Muriel Spark

Day Nine

Shuffling around among my papers in my box of notes, I came across some press cuttings from Italian papers of last autumn. They tell the chilling and puzzling story of an Italian family composed of a widowed middle-aged mother and her three adult sons, who all together one morning threw themselves over a viaduct almost 100 meters high on the Rome-Aquila highroad.

A little earlier that morning they had stopped their Alfa Romeo 164 in the emergency lane. A police car drew up, and asked what was the matter. Nothing, said the eldest son, mildly. Our mother wasn’t feeling very well and we just stopped for a minute. On the return journey the police patrol was surprised to see the Alfa still standing there. It had doors flung wide open, as well the baggage section. Not a soul in sight, except that, when they looked over the guardrail, they saw four dead bodies lying fairly close to each other. The proximity of the bodies, according to the fire brigade, seemed to point to the family having jumped hand in hand.

There was something almost of Greek tragedy in the story of an Italian mother consenting to take her adult sons to their death with her, and of their consenting to the plan. It was generally believed that the mother was the dominant spirit, although there was no proof that one of the three adult sons had not the upper hand. The sons had fiancées and women friends: The eldest, Robert, 38, was head of a society of intermediary finance, whatever that means. His two brothers, Silvio, 34, and Marco, 27, were commercial travelers in costume jewelry and watches. The mother, Annamaria, was 64, and had retained her striking good looks.

One psychiatrist who was approached about this event suggested that there was a high charge of depression in the family, probably transmitted genetically, a common anguish accumulating day after day and month after month within the family nucleus.

They had not been poor people. The working colleagues and friends of the young men were taken completely by surprise. The family had financial worries, to the extent that they owed, collectively, about a million dollars. That, divided by four, gives us debts of 250,000 dollars each, which surely three healthy young men could have made some arrangement to pay up, at least in part. But that was possibly their trouble–they could not divide by four where the family was concerned.

Suicide is the fatal sickness of any hope, the death of any future. Possibly this family faced a form of bankruptcy. But they seemed to abhor bankruptcy; it was literally worse than death. This is the respectable bourgeois mentality at its most pathetic. On a beautiful day amid beautiful scenery, they threw themselves in unison over a 100-meter viaduct. What fools! What absolute fools!