Magdalen Nabb - Exclusive Interview - Part Three -

Exclusive Interview with Magdalen Nabb

Florence, Italy
September 10, 2004

Part Three - Terrorism


Q:  You co-authored (with Paolo Vagheggi) a book on terrorism called The Prosecutor. Tell us about that experience.

Nabb:  That book got me into so much trouble. I still can’t publish it here in Italy. I was called into the police station, I was threatened, and my phone was tapped. I don’t know exactly what they suspected me of. Since I made the story up, I have no idea, so I can’t defend myself. I had been following Vagheggi’s journalism for years when he called me and said he wanted to write something on the Moro kidnapping with me. He was a good reporter and I had often made use of his crime reports. I said, “I’m interested in it but I can’t possibly do the research.” It went back to the sixties, before I moved to Italy. He, on the other hand, had reported on terrorism since its beginnings. So he provided the information about the history and structure of the Red Brigades and some contacts. But my only real contact for that book was the Prosecutor himself. We had a number of discreet meetings and dinners, outside the city. He had to dodge his bodyguards to do that but he himself was always armed. He enjoyed it, I think. Very James Bond.

Q: What specific problems did you and Paolo Vagheggi encounter?

Nabb:  Both of our phones were tapped. And I’d had the Avvocato di Stato-- he’s the Prosecutor who prosecutes on behalf of the state in cases of terrorism-- come after me. I didn’t realize who he was. Vagheggi called me one evening and said, “Have you had something wrong with your telephone, today?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Did something happen to do with the book?” I said, “Well, yes. Last night I went to give a lecture and this man stood up and started asking me really weird questions.” It was a rotary club thing. I said I didn’t know who it was. We hadn’t told anybody about the book and, though we had a publisher for it here, we hadn’t talked about it all while we were writing it. We’d just finished it, in fact and then this man started asking me these questions. He said, “So, you’ve got a lot of contacts with the Red Brigades and the IRA and you probably know a lot about the contacts you have?” I said, “No, I really don’t.” I found his attitude very menacing. When I told Vagheggi about the incident, he said, “Well, they’ve tapped our phones and that will be the reason why.” And then he was approached by a Colonel in the secret services at a reception that he was reporting on. In the book there’s a Colonel called Tempesta, which means “storm.” The Colonel from secret services--now, nobody had read this book as far as we knew, it wasn’t published--this Colonel came up to Vagheggi and said, “It’s a nice evening, but I think there’s a storm in the air. What do you think, Vagheggi?” So we knew they’d read the book. They could only have done that by getting the manuscript from the publisher after questioning me after that lecture. The next thing that happened was that the manuscript came back to us with a letter from the publisher saying they’d changed their minds about publishing itbecause ‘Nobody’s interested in terrorism.’ So I published it in England and Germany, America and Japan. Anyhow, that whole business was pretty scary.

Q: Do you think you were at risk when you encountered this situation?

Nabb:  There’s not much chance of that since they’re so arrogant. The people who do these things hardly bother to hide them. There was no reason to kidnap Aldo Moro in broad daylight when he was under armed escort so that all his bodyguards had to be killed, making a huge and bloody spectacle. No reason at all. Moro took a walk alone in a very deserted park every morning of his life. There was no reason to do what they did, except for show. The kidnapping was done by Moretti who had infiltrated the Red Brigades early on and worked his way to the top by reporting on those above him so as to get them arrested. The Red Brigades would never have kidnapped Moro, it was Moretti’s idea, on behalf of right wing elements in the government and secret services. They were the ones who presumably didn’t want the book to come out. I had imagined things that were too close to the truth, as I realized later when they were sacked from their posts. Often, there’s the question of their not reacting to certain claims because it would draw attention to them and add to their veracity. Anyway, I write fiction and I’m not interested in polemic. It was quite a scary episode.

Q: The character Prosecutor Lapo Bardi was absolutely wonderful, too bad they had to kill him.

