Beheading the heads

A part of a short story by Italo Calvino, published in 1993

I must have arrived in the capital the day before a festival. They were building platforms in the squares, hanging up flags, ribbons, palm fronds. There was hammering everywhere.

‘The national festival?’ I asked the man behind the bar.

He pointed to the row of portraits behind him. ‘Our heads of state,’ he said. ‘It’s the festival of the heads of state, the leaders.’

I thought it might be the presentation of a newly elected government. ‘New?’ I asked.

Amid the banging of the hammers, loudspeakers being tested, the screeching of cranes lifting platforms, I was forced to keep things short if I was to be understood, and yell almost.

The man behind the bar shook his head: they weren’t new, they’d been around for a while.

I asked: ‘The anniversary of when they came to power?’

‘Something like that,’ explained a customer beside me. ‘The festival comes round periodically and it’s their turn.’

‘Their turn for what?’

‘To go on the platform.’

‘What platform? I’ve seen so many, one at every street corner.’

‘Each has his own platform. We have lots of leaders.’

‘And what do they do? Speak?’

‘No, speak, no.’

‘They go on the platform, and then what?’

‘What do you think they do? They wait a bit, while things are being prepared, then the ceremony is over in a couple of minutes.’

‘And you?’

‘We watch.’

There was a lot of coming and going in the bar. The carpenters and the workers unloading things from trucks to decorate the platforms—axes, blocks, baskets—stopped by to have a beer. Whenever I asked someone a question it was always someone else who answered.

‘It’s a sort of re-election, then? A confirmation of their jobs, you could say, their mandate?’

‘No, no,’ they corrected me, ‘you don’t understand? It’s the end. Their time is up.’

‘And so?’

‘So they stop being heads, living up there: and they fall down.’

‘So why do they go up on the platforms?’

‘With the platforms, you can see better how the head falls, the jump it makes, cleanly cut, and how it ends up in the basket.’

I was beginning to understand, but I wasn’t quite sure. ‘The heads’ heads, you mean? The leaders’? In the baskets?’

They nodded. ‘Right. The beheading. That’s it. Beheading the heads.’

I’d only just arrived, I didn’t know anything about it, I hadn’t read anything in the papers.

‘Just like that, tomorrow, all of a sudden?’

‘When the day comes it comes,’ they said. ‘This time it falls midweek. There’s a holiday. Everything’s shut.’

An old man added, pontificating: ‘When the fruit is ripe you gather it, and a head you behead. You wouldn’t leave the fruit to rot on the branches, would you?’

The carpenters had been getting on with their work: on some of the platforms they were erecting the scaffolding for grim guillotines; on others, they were anchoring blocks for use with axes and placing comfortable hassocks beside (one of the assistants was testing the arrangement by putting his head on the block to check that the height was right); elsewhere people were setting up things that looked like butcher’s benches, with channels for the blood to run off. Waxed cloth was being stretched on the platform boards, and sponges were already in place to clean up any splashes. Everybody was working away enthusiastically; you could hear laughter and whistling.

‘So you’re happy? Did you hate them? Were they bad leaders?’

‘No, what gave you that idea?’ they exchanged looks of surprise. ‘They were good. Or rather, no better and no worse than anyone else. Well, you know what they’re like: heads of state, leaders, commanders … to get one of those jobs …’

‘Still,’ one of them said, ‘I liked this lot.’

‘Me too. And me,’ others agreed. ‘I never had anything against them.’

‘So aren’t you sad they’re killing them?’ I said.

‘What can you do? If someone agrees to be a leader he knows how he’ll end up. He could hardly expect to die in his bed!’

The others laughed. ‘That’d be a fine thing! Someone rules, commands, then, as if nothing had happened, stops and goes back home.’

Someone said: ‘Everybody would want to be a leader then, I’m telling you! Even me, look, I’d be up for it, here I am!’

‘Me too, me too,’ lots of them said, laughing.

