Goodbye Beautiful

As I am preparing for the imminent release of my book, Safe in Your Head, I am tinkering with all these new online technologies to see about preparing a book trailer. It’s not so much that I think the book trailer will help sales, but because for some time now I have been thinking about how to tell this story through images and sound.

I first began seeing what a book trailer would look like well before I even had any hopes of placing the book with a good press. At the time, the whole project was still a somewhat nebulous assemblage of fictionalized family tales, and I was still trying to decide in my head whether those stories needed to be told through prose or through something else.

I visualized a digital book with a collage of short films that would really drive home the turmoil of the times during which my protagonists had to live through. I wanted to show the men (who, in my story, are behind the scenes) laboring with the furnaces of the steel mills in the late 1930’s, and later, surrounded by the hellfire that was Europe during war.

When my mother described the work that my grandparents did at the steel mill, she often emphasized how dangerous it was, but it wasn’t until I found a clip of the task she was describing that I could appreciate how very exhausting and how very life-threatening the task was, particularly that of their having to clinch sheets of molten steel with a prong, pull those sheets out of the furnace, slide them across the floor to another laborer who would then seize them again with a pronged instrument as the sheet slid by. (The toll of loss of limb was pretty high in that particular job setting).

Did you see that???? The last few seconds of the clip really show how dangerous that was, and can you imagine doing it every day, hour after hour?

The song that always played in the back of my head was a song that became associated with the patriots (the name that the Italian resistance fighter used for themselves) and with Italy’s liberation from the clutches of Mussolini’s fascism. The song is Bella Ciao.

The lyrics to the patriots’ song tell of a man who, waking up in the morning, discovers that his country has been taken over by an invader (a reference to the German Nazi, who were allied to Italy by Mussolini’s will, but who, for the most part, where not welcomed by most of the population). Bella Ciao refers to his saying good bye to his loved one, as he expects that he will die a patriot in order to save his country.

Now, every person my age who was born and raised in Italy knows that song. It’s as familiar to us as some of the Puccini operas often played as audio to many popular ads. And when you grow up hearing a song, singing it and whistling it and humming it as you swing your school bag or run around the yard after a soccer ball you don’t really stop to think about what the song means, where it comes from, what it’s associated with, and what the words are trying to tell you.

Now I’m looking through the internet for royalty free versions of that song, and I discovered some other things about that song that I want to share here. Here is a nice version of the original song, before the resistance adopted it and changed its lyrics:

First, the song originated from an anonymous writer in the early 1900’s. The original lyrics were significantly different in terms of content, but remarkably similar in terms of spirit. The lyrics of the original song is about women working in rice fields to the tune of their “padrone” (land owner’s) stick. One of the line of the lyrics is “Oh what a torment it is for me to rise every day like this,” and later she goes on to explain her day, which consists of her working with her back bent all day and the landowner’s stick swinging at her.

The song ends on the hopeful chant of the hopeless: “Some day may we all labor for our selves, in freedom.” And I find it poignant to note that the wish of the tormented singer, whose destiny is so bleakly described in the song, is not that she may find rest, or that she may experience a reversal of fortune, or even that she may witness the downfall of the “owners” who oppress her, but so that she may be allowed to enjoy personal freedom even as she continues to labor in the fields.

The second thing I discovered — or rather, re-discovered — as I was looking through the internet for this song is the emotional importance that this song still inspires in most Italians.

I had to show this clip of an Italian priest launching into the singing of Bella Ciao after a mass to illustrate what I really mean. This blew my mind. I don’t think I need to explain that socialism and Catholicism aren’t exactly great bed partners.

I ought to make a small but important historical annotation here, nonetheless: during World War II, when Italy was under the rule of fascism and its Mussolini-led government was in alliance with Nazi Germany, the Communist party was the party of the resistance, and at that time, allied to the United States (though the US changed its mind on that shortly after the war ended). It was also the only real alternative to the despotic fascist oppression, it being the only party organized enough to conspire against Mussolini’s violent regime.

In other words, this was NOT the same Communism we see in Russia during the same period, or in Korea and China, etc. Later, the Italian people, recognizing the great shift in ideology that existed between their version of Communism and that which was waged in the Soviet Union, and they did change the name of their party, and went to considerable lengths to distance themselves from Communist ideology as it is now known in the world.

All the same, seeing a Catholic priest wave a red flag in church, singing a political song after mass is quite something, regardless, and ought to drive home even to non-Italians what this song meant to people and how vividly this war is still felt among Italians.

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

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