The Velvet Knife

As a dramatist, actor, and mimic, PETER USTINOV has made a unique place for himself. Two years ago, at the ATLANTIC urging, he embarked on a series of short stories which we have found both original and delightful. Now he is about to finish his first novel, which will appear under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint.


THE dust had not yet settled over Europe: there were corpses still unburied. Here and there, fanatics unwilling to surrender their dreams still resisted crazily, preferring, once it had to be, the chance bullet to the deliberate.

For Giuseppe Gargaglia it was too late for speculations of this nature. He had had his chance, and he had missed it. Captured ignominiously in the clothes of an old woman, he now sat in a cell with nothing but his thoughts for company. He would have preferred to be alone.

To make matters worse, his jailers were Italian, therefore compassionate. They made endless little gestures, hoping that he would feel at home. One of them, Arnaldo, a fair-haired, pug-nosed youth from Reggis Emilia, even went so far as to ask him for his autograph. His autograph?

“Eh,” Arnaldo said with a shrug, “you never know which way history will turn. Someday I may be able to give my son your signature and say that it was dedicated to him by Eccelenza Gargaglia, the Undersecretary of the Interior during the last days of the Fascist era.”

Gargaglia smiled a little grimly. The jailer’s attitude was intimate and yet deferential, as if he realized that, although his charge was a prisoner divested of his liberties, the fall from grace had been from dizzy heights.

“All right,” Gargaglia growled with a trace of his habitual energy, “give me a pen and paper.”

Arnaldo grinned. “I have something more suitable than paper.” And he produced from his pocket a soiled clipping from an illustrated paper, showing Gargaglia at the peak of his achievements, snarling on a balcony, his nostrils puckered into folds of hatred and disdain, his mouth rising diabolically toward the corners of his eyes, while his hand reached powerfully into the air, tearing down some imagined enemy. By his side, the Duce stood in a pose of meditative appreciation, of heroic contentment.

“For God’s sake! Where did you get that?”

“There are plenty of old magazines knocking around.”

A habitué of diplomacy could read the possibility of a hint in Arnaldo’s evasiveness. Gargaglia glanced at him keenly. “Are you a Fascist?” he asked quietly.

“No. Never have been. Naturally, we had to pretend.”

Exasperating, this young fellow. There was no knowing just how intelligent he was.

As Gargaglia wrote his name with a flourish, he took a certain satisfaction in sensing once again the liquid fanfare of his signature. “What’s the boy’s name?” he asked.


“After the Duce?”

“After his mother’s father — a martyr to the cause.”

“The cause?”

“We are Communists,” said Arnaldo, by way of information.

Gargaglia’s throat was dry. The last twentyfour hours had been fraught with confusion, both of spirit and of mind. He had not been seen in a good light, tottering down the street in the stolen rags of a harridan. He might have been a fiery orator, but he was no actor. His performance had lacked conviction; he had been foolish ever to attempt it. He still heard in his ears the laughter of the partisans as his clothes had been taken off and the sudden silent awe as they realized the magnitude of their capture.

Now he passed a weary hand over his sleepless eyes. “If you hold convictions of that nature, why the hell did you ask for my autograph?” he asked.

“Oh, as I said, you never know,” replied Arnaldo pleasantly. “Very few men can control history even for a little while. I may be a Communist, but I’m certainly not one of them. I’ve no talent; that’s why I’m a jailer and not an officer, a man to make decisions, even small ones. But my son likes autographs. He’s got several film stars already and one or two celebrities in other walks of life. Now, I love my son. He’s young, but through no fault of mine he hasn’t seen much of his youth yet. If he wants autographs, it’s the least I can do to get them for him, and they’re cheaper than toys. I mean, I don’t approve of Hitler, but if there was a chance to get his autograph. I’d leap at it, you understand. I don’t know what they’ll say about you in years to come. You may be considered a traitor or a man who did Italy a lot of good or else just forgotten. There’s no telling with history. So I thought to myself, Better be on the safe side, for Benito’s sake. That’s why I asked you for your autograph.'’

“It’s logical,” Gargaglia murmured, but he had not the energy to make what he said sound ironic.

