Book Extracts
  • Holy Smoke by Tonino Benacquista
  • Holy Smoke |  Tonino Benacquista
Holy Smoke by Tonino Benacquista

“Are you coming over to eat on Sunday?”
“Can’t . . . I’ve got work to do.”
“Even on a Sunday . . .? Porca miseria!”
I don’t like it when he gets riled, the old patriarch.
But I like going there on a Sunday even less. It’s the
day when the suburbs pretend to come to life, when
everyone’s coming out of church and the bookmakers.
The two places I try to avoid, even if it means making a
detour, so that I don’t have to shake hands awkwardly
with people who knew me when I was little and who
want to know how I’m getting on now. The wops want
to know what’s become of everyone.
“I’ll try to come on Sunday . . .”
My father shakes his head to show that he couldn’t
care less. He’s due to head off on his cure soon; he’ll
be gone a good month, like every summer, to heal his
leg. He’d like me to come by before he leaves. Any
father would.
My mother says nothing, as usual. But I know I’ll
hardly get my foot through the door and she won’t be
able to stop herself, she’ll be telling me loudly, out in
the street:
“You must put the heating on if you get cold at
“Yes, Mama.”
“And don’t go out to restaurants too much in Paris.
And if you’ve got any dirty washing you must bring it
with you next time.”
“Yes, Mama.”
“And be careful in the Métro in the evenings.”
“Yes . . .”
“And, and . . .”
And, and I stop listening, I’m out of earshot. The
Pianetas’ dog is barking at me. I set off down the little
slope which heads towards the bus stop, the bus
towards the Métro, and the Métro towards home.
In Paris.
Further up, by the first bungalow in the street, I
hear a shrill sound which brings memories flooding
back more acutely than a smell washing over you
“Walking past like a stranger, are you, Antonio . . .”
I wouldn’t have been able to recognize him by smell,
he now gives off the delicate perfume of some classy
aftershave. It feels odd seeing him there, stiffer than
the lamppost he’s leaning against, the one we used to
try and knock down by throwing stones at it on Thursdays,
after catechism.
“Dario . . .?” I ask, as if hoping it’s someone else.
Despite the years he’s still got his angel-in-love good
looks. He’s even grown better looking. I would guess
he’s had those teeth replaced, the ones that were missing
by the time he was eighteen.
“Your mother said you came over to eat sometimes.”
We don’t shake hands. I can’t remember whether
his mother’s dead or not. Who could I ask him for
news of? Himself, I suppose. So, Dario? Still such a . . .
such a . . . wop? What else could I ask him . . .?
Out of the whole gang of kids that we were back
then, he – Dario Trengoni – was the only one who’d
seen the light of day back there, between Rome and
Naples. You couldn’t say as much for the Franchini
brothers, or the Cuzzo boy or even me. My parents had
conceived me as an Italian but in a different South –
the South of Paris. And thirty years later they still can’t
speak the language. Neither can Dario Trengoni, but
he wanted it that way. We tried to integrate him, our
Dario, into the community at Vitry-sur-Seine: school,
benefits, residence permit, social security, the lot. But
he refused to be properly integrated into France. He
chose to cultivate everything I wanted to get away
from, he managed to turn himself into this caricature
of a wop, this export-model vitellone that you can’t even
find back there any more. His old mother who’d
uprooted herself had acclimatized to our country of
asylum much better than him.
“In Paris, is that where you live?”
I don’t know what to say. I live in Paris, or in Paris I
live. Both are true.
Silence. I’m making so little effort that it’s almost
embarrassing. He’s behaving as if we’re sharing something
special, a special reunion.
“Do you remember Osvaldo?”
“Yeah . . . is he . . . is he married?”
“He went all American, over there in California, you
know . . . He came back here, I saw him, and he’s
poorer than you or me! He’s building himself a house,
here . . . He never did have big ideas . . .”
