The Italian mining tragedy of Marcinelle
It's a tragic story few even in Italy are seemingly aware of – on the night of 8 August 1956, 262 mainly Italian workers were killed in a mine collapse in Marcinelle, Belgium.
Now the horror has been vividly brought back to life in La Catastrofa, a novel by Italian author Paolo di Stefano, which mixes fact with fiction to harrowing effect. Its central message, he says, remains highly relevant to present-day life in Italy.
Di Stefano, born in Sicily, says one of the reasons he was moved to write the book is that a core issue the tragedy raises – of the treatment of immigrant workers in an unwelcoming society – strikes a human, social and political chord even today.
Life in the Marcinelle mines was little short of ghastly: man slaving underground alongside mule in conditions fit for neither.
To descend into the mine was to climb into the pits of hell, some of the former Italian miners have vividly recalled. Ingesting dirt and coal, breathing in fumes and gas, like a night with no dawn.
Even if Italy is no longer a country of mass emigration in the way it was in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, the author argues, there are others who are living through the experiences that Italians had to tragically endure in days gone by.
Di Stefano adds: “Now it is absurd and ethically objectionable to forget what we Italians have been and to make others pay what we too have paid.”
He also defends his technique of blending fact with fiction to create a poignant and touching narrative. “It's true that reality attracts me a great deal,” he says, “but what draws me even more is that which is hidden behind or under what passes for apparent normality.
“Journalists are interested above all in the exceptional: the classic tale of man-bites-dog. However, a reporter, in respect of facts, is bound by duty and professional ethics to remain faithful to the truth.”
In contrast, he points out, “the writer can permit himself to mix at his pleasure reality and fantasy, to temper, to exaggerate, to omit, to add. But let's not forget that traversing the facade often one gets to uncover the deep truth that it is better to stay truthful to reported fact”.
The tragic narrator in La Catastrofa has two hearts and 10 children – an odd fact based on a real former miner Mario, killed in the disaster.
The writer came across his story when he visited the Belgian mining town a couple of years ago and met a number of retired Italian miners who had lived through the tragic events of 1956.
He explains: “In particular I was struck by the story of one former miner from Sicily who discovered at a very early age that he had two hearts.
“He married a Belgian girl, against her father's wishes. She was widowed by the tragedy to raise their 10 children single-handedly.
“It is the happy life of Mario, all things considered, around which I based the story. There is his world, his character that recounts the feelings, fears aspirations, joys and pain of many of his mining colleagues.”
Di Stefano is acutely aware of the parallels between 1956 and a more recent tragedy closer to home – the death of seven workers in a blaze at the ThyssenKrupp steelworks in Turin in December 2007.
Despite the two events being separated by half a century, he believes crucial lessons have yet to be learnt. He says: “The issue of workplace safety is one of the eternal tragedies of which one returns to address only when accidents occur. Then we forget it until the next accident.”
Di Stefano accuses Italy's authorities of being happy to use workplace tragedies as a political football, promising much but delivering next to nothing – what he brands the “scandal of democracy”.
The true scale of this scandal, he concludes is that “after more than 50 years nothing has really changed.
“The invisible workers of Marcinelle have been simply substituted by others, who are likewise invisible to society and politics and deprived of workplace protections and guarantees.”
A stirring read indeed.