Five years after its publication I have read Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers1. My intention isn’t to comment on the book—excellent reviewers have done it—but to share my reflections about a small section, a fragment that I find remarkably strange and worthy of attention. It begins on page 317 to culminate on 320.
Seen how circumscribed is my goal I’ll keep my introduction short. The Flamethrowers intertwines amateur and professional motorcycling, the New York art scene, and political unrest in Italy during the nineteen seventies. These are disparate universes the protagonist, an aspirant artist and motorcycle lover, tumbles through as her coming of age/initiation unfolds.
By its choice of clearly identified settings, unavoidably the novel steps into the semi-historical, semi-documentary domain, thus exposing itself to claims of inaccuracy. Technically these shouldn’t apply to fiction. It is commonly assumed that novels, even set as most are in a given time, given place, therefore enmeshed with historical events, use them as narrative elements secondary to their intrinsic economy. Authors take, in other words, ample liberties, and we tacitly agree.
Yet conditionally. The more liberties an author take the more it is advisable that she sticks to a fictional mode, to make clear she is conveying her subjective vision of a given reality, not reality itself. Reinventing the chosen context in transposed manner, carrying its gist but not its literality, simplifies such result. Of course, historical figures and events can appear in novels, but the more defined they are the more factual pertinence they demand, unless the author’s intent is surreal or parodic, desecrating or fabular (all not-so-common occurrences).
Time to narrow my focus, zooming onto the Italian section of the book. Here Kushner creates a fictional plot—made-up stories and characters—interspersed with real facts, dates and names.
This approach, as I mentioned, is hazardous. The injection of true historical data automatically shifts the reading mode. Readers—willing or not—begin vetting characters and events to appropriately file them, otherwise everything gets muddled. Wait a moment. Who is this? Is this real? Let me check. Did this happen or did the author invent it? It can get distracting, as it causes readers’ brain to oscillate between clashing registers (the appreciation of factual realities and the fictional spell). Few authors really master this blend.
Kushner seems to favor it, as she names very precise landmarks (like the den of Autonomia Operaia in Rome, Via dei Volsci), subsequently grafting on them the fruit of her fantasy. The mélange works against her. It comes through both too ambitious (juggling facts with such ease entails perfect knowledge) and—for the very same reason—naïf. Luckily her writing style pushes forwards. It smooths, polishes rough corners. As she doesn’t loose track of her focus—her protagonist’s journey—we don’t either.
But on pages 317-320 something else occurs. The old brother of one of the characters (the protagonist’s ex-boyfriend, the Italian connection) is kidnapped by the Red Brigades. The two brothers belong to a very rich family, an empire of motorcycles and tires whose history somehow ties up the novel, pulling its various facets together. The old brother was previously painted as an ultraconservative, narrow-minded, stern, deeply conventional businessman. He will be killed. The incident of his capture and death is quickly and perfunctorily treated, a plot mechanism meant to precipitate denouement.
As she narrates the episode, Kushner crams in few pages a number of elements drawn with carbon-copy fidelity from the Aldo Moro’s kidnapping. Is it needed to remind ex prime-minister of Italy Aldo Moro was captured, tried and executed by the Red Brigades in 1978? Probably not. It might be needed to remind this was an event of extreme political, moral, social complexity, which engaged an entire country into a long, exsanguinating agony of huge consequences. Layers and layers of lies and truth clashed and overlapped as the facts unfolded, involving left and right, parties of opposition and parties of power, pope, president, foreign intelligence agencies, foreign leaders. Also the rebel students Kushner portrays at length, as the ‘Movement’ twisted, was torn, exploded and slowly collapsed when that Damocles’ sword fell upon it.
All the above is to say the assassination of Moro, if alas isn’t modern Italy’s most dramatic, most shameful page, constitutes a main tragedy of the years Kushner chose as her background. Think Romero, think Kennedy. Each country their own. When selecting such burning coal as a plot ingredient, some degree of caution is needed.