There was a pause while Arnaldo folded the autographed picture carefully and put it away in his pocket. “A cup of water?” he asked.

Gargaglia didn’t really care for water, but he nodded economically, as he had done when in office. A nod which emphasized authority.

WHILE Arnaldo was out of the room, Gargaglia remembered an operation he had had for the removal of his gall bladder. Recurrent jaundice had been the fault of Africa. He had pioneered in those grim wastes which put an enormous strain on the Italian economy in exchange for the mere title of Empire. His faulty bladder had taken on in his mind the character of a wound, gloriously achieved in the service of his country.

He remembered the hospital, the atmosphere of functional efficiency, fans whirling on the ceiling to whip the air into activity, the preoccupied cheerfulness of the doctors, with a kind glance to spare every now and then, the silent gliding of the nuns with their look of direct communication with heaven. It had given him courage to feel he was part of a factory for healing, and he had passed under the knife convinced that his own cooperation was vital if the thing was to pass off well.

“What is death,” he asked himself, “but an operation from which a man does not recover?” The essential is to be casual, to collaborate with the men doing this duty job. In any execution, the victim has his part to play. It is not so much a tragic event as a ritual, with its own prescribed rules and regulations, a kind of divine service. Nuns die to the world by prostrating themselves helplessly on the floor and are covered with a symbolic shroud before they enter into the jealous womb of Mother Church. The firing squad is no different. The prerequisite for the novice is a sense of occasion and resignation; at all times, resignation.

In the grand pavan of death, he must remember to refuse the handkerchief when offered. This refusal is the only permitted rebellion, which gives the ceremony its profane quality. Useless to protest innocence, useless even to cry out some platitudes about the nation. It only worries the firing squad, who are not there from choice and who have to go on living afterwards. It is good manners to listen to the consolations of the priest as though he were really a harbinger of comfort. Intolerable it would be for him if he thought for a moment that his warmly melancholy phrases were falling on deaf ears. That would be as socially ill-mannered as allowing your mind to drift while a wellmeaning bore is telling you a story you have heard before.

Endlessly Gargaglia daydreamed, and endlessly it was the same daydream. He saw his own fine profile and distinguished head, a head curiously rendered more distinguished by its baldness. Unflinchingly he listened as the commander of the firing squad read out his sentence by the people’s court. He even permitted himself a slight smile and one of his spare little nods. Perhaps the curl of his lips suggested in a remote and unprotesting way that his opinion of the people’s court was low. At all events, the commander of the firing squad seemed momentarily stunned by such sang-froid. He saw the priest and heard the rapid muttering. There were so many sacred texts to rush through in such a short time. They tied him to the post. The handkerchief was held up. His black eyes hardened. “No,” he said, loud and clear. Perhaps, on second thought, it would be better to say nothing, just to shake his head negatively. The film of his imagination ran backwards. The handkerchief was held up again. This time he shook his head. The commander seemed to take courage from this example and stared at him for a moment in silent admiration. The sword was raised. No, no, before this he must remember to thank the priest. He thanked the priest with great simplicity. The priest was amazed at such presence of mind and reinforced in his faith as he saw the magic of his words at work. The sword was raised again. The front row of soldiers dropped onto their knees. He looked above them at the opulent Italian sky and reflected almost happily on his honor. Somewhere he fancied he heard a shout, and then all went red behind his eyelids, as it will when you are trying to sleep in the midday sun. From red to black. The soldiers looked at each other and murmured, “There was a brave man.”

He was just beginning the daydream again when Arnaldo reappeared with a cup of water. “Sorry I’ve been so long,” he said, “but there’s a lot of excitement at headquarters. They’ve caught General Zaleschi and bank president Mora. Also Gozzi-Parella, the editor of the Fascist youth magazine.”

“What have they done with them?”

“I don’t know. Nothing yet. Zaleschi and Mora were dressed as peasants — but as men.”

Gargaglia flinched. That observation was unnecessary. Still, you can’t expect an ordinary soldier to have much taste.