I’m beginning to wish I’d got away sooner. I can’t
leave just like that, he’s been waiting here a long time,
for sure. Us meeting on a street-corner like this isn’t
really a coincidence. In the old days he would sometimes
wait a whole morning for one of us to go out and
buy the bread, and we knew where we could find him if
we were more than usually bored. We used him as a
sort of spare friend if the others were busy or being
punished. Osvaldo, for example, the one who was
ashamed that his name was Osvaldo. And Dario likes
that, the fact that one of his old friends from the
ghetto can’t make his way out. As for me, I find it really
irritating that these old friends from the ghetto keep
such a close eye on one another.
Dario, it’s cold, I’m fed up with standing here, in the
wind, going over memories that I forgot as soon as I
could, so close to my bus, and that’s at least the sixth
one that’s gone past. Are you any better than Osvaldo
yourself? Do you still make people laugh with your
shirt unbuttoned to show your crucifix and your red
good luck charm? Have you found a way of paying for
the Cerruti threads and the Gucci shoes you always
dreamed of? Do you still get down on your knees so
readily when a girl goes past in the street? Do you still
sing the whole time? Do you still believe in your great
god Travolta?
Dario Trengoni gave up on his dreams of singing, I
gave up on the area where we all grew up, and then we
have to meet here, near the lamppost on which we
used to scratch out hearts with the initials of the girls
next door. French girls. Through the black paint you
could see the rust-resistant undercoat. A dirty red.
Dirty red hearts.
He serves up another anecdote, but I think he’s
inventing this one. Dario may not speak French well,
but you couldn’t say that he masters Italian any better.
At the time he used to talk in a strange sort of language
that only the local kids understood. The bulk of
the sentence was in Roman dialect, with a couple of
slang adjectives from the Communist suburbs of Paris,
Portuguese apostrophes and Arab commas nicked
from the inner city, a sprinkling of back-slang and a
few words of our own which we’d invented or poached
from the TV or comic strips. At the time I thought it
was like a secret code with overtones of mystery and
the occult. And I liked the fact that we could cut ourselves
off from everyone else right in the middle of the
school playground. Now all he has is the pure dialect
from home, hybridized with increasingly basic French.
The dialect he speaks is called Ciociaro, after a big
suburb of Rome. The one they speak in De Sica’s films.
I’ve forgotten all of it, I don’t speak the language any
more. I don’t like languages which lean so heavily on
When I think that our fathers travelled 900 miles,
from one suburb to another . . .
“Well, it’s nice to see you again, Dario . . . must get
back . . .”
“Ashpet’o! You can ashpetta a bit, why I have to speak
to you . . .”
In Italian they use the same word for why and
because. If Dario ever gets his grammar right, it’s
always in the wrong language.
“Why you, Anto’, you’ve done gli studi, and I haven’t
done gli studi, and you’ve been to university in Paris.
You’re intelligento . . .”
Not a good sign for me. If Dario Trengoni is keen to
tell me I’m intelligent, then he must think I’m thick.
What he calls university was in fact two painful years at
poly which snuck me onto the job market a bit sooner
than expected. But my mother boasted about it all
round the neighbourhood.
“Anto’, I need you to write me a nice letter, really
“Who to?”
“To Italy.”
“Do you still know someone there?”
“A paio d’amici.”
“You speak Italian better than I do, I’ve forgotten it,
and anyway, your mates speak in dialect, and you just
try writing in dialect, I tell you . . . Ask my father, he
could do it, and it’ll keep him busy. He’s bored, my old
man, he’d think it was fun.”
“Not possible. I respect lo Cesare, he’s happy. I
don’t want to give him something to think about, and
anyway . . . I’ve been waiting nine days for you to go
past here. Nine days. You’re the only person I can ask.
The irresistible ring of truth. It doesn’t fill me with
joy. I’m delighted to be the only person for someone,
but not for some bloke I never see any more. If he’s
been waiting nine days it could mean that I am this
rare creature. It could also mean that there’s no big
“What’s this letter got to say then?”
“I’ve got the paper and the envelope, we can buy a
stamp at the tabac. I can pay you by the hour if you
“What’s the letter got to say?”