Kushner doesn’t select it. She does not mention Moro. But as she narrates the kidnapping of fictional magnate Valera, she lines up all the icons identifying beyond reasonable doubt Moro’s capture. His notorious picture holding the dated newspaper, proving he was still alive on a particular day. His ‘scandalous’ plea for the State to free captive terrorists in exchange for his life. The scolding debate following such plea, deemed unworthy of a politician meant to self-sacrifice for his country’s sake. The extremely famous comments that in his letters “he wasn’t himself”—a remark that made history in its hypocrisy and came from the government (Kushner puts it into Valera’s mother’s mouth). The recurring to a psychic séance on behalf of the inquirers—a detail that in Kushner’s story makes little sense but it was crucial in the original context, as it betrayed willed inefficiency, barely concealed connivances. What the psychic allegedly revealed—one enigmatic word the inquirers interpreted erroneously, as it indicated the street where Moro was kept, just around the corner, but police searched the homonymous remote village instead.
For whoever either lived through, was involved with, witnessed or simply has knowledge of the Moro Case, the collusion of those markers within a few paragraphs is a shock, as it immediately reconstructs the whole, making it come alive. Then the question, what for?
I (the reader who has recognized this loaded page of history) need a clue. I am faced with an alternative. Does the author mean something? If she so frankly applies the transparency of Moro over a callous sample of wealthy upper class, clearly she is equating the two. Is it a political statement? Is she saying the statist who ideated the historical compromise between Christian Democrat and Communist parties was no more than a blunt, diehard factory owner?
Though I can’t help assuming it and her writing implies it, I doubt it. I can find nowhere in the book the depth of analysis (about Italian history and politics of the nineteen seventies) that would support such tough, heavy, provocative stance. The events are sketched, skimmed off, shaped in order to serve the economy of the novel. Which is perfectly fine in spite, as I said, of the awkward injection of truths that haven’t been given much delving. How could they have? First of all they only affect a part of the novel, which includes other sceneries. To investigate all with similar thoroughness seems unfeasible. And those truths are so broad, complex and contentious, that to embed a critical view of them into the narrative would require long years of research. Not here.
So why does Kushner trace her minor character’s fate over the Moro Case? Option two: she runs out of ideas and she models the episode after pre-existent records, very easily found. But it sounds impossible, as she is a talented writer and her inventiveness spills all over the place.
If she doesn’t do it meaningfully (wishing to transmit a political statement) or perfunctorily (to fill in a too thin, too weak, too vague passage), then why? Does she want to infuse genuine flavor, again? Perhaps the same purpose behind her use of real data, though this time she adopts a different strategy. Why is the effect so eerily strange and so wrong?
What strikes me is a sense of disproportion. I do not believe in sacred, but I believe some things are more important than others. In particular those who have symbolic value, meaning they are receptacles, vessels gathering precious contents we care for. As I have mentioned, the kidnapping of Moro concentrates a huge emotional load—moral conflict, thirst for truth, awareness of lies, shame, agony—not for sparse individuals but for a whole people. It’s a scar, rather an open wound, in the body of a country. If perused for novelistic purposes it should be cognizantly treated, and I am not sure it is in The Flamethrowers.
Suddenly another discrepancy comes to mind, that arrested my attention while reading. It is minimal, and yet resonates. At some point the author explains what popolo signifies. “It means crowd or multitude,” she writes2 and I can’t help wondering, because crowd and multitude are additional meanings she’d find in the dictionary, for sure, at the end of the line. Popolo first and foremost means people, which is where the murder of Moro belongs. Does such statement suggest it is in the public domain, therefore free of copyright?
On the contrary. It belongs to those who have lived, witnessed, suffered it, paid the consequences of it. Am I saying that experience pertaining to a particular group, particular culture, should be voiced by those who are that culture? As a general rule, yes. They are the most apt to analyze and elaborate, to explain and communicate their own. Of course, the outsider’s gaze has a value and can bring perspective, if it respects obvious commonsense criteria. The awareness of a limited point of view, limited understanding. The suspension, at least careful formulation of judgments. In short, honesty and humility.
Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician, and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Trampset, Typehouse Magazine, Crux Magazine, and Indiana Voice.
1. Kushner, Rachel. The Flamethrowers. Scribner, 2013↩
2. Ibid., 283↩