Il ladro di ragazze
15×21 cm, 464 pp, ISBN 978-88-97308-35-5
Novel / Historical Novel / Adventure Story
The Girl Snatcher
A bold, daring, powerful story about people doomed for disaster that lived to tell the tale against all odds. Brigands and grave sages; reckless liaisons and blood-stained crimes; eye-for-an-eye justice and supernatural retaliation: what else does a novel need?
A hard-boiled historical thriller, bound to go addictive. Coiling up in sensuous, luscious spires, this dark story reminiscent of Manzoni at his best bristles with violence and sensuousness, even under the clear blue sky of Ticino and Lombardy.
Corriere del Ticino
Carlo Silini nailed it with his very first novel, clinching the top spot on Ticino’s best-seller list ahead of big names such as Andrea Camilleri and Giorgio Faletti.
Set in the 17th century, in what is now the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, a string of disappearances has the locals whispering in bewilderment. The missing people are young women – the local peasants’ daughters – and there is little chance anyone will go looking for them. After all, the ones that weren’t married – either to a man or to God – were nothing but mouths to be fed, at a time when food is scarce. Too bad if some girl doesn’t make it home after a day in the fields.
As the “Girl Snatcher” casts its menacing shadow all across Ticino, a young man must face all sorts of challenges and dangers in a quest for his lost beloved.
Drawing inspiration from his land’s lore, Carlo Silini has brought his novel’s world to life with fictional characters and people from the actual, documented past. The Ticino of old becomes the stage of a far-reaching, relentless manhunt. But there’s also room for romance, murder, stories of brigands and nobles and peasants, betrayal and revenge – churning out a tale of horror, passion and humour.
Born in Mendrisio in 1965, he graduated in Theology in Freiburg in 1989. He is married and has got a son. Silini is the leader writer of the Approfondimenti column of the Primo Piano section for leading Italian Swiss daily Corriere del Ticino. He has produced several documentaries and press reports investigating Swiss society and culture.
In 2005 he was voted “Swiss Journalist of the Year” by Schweizer Journalist. In 2015 he was awarded the “Swiss Press Awards”, the most prestigious press prize in the country.
No, it cannot be “to unearth”.
Cesarino Fontana had been racking his brain as he searched for the right verb to describe what he and his associate were about to do.
“We have to unbury her”, he ended up saying, not entirely happy with his choice. “I mean exhume her” he added, pointing out a pool to the scar-covered man standing next to him – his companion through that shivery, cold night.
“Drop it, Mala. We just have to. That Guy said so”.
The man cursed under his breath. Giorgio Malachisio – Mala, as people knew him – wasn’t from that bailiwick. A short and stocky man whose face and arms were crossed with thick, whitish marks – the traces of wounds from long ago –, Malachisio was a tireless, laid-back worker. His boss would bring him along whenever there was some uncomfortable business to deal with.
“We’ve got to get the body out of the water”, said Cesarino Fontana drily. He was one of the cruellest brigands in the Mendrisio bailiwick and in the Balerna parish. He was still struggling to find the right word. People used to call him “Crapanegra”, “the Black noodle” – partly because of his long, raven hair, partly because it was as if his head could harbour nothing but dark thoughts. No one dared to use that nickname in front of him.
“What’s the use of a dead girl, anyway?”, Mala asked aimlessly.
I’m not sure I want to know, thought Cesarino.
He spat on the ground, scowling at his partner, and pondered one more word.
To fish her out?
No, definitely not.
Seeing that arguing was pointless, the other man – in a very unwilling, if not downright disgusted mood – plunged his arms into the pool.
“It would be better to throw them in the water with a rope around their foot”, he said as he probed the water for the body. “So that if you ever need to get them out you just pull the rope and… Got it!”, he shouted all of a sudden, beaming like a child. “Come on, give me a hand”.