“Gozzi-Parella just walked into headquarters,” Arnaldo went on, “and said that it’d save everyone a great deal of trouble if he just gave himself up. There’s no doubt about it, that fellow has guts, even if he has been corrupting our youth.”

“I suppose they’ll shoot the lot of us,” said Gargaglia.

“Couldn’t say,” replied Arnaldo. “You’d have to ask someone with more authority. Up to yesterday, we were shooting without so much as a trial, but they seem to be hanging back today.”

“What happened to Colonel Gasparone?” asked Gargaglia, although he knew well.

“Oh, he came up before the tribunal — people’s court, or whatever they call it — yesterday morning. The trial was very short; ten minutes, no more. Then they took him out and shot him.”

“How do they perform those little ceremonies?” This is what Gargaglia wanted to know.

“Oh.” Arnaldo was embarrassed. “Are you sure you want to talk about it?”

“Of course,” Gargaglia snapped. It was easy to have bravura at this juncture. He thought he detected a glint of admiration in Arnaldo’s eye, and it gave him pleasure.

“Well, they take the victim out, they bind his eyes — ”

“There will be no need of that.”

“Then they sit him down in a chair, tie his hands behind his back, and shoot him.”

“A chair? It is facing the firing squad, of course.”

“Oh, no. The executions I’ve seen, they always shoot them in the back.”

Gargaglia paled. “That’s revolting,” he said.

“You may be able to change it in your case, if it comes to that. I mean, there’s no harm in asking; they can only say no.”

“But, tell me, is there a priest in attendance?”

“Not in Colonel Gasparone’s case. There was no time to find one. You’ve got to realize, we’re not organized like a regular army. We’re just partisans. Our justice is meted out according to the circumstances. I don’t think we’d refuse you a priest if there was one available, but if there wasn’t one available, we’d hardly stay the execution until they could find one.”

Gargaglia was no longer listening. Evidently, in the desire for revenge the opportunities for heroism, even for dignity, had been whittled away. They had changed the ritual, and it was almost like blasphemy, this denial of the ancient courtesies. Only cowards were shot in the back, and in their black hatred the changers of the rules knew that no gestures were possible when slumped in a vulgar kitchen chair, like some victim of a burglar. And no priest! No one with the intellect to appreciate the quality of one’s silence!

Gargaglia took refuge in anger and stamped his foot.

“I told you we shouldn’t have talked about it,” said Arnaldo. “It doesn’t make for good conversation at the best of times.”

“Silence!” shouted Gargaglia. “If I’m accorded a last wish, it will be your silence.”

“You haven’t drunk your water.” said Arnaldo softly. “Didn’t you want it?”

THE cell door opened and Quattrospille entered. He was the local commander of the partisans, a chain-smoking intellectual with a perpetual frown and eyes that seemed to be looking into the distance.

Gargaglia gave in to a momentary panic when he saw him, but then grasped at his annoyance for a platform. “Well?” he barked, suggesting that if something desperate had to be done, it would be good to do it and get it over with.

Quattrospille lit a new cigarette from the stub of his old one and leaned against the chalky wall.

Gargaglia felt that the pause was an insult.

“What’s the matter with you?” asked Quattrospille. “You have no problems except to wait.”

“Wait, wait. For what?”

“Ah,” replied Quattrospille with a sigh, “I wish I knew. If I had my way, I’d have shot you on sight, immediately when we had those women’s clothes off you. It would have saved me a headache, and I’m sure you’d have been much happier that way.”

“Are you trying to be amusing?” Gargaglia asked with a gasp.

Quattrospille looked pained. His weariness had slowed down his reflexes. “No. I’m saying what I feel. After all, these are tumultuous days, each one of which seems to last a week. We are destroying with one hand and trying painfully to begin rebuilding with the other. It’s tough. The problems are so easy during battle; then, with the coming of peace, all the problems start again.”

Gargaglia cleared his throat. “Did you come in here to tell me something, or are you just whiling away the time at the expense oGmy nerves?”

“Me?” replied Quattrospille. “I’m putting my cards on the table. I’m telling you my problems, the problems of administration, because you yourself were once an administrator and might therefore be able to grasp them.”

