'Silentes Loquimur': 'Foibe' and Border Anxiety in Post-War Literature from Trieste

By Pizzi, Katia | Journal of European Studies, September 1998 | Go to article overview

'Silentes Loquimur': 'Foibe' and Border Anxiety in Post-War Literature from Trieste


Pizzi, Katia, Journal of European Studies


In 1943 and 1945, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Italians, both partisans and civilians, were imprisoned and subsequently thrown alive by Yugoslav partisans into various chasms in the Karst region and the hinterland of Trieste and Gorizia. These chasms are generally known as 'foibe'.[1] Typical geological formations in the area, 'foibe' are cavernous pits characterized by a narrow and often hidden opening on the surface but 'which descend for various hundreds of meters in the bowels of the earth'.[2] By way of tortuous corridors, they are often connected with other caves of similar or different size.

'Foibe' have acquired, over several decades, specific historical and ideological functions. Their specificity is now analysed in the context of the collapse of existing structures of power, namely the Fascist regime in 1943 and the Nazi-Fascist 'Adriatisches Kustenland' in 1945. Oppression of the Slovenian and Croat communities, a standard policy of the Fascist regime, together with a forceful drive towards creating a Yugoslav national identity, have also been invoked to account for the upsurge of brutal and often indiscriminate violence connected with 'foibe'.

Beginning from the late 1940s, 'foibe' have become objects of interest verging on collective obsession. Despite evidence that Fascist soldiers had also used 'foibe' as open-air cemeteries for opponents of the regime, only their equivalent use on the part of Yugoslav partisans appeared to arouse general censure, enriched as it was with the most gruesome details:

The lorries of death arrived filled with victims who, often chained to one another and with hands cut by wire, were pushed in groups from the edge of the chasm. The first ones in line who were machine-gunned fell and dragged the others into the abyss. Whoever survived after a fall of 200 meters lay in agony from the lacerations caused by the spiky rocks which broke the fall.[3]

It is on the basis of perceptions of this nature that 'foiba' was incorporated by the historical memory of the right and eventually generated a series of rhetorical and propagandistic discourses still prominent today.[4] A name was quickly invented to describe the act of throwing enemies into 'foibe' ('infoibamento') and the revulsion they inspired increasingly fomented traditional anti-Slav feelings. Their crude and barbaric imagery continued to be reinforced during the Cold War by the sharp divisions between East and West.[5] But it is particularly in recent times, since the early 1990s, that the debate on 'foibe' has been re-ignited, possibly as a result of the historical events which led to the dissolution of the Eastern bloc. In many ways also the by-product of a debate on a wider scale involving revisionism of the last years of the war and the Resistance, 'foiba' has often been adopted as a favourite propaganda stunt on the part of an aggressive and extremely vocal neo-Fascist party in Trieste ('Alleanza Nazionale') and manipulated to serve a variety of purposes. The judiciary set out to establish responsibilities for 'infoibamenti' as new sources of information emerged, while left-wing historiography, for decades reluctant to engage in a theme traditionally associated with right-wing propaganda, has also recently reclaimed it as a legitimate part of local and indeed national history.

This complex ideological configuration in combination with the mythical stance of 'foibe' helps explain the significant role they progressively acquired also in the literary culture of the region. In the present paper I therefore intend to concentrate on the literary rather than the historico-ideological function of 'foibe'. My contention is that 'foibe' have acted and continue to act as literary symbols. Their circular shape is symbolic of their status as outlets, pitfalls, 'trous', black holes.[6] Some authors, in a more or less 'innocent' manner, have, as it were, 'fallen into' these holes. They have, perhaps unwittingly, let drop a reference or two to 'foibe' even while discussing something else.

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