The grotesque game of The Law, played in the taverns of southern Italy, is but a shadow of an even fiercer attitude to life; a potent metaphor for a vigorously hierarchical view of existence which rules over the mezzogiorno, the noonday culture of southern Italy.
In this novel we are not asked to pardon or condemn the passion of Donna Lucrezia, the assured self centredness of the learned aristocrat Don Cesare or even the sinister desires of Matteo Brigante, the controlling godfather. We are asked merely to observe. In this sense The Law seems less a work of pure fiction and more a series of shrewdly noted travel sketches.
‘One feels one knows everyone in the district ... every page has the texture of living flesh.’ - New York Herald Tribune
‘One is horrified by this novel but never bored.’ - Sunday Times
Format: 264pp demi pb
Place: Southern Italy
Roger Vailland was born in 1907 into a prosperous bourgeois family in Acy-Le-Multier, Oise, France. From precocious schoolboy in Reims he went on to study philosophy at the Ecole Normale and took part in the Surrealist Movement with the Grand Jeu group, at the same time as Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and René Daumal.
From 1930 he worked as a journalist, covering stories throughout the world. Later he covered all the major trials forParis-Soir, which proved an excellent preparation for his subsequent career as a novelist. During the resistance he was attached to the underground Gaullist movement and specialized in derailing trains. It was in 1944, while he was cut off from his contacts, shut up in an isolated farmhouse and armed to the teeth, that he wrote his first novel to while away the time. This was Drole de Jeu, which won the Prix Interallié in 1945. For the remainder of the war he served as a war-correspondent attached to the allied armies, and then devoted himself to writing novels and plays at his house in Ain. Work from this period, such as Les Mauvais Coups and L’Humanité placed him squarely in the ranks of the French left.
Disenchantment with his lifelong attachment to the Communist party began with the collapse of the Stalin myth in 1956. The subsequent invasion of Hungary by the Russian army completed his political break with the Left. Disillusioned, he retreated to Apulia in the remote south of Italy where he came up with his masterwork, La Loi. This marked a “significant renunciation of practically everything with which the French literary consciousness had hitherto linked him.” (Keates). It also glows with his love for Apulia discovered during a series of journalistic expeditions in the 1950’s. It won the Prix Goncourt.
Extract from Chapter One
ON THE CORNER of the main square and the via Garibaldi, the court house of Porto Manacore stood facing the palace of Frederick II of Swabia. It was a bleak, four-storeyed building: on the ground floor the prison, on the first the police station, on the second the court room, on the third the flat of the Chief of Police, on the fourth that of the judge.
At siesta time in the month of August the little town was deserted. Only the idle, the disoccupati, the unemployed, were at their posts, all around the square, standing against the walls, arms at their sides, silent and motionless.
Behind the Venetian blinds of the prison, their slats tilted towards the sky, the prisoners sang:
Tourne, ma beauté, tourne ...
The unemployed stood listening to the prisoners, but did not sing themselves.
In her room on the fourth floor of the court house, donna Lucrezia had been awakened by the prisoners’ singing.
Donna Lucrezia was superb, lying half-stretched on the bed, propped up on one elbow, her breasts showing in the opening of her wrap, her black unruly mane falling to below the waist. In France she might have been judged too tall and too plump. In this province of southern Italy, where women were never so much in demand as when they were conspicuously pregnant, she was proclaimed the most beautiful of them all. Her eyes were not large; but they were always expressing something, expressing it intensely; at this period of her life it was most often anger, hate or a hostile indifference.
From the moment she had arrived in Porto Manacore ten years ago, the day after her wedding, everyone had called her donna, though she was the wife of a magistrate of the lowest rank and nothing was known of her early years, all of which had been spent in the city of Foggia; she was one of the numerous daughters of a chief clerk at the prefecture. In Porto Manacore you are not donna unless you are the wife or daughter of a landowner of the old stock. But nobody had ever called her signora, madam, or – as people called foreigners they wished to honour – Signoria, Your Ladyship. She was quite clearly donna, domina like the Empress of the Romans, the mistress, the head.
Her husband, Judge Alessandro, entered the room and approached her. She pushed him away.
‘You don’t love me any more,’ said the judge.
She made no reply, but rose, went to the window and half- opened the shutters. A blast of hot air enveloped her face. The prisoners were now singing a Neapolitan canzonetta featured in the last radio concert. Donna Lucrezia leaned forward and saw a pair of hands gripping one of the prison blinds; then, in the darkness beyond the slats, she distinguished two big eyes watching her. The man spoke to his companions, other eyes flashed into life, the song was discontinued, and donna Lucrezia threw back her head.
