A prisoner’s diary in our hands, responsibility and memories in our hearts

by Angela Giannitrapani*

A picture of Angela Giannitrapani in Marsala, her birthplace, where she told about her book “Quando cadrà la neve a Yol – Prigioniero in India” (Tra le Righe Libri, 2016) making the audience touched about how the novel was born and the events of the story

What shall we do when we find a letter, a card, the diary of a person who’s no longer alive? We peep up at it, of course. Then we read it again more carefully and it happens that we might keep or break some ancient links. At least we wonder what to do: should we keep it aside, give it to someone else, or bury it again where we found it? I had all these sorts of thoughts. It happened with my father’s diary about his captivity during World War II. My sister found it and didn’t hesitate to show it to me. She read it immediately but it took me ten years before doing it. I used to turn the cover, to have a glance at the first page and I was forced to break off, swept away by a flow of unbearable emotions. At last, the time came and I was able to put my eyes, my mind and heart on the lines of that familiar handwriting. When I finished the third and last copybook I lingered to keep the three of them in my hands: I watched the hard cardboard cover, the brand and the name of the stationery in Bangalore, India, printed in English on the bottom edge. By a magnifying glass I spotted the identification number of the prisoner of war, the camp, wing, barrack, written in the faded traces of a pencil. I got the sense of length, in time and space, more from those details than from the written pages. They told me, in a dramatic authenticity, of the stay in an English prisoner camp of war at the foot of Himalaya during World War II.

I was remaining among those details to give to myself to stand a father, who was just over twenty years old, but a stranger to me. While I was slowly absorbing the sentences of his pages I remembered what I had heard of his detention by him during my childhood. Those stories accompanied me along the years, telling about the growing of peas, lettuce, tomatoes, but also of mouldy food, of Himalayan rhododendron, walks along the mountain streams, or about how his mates hung out the washing in narrow lines and also about playing concerts. All this happened behind the barbed- wire fences, I was aware of it, but since he told me as an adventure I was always curious and, as a child, I didn’t catch the tragedy.

Angela Giannitrapani wrote the book “Quando cadrà la neve a Yol – Prigioniero in India” taking inspiration from her father’s diary, prisoner of war at Yol, an english prison camp at the foot of Himalaya, during World War II

And in that way I had been keeping them in my life up to that moment. But suddenly, after reading the dramatic report of his prison life in which those events nearly disappeared, an unexpected generous and protective father appeared to me. A father like many others, as I would discover later, who wanted to preserve their children from horror, even if they didn’t neglect telling of war and detention. I started considering the generosity of a generation which paid for the mistakes of history, but engaged itself to rebuild Italy. And so, what should I have done of those pages? We are told it is honourable to preserve memory and we are used to remember our dear ones, usually with the regret of doing it after they passed away. This seems to be a constant rule in our lives. The discretion, the reserve and the intense emotions of those who experienced happy or painful events sometimes make them be silent along their lives. And we have to respect their choice. But when they are dead the memory of the survived ones comes over to push to tell of them. Even if it is not to be taken for grant. We have to evaluate accurately and take the responsibility to talk or to keep silent.

I chose to talk, or rather to write. I must admit I was strongly determined in doing it. Doubts, worries, conflicts came when I finished and I had to make my mind whether to print my script. At that point I was bound to go over again the familiar father’s life and the unknown young man as well, the one behind the barbed wires. I was pushed to investigate into our relationship more and more, in our talks, discussions, affection. I asked for his permission about each word, each syllable, each written trace. I asked him a sign, a check, a transcendental evidence, thousands of times. Silence. Always silence. But at last his voice struck me clearly: responsibility, it’s your responsibility. I had no other solution but keeping my own responsibility to bury his diary back where we had found it or make it open. Since the diary, besides to him, now belonged to my sister and me, I had anything to do except asking her for the permission. She deeply trusted me and gave it to me with an extreme generosity. As I did not want that young soldier to be walking alone under the unknown readers’ eyes, I looked after him and moved with his diary into my novel side by side. A tale in which I imagined that soldier who, old and free, walks again with a mate along the paths he had left down there, seven thousands kilometres away from his homeland, at the foothills of Himalaya.

*Questa è la traduzione in inglese del post “Un diario tra le mani, la responsabilità della memoria nel cuore“, a cura della stessa Angela Giannitrapani. 

*This is the English translation by Angela Giannitrapani, of her post “Un diario tra le mani, la responsabilità della memoria nel cuore“.

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