All I ask is to finish my work

Fabrizio Coscia

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

When Pier Paolo Pasolini was killed, I was eight years old. I can still remember it being announced on the TV news, and the picture of the corpse, on the rough open ground, covered with a blood-stained sheet. At Ostia’s old seaplane base, the Idroscalo, on the night of November 2, 1975, the writer and filmmaker was beaten to death and then run over with his own car. My parents reacted rather awkwardly to the news, given the circumstances of his death. What was Pasolini doing at night, with a young boy, in that notorious and deserted place on the outskirts of Rome?

I’d only come across his name once, not long before, at the cinema in Posillipo, just outside the centre of Naples. I used to go there every Saturday afternoon with my mother and father. It was a crumbling Art Nouveau auditorium reached via a long, narrow staircase, with very hard wooden chairs, columns on either side, and a white screen that got increasingly dirty. If you were sitting in the first two rows of the gallery, the balustrade blocked your view of the film, while the stalls seemed to have sunk below the level of the sea, which had left patches of salty residue on the walls. In the seventies, the cinema was only frequented by left-wing students and by the less well-off Posillipo families, like my own, who took advantage of its cheap ticket prices. It was there, before the showing of a spaghetti western, that I saw a “coming soon” clip, featuring images that were vaguely obscene and menacing, with a voiceover that made reference to Pier Paolo Pasolini. When the news of the writer’s death was announced on television and my parents’ embarrassment became apparent, I remembered those images and immediately associated his name with them.   

My father said that the man who had been so brutally murdered “made dirty films.” Would that have been enough to get him killed? No, there must have been something else. Then my aunt let something slip the next day: “He used to go with rent boys.” At the time I didn’t understand what she meant, but from her tone of voice I gathered there was something unsavoury about it. Only around ten years later did I learn that Pier Paolo Pasolini was not only a poet, a writer, and an internationally acclaimed film director, but also one of post-war Italy’s most important thinkers. While I was at high school I bought all his poetry and his two novels, which I read from cover to cover before turning to his Lutheran Letters, his Corsair Writings, and all his plays. And of course I watched all his films on tape. With a sort of vindictiveness, I made sure my parents knew how much I admired the man who “used to go with rent boys” and although my mother almost immediately revised her opinion, allowing herself to be infected by my enthusiasm for the writer, my father always remained deeply suspicious of the man. There was no smoke without a fire, he said: unpleasant stories were told about him, and they must have had a grain of truth. He continued to believe that The Canterbury Tales, which he’d seen at the cinema, was “pure filth.”

I wondered about Pasolini’s violent death for a long time. It’s well known that there are many questions hanging over it, and the circumstances and dynamics of the murder have never been completely clear. I was very struck to hear Alberto Moravia, in his funeral speech, referring to Pasolini’s kind heart. He said that few men were as gentle as him or as opposed to violence. Another writer, Eduardo De Filippo, expressed the same view in an interview, describing Pasolini as “an angelic creature.” Not everyone would have agreed with those words. Many, not only my father and my aunt, disapproved of his private weaknesses, his double life as a cultured left-wing intellectual and an unprincipled corruptor of minors. But when I think of his murdered body and the fierce rage with which he’d been killed, I can’t help feeling a sense of dismay. Physical violence alarms me: I don’t understand it, and it alarms me even more when it’s unleashed against someone defenceless. I question the reason for so much hate, when poets, as I believe, are really the most harmless beings on earth. I’ve never believed in the rhetoric around Pasolini’s “dangerousness,” nor do I believe in the conspiracies and secret plots. Evil is often more stupid and banal than we realise.



