The Knife of Teodoro Zuccarelli
My Italian relatives hate to read. I wanted to know why.
There is one book in the Harvard Libraries dedicated to Mongrassano, my mother’s hometown, a poor, medieval crag in southern Italy, with a population of barely 1,600. The title of the book is Mongrassano nella Storia, by Angelo Argondizzo. I recognized the author’s last name; it is the same as my uncle Tony’s wife, Maria Teresa. Looking at the author’s fuzzy black-and-white photo on the back of the book, I could see the family resemblance.
The book is filled with proudly written facts about Mongrassano: everything from the town’s geology, flora and fauna, to its best-known songs and expressions. Seeing the stamp of Harvard, with its “veritas” in the little magenta volume, and going to the reading room to collect it from the archives, thrilled me.
My uncle flipped through a few pages, and handed it back to me. “Beh,” he said, and leaned over, his hand on my shoulder, his mustache nearly touching my ear. “If I were you, I wouldn’t believe too much of what you read in that,” he said.
Mongrassano, like much of the region of Calabria, was always a wild, remote place. Even today, there are ways in which the modern world has not touched it. There are few stores, no restaurants or hotels, and one tabacchi, where sun-faded boxes of pencils and paper clips sit in the window with twenty years of dust on them. There are houses in town that still have no running water, and women wear the traditional dress of the Albanian refugees who founded the town six hundred years before. Their dialect, Arbëresh, is still spoken in the region, and the few street signs in town give directions both in it and Italian, consonant upon umlaut, reaching over Rome into ancient Europe.
My aunt Crair (born Elda Pia, she’d Americanized to Claire, then in her speech it became Italian again) tells a story about a local baroness, who lived near Mongrassano in a castle where my great-great-grandfather was steward.
The baroness was old and feeble, and known only by reputation in the towns that skirted her manor. Inside the castle ramparts lived also her six-year-old granddaughter, whose parents were dead.
In Mongrassano, like much, if not all, of Calabria, brigands and highwaymen reigned. And the Zuccarelli brothers and their hangers-on were the preeminent marauders about town.One of their hangers-on was my great-great-great uncle, the steward’s brother. He and the rest of Zuccarelli’s band of thieves decided to go up to the baroness’s castle and pilfer anything of value they could find.
“Our dear ancestor must have told them what was there and where to get it,” I said to my aunt, as she told the story.
“No!” said Crair. “He was a good man! He is your antenato! The others, the Zuccarelli brothers and the uncle, they were bad.”
“Come on,” I said. But Crair refused to speak ill of a direct ancestor.
The brothers Zuccarelli and our great uncle stole up to the castle under cloak of night. Armed with knowledge of the castle’s grounds gleaned from their own reconnaissance, they crept past portcullis, moat, mott, and bailey until they reached the baroness’s bed chamber.
“So how did everybody know where she kept her jewels, then?” I asked.
“Where else she gonna keep her jewels? She musta had the jewels on her dresser in a box. Ginù,” Crair said, calling me by the Calabrese diminutive of my name, “you grandfather was no brigante.”
They found the baroness asleep in her bed. Moonlight pushed through the window tracery to make patterns like lace on the stone slab floors. In the blue glow, one of the bandits made a move for her dresser, which, according to Crair, was nice like the kind they have at Roma Furniture in Long Island. She stirred, sat up in bed, and screamed.
One of the brothers, Antonio, drew his knife from his scabbard, and brought it down, heavily, upon her person.
The men heard the noise of metal on metal, more suited for a blacksmith’s forge than a baroness’s bedchamber.
“Che cazzo c’e?” the men asked themselves. The baroness screamed.
“What is making that sound?” Again and again, Antonio’s sword was rebuffed with a metallic ding and an old lady’s cry.
“She wore a chastity belt,” Crair explained.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Who knows this story? Io o te?”