“In mezzo alla strada?”
In the middle of the road? Yes, it’s true, we are actually
in the middle of the road, the road that goes to the
bus stop, but which does go past the tabac, and I will
never set foot in that tabac again in my life. I know that
Dario still goes there.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Not to my place, not al tabaccho, too many people.
I’ll take the bus with you, to Paris.”
“I’ll be back on Sunday.”
“Too late. We’re doing this letter right now – your
mother says sometimes she makes the tagliatelle and
you don’t come. So I know what we’ll do, we’ll go to
the casa ’l diavolo.”
A long time since I’ve heard that. To the house of
the devil. It’s the expression our mothers use when
they mean: to the devil, to the ends of the earth . . . But
the Italians have to put houses everywhere, even in
hell. A proper bit of wasteland, like you get round
here, a muddy, fallow field behind the boat factory. A
good little plot of jungle which acted, and still does, as
a cemetery for speedboat hulls. A delight for every
aspiring Tarzan and Captain Flint. Two cherry trees. A
lilac. A smell of resin lingering over the rubbish and
“I’ll get dirty,” I say, slipping under the fence.
Dario doesn’t hear, he’s making sure no one sees us
go in, but not like earlier, he’s no longer got a face like
a spy that you could spot a mile off.
I can’t make out whether anything’s changed. I’m
sure wastelands can’t be what they used to be. Dario
climbs into a twenty-six-foot hull and I follow him.
“You can lean on here.”
He takes out a pad of paper and a blue ballpoint pen.
Dario isn’t thinking how much resin went into
making this twenty-six-foot shell. He’s forgotten that
his father died after fifteen years of inhaling the fumes
from this shit, which trashes your lungs. My father
refused straight away, he was happier wrapping the
boats in straw casings. Maybe it reminded him of harvesting.
The unions have now made gas masks compulsory.
At the time they used to make the workers drink a
carton of milk a day. Old man Trengoni must have
drunk whole swimming pools of the stuff to ward off
the toxic fumes.
I’d forgotten about that.
Dario settles himself into a recess where we used to
imagine the helm and the radio. And I go to the side
that’s least overrun by moss. To starboard.
“Is it long, what you’ve got to say?”
“Quite, yes . . . Are you comfortable? At the top on
the left-hand side put . . . no . . . higher than that . . .
you’re leaving too much space, a bit less . . . there . . .
do it nicely . . . Dear Madame Raphaëlle, at the top,
with a nice big R.”
“In French?”
“But you said it was for a friend back there.”
“Nah, it’s for a woman, a woman who’s a friend,”
he said, looking like an embarrassed child, a real
For the time being I give up trying to understand.
Why bother, anyway? How could I refuse to write a
love letter for an illiterate? My father definitely
wouldn’t have been able to help him. If it really is a
love letter, then nine days must be too long. And it
even seems possible that I might be the one and only
person Dario knows who has some idea of where to
put those subtle dot, dot, dots in a love letter to a
French woman.
“Now, we’ve got to tell her that I don’t always tell la
bucia . . . la bucia . . .?”
“That’s it . . . Tell her that sometimes I tell the truth,
especially at the end. In the beginning, we didn’t meet
by chance. I knew that she sometimes went to the club
on her own. Go on, write . . . .
“You don’t realize what you’re asking me to do,
Dario. To write something without understanding,
without knowing what’s going on, none of it.”
“Go on, write . . . but write nicely, with a bit of . . . un
poco di cuore, andiamo, go on . . .”
I start scratching. The blue ink only just moistens
the tip of the pen.
“‘Dear Madame Raphaëlle, I have not always been a
liar. When we first met it was not by chance.’ Is that all
He scrutinizes every last upstroke as if afraid he’s
being betrayed. Traduttore traditore.
“Bene, bene, andiamo, don’t bother about the club.
Tell her thank you for the ticket and the money for
America, and for everything else.”
“Have you been to the States, then?”