They pulled her by her hair; a lock came off. By now, she had emerged enough for them to grasp her under her arms and drag her away. She was slimy and completely naked. Even though her soul had been drained from her, she was still comely. Her smell was ghastly – even though they had been expecting worse. It was quite dark in there, but both men knew that her skin must have been a sickly white.
Sure, they’d had better nights than this – but why did they feel so uneasy? After all, what they were most famous – or infamous – for was their cold blood.
The point was that they were used to killing living people. That frenzy of torturing dead bodies, on the other hand, was a whole new story. How could anyone mess around with a departed soul and not be overcome by dread and disgust? No wonder that, once they had recovered the girl’s body, Mala and Crapanegra clumsily made the sign of the cross. It was only to divert his own attention from the matter that Cesarino had been stubbornly struggling for the right word.
To undrown her, maybe?
Malachisio called him back to a reality he was desperately trying to ignore.
“Why on earth is the boss always fiddling about with those half-rotten bodies, I…”, said the scar-clad stooge.
“Shut up”, said Cesarino abruptly. He felt sick. “Now all we have do to is take her to him. We’ve got half an hour”.
But, as he gave up his vain word-hunt, he told himself that his partner was right. And he caught himself thinking of something else – something rather romantic, for a man like him:
You were so beautiful, Andreina. What a pity.
Kidnapping, rape and murder: how much would it cost him if he were ever judged by a court, the necromancer found himself wondering?
Well, very little.
Nothing, if he bribed the right people.
He was a merciless man and knew all too well what made the world go around. The way he picked his victims was as cynical as it was flawless.
“Never pick a noblewoman, ever. You don’t want the daughters of a middle-class family, either. That being said, feel free to choose any other girl”, he would explain to his four guards.
It didn’t bother him at all that people had been rumouring for months of strange, wild kidnappings in the valley between Mendrisio and Capolago.
“No-one’s going to give us any trouble as long as we go for the right girls”, he cautioned them.
It wasn’t just the intangible laws of his own morals that said it: society itself agreed with him. Humanity within and without the Swiss bailiwicks came in three races, each one organized in two hierarchical species: males on top, females on the bottom.
“I tell you”, the Wizard of the Canton had told his men just before the beginning of the umpteenth “maiden-chase” thorough the valley, “some of them are worth a chest full of gold, some a basket full of pears, and some a bucket full of shit”.
He was interrupted by Roncola chuckling.
“Got it, boss. Only the gold chest ones for you”.
“You just don’t get it, you idiot”, his boss retorted. “I only want the shit bucket ones. Is that clear?”
His henchmen stood in awkward silence. Cesarino Fontana, the sharpest of the troop, wondered about the value of shit – which, if one thinks of it as manure, is a very valuable fertilizer indeed. And yet he wasn’t sure what his boss was getting at.
“Nothing but peasant girls, country women, hayseeds! Got it, now?” said the Wizard.
Pertica let the question slip out, even though his fellows were staring daggers at him.
“Let me show you”.
The man in charge went to get a parchment from a cabinet.
“Can you read? Ah, why do I even ask.”
He unrolled the scroll, which turned out to be an official document from the Lugano bailiwick, dated 1558. It was a list of several offences and of the penalties to pay them off. Calling someone a fool, for instance, cost a penalty of two grossoni; committing adultery cost ten corone; repeat offenders were fined twenty. Three-time adulterers incurred a penalty of sixty corone.
It seems that only millionaires can be sinners in this world, thought Mala as he scratched his maimed ear.
It was only at the end of the parchment that one could learn about the threefold division of humankind, expressed in exquisitely exact monetary terms. Harming a peasant cost sixty-six lire; two hundred lire for harming a middle-class man, and three hundred lire for a nobleman.
“Is everything clear now?”
Capanegra nodded for everyone.
Thence onward, the Wizard’s henchmen only brought him peasant girls. “Very fine ones, though” he would always remind them. That was all they needed to know.
