Tag Archives: Owen Schalk

The Hanged Men

By Owen Schalk

“The present conditions of the country are no more than the threshold of a profound…and most important examination of consciousness.

– Pasolini on the eve of the Italian Civil War (1943-1945)

They found a man with bricks in his pockets hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London. His name was Roberto Calvi. He was the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, which was in the midst of a historic collapse following revelations of financial irregularities worth billions of lire. The main shareholder in Banco Ambrosiano was the Vatican Bank, which led many Italians to dub Calvi “God’s Banker.” Some joked upon his death that his main investor had finally lost patience with his management.

Calvi had been missing for seven days, and much like Michele Sindona, it seemed like everyone who mattered wanted him gone: the Holy See, the Sicilian Mafia, the political establishment, and associates of Banco Ambrosiano ranging from Polish anti-Soviet groups to Nicaraguan drug traffickers. There were so many suspects that it took people ages to notice the clue right under their noses. Calvi was hanged from Blackfriars Bridge. “Black friar” in Italian is frate nero.  Frati neri was the internal moniker of members of the Propaganda Due (P2) Masonic lodge, a subcutaneous organism within the Italian body politic that sought an extreme rightist restructuring of the country’s political and economic life based on the model of another hanged man, Benito Mussolini. Its members included prominent businessmen, media moguls, military officials, intelligence officers, representatives from Southern Cone dictatorships – and Roberto Calvi himself.

P2’s Venerable Master was Licio Gelli, a financier and card-carrying fascist since his youth who assisted in the failed Borghese coup of 1970 and subsequently fled to Condor-era Argentina, where he built close relationships with many high-level junta officials. According to the P2 theory, the complete exposure of Calvi’s financial indiscretions would lead to the unmasking of the lodge’s long list of crypto-fascists, some of whom had public profiles to maintain. The organization covertly murdered Calvi and dangled him from Blackfriars Bridge as a not-so-subtle “keep your mouth shut” to other P2 members who might be thinking of abandoning the sinking ship.

Everyone had someone to blame for Calvi’s murder, and every suspect was connected by one or two degrees of separation. Nobody was on trial, but in the minds of the public, the defendant was both multitudinous and singular: it was the arcane, cabalistic, Svengalian knot of deep power that pulsed and steamed and continuously expanded in the core of postwar Italian society.

Susanna Betti was unique. She blamed someone nobody had thought to accuse of Calvi’s murder. She blamed herself. She’d never met Calvi or Gelli or any of the other revenants of fascism burrowed in the country’s power centers – what use would they have for a Friulian professor of Marxist literary theory? – but within her was a latent premonitory gift that had revealed the place and manner of Calvi’s death two weeks before he’d fled Rome. She knew he was marked for death.

The first time she saw tarot cards was at a street market in Testaccio. She was thirteen. She made her parents stop so that the fortune-teller could reveal her future. She later learned that he used a rare pack – the Tarocco Siciliano – in which l’appeso, the hanged man, was depicted as hanging from the neck, not the ankle. Susanna remembered the card so clearly because it was the first one he flipped after she asked, “Do I have the Betti gift?” He gave her a five-card reading. She didn’t remember if the hanged man was upright or reversed, and she couldn’t recall the following cards, but she was pretty sure that the final one was the Fool.

She thought of the hanged man once more, on the morning of May 28th, 1982, after a dream illuminated her hereditary clairvoyance. She was seated under an ebony bridge, watching the black water roll by. The glow of a streetlamp made faces in the ripples, an ever-shifting visage of light that occasionally rhymed with the features of a family member or friend but otherwise remained a stranger. She looked up and realized that the face was not actually a trick of the light but the reflection of the hanged man, who was dangling from the bridge. His face was turned down as though he was expecting Susanna to tell him something. “Well?” he asked, raising his hands inquisitively. There were bricks in his palms. “Am I upright or reversed?”

The upright hanged man represents reflection, growth, and the possibility of uncovering a new understanding of one’s place in the world, which is the ultimate goal of all fortune-telling, not just tarot. The reverse-hanged man embodies stubbornness, the intellectual blockage produced by over-analysis, the opposite of intuition. Susanna didn’t know what to tell him. To make him feel better, she joked, “You look pretty upright to me.” That only made him sadder. He stuffed the bricks into his pockets and closed his eyes. Then she woke up.