“I always insisted on plain speaking.”

Quattrospille smiled, and as he smiled he yawned. “Really?” he answered. “Well, what could be plainer than my telling you that, if I had my way, you’d have been shot on sight?”

“But what are you telling me now?” cried Gargaglia. “That you will have your own way and I will be shot, or that you won’t have your way and I won’t be shot?”

Quattrospille inhaled deeply and watched the smoke rise slowly into the room and spread in languorous contortions. “The situation is not yet clear,” he said.

“Amateurs!” thought Gargaglia. “When they’re in power, nothing will function — trains, electric light, jurisdiction. Nothing.” But he allowed Quattrospille the luxury of further rumination.

“You see,” Quattrospille went on, “for the first few days we were on our own. The criminals we captured we shot, and no questions asked. That enabled us to work fast and well. Now the main body of the Allied forces has arrived, not just soldiers but administrators, and not just AngloAmericans but Italians as well. This inevitably complicates the issue. If I shoot you now, they will want to know why you were not handed over to the ponderous justice of some higher court. I could always say that you were killed while trying to escape, but then there’s the risk that some ambitious idiot will testify the opposite and I’ll be in the soup.” He glanced at Arnaldo, paused, and lit another cigarette, although the one in his mouth was scarcely halfway smoked.

“I am not in a position to be interested in your problems,” said Gargaglia stiffly. “I can only be interested in your decision. I would be grateful to know what it is.”

Quattrospille laughed softly and humorlessly. Then he asked Arnaldo to leave the cell. When they were alone, he continued, “You’re quite wrong. I came here to seek your cooperation, to make you an offer, if you will. If I make it possible for you to escape, I could shoot you and therefore clear myself of any recrimination afterwards.”

“You’re quite mad!” Gargaglia spluttered.

“Why? There is still a slender chance that our bullets might miss you; it’s the kind of chance the English call ‘sporting.’ And before you jump to any hasty conclusions, think of the alternative. If you’re not shot today, now, this very minute, you’ll be handed over to higher authorities and be put on trial. You were a high Fascist official. They will blame you for quite a few crimes in Ethiopia as well as for your restrictive measures against the Jews, to say nothing of the deaths of numerous partisans and hostages. It will mean the firing squad in any case. Think, then, which is preferable — a clean shot now, while you are prepared for the worst, or a formal execution at a later date, after innumerable delays, when you have got used to hope.”

Gargaglia looked into Quattrospille’s eyes and saw no humanity there, only interest.

“Arnaldo!” called Gargaglia.

“You will live to regret your decision,” said Quattrospille, “but, then, most of your decisions have been stupid.”

“During the whole of the Fascist era,” Gargaglia stammered, his face flushed with anger and fear, “I have never encountered such hatred.”

Quattrospille appeared surprised. “I have been very charitable. One day you may realize the extent of my charity. There was no hatred in my offer, only understanding.”

ARNALDO came back and began beating Quattrospille’s tunic. “All white,” he said, “from the wall,” and then he whispered some information into his chief’s ear.

Quattrospille’s eyes shut in exasperation. When he opened them again, he looked straight at Gargaglia. “You have a visitor,” he said and left.

A visitor? Gargaglia trembled. In the language of melodrama employed by the partisans, this could mean almost anything. He cringed in the corner. It might mean no more than another prisoner to share the cell with, or it might mean the barrel of a submachine gun through the bars.

The door of the cell creaked open and a man entered slowly, blinking as though unaccustomed to the light. He was fairly tall and obviously intended by nature to be corpulent, but at the moment he was thin and white, perhaps recovering from a lengthy illness. His neck was much smaller than his collar, and loose skin hung in folds from a firm jaw, shivering as he turned his head. The clothes he wore were sober to the point of constituting some kind of uniform. In his hand he clasped a hard-brimmed black hat and an ebony stick, on which he leaned.

“Signor Gargaglia? May I come in?” he wheezed in an asthmatic voice.

“Who is that?”

“Guido Manasse.”

