Crime Fiction Excerpt: Black Souls by Gioacchino Criaco (Italy)

Three normal students. Or so we seemed.

At school, as with everything in life, Luigi was a tagalong; I got by, sticking somewhere in the middle; and Luciano was the classic brainiac, with no topic he hadn’t explored or book he hadn’t read.

Three good boys, and not because we pretended to be; we had always been good, polite, never arrogant. But our world, on the other hand, began and ended with the three of us: we had been born and raised in the same wrinkle of humanity, a neighborhood block of sixteen families, about eighty souls, known as the Aurora because of the street that cut through its middle. We had stuck together through preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, and so it would be in the future, we had sworn it. Nothing would ever divide us.

In high school they snubbed us for months, for years. Why did these shepherds’ children bother studying past middle school? That’s what everyone thought. In the end, even our classmates accepted us, because with time, people can get used to anything.

But we didn’t think like them, children of professionals or the middle class. Our breakfasts, bus passes, books, clothes, entertainment, schooling, we paid for it all ourselves. We could have ended up slaving away for a pittance in some mechanic’s workshop, or a barbershop, or under a master
mason or, worst case, a shepherd.

We’d had a plan for ourselves since childhood. We had other ambitions.

Everyone knew there was an old gunsmith in the city whose only requirement was cash. We put together some cash with a few petty thefts, burgling people’s homes or little shops, and arrived at Cavalier Attilio Fera, the gunsmith in question, with seven hundred thousand lire. We left with a legendary Colt Cobra 38-caliber Special and an equally mythical Beretta
7.65-caliber, model 70 with an automatic ejector.

So our quest for money began, along with the realization of our dreams.

The only thing at which Luigi excelled over everyone else was driving; we soon learned to hotwire cars, so we always had one somewhere, stashed in an alley or behind a bush. At least once a month we’d leave our three school desks empty to familiarize ourselves with places like post offices in the suburbs, small banks in the countryside, municipal treasuries, and goldsmiths.

We had more clothes now, and mixed up what we wore from day to day, dressing like the others or better, while at home the whole family’s diet improved and I got a bed all to myself.

When I brought money home for the first time, my mother wept the whole day as if she were in mourning; my father bowed his head, didn’t speak for a week, and eventually took to keeping swine.

In those years, in addition to the infamous kidnappings, there were the lesser-known detentions of small-scale landowners that lasted a few days or a month at most, and which offered very little profit in proportion to their risks. But for those who had nothing, a few million lire was a lot, or everything.

My father started going out to bars in the evening, something he’d never done before. After a while, random friends of his would stop by our goat pasture. Strange people. Men who spoke a language all their own, ancient, mysterious, and incomprehensible, making mention of skilled, capable,
talented people.

An unknown world suddenly opened up to me, a world of good-natured caresses and wet kisses, a deadly embrace. A world that, later on, would make me want to vomit at the mere thought of it.

At first I didn’t notice the dark side. We fell in love with these people, my father and I. Only Luciano knew better; he couldn’t stand them. He tried to warn us about how petty they were, how deceitful. But in the end he followed my lead, as he always did.

Those guys, as Luciano called them, were a constant presence in our lives and our fold for years. Copious eating and drinking at our expense became a regular event.

Three or four times they brought us hostages to guard, which they would send for when they were to be freed; our poor new friends had so many people to provide for—sad widows, jailed conspirators, fugitives—there was never much profit left over to share with us. So they’d leave us a few million lire and promise the next time would be better.

Then we’d recommence the grand feasts, we’d embrace and kiss and pledge our eternal friendship and mutual assistance, and we’d make even more deals together. We spent our every profit on festivities, on obligations, because the godfathers had to make their rounds, presenting themselves
at one wedding after the next with bulging envelopes.

With those guys around, people began to stay in the fold, people whom we referred to as shadows, wanted men, fuiùti, the vanished, the fugitives; there was always someone to look after. Generally, they were good boys of a certain innocence that the godfathers, those guys, had managed to get caught up in trouble, poor souls who had only been trying to leave their dark, stuffy houses to clear their heads in the mountains.

Unable to stand the hardship and the solitude, they never lasted long. Many of them ended up in jail, dragged out from behind the cabinets in their village homes; others took refuge in large cities in the North or abroad, and many others were found lying in a ditch.

Most of the shadows that passed through the fold forgot about us shepherds, but some retained a deep affection for us, and of these the more fortunate would send something our way.

Among the shadows who had not forgotten us was Stefano Bennaco, a jocular thirty-year-old kid who had been saddled with a life sentence for a kidnapping gone wrong. He eventually found refuge in the Basque Country; he also loved the mountains, and of our transient guests, he was the one who went on to do the best for himself. Through his cousin he would send us anything that could be of use in the woods: backpacks, tents, camouflage, boots, fishing rods, bows, field lamps, camping cots. We had to build a small shed to contain all the gear.

There were two ways men became shadows: either because there were pending matters with the law or because of a problem to be settled with other private parties. If blood was then spilled, the shadow became either a “black soul” or a tingiùto, blacklisted, depending on whether they were
expected to emerge from the conflict as victors, in the first case, or as victims.

Excerpt published with permission from the publisher.

Black Souls
Gioacchino Criaco
Translated from the Italian by Hillary Gulley
2020, Soho Crime

Gioacchino Criaco was born in Africo, a small town on the Ionian coast of Calabria. The son of shepherds, he graduated from University of Bologna with a degree in law and practiced as a lawyer in Milan until 2008, when his debut novel, Anime Nere (Black Souls), was published to great international acclaim.

Hillary Gulley is a writer and translator from Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Raised in West Virginia, she also lived in Spain, Hungary, Cuba, and Italy before moving to New York City in 2007. In 2012, she was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her work on Marcelo Cohen’s The End of the Same. In addition to her full-time translation work, Hillary teaches composition, narrative, and poetry at CUNY—Queens College.

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