La Huerta de San Vicente, in Granada, was Federico García Lorca’s summer house. It was here that the poet wrote some of his most important plays, such as Blood Wedding and Yerma. It’s set in large gardens, ten minutes’ walk from the city centre, and its original layout has been preserved, with the desk, the Thonet bentwood chairs, the bed, the sofa, a gramophone, an old baby grand piano, an Art Deco mirror and many other things. He didn’t originally own all of these things, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is the physical space, the atmosphere, the rooms, the stairs, the garden, everywhere García Lorca’s feet trod during the ten years that he used the house. What’s important is that it still breathes with his presence. Or at least that’s how I felt, when I went there one very hot summer, with the clear sense that I was visiting a sacred place. It was the only purpose of my trip, that white house surrounded by vines, roses, and cypresses. I meant to let myself be possessed by Federico García Lorca’s duende, the spirit which still hung around the place: the “dark, shuddering” power that prevails in his poems and in his person, coming from the “furthest chambers of the blood.” As I walked through the garden, the beginning of his Sleepwalking Ballad kept turning around in my head like a mantra, and around me all I could see—and all I desired—was that famous and mysterious “green.” I was so excited that I’d have sung the poem out loud, if I’d known how the music went. The euphoria stayed with me throughout my whole visit. Lorca really was an “angelic creature,” as Eduardo De Filippo had described Pasolini: always on the side of the weak, the most marginalised. He said in an interview once that coming from Granada helped him “to understand those who are persecuted—to be on the side of the gypsy, the black, the Jew, the Moor, who we all carry inside us.” He had extraordinary charisma and a magnetism that charmed everyone who watched him recite or heard him sing his poems, accompanying himself on the guitar or piano.

At the time that he was writing his Sonnets of Dark Love, he was in the middle of an intense love affair with a “blonde young man from Albacete,” Juan Ramírez de Lucas, a cultured and very handsome nineteen-year-old who dreamed of becoming an actor. These last poems were dedicated to him. They had met in Madrid, during the chaotic years of the Spanish Republic. Planning to flee to Mexico together, they separated in June 1936 in order to make preparations: Lorca went to Granada to see his parents, while his young lover went to Albacete to ask his father’s permission to go—this was necessary as he was legally a minor. As Juan Ramírez had feared, he wasn’t granted permission: in fact his father, whose plans for his son didn’t include letting him try out an acting career in Mexico in the company of a homosexual poet, threatened to denounce him to the Civil Guard if he so much as attempted to leave Albacete. Lorca wrote to him on July 18, encouraging him to be strong and to respect his father’s decision: “You can always count on me. I’m your best friend and I ask you to be prudent, not to let yourself be carried along by the tide. Juan: you need to be able to laugh again.” The letter was written on paper impregnated with the scent of jasmine from Huerta, which Lorca had slipped between the pages. It was the last letter that Juan Ramírez would receive from the poet. That very day saw the beginning of the coup by the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, who occupied the main cities of Andalusia, including Granada, triggering civil war. On August 16, the Socialist mayor of Granada, Lorca’s brother-in-law, was arrested and shot. On the same day, Lorca too was picked up from a friend’s house, where he had been hiding. Commotion and confusion followed his arrest. Many people rallied together to get him released: there were promises, delays, reassurances. Then, unexpectedly, a secret order came from the governor and on the night of 18 August the Andalusian poet was taken to the nearby village of Viznar.

“I am afraid to lose the wonder of your statue eyes,” Lorca wrote in one of the poems dedicated to Juan Ramírez. Fear of losing that “wonder” meant that he couldn’t make up his mind to leave on his own and find safety in Mexico, although his friends had pressed him to go: the situation had become very dangerous for him, since he was compromised by his Republican associations and repression had become increasingly indiscriminate. The poet paid for his hesitation with his life. After an interminable night, Federico García Lorca was shot at dawn, without trial, on a country road under an old olive tree. His body was thrown into a common grave and has never been found. He was thirty-eight years old and his talent was extinguished forever by bullets from his executioners’ guns.  

“Many unpleasant, not to say terrible, things have happened to me,” he wrote to his friend in that last letter perfumed with jasmine, “but I fought them off gracefully.” The precise words in Spanish are “las he toreado con gracia.” A phrase that’s impossible to translate but perfectly describes how Lorca faced up to life, carefully letting misfortune do no more than brush against him, dancing around it with the nimble grace of a toreador elegantly avoiding the bull’s horns. But not that night. Like his friend the bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, to whom Lorca had dedicated one of his most famous lyric poems, that night the poet succumbed to the raging beast in the ring and “death laid its eggs in the wound.”



