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from The Unseen

by Nanni Balestrini

Editorial Note:

The two chapters below are taken from the first quarter of the novel. Chapter 9 describes the initial situation after a prison revolt. Chapter 10, taking place some time before the events of the previous chapter, depicts the occupation of a building being used by a construction company to store materials. The narrator refers to the building as the Cantinone  (cantina) to reflect what it housed before its transformation into a storage facility. 

The Unseen was originally published in 1987 as Gli Invisibili by Bompiani. The English edition was first published by Verso in 1989 (and then updated in 2011) with a translation by Liz Heron. This excerpt is reproduced with permission of Verso through PLSclear.


Chapter 9

Well right at the start of the revolt there was pandemonium in the sense that the first word going round was that there are nineteen guards taken hostage and this provoked outright amazement there was incredulity fear and amazement but then at once the general mood rapidly became a mood of great excitement probably because what everyone felt most of all at that moment was the fact of being in control of this space the fact of freedom of movement all over this space and just the simple fact of free movement in a space bigger than the cell you were confined to released this whole general excitement

then what happened was that those prisoners who’d planned the whole thing who’d organized it immediately set in motion all the organizational functions of the revolt these comrades assigned themselves roles precise tasks which involved guarding and surveying the most likely points where a break-in could be made from outside because the guards could always try a break-in even if the hostages we were holding meant it wasn’t so simple and then somebody had to attend to guarding the hostages and all this took place in great haste the whole organizational machine was quickly set in motion despite the great amount of confusion because obviously it had all been decided in advance and these roles had all been assigned well ahead

there were comrades with a weapon made from those coffee-makers they were moka coffee-makers later on in fact they were banned from being used in cells the fuse came out of the coffee-maker there was the detonator and inside was the explosive and these coffee-makers functioned as grenades the explosive had been hidden in the cells and it was this the guards were looking for when they’d carried out that peculiar search they’d searched in all the boxes and bottles because that’s where people hide explosives they hadn’t found any but they’d left them all on the tables to make it clear that they knew there were explosives in the prison that they’d got wind that something was going to happen

the guards were all put in a dormitory cell and there began the whole ritual of the search and so on the guards weren’t molested nobody harmed them only some comrades began to mimic though without any malice very ironically it looked like the kind of thing the indians did in ’77 they started mimicking the whole ritual of the guard towards the prisoner and then they were all searched like that exactly the way they searched the prisoners every day they were made to stand there with their legs slightly apart their arms raised and then they were searched in the routine way as they did to us day in day out whenever we went out and whenever we returned to our cells

first the head was searched fingers through the hair under the hair then down the back of the head on the neck down on to the shoulders and under the armpits and then going right down the back under the bum the legs the backs of the legs and down the legs to the feet and then back up again up the legs the thighs the inner thighs the stomach and then all the way up the trunk back to the neck and then making them undo their trousers pull down the zip feeling the waistband feeling the balls and then making them take off their shoes hand them over and turn them upside down to look inside them all this with the guards there waiting one after the other like our routine with arms raised legs slightly apart


but what we all confirmed after these searches carried out on all the guards was that among the nineteen guards taken hostage there wasn’t even one non-commissioned officer just some poor wretch of a lance-corporal who obviously just happened to be there and this fact that there wasn’t even one non-commissioned officer there made us all think that the non-commissioned officers had got wind of something going on they had a good idea what was going to happen because it had never ever come about that there wasn’t at least one non-commissioned officer on the floor there wasn’t a single non-commissioned officer not even a sergeant and just by a complete coincidence on the whole floor no on both floors the first and second floor in every wing there wasn’t a single sergeant


then later they made them take off their uniforms too they stripped them and they brought them clothes the prisoners wore and they made them put on these clothes because they were hostages and so if they were wearing their uniforms if there was a break-in they would immediately be identifiable by whoever was breaking in police carabinieri or guards themselves to free them so that they could carry out on-the-spot reprisals against the prisoners without running the risk of endangering the lives of their guards if instead they were dressed like the prisoners it would all be more difficult


but there was no violence directed at the guards everyone I remember was concerned about this and they kept on saying that in any case nothing should be done to the guards because that was our insurance that things would turn out all right the hostage guards were all put in a big cell and watched from outside they were always well treated they even ate the same as us what we ate during the revolt was spaghetti which there was plenty of in the cells there were comrades who cooked spaghetti for all the rest of us and they came to take orders three alla matriciana four alla carbonara five with tomato sauce everywhere spaghetti was being cooked on the camping-gas rings and the hostage guards got their spaghetti too

and the rest of the prisoners the ones that weren’t involved in starting the revolt right away they got themselves organized too to deal with taking on the guards in the likely event of an attack so a whole machinery was set in motion with everyone very involved basically people started arming themselves they started pulling down the window frames to make blades bars and things like that out of them they started making skewers by sharpening the points of the metal fittings of the camping-gas rings they started breaking off table-legs to make clubs and things like that then the armoured doors were pulled off their hinges and placed against the big windows at the end of the corridors because from outside they could fire in at us and so on


