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The Lieutenant with the Agate Eyes

Alessandro Spina

Translated by André Naffis-Sahely

Alessandro Spina (1927-2013) was the pen name of Basili Shafik Khouzam. Born in Benghazi into a family of Syrian Maronites that originally hailed from Aleppo, Syria, Khouzam was educated in Milan and published his first story in Nuovi Argomenti. Following his return to Benghazi in 1954, Khouzam spent the next 25 years managing his father’s textile factory in Benghazi while continuing to write in his spare time. Khouzam was associated with various leading Italian writers of his time, including Alberto Moravia, Giorgio Bassani, Vittorio Sereni and Claudio Magris, and his novels were published by various imprints, such as Mondadori and Garzanti. His major opus was I confini dell’ombra, a sequence of eleven historical novels and short story collections that chart the history of his native city from the Italo-Turkish War in 1911 to the exploitation of Libya’s vast oil reserves in 1964.

In Banipal Magazine (UK), his translator, André Naffis Sahely, writes of how “in between his novels, Spina had also composed ‘The Fall of the Monarchy’, a history in the style of de Tocqueville that analyses the events leading to Gaddafi’s coup which, as per Spina’s wishes, will only appear posthumously. Circulated in samizdat (the clandestine copying and distribution of literature), among a select group of acquaintances, the book attracted the attentions of the security services and when Spina left Libya for good in 1980, he was forced to smuggle the manuscript out in the French consul’s briefcase. Safely removed from the reach of Gaddafi’s men, Spina sojourned in Paris, and finally retired to a 17th century villa in Padergnone, in the heart of Lombard wine country, where he consecrated his buen retiro to completing ‘The Confines of the Shadow’, his privacy as jealously guarded as ever.”

The following is excerpted from The Aleph Review, Vol. 2 (2018).

“And I’m telling you we’re not going to that dance,” the Commendatore said, irritatedly: “I haven’t slaved for thirty years just to give my daughter away to some dandy.”

“His father’s a lawyer.”

“My daughter’s not going to marry a soldier, she’s going to marry a man who works for a living. When I die, her husband will take over my business.”

“We can’t run roughshod over Emilia’s feelings like that, Giacomo!”

“Don’t start talking nonsense, and don’t be so melodramatic. My daughter’s feelings are subject to my will, and I only want what’s best for her.”

“If we don’t go to the club it’ll cause a scandal.”

“You can only answer scandal with another scandal” the Commendatore retorted, vexed.

“You should at least remember that it was General Desiderius Occhipinti himself who invited us. If we don’t go tomorrow we’ll have the whole army against us.”

“I’ll take them on.”

“I promise you—and I promise you on Emilia’s behalf too—that it will all be finished tonight. But… I beg you… let her say goodbye to that man.”

“That man?” the Commendatore interjected, losing his patience, “he’s just a magazine cutout, he’s not a man! Have you seen his legs?! They look more like wings than legs: they’re great when it comes to dancing a waltz, but they won’t do him any good while standing in a factory.”

“You don’t mean to suggest we should want to fall in love with our own son-in-law and judge whether his legs are good enough or not?”

“I can judge a man just by looking at him. And that little lieutenant’s got agate eyes, have you noticed that? They lack any depth, they’re gorgeous to look at, and they’ve cast a spell on Emilia but they don’t see anything, like gemstones refracting light. When you shake his hand, you can’t feel the nerves or the muscles of his fingers. I won’t argue that it might well be perfectly shaped, but it lacks any strength whatsoever. His uniform is just like his skin: clean and fresh, like he’d never even put it on. It’s like it was his natural plumage, it bears no sign of any physical strain; and by the end of the night, there’s still not a crease in sight. He can’t even warm up that uniform, or fill it enough to make it look tailored, he’s got the absent-minded grace of a mannequin. That little lieutenant looks good in a shop window, but put him out on the street and he’ll fall down and die.”

“He doesn’t necessarily have to take over your business, you know.”

“So who have I been working so hard for?” the Commendatore exclaimed, “So I could see the business taken over by whom, exactly?”

His wife looked at him, hesitantly. She could still force a few admissions out of him—“Look at that little lieutenant dancing with Emilia,” he’d said the first time he’d lain eyes on him, “look at how he moves, he’s so quick on his feet.”—but there was no hope. The ordeal of the office desk—the inexorable requirement for anyone to be granted his daughter’s hand, an enigma which had to be solved in order to marry the heiress of that great factory—would only humiliate that young paper soldier.

Paper Empress by Alia Bilgrami

The Commendatore stood up. “I’m going to inform Emilia that we won’t be going to the club tonight. My daughter won’t ever forgive me for this.”

“Don’t be dramatic, that’s enough now, don’t be so dramatic. The lieutenant is like a string of pearls, and right now we’re telling her that she can’t have it: she’ll cry a little and then it’ll all be over.”

“It’s just like if you missed out on a big business opportunity at the office, you’d feel bad too.”

When the mother stepped inside the girl’s room, she found her sitting next to the window with a book in her hand.

“Are you reading, my dear?”

Emilia half-turned to face her.

“You know, your father can really be odd at times. This little lieutenant has certainly got him all scared up.”

“What about the dance?” Emilia softly asked.

“The dance? Sure, there’ll be a dance tonight,” her mother stammered, “but we won’t be going.”

Emilia rose and the book slammed shut in her hand. The mother’s eyes filled with tears.

“Calm down, my daughter, calm down, I swear I fought for you. But you know how strong-willed he is.”