Now she looked straight ahead, without leaning forward.
On the terrace of the post office the postmen lay sleeping in deck-chairs, in the shadow of the tower of Frederick II of Swabia. Convolvuluses, with giant turquoise blue flowers, climbed from the terrace to the top of the tower. Their petals opened at dawn and would close again at five o’clock, when the sun reached them. The scene had been the same every summer since her husband had brought her from Foggia to Porto Manacore as a young bride.
All around the square, against every wall, the unemployed waited for some tenant farmer or overseer to appear who might need someone for a casual job; but the tenant farmers and overseers rarely had need of the unemployed, their families sufficing for the upkeep of the orange and lemon orchards and the tending of the meagre crops in the dried-up soil of the olive plantations.
To the right of the main square, workmen were hanging electric-light globes from the branches of the giant pine (said to have been planted by Murat, Field-Marshal of France and King of Naples). That evening the town corporation were putting on a ball for the summer visitors.
The square ended in a terrace, overlooking the harbour and the sea. Donna Lucrezia looked at the sea. It had been the same blue since the end of spring. It was as it always was. It had not changed for months.
Judge Alessandro approached from the rear and placed his hand on his wife’s hip.
‘What are you thinking about?’ he asked.
She turned round. He was smaller than she was. He had lost weight in the last few months and his belt was too big for him. She saw that he was trembling and that there were large beads of sweat on his temples.
‘You forgot to take your quinine,’ she said.
He went to the dressing-table, poured some water out of the jug into the tooth glass and swallowed two pink pills. He suffered from malaria, like most of the inhabitants of the region.
‘I never think,’ she said.
Judge Alessandro went through to his study and opened a volume which had just been obtained for him and sent to him by his bookseller in Foggia: Del Vecchio Alberto, La Legislazione di Federico II Imperatore, Torino, 1874. Its hero was Frederick Hohenstauffen, Emperor of the Romans and King of Naples, Sicily and Apulia in the thirteenth century. But the fever rose and he could not follow the text. He stretched himself out on the narrow divan on which he had spent his nights since donna Lucrezia had insisted on sleeping alone.
In the next room the children were quarrelling. The woman- servant must have been sleeping in the shade somewhere, in the well of the stairs or the outer office of the prison; on summer afternoons she could not breathe in her room under the roof. Donna Lucrezia went through to the children’s room and did what had to be done, in silence.
The prisoners were now singing a Charles Trenet song, the words of which they did not understand and which acquired in their mouths the tone of a lament. On summer evenings a loud speaker filled the main square with the entire programme of the Italian Radio’s Secondo network, and the prisoners’ repertoire was endless.
‘Let me touch,’ begged Tonio.
He stretched his hand towards the breast which swelled the linen frock.
Marietta slapped his hand hard. ‘Please,’ said Tonio. ‘I don’t want to,’ she said. He had cornered her beneath the steps of the house with the colonnades, in a patch of shade. All around them the August sun, the solleone, the sun-lion, scorched the marshland. Inside the house everyone was still sleeping the heavy sleep of the siesta hour.
Tonio grabbed the girl’s wrist, pushed her against the wall and pressed himself against her.
‘Let me be or I’ll call the others ...’
She struggled and succeeded in shaking him off. But he was still very close to her.
‘Marietta,’hewhispered,‘Marietta,tivogliotantobene,Iloveyou so much ... let me touch you at least...’
‘Go and play your dirty games with my sister!’
‘If you liked ... I’d leave everything ... the kids, the wife, don Cesare ... I’ll take you North ...’
Maria, Tonio’s wife and Marietta’s eldest sister, appeared at the top of the steps. In six years Tonio had given her five children; her stomach sagged on to her thighs and her breasts on to her stomach.
‘You’re after her again!’ she shouted. ‘Don’t wake don Cesare,’ Tonio said. ‘And you,’ she shouted at Marietta, ‘why do you keep leading him on?’ ‘I don’t lead him on,’ said Marietta. ‘He hangs around me all the time.’ ‘You’ll wake don Cesare,’ protested Tonio. Julia, Maria’s and Marietta’s mother, now made her appearance
on the stairs. She was not yet fifty, but she was as deformed, as shapeless, as the roots of prickly pear which the sea washed up on the beach, thin and withered, her skin yellowed and her eyes bloodshot from malaria.
‘I don’t want your husband,’ Marietta shouted to her sister. ‘It’s him who hangs around me all the time.’