in the process of taking over the entire prison people had also got hold of some tools and machinery too for instance they’d taken an electric grindstone and used it to cut through the iron slats of the beds and so with those slats blades could be made they could be made in quantity and there was also an electric welding machine that was used to weld the gates of the rotunda and so block the possibility of a break-in from below and also a break-in from above because from the second floor there was a spiral stair leading up to the roof and then we were also able to make use of the guard-post telephone on the second floor and on this telephone we communicated with the prison administration and this was the medium of communication for negotiations

and then there was the television because another peculiar thing was that when there’s a revolt they usually cut off all the electricity and this time instead they hadn’t cut off the electricity and they’d left the television working as if to let us stay in touch with the news from outside they could easily have pulled the plug on the lot but instead they left the electricity on they left the telephone working they left the television working and on the television we got news about the negotiations all the televisions in the cells were on all the time with the sound turned right up especially when the news was on and the news of the revolt was always the lead item

inside the cells weren’t damaged in any way everything was turned into a huge bivouac in the sense that all people did was go up and down the whole length of the corridors which would be about fifty or sixty yards everyone was walking up and down the whole time some disguised with just a scarf or a handkerchief around their faces while others were unrecognizable hooded in a pillow-case with two holes for their eyes a blanket like a poncho over their shoulders and these were obviously non-politicals because the non-politicals had their own way of doing things in a revolt so that they wouldn’t be recognized as you always see in photographs of a rooftop revolt they always have their faces hidden so they won’t be recognized so as to avoid any bad consequences

and everywhere people did nothing but move about they all did nothing but walk up and down the corridors inside and outside the cells they truly seemed to be measuring a larger physical space a bigger space for manoeuvre that they’d won and they kept on walking they went on up and down the corridors in and out of the cells all of them open that lined the corridors and everyone was shifting around all the time from one cell to another to such an extent that the cells looked quite different there was a continual movement of people and things shifted around carried from one cell to another a continual movement of objects of clothes of things it had all become a great bivouac a party

the atmosphere there was euphoric there was a festive atmosphere I can remember this great euphoria this excitement this festivity and what everyone was saying over and over again and what they were convinced of was that there could never ever be a military intervention by the guards by the carabinieri by the police by the forces of repression and this all because of there being nineteen guards held hostage and this made a break-in nearly impossible because it would have been very dangerous for the guards held hostage I can remember that there were no worries I can remember there was no anxiety whatsoever I can remember there was euphoria and excitement there was this mechanism triggered in everybody’s head to see this situation as holding no danger and making everybody feel they were at a party

Chapter 10

Things were hectically busy at the Cantinone there was somebody doing electrical work and they’d run in an electric cable attached to the outside wiring of the old people’s home there was somebody doing plumbing and they’d fixed the pipes and so we had water too there were some doing building work they’d gone and got their tools and they’d started filling up the holes in the floor and fixing the tiles there were some doing carpentry and building wooden frames for the windows and then covering them with plastic sheets and at the far end of the big room with the planks and beams we’d found there we were building a big stage for the concerts and performances we wanted to put on the opening concert had already been announced with a poster and leaflets the comrades were giving out wherever they went

three or four old men from the home next door had also turned up and were recalling the days when the Cantinone had been an osterìa and had had huge casks tables and benches running the whole length of it because that was where the peasants met to drink wine and play cards and we promised them that we’d put back the casks and the benches and the wine like there used to be then a bunch of comrades who’d gone out to advertise the concert arrive back with the cars full of stuff to eat we think they’ve stolen it and we get mad but instead it had been some shopkeepers who’d given us packs of drinks and pasta and then some Neapolitan guys turn up who worked in a pizzerìa they arrived with a pile of pizzas so there was food for everybody

at the same time the first working groups had been formed and had moved into the rooms on the first floor Valeriana and a group of women were meeting to set up a collectively run clinic others were planning a counterinformation service on soft and hard drugs others were discussing food and the counterculture others music film theatre there’s a decision to get in touch with the youth circles in other towns that we’ve heard from to exchange news and experiences and to set up a resource centre with their newspapers and their documents and in another room on the first floor a press office was already in full-time operation with typewriters and duplicators parcels of leaflets of press releases announcements documents were piling up on the tables of the press office waiting to go out

the evening of the concert arrives and the bands arrive from the different surrounding villages the sound system is set up the lights are ready the lights cast bright-coloured stains on the whitewashed walls of the big hall and the bands begin turning up they play all at the same time and the intermingled sounds pour out into the street and fill the air people are arriving loads of people young people are arriving from all over and not so young too the street outside is transformed into a car park with all the cars jammed into it there’s a sea of heads everyone sitting on the benches and on the ground tapping their feet and all this echoing out as the bright-coloured lights turn faster and faster I look about to see where China is and I see her against the wall with Gelso whose head’s shaking with laughter his hair hanging right over his face when he lifts it he sees me and waves for me to go over there too

