- By Erri De Luca
(Photo: Nicoletta Dosio in Torino, March 30, 2020. La Stampa)
March 31, 2020
My cousin Mario has told me about our Grandmother Emma’s memories of the so-called Spanish flu. Between 1918 and 1920, it killed tens of thousands of people across the world, a world that, at the time, had a total population of roughly two billion. Back then, head counts weren’t so precise or neurotic.
This viral form of influenza left young and old with scarred lungs. They called it "Spanish" because the first journalists to speak openly about the infectious disease came from the only neutral country, and thus not under military censorship.
The circumstances of trench warfare favored the virus, and it was treated no differently from any other annual flu. The warring countries prohibited press coverage, so as not to demoralize the home front, and no preventive measures were taken.
Our great-grandfather Luigi Starita, however, imposed strict confinement on his family in Napoli; they remained sequestered for months. His authority brooked no protest. Given these measures, he, his wife, and their children got through this period unscathed. For grace received, he gave a diamond in offering to the Madonna of Pompei, still on display today.
He was rich, or so we were told in family anecdotes and legends freed of all actual content. The daughters and sons of Luigi Starita promptly squandered this patrimony, between one war and the other.
Today I’m re-reading, years later, a thick book. In difficult times, I crack open a text with hundreds of pages. The two things come together and by the end I find myself remembering my misfortune through the title of a book.
To that end, I’m re-reading something once read during a period of convalescence: Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March, set in Chicago during the first half of the last century. I run across this phrase: “There’s opinion, and then there’s Nature. Somebody has to get outside of law and opinion and speak for Nature. It’s even a public duty, so customs won’t have us all by the windpipe.”
A century ago my great-grandfather had no way of knowing or imagining that epidemics were an effect of frenetic human activity and its pressure on the planet. Today it’s obvious.
This epidemic will end, just as every war ends. We’ll meet up again, and we’ll ask each other what we should do. It would be useful to have someone speak on behalf of Nature.
March 24, 2020
A letter addressed to Nicoletta Dosio, a retired teacher of Latin and Greek, sentenced to a year of prison in the struggle against the Val di Susa tunnel and locked up for the past three months in Torino.
Dear Nicoletta, I’m spending my days re-reading. The letters of Rosa Luxembourg from prison in Berlin are once again in my lap. In one of these, addressed on February 7, 1917 to Mathilde Jacob, Rosa tells her about the song of the chickadee, “tss-vi, tss-vi”—she has learned to imitate it so well that the chickadee comes up to the bars of her window.
Rosa writes, “In spite of the snow, the cold, and the solitude, we believe, me and the chickadee, that spring will come.”
So here we are again, with days announcing that the time of winter is past. You’re locked up and, in some form of mysterious solidarity, an entire nation is staying at home. Few wheels on the road, the North is emigrating south, and abandoned balconies are filled again with a display of families. You no longer hear a single economist, all the strength and speech belongs to doctors.
Sticking to my fields, I see the growth of buds on the trees. I like the fact that in Italian we use a single word, gemma, both for buds and precious stones. For us, spring is a jewelry store left in the open air for all its admirers.
Out here, people are showing courtesy by avoiding each other. You inmates don’t have enough space even to turn your back. For those sick with pneumonia there’s not enough air, and you all have to breathe it together. Overstuffed prisons have become overloaded with punishment, laboratories for suffocation.
And yet that wide valley of yours, that you fought for and went to prison for, continues to produce and breathe the oxygen of activism. The air rises up from the interior of a community that closes its ranks, that calls its people together, that fills the streets and gives the rights of citizens to those treated as subjects under a feudal lord. Your valley, a rebellious region under occupation, continues to obstruct the rape of its lands. Your calm, inflexible and intransigent, is that of your community—the demonstration of what happens when a people wakes up.
I’m proud to be able to speak to you as a friend, proud to be one of yours.
I’ll wait here for you, and I promise you that on the way out, you’ll find the same union, and the same spring.
Holding you tightly, Erri
Erri De Luca is an Italian poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and activist.
On March 30, 2020, Nicoletta Dosio was released from Le Vallette Prison in Torino; she will serve the rest of her sentence under house arrest, at her home in Bussoleno, Val di Susa.