Oriana Fallaci Buy from other retailers

Publication Date: Aug 24, 2021

288 pp

Paperback

List Price US: $17.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-053-1

Trim Size: 0.00 x 0.00 x 0.00 in.

Oriana Fallaci

The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend

The airplane flies high above an ocean immersed in darkness. Suddenly, the windows are bathed in light. “Look, Oriana, it’s the aurora borealis,” her nephew whispers. She remains silent. Dazed with weakness, she has dozed off. She sits in her reclined seat, draped in a fur coat. It’s September 4, 2006, and Oriana is on her way back to Florence. The tumor is in its terminal stage. No commercial flight from New York is willing to take her, so they have resorted to chartering a private plane. For several weeks, she has been surviving on sugar water; she weighs only sixty-six pounds. In truth, she never weighed much more than that: five foot one, ninety-two pounds. She often jokes, “When people meet me, they’re surprised by how little there is of me. I just spread my arms and say, ‘That’s all there is!’” This trip is her decision. She has lived in New York for almost five decades, but she wants things to end where they began. The cabin light is kept low to protect her failing eyes. Two doctors, both women, accompany her, in case of an emergency. But she barely moves during the whole trip; she sits, folded in on herself, immersed in memories. Florence advances slowly to meet her, bringing with it the past.

1 . A Family in Which Nobody Smiles

“I don’t know anything about how my father and my mother met. The only clue to the mystery of my birth is a phrase my mother used to repeat: ‘It all happened because of a hat full of cherries.’” Among all the family stories she heard as a child, this was the detail she loved the most: a bright red hat, worn like a beacon. Years later, placed on the head of someone other than her mother, it would supply the title to her posthumous novel, Un cappello pieno dei ciliege (A hat full of cherries). Anything else is speculation. The meeting must have occurred somewhere in Florence on a late summer afternoon in 1928, one of those hot days that drive people outdoors. Edoardo Fallaci, twenty-four, has just a few coins to his name. He works as a wood-carver and lives with his parents. He dreams of immigrating to Argentina to seek his fortune. He is not especially tall but has an attractively chiseled face and impertinent blue eyes. Tosca Cantini is twenty-two. After losing her mother when she was young, her anarchist sculptor father sent her off to work for two seamstresses. They have grown fond of her and raised her to be a well-mannered young lady. Eventually, they find her a job with a dowager who wants to take her to Paris as a companion. But on that day, Tosca decides to wear an eye-catching hat decorated with red fruit. It shows off her pretty face and high cheekbones. “What pretty cherries,” the gallant Edoardo comments. Sometime later, on a ramble on Monte Morello, Oriana is conceived. “My mother always said that when she first got pregnant, she didn’t want me. She drank Epsom salts every night all the way through the fourth month of her pregnancy, to induce an abortion. But one night, just as she was about to put the glass to her lips, I moved in her belly, almost as if I were saying, ‘I want to be born!’ And then and there she poured the Epsom salts into a flower vase. ‘And that’s why you were born,’ she used to say.” Tosca had other dreams. She wanted to travel the world, to meet artists. She had friends in Florence’s bohemian circles, particularly the painter Ott one Rosai, who courted her. “She used to say he was a ‘handsome bear of a man,’ quite the opposite of my father, who was small and lean.” When it becomes clear that there is no way around it, Edoardo introduces Tosca to his parents. His mother, Giacoma, known for her unpleasant character, is unwelcoming and takes every opportunity to be unkind. In contrast, his father, Antonio, takes a liking to the girl. This only makes matters worse. Tosca quickly becomes a kind of Cinderella in their home. “One of my first memories,” says Oriana, “was of my mother crying as she did the laundry.” The sight of this highly intelligent woman forced to serve the entire family marks her profoundly. Often in interviews she recalls that her mother was the first to encourage her ambitions. “It was my mother who used to say, in tears, ‘Don’t be like me! Don’t become a slave to your husband and your children! Study! Go out into the world!’ I didn’t want to follow her footsteps, I wanted to vindicate her.” In 1977, during the acceptance speech for an honorary degree from Columbia College in Chicago, she declares, “I dedicate this honor to my mother, Tosca Fallaci, who was unable to go to college because she was a woman and because she was poor at a time when women and the poor could not get an education.” On June 29, 1929, the baby is baptized. Oriana is an unusual name for the time. Her parents, who are passionate readers, name her after Oriane, Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes. “‘You weren’t red and wrinkly like the other newborns,’ my mother used to say. ‘You were pale, smooth-skinned, and beautiful. And you never cried. Babies cry, but not you. You were always silent. You observed the world around you, and us, without a sound. By the eighth day I started to worry. I thought you had been born without vocal cords, so I took you to the doctor. He checked you and said, no, no, there’s nothing wrong. Then he tickled your feet and you exploded in great peals of laughter.’” Everyone lives together in the big house on Via del Piaggione: Edoardo’s parents, grandparents, and unmarried sisters. As an adult, Oriana can remember every detail of the house, and over time, bit by bit, she takes it with her. A painted wardrobe goes to her apartment in New York; her parents’ bed and a glass-fronted bookcase goes to her apartment in Florence; a side table from the parlor ends up in her country home. Th e house overlooks the whole city, with Brunelleschi’s dome and Giotto’s bell tower in the foreground, and farther off the rooftops and bridges of Florence. One room contains Grandfather’s worktable, where he repairs the family’s shoes. Oriana watches him for hours and enjoys carrying out small tasks. She avoids Grandma Giacoma, who is always in a bad mood and has a heavy hand. She considers Grandfather Antonio’s room a kind of refuge: “He was a very affectionate man and