I left Huerta de San Vicente with a sense of defeat. I didn’t feel at all well: the euphoria had disappeared and so had my absurd pretence of allowing myself to be possessed, like a shaman, by Lorca’s duende. That night in Granada I couldn’t sleep: the hotel faced onto an inner courtyard housing the kitchens, which were busy until late. There was a continuous clatter of crockery and the coarse voices of men and women chattering and laughing loudly, oblivious of the hour. I found the din unbearable, as though all the world’s ugliness could be laid at its door. I thought about Pasolini, about his murdered corpse, and I thought about the remains of the Spanish poet, never found. Why would you kill a defenceless man? An artist, a poet? I couldn’t get the question out of my head. Years later, Ramón Ruiz Alonso, the Catholic fascist typographer who arrested García Lorca, justified himself by saying that the poet was “rojo y maricón.” A communist and a faggot. The same terms that were shouted at Pasolini, so it’s said, that night at the Idroscalo in Ostia. What did they see, those two poets, in the eyes of their assassins? Rage, derision, contempt, hatred? Is it possible to recognise your own death in the eyes of another?

“I want to live without seeing myself,” wrote García Lorca in one of his poems. Who knows whether he saw himself dying. Whether his eyes were open or blindfolded at his execution. Whenever I think of him being shot down, I think of a painting by Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, which shows the mass shooting in Madrid of Spanish peasants who had rebelled against the French occupation.

The massacre was ordered by Joachim Murat and took place at dawn on May 3, 1808, in the Manzanares valley, on the slopes of the Principio Pio hill. In the centre of the painting a man wearing a white shirt, with his arms raised, is illuminated by the huge lantern at the feet of the soldiers shouldering their rifles. I think of him when I imagine Lorca at the moment of his execution. He’s staring at his own death, but although he’s on his knees he seems taller and more imposing than the whole line of soldiers shooting at him. At first glance he seems to be the sole victim, but after a moment we notice all the others, leaning against him and in heaps at his feet. Just as in the painting, those who were killed alongside Lorca—two anarchist bullfighters and a Republican schoolteacher—vanish in my imagination, leaving the stage to the poet alone.



The first person to talk to me about Isaac Babel was my high school literature teacher. She said, perhaps to provoke my curiosity, that after Kafka he was the greatest genius of modern Jewish writing. I worshipped my teacher. Mrs Caputi was a tiny woman, over forty, a little stooped, with black bobbed hair and enormous, slightly bovine eyes: gentle, but searching too. She knew how to inflect her contralto voice like an actress, and her full lips were always set in an ironic smile, as though she was inclined to find the whole world and life itself absurd. She was refined, cultured, and such a heavy smoker that the second and third fingers of her right hand were yellowed with nicotine. She had lived for many years in Paris: her ex-husband, who’d left her for a twenty-year-old student, was a historian at the Sorbonne, a friend of the celebrated French historians Jacques Le Goff and Michel Vovelle and a contributor to the distinguished journal Annales. Her face and her voice remained imprinted on my mind for many years, and even now that she is no longer alive I often think back to her and her literature lessons. In class she used to read us Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Dostoevsky, and Svevo, as if we were university students rather than confused, pimply fifteen-year-olds, although she would humiliate us with a resounding “Children!” if she had to call us to order. In truth, there weren’t many of us who followed her all the way into that challenging terrain, but she changed the lives of those of us who did.

“You should read him,” she said one day at the end of the lesson, when she saw me leafing curiously through one of the books she used to throw down on the desk with deliberate nonchalance, to catch our attention. “A Russian Jew killed by Stalin’s secret police. It wasn’t only Hitler who was antisemitic, you know.”

The book was called Odessa Stories. I asked to borrow it, and I read it all in one go. It left me feeling stunned and bewildered: it wasn’t like anything I’d read before, this world of gangsters and thieves, bursting with vitality, with their improbable orange suits and raspberry-pink waistcoats, this rowdy, colourful, extravagant universe of smugglers, murderers, and extortionists from Odessa’s ghetto. When I brought it back, I didn’t really know what to say. But the next day, the teacher gave me another book by the same author: The Red Cavalry. The title suggested an epic war novel, but instead I found a collection of stories without a single description of a battle. But there was nothing missing in the repertory of atrocities, crimes, and butchery that war usually keeps tucked away behind the scenes: a daily inglorious horror, described in an eccentric and fearless style, rich in contrasts and strangely beautiful. I was astonished, overwhelmed, but I couldn’t really fathom out who or what I was dealing with.

