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Ferdinando Camon


Introduction to "The Fifth Estate"

 

This is my first novel, and I wrote it quickly, in a few months, working on it nights and Sundays. Every Sunday at dawn, rain or shine, my wife would go out of the house - a small apartment in a small city at the gates of Venice - taking with her our two very young children, so that from eight a.m. until noon I would be able to make headway on the book. It was to be the justification not of my own life but of all my peasant people, the fifth estate, which itself had never told its story, one of enormous heroism and age-old resignation. Italian culture at the time was concentrated entirely on the world of the workers, the city and the factory: Calvino wrote for the intellectuals; Sciascia pursued the vicissitudes of the Mafia, and the Mafia became for him a formula capable of explaining the whole world, which appeared to him as a struggle between rival clans; Moravia observed the idle and debauched Roman bourgeoisie, a human type to whom sex is everything and occupies head and heart. No one took any interest in the peasant world, this very vast segment of Italy and Europe. In order to write this novel I had to imagine a few ideal readers: Pier Paolo Pasolini in Italy, Jean-Paul Sartre in France. I must say that both of them proved to be highly sensitive: Pasolini wanted to write the preface to the Italian edition, and Sartre had the book translated immediately into French. Then there was a Soviet intellectual named Breitburd, who often came to Italy for congresses and discussions and was astonished that Italian literature never spoke of the peasants. He personally translated The Fifth Estate into Russian. He also wanted to translate the next book, Life Everlasting, and for this purpose moved into a dacha outside Moscow, but he died of a heart attack halfway through the work, which was then completed by others. "When I took a train across the broadest Italian plain," Breitburd wrote me, "from the most beautiful city, Venice, to the richest one, Milan, I kept wondering what lay beyond the rivers and levees I saw from the window ." What indeed lay there? It was the "fifth estate." A humanity fettered for centuries, untouched by the profound changes that have revolutionized the rest of Europe. A "Third World" oasis, immobile and backward, in the heart of one of the European nations undergoing the most dizzying transformations. A segment of the population that did not even know the language of its own nation, whether spoken or written. Mired in centuries-old beliefs: the cult of the dead, departed spirits, fetishism, the presence of devils, a Catholicism that flowed into paganism, a host of taboos, the absence of a written tradition, the substitution of legends for history . A people from whom everyone fled, intellectuals first of all. Sunk in oblivion, this people had only one wish: to vanish, to be extinguished, without anyone's knowledge.
Having been born in its midst, I was soaked through with its grandiose and wretched, heroic and humiliating myths, like a sponge in a pail of water. These myths, cruel and of the gentlest, hurt me like a tumor: I had to detach them from myself and store them up. This was how the novel The Fifth Estate was born. It is thus a testimony from within. I am well aware that the reader-the European reader, but especially the American one-will find every line incredible, but everything that is told here is strictly true. A people that did not want to be known here finds itself revealed to the reader (the enemy) by one of its sons: in a word, betrayed. From that point on, writing has always been marked for me by these two characteristics: it is a work of liberation, it is a work of betrayal. I did not betray a man, because I did not tell of an individual hero; I told of a community, I constructed a choral novel, whose protagonist is a multitude: my people. The betrayal perpetrated by my writing was thus directed against my roots, against myself. I believe that therein lies the neurotic core of my writing: I write for others, and against myself. In my own mind, I call The Fifth Estate the "geography" of the peasant people. The next novel, Life Everlasting, I call the "history." The first tries to tell the story of an archaic community and "the way it works" through a myriad of figures-persons, angels, devils, animals-and a mist of legends; the second isolates, within this galaxy, the bright star of the Peasant Resistance: a barbaric and visceral struggle with neither ideology nor program. The peasant people on that occasion endured massacres and reprisals that no one will ever recount, because history keeps its eyes elsewhere. In Life Everlasting I tried as best I could to tell a portion of this saga. In it there is a negative hero, of bestial ferocity. I left him the name he had in reality. He was a colonel in the S.S., a certain Lembke. I did not know that Lembke was still alive. The book, after a series of translations-French, Russian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Rumanian-was finally published in German as well, first in the Democratic Republic, then in the Federal. There it became a best seller, with this singular fate: Lembke was discovered, and preparations were made to bring him to trial. On the eve of the trial, he died of a heart attack. Since then I find myself thinking of Life Everlasting as a rifle shot, fired from Italy at Germany, to strike the heart of an enemy of my people. Thus between vengeance, betrayal, liberation, and condemnation, writing strenuously consumes me, trapping me in a vicious circle from which I see no escape.
Ferdinando Camon
Padua, 1987

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