In 1978 a group known as the Red Brigades kidnapped and murdered former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. It was the tail end of a time known as “The Years of Lead” in Italy, when numerous left wing and right wing paramilitary groups wrecked havoc across the country with a series of bank robberies, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. This is the period that this novel is set - and during the time of Aldo Moro’s kidnapping in particular.
But this novel is different from the others that had been written about this time period. Whereas other novels focused on the lives these incidents had disrupted - and most of them with an overt political bent - “Time On My Hands” offers a unique look at political terror and the inevitable escalation of violence through the eyes of a group of 11 year old children.
Set in Palermo, far from where these incidents had occurred, three 11 year old boys are following the news with intense interest. To them, the Red Brigades are heroes and one day they decide they are going to emulate their heroes and form their own terrorist cell - striking out against what they see as “oppression” on their own level. What first begins as a game - a fantasy play, of sorts, complete with their own communiqués, mild forms of vandalism, the adoption of code names (Comrades Nimbus, Radius and Flight) and secret language - made up of absurd body movements and gestures. It all starts off “innocently” enough - by stealing objects from their middle school and setting it ablaze in an abandoned lot. Their next act escalates to setting a fire in the school’s gymnasium, then the hanging of symbolic effigies representing authority figures at their school, complete with a pinned communiqué declaring their intentions. This gains them attention in the press, who believe that the real Red Brigades have perhaps infiltrated Palermo, making the local residents nervous that the violence taking place up north has finally reached their own streets.
Urged on by this attention, things escalate even further and soon they decide to identify new “targets”, this time the principal of the school. They develop their own surveillance strategies, further emulating their heroes. Flight is the “ideological leader” of the group and it is he, more than the other two boys, who push this escalation. What started off as a “harmless” game, primarily made up of what in essence was schoolboy pranks, soon becomes serious acts of vandalism and violence. Once they set ablaze their principal’s car (via blowing it up by setting the gas tank alight) and wind up injuring innocent passersby, they have crossed a line that there was no turning back from.
Their next plan was to emulate a kidnapping, just like their heroes did with Aldo Moro. Only in their 11 year old minds, their next “target” would be a shy, loner classmate, a “weird” kid who seemingly had no friends. They build a makeshift “cage” in a disused basement of an apartment complex and set about kidnapping their classmate, complete with a Polaroid of him holding the day’s newspaper, just like their heroes had done with Aldo Moro. To them, this is all a harmless game and to the reader, you sense that this is all it is in their minds, that is until something goes horribly wrong. When Radius decides that their next “target” would be a young girl from the school that Nimbus likes, Nimbus has to decide how far he is willing to go.
Nimbus is the narrator of the story - and it is told as an adult looking back on these years. Nimbus is the most innocent of the three boys. When does a game stop becoming a game?
This is a political fable of sorts, showing the progression of ideology from symbolic acts to where it starts to effect and harm real people. It is how ideology can grip the mind, dehumanize “the other”, where violence and death become a mere “consequence” of an agenda. Nimbus’s interest in bees is an interesting metaphor here. On his sojourns around the city he often studies the behavior of bees in their hives and their behavior aptly symbolizes those who take certain political ideologies to their logical conclusions. The individual means nothing. It’s all for the benefit of the group, even if that means the sacrifice of the self to the “cause”. It is a dark and very disturbing story about how people fail to communicate themselves to one another and how humanity is often overlooked in the realm of political ideology.
Giorgio Vasta’s writing is truly unique as well and is a definite new voice in Italian fiction. I highly recommend this book, especially to those who have an interest in this period in Italian history. It’s a unique look at a topic that has been written about often by Italian authors however I would caution that you will be disturbed by this. It’s not an easy read.