The daughter entered the sitting room where the father was reading the newspaper. The father raised his eyes. They looked at one another for a long time.

“I swear I won’t marry that man, Daddy, not if you don’t want me to. But tonight we’re going to the dance.”

“Why aren’t you a man, Emilia? The strength of your willpower offers some consolation: whenever you speak, I cheer up because I can feel the presence of a proper heir. Now, it doesn’t really matter whether we go to the dance or not. We can go, if you like… but only for an hour. Your mother says you need to say goodbye to that officer. Fine. If it’s so important, so be it.”

“Thank you, darling.” the mother said, with tears in her eyes.

“I really don’t understand what all these tears are for!” the Commendatore exclaimed. “What time are we going?”


“Eleven it is.”

Come eleven o’clock, they made their entrance into the Officers Club on Corso Italia. The Commendatore was a solidly built man, with authoritarian features. He never enjoyed himself at parties: but he had gratefully accepted the general’s invitation as though it had been a medal. After the day’s tension, the mother got dressed in a hurry, without taking much care.

The general extended Commendatore Curzi a warm welcome. An army corps general still outranked an industrialist, at least in the colonies—even though this particular industrialist was the chairman of the local chamber of commerce and a trustee of a few charities—but the government had made the region’s industrial development a top priority, both for economic reasons as well as, more importantly, for propagandistic purposes. And that man was a formidable go-getter. The soldier held him in high regard and didn’t have him wait in the reception room first.

“Emilia grows more beautiful by the day, Commendatore.” the general said, joyfully making it known he remembered the girl’s name.

The dance had begun. The orchestra played a tango. On entering the room, Emilia immediately spotted the agate eyes, on the other side of the orchestra. She also noticed the Commendatore, while his wife looked around herself, looking very frightened. They sat down at Colonel Lanza’s table. The latter’s wife, a sweet-natured blonde with withered features, complimented Emilia. “You’re really very pretty, very pretty.” Emilia had been sitting there for over a half hour and nobody had paid her any mind. “You know, Emilia,” the colonel’s wife began, keeping her voice down so that the Commendatore and her husband wouldn’t overhear her, “springtime and life are brief and go by quickly, just like a waltz. You whirl about and then the music ends, and then life gives you leave to go.”

A captain came to ask Emilia to dance. He was a melancholy man, very courteous, and he even confided in her a little. They seemed to be snippets of a conversation he was secretly carrying on with himself.

“Everybody’s here,” he said, “but the dance feels a little stiff—doesn’t it?”

“It’s eleven thirty.”

“Does Emilia have a clock inside her head tonight?”

The mother kept scanning her surroundings. Maybe he didn’t show up? she asked herself, frightened. Maybe it’s for the best, maybe it’s for the best, and she folded her black lace shawl again.

Every time the Commendatore’s eyes scanned the room, he would find those agate eyes: they were hiding behind the orchestra’s red festoons as though peering through a thick wood. Yet the unerring Commendatore would always find them again right away, like the fine hunter he was. He had fixed his gaze upon him as though he were his prey.

Emilia returned to her table. The colonel asked her if she was having a good time. After Emilia’s measured response, and drawn by the brilliant notes being played, he stood up. He would step in and ask the girl to dance. He was shorter than Emilia, whose head hovered just above his. Meaning that every time she turned, Emilia’s eyes could run along the length of the room and admire those agate eyes beyond the orchestra’s festoons.

“We watched you grow up, little Emilia.” the colonel said, affectionately.

Emilia clasped his hand.

“A little melancholic tonight?”

“Tell me,” the colonel’s wife asked her, drawing Emilia close to her as soon as they got back to their table, “that little lieutenant from the other day… is it all over with him? Such a handsome boy. A little frail perhaps, but very stylish! You know what he reminds me of? A violin! And here he is!”

Lieutenant Roberti was standing a step away from Emilia. He bowed slightly towards the ladies, then greeted the Commendatore and the colonel. After which he asked Emilia to dance.


Alessandro Spina was the pen name of Basili Shafik Khouzam, a Syrian Christian born in Italian-occupied Benghazi in 1927. After studying in Italy, he managed the family textile factory in Libya until Gaddafi’s revolution drove him into exile in Lombardy. During and after his business career, he wrote novels and stories that drew on the Italian invasion of 1911 and its bloody aftermath to reflect on the forced encounter between cultures. Khouzam was associated with various leading Italian writers of his time, including Alberto Moravia, Giorgio Bassani, Vittorio Sereni and Claudio Magris, and his novels were published by various imprints, such as Mondadori and Garzanti. His major opus was I confini dell’ombra, a sequence of eleven historical novels and short story collections that chart the history of his native city from the Italo-Turkish War in 1911 to the exploitation of Libya’s vast oil reserves in 1964. Although Khouzam individually published each instalment of his epic throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the entire sequence was finally issued as a 1,268-page omnibus edition by Morcelliana in 2006 and awarded the Bagutta Prize in 2007.

André Naffis-Sahely’s first collection of poetry was The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life (Penguin, 2017). His translations from French and Italian include works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Alessandro Spina, Rashid Boudjedra and Tahar Ben Jelloun. His Beyond the Barbed Wire: Selected Poems of Abdellatif Laâbi (Carcanet Press, 2016), received a Writers in Translation Award from English PEN.

About the artist: Alia Bilgrami is a visual artist, curator and art writer, with a background in contemporary miniature painting and photography. You can read her full profile here:

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