We’re back in WWII, but this time in German/Italian-occupied Greece. In this searing extract, Nazi soldiers murder the Italian troops who had struck up a friendly relationship with the captive Greeks. A homosexual Italian soldier, Carlo, sacrifices his own life to save that of his Captain, Antonio Corelli. German Leutnant Weber, a civilised and decent man, who was a friend of Corelli and Carlo, is horrified by the act he has to perform.
It was a beautiful day to die. A few soft inverted clouds idled on the summit of Mt Aenos. Nearby a goatbell clanged and a flock bleated. The sergeant approached the Leutnant. He was a Croatian, one of those thuggish fanatics more national socialist than Goebbels himself, and considerably less endowed with charm. Weber had never understood how such a man could have found his way into the Grenadiers. He said, ‘Herr Leutnant, more will be arriving. We can’t delay.’
‘Very well,’ said Weber, and he closed his eyes and prayed. It was a prayer that had no words, addressed to an apathetic God.
The carnage had none of the ritual formality of such occasions that film and paintings might suggest. The victims were not lined up against the wall. They were not blindfolded, faced away, or faced forward. Many of them were left on their knees, praying, weeping or pleading. Some lay on the grass as though they had already fallen, tearing at it with their hands, burrowing in desperation. Some fought their way to the back of the pack. Some stood smoking, as casually as at a party, and Carlo stood to attention next to Corelli, glad to die at last, and resolved with all his heart to die a soldier’s death.
The German boys heard the command to fire, and fired in disbelief. Those of them whose eyes were open aimed wide or high, or aimed such as not to cause a death. Their guns leapt and clattered in their hands, and their arms numbed and cramped from panic and vibration. The Croatian sergeant aimed to kill, firing in short and careful bursts, as intent as any carpenter, or a butcher carving joints.
Weber’s head reeled. His former friends, wheeling and dancing in the horizontal rain, were crying out. They fell to their knees, their hands flailing, their nostrils haunted by the stench of cordite, searing cloth and oil, their mouths filling with the dry and dusty tang of blood. Some stood up again, holding out their arms like Christ, baring their chests in the hope of a quicker death, a shorter route through pain, a consummation to their loss. What no one had seen, not even Weber, was that at the order to fire Carlo had stepped smartly sideways like a soldier forming ranks. Antonio Corelli, in a haze of nostalgia and forgetfulness, had found in front of him the titanic bulk of Carlo Guercio, had found his wrists gripped painfully in those mighty fists, had found himself unable to move. He stared wonderingly into the middle of Carlo’s back as ragged and appalling holes burst through from inside his body, releasing shreds of tattered flesh and crimson gouts of blood.
Carlo stood unbroken as one bullet after another burrowed like white-hot parasitic knives into the muscle of his chest. He felt blows like those of an axe splintering his bones and hacking at his veins. He stood perfectly still, and when his lungs filled up with blood he held his breath and counted. ‘Uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto, nove …’ He decided in the arbitrariness of his valour to stand and count to thirty. He reached thirty just as he thought that he might be failing, and then he looked up at the sky, felt a bullet cave the jawbone of his face, and flung himself over backwards. Corelli lay beneath him, paralysed by his weight, drenched utterly in his blood, stupefied by an act of love so incomprehensible and ineffable, so filled with divine madness, that he did not hear the sergeant’s voice.
‘Italians, it’s all over. If any of you are living, stand up now, and your lives will be spared.’
He did not see the two or three stand up, their hands clutched over their wounds, one of them with his groin ripped out. He did not see them stagger, but he heard the renewed clatter of the automatic as the sergeant cut them down. Then he heard the single shots as the trembling hand of Weber, who, intoxicated with horror, was wandering amongst the dead, ensured their despatch with a spurious coup de grâce. Next to his head he saw Weber’s jackboot, and he saw Weber bend down and look directly into his eyes where he lay entrapped beneath that weight and bulk. He saw the wavering barrel of the Luger approach his face, he saw the unfathomable sorrow in Weber’s brown eyes, and then he saw the gun withdrawn, unfired. He tried to breathe more freely, and realised that he was having difficulty not merely because of Carlo’s weight, but because the bullets that had passed with such destruction through his friend had also struck himself.