Fairy Tales of Reality
Source: British Socialist, 1912, p.84-96, 140-142.
Online Version: Maxim Gorky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2003;
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
"There are no fairy-tales more beautiful than those invented by life itself." - Andersen.
In Naples the tramway employees were striking. A line of empty tramcars were drawn up all along the Riviera Quiaca, while on the Piazza Triumphatore a group of drivers and conductors collected, all merry, noisy Neapolitans, volatile as quicksilver.
Above their heads, behind the railings of the garden, sparkled the thin jet of a fountain, as sparkles the blade of a dagger in the air. A great concourse of people, wanting to get to all possible parts of the great town, surrounds the tramway men, and all these shop assistants, apprentices, hawkers and seamstresses are abusing the strikers in loud and angry tones. Angry words were heard, malicious remarks, and hands move ceaselessly through the air, hands with which the Neapolitan knows how to speak quite as expressively and fluently as with his unceasing tongue . . . . A light breeze wafts from the sea, and the enormous palms of the town park rustle their dark-green, fan-like leaves, while their trunks resemble the feet of monster elephants, and appear to be carved in stone. Little urchins - the half-naked children of the Naples streets - hop about like sparrows, filling the air with their loud cries and laughter.
The town, which looks like an old engraving, is flooded with hot sunlight, and gives forth a sound like an organ; the blue waves of the sea's bosom beat rhythmically against the stony shore, accompanying like a tambourine the murmurs and cries of the people.
With depressed countenances the strikers crowd together, hardly heeding the irritated cries of the bystanders. They climb on to the park railings, and look uneasily over the heads of the people down the street, like a crowd of wolves who are surrounded by dogs. It is clear to all that these men in uniform are bound fast together by an indomitable will, that they will not give way; and this circumstance embitters the crowd of people still more. There are, indeed, some philosophers among them, who, quietly smoking, try to appease the over-eager opponents of the strike.
"Hé, Signor! But what can they do if there is not enough macaroni for the children?"
In groups of twos and threes stand the showily dressed officials, of the municipal police, attentively watching that the crowd should not disturb the carriage-traffic. They are strictly neutral, and, look with the same complacency on accusers and accused, and joke good-humouredly about both whenever the gestures and cries assume a menacing character. In case of serious disturbances, a division of Carabinieri are stationed in a small side alley along the houses, armed with carbines. That is a rather ominous group; impassive, silent men, with short, black cloaks and narrow red trouser-stripes, which look like thin stripes of blood.
Suddenly the scolding and laughing, reproaches and warnings become silent; there is a movement in the crowd which seems to bring it together the faces of the strikers grow still darker, and and they draw closer together as the cry rings out among the crowd:
A mocking, triumphant whistle assails the ears of the strikers; the soldiers are greeted with joyful cries. A stout man in a grey summer suit, with a panama hat on his head, begins to dance, stamping heavily on the pavement with his feet. The conductors and drivers push their way slowly through the crowd and approach the the cars; some of them climb on to the platforms. They look still more sullen now, and reply to the hostile cries with rough words. It begins to become quieter. As the strikers pass through the hostile crowd they split it up into different sections and groups, and give it a new mood, not so noisy, and more human.
From the Santa Lucia shore, with lightly tripping feet, approach little grey-coated soldiers, their feet keeping even time, and their left arms. mechanically swinging. They look as if they were made of tin, and as fragile as mere toys . . . . . At their head walks a handsome, well-built officer, with knitted brows and scornfully drawn lips, and beside him runs, with a hop, skip and a jump, a fat man with a top-hat, who talks to him ceaselessly, cutting the air with countless gestures.
The crowd has shrunk back from the tramcars; the soldiers have dispersed themselves like a string of grey pearls along the line of cars, and taken up their stand by the platforms, on which the strikers are standing.
The man in the top hat and a few other persons who have surrounded him cry, like mad creatures, waving their arms:-
"For the last time . . . . . Do you hear?"
The officer, rather bored, twirls his moustache while he has bent his head. The man who was accompanying him before runs to him, raising his top hat, and hoarsely calling something to him. The officer looks sideways at him, raises himself to his full height, throws out his chest - and the loud words of command are heard.