‘Well I wouldn’t,’ said one man with glasses. ‘Not on those terms. What would be the point?’

‘Right. There’d be no point in being boss on those terms,’ several of them agreed. ‘It’s one thing doing a job like that when you know what to expect, and quite another… but how could you do it otherwise?’

The man with the glasses, who must have been the best educated, explained: ‘Authority over others is indivisible from the right of those others to have you climb the scaffold and do away with you, one day in the not too distant future … What authority would a leader have without the aura of this destiny around him, if you couldn’t read it in his eyes, his sense of his end, for every second of his mandate? Civil institutions depend on this dual aspect of authority; no civilization has ever used any other system.’

‘And yet,’ I objected, ‘I could quote you cases …’

‘I mean: real civilization,’ insisted the man with glasses, ‘I’m not talking about barbarian interregnums, however long they may have lasted in the history of peoples.’

The pontificating old man, the one who’d talked about fruit on branches, was muttering something to himself. He exclaimed: ‘The head commands so long as it’s attached to the neck.’

‘What do you mean?’ the others asked. ‘Do you mean that if for example a leader went beyond his term and, just for the sake of argument, didn’t get his head cut off, he’d stay there ruling, his whole life long?’

‘That’s how things used to be,’ the old man agreed, ‘in the times before it was clear that whoever chose to be leader chose to be beheaded in the not too distant future. Those who had power hung on to it…’

I could have interrupted at this point, quoted some examples, but no one would listen to me.

‘So? What did people do?’ they asked the old man.

‘They had to cut their heads off willy-nilly, with brute force, against their wishes! Not on appointed days, but when they just couldn’t put up with them anymore. That’s what used to happen before things were organized, before the leaders accepted…’

‘Oh, we’d just like to see them try not to accept!’ the others said. ‘Oh, we’d like to see that!’

‘It's not the way you think,’ interrupted the man with the glasses. ‘It’s not true that the leaders are forced to undergo execution. Say that and you miss the real meaning of our statutes, the real relationship that binds our leaders to the rest of the people. Only heads of state can be beheaded, hence you can’t wish to be a head without also wishing for the chop. Only those who feel they have this vocation can become heads of state, only those who already feel themselves beheaded the moment they take up a position of authority.’

Little by little the customers in the bar had thinned out, each going back to his work. I realized that the man with the glasses was talking exclusively to me.

‘That’s what power is,’ he went on, ‘this waiting for the end. All the authority one has is no more than advance notice of the blade hissing through the air, crashing down in a clean cut, all the applause you get is no more than the beginning of that last applause that greets your head as it rolls down the waxed surface of the scaffold.’

He took off his glasses to clean them on his handkerchief. I realized his eyes were full of tears. He paid for his beer and left.

The man behind the bar bent down to my ear. ‘He’s one of them,’ he said. ‘See?’ He pulled out a pile of portrait posters from under the bar. ‘Tomorrow I have to take those ones down and stick up these.’ The first picture showed the man with the glasses, an ugly enlargement from a passport photo. ‘He’s been elected to succeed the ones on their way out. Tomorrow he’ll be taking over. It’s his turn, now. If you ask me it’s not right to tell him the day before. You heard the way he was talking about it? Tomorrow he’ll be watching the executions as if they were already his own. They’re all like that, the first days; they get upset, excited, they make a big deal of it. “Vocation”: what pompous words they come out with!’

‘And afterwards?’

‘He’ll get used to it, like everybody else. They have so much to do, they don’t think about it anymore, until their day comes around. But then: who can see into a leader’s mind. They give the impression they’re not thinking about it. Another beer?’

Calvino, I., Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories. Translated by Tim Parks (1995).

In 1980, Italo Calvino, referring to the ‘Beheading the Heads’ which he wrote and left unfinished, said: “Then I thought: But what if something like that really happened? And I threw it all away and left it in the drawer. I did the right thing. You never know how they might interpret you”.