Gargaglia felt an explosion of ice within him. He couldn’t believe it, and he was afraid. Professor Manasse had been one of Italy’s greatest forensic orators, a lawyer with a rhetorical style of such elemental power that no judge could trust his own judgment under its bombardment. He had nothing but a mind; his voice was unattractive and unresonant, his gestures stiff, and his two rows of teeth had never quite decided which should be in front of the other. Whenever he shut his mouth, it still appeared to be half open. But his mind was extraordinary, not only by virtue of its inventiveness but also because of its incredible discipline and selectivity. He remembered everything he was told and could filter the facts, grading them into relevancies and mere chaff while he was talking, and while he talked the words born of these simultaneous mental processes were always original, powerful, precise.

“Why have you come here?”

“Hmm. You seem to be comfortable here, your Excellency.”

Gargaglia found himself unable to move as Manasse walked slowly to the center of the cell. “Have you come here to mock me?”

“Not at all,” said Manasse pleasantly. “You seem to forget that I have spent the last three years in cells, so that when I comment on the comfort of yours, I am not comparing it to a room but to a series of other cells. As you may know, I am quite a connoisseur.” He contemplated the disposition of the furniture for a moment. “I see you have a stool and a box. May I sit down?”

“What’s to prevent you?”

Manasse smiled, and his pale-blue eyes sparkled with an amusement which bore every mark of being genuine. “You used to be such a good host in the old days,” he pleaded. “Won’t you please come out of your corner and make me feel at home here?”

Gargaglia didn’t move.

“I am incapable of doing you any physical violence, even if I wanted to, since I have been gravely ill, and in any case, I have always abhorred the uglier side of life,” he went on. “The doctors tell me I must rest as much as possible. It would be polite if, on purely medical grounds, you invited me to sit down.”

“Please sit down,” Gargaglia growled. He suspected irony in every phrase.

“Thank you. Now, since this is your cell, you must have a favorite between these two seats. It is immaterial to me, since I don’t live here. Would you indicate where you would like me to sit?”

“I don’t care.”

“That is probably because you haven’t been here long enough. After a month or two, a man becomes very particular. Then, if you have nothing against it, I will select this one. It reminds me. . . .” He sat on the box. “Now, please join me in the center of the cell. I am not questioning you for an exam. I am just visiting.”

“I should prefer to stand.”

GARGAGLIA saw that, at certain angles, Manasse’s eyes parted company and gazed off in different directions, which gave him an all-seeing quality so useful in court. At other moments, his eyes were visible in miniature through the thick lenses of his rimless pince-nez, so that it seemed as though he had four eyes at his command.

“You are being very childish, if you don’t mind my saying so. I never expected that a high functionary of the government would greet me in such a fit of juvenile sulks.” Manasse laughed.

Gargaglia sat, but to cover his embarrassment he asked, “Are you here in an official capacity?”

“I could hardly be, since I am not an official.”

“But you won’t wish me to believe that you made the journey for pleasure?”

Manasse laughed aloud. “That’s more like it,” he chuckled, “the Gargaglia of old, the journalist with the vitriolic pen. We were at school together, remember?”

“Of course I remember,” Gargaglia replied curtly.

“Yes, I had a mop of red hair in those days. Look at it now — white, what there is of it, a few strands, but they still won’t stay down when I comb them. I used to fall in love very easily then; that was before I learned to organize my thoughts and my emotions. The lovesick Jew, they used to call me. And I remember one rather charming occasion on which you became very angry on my behalf. I was always rather timid. You threatened to knock a boy down if he said it again — the lovesick Jew. Remember? Yes, life is full of little ironies.”

“Has your visit any bearing on my predicament?” demanded Gargaglia.

“Ah, Gargaglia the practical, the administrator, the man of iron! Another manifestation of a complex character.” Manasse patted the prisoner on the knee. “Forgive me if I seem to tease you. It’s my exuberance at seeing you again after so long, and quite frankly, there were times in prison when I thought the opportunity to renew our acquaintance would never arise.”

“Enough of this.” Gargaglia said abruptly. “You may have all the time in the world for banter of this nature; I have not. At any moment they may arrive to shoot me.”