Julia, in her turn, attacked Marietta. ‘If you don’t like it here,’ she shouted at her, ‘why don’t you get out?’ Marietta lifted her head to face her mother and sister. ‘You can shout as much as you like,’ she said. ‘You won’t get me to
go and live with the Lombard.’ ‘You prefer to steal other people’s men,’ roared old Julia. A shutter opened among the colonnades on the first floor. Don
Cesare came forward on to the balcony. There was immediate silence. Don Cesare was seventy-two; apart from a little added stoutness he had not changed since the time when he was a captain in the Royal Cavalry, at the end of the First World War; he stood just as erect and he remained the best huntsman in the region. Behind don Cesare, Elvira stood outlined in the shadow of the room. Elvira was another of old Julia’s daughters. Maria was twenty-eight,
Elvira twenty-four, Marietta seventeen. Julia and Maria had in their time been don Cesare’s mistresses. Now Elvira shared his bed. Marietta was still a virgin.
‘Tonio,’ said don Cesare, ‘listen.’ ‘I’m listening, don Cesare,’ replied Tonio. He went and stood directly under the balcony. He walked barefooted, his trousers were patched and he was not wearing a shirt, but his white jacket was freshly starched. Don Cesare had always insisted that his confidential men should wear white and impeccable jackets. From the time that he had married Maria, Tonio had been don Cesare’s confidential man.
From his balcony don Cesare could see the whole of the marsh and, beyond, the lake whose outlet ran down to the sea among the reeds and the bamboos and watered the terrace in front of the steps of the house with the colonnades; and farther off he could see the sandbanks of the isthmus and, farther still, the whole bay of Porto Manacore. Don Cesare stared at the sea which had not changed for months.
‘I’m listening, don Cesare,’ repeated Tonio.
Julia and Maria went back into the house. Marietta disappeared among the bamboos with light, quick steps, heading for one of the reed huts which housed the families of don Cesare’s fishermen.
‘Well then,’ don Cesare said to Tonio, ‘you are going in to Porto Manacore.’
‘I’m going in to Porto Manacore,’ replied Tonio.
‘You will call at the post office ... at don Ottavio’s ... and at the tobacconist’s ...’
Tonio repeated each in turn to show that he understood. ‘You won’t forget anything?’ asked don Cesare. Tonio again ran through the list of what he had to do. ‘How shall I go in to Manacore?’ asked Tonio.
‘How did you think of going?’ asked don Cesare. ‘I could perhaps take the Lambretta,’ said Tonio. ‘If it gives you so much pleasure, then take the Lambretta.’ ‘Thank you, don Cesare.’ ‘And now,’ said don Cesare, ‘I am going to work. Warn them not to make a noise.’ ‘They’ll be quiet,’ said Tonio. ‘I promise you.’ The siesta was over. Don Cesare watched his fishermen coming
out of the reed huts scattered here and there over the marsh and making for the terrace where the nets hung drying. He returned to his bedroom, then went through to the larger room which housed his collection of antiques.
Tonio joined the women in the big ground-floor room. ‘Maria,’ he said, ‘fetch me my shoes.’ ‘Your shoes?’ asked Maria. ‘What do you want your shoes for?’ ‘Don Cesare has given me permission to take the Lambretta!’ ‘And why has don Cesare given you permission to take the
Lambretta?’ ‘He’s sending me in to Manacore.’ ‘I suppose you couldn’t walk to Manacore?’ ‘He told me to take the Lambretta.’ ‘The engine disturbs him in his work,’ said Maria. ‘He never has liked engines,’ said old Julia. ‘If the government
hadn’t made such a fuss, don Cesare would never have allowed them to build the road this far.’
‘He’s in a good mood today,’ explained Elvira. ‘This morning one of the fishermen brought him an antique.’
Marietta came back into the house, carrying the fish for the evening meal. She placed them in the fireplace in one corner of the big room. Then she stood with her elbows propped on the window sill, turning her back on the others. She was naked beneath the white linen frock, which reached to her knees.
Maria went to fetch Tonio’s shoes, which hung from a beam beside her own shoes and those of Elvira and Marietta; the women wore them only on high holidays and when they went to Mass in Porto Manacore.
Tonio looked at Marietta, who kept her back to him, still standing with her elbows propped on the window sill.
Maria returned with his shoes. ‘What are you looking at?’ she asked. ‘Put my shoes on,’ said Tonio. He sat down on the bench facing the seignorial table with the top carved from one single piece of olive wood. Nobody but don Cesare ever sat in the big eighteenth-century Neapolitan armchair with the grotesquely carved gilt elbow-rests.