The unmistakable genius of Babel hit me suddenly much later when I was forty and re-read all his works, just after hearing about my teacher’s death, almost as though I wanted to pay tribute to her by returning to them. It wasn’t just a question of mourning: it was my way of thanking her for having introduced me to his writing, which I might never have discovered if I hadn’t seen that copy of Odessa Stories on her desk, with its mustard-yellow cover depicting a green-faced rabbi.



At dawn on May 15, 1939, Isaac Babel, the son of a Jewish shopkeeper, was arrested in his dacha in Peredelkino, a village outside Moscow where many Soviet writers lived. Even the gravity of the situation didn’t check his propensity for irony: “They don’t let you get much sleep,” he joked, addressing the policemen who had come to pick him up at such an early hour. But the quip was only a way of covering up his fear. The writer knew what to expect. He’d lived for years with the dread of this moment and witnessed repeated waves of arrests, as the political and social situation became increasingly oppressive. In 1932 he’d travelled to Paris, where his wife and daughter lived. There he’d had a series of compromising meetings and forged dangerous relationships with exiled Russians, but he’d returned to Moscow the following year, probably so as not to raise suspicions that he meant to stay abroad. As a writer, he’d always been viewed by the state with diffidence, but until that point he’d managed to maintain a difficult balance between public orthodoxy and private dissent. He’d seen the darkness at the heart of the Kremlin up close, as a frequent visitor to the house (and the wife) of Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Nicknamed the bloody dwarf, Yezhov was one of the most important instigators of the 1937 Great Terror.

The Odessa Stories and The Red Cavalry had made Babel famous and he was admired in cultural circles, but they had also attracted much hostility and ideological criticism. He was marked out from an artistic point of view as well, once his work was accused of excessive “formalism,” “symbolism,” “obscenity,” and insufficient adherence to the principles of socialist realism. This was part of the reason Babel had stopped publishing, apart from a few short stories, becoming—as he ironically defined himself to the First Congress of Soviet Writers—“a great master of the literary genre of silence.” He submitted to this self-imposed silence to avoid betraying his principles or putting himself in jeopardy. But when the secret policemen came to arrest him, they seized twenty-four folders of unpublished manuscripts from his houses in Peredelkino and Moscow. The writer who had been accused of low productivity had never stopped writing, hiding behind a silence that had simply fuelled suspicions. The fact is that up until then Babel had mainly been protected by Maxim Gorky, the old regime writer and his longstanding benefactor. After Gorky’s death, and when Yezhov was replaced at the head of the People’s Commissariat by Lavrenty Beriya, known as Stalin’s butcher, Babel’s situation became desperate. Perhaps his acquaintance with Yezhov, now disgraced in Stalin’s eyes, was a decisive factor in the order to arrest him. Perhaps some of his old enemies, rising up the ranks over the years, had become sufficiently powerful to have a negative influence on his fate—Semyon Budyonny, for example, who had led the Red Army cavalry against the Poles and who had never forgiven Babel for the “obscene caricature” of his Cossacks in The Red Cavalry. Or perhaps there was no specific motive for Babel’s arrest, perhaps it was just that he was Jewish, or an intellectual who wasn’t toeing the party line. He was transferred to the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Soviet secret police, where he was subjected to interrogation for three days and three nights, enduring physical and psychological torture, and was coerced into admitting his non-existent guilt. Babel was accused, without any proof, of being an anti-Soviet Trotskyist and a spy for the French and the Austrians.

More torture and more interrogations followed over the next few months, during which Babel confessed to far-fetched crimes and denounced as an accomplice anyone he was asked to accuse, only to retract his allegations over the following days, admitting that cowardice had made him lie. It is utterly disheartening to see how a man endowed with so much intelligence, so much humanity and such a deep sense of humour can be crushed and humiliated by the brutality of power. Two identity photos still exist in Babel’s KGB file which provide dramatic evidence of the devastating effect of his humiliation. In one, the writer appears in profile and in the other he’s shown full face. He has a visible bruise around his right eye, his expression is frozen with fear and he’s not wearing his glasses.

