course, the usual proportion of disappointed men who, impelled by native restlessness or by life’s delusions, sought to forget the past and to build themselves a new life under a strange sky.
All these types were represented in microcosm at Buerat el Hsun.
There was the camel corps officer – a horseman of European fame who, fascinated by the desert, renounced the future international triumphs which certainly awaited him; there was the young second- lieutenant who ‘disembarked with joy and exultation’ in the hope of passing into the regulars, the seasoned and taciturn colonial veteran, the unfrocked monk who made a living as a photographer, the centurion with the immortal wife. This last likeable and unhappy youngster had surprised his wife in flagrante delicto and had riddled her with bullets, one of which entered the nape of her neck and emerged through her mouth after splitting her tongue. Three months later this imperishable lady, completely recovered, gave evidence in court without the slightest impediment in her speech.
Buerat el Hsun was a coastal station, caught between deserts of sea and sand. There was no local population and the nearest Bedouin tents were about eighty miles away. But although we were isolated we were certainly not lonely.
Along the shore stretched the tents of the married quarters of a desert unit; a hundred Blackshirts and a company of Eritrean Askaris constituted the military garrison. Occasionally a troop of saw∂r∏ in transit halted for a while; less often, the Gina, an ancient little steamer and relic of the Ottoman Navy, dropped anchor off shore, bringing us provisions, letters from Italy and gossip from Tripoli.
In Arabic, Buerat el Hsun means the ‘wells of the Hsun’, but no one knew who these Hsun were, and all trace of them had long since vanished. Our little world which for a time had its being in that remote corner of the Sirte has also disappeared and gone the way of the Hsun. The Very Tall Young Man died a prisoner in the hands of the British; the intrepid horseman who commanded the camel corps was treacherously struck down in an ambush; the centurion preceded his tenacious consort into the next world; the second-lieutenant sleeps beneath the cross planted by his comrades – and even the photo- grapher-monk is lost among the shadows of a monastery which offered peace and forgiveness to a repentant sinner.
When the few survivors meet and talk of those far-off days and of that little world which has vanished, they are perpetually astonished to discover that it was not all a dream.
So there we were, in the family encampment stretched out along the shore. There was no lack of patients, and the various aspects of native life provided me with ample material for study. I was, moreover, forced to learn Arabic, and an old, half-paralysed non-commissioned officer named Dimadima initiated me, with the aid of a rapidly disintegrating spelling book, into the art of writing from right to left.
The camp was composed of people from every corner of Libya – for the most part women and children. They lived in the camp as in a large village, under the supervision of an old shumb∂sh∏ whose many wounds entitled him to a period of rest while the unit was away in the south, on the edge of still unoccupied territory, endeavouring to cut off the caravans which supplied the rebels. The women sighed and said resignedly that it would be a long war, unconscious of how much may be condensed into the words: a long war, a soft-hearted govern- ment, a wily rebel.
Practically the whole gamut of tropical pathology was represented in the camp, and the work was intensely interesting because of the very diverse origins of the subjects. All the various forms of malaria were present; the whole range of intestinal parasitology was covered; tuberculosis, very prevalent among people transferred from the desert or from the mountains to the coast, was rife; we had all the endemic ophthalmias of the East, venereal disease in all its most florid manifestations, and children’s and women’s complaints in plenty.
I was the official medical officer of this human conglomeration, and the shumb∂sh∏ Busnina el Fituri was the mayor, or civil authority – a mayor, be it said, who wisely confined himself to the administrative field, because he knew full well that it would be difficult to attempt to impose his authority on his young and capricious wife, on his shrewd and sagacious mother-in-law, or on the Sanhedrin of older women who were the real rulers of the camp. Most of these dowagers were under forty-five, and only two were nearing sixty. In Europe they would have been considered still comparatively young. But these women, married as soon as they reached the age of puberty, exhausted by early and repeated confinements, often obliged to perform tasks beyond their strength, lost their youth and beauty early. In some of them there still lingered a vivacious smile, a certain spontaneity as a reminder of what they once had been. The Berber women in particular retained some semblance of youth, their slim, lithe bodies being preserved by their plain diet, which consisted largely of ground barley.