the party was at its height there was such euphoria such great excitement people coming in and out in and out indescribable confusion they all really liked the place we should stay there they said we should stay there whatever it took we’d do terrific things in the Cantinone the music was blaring out loud as can be in the thick of the crowd I meet Scilla carrying a 15-inch wrench saying there are too many phoneys here I spot one he gets his stuffing knocked out Scilla was the only glum face in the entire place they were all looking at the stage where somebody was singing I love to play pound out my music all day but I don’t earn my wages that way for I play like a mule I’m a wild boy I wanna win I’m kinda rough but believe me I’m cool and I went to be with China right under the stage and I stayed right there holding her close while the music blared out loud as can be

suddenly the music stops Scilla has gone up on to the stage and over the microphone he says the cultural assessore is here outside with a message from the mayor and the council people roared with laughter saying bring him in here to us and we’ll eat him up the cultural assessore is young small and nervous with a little moustache and a white raincoat and he’d been a 68’er he waits patiently until the voices quieten down to let him speak and then he says I must tell you that the situation is urgent we’ve just had a telephone call from the chief constable telling us that you’ll be cleared out of here within twenty-four hours by order in the name of the council and the mayor I’m appealing once again to reasonableness and good sense evacuate the Cantinone and we promise you room in the new multi-purpose centre as soon as the work on it is finished

uproar and shouting come from every part of the hall then Nocciola begins speaking you’re conning us first you go and say that we’re provocateurs and fascists then that you want to find somewhere just for us the truth is that you’re shit-scared about your council majority because if it was up to you you’d be the first to call the police but we know very well that this story of the multi-purpose centre is a fairytale you only have to look at how little you’ve cared about our problems in the past no no the assessore bravely interrupts him I want to point out that this is a slander the problems of young people are problems of great concern to us in the next budget we’ve allowed for considerable expenditure on youth and culture but there are timetables that have to be respected however I assure you that a satisfactory solution will be found for your problems too

you should have talked to us about it first he says in a conciliatory tone you should have trusted us and together we’d have found a satisfactory solution I think the needs underlying what you’ve done here are valid what isn’t valid however is the way you imagine you’re going to satisfy them together we must find another way but meanwhile the Cantinone needs to be cleared before any irreparable damage is done people have had enough out out everyone’s shouting I’m waiting for an answer I’ll only leave here when I’ve got your answer whether it’s negative or affirmative he manages to add then from the stage Valeriana gets some silence and she says the decision is up to the floor and we must all discuss it but not while he’s here and if he wants he can wait outside and we’ll give him our decision later

Scilla escorts him outside and before leaving the stage he raises his arm holding up the wrench thunderous applause breaks out everyone’s shouting we in the collective don’t really know what to do we confer briefly then Cotogno takes the microphone comrades we can’t leave here under the threat of police intervention if we clear out of here voluntarily now letting ourselves be blackmailed by the mayor and the parties then we’ve lost we must decide what’s the best thing to do whether to stay here and defend the occupation which means confrontation or not I think that for the time being confrontation isn’t in our interest I think it would split the movement whether we win or lose in military terms because whatever happens we’ll lose politically and even if we win in military terms we’ll be up against an unmanageable situation

we must decide what’s in our best interest for the growth and strengthening of this movement and so the most pressing problem for us is not to preserve the Cantinone at any price the problem is that we must preserve this strength that we’ve built and that’s why we must say no to the voluntary evacuation they’re suggesting but we must also say no to confrontation maybe just at the last moment but we must decide for ourselves autonomously when and how to evacuate if we evacuate as the result of our own autonomous decision we keep our political strength intact and tomorrow we’ll be able to carry on the renewed struggles of this movement for the conquest of a social space we’ll be able to carry on with other occupations and other struggles if instead we go for confrontation here today we risk everything I believe we lose everything

there were a lot of disgruntled faces even if the majority were in agreement with Cotogno but in that general euphoria it was like throwing cold water on a fire our position is agreed in the discussion and so we send word to the mayor that the mass meeting has decided to go on with the occupation to the bitter end but then we decide that we can’t just all hang on waiting for the break-in there must be 400 people there for us all to stay there and then all leave together at the last moment is impossible it’s better for just a few to do it because then it’s easier to leave it takes time to persuade everybody nobody wanted to leave nobody wanted to admit the party was all over but at last they went they dismantled and took away everything that didn’t have to be left behind and in the end only those of us in the collective were left about sixty in all

in the big hall candles are lit and the main lights are switched off the atmosphere of earlier evenings returns with sleeping bags being unrolled and people lying down only this time no one wants to talk or sing to tell stories and make plans to roll joints and make love this evening everyone has a stick or a bar besides their sleeping bag I see Valeriana sitting against a pillar smoking her eyes fixed on the angled shadows on the cross vaults I go up to her with China and I see her eyes are glistening what’s wrong Valeriana shit all this work for fuck all I liked this place we’ll never find a place as nice as this maybe if we occupy some broken-down hut right out in the wilds maybe then they could let us have it but a place like this that they don’t even know what to do with no way are those bastards going to let us have it

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