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A fable for wartime, for our time

Without Blood: A Novel; Alessandro Baricco; Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein; Alfred A. Knopf: 102 pp., $18

June 20, 2004|Jane Ciabattari | Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire," a contributing editor to Parade magazine and will be distinguished writer in residence at Knox College this fall.

Alessandro BARICCO, the Italian novelist, dazzled an international audience in 1997 with "Silk," the spare poetic tale of a Frenchman's obsessive love for a Japanese concubine in the 1860s. His next effort, "City" (2002), was a sprawling, surreal take on the American experience, with plot threads leading in all directions. Now, with his fifth novel, Baricco is writing again in silken mode, in terse, intense bursts about a darker, no less obsessive relationship. This time his theme is vengeance.

"Without Blood" is set in an unnamed country, possibly Spain, at the end of a civil war in which men killed their countrymen, violated their women, wiped out their children and destroyed their villages. Four years of war are over, but emotions have not cooled. There are still scores to be settled. Among them is a vendetta three men have against Manuel Roca, a doctor who ran a hospital during the war and earned the nickname "the Hyena."

When the men arrive at his farmhouse, Roca knows they have come for him and why. He hides his young daughter, Nina, in a crawl space under the kitchen floor and sends his son to the barn with a gun. Then it begins. "Gunfire fanned the house, back and forth like a pendulum, as if it would never end, back and forth like the beam of a lighthouse over a coal-black sea, patiently."

Baricco is masterful at describing the brutal, violent confrontation that comprises the first half of the book. His omniscient narration has the unflinching intensity of a Goya painting. He sketches the motives behind this attack with precision.

Tito, the youngest of the three assassins, is only 20 but already seasoned. One day some men had knocked on the door of his house and said they had a message for him. They handed him a canvas sack. Inside were the eyes of his father. Take care which side you stand on, kid, they warned him.

When El Gurre, another assassin, kicks open the door of Roca's house, he has a flash of memory: "Three years earlier, he had kicked open the door of the stable, had entered and had seen his wife hanging from the ceiling, and his two daughters with their heads shaved, their thighs spattered with blood."

The third assassin, Salinas, blames Roca for the death of his brother, who was so brutalized in the Hyena's hospital that he lost the will to live. When Salinas came to liberate him from the hospital, he begged Salinas to kill him. "Look at me, Roca ... " Salinas says. "In the whole war I fired twice, the first time it was night, and at no one, the second time at close range, and it was my brother."

"I did what they told me to," Roca shouts. It is a statement that reverberates through the centuries. His fate is sealed. Salinas shoots him in the knee, kills his son and then, while Roca howls in anguish, directs El Gurre to kill him. "El Gurre fired. A short burst. Dry. The last of his war."

Nina hears it all as if in a dream. She imagines the silence means that her father will come to get her now and they will have supper. "She thought that they would not speak again of that night, and that soon they would forget about it: she thought this because she was a child and couldn't know."

Salinas remembers that Roca had a daughter. The three men search for her. Tito discovers the trapdoor and sees Nina lying there, knees folded, hands between the legs, feet balanced one on top of the other. Tito perceives her posture as lovely, orderly, complete, exact. This primal encounter will send out ripples and haunt both of them for the rest of their lives. Tito keeps Nina's secret. As the farmhouse goes up in flames, the assassins stand outside, "three madmen, abandoned on a dark stage." Curtain down. End of war? Not at all.

Nina is saved, by a passing man who becomes her surrogate father. From then on, she carries an image of the men who killed her father and of the boy who left her safe, composed, in her hiding place. His image becomes her obsession.

The simplicity of Baricco's language, in a crisp, clear translation by Ann Goldstein, and his portrait of Roca's deserted farmhouse in barren soil soaked with blood, bring to mind Hemingway's 1939 essay "On the American Dead in Spain": "The dead sleep cold in Spain tonight. Snow blows through the olive groves, sifting against the tree roots."

In the second half of this spare novel, more than half a century later, Nina has tracked down Tito, the only remaining assassin living. Salinas was found dead in his bed a mere two years after her father was killed. The rumor was that he had been poisoned slowly for months, with the help of a pharmacist who had worked with Roca at the hospital. Four years later, El Gurre was found with a bullet in his back. In his pocket is a slip of paper with Nina's name on it, in his own handwriting.

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