Babel NKWD.png

Only those who are very short-sighted, as Babel was, can understand the violence that is done simply by confiscating a pair of glasses. It’s almost akin to an act of castration. Babel wasn’t a man of action: he was an intellectual who observed the world with “unbridled curiosity,” as the writer Nadezhda Mandelstam, another Jewish victim of Stalin’s purges, put it. The men who removed or broke his glasses that day knew they had to take the sight away from those penetrating eyes, the irrepressible “driving force” behind his scrutiny of life and people.

Beaten, tortured, threatened, deprived of sight, Babel found out during those terrible days that he was not a hero, that he was even prepared to denounce his innocent friends and old lovers in order to save his skin, or at least avoid the torments of torture. But he would then recant and try to overturn his moments of weakness: he drew up a detailed list of all the names of people he admitted to traducing and repeatedly despatched from prison written declarations refuting his extorted confessions, reiterating that his accusations stemmed only from his “cowardice” under interrogation.

In the show trial that condemned him to death, on 26 January 1940, Babel proclaimed his innocence for the last time: “I am guilty of nothing. I have never been a spy, I have committed no offence against the Soviet Union. I perjured myself in my previous statement.” His last futile words, before being shot that same night, were: “All I ask is to be allowed to finish my last work.”

When I came to read Babel again, as well as admiring the vigour of his writing, I couldn’t help thinking about his end, about his identity photos (what were his myopic eyes staring at without their glasses? Could he see his own death in the eyes of his assassins? Or just rage, derision, contempt, hatred?). And about his last words. Faced with a death sentence, what would a writer’s last wishes be, if not to bring his work to a conclusion? Please, all I ask is to finish my work. Perhaps the same thought went through the minds of Pasolini and García Lorca before they were executed. Babel was putting the final touches to “the result of eight years’ work,” Pasolini was grappling with his draft of Petrolio, which he intended to be his greatest achievement, and Lorca went on tirelessly correcting his Sonnets of Dark Love until a few hours before his arrest.

If I were to find myself in such a situation, at such a juncture, I can imagine also wanting just one thing. How can we bear to face death without seeing the completion of our life’s greatest work? A book, a project under way, a child about to be born. The insistent thought came to me that while any murder is unquestionably a horrendous crime, when a poet is murdered it is, if anything, even worse. Because not only does it mean the death of a human being, it also wipes out the infinite worlds that his or her imagination had yet to create and the infinite possibilities of life that he or she could have helped us to glimpse.

I found myself wondering whether Babel continued to think, right up to the end, that human beings were made for happiness, as he so often said. I had a strong urge to think that he did, despite everything. It doesn’t seem implausible, after all, because Babel was a man who had a natural talent for joy. The complete opposite, I imagine, of his murderers. The torturers who interrogated him barely had an education. One of them, when his turn came to be tried, replied to the judge who asked him if he’d ever read a story by Babel, “Why would I?” Juan Luis Trescastro, the man who boasted to his friends in a Granada café of having shot García Lorca “with two bullets in the arse,” was a drunkard of low-grade intelligence. Pino Pelosi, Pasolini’s murderer, known as “Pino the frog” because of his bulging eyes and wide mouth, left school at twelve for a life of hustling and thieving. None of them knew the work of the men they killed, nor could they have had the slightest idea of the artistic sensibilities they snuffed out. I think back to Goya’s painting and that great lantern on the ground in front of the firing squad. It lights up the victim, not the murderers, who shoot with their heads bowed under the weight of their ridiculous tall hats, faceless and obscured by what Lorca himself described as the “horrible bitumen blacks” of Goya’s brushstrokes. They are reduced to puppets. I imagine that same glow continuing to illuminate the faces of Pasolini, García Lorca, and Babel, lighting up the lively intelligence of their poet’s gaze, while eclipsing the faces of their assassins. I have named them here merely for the record, but history won’t honour them with even a dim memory.

translated from the Italian by Emma Mandley

This essay was originally published in Italian in the collection Soli Eravamo (Ad Est dell’Equatore, 2015).