“I believe you when you tell me there was a baroness,” I said, pointing my pen at my aunt. “And a castle. That, knowing what I do about Mongrassano, is perfectly plausible. And I, with your same sense of filial piety, am willing to believe that our grandfather gave these guys no tips on how to reach the baroness’s treasure. But, as much as I want to believe it, I cannot possibly suspend my disbelief enough to think that the baroness was wearing a chastity belt.”
Crair waved at me dismissively. “I was there.”
“You were not there!”
“I heard the story a long time ago, and I heard the story many many time. That is what she wore.”
My mother also balked. “Tell me chastity belt, in Calabrese,” she said to Crair.
“Corazza,” Crair said. “That means chastity belt! I saw a show on TV.”
“What show were you watching where you saw a chastity belt?” I asked.
My mother clapped her hands. “I think you mean armor.”
“What is it, armor?” Crair asked.
“Corazza,” my mother said, and explained to Crair in Calabrese just how soldiers in the Crusades, not to mention old women in Calabria a century ago, wore clothes made from metal to protect them from infidels, marauders, and their steward’s good-for-nothing brothers.
“Va bene,” Crair conceded. “I make a mistake. Comunque,” she continued.
The baroness, her fortifications—both structural and physical—compromised, continued to scream. She screamed for the guards; she screamed for her steward, who was not there but at home, in Mongrassano. Finally, Teodoro Zuccarelli, the lead brigand, drew his mighty sword, the one he used only for special occasions and in emergencies. But it was worn and rusted with disuse, and with one strike broke off at the hilt.
“Il coltello di Teodoro Zuccarelli mai ha fatto fico!”
“The knife of Teodoro Zuccarelli has never gone limp before?” I repeated.
“You know,” Crair said with a flick of her finger. “Limp.”
“Thanks. I get it.”
With that pronouncement, Teodoro and the banditi fled the castle and dispersed into the countryside.
“Did they manage to steal anything?”
“I guess so. They also killed the baroness.”
I respected my aunt’s storytelling skills, admired the way she withheld important details to great effect. “Now is where I tell you how I know you grandfather did no help them with their crime.”
What the brigands did not realize while they pulled off their heist was that the baroness’s little granddaughter was there, hiding under the bedclothes during the attack. After her grandmother was killed she, now alone in the world, went to the law, and repeated for them the now-famous line: “Il coltello di Teodoro Zuccarelli mai ha fatto fico.”
That meager authority heard the name, found my great-great grandfather in the piazza, and questioned him vigorously.
“But he know nothing,” Crair said.
If he really had known something, I suppose, he would not have been smoking a languid cigarette under the palms while the police were out thrusting through the underbrush in search of thieves. When he professed his ignorance of the crime, the tale of which was now jumping through the mountains like fire, the police took out their whip.
“How old are you?” they asked him.
“33,” Crair said.
“33,” I repeated. “It had to be 33.”
They whipped him 33 times, in the middle of the square, and he died.
Who needs books from Widener Library?
In the plays of Luigi Pirandello, he conveys that, especially in southern Italy, life itself is spectacle. Don DeLillo says, about Italian-Americans, that which they observe from their front stoops is all that they will ever need to know. Most members of my family, especially that first generation, do not look to books for guidance. My grandmother, although Catholic, did not even own a Bible. Even I, who adored that book on Mongrassano, did not read it from cover to cover. I skimmed.
Nowadays, bookstore shelves are filled with escapist fare written by daughters of the old country: olive orchard imagery,always lush; black-clad nonne, swarthy suitors, romantic ruins. Part of me sees those paperbacks and thinks, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Mostly, I think back to Gay Talese, who, as he embarked on a career as a writer in the 1960s, remarked that he “was conscious of the fact that among the nation’s most famous novelists and dramatists, there was a conspicuous absence of Americans with Italian surnames.”
“Too many Italian-Americans,” he wrote, “…are nonreaders, and thus fail to form a book-buying market that publishers cater to. Even those Italian-Americans whose parents were born in the United States grew up most often in homes without books.”
