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Coccioli, Carlo (1920-2003)  
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In novels, essays, plays, and short stories, the Italian-born writer Carlo Coccioli, author of a landmark gay novel, depicted the struggle to find and keep religious faith in spite of the seeming absurdity of life and the propensity of human beings to dehumanize each other.

For fifty years he made his living as a successful writer. He published over 30 novels, most of them critically acclaimed. Yet five years after his death only about eight of his books are in print, and they are available only in Spanish.

Coccioli has been almost forgotten in Italy and is even less well known in the English-speaking world. None of his work written since 1959 has been translated into English. He is not mentioned in the standard English-language histories of Italian literature, such as the Dictionary of Italian Literature, the Oxford Companion to Italian Literature, or the Cambridge History of Italian Literature.

There may be several reasons for the eclipse of Coccioli's reputation. For one thing, many of his novels, like some of Graham Greene's, have a strong religious component that can make them a bit heavy going for the casual reader. For another, he was famous early in his career as the author of an unapologetically gay-positive novel at a time when that distinction carried considerable stigma.

But probably the main reason for Coccioli's obscurity is that he chose to be a trilingual writer, producing books in Italian, French, and Spanish. Many of his works were translated from one of those languages into the others or into English, but some of his later work was published only in Spanish.

Compounding the problem is the fact that Coccioli was sometimes his own translator, and, by his own admission, he considered a translation of one of his own books to be almost a rewriting. This leaves a student of his work with an even more complex task than, say, a Samuel Beckett scholar faces when dealing with Beckett's work in French and English. The demands that such an author makes on readers who might want to study his work are formidable to say the least, and the effect of his versatility has been to leave him unclaimed by any single national school of writing. But Coccioli is too important a writer to deserve this neglect.

Early Life and Career

From Livorno, Italy, where Coccioli was born May 15, 1920, his father, a career military officer, moved the family in 1927 to present-day Libya in North Africa, where they largely remained until 1938.

Coccioli excelled at school and was an avid reader. He claimed that he decided to become a writer at age 13 upon reading Dickens' David Copperfield. By the time he was studying at the college level, he was specializing in languages and Oriental and Hebrew studies.

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 brought the family back to Italy, where Coccioli continued his studies, defending his thesis on "Animal Stories in Oral African Literature" just before he was drafted into the Italian army in 1942.

In December 1943 Italy suddenly found itself divided into two parts, one controlled by the monarchy and the Allies in the south and the other dominated by Mussolini's Italian Social Republic in the north. Coccioli, who was stationed in Turin at the time, was faced with a dilemma: whether to stay with his unit and thus collaborate with the fascists or to desert. He deserted by throwing himself from a second-floor window and took up with the anti-fascist Resistance, serving as a lieutenant in charge of about 40 fighters who attacked German posts in the dark of night.

Before long, however, he was captured by the Germans. He expected to be shot, but as it happened, his captors found a notebook in his possession containing numbers, dates, lines of poetry, and English words. Wrongly thinking the notebook contained important information about the resistance, the Germans concluded he might be a valuable prisoner. They spared his life and incarcerated him in the medieval castle of Bolonia.

When, one night, the Italian prisoners mounted a violent prison break, more than a hundred were killed by machine gun fire. Luckily, Coccioli was one of the unharmed escapees and fled across the Italian countryside back to his family in Florence and to his first love, an 18-year-old young man named Alberto, whom he called his "angel" and described as having "the face of a child and laughing eyes" and who, Coccioli said, had inspired him with the courage to fight for the Resistance.

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Carlo Coccioli.
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