She didn’t realize that her dream was a premonition until it was too late. That was the Betti curse.

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Her family had long understood that one member of each generation would receive a preternatural awareness of the death of an epochal figure in Italian life. The recipient could either stop it or allow it to proceed – that is if they were able to figure out who the marked person was, which was a difficult task in and of itself. As far as she knew, no Betti had ever been able to stop the death. Her father, Luigi, claimed to have foreseen the shooting of Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti in 1948. According to him, he had waited at the rear entrance of Palazzo Montecitorio every day for three weeks until, one sweltering July afternoon, he spied Pallante creeping up behind the PCI chief as he walked to his car. He was holding a small, rusty revolver. Luigi dove into action, grasping Pallante’s wrist just as the would-be assassin put one bullet in the back of Togliatti’s skull. He wrestled his hand down, directing the next two shots at Togliatti’s torso and saving him from a fatal trio of headshots. Togliatti was rushed to a hospital and revived. Luigi ended up regretting his actions when Togliatti abandoned the factory workers who went on strike in his honour, urging them to stick to democratic means rather than wildcats and vandalism. “He’s a bureaucrat,” Luigi resolved. “He doesn’t want revolution. He cares more about getting invited to Stalin’s dacha than helping us proletarians.”

There were several problems with Luigi’s story. Firstly, Susanna’s mother Mira claimed that he wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the shooting but visiting his parents’ farm outside Tarvisio. By the time he hurried back to the capital, the strikes had already been broken. Secondly, Luigi was in his thirties at the time of the shooting. It was unheard of for Bettis to receive premonitions before their sixtieth birthday. And lastly, it had been accepted familial knowledge since the killing of Cola di Rienzo that only one member of each generation could experience a vision of an epochal death. His story was further undermined in 1978, two years after Luigi’s death from lung cancer, when his younger brother Pieri received a vivid forewarning of the kidnapping and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Pieri chose not to intervene, of course: he was the family’s fascism nostalgist, and he hated Moro for supposedly compromising Italian democracy by negotiating with the communists.

Growing up, Luigi and Pieri lived in the Friuli countryside on their father Jacum’s poultry farm. Jacum was a pragmatist, an antifascist liberal who had foreseen Mussolini’s hanging a la l’appeso and allowed it to proceed “for the good of the nation.” He didn’t like Togliatti because the Americans didn’t like him, and in 1948 he voted Christian Democrat to secure US reconstruction aid, which Truman vowed to withhold if the PCI won the presidency. Luigi called his father a coward and cast his vote for Togliatti. He’d been a communist ever since stumbling upon an outdated issue of l’Unità, the PCI newspaper, in a Tarvisio alleyway while delivering his father’s chickens to the butcher. He flipped through it, read a disquisition on the plight of rural workers that resonated with the struggles of his youth, and registered with the party that week. He briefly convinced his younger brother that communism was the only equitable path for Italy. Still, when Pieri turned eighteen, he fell in love with a girl from a staunchly Catholic family who lived in the hills around Udine. Her father, one of the city’s largest landowners, liked to talk politics with his daughter’s suitors. He imparted to the impressionable teenager a worldview that valued law, order, and rigid hierarchy above all else and romanticized the era of strongarm fascism over the turbulent electoralism of the immediate postwar.

A few months later, Pieri married and moved his wife onto the farm. Luigi argued with the couple so viciously that eventually, he couldn’t stand it. He packed his bags and marched off to Rome. Jacum died five years later, baffled and heartbroken that politics had the power to tear his family apart.

For a rural migrant, Rome of the late 1940s wasn’t a miracle waiting to happen. It was the home of crime and poverty and the borgate romane, wherein lived those whom Pasolini called the sottoproletariato (for his part, Luigi thought Pasolini was a degenerate and an individualist, and once said that if he’d been lucky enough to foresee the writer’s death, he wouldn’t have changed a thing about it). Susanna’s earliest memories of her father were of a weary, heavy-lidded factory worker coming home late to their ramshackle hut on the urban fringes and smoking at least a half-pack of cigarettes before dinner. He rarely spoke except to lambast Togliatti and Berlinguer as “sellouts.”