Instantly the soldiers begin to jump, two at a time, on to the platforms of the cars. But at the same time the drivers and conductors jump off. This seems ludicrous to the crowd. Howling, whistling, laughter breaks forth, but dies again immediately. In deep silence the people, with suddenly aged, grey, drawn faces, and eyes staring in astonishment, draw back from the sides and back of the cars, and rush in a body to the front of the first car.
And there, at a distance of two feet from the front of the car, across the rails, bareheaded, and with the face of a soldier, lies a grey-haired driver, his breast bare, his face turned upwards,' an the ends of his moustache pointing towards the sky. With rapidity of a monkey, a young boy threw himself down beside him and after him others, without haste, lay themselves dawn, one after the other, on the ground, on the track of the cars. . . A suppressed roar breaks from the mass of people; voices are heard in terror invoking the Madonna; some curse sullenly, women scream and groan, while the little boys, struck by drama, jump about everywhere like India-rubber balls.
The man with the top-hat roars something in a sobbing void the officer looks at him and shrugs his shoulders ; it is his duty to replace the drivers by soldiers, but he has no orders to make any attack upon the strikers.
Then the man in the top-hat, surrounded by any who are willing to help, rushes to the Carabinieri. These begin to move, arrive the spot, bend over those who are lying on the rails, and try to lift them up.
There begins a struggle, a turmoil. But suddenly the whole grey, dusty mass of onlookers gets into motion. They roar, howl stream on to the rails ; the man with the panama hat pulls it off throws it high in the air, and lays himself as a first on the ground tapping the striker lying beside him on the shoulder, and shouting encouraging words to him.
And after him countless merry, noisy people who, three minutes ago, were not near the place, began dropping on the rails as if their feet had been cut off. Laughing, they threw themselves down made some grimaces, and called out something to the officer, who laughing and shaking his handsome head, called out something the man in the top-hat, gesticulating with his hands, and twirling his gloves under the nose of the latter.
In the meantime, more people kept coming and laying themselves on the rails. Women threw their parcels and baskets on the ground, little boys rolled themselves, laughing, together, like dogs when they feel cold; respectable, educated people rolled themselves in the dust from side to side.
Five soldiers looked down from the platform of the first car on to the heaps of bodies under the wheels, their hands on the edge of the carriages, and their heads thrown back, and roared with laughter. They no longer looked like the tin toys of a little while ago.
After half an hour the tramcars were rushing, with many a shriek and squeak, through the streets of Naples. On platforms stood the conquerors, merrily smiling, and along the cars, too, they went, politely asking:
The people who handed them the red and yellow strips of paper winked at them, laughing and teasing them good-naturedly....
In Genoa, on the little square in front of the station, a tightly-packed crowd of people are assembled. Workmen predominate, but many well-dressed, well-nourished persons are also present. At the head of the crowd stand the members of the municipal administration. The heavy banner of the town, artistically embroidered in silk, floats in the air, and beside it wave the many-coloured banners of the Labour organisations. The gold shimmers on the tassels, fringes, knots, and on the ends of the banner-poles, the silk rustles, and the mass of people, in solemn mood, murmur like a choir singing in an undertone.
Above them, on a high pedestal, towers the fine figure of Columbus, the dreamer who suffered so much because he believed, and—gained the victory because he believed. And he still looks down upon mankind as though his marble lips would say:—
"Only those gain the victory who believe."
At his feet, round the pedestal, the musicians have deposited their brazen trumpets, and the brass shines in the sun like pure gold.
The heavy marble house of the station stands in a concave hall-circle, and has spread out its wings as though to embrace humanity. Through the portal the loud panting of the locomotives teaches the ear, the rattling of chains, whistles, cries; but on the square, flooded with burning sunlight, it is still and oppressively hot. On the verandahs and at the windows of the houses stand half-dressed women with flowers in their hands, and children dressed as for a fete, looking like flowers themselves.
A whistle from the engine approaching the station. There is a movement in the crowd. Like blackbirds some hats go up in the air, the musicians seize their instruments, some of the older, more serious men step to the front, turn their faces to the crowd, and give some order, motioning with their hands towards each side.
Heavily and slowly the crowd draws aside, leaving a broad pathway free to the street.
"Whom are they receiving here?"
"The children from Parma."
