Giuseppe begins in a detached way – the speaker is telling someone else’s story, so as readers we are twice distanced from the events. Although the setting for the story is the Second World War, the tale begins in a relaxed, even pleasant fashion, with a ‘courtyard’ full of flowering ‘bougainvillea’ in warm Sicily. It reveals itself as a story of myth, with ‘the only captive mermaid in the world’. But then in the penultimate line of the opening stanza we hit the word ‘butchered’ with its plosive harshness and connotations of insensitive dismemberment. Those responsible for this death of a magical creature are men, ‘a doctor, a fishmonger’ and, as if avoiding the issue, ‘certain others.’
Ford gives the narration of Uncle Giuseppe’s tale an uncertainty throughout; it is full of equivocations. The pronoun ‘She’ is quickly corrected to ‘it’, but the people’s judgement is cast into doubt by the addition of ‘or so they’d said’, perhaps suggesting comforting self-deception too. It is significant that the two figures of authority with a role to play, the priest and the doctor, are those who should have demonstrated compassion and care – indeed the priest seems to be doing so as he ‘held one of her hands’ before we read that he does so ‘while her throat was cut’, making the man of God complicit in the murder even as he claims she is ‘only a fish’. The final line of the stanza, as in the following two stanzas, casts doubt on that judgement – ‘But she screamed like a woman in terrible fear.’
The doctor’s stanza works in a similar way. While the ‘ripe golden roe’ further suggests the magical mythology of the mermaid, his careful argument that ‘she was just a fish’ and ‘an egg is not a child’ is undermined by his own refusal to eat any. The dismembering of the mermaid is made cruelly clear with the reference to ‘her head and her hands’ which are all that is left for burial and again the narration of the story suggests the participants’ suppressed guilt. The suggestion to ‘take her wedding ring’ (of course further evidence that she is not ‘just a fish’) is refused by others ‘and the ring stayed put.’
The penultimate stanza is brutally short. After the justifications and butchery, the mermaid is dispatched in two lines, ‘cooked and fed to the troops’. She is reduced to unidentifiable food, described simply as ‘the rest’. However, the story notes that she can only be served with a lie, that she is ‘a large fish’ that ‘had been found’.
It is only at the end of the poem that we learn of Giuseppe’s own possible complicity – he was ‘the aquarium keeper’, another man with responsibility for the mermaid’s safety. And just as with the priest, doctor and others, he too makes excuses – ’Starvation forgives men many things’ – but undermines his own position by being unable to look the narrator ‘in the eye’. The narrator’s own disgust is clear in his fervent thanks for his uncle’s sense of shame.
By creating the mermaid story, Ford places the narrative within myth and make-believe, but the poem becomes a powerful allegory for the atrocities of warfare, the complicity of those in authority and humankind’s excuses for the abandonment of morality and humanity.