Very fine girls meant girls like Lena.
“I chose you because you are a nobody.”
Ten years earlier, Gorini had welcomed him in his manor in Lugano with the most striking abruptness. Pesafüm, the “Hair-splitter”, was fifty; he was tall and heavy-set, with thick eyebrows and a prominent nose. He worked as a tollman, but would much rather be called “the Captain” due to his efforts in Venice during the war against the Turk – the evidence of which, he said, was a deep scar under his left eye.
A sworn enemy to the Castoria lineage – his family’s rivals in controlling the town’s public agencies – and a disloyal friend to whatever bailiff was in office, Gorini was in need of an unusual factotum, and he had picked that boy from Mendrisio. Father Buonfiglio – the keeper of the friary of the Serviti in Mendrisio and his personal confessor – had recommended the boy to him.
Stralüsc, the “Greased lightning”, was almost sixteen when two scoundrels in Gorini’s pay had come to take him at the friary’s doors and brought him to their master. They instructed him to stand with his head bowed, to listen, and to keep his mouth shut. “Unless you want to piss him off.”
“Have you got a name?” the gentleman asked.
“Speak, then – what’s your name?”
In a corner, the myrmidons guffawed away.
“My name is…”
“…Tonio, called Stralüsc”, Gorini cut in. “You were born in 1605, a child from father unknown and from mother very well-known as a slut… Aren’t you?”
“I am not…” he began timidly.
The stooges were splitting their sides.
“Shut up, you two. Get out – leave me with the boy.”
The former captain’s scowl morphed into a grin.
“Father Buonfiglio has long put up with my confessions at the friary of the Serviti, where you were abandoned as a baby. He told me everything about you. I know you, boy – I know that you are faster than greased lightning. That’s why they call you Stralüsc. They say you are very quick-witted…”
“Well, I…” mumbled the boy.
“Shut up. I wasn’t asking.”
Tonio was embarrassed.
“Good. Let’s start again. I had you brought here because you are a nobody. You have no father, no mother, no siblings. You only have people that don’t want you.”
The words broke his heart
“Wipe that look off your face. You are a lucky boy. I want you – me, captain Gorini. Don’t get me wrong. I like women. Go ask Father Buonfiglio how much I like them. I always give him a good earful about my poor cuckolded wife.”
Tonio didn’t know where to look. He resolved to stare meekly at his master, who looked back at him with no malevolence.
“You must be wondering why I need a nobody. That’s a good question, Tonio. Let’s put it like this: officially, you will be the keeper of my Salorino estate. I own a cellar there. You will also take care of my holding in Riva San Vitale, where a local villain is looking after one of my stables. You will eat either at the tavern in Riva san Vitale or at the one in Mendrisio; there’s an open account for my henchmen there. And you will take turns sleeping in the Salorino cellar and in the Riva stable. I don’t care whether you sleep alone or with someone else.”
Tonio blushed violently.
Yes, he’s quick-witted indeed, thought Gorini.
“Every Saturday, though, you will come back here to my manor in Lugano. And on Sundays you will go back there and start again.”
“What’s my assignment?” he dared to ask.
“Nothing, actually. Both the cellar and the stables are superbly looked after by the locals. You let them do their job and don’t worry about the estates. Your actual job is something else.”
He stopped and looked him up and down, trying to figure out whether he could really trust that clever youngster.
“Mark well, Tonio” he added, changing the subject. His voice changed, too. “I am telling you a secret, and it must stay between the two of us. Otherwise you will wake up one day and find out that, all of a sudden, you are somebody after all. And it would be very unpleasant for you, because I might start saying around that Tonio is a thief, or a heretic. And then next time you go south your might be stopped at the gallows of San Martino. I don’t think I need to tell you what this means, do I?”
Gorini had mentioned the place where people were executed in the Lugano bailiwick. The boy gulped audibly.
“No, sir, you don’t.”
Then his face brightened up again.
