Written in sparse, minimalist prose, Without Blood by the Italian writer, Alessandro Baricco is a poignant short story exploring themes of morality, a vicious cycle of revenge and violence, the destructive nature of war, its cruelty, savagery and its long legacy on the lives of its participants and survivors. Other themes include the existence of an individual within realm of the chaotic, unfair, and brutal world where the line between good and evil is often fluid and partially erased, the nature of truth and how we tend to believe in all the stories we hear and tell each other, without any further verification, as long as they fit into our own ideological understanding of the world. Baricco weaved a tale of profundity, with many layers of moral dilemmas and the complexity of human condition.
Without Blood takes place in an unnamed country, during unspecified times. One can deduce that the story starts shortly after the war, presumably in the aftermath of WWII, possibly in Italy or Spain after Spanish Civil War, as there is a number of Spanish names mentioned , as well as the city of Santander appears within the text.
At the beginning of this story, we are transported to a farmhouse in the remote countryside – where a man, Manuel Roca is hiding with his two young children. Three men arrive to kill Manuel Roca as an act of revenge. From a verbal exchange between the men, the reader can understand that Manuel Roca is a doctor who has been accused of committing war crimes similar to those committed by the fascists during WWII, of being a torturer of prisoners during the war, of conducting experiments on prisoners including on a brother of one of the men who came to kill him. Manuel Roca is on the losing side of the war that has just ended. However, for the reader this is just a hearsay – there is no mention of any evidence of those crimes in the book or any involvement of Manuel Roca in those crimes. Three men kill him as well as his young son who is trying to protect his father by pointing a gun at one of the men.
The first question that comes to one’s mind is if revenge and extrajudicial killings are ever justified. What about a young child protecting his father by pointing the gun at others – where does the line of a moral dilemma lie?
Roca’s young daughter, Nina survives the atrocity by hiding in the cellar, but she is able to hear and see slaying of her family from beneath the floor. The youngest of the men, Tito is only twenty years old, sees Manuel Roca’s daughter hiding in the cellar under a trap door. Nina’s life is spared as Tito, albeit by accident, does not reveal her hiding place to other men.
This one event sets in motion a cycle of vengeance by the survivor. As readers we only witness the atrocity committed on Nina’s father and her young brother. Everything else is merely a hearsay which is unreliable.
More than fifty years after the killings, Nina tracks Tito, a man who gunned down her father and brother but also the one who saved her. From the conversation they are having, we understand that Nina even though managed to have her own family, she spent the later part of her life in a mental institution, and was directly or indirectly involved in tracking and killing two other men who participated in slaying her family.
Tito, now seventy-two years old, expected Nina to come to him one day as well. Will she kill him too in revenge? Does she seek revenge on the last killer, or did Nina seek Tito in order to forgive him?
While sitting together in the café, looking like an elderly couple: Nina in her 50s and Tito in his 70s both recall their lives, haunted by the past events, but both are unreliable narrators who use unreliable sources to tell their stories. During their conversation Tito justifies atrocities of war in order to build a just society and to eradicate poverty which leads him to justification of killings, including those of children in the name of ideology, ideals, or belief system.
Even though half a century has passed, as readers we are still not sure if there is more bloodshed to happen. This reflects the vicious cycle of violence and the cruelty associated with the quest for vengeance. We will only find the answers in the last sentences of the book which offer a lesson of hope. Baricco presents the idea that violence breeds violence – in order to break this cycle, Baricco imposes a Shakespearean moral dilemma on Tito and Nina: to kill or not to kill?
Without Blood portrays the predicament of an individual thrown into the savagery of war and how one singular traumatic event in one’s life can have a profound impact on perpetrators, survivors and bystanders for the reminder of their lives as well as a future generation.
This is a very short book, just under ninety pages which makes for a great read for those with lack of time for reading. It is a very impactful book, exploring the subject of moral choices including forgiveness and memory – how we remember our past and take for granted what information others feed us to justify their actions.
Baricco created a compelling tale which serves as a reflection of human condition, its complexity, emphasizing that there are no easy answers when dealing with the savagery of war, the loss of loved ones, trauma, and grief.
I highly recommend this book to everyone.