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Becalmed in the Antilles

You should have heard my Uncle Donald, who had sailed with Admiral Drake, when he started telling us one of his yarns.

'Uncle Donald, Uncle Donald!' we would shout in his ears when we caught the glint of an eye through his ever half-closed lids, 'tell us about that time you were becalmed in the Antilles!'

'What? Ah, becalmed, yes yes, truly becalmed . . .' he would begin in a feeble voice. 'We were sailing off the Antilles, advancing at a snail's pace, sea smooth as oil, all sails unfurled to catch any rare breath of wind. And all of a sudden we're only a cannon shot away from a Spanish galleon. The galleon was hove to, so we down sails as well and there, in the middle of that dead calm, we prepare to engage. We couldn't get past them, and they couldn't pass us. But the fact of the matter is that they had no intention of advancing: they were there on purpose so as not to let us pass. Whereas we, Drake's fleet, had sailed far and wide for no other purpose than to give no quarter to the Spanish fleet, to seize the Grand Armada's treasure from papist hands and deliver it into those of her Gracious Britannic Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. Still, with that galleon's cannons to deal with, our handful of culverins weren't enough to carry the day, so we were careful not to fire the first shot. Ah yes, m'boys, that was the position of the opposing forces, get it? Those damned Spanish had provisions of water, fruit from the Antilles, open supply lines back to their ports, they could stay there as long as they liked: but they were as careful not to start shooting as we were, because the way things were going that little war with the English suited His Catholic Majesty's admirals down to the ground, whereas if the situation were to alter, as a result of a naval battle, whether won or lost, then the whole balance of power would go up in smoke, inevitably there would be changes, and they didn't want any changes. So the days went by, still the wind wouldn't blow and still we were here and they were there, lying off the Antilles, becalmed . . .'

'And how did it end? Tell us, Uncle Donald!' we said, seeing the old seadog's chin already sinking on his chest as he nodded off again.

'What? Ah yes, becalmed! Weeks it went on. We could see them through our spyglasses, those mollycoddled papists, those make-believe mariners, under their tassled sunshades, handkerchiefs between scalp and wig to soak up the sweat, eating their pineapple icecreams. While we, the most able seamen of all the oceans, we whose destiny it was to conquer for Christendom all those lands that lived in darkness, we were stuck there with our hands in our pockets, fishing lines dangling over the bulwarks, chewing our tobacco. We'd been sailing the Atlantic for months, our supplies were down to the dregs and rotting too, every day the scurvy carried someone off, we dropped them into the sea in sacks while our boatswain muttered a couple of quick verses from the Bible. Over on the galleon, the enemy watched through their spyglasses, seeing every sack that plunged into the sea and making signs with their fingers as if busy counting our losses. We railed against them: they'd have to wait a long time indeed before they could count us all dead, we who had survived so many hurricanes, it would take a lot more than a becalmed sea off the Antilles to finish us off . . .'

'But how did you get out of it, Uncle Donald?'

'What's that you said? How get out of it? Well, that's what we were always asking ourselves, all the months we were becalmed there . . . Many of us, especially the eldest and the most thickly tattooed, they said that we had always been a sprint ship, good for rapid escapades, and they remembered the times when our culverins had thinned out the masts of the most powerful Spanish ships, punched holes in their bulwarks, jousted in brusque gybes . . . For sure, when it came to rapid seamanship we were strong indeed, but there had been wind then, the ship moved fast . . . Now, becalmed as we were, all this talk of gun-battles and grappling hooks was just a way of passing the time while we waited for God knows what; a rising south-westerly, a gale, even a typhoon . . . So our orders were that we shouldn't even think about it, and the captain explained that the real naval battle was this stopping still where we were, looking at each other, keeping ourselves ready, going over the plans of Her Britannic Majesty's great naval battles, and the sail-handling rule-book and the perfect helmsman's manual, and the culverin instruction book, because the rules of Admiral Drake's fleet were still and in every detail the rules of Admiral Drake's fleet: if ever they were to start changing those, God only knew where . . .'