“There is no hurry,” Manasse said. “I have asked them to wait.”

“Then you are here on some official business.

I demand to know what it is!”

“There is nothing ollicial about my business,” Manasse replied patiently. “It is just that, with the collapse of Fascism, my reputation has recovered. Suddenly everybody knows who I am. I asked the powers that be not to do anything about your case until I had finished my conversation with you. They agreed immediately. While I am here, you are safe.”

Gargaglia frowned. “I don’t know what you want with me,” he said, hesitantly, “but it would be inhuman if your attitude toward me were not vindictive.”

“It would be inhuman? Why?” Manasse seemed to be amazed; then he suddenly saw the light. “Ah, because it was you who instigated the repressive measures against the Jews. Yes, yes, yes, I never thought of that.” His tone abruptly changed to one eminently reasonable. “How could you help that? Once it was important for us to cultivate the German alliance, in order.

I presume, to hide the deficiencies in our armed forces; it was imperative for you to toe whatever line the Germans drew for you, wherever they drew it. If it helps you at all, I personally don’t blame you for either the sudden wave of officially inspired anti-Semitism or for my own arrest. You must have had your reasons. I am inclined to believe the reasons for your actions in advance.”

Gargaglia tried to sound reasonable. “Naturally, German pressure was considerable —”

“Considerable? I was sure it had been superhuman.”

“There was no such thing as pressure from the Germans which we could not resist. It would be wrong to assume that we took a single decision under duress. We were entirely responsible for each and every action performed in the name of the Italian government.”

Oh, Gargaglia was no fool. He saw the trap which was being laid for him, but he considered that a man of Manasse’s temperament would appreciate apparent honesty more than any attempt at ingenuity.

“In other words, you are now telling me that the abrupt persecution of our Jewish population was an entirely Italian initiative?”

“Yes,” replied Gargaglia.

“But do you sincerely think that you would have had the idea of it without the example of Germany?”

“That is an academic question, professor.”

“Would Italy ever have entered the war without a signal from her big sister? — oh, half-sister, let us say.”

“That, too, is an academic question. The facts are that these events took place for definite reasons. It is useless to speculate on what inspired them or what might have been.”

“Useless, but so fascinating,” Manasse said, smiling. For a moment he studied Gargaglia, who pretended hastily to be lost in thought. Those four blue eyes, each pursuing its independent course, were too much to tolerate. Gargaglia felt himself outgunned.

“Tell me, then, since you wish to take everything on your own shoulders, what have you against the Jews?” Manasse crooned softly.

“The Jews? They are . . . different.”

“Different from what?”

Gargaglia betrayed his irritation with a brief gesture. “You know perfectly well.”

“Well, I know perfectly well that we are different from each other. A shocking thought, isn’t it? One which may never have occurred to you. When people talk about ‘the Jews,’ they tend to see an amorphous mass, a crowd, in their mind’s eye, but never a crowd of individuals, a microcosm of the faults and virtues to be found in the entire human race.”

“The Jews were, and are, different from the Italians.”

Gargaglia’s policy was one of disengagement, of monosyllabic replies where possible. Manasse held the initiative in this mysterious debate. Manasse alone knew where it was leading. Under these circumstances, Gargaglia held back, protecting his freedom of action as long as possible, conserving his reserves of energy and of logic.

“The Italians, too, are different from each other,” Manasse suggested. “And even if you subscribe to the absurd dream that the race has altered not at all since the days of the Romans, you must remember that Rome herself had her Jews, and a damned nuisance they made of themselves with their hotheadedness and stubbornness and their wailing in the catacombs.” He laughed briefly and silently at the image he had created. “Difference by itself is surely no cause for persecution. I would suggest that defenselessness is perhaps a more valid incentive. The Germans were different from the Italians, but the Italians never persecuted the Germans. They were in no position to. The Jews are much easier to persecute. Isn’t that the real reason — facility? When you are angry with your superiors, you shout at your wife. Isn’t that so? When frustrated, impotent, a nation always has the Jews to fall back on, as a man has his wife. Take a look at history, and you will see that in times of affluence and of national contentment, the Jews are usually left alone.”

