Book excerpt: Fiore d’agave, fiore di scimmia

An Italian author by the name of Irene Chias has been kind enough to provide us with an English excerpt of her novel, Fiore d’agave, fiore di scimmia. A copy of the novel can be purchased in Italian here

In the novel Fiore d’agave, fiore di scimmia (Irene Chias, 2020), Adelaide Dattilo is a writer who loves fantastic and dystopian literature. Nevertheless, her agent pushes her to create something more commercial: a “Sicilian women’s novel”. Adelaide decides to spend three weeks in Sicily, in her grandmother’s hometown: Sant’Angelo Muxaro. Here she begins to write a story of passion and ancient traditions, with Adelasia as the main character. While her protagonist, destroyed by her boyfriend’s betrayal, finds herself and solves an ancient mystery, Adelaide gets to know – amongst others – an elusive neighbor who calls herself Genoa, the name the woman has decided to carry as a reminder of the Police violence during the 2001 G8 riots in the Italian city. In the novel, it is her character that highlights the contradictions of our time, the cognitive dissonance which we live in, immersed in a hyperconsumeristic system beyond the limits of sustainability. The postcard village of her novel contrasts with the real one: devoid of possibilities, plagued by unemployment and decay, where dystopia is nothing but daily news. Led like Dick by the I-Ching, Adelaide will deal with her origins and her present. Her character Adelasia, initially very far away, ends up resembling her author, as the two Sicilies, initially opposed, end up blending into each other.

Here is an excerpt from chapter 12.

Thinking of this while peering from the balcony, I see Genoa and her swollen shock of grey-black hair crossing the square. This time I want to manage to talk to her. I rush down the stairs to stop her, but she has already gone up the street by the church. I’m behind her, panting. I call her, but she doesn’t hear me. Anyway, I hardly realize — between turns, hills and slopes — that I’ve followed her home, the Lombardo’s hovel. By the time I reach it, she’s already got in. I brace myself and knock at the door.
Her reaction to seeing me is less dramatic than I expected.
“Hey, what are you doing here?”
“I followed you… I called you but you did not hear me.”
“Ah, that’s what it was, I thought it was my mother’s voice. I hear her
calling me every now and then, sometimes also Genoa.”
“Why, what else would she call you?”
She looks at me seriously and silent for a moment, and then tells me: ‘She
calls me by another name”. Aren’t I stupid?
While we are still talking on the threshold, a big black dog arrives from behind the house and jumps up on us seeking attention. Genoa explains that she wouldn’t normally keep pets, as she is quite against domestication, an ideological choice but at the same time a spontaneous one. Only, she was chosen by a dog. “He adopted me”. A large mongrel that she called Waco.
“Uhm, sweet name”, I tell her, in my reckless ignorance. “Yes, like mine. When the State engages in war without declaring it.” Genoa lets me in, a gesture which seems to weigh on her much less than I would have believed. The house is in better shape than what it might look like from the outside. A little hob fuelled by a gas cylinder, an oven which has not been used for a few months, a small toilet with a sitting bath tub, a room with a lumpy twin bed, a space concealed by a curtain. Quite clean and tidy. I think about the chaos I create in the places I live in, and I feel ashamed and even a little bit envious.
On the shelves of the main room right in front of the kitchenette and the bathroom, there are files of what seem to be photocopied documents. She studies US judicial cases and produces theories that seem to me to be somewhat abstruse, but what she is really interested in are environmental misdeeds in Sicily: various petrochemicals plants, new oil drilling ventures off the Sicilian Canal, the MUOS.

“Did you know that everyone in Gela has a relative or friend who has some disease due to the petrochemical industry?”, she asks me without waiting for the answer. “Tumors, neonatal malformations, abortions, high infant mortality, spina bifida. But at the end of the day no one gives a shit. The ground is poisoned, we eat cancer, drink cancer, wash with cancer, breathe cancer. But this only affects the poor. The important thing is not to touch the powerful. Anything can befall the poor idiots, and nobody gives them anything, nobody helps them out, nobody speaks about them.” She tells me about the oil company accused of having, for years, illegally concealed tons of toxic waste in a three-mile underwater landfill off Sicily. “People are hungry for jobs, and most citizens end up prostrate at the feet of the cancer factories, almost grateful, here as in all southern Italy. And even when the work ends — the petrochemical industry closes shop after having poisoned the land and the sea — the brainwashing endures: very few people are not annoyed by talking about it. Even today”.