I didn’t grow up in a home completely without books, but it was close. My father, college-educated, not from the old country itself but from the old neighborhood in Brooklyn, chose to work in his father’s accounting business rather than a large New York firm because he was intimidated “by all the reading.” My mother, who came with her parents to New York at age five, still has school-related nightmares. My grandparents, who lived with us in a two-family house, didn’t speak English. My grandmother didn’t read anything but the shopping lists she scrawled, and my grandfather only took out his thick, black-rimmed reading glasses to read Il Progresso, mainly the section on soccer, his lips moving as he went.
I, though, do look to books for understanding. Before I was born, my family moved to the suburbs of Long Island, away from the stoop culture of New York where English was barely heard. The steps in front of our house, on a quiet suburban street, became our vantage point for viewing the world. On summer evenings, my grandmother sat out on the steps in a lawn chair, and I sat a step below her with a book. We would watch the town fireworks from there in the summer. “Who needs to go down there to the park with all those people?” my mother would say, eating a peach, legs outstretched. “Who’s better to be with than us?”
Only one of the four brigands was caught and sent to prison. The other three escaped to Sicily. Teodoro Zuccarelli, he of the knife like a limp dick, was tossed into a jail in Cosenza, the provincial capital. He slept on a rotting plank balanced over the uneven floor, which kept his body from direct contact with the dank water that ran across the ground. He remained in a room with no light, and no noise other than the sound of dripping water, for forty years.
Until one day, a ball and chain around his ankle, his clothes so torn they were no longer clothes, he was visited by a queen: according to Crair, it was the wife of the father of Vittorio Emmanuele II. Maria Teresa of Tuscany, Duchess of Savoy and Queen of Sardinia, who ascended to the throne in 1831. I looked it up.
She walked the sagging boards, disgusted at the deplorable conditions. Pity moved her to speech, and she asked why she should pardon them for their crimes.
“She only was gonna pardon one,” Crair said.
When she came to Teodoro Zuccarelli of Mongrassano, he got upon his knees. “Your Majesty, you have no reason to pardon me. I am guilty of my crime. I have no family of my own. Please, choose someone more deserving.” The Queen was touched by his honesty. She set him free.
“Now,” my mother interrupted, “you are embellishing. You keep forgetting that I’ve heard this story before too. Jean,” my mother turned to me. “She pardoned everyone.”
When he left jail, Teodoro took but one thing with him. His rough, rust-crusted ball and chain had, over the years, worn through his ankle.
“His foot fell off?” I repeated.
“Yes, yes,” Crair said.
“I am going to say this one more time. The iron wore through his skin and bone and took his foot off.”
“I told you, yes,” Crair said.
I looked at my mother. She laughed. “That’s what she says. Take it as Bible.”
His blackened foot his only possession, he took a room in an old house on via Skanderbeg. The house was narrow, and shaped like a wedge, with two cobbled lanes running down both sides. These led to the groves where my grandmother would have harvested chestnuts, and the dirt track to Serra di Leo, a tiny town within the tiny town of Mongrassano, where she was born.
“After my mother left Serra di Leo and got married,” Crair said, “she moved into that house where Teodoro Zuccarelli lived. That is the house where cumare Marianna live now.”
Teodoro took his foot, unrecognizable now, and hung it on the wall over his bed, in the position where many people hang a crucifix. A crucifix eventually did hang there, Crair told me.
“That crucifix was your grandmother’s. She got dressed in that room on her wedding day. You uncle Tony was born in that room. You cousin Maria was born in that room. I was born in that room,” Crair said.
“You were born in a room with an old foot fossil hanging on the wall?”
“You think they just leave the foot there, after he die? Come on,” Crair said.
“So what happened to the foot, then? Did they bury it with Teodoro?”
“I dunno,” Crair said. “They probably just threw it out. Or they burn it, or something.”
When I showed the library book on Mongrassano to Crair, she tossed it back onto her kitchen table, with the same dismissive air as her brother. “What are you gonna learn from that book,” she said, “that you can no learn from me?”