To compensate for their premature physical decay, however, these women enjoyed the authority and prestige which the Moslem world confers on those to whom years have added wisdom. They had, in fact, imposed a matriarchal regime upon the camp.
One of the most respected of these matrons was the mother of a non-commissioned officer called et-Turk because of his Ottoman origin. The old woman still insisted on her title of l∂lla which is Berber for ‘Mrs’, for although it was forty years since Lalla Saida had abandoned Southern Algeria to follow her husband, a bashi-bazouk sergeant, she still remained obstinately Berber, and even at that date could hardly conceal a certain disdain when speaking of an Arab.
Another attribute of her race which Lalla Saida possessed in marked degree was that unfortunate passion for the supernatural which has gained for the Moslems of the west – of the Maghreb – that solid reputation for witchcraft and sorcery, which causes them to be abhorred by all other followers of the Prophet.
I had been treating Lalla Saida for some time for sciatica, and when this cleared up she regarded me with high esteem and even bene- volence. One day when I was drinking tea in her tent she honoured me with all kinds of compliments for, as she said, it was seldom that Allah conceded to mortal man – and especially to an infidel – the power to expel Tab’a.
Charmed to receive the benediction of Allah and honoured by so much favour, I was nevertheless obliged to confess that I had not the pleasure of Tab’a’s acquaintance. Lalla Saida shook her head sadly at my ignorance and handed me a third cup of tea full of roasted peanuts.
It was clear, she said, that I had not lived at Lagh∫at or at Ghardai, where every Berber child knew things which were hidden from even the oldest and wisest Arabs and other profane persons. In the Mzab, everyone knew that Tab’a, the Persecutrix, was the embodiment of all the malevolence of all the evil spirits that had ever troubled the seed of Adam, from the spiteful fairies to the pitiless, relentless fiends; that she was the cause of every misfortune, every disaster.
As far as I could gather, this monstrous incarnation of evil combined the cheerful malice of the Neapolitan munaciello – who amuses him- self by upsetting saucepans, hiding the careful housewife’s knitting needles, tormenting lovelorn girls during the long, languid summer afternoons – with the limitless ferocity of Eblis, the prince of demons.
In any case, Lalla Saida assured me that Tab’a was no laughing matter; that she was indeed a most terrible being; sometimes she took pleasure in calling the timid and fearful by name, haunting them invisibly, so that when they turned round to look they found no one. But that was nothing: Tab’a also troubled people’s sleep and induced horrible nightmares. She might, for example, appear in the dreams of a respectable matron, taking the form of a negress or a witch, and, having insulted her, beaten her and thrown her down a ravine, she would disappear in smoke, carrying off with her the woman’s gold and silver ornaments, her sons and her husband. Lovers, said Lalla Saida, lived in terror of Tab’a, who was capable of rendering a bridegroom impotent on his wedding night; she had a particular predilection for deflowering maidens, implanting lacerating pains in the bones of older women, blinding adulterers, and covering the faces of the vain with horrid spots. There was no remedy in the ordinary sense of the word against Tab’a: you could only say prayers, have a spell cast over you, and hope to find ways of escaping the demon’s notice.
But I, continued Lalla Saida, had practised no exorcism – and yet Tab’a had definitely removed her attentions from her leg. At this point she slipped off one trouser leg and offered for my inspection a limb which thirty years ago must have provided considerable food for the imagination. ‘Perhaps there is magic in the injections?’ she suggested, still amazed at the success of my treatment. Well, however that might be, there was no doubt that I was one of Allah’s chosen vessels, since he had deigned to give me power over evil spirits; perhaps one day he might even permit me to talk with the genii who guarded the sub- terranean treasure. It would be a sign of great favour, leading to untold riches. ‘Allah’s will be done,’ said Lalla Saida hopefully.
Unfortunately, Allah has not yet seen fit to grant me that boon.