“I personally have nothing against the Jews.”

“Aah —”

“Your assessment of the causes of persecution is extremely penetrating. There are exceptions, of course.”

“Of course. There are exceptions to most generalizations.”

“It would be an idiot who did not admit that the contribution of individual Jews to the advancement of humanity,” Gargaglia said, “is out of all proportion to the size of the Jewish populations. Einstein, Spinoza, Ehrlich; one can enumerate quite easily a galaxy of people who have enriched thought, music, science. I am not an idiot; therefore I admit it. Still, there is a difference between individual Jews and Jews in the mass.”

“When Jews are in a mass, there are more of them,” said Manasse. “The same is true of Italians. That must be one of the few rules to which there is no exception.”

The tone of gentle mockery inhibited Gargaglia, who faltered for a moment. “It seemed to me at the time that a limited persecution was justified as an instrument of national policy.”

“At the time?" Manasse flashed. “You no longer think so?”

“I — I may have been wrong.”

“As a politician or as a man?”

“As a politician.”

“And as a man?”

“As a man — I may have been wrong also.”

MANAGE relaxed and scratched his almost invisible white mustache with his forefinger. “Let us leave the subject of the Jews,” he said. “I am a Jew, but I am not a Zionist, not a fanatic. Why? Because I am Italian, and you can’t be both an Italian and a Zionist fanatic. I only spoke about the persecution of the Jews because I detest persecution, not because I love my own race with an unreasoning passion. The persecution of a horse by a farmer is, in its way, as revolting as the persecution of a minority by a majority. Evil is not something that should be judged by quantity but by quality.” Manasse looked at the floor. Suddenly he pointed to a crack in the tiles. “Look,” he said, “there is a spider. Kill it!”

“Why,” asked Gargaglia, “are you afraid of it?”

“Not in the least. It is quite harmless.”

“Why should I kill it then?”

“Why should you not kill it?” Manasse asked. “You are stronger than it is. It will not need much effort to step on it.”

“There is still no reason to kill it!" Gargaglia suddenly shouted.

“Find reasons. You’re an intelligent man,” rasped Manasse. “The spider lives in a rough world, a world without language, without communication, without debate, a world of the hunter and the hunted, an unsentimental world. Ask yourself: if you were the size of a spider and it were the size of a man, would it hesitate to kill you? No. Therefore, kill it!”


Manasse relaxed. “Why did we declare war?” he asked quietly. “There was no reason to kill those men. The idea of killing a spider doesn’t upset you, Gargaglia; it is only because I asked you to kill this particular one that you shrank at the idea. You saw it walking about harmlessly; you had time to think. From your high balconies, you saw the intact divisions of the Italian Army stretched out before you, bayonets gleaming in a sun which seemed to be shining for you alone. You saw only the uniforms, not the men; and not seeing the men, you failed to see the women, the predestined widows, and the children, the orphans to be. You saw the golden wrappings but not the promise of misery they contained. You had no imagination, Gargaglia. With all your superficial intelligence, with all your brilliance, you were as irresponsible as a child left to play among the priceless treasures of a cathedral. Your guilt is enormous, incalculable, terrible.”

Violently, Gargaglia brought his foot down on the spider.

“Bravo!” Manasse clapped sarcastically. “What courage! I had underestimated you. You are a man of fiber after all, a cabinet minister to the end !”

Gargaglia broke down in tears of humiliation.

“Why are you crying?” Manasse asked quietly. “Are those tears for the latest widow of your creation?”

Gargaglia pounded his knees with his fists. His fury was that of a child, and yet the tears did not flow from his intellect.

Manasse became warm and tender. “It’s terrible waiting for the decisions of people you neither trust nor admire, isn’t it? You’ve had only a few hours of it; I had three years. But I can tell you, the first hours are the worst. I don’t know about you, but I was a coward. I kept on imagining how I’d behave if it came to the worst, I could never see myself keeping my eloquence in check. I was always sure I’d die spouting rhetoric, defending myself before a jury of rifles.”He paused. “I’m sure it’s worse when you’re talented. A simple man can die with dignity, because in the last resort, it’s all he’s left with. Dignity is largely reticence, and what is more conducive to reticence than ignorance? With us, it’s different. Don’t you feel you still have so much to give, so much to do? Doesn’t life, even lived to the natural end, seem awfully short to you?”