In Underworld, DeLillo writes about the Bronx: “The Italians. They sat on the stoop with paper fans and orangeades. They made their world. They said, Who’s better than me?”
In Mongrassano, and across southern Italy, life in the moment was most important: food on the table, the weather in the dry Crati valley. People there, in the unstable region, did what they had to do to survive. My grandfather had to go into the Army, to Spain and Ethiopia, to feed his family. My grandmother had to marry him, had to have children, had to pick chestnuts in the groves. They had to immigrate to America because disease, war, and poverty made it almost impossible for them to thrive in Calabria.
The kind of knowledge derived from books and literature, I realized, presents a reader with a level of precision and detail unnecessary to life in a remote town, precision that served only to place unnecessary constraints and parameters on the stories that people there seek to tell. In a place like Mongrassano, who really needs to know in what exact year an event occurred? How would that knowledge change the effects of the event? My grandmother, I remembered, was unsure whether she was born in 1912 or 1913, on the 12th or 13th of July.
It was only when my grandparents, with my young mother and aunts in tow, had to show up at a pier in Naples at a precise time to catch a boat to America, that dates and facts became important. From that point on, life came down to the numbers. My grandmother chose a birthday and stuck with it. She had to write it on a piece of paper. She knew there would be questions, questions that could threaten her family’s life in their new land, and for the first time she would have to have a real answer.
“A hundred? A hundred and fifty years? It no matter,” Crair said, about how long ago Teodoro Zuccarelli lost his foot. And it did not matter, to her. But I wanted to know; I wanted to find some frame of reference, balance against historical events I knew to be true, from books.
The tangle of fifteenth-century stone or plaster houses that make up Mongrassano has been half-heartedly renovated over and over again. Falling from the town at the top down the mountainside are small plots of land used for kitchen gardens, and beyond them olive groves, chestnut trees, the fruits of which were walked to market over the mountain in San Marco Argentano. Once, peddlers roved the lanes, and feast days provided sporadic color. Farming was mainly subsistence, and feudalism, though long extinct in the rest of Europe since the close of the Middle Ages, was still in effect in some limping, half-hearted form until the nineteenth century.
“And it still is,” my mother once said, “the way my sister-in-law’s family”—the ones who wrote the magenta book—“struts around like they own the place.”
As best I could, I have written down the stories of that town. I have searched books and the internet for information about it. Over four years, my notebook has expanded, and with paper clips and ink I trapped every forlorn scrap of knowledge and impression I have of Mongrassano.
In November 2004, a five-alarm blaze threatened to ravage our old, wooden house in Cambridge, Mass., and my husband and I were evacuated. “Go in and take one thing. Quickly,” a fireman said. While my husband doused autumn leaves in the yard I ran in and I took my wedding photographs, and the notebook.
When I told Crair that, according to my research, the story of Teodoro must have taken place around the revolutions of 1848, she was unimpressed. As for the notebook? She would have let it burn.
No one in my family, I realized, would ever accept this book, or any book, as an authority on a subject on which he or she considered him or herself to be the true authority. My Uncle Tony not only told me to ignore the book on Mongrassano I had found, but also (in-law drama aside) not to trust it. And why should he? Why should anyone? What did books, which were largely unavailable anyway, do except to make people in Mongrassano want things or lives they couldn’t have? With our own eyes and ears, they figured, we could do just fine, understanding the world as it is presented to us.
As a result of my grandparents’ immigration, books now matter to me. They symbolize the luxury that I now have, here, in America: to revel in the details. One generation, one shift of continent, and the thing most worth saving becomes not the wheel of cheese, the figure of a saint, or the clipping of a fig tree from the garden, but a notebook about them.
I held onto that magenta book on Mongrassano from the Harvard library for a long time, with its fuzzy pictures and folk tales, its brief mentions of the brigands and their capers. I received several overdue notices from Harvard. I thought, no one would ever miss it, or look for it but me. What would it matter?
But, eventually, I gave it back. I’m not, despite my heritage, a thief.