June 4, 2024

“All’s Fair in Love and War” by Brandon Breen

“All’s Fair in Love and War” by Brandon Breen

*Featured image courtesy of Jack Ward on Unsplash*

This piece by Brandon Breen takes us on an emotional journey that also gives us some insight into Italian history. This is truly a special piece and we hope Brandon shares with us again in the future.

Padua, Italy, 1968

Everything was about to change in Gabriella’s own country. Not everyone had the foresight to see that the revolutionary spirit brewing inside the students would soon be turned out onto the failures of Italy itself. There were so many injustices going on in Italy and the entire world and it was ironic that it was an occurrence on a worldwide scale that reflected the lens back towards Italy. Others were convinced that fascism was dead and gone and ignored the fermenting of familiar ideology. What most people seemed to agree with around the world, besides the gutsier neofascists, however, was that the Vietnam War was an atrocity that needed to end. Protests were breaking out every day and in fact, one was scheduled for tomorrow in Padua. Gabriella was sipping on a spritz Aperol outside of a bar in via Umberto. Prato della Valle, the largest square in Padua and one of the largest in all of Europe, was visible in the distance around the corner.

The massive square was divided into four sections, cut by two intersecting roads. At the middle there was a large fountain that, during the warmer months, spouted water in different shapes and patterns, lit by colorful lights. The square was outlined by a moat, with green murky water that looked as if it couldn’t even sustain the microscopic plankton life that must have been in it. There were four bridges that crossed the moat, allowing tourists, walkers, and little children to run across them into the center of the square which was filled with green: grass and trees perfect for a picnic, playing catch, or laying on the chest of a loved one to gaze up at the stars. Around the moat there were towering, albeit discolored and worn down, statues of important historical figures. Paduans would ride their bikes across the bridges and lay them down carelessly on the green lawn, laughing as they ate grapes and rolled around in the grass.

Tomorrow it would be the place of the antiwar protest against the American invasion of Vietnam. The various student unions, communist organizations, and centri sociali had chosen this location because it was the largest space in the city that was open and central. They were expecting a big turnout. The city, a university hub with one of the oldest institutions in the world, hosted tens if not hundreds of thousands of students who were all anxious to express their indignation. The city was also a stronghold for right-wing and neofascist groups. The Vietnam War was laying bare the contradictions in the make-up of Italy itself.

“. . . a war criminal.” Gabriella turned her attention from the square in the distance back to her friends. It was Mohammed who had spoken.

“But you can’t deny that he was the best president for the Afro-American population,” Elisabetta rebutted.

“That may be true, but without Kennedy’s escalation in Vietnam we wouldn’t be seeing the situation we’re in now.”

“He was assassinated before he could do any real damage! The real war criminal here is Johnson. The indiscriminate bombing that the Americans are carrying out under his rule is the single worst crime against humanity since the Second World War.”

“I think,” Gabriella chimed in, “that they’re both to blame. As a matter of fact, all American politicians have blood on their hands.”

“Now that I think we can all agree on.” Mohammed smiled and raised his glass. Elisabetta and Gabriella followed in suit and they all took a swig of the bright orange liquid. “I remember . . .” he began again after swallowing. “. . . July 1, 1960. Eight years ago. I remember all the festivities and the celebrations when the Italians finally left and we were independent. I want the Vietnamese to be able to celebrate like that.”

“I don’t really think the fascists have accepted that,” Elisabetta said. “We still need to focus on the problems we have here too.”

“What’s it like?” Mohammed asked.

“What’s what like?”

“What’s it like for the two of you, having fascist fathers?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Gabriella spoke up. “I didn’t really know mine. The last time I saw him was when I was four or five.” She took a sip of her drink to avoid having to say anything else. It still made her uncomfortable that her dad was a fascist soldier. How could her mom have fallen for someone like that?

“It’s . . . strange,” Elisabetta replied, filling the gap left by Gabriella’s sip. “In some weird way I think my parents do love each other, but my dad’s decisions were always absolutely final. I couldn’t tell as a kid if he hated me or loved me. He never hugged me or anything, but always made sure I went to the best schools.” She paused. “Like I said, it’s strange.”

“I would hate him,” Mohammed said. “I would kill my father if he were a fascist.”