always looked out for me. In a family where nobody smiled, he was always smiling.” After her, two more girls are born: Neera in 1932 and Paola in 1938. Later, in 1964, when they are adults, the family adopts an orphan, Elisabetta. There are no boys, but Edoardo treats Oriana like a son. “My father was upset that I wasn’t a boy. So he took me hunting with him.” He teaches her how to shoot and takes her everywhere with him. He waits with her at dawn in the shooting hut when flocks of thrushes descend on the fields. Years later Oriana will recall every detail — the pungent cold of the early morning, her eyes staring up at the sky, whispered voices. “If a bird comes from the left , it’s mine. If it comes from the right, it’s yours. And if they come in a flock, we both shoot, on the count of three.” “Si, Papà!” Edoardo is a man of few words, demanding of himself and of others. He raises his eldest daughter like a soldier. One of Oriana’s most vivid childhood memories is related to this toughness. She’s fifteen; she and her father are walking down a street in Florence. A bomb siren rings out. They take refuge in a building. The thunder of aircraft becomes deafening. Oriana can’t find the courage to embrace her father. She cowers in a corner, rolled up in a ball. As the bombs begin to fall, the floor and walls shudder, and she starts to cry. She is surprised by a slap; it takes her breath away. “Young ladies don’t cry,” her father hisses. Oriana often recounts this episode in order to illustrate why she tries never to cry in public. She will often have reason to cry, and she does — “Crying helps, it allows you vomit out your pain” — but almost never in the presence of others. Another male relative who plays a central role in her life is Bruno Fallaci, her father’s elder brother, whom everyone refers to as Sett ecervelli (seven brains). Bruno is the intellectual of the family. He belongs to a world apart, the world of writers. He is married to Gianna Manzini, a successful journalist. He edits the cultural page in the Florentine newspaper La Nazione and later becomes the editor of the magazine Epoca. He is Oriana’s first, perhaps only, teacher, and she will make references to him her whole life: “When he enumerated the rules of journalism, he would say, ‘First of all, don’t bore the reader!’” Tosca often cleans for them, and she brings her daughter along. Gianna Manzini sits on the couch, reading a book and smoking fragrant cigarettes through a long black cigarette holder. Every so often, without interrupting her reading, she extends a beautiful bejeweled hand toward a glass bowl of gianduiott i chocolates. “Don’t dare ask for one!” Tosca warns Oriana before every visit. In one of her books, Oriana evokes the humiliation she felt watching her aunt unwrap each chocolate without even a glance in her direction, as if she didn’t exist. Thirty years later, she can still taste the bitterness of this injustice. And yet she can’t help but be struck by Gianna’s beauty. She watches as her aunt prepares to go out, adjusting her fur hat and wrap. Gianna Manzini is tall and elegant, with a slender face and large eyes that she accentuates with great care. No one in the family likes her. Oriana remembers her grandmother Giacoma slamming down a bouquet of flowers, a gift from her daughter-in-law, as she mutters, “Who needs flowers?! Why don’t you sew the buttons on my son’s shirts instead?!” One afternoon during a walk with Oriana and Grandfather Antonio, Gianna Manzini climbs up on the parapet of the Ponte Vecchio and cries out, “Look, I’ll jump! I’ll jump!” He taps his cane impatiently on the paving stones. “Go ahead, jump! Jump! But hurry, I need to take the girl home.” Gianna Manzini leaves Bruno in 1933 and moves to Rome, disappearing from Oriana’s childhood. However, she leaves behind one trace: her elegant handwriting, with its rounded vowels, which Oriana effortfully imitates, copying out letters for hours in her school notebooks. Thus, her signature — which will one day be famous and unmistakable — is born. But most of her childhood memories are memories of poverty. There’s not enough to eat, and her mother often feigns a lack of appetite so that her daughters will have more. When Oriana is sent out to buy food, she is ashamed of the tiny quantities she can afford. As the shop owners crane their necks to see her over the counter, she requests two ounces of cheese, two ounces of jam. “But we held our heads high,” she later says. “You wouldn’t have guessed we were poor. We were always well dressed and clean. Mamma was good at turning our clothes inside out and making a new dress out of an old one.” Edoardo is a fine carpenter; he works passionately, filling the house with furniture he has made with his own hands. But he doesn’t have much business sense and the family’s finances are precarious. “Don’t forget that your father is an artist,” Tosca reminds her daughters. From a very young age, Oriana is drawn to one particular object, a relic of another age. It is a carved trousseau chest with lions’ feet and iron latches. Everyone calls it “Ildebranda’s trunk,” after an ancestor who, it is said, was burned at the stake as a heretic. Oriana stares at it for hours, making up stories about her. Whenever someone opens it, she eagerly digs through its contents. It contains the family keepsakes, all piled together: a spelling book and an abacus, a French medical textbook, a stringless lute, a clay pipe, a pincenez, a Catalan passport, a mended Italian flag, an ancient coin, the last letter written by a Napoleonic soldier before freezing to death in Russia. Each object inspires endless questions. When her grandparents are in the mood, she is able to elicit bits and pieces of information, rich with promise: Montserrat played the lute, even after she was confined to the madhouse . . . Caterina used to treat the whole county with the help of Dr. Barbette’s medical tome . . . Giobatt a came back from the war with his face disfigured by a cannon shot. The trunk is destroyed, along with the rest of the house, during a bombing raid in 1944. Oriana will pine for it the rest of her days. Later, she will ask her father to build an exact replica, which she keeps in her apartment in New York. A few letters, written in Curtatone and Montanara by an ancestor who volunteered in the First War of Independence, will be saved because Oriana has copied them out in a school workbook. Even at a young age, she knows that every object tells a story, if you know how to listen.