Every text is wiser than its author, who is not always the one best
qualified to speak of it, let alone interpret it. Perhaps he can only
tell how and why it came about.
The first, vague notion came to me in 1988. I was in Antwerp to launch a translation of Danube, and had seen some ship’s figureheads, female figureheads. I was struck by their open, dilated gaze, directed at the beyond as if perceiving calamities invisible to others. At that moment, in that Flemish square, the idea came to me to write something about those figureheads, even though I was uncertain as to what I wanted from them. I followed various lines of research: I went to the Scilly Isles, where for centuries the sea had carried those figures to the shore from shipwrecks; I collected stories, legends, and so on. I am, in general, obsessed with exactitude, because I consider that reality, human reality in particular, is more original than invention. Life is original, said Svevo, and Mark Twain: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I believe also that every existence deserves the same respect as the great ones of history receive, and also the same philology (a word that etymologically contains love). This exactitude, which is born of love and respect for reality, the imaginative allure of its creations and an ethical sense of respect for whomsoever, also becomes, on the imaginative plane, a grotesque, maniacal dilation which contributes to the meaning of the world’s delirium. When I write a book it is as if I were making a mosaic; each individual tessera corresponds to a piece of objective reality, to a real existence or a real story, but the figure these tesserae compose is totally imaginary.
I had begun to write a book on the figureheads—unsuccessfully, but it nevertheless served me as a quarry of material to be reworked in the novel. There the figurehead becomes an ambiguous symbol: a female figure set on the storm-ridden prow, as if to be the first to receive the buffets of life and history; an image of femininity outraged and culpably ruined by the protagonist in my novel; the face (faces) of his love story, passionate but at the same time guilt-ridden.
But far more pervasive was my years-old interest in the incredible story of Goli Otok, Bald Island. Soon after the Second World War, when the moment of revenge had arrived for what Fascist Italy had inflicted upon the Slav peoples, some three hundred thousand Italians, having lost everything, left Istria and Fiume, Rjieka—by then part of Yugoslavia—for Italy, the West. At the same time, from Monfalcone, a small town near Trieste, two thousand Italian workers—militant communists, many of whom had experienced the Fascist jails, the lagers, and the Spanish Civil War—voluntarily left Italy for Yugoslavia, there to contribute, inspired by their faith in it, to the construction of communism in the nearest communist country: two intersecting counter-exoduses. But in 1948 Tito broke with Stalin, whereby these revolutionaries became, in Tito’s eyes, potentially dangerous Stalinist agents, while they regarded him as a traitor. They were deported to the beautiful, terrible islets of the Upper Adriatic, Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur (St. Gregory), where they were subjected, as in the gulags and the lagers, to every kind of persecution. This they heroically and foolishly resisted in the name of Stalin, who was for them the symbol of justice.