Gabriella wanted to speak up, but she knew Mohammed wouldn’t understand, just like her white Italian friends would never understand. And that was the problem with the left, and the right as well. They both tended to see everything in black and white. Communism good, fascism bad. Gabriella thought that reality was a little bit more complicated than that. Either way, she was an active member of leftist political organizations. She fought for their ideals, which she believed were just, but sometimes felt – especially in these Italians circles – that their criticism lacked nuance. The leftist leaders could learn something from her, from art, from painting in general. You could focus on a painting and see immediately the scene it was depicting. Many viewers stopped themselves at just that, marveled at the technique, and then moved on to the next artwork in the museum. There was seeing and then there was seeing. And not everyone was capable of the second kind. Take Gabriella’s favorite painting, for example, Miracle of the Cross. On the surface it’s a relatively straightforward painting about a holy conversion but an attentive analytical look, that she herself once lacked, reveals much more of Venetian society at the time than at a first glance. That’s what was missing in so many of these circles. There was a failure to view the complexity of things, to step back and view the bigger picture and all the different colors and actors interacting together to make up the vision presented to the spectator. Maybe this was something she should talk about at the protest tomorrow.

“You men always say things like that. I’d like to see you actually take up arms.”

“Believe me, Betta. If I was in Vietnam, I would. I would only be too happy to fight for my country.”

“Then what are you doing here, on an Italian scholarship?”

“Fighting isn’t everything. I’m getting knowledge to go back to Somalia and make it a better place.”

“That’s exactly what I was saying. Violence isn’t everything.”

“But sometimes violence is the only way to accomplish things. Take Vietnam for example. How else are they supposed to fight off decades of foreign invaders? These other communists here in Italy. They don’t really understand the struggle of the Vietnamese. No one can understand it better than we can. The children of Italian colonialism in Africa.”

The three of them sat in silence for several moments as they mulled over what Mohammed had just said. Then Gabriella found her voice.

“I’m not saying that violence can’t be helpful. But the arts can, too. It’s a method of expression, an outlet that I think we need to see more of and—wait, I know what you’re going to say, let me finish. From here, in Italy, peaceful protests and putting pressure on the government to stop trade deals with the United States until they pull out of the war . . . I think that’s the best thing that we can do.”

“Okay, okay,” Mohammed said. “I see your point, but. But. You’re underestimating the other side. You know as well as I do that there are neofascists everywhere. I don’t have to tell you that. The fascists are violent and the new ones will follow in their footsteps. The left needs to be prepared to strike back just as hard.”

“Oh, calm down, Mohammed,” Elisabetta joked. “You just have war on the brain. We all do. I think Gabriella’s right.”

Gabriella downed the rest of her drink. “I’m heading home to rest up. I’ll see you at the protest tomorrow.”

“Ciao, ciao.”

The next day Gabriella woke up early, grabbed her cardboard poster and bag, and biked to Prato della Valle for the protest. She was there early but she wanted to chat with her friends. They were expecting a big turnout because public opinion everywhere was widely against the war. Across the city and country, students especially were feeling that revolutionary power. She walked around the square, saying hi to the students setting up microphones and speakers. Elisabetta and Mohammed showed up shortly after and they stood in the crowd, socializing and having animated conversations about the war. More people filled the square and Gabriella could see various slogans written on different sized posters and pieces of cardboard.

Hands off Vietnam!

Johnson = Hitler

We recognize the democratic republic of Vietnam

All the world’s democracies against the American aggressors

Against the Other America

Americans out of Vietnam

No to the war in Vietnam

These were just several of the many slogans that students, adults, children, everyone had written. Gabriella could see hundreds more that were too far away to make out. They would soon all hold them up as they marched through the streets of the city demanding justice and peace in Vietnam and calling upon the Italian government to act.

“I can’t believe how many people there are!” Gabriella remarked to Elisabetta and Mohammed.

“And you were worried about right-wing crazies,” Elisabetta joked, smiling at Mohammed.

When the square was swimming with so many people that Gabriella couldn’t see the end of the crowd, only then did the organizers step up on a small makeshift stage and address the people gathered before them. Gabriella knew one of the speakers, Marco, who was president of the student

union at the University of Padua. He gave a speech that was so long that at times Gabriella found it hard to concentrate. Not because he wasn’t saying interesting and important things, but because she had never seen this many people gathered in one place before. There was an electric energy running through them all, an invisible live wire that connected them, snapping and crackling with their energy. Every so often cheers erupted during the more passionate moments of Marco’s speech. When he finished his speech, he began leading the crowd in a chant, pumping his fist and taking full advantage of that electric energy. The spectators eagerly shouted back his chant as the other organizers prepared to lead the crowd in a parade down the city streets.

“Vietnam vince!” Marco shouted.

And the crowd echoed back in a thunderous wave: “Vietnam vince!”

“Vietnam vince!”

“Vietnam vince!”