‘Don Cesare must be mad,’ said Maria, ‘to let you take the Lambretta. God knows where you’ll get to or what time you’ll be back.’
She knelt down in front of him and helped him on with his shoes.
‘If I run into don Ruggero,’ said Tonio, ‘I’ll prove to him that our Lambretta is faster than his Vespa.’
‘Is it true,’ Marietta asked without turning round, ‘is it really true that don Cesare has given you permission to take the Lambretta?’
‘Why shouldn’t don Cesare give me permission to take the Lambretta? Aren’t I his confidential man?’
Tonio looked at Marietta. The light of the declining sun fell on the girl’s loins, encircling the shadowy hollow which the linen frock outlined between her thighs.
‘I can ride a Lambretta too,’ Marietta said. ‘Who taught you?’ asked Tonio. ‘Surely you haven’t been crazy enough to let her ride on don
Cesare’s Lambretta?’ Maria asked Tonio. ‘That’s enough from you, woman,’ said Tonio. He stood up, went down to the stables and got out the Lambretta
which he pulled on to its stand, in front of the house, on the terrace. 11
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The women followed him. Children seemed to appear from every direction. The fishermen abandoned the nets they were folding and stood round in a circle.
‘Fetch me some water,’ said Tonio.
Julia and Maria went and drew buckets full of water from the outlet of the lake. Tonio flung the water full at the wheels and mudguards of the Lambretta. Then he dried the machine and polished it with chamois leather.
‘Do you mean to say don Cesare’s given you permission to take the Lambretta?’ said one of the fishermen.
‘It’s nothing unusual,’ said Maria. Marietta held back beside the steps. Tonio tinkered with the carburettor to make the petrol rise. He checked that the gear lever was at neutral. Reflectively he adjusted the throttle, opening it a little more, then a little less.
The fishermen came closer, the children standing between their legs.
Tonio depressed the starting pedal. One kick, two kicks: the engine started. He played with the throttle and the noise of the engine increased, decreased, raced madly, died away.
‘That’s quite a machine!’ said one of the fishermen. ‘It runs truer than a Vespa,’ said another. ‘I think,’ said a third, ‘I’d still rather have a Vespa.’ ‘If don Cesare bought a Lambretta,’ countered the first, ‘it was because he had found out it was a better machine.’ Tonio eased it off the stand and sat astride the saddle. He accelerated once more, in neutral. Marietta ran hurriedly forward. ‘Take me along,’ she said. ‘You see – it’s you who lead him on!’ Maria shouted. ‘I don’t give a hang for him,’ said Marietta. ‘But I want him to take
me on the Lambretta.’ Marietta put both hands on the handlebars. ‘Tonio,’ she asked, ‘let me ride behind you.’ Maria had posted herself on the other side of the Lambretta and stood watching both of them. ‘You should have asked don Cesare’s permission,’ said Tonio.
‘Don Cesare won’t mind,’ said Marietta. ‘We aren’t to know that.’ ‘I’ll go and ask him.’ ‘Listen to her,’ threw in Elvira. ‘She thinks she can disturb don
Cesare!’ ‘Hold on,’ Tonio said to Marietta. ‘Don Cesare doesn’t allow
people to disturb him while he’s working.’ ‘Are you his confidential man or aren’t you?’ Marietta asked. ‘Take
me along!’ ‘I am his confidential man, certainly,’ said Tonio. ‘But he has given
me some very important commissions. That is why he’s letting me use the Lambretta. I ask you: does a man take a girl with him when he is charged with an important mission?’
Marietta released the handlebars and stood aside. ‘Femminuccia!’ she cried. She turned away and walked towards the steps. Tonio started off, accelerated and disappeared among the
bamboos, heading for the bridge. The fishermen watched Marietta climbing the steps up to the
house. They joked very loudly to make quite sure she could hear them.
‘That one needs a man,’ said one.
‘Failing a man,’ said another, ‘she could have done with the Lambretta between her legs.’
‘A machine like that,’ said the third, ‘it’s hard.’
All three of them laughed, without taking their eyes off the girl; her quick steps pulled the frock tight across the thighs.
From the top of the flight of steps she called down to them: ‘Go home to your goats, men!’ The menfolk of the marsh were reputed to prefer goats to women. Marietta went into the house. The Lambretta, across the bridge by this time, could be heard racing along the other bank of the outlet, behind the curtain of bamboos.