He lowers his eyes towards the wheel on a trailer.
“Once, that’s all.”
“Did you work there?”
“Write it down!”
I recreate his sentence almost word for word, including
the vague bits, but my version seems to satisfy
“After that say that I’m going to pay back as much as
I can, if I have the time, that is.”
“Do you mean if you ‘find’ the time or if you’re
‘given’ the time?”
“Isn’t it the same?”
“Not really.”
“Well, say I’ll do it as quickly as possible, but maybe
the others’ll be quicker than me, put that . . . She’ll
understand a menta sua, in her own mind . . .”
A few crossings out.
“Don’t worry, I’ll copy it out afterwards . . .”
He can tell that I’m struggling. I’m really beginning
to see why I was the only one.
“Tell her that it’s not over. You have to believe in
miracoli and that lo miracolo . . . si svolgéra . . .”
The miracle will come to pass . . .
A song lyric. Ridiculous. He’s poached that from a
Gianni Morandi song, or something like that. I can
even remember the tune.
“It’s nearly finished, Anto’. Now you’ve got to do the
most important bit. Make it so she understands that la
mia strada è lunga, proprio lunga . . . and that she and I will
meet up a qualche parte della strada.”
Now there I had to think for a bit. And I put the lid
back on the pen. My road is long and we will find each
other somewhere along it . . . I refuse to write stuff like
that. There are limits. He’s come up with this metaphor
and he’s going to squeeze it out of the poor ballpoint
pen, but it’s like some terrible dirge from
“What do you mean exactly? Your ‘road’ is long . . .
Do you mean, I don’t know . . . the path of life or
something like that . . .?”
He stares at me warily.
“Ma sei pazzo . . .? You’re mad, Antonio! I’m talking
about the road, our road, the road you were born in,
the one back there, where your parents and my
mother live, the Rue Anselme-Rondenay in Vitry-sur-
Seine. That’s the one you’ve got to put in the letter!”
“Don’t get annoyed or I’ll stop. And why do you
want to say that it’s long, it’s clear you’ve never got
away from the place. Are you sure you’ve been to the
“Write what I said, our road, it’s practically the longest
road in the world . . . You’re the only one in the
neighbourhood who hasn’t grasped that, Anto’, that’s
why you left for Parigi. Go on, write it down . . .”
Mute, muddled, bewildered, I go ahead. The pen
can’t make up its mind to write the simplest sentence
ever to alight on a white page. What’s this Madame
Raphaëlle going to read into all this? Four little words I
don’t know how to go about saying.
And I try to convince myself that the message that all
the poets in the world have tried to convey in thou-
1sands of pages, over the centuries, that ultimate, despairing
wisdom . . . Well, it would take a moronic,
uneducated little wop to try and capture it in four
pathetic words.
My road is long.

* * *

I handed him the letter, and he copied it out, concentrating
like a little kid, really neatly, just the way he
wanted, having taken it from my hand without a thank
you. Then he sealed it in an envelope and wrote an
address on it, turning as far away from me as possible.
Right over to port.
“Go on, Anto’, go and get your bus. And don’t tell
anyone about this – swear on your mother’s head.”
I jumped, feet together, into the imaginary sea with
its flotsam of breeze blocks smothered in couch grass.
Dario waited till I was some way away before abandoning
“Have you done something stupid, Dario?”
From down below I could only see his hand, hanging
on to the rail.
“Tell me, have you done something stupid?”
I walked out of the jungle without waiting for the
answer he would never give me, and I made my way
back onto the Rue Anselme-Rondenay.
From the top of the rise I looked back down on it, I
got it in perspective. Seven hundred, maybe eight
hundred feet, top whack. About thirty neat little bungalows
made the Italian way, with endless patience and
bricks laid late into the night. I was born down that
road. Whether I like it or not, I can’t help being a part
of it.
I won’t come back on Sunday.
Dario Trengoni had better not ask me for anything
I’m going home.
To Paris. And the road is long.

  • Holy SmokeTonino Benacquista