Soldier, Salesman, Swindler, Spy
“So, Are we or aren’t we?” boasted my great-uncle Vili. “Siamo o non siamo?”
It was never entirely clear what one was or was not, but to everyone in my family, including those who today no longer speak a word of Italian, this elliptical phrase still captures the strutting, daredevil, cocksure, soldier-braggart who had pulled himself out of a trench during the Great War and then, hidden between rows of trees with his rifle strapped tightly to his back, would have mowed down the entire Austro-Hungarian empire had he not run out of bullets. The phrase expressed the hectoring self-confidence of a drill sergeant surrounded by sissies in need of a daily jostling: Are we man enough, or aren’t we? Are we going ahead with it, or not? Are we worth our salt, or what? It was his way of whistling in the dark, of shrugging off defeat, of picking up the pieces and declaring victory. It was his way of barging in on fate, of holding out for more—of taking credit for everything, including the unforeseen brilliance of his most hapless schemes. He had pluck. He knew it, and he flaunted it.
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