'And then, Uncle Donald? Hey, Uncle Donald! How did you manage to get moving?'

'Hum . . . hum . . . where was I? Ah yes, woe betide us if we didn't keep to the strictest discipline and observation of the nautical rules. On other ships in Drake's fleet there had been official changes and even mutinies, rebellions: people were looking for another way to sail the seas, there were simple seamen, lookouts, and even cabin boys who had become self-styled experts and wanted to say their piece on navigation . . . Most of the officers and quartermasters felt that this was the biggest danger of all, so woe betide you if they got wind of any talk about a radical rewriting of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's naval rulebook. No, we had to go on cleaning up the mortars, washing down the deck, checking that the sails were shipshape, even though they hung limp in the windless air, and through the empty hours of those long days, the healthiest entertainments, as the officers saw it, were the inevitable tattoos on chest and arms glorifying our fleet that ruled the waves. And when we talked we ended up turning a blind eye on the ones who saw no other hope than a change in the weather, a hurricane perhaps that with a bit of luck would send everybody, friend and foe alike, straight to the bottom, and were tougher on to those who wanted to find a way to move the ship in its present situation . . . One day a topman, a certain Slim John, whether because the sun had gone to his head or what, I don't know, began to daydream over a coffeepot. If the steam lifted the lid of the coffeepot, said this Slim John, then our ship, if constructed like a coffeepot, would like-wise be able to move, and without sails . . . It was admittedly a somewhat incoherent line of thought, but perhaps if we had thought some more about it there was profit to be had there. But no: they chucked his coffeepot overboard and very nearly threw him out with it. These coffeepot fantasies, they said, were little better than papist ideas . . . coffee and coffeepots were Spanish truck, not ours . . . Well, I didn't understand a thing, but so long as those pots moved, with that scurvy that was still carrying people off . . .'

'And so, Uncle Donald,' we cried, eyes shining with impatience, taking him by the wrists and shaking him, 'we know you got away, we know you routed the Spanish galleon, but tell us how you did it, Uncle Donald!'

'Ah yes, it wasn't that everybody saw eye to eye in the galleon either, not by a long chalk! Watching them through your eyeglass you could see that they had their people who wanted to get moving too; some wanted to fire their cannons at us and others had decided that the only way out was to join us, since a victory of Elizabeth's fleet would have given a big boost to trade, which had been falling off for some time . . . But like us, they also had their officers, and the officers of the Spanish Armada didn't want anything to change, oh no. On that point the commanders on our ship and on the enemy ship, loathe each other as they might, were wholeheartedly agreed. So that with no sign of any breeze blowing up, they began to send each other messages, with flags, from one boat to the next, as if they wanted to start talks. Except they never went further than a: Good morning! Good evening! Marvellous weather, no! and so on . . .'

'Uncle Donald! Uncle Donald! Don't go back to sleep, please! Tell us how Drake's ship managed to get moving!'

'Hey, okay, I'm not deaf you know! You have to understand, no one realized how long we would be becalmed there, off the Antilles, for years even, with the haze and humidity, the sky leaden and lowering as if a hurricane were about to break any moment. We were streaming sweat, all naked, climbing in the rigging, looking for a bit of shade under the furled sails. Everything was so still that even those of us who were most impatient for change, for something to happen, were motionless too, one at the top of the foretopmast, another on the main jib aft, another again astride a spar, perched up there leafing through atlases and nautical maps . . .'

'So then what, Uncle Donald!' We threw ourselves on our knees at his feet, begging him, hands together in supplication, then we shook his shoulders, yelling.

'Tell us how it ended, for God's sake! We can't wait to find out! Go on with your story, Uncle Donald!'