Mira was a communist too and a dedicated PCI supporter even after Luigi grew disillusioned with the party. She didn’t work outside the home. Like the PCI leadership, she believed that the Catholic nuclear family was the heart of Italian society. She did her part in this regard, staying home each day to make meals and to keep the shack in pristine condition for her husband’s return.

Unlike her mother, Susanna saw the appeal in earning her own way. She graduated high school and worked a variety of dead-end jobs, earning enough money to pay her way through one year at the University of Rome (her father covered the subsequent costs). Her first year was 1968. Bloody, sweat-soaked ‘68. The sessantotto. It was a pivotal moment for Susanna’s political development. Not only was it her first year at university, her first year of lucent left-leaning history classes, which gave structure to the communist doctrine she’d been weaned on as a girl, but it was also the year that her father told her of the Betti gift.

It was family custom to inform each generation once the youngest sibling turned eighteen. As an only child, Susanna didn’t have to wait for anybody. The gift was on her mind during those months of protest. She saw death everywhere: in the news of peasant revolts across the countryside, in the Molotovs of agents provocateurs, and in the snarling barrels of the policemen whom Pasolini defended. At the time, she misunderstood her father’s explanation. Susanna thought that she and her friends were all epochal defenders of the Left, and every time one of them approached danger. She envisioned the worst; she took credit for their survival. She didn’t realize until years later that “epochal” didn’t mean those with potential, those who might one day achieve something: epochal meant power, and power meant the knot. It meant Calvi, Togliatti, Moro, Mussolini – it didn’t mean Susanna Betti and her boyfriends Silvio and Alessandro, whom she’d met at a student club for tarot enthusiasts. Those boys weren’t powerful, era-defining figures. They made it safely through the summer of ’68 and settled into cozy teaching jobs at the University of Rome, maintaining their friendship, if not their relationship with Susanna. She had long ago accused them of being sellouts of the petit-bourgeois.

Susanna aged into comfort too. She graduated with honours and took a job as a teaching assistant in Naples to avoid the awkwardness of working alongside Silvio and Alessandro. Eventually, she became the head of the literature department. Every year, she taught a seminar called “Pasolini and the Making of Italian Neo-capitalism.” Now that she had aged out of youthful dogmatism, she had a new appreciation for his work – although she still held a grudge against him for “The PCI to the Youth.”

She was thirty-seven when her premonition of Roberto Calvi’s death welcomed her into the upper echelon of chosen Bettis. She felt lucky. She had often thought that it was cruel for her family to receive visions when they were so old and had so little time to comprehend the death in its broader historical context. That was how she felt about Calvi, her hanged man. His death was distinguished, epochal, but without a historical distance, she didn’t know what it had meant or how Italian history would have changed if she’d been able to stop it. She looked forward to understanding the death in its proper context in the coming decades.

While thirty-seven was unusually young for a premonition, the giver of visions must have had a keener eye for the future than she did. On December 23rd, 1984, Susanna was on the 904 express train to the University of Milan, where she was scheduled to deliver a lecture on Pasolini’s final film, when a bomb in the ninth car detonated, killing her and fifteen others and injuring over two hundred passengers. The perpetrator of the 904 bombing, Giuseppe Calò, was arrested the next year for ordering the murder of Roberto Calvi.

At the moment before the bomb tore her to pieces, Susanna understood something. Maybe it was the Betti gift, or maybe a religious epiphany courtesy of the God she’d shunned her entire life, but in the instant before her particulate evisceration, she understood the nature of the knot. She understood that Calvi, Togliatti, Moro and Mussolini, Luigi and Mira, Pieri and Jacum, Silvio and Alessandro and Susanna herself were all the hanged man. Power was the knot on the noose around their necks, tied by the hands of an executioner whose name they all knew. She saw ahead to the arrest of Giuseppe Calò and Licio Gelli, their trial for the murder of Roberto Calvi, and their surprise acquittal due to what the court deemed “insufficient evidence.” She didn’t care. She understood who killed Calvi, and even if it wasn’t the same man who killed her, she knew that their nooses were tied by the same hands.


Owen Schalk is a writer from Winnipeg. He grew up in the countryside surrounded by rural emptiness, abandoned houses, and farm-loving German Canadians who tried and failed to instil their love of farming in him. He found his artistic curiosity while reading the usual canon. He found his voice while reading Pynchon, DeLillo, Bolaño, and other authors who write with a critical eye for dominant social and political doctrines.