“Vietnam will win!”

“Vietnam will win!”

The chanting abruptly stopped.

At first, Gabriella wasn’t even sure what was happening. She heard the sound and then several milliseconds later she lost her hearing. Whatever it was, it was deafening, literally. Her senses were all jumbled and in confusion, but her vision remained locked on the center of the square. She saw what was going on, but it was such a strange sight that her brain had trouble processing it. The sheer disbelief, followed by shock, loss of hearing, and complete disorientation all equaled one giant question mark in Gabriella’s brain. Was this truly happening?

One moment the protestors were yelling back chants and the next moment that loud noise rippled through the crowd as if five thousand microphones had picked up interference at once and the speakers had all amplified that sound tenfold. It caused an innate fear in Gabriella, but she wasn’t sure why. That’s when her ears stopped working. At the center of Prato della Valle, the fountain was no longer spraying water in synchronized streams. The fountain wasn’t even there anymore. A red ball of flame enveloped the area and thick gray and black smoke appeared almost simultaneously. Large chunks of wet stone flew in the air, some staying near the center and others landing yards away. Gabriella saw a boy in front of her drop the sign he was holding as a piece of rock the size of small boulder slammed into his head, causing blood to spurt out in a crazed circular shower. The boy and his sign fell to the ground together.

Chaos erupted everywhere. Gabriella still couldn’t hear and now the spreading smoke was making it hard to see and her eyes were watering. A sense of panicked desperation began to take control of her stomach and climbed its way up to her brain. She couldn’t see Mohammed and Elisabetta. Where were they? She called their names, or at least she thought she did since she couldn’t hear herself. She was in fact yelling, but her voice came out raucous, as if the inside of her throat had been scratched. Its tone was unrecognizable. Showers of stone and rock continued to rain down on the crowd. She could feel small pieces pelting her skin, creating small cuts all over her body. Where were her friends?

Maybe it was a stupid idea, but despite the panic she didn’t run away, instead she moved closer to the center of the square that was shrouded in flames and smoke, working her way through the rubble. She continued calling their names as she passed more and more bodies.

“Mohammed! Elisabetta!”

Were they alive? She couldn’t tell. Some people were bleeding and screaming, she could tell by the open mouths and the piercing pain on their faces. Others were entirely still, some had legs or arms twisted at unnatural angles. Torn signs and tattered slogans from the protest were everywhere. A piece of cardboard on the ground had the still legible “Stop the death in Vietnam!” though the letters were dyed with splashes of dark red.

Gabriella started coughing hysterically, she couldn’t control her lungs anymore. She put a hand over her mouth and one over her eyes and tried to inch forward but the smoke was making it impossible. She saw a leg on the ground and for a moment she was confused. Where was the body that it was supposed to be attached to?

“Mohammed? Elisabetta?”

Her hearing was coming back, barely. The first thing she heard were her own shouts, the vibrations in her own vocal cords. Then came the crackling of the flames, the screams and hollers of the fleeing crowd. Then her own coughing, incessant, unstoppable. She peered one more time into the billowing clouds before the smoke filled her lungs and she collapsed in a heap on the ground, one body amongst many.

Author’s Note

This story is an extract of my unpublished novel provisionally entitled All’s Fair in Love and War. This short piece can be read as a self-contained story, but Gabriella’s adventures don’t end here. Furthermore, this work is fruits of lots of historical and literary research that I’ve conducted during my master’s and PhD programs in modern literature, specifically on Italian postcolonial literature and Ethiopian American literature. With this story in particular I wanted to recover the “forgotten” memory of Italian colonialism and focus on the children who resulted from unions between Italians and East Africans. Many people from Italy’s ex-colonies were university students in Italy during the anni di piombo – the years of domestic terrorism ranging from 1968-1980, and I wanted to inscribe them in the fabric of this important moment in Italian history.

Brandon Michael Cleverly Breen is concluding his PhD dissertation on Ethiopian American literature at the University of Cagliari in the Philological-Literary and Historical-Cultural Studies program. He also currently teaches Italian as a second language at Boston University Padua. His recent publications as a scholar include: “Aggiornare l’Atlantico nero: nuove concezioni di nazione, agency e solidarietà nelle opere di Dinaw Mengestu” (Ácoma 2022), as a writer “Cronache di un padovano insolito” (Terre di mezzo editore, 2023), and as a translator the English translation of “Kuulla” by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (The Massachusetts Review, 2023). Born and raised in Boston, he now lives in Padua, Italy. 

Website (with links to stories): https://breenbrandon.wordpress.com/ 

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