Two Fictions, Ermanno Cavazzoni

translated by Jamie Richards

The fabulous real-life fables of Ermanno Cavazzoni’s Brief Lives of Idiots portray “fools” who can’t recognize their own kin, miserably fail at suicide, or didn’t think the concentration camp was half bad. Ignorance—like sainthood—is indeed a state of bliss.


Memoirs of a Concentration Camp Survivor

In Pescarolo, at the mouth of the Po, there’s the case of an individual of the male gender who was a prisoner during the last world war at Mauthausen in the concentration camp there for about two years. But he says he never noticed, because at that time Mauthausen wasn’t yet famous, a household name. Only after the war did they find out that everyone had been starving. 

They served this soup that was impossible to tell whether it was chowder or bisque, but he says they gave it out for free. This was novel to him, and he accepted it without comment. Thus he would eat his soup with gusto. Sometimes he even thought he could detect a hint of bean. When he went in, he was stick thin, since in Pescarolo everybody had been thin for centuries, as it is a depressed area. The other people in the concentration camp were thin too. He didn’t know where they came from, so he thought this was just a general attribute of the population. It didn’t seem to him that they ate badly, as was demonstrated after the war. At the time, a few people complained, but he chalked it up to individual character. Or someone would suddenly have a craving for chicken and go on and on about it. Chicken, as was discovered after the war, wasn’t served in any of the concentration camps—that is, it was practically unheard of as a potentially edible animal. They also said later that it was freezing in Mauthausen; but he had truly never noticed, because winters are colder in Pescarolo. Pescarolo is a town without a single economic resource; every so often the inhabitants catch a few fish, but the fish are scrawny, likewise plagued by hunger. The people, therefore, are accustomed to such things and don’t worry much about their standard of living. There are some hens, but they’ve got rickets; they’re fed fish bones and only occasionally do they lay an egg. But the eggs are practically empty—they don’t represent any real form of nourishment. Children eat the shells, but they don’t grow much. 

One day he happened to be riding his bicycle from Pescarolo to Comacchio, pedaling slowly, when a Jeep full of soldiers stopped alongside him. And they were so insistent, he says, that he had to get in and leave his bike there unattended. Then they put him on a train with a bunch of other people. They hardly spoke. He expressed his worries about his bike, which had been thrown carelessly into a ditch. He asked, “Will I ever find it again?” But nobody wanted to talk. All the way to Germany. World War II was going on: this, too, was discovered later. At the time it mainly seemed like there was widespread boorishness, even among the railwaymen, who pushed and shoved and didn’t try to make themselves understood. But at no point during the trip was he asked for his ticket. For his part, he couldn’t forget his bicycle, abandoned in a ditch. You could say that this had been his hardship during his two years in the concentration camp this had been his hardship. He even dreamed of it during the night—the spokes and chain rusting or someone slashing the tires. He wrote letters home: “I’m just fine here, how are things with you? Have you found my bike?” But he never got a response. He tried to talk to the guards about it: “I used to have this bike. Would it be possible to notify the police station in Comacchio by telephone message?” They didn’t have the patience to stand there and have such lengthy conversations. He never did find his bicycle. Who knows what happened to it.


Star-Crossed Suicides

Acertain Marietta, married and unhappy, had a lover who was unhappy and married too. Their respective unhappiness was principally due to character and not solely to the tribulations of their relationships. In fact, they would meet specifically to weep together and lament their sorrows. The lover, who was called Paride Germi, promised her that they would kill themselves one day, in a hotel, and this Marietta (maiden name Nosèi) would clutch him, crying, and say, “Promise me.” And Paride Germi would reply, “I promise.” Note that if they had been of a different temperament they could have gone on being normal, or at least seminormal, lovers. But they rejoiced in bad fortune just as others rejoice in good fortune.

Therefore, they agreed to meet at the Hotel Regina on Via Makallè at ten in the morning. Paride Germi had a revolver. Most likely he intended to shoot Marietta and then shoot himself on the bed beside her. But the first shot, as the police later determined, was fired prematurely and unfortunately punctured his leg. Then he shot Marietta, who was pleading with him and sobbing. But the pistol was old and the shot misfired. The bullets dated back to the last world war—they were nine-caliber military leftovers, and it was evident that the brass had oxidized. Paride Germi later stated that the aforementioned Marietta had kissed his hand with “desperate force” and begged him to kill her. As it was an automatic pistol, he had to reload, but he was crying so much he couldn’t see and Marietta was so insistent and sobbing so much that the gun accidentally went off again, this time going through his shoe and foot. That one really made him suffer, whereas he’d barely felt the first shot in the thigh. People started knocking at the door, since the two gunshots had made a huge racket. Paride Germi replied, with impressive calm, that he had heard them too. “End it,” Marietta implored, along with vehement declarations of love. Paride Germi was on the verge of fainting, especially at the sight of his blood-filled shoe. But the gun went off again. Germi says he didn’t know much about weapons, he’d never handled one before, and the pistol was extremely sensitive and had something wrong with the trigger. Furthermore, his hands were shaky by that point. The bullet went through the wall and broke the mirror in the room next door, whose guest started screaming for help. Before the concierge—and the bellboy, and the security guard, Silvio Mèsoli—broke down the door, Paride Germi managed to shoot the gun one last time, aiming more calmly and carefully. But he says he couldn’t see at all, and was delirious, so instead of hitting Marietta in the chest, the bullet went through the wall again. After that, he was immobilized and disarmed. He put up no resistance. He voluntarily handed over the revolver, which still contained two bullets. 

He was convicted of attempted homicide with extenuating circumstances and lost the use of his foot. This happened in Genoa on October 6, 1950, and it is a well-known case.


Translation from the Italian
By Jamie Richards

Editorial note: From Ermanno Cavazzoni's Vite brevi di idioti, copyright © 1994 by Feltrinelli Editore. English-translation copyright © 2011 by Jamie Richards.

Ermanno Cavazzoni (b. 1947), from Reggio Emilia, is the award-winning author of many fantastic and absurd tales. Of his many books, including Vite brevi di idioti, Cirenaica, Gli scrittori inutili, Storia naturale dei giganti, and Il limbo delle fantasticazioni, two novels have been published in English translation: The Nocturnal Library (Vagabond Voices, 2010) and Voice of the Moon (Serpent's Tail, 1990). He is also a professor at the University of Bologna and a member of the literary group OpLePo ( 

Jamie Richards, currently a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of Oregon, is the translator of several literary works from Italian, including Giancarlo Pastore's Jellyfish (2008), Nicolai Lilin's Free Fall (forthcoming in 2011), and Giovanni Orelli's Walaschek's Dream (forthcoming in 2012).