“Your actual job is to listen carefully. Go wherever you like – vestries, courtyards and taverns. I’ll pay the bill. Pin your ears back. Chat with anyone – pilgrims, banqueters, innkeepers, nuns, friars and whores. Be inconspicuous. Stay out of trouble, don’t go scuffling around, and never be showy. Everyone there knows you as a former friary’s boy; from now on you will be known as the tame, dull keeper of my estates – the servant of Gorini from Lugano. But in fact you will be my eyes and my ears in Mendrisio, Balerna and Riva San Vitale. You must keep your eyes on certain matters and certain people. You will come here every Sunday and report back to me.”
It was crystal-clear. Gorini’s spy – that was what he was about to become. Pesafüm needed someone to inform him about the goings-on in the southern bailiwicks, where he was bound to have many personal interests and planned to forge profitable alliances. Tonio was the right man: he was born and bred there, but had no relations to influential lineages; he was young, but unpretentious due to his roots. He knew everyone and could move freely to collect all the facts he wanted. Most importantly, betraying Gorini was out of question for him: he could throw him to the hangman on a whim.
“What do you need to be informed about?” he asked.
“Everything. All the juicy bits of news. Every rumour, especially the unlikely ones. I want to know who’s squabbling with whom; who is whose lover; who fell from grace and who is in dire straits; who is looking for a cut-throat, a safe-conduct, a dowser, a witch hunter or a miracle. Do you know Francis Bacon?”
“Well, I don’t know him in person, either. Anyway, Tonio, he’s a great thinker. Do you know what Bacon says?”
“ ‘Knowledge is power’.”
“Knowledge is power” Tonio echoed weakly. “If you say so.”
Ten years had gone by since that bizarre philosophical lecture. During that time Tonio had become a highly valued informer thanks to his skills, discretion and wit. He would collect information in taverns and brothels, which he frequented with soberness and devotion – in that he was a measured drinker and a devoted fornicator. Sometimes he would settle thorny questions on his own, not necessarily in an orthodox way. He was very unruly in venereal affairs, but extremely composed when it came to martial deeds. The day Gorini had taken him under his wing, he had entrusted him to the brusque head of his guards, an agile man which everyone called Brandaccio. Nobody knew his real name.
“Using a blade,” Brancaccio said, “is an exact science; just like slitting throats. And to learn how to slit is better than to have your throat slit.”
That man was a well of wisdom.
Brancaccio said that he was born on a farm in Mantua while battle raged on all around. He claimed he was the son of an Emilia whore and a Swiss halberdier and that he witnessed one siege and assault after the other as he grew up. He would spend hours and hours fencing, cleaning rifles and spiking birch trunks. He hated the harquebus, although he could wield one like a master.
He would get Tonio to drive poles through dummies and sacks; then he would take delight in throwing them at the boy, claiming that Tonio had to learn to predict his opponents’ moves from their shadows.
“If you hit the dummies before they touch you, you will save your skin in a charge. If you don’t, you’ll be a dead man as soon as anyone assaults you.”
“Why would anyone assault me?” he would ask.
“Because you exist” replied the man. Or, “Because a dead man is always a good thing.”
“For the living.”
En bref en français
“Il ladro di ragazze” de Carlo Silini s’inspire de la légende du Sorcier de Cantone, figure despotique de la première moitié du XVIIème siècle dont la réputation était de faire disparaître de jeunes et jolies filles dans le Mendrisiotto. Un personnage inquiétant et très puissant qui, pour satisfaire ses appétits, demande à ses acolytes d’enlever Maddalena Bernasconi, fille d’un paysan. Ces événements conduisent Tonio, surnommé “Stralüsch” (éclair), sur les traces de sa bien-aimée disparue subitement. Il en résulte un roman historique mouvementé, plein d’imprévus et de complications, qui reste passionnant jusqu’à la fin. (dc, trad. vv.)
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