Nabb:  That’s what my English editor said. She said, “Can’t he get better so he can be in another book?” But he had to go. That’s the whole point, the point being, so long as he maintained his stance--he was really aggressive, very calculating and very inhuman. Then, when something happened to soften him up, when he suddenly became human and vulnerable, he was killed. If you didn’t kill him there was no point to the story, was there?

Q: So now are you cautious about the cases you write about?

Nabb:  I never back off. Well, I’m not interested in polemic anyway, I write fiction. It’s probably best not to publish that Moro kidnapping book here in Italy because it would cause never ending trouble. And of course, the true story never really became generally known. Everyone knows what the trouble with Moro was, of course, and that was the compromesso storico –the historic compromise which would have allowed the communists, who had the majority of voters, to share in government. Moro who was close both to the pope and to Berlinguer, the leader of the communist party, had set this up and so signed his own death warrant. If the communist party were to be allowed a share in government, they would have had access to all of Nato’s secret information. The cold war was still on and the U.S. wouldn’t have it.

A similar book based on a real event was The Salamander by Morris West which was about Gladio. Gladio is the name of the double-edged Roman sword (as used by gladiators) and it was an undercover campaign, with military and intelligence units, to control and subvert Italian democracy from World War II until 1990 when, on the fall of communisn, it was disbanded. Its headquarters were in Sardinia where an Italian militia was trained with the pretense of defending Italy from incoming hordes of Russian communists. It’s real purpose was to fight Italian communists should they come close to having any power or attempt an insurrection. It was a huge, nationwide organization, practically a parallel state and it did attempt a coup d’état to oust the elected government but it failed. So, when Moro attempted the historic compromise…

The Sardinian bases are still there. Last summer, I was in Sardinia on a beach looking out to sea at the Tavolara, a snow white flat-topped mountain lying out in the turquoise sea. It would be beautiful to sail a boat out to the white mountain but it can’t be done. Under the water, hidden from holiday makers, the mountain is hollowed out. It’s an American submarine base and you can’t go within miles of it. A huge explosion sent up a great plume of smoke as I watched. It wasn’t reported. A great deal of money is paid to the Italian government for the use of the Sardinian bases but none of it goes to Sardinia which remains very poor, its people very angry.

(Magdalen Nabb attended the Bouchercon 2001 Mystery Convention, November 1-4, 2001 in Arlington, VA. Participating on a panel, she was asked the following question about terrorism:)

Q: Will the events of September 11th impact what you write?

Nabb:   It won’t change what I write. I’ve lived with terrorism for more than twenty years. I’ve written a book about terrorism. What I think is that something will change for you. I lived with it for a long time and written about it. I don’t offer any sort of easy comfort. I do offer the fact that life goes on and I offer my good marshal to hold your hand as you go. I think people need stories. When we’re small and we’re afraid of the dark we need stories and I write stories for children. But I think that we all need stories all of our lives. When we see  chaos in the world, we want to be told stories that help us make sense of it. We want what is fashionably called closure. And closure is not necessarily an easy answer. It’s not the little bloodstain on the carpet in the library that’s removed and everybody goes back to their rightful places in the class system, like in an Agatha Christie novel. I don’t offer that because it’s not helpful--it’s escapism. But closure in a story does help to make some order out of chaos. So, it won’t change my world because terrorism is part of it and has been as long as I’ve been writing. It will change yours, though, and I think we’re more interested to hear from you on this than you are from us. Because I think that what is needed now is constant vigilance which is the price of your freedom. Up to now I think there hasn’t been a price put on freedom here. And now the real world has arrived. There is a price and--it’s not about being careful how you open your mail--it’s not about being wary when you’re on top of a high building--it’s about being careful of legislation that’s pushed through on the back of these events for the purposes required by politicians. We suffered this dreadfully in Italy. Your freedom is there. Your freedom is the rule of law and hard cases make bad law. There are those who will take advantage of your fear and distress and make laws pushed through in the middle of the night. I’ve seen laws pushed through on New Years Eve, at midnight that nobody ever notices. That’s where your freedom lies. In your own country, in your own rule of law. And people will try and push through a lot of very, very iffy legislation on the back of these events. You must be vigilant. Defend your constitution.