“Why are you torturing me?" Gargaglia screamed. “Aren’t you satisfied to see me like this?”

Manasse raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Such a tantrum.” he said, “and I came to bring you good news.”

The sobbing Gargaglia looked at his tormentor, and his breathing slowed down audibly. “Good news?”

Manasse grinned charmingly. “You’re not going to be shot.”

“Not — ?”

“You’re going to stand trial.”

Gargaglia managed a bitter laugh. “I’m not going to be shot yet, in that case. Later.”

“You’re not going to be shot at all.”

“How — how do you know?”

“Because I am going to defend you.”


There was a long silence as Gargaglia studied the lawyer’s face.

Suddenly Gargaglia leaped to his feet. “So that’s your revenge,” he cried. “You’ll defend me. You’ll defend me in such a way that I’ll be condemned before I ever set foot in that court. You’ll use all your legal tricks to make it clear that you have no belief in my possible innocence. No, thank you. I stand a better chance defending myself. Thank you, though, for your generosity!”

Manasse waited patiently tor the outburst to finish. Then he spoke with great sincerity to the creature who was now prowling the cell in his anger. “I have enough pride in my own career to be unable to do as you suggest. I have made it a habit to win my cases. Do you think I, as a human animal, could bear it if my colleagues began to say, ‘Old Manasse is slipping’? Already I will be exposing myself to some disagreeable comment from my best friends by accepting this case. You think it is easy for a Jew to defend his persecutor? What possible motives will people be able to ascribe to my decision? They know I am different. I don’t really mind if they think I am mad, but I can’t face it if they think I am incompetent.”

Gargaglia stopped his pacing to listen.

“The truth is that justice has never interested me as much as tolerance. I have always defended, if you remember, never prosecuted. I am constitutionally unable to prosecute. For that a man needs a developed sense of justice; I am too emotional for that. I believe that the law in all countries is far too rude an instrument for the dispensation of justice. I hate the law for the cold, deaf, inhuman institution it is, all black and white, with hardly a provision for the infinite shades of gray which motivate human behavior and which make good men perform evil actions and drive intelligent men to unbelievable stupidity. Because of this, I have often defended a man I knew to be a criminal and given him liberty with my gifts. As a lawyer I am bad but brilliant. I don’t care, so long as I preserve what qualities I possess as a man living among men. That is what is important to me.”

There was stillness in the cell.

“If you want me to. I will get you off.”

“Why?” asked Gargaglia numbly.

Manasse smiled. “There’s hope for you yet,” he said. “For a moment I was afraid you’d ask me how, not why.”

Manasse rose. “I came here,” he went on, “to see if you were vulnerable, if you were human, if you could suffer, and I’m satisfied. You cowered in a corner when I entered. You were afraid. That was a good sign. You tried to defend your actions and found it impossible. You have a conscience which is beginning to work again, slowly and painfully, like a child learning to walk. You cried, and it wasn’t just out of exhaustion. You are redeemable, and, as such, you have reaffirmed a little of my faith in man. In these days, I need at least one reaffirmation every day, until I also begin slowly to take goodness for granted again.”

Manasse crossed to the door. “Do you wish me to defend you?”

Gargaglia looked at the floor. “Why do you bother?" he whispered.

“Why?” replied Manasse. His blue eyes were now cold, clear, and entirely unemotional. “Because it is the most terrible vengeance I could conceive — to defend you successfully, free of charge.”

The cell was empty. Gargaglia saw his life stretching before him, out of sight, each day a cell as empty as the one he was in. He sank to his knees, not in order to pray but because the weight of his humiliation drove him there. He tried to weep again, but there were no tears left. At that moment, he would have obeyed any order, from anyone. The firing squad would have been an act of kindness; but, then, life is often more brutal than death, for it is rich in time, death rich only in silence.