I don’t know what to say. Although I had lived in Agrigento for four years, I have never been to Gela. Yet it is not that far away, it is in the Caltanissetta province, although — it should be said — the roads are not the best. Genoa pronounces cancer by stressing the C and R. The taboo word is now a sort of a family member for almost all.
“And, as if it wasn’t enough, here comes the MUOS!” Genoa says with a paradoxical air of excitement. “A bomb of electromagnetic radiation that they did not put in the Sigonella US navy base because it would have started detonating the devices there. So they decided to build it in a nature reserve in Niscemi. Do you understand what we are talking about here?”

I approach the shelves. Some books organized by color. Just novels, it seems. The essays are on the top shelf, together with sheets and folders, and I finally see some untidiness.
Genoa continues: “Do you know that Italy has the largest number of US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe?”
On the stool serving as a coffee table, I see three light yellow folders tied together with green ribbon. I can read a word on each of them, a name: Breivik, Kaczynski, McVeigh.
“What are they?” I ask.
“Documents on assassins, slaughters, terrorists. So-called lone wolves. They are all different from one another” and she looks at the shelf. Then she points at the stool: “Take these three, for example. Breivik: the Norwegian who massacred seventy young people in Utøya. This is his manifesto, more than a thousand pages of shit collected from the internet. Unfortunately, there are so many people like him in the world: frustrated, repressed males, eager to emerge in some way. In short, an ordinary asshole who could have remained in healthy anonymity had he not carried out this carnage” and she hands me some hundred A4 paper, printed front and back, in very small characters. Her choice of green printing, I guess.

“This one here, Theodore Kaczysnki, Unabomber”, and she brings me thirty pages of the Unabomber Manifesto, The Industrial Society and Its Future. “A misunderstood genius, but more misunderstood than genius, it must be said. A sociopath who attacked the politically correct when it was yet that fashionable.”
“The politically correct?” I ask.
“No, attacking the politically correct. Apart from this, Kaczysnki was not completely wrong, generally speaking. He was an assassin with some form of discernment.”
She then takes the third folder and extracts less than ten sheets. She turns to the top shelf and takes a couple of books by Gore Vidal. “And here he is. A perpetrator of massacres, a terrorist. An upright.”
The admiration I can read in Genoa’s eyes begins to make me uncomfortable.
I keep quiet.
“Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber”, Genoa goes on. “One who wrote little and spoke less. One that simply acted. He served in Iraq in 1990. He had seen what his country was able to do to defenseless citizens. One who realizes that what they made him do to the Iraqis, has always been done by the United States with the excuse of war… Exterminating civilians, killing children. Like Hiroshima, as he himself says in one of his few statements. He killed one hundred and sixty-eight people by attacking a federal building in Oklahoma City. Nineteen children”.
“It’s horrible” I manage to say, finally exiting my state of petrification.
“It is. But why did they have a kindergarten in a sensitive site such as a federal building? When there are children in critical areas and the US kill them, they stigmatize the use of human shields. Is that not the same?”
“But the others too, even the adults… they were innocent people” I replicate.
“How innocent can you be, if you decide to work for the US government? Moreover, nowadays, who is truly innocent? The industrial system, which was later reinforced in its vile effects by neoliberalism, has made us all guilty, from what we eat, to what we wear, the way we travel, the forms of recreation we believe we choose”, she says, while I think she’s right and the discomfort in which I find myself grows. “Some years ago, a friend showed me a film. I don’t remember the title, I’m not that into movies. However, it was a time travel story, with epidemics and animal activists and lunatic asylums, everything to the rhythm of tango. The main characters were played by famous American actors. When they meet in an asylum, one, the youngest, tells the other something like: there is no right, there is no wrong, there is only popular opinion.”
It’s 12 Monkeys, a film I saw at least ten times. But I do not say.
“Thus, popular opinion today leads us to consider normal the death camps that are intensive livestock farms, to buy products manufactured using the labor of children and weak fringes of the population, to accumulate countless highly polluting objects that we consider essential to our lives, wrapped up in some absolutely useless polluting material which on the contrary we consider necessary.”

I’d like to change the subject, say goodbye and leave. But I do not manage very well.
“Anyway…what do you do with all this? I mean… why do you study these guys?”, I ask her without realizing.
“My dear, it’s nothing. What do you think my use could be? It’s what I’m into. That’s all. I told you that I study trials in the American judicial system. I am just trying to understand how and why the media and the justice have been able to make Unabomber look crazy, and McVeigh an expression of pure evil at the service of ideology. Why McVeigh was sane and vile, and Kaczynski just a loon.”
She collects the papers she gave me and puts them back in the yellow folders, each with the name of one of the terrorists.
When she takes the Breivik pile, she whispers to herself shaking her head: “What a prick!”

Fiore d’agave, fiore di scimmia © 2020 Novecentomedia s.r.l. Milano; Translation © 2020 Mark Vella.

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