Note 1979

I have re-read 'Becalmed in the Antilles'. Perhaps this is the first time I've read the story since I wrote it. It doesn't seem dated, not only because it works as a story in its own right, quite apart from the political allegory, but also because the paradoxical contrast between bitter struggle and enforced immobility is a common condition, both in political-military and epic-narrative terms, at least as old as the Iliad, so that it seems only natural to refer it to one's own experience of history. As an allegory of Italian politics, when one thinks that twenty-two years have gone by and the two galleons are still there facing each other, the image becomes even more distressing. Of course these twenty-two years have been anything but becalmed as far as Italian society is concerned, on the contrary it has changed more than in the hundred years before. And the time we live in could hardly be described as 'a dead calm'. So in that sense one can't really claim that the metaphor corresponds to the situation; but -- slowly does it -- even twenty-two years ago one had to bend the words a little to talk of being becalmed: they were years of acute social tension, of dangerous conflicts, of discrimination, of collective and individual drama. The word 'becalmed' has a certain good-natured calm to it that has nothing in common with the climate as it was then, nor with the situation today; but what it also expresses is that heavy atmosphere of dead calm weather at sea, so threatening and unnerving for sailing ships, as depicted in the novels of Conrad and Melville, from which of course my story takes its cue. Thus the success my metaphor enjoyed in Italian political journalism can be explained by the fact that it says something more than any political jargon word, as for example 'immo-bilism'. It is the impasse in a scenario of conflict, of irreconcilable antagonism, and then corresponding to that an immobility within the two camps engaged: the innate immobility of the 'Spanish' since immobility suits their ends and aims; while in the 'pirate' camp we have the contradiction between the vocation for the 'rapid war' with its relative ideology ('the rules of Admiral Drake's fleet') and a situation where recourse to cannonfire and grappling hooks is not only impossible but would be counterproductive, suicidal even . . . I didn't offer any solutions in my story -- just as I wouldn't be able to offer any now -- I just mapped out a sort of catalogue of possible responses. There were the two opposing command structures, united in their desire to perpetuate the situation with the minimum amount of change (for opposite but far from unfounded reasons) first and foremost within their respective ships and then in the balance of forces outside the ships. (In this regard one can hardly deny that there have been changes, mainly in the Communist Party and on the left in general, but also amongst the Christian Democrats if only as a result of exhaustion.) Then there were the supporters, on both sides, of direct conflict, people whose policies had more to do with temperament than strategy; and the supporters, on both sides, of dialogue. (The development of these two poles corresponds to what has actually happened, the conflicting policies of achieving broad understandings and of applying revolutionary pressure each giving the illusion of activity while hardly changing the situation at all.) There is also the apocalyptic point of view ('a hurricane perhaps that with a bit of luck would send everybody to the bottom'), an allusion to the discussions on the prospect of a nuclear war, which at the time divided the Soviets, who saw it as the end of civilization, and the Chinese, who tended to play down the risks. Likewise typical of the time the story was written is the reference to technological development, which people then hoped might offer a solution (there was a great deal of talk of 'automation' as of something that would radically alter the parameters of the problem). But the invention of the steam engine I evoked has perhaps remained at the level of the pirate who plays with his coffeepot.

A few 'historical' details: I am unable to establish the exact date of the story; I remember that there was a long delay in the publication of that issue of Città aperta, so the story must have been written some months before when I was still in the thick of internal discussions for the renewal of the Communist Party. Among the people engaged in this debate my story was immediately praised by the supporters of revisionism, whether on the right or the left: both 'revolutionaries' and 'reformers' felt it supported their points of view; though it has to be said that the two camps were not always clearly defined then. After the issue of Città aperta was published, the story then appeared in Espresso and hence reached a very wide audience. Avanti wrote an editorial about it. Later an extreme left-wing pamphlet, Azione comunista, published a parody of the story, tying it in to particular situations and people. Maurizio Ferrara then replied to this parody with another parody, likewise personal and polemical, which was published in Rinascita under the pseudonym 'Little Bald'. But in the meantime, in the summer of 1957, I had resigned from the Communist Party, and 'Becalmed' was seen as a sort of message to explain that decision, which wasn't the case since the story belonged to an earlier period.