Fourteen years ago, on 30th June 1998, I was on the volcanic island of Pantelleria with an Italian man whose autobiography I eventually failed to write. Pantelleria is known by some Italians as “the black pearl of the Mediterranean” because it is simply an island of solid black lava. They think it is romantic; I thought it was just plain barren.
The nickname I have given the man I was attempting to write the book with is Ozymandias; all the other people’s names have been changed too. Ozymandias was accompanied by his teenage son and daughter. There, too, was an American woman called Christina. This is what I wrote in my diary at the time:
Apparently Pantelleria was the island of Venus and Christina is sure there must have been lots of priestesses here. Christina is very thin, a bit gawky and has an unfortunate look in her eyes that gives me the general impression she would be at home in some Calfornian religious cult, perhaps believing that Atlantis was destroyed by its nuclear-powered crystals.
Over dinner, she was a bit disappointed to learn from Ozymandias that Pantelleria was never connected to Africa or Sicily: it is just a straight-up volcanic pillar.
Ozymandias explained to her that he could not afford to take his children off on a beach holiday anywhere because it would cost $4,000, so he had thought up the idea of working on Pantelleria to get free hotel accommodation every summer and take his children along. Christina told me she thought it was nice he kept his children involved.
A few minutes later, there was an emotional argument over the meal (a complete mystery to me, as it was all in Italian), with Ozymandias’ daughter bursting into tears after words with her father. Ozymandias told me that it was all about how he wasn’t allowed to criticise his daughter for her dress or when she could stay out, yet she felt he had to ask permission from her to go anywhere. Later, Christina – who speaks Italian and whom Ozymandias calls Chrissie, possibly to annoy her – told me the daughter had been saying she felt sad and unwanted because Ozymandias was out all day and she was left alone. (The brother and sister, not abnormally for teenagers, don’t pal-up together.)
Continuing the meal, Ozymandias explained to Christina (in English, which his children slightly but do not fully understand) that he hates all women and the more his daughter grows into a woman the more he grows to hate her. The trouble, he explained, is that he only meets the sort of women who are no use to him. He only meets women who are interested in him intellectually and who are quite intelligent. These are exactly the women who do not know how to cook, look after homes and look after children, which is what he needs. He said the only relationship that works is one in which each person ‘pays’ something to the other because you have to get something out of it.
At the end of the meal, Christina and I were left alone. She told me she felt sorry for the daughter but reckoned the son must be more screwed-up because his father was his role model. She said she could not understand why Ozymandias had ever had children.
I said it was because, in his eyes, that is what men do.
Christina wondered what on earth Ozymandias’s mother must have been like to him for him to hate women so much. She also spotted that Ozymandias had “a lot of knowledge but no heart” and, rather worryingly, added, “although he is obviously very sensitive”. This is true, but possibly a dangerous avenue of thought for any woman to go down where Ozymandias is concerned.
Rather oddly, she wondered if I had anywhere I ‘went’, if I was writing his autobiography and lived through all of this.
“Surely,” she said, “you have to go outside occasionally and just scream?”
I said I’d had to deal with a lot of supposedly difficult entertainers and performers so it was, pretty much, water off a duck’s back. Also, I have never been the object of any of his diatribes. Ozymandias was unusually ratty tonight but usually his anger and violence is turned inwards.
I also mentioned that an Italian friend, when I told her about Ozymandias, said all Italian men were like this. Christina said, “Oh no, nothing like what I’ve just seen”. (And what she’d seen was Ozymandias being relatively low-key and restrained.)
Christina said it was ironic that Ozymandias was on the Island of Love.
I think this idea she has of volcanic Pantelleria being the island of Venus is mildly off-the-wall, but at least she’s an American who understands irony, so I should be thankful for small mercies.