There, at Parma, the workers are on strike. The employers do not give in, the position of the workmen became daily more difficult. They therefore got together their children, who were already beginning to sicken with hunger, and sent them to their comrades in Genoa.
From behind the station's rows of pillars there emerges a strange procession of little people: they are only half-clothed, and look in their rags like shaggy, odd little animals. They walk in rows of five abreast, holding each other tightly by the hand small, dusty, visibly tired. Their faces are solemn, but their eyes are shining, clear, and lively; and as the music breaks forth in their honour with the "Garibaldi Hymn" a bright, contented smile passes over these thin, peaked, hungry faces.
The crowd greets these people of the future with a deafening roar, the banners droop before them, the trumpets blare. The children are a little confused by this reception; for a moment they shrink back, but then all at once they close up their ranks, forming themselves into a solid body, and with hundreds of voices, which come as if from one breast, give vent to the cry:—
"Long live Italy!"
"Long live the youth of Parma" drones the multitude, falling upon them.
"Hurrah for Garibaldi!" cry the children, cutting like a grey wedge in among the crowd and disappearing there.
At the windows of the hotel, on the roofs of the houses, countless handkerchiefs flutter like white birds; a rain of flowers pours down thence on the heads of the crowd, loud, merry cries are heard.
Everything has a festal air, everything seems clad with new life; even the grey marble has blossomed out in gay hues.
The banners wave, hats and flowers fly through the air; over the heads of the grown-ups little children's heads have appeared; little, dark-shinned claws clutch through the air after the flowers
and wave to the crowd, and above everything sounds uninterruptedly the mighty cry:—
"Long live Socialism!"
"Long five Italy!"
Almost simultaneously all the children are lifted up, placed on the shoulders of the grown-up people, or pressed to the breast of some rough-moustached man. The music is hardly audible in the
general noise, screams, and laughter. Women appear among the crowd and divide the still remaining children among them. They call to each other:—
"Will you take two, Anita?"
"Yes, indeed, and you too!
"And one for lame Marguerita."
Everywhere there are signs of joyful excitement, faces with a festal expression, hind, tearful eyes. Here and there the strikers' children are already nibbling at sweets or eating bread.
"In our time this was not thought of," said an old man with a beaked nose and a black cigar in his mouth.
"And yet how simple it is!"
"Yes. Simple and reasonable!"
The old fellow took the cigar out of his mouth, examined, the one end, and with a deep sigh shook off the ashes. When directly after he found two of the Parma children close beside him, evidently brothers, he made a fierce face, tilted his hat over his eyes, and opened his arms. The children, first looking solemnly up at him, pressed closer together, and shrunk back with darkening faces. Suddenly the old fellow bent down and began to crow. The children now laughed merrily and jumped about the pavement with their bared legs. But the old man stood up, pulled his hat to rights, and walked off with an uncertain step, evidently of the opinion that he had done all that was necessary.
A hunch-backed, grey-haired woman, with the face of a witch and harsh grey hairs on her bony chin, stands against the pedestal of the Columbus monument and weeps, drying her red-encircled, eyes on the end of a faded shawl. Sombre and malformed, she seems so strangely solitary in this cheerfully excited crowd of people.
With a dancing step a black-haired vegetable woman comes past, leading by the hand a little man of seven years, with wooden shoes on his feet and a hat which reaches to the shoulders on his head.
He shakes his head about to throw the hat back on to his neck, but it keeps slipping over his nose again. The woman pulls the hat off his head, and waving it laughing in the air sings loudly some song or other. The boy watches her, his head thrown back and his whole face full of laughter, and then leaps up to get back his hat, and both disappear in the crowd.
An overgrown man in a leather apron, with bare, enormous arms, holds a six-year-old girl on his shoulder, and says to the woman who walks at his side leading by the hand a boy with fiery red hair:-
"You understand that if this becomes a general custom they will have hard work to get us under, eh?"
And he laughs in a loud, deep, triumphant voice, tossing up his little burden towards the blue sky:-
"Hurrah for Parma!"
The people disperse, carrying or leading the children away with them. On the square there remain only crushed flowers, paper bags emptied of sweets, a merry group of blue-clad porters, and above them the noble figure of the man who discovered the new world.
But from the streets which, like enormous tubes, converge on the square, sound the merry cries of the people who are going towards the new life.