At times, it most resembled a circus, at others, some horrible idea for the next season of Judge Judy. I haven’t spent all that much time in courtrooms, but at no time did it remind me of whatever—in this country or any other—would pass for justice. It wasn’t a large hall, and there were at least as many journalists, film crews, and lawyers spread out around tables in the main hall as there were ordinary citizens—the latter squeezed into three rows of benches, or standing, in the rear. I suppose that, whenever a country decides to put one of its favorite authors on trial, some element of spectacle should be expected. When that country is Italy, still reeling after its years with a media magnate heading the government, one may reasonably anticipate not tragedy, but farce.

Such was the second day of Erri De Luca’s trial. The celebrated writer is charged with “instigating violence”—merely for expressing, during a telephone interview with the Italian website of The Huffington Post, his continued support for a group that opposes the construction of the TAV line, a high-speed train from Lyon to Turin that traverses the asbestos-laced mountains of the Susa Valley. This day it was Erri’s turn to testify. During the trial’s first day last March, in an ominous pairing, only the head of the French construction company along with an officer of Italy’s antiterrorism police were allowed to speak. The trial’s second day was scheduled, ironically, on the writer’s sixty-fifth birthday. When I spoke with him later and mentioned that there had to be better ways to celebrate, he just shrugged his shoulders. Stoicism, in part, but we should also recall that the winner of France’s Prix Fémina Étranger, of Germany’s Petraca Preis, and of the European Prize for Literature has already stated in writing that, for him, defending in an Italian courtroom his right to speak freely is an honor—in effect his first Italian literary prize. As a French newspaper headline about the trial has noted, “a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country.”

On this occasion, though it was no party, given the number of T-shirts, tote bags, and badges on display, Erri certainly found himself among friends. What transpired that morning turned out to be both odd and—to me at least—oddly familiar. The testimony and cross-examination of the witness seemed to necessitate the services of a literary critic or lexicographer; the denotations and connotations of both “instigation” and “sabotage” were queried at length. When asked to define the latter, De Luca commented:

“According to Italian dictionaries, the word has a number of meanings. The first listed is “material damage” and other meanings include verbs such as “hamper, obstruct, and prevent.” As such, I believe I said that the TAV—this modestly accelerated train line—should be hampered, obstructed, and prevented.”

In one particularly odd moment, the prosecution even cited Conrad, as if they wanted to compete with De Luca on his own turf (a strategy that they should have known to be ill-advised, given that the writer had already mobilized both the Bible and Salman Rushdie in his defense). When asked by one of his own lawyers if he remembered ever saying that the TAV construction site should be demolished, De Luca replied:

“I did express the idea that the worksite wasn’t a Winter Palace, to be taken by force, conquered, and obliterated. That site is like the city of Jericho, besieged by a chorus of voices. And that chorus of voices will cause those walls to fall.”

The single most bizarre moment of that morning, however, occurred when one of the prosecution’s lawyers passed around some photos of street art. As the barrister described it, he happened to be walking through Piazza Solferino in Torino when he happened to come across some graffiti coining the occult—and rather inventive—neologism “SaboTav.” This—we were meant to assume—was a measure of the all-pervasive power of a popular writer and his online interview. (Despite that presumptive power, as De Luca’s lawyers reminded us, the state has never bothered to request that the offending comments be removed.) That the prosecution was able to produce only an anonymous text perpetrated with spray paint, rather than an actual person instigated by the Italian author to actually do anything of violence at all, would simply have been comic, if we could assume that this was a measure of desperation, rather than arrogance. Following this logic, one must indeed wonder if some day, when some words occasionally used by Erri are found hidden in crumpled paper left on some city sidewalk, he’ll also be held responsible for littering. That a French-based construction company apparently cares so much about an illegal act of embellishment of a single wall in Turin could, I suppose, be a measure of their sense of civic responsibility. One might also wish they cared as deeply about the future of the Susa Valley.

Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of witnessing a newsworthy event and later reading about it in the papers will likely have experienced some degree of discomfort with whatever made its way into print. As an editor and translator, however, on this occasion I was frankly intrigued by the ease with which the various newspapers viewed the event, and edited the transcripts, in order to reinforce their respective party lines. In their online editions, the right suggested confession or contradiction by De Luca: Il Sole 24 Ore, “The writer Erri De Luca in the dock: ‘I can only instigate reading and writing;’” La Stampa, “Erri De Luca: ‘I can instigate reading, not acts of sabotage.’” The left, on the contrary, mobilized the writer’s message: Internazionale, “In court Erri De Luca defends the idea of sabotaging the TAV;” L’Huffington Post, “Erri De Luca on trial: ‘One sense of sabotage is noble–the TAV will fall like the walls of Jericho.’” The conservative camp also featured photos of De Luca with a No TAV banner waving behind him; the progressive papers instead showed him smiling and embracing his friend, the folksinger Gianmaria Testa. The takeaway? Don’t ask blind men for their descriptions of an elephant.

We can conclude only that the first casualty here is the Italian constitution, and in particular its Article 21, which states eloquently and without reservation the free-speech rights of its citizens. That this trial was ever pursued, or even considered, by an ostensibly modern and democratic state is a demonstration of the fragility of those values and rights first won during the Enlightenment. The battle to assert them is never over, because the forces of reaction never rest. During its years of fascism, the Italian state mercilessly prosecuted its enemies for crimes of opinion, and the laws permitting such abuses still remain on the books. When we remember the noble tradition of hampering, obstructing, and preventing repressive powers abusively wielded by the state, we cannot forget that this history includes such heroic figures as Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.

At this junction, of course, it is impossible to say where, or even whether, the resistance offered by the No TAV movement fits in with such a tradition. To allude to it at all will likely seem presumptious to some, or downright silly, but to refuse to do so is to allow ourselves the complacency and self-satisfaction of our present opinions. Muriel Rukeyser, in “The Book of the Dead,” memorialized hundreds of miners who died slow deaths of suffocation by silicosis. These workers, many of them migrants and most of them black, were sacrificed to the gods of power and progress in order to dig the Hawks Nest Tunnel in West Virginia. This poem sequence is arguably Rukeyser’s most important work, yet one wonders how her intervention would have been received if the poet had written in time to stop the slaughter. We should also recall that, in their own times, none of the towering figures mentioned above were heroes for the masses. And the state sent all of them to prison.