Part One. THE INCIDENT
1. The Cruelest Month
"And whatís your name?"
"Wait, itís on the tip of my tongue."
That is how it all began.
I felt as if I had awoke from a long sleep, and yet I was still suspended in a milky gray. Or else I was not awake, but dreaming. It was a strange dream, void of images, crowded with sounds. As if I could not see, but could hear voices that were telling me what I should have been seeing. And they were telling me that I could not see anything yet, only a haziness along the canals where the landscape dissolved. Bruges, I said to myself, I was in Bruges. Had I ever been to Bruges the Dead? Where fog hovers between the towers like incense dreaming? A gray city, sad as a tombstone with chrysanthemums, where mist hangs over the facades like tapestries.. .
My soul was wiping the streetcar windows so it could drown in the moving fog of the headlamps. Fog, my uncontaminated sisterÖ A thick, opaque fog, which enveloped the noises and called up shapeless phantoms. .. Finally I came to a vast chasm and could see a colossal figure, wrapped in a shroud, its face the immaculate whiteness of snow. My name is Arthur Gordon Pym.
I was chewing fog. Phantoms were passing, brushing me, melting. Distant bulbs glimmered like will-oí-the-wisps in a graveyard Ö
Someone is walking by my side, noiselessly, as if in bare feet, walking without heels, without shoes, without sandals. A patch of fog grazes my cheek, a band of drunks is shouting down there, down by the ferry. The ferry? It is not me talking, it is the voices.
The fog comes on little cat feetÖ There was a fog that seemed to have taken the world away.
Yet every so often it was as if I had opened my eyes and were seeing flashes. I could hear voices: "Strictly speaking, Signora, it isnít a comaÖ No, donít think about flat encephalograms, for heavenís sakeÖ Thereís reactivityÖ"
Someone was aiming a light into my eyes, but after the light it was dark again. I could feel the puncture of a needle, somewhere. "You see, thereís withdrawalÖ"
Maigret plunges into a fog so dense that he canít even see where heís steppingÖ The fog teems with human shapes, swarms with an intense, mysterious life. Maigret? Elementary, my dear Watson, there are ten little Indians, and the hound of the Baskervilles vanishes into the fog.
The gray vapor was gradually losing its grayness of tint, the heat of the water was extreme, and its milky hue was more evident than ever Ö And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us.
I heard people talking around me, wanted to shout to let them know I was there. There was a continuous drone, as though I were being devoured by celibate machines with whetted teeth. I was in the penal colony. I felt a weight on my head, as if they had slipped the iron mask onto my face. I thought I saw sky blue lights.
"Thereís asymmetry of the pupillary diameters."
I had fragments of thoughts, clearly I was waking up, but I could not move. If only I could stay awake. Was I sleeping again? Hours, days, centuries?
The fog was back, the voices in the fog, the voices about the fog. Seltsam, im Nebel zu wandern! What language is that? I seemed to be swimming in the sea, I felt I was near the beach but was unable to reach it. No one saw me, and thdrawing by the authore tide was carrying me away again.
Please tell me something, please touch me. I felt a hand on my forehead. Such relief. Another voice: "Signora, there are cases of patients who suddenly wake up and walk away under their own power."
Someone was disturbing me with an intermittent light, with the hum of a tuning fork. It was as if they had put a jar of mustard under my nose, then a clove of garlic. The earth has the odor of mushrooms.
Other voices, but these from within: long laments of the steam engine, priests shapeless in the fog walking single file toward San Michele in Bosco.
The sky is made of ash. Fog up the river, fog down the river, fog biting the hands of the little match girl. Chance people on the bridges to the Isle of Dogs look into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging under the brown fogÖ I had not thought death had undone so many. The odor of train station and soot.
Another light, softer. I seem to hear, through the fog, the sound of bagpipes starting up again on the heath.
Another long sleep, perhaps. Then a clearing, like being in a glass of water and anisetteÖ
He was right in front of me, though I still saw him as a shadow. My head felt muddled, as if I were waking up after having drunk too much. I think I managed to murmur something weakly, as if I were in that moment beginning to talk for the first time: "Posco reposco flagito-do they take the future infinitive? Cujus regio ejus religioÖ is that the Peace of Augsburg or the Defenestration of Prague?" And then: "Fog too on the Apennine stretch of the Autosole Highway, between Roncobilaccio and Barberino del MugelloÖ"
He smiled sympathetically. "But now open your eyes all the way and try to look around. Do you know where we are?" Now I could see him better. He was wearing a white-what is it called?-coat. I looked around and was even able to move my head: the room was sober and clean, a few small pieces of pale metal furniture, and I was in bed, with a tube stuck in my arm. From the window, through the lowered blinds, came a blade of sunlight, spring on all sides shines in the air, and in the fields rejoices. I whispered: "We areÖ in a hospital and youÖ youíre a doctor. Was I sick?"
"Yes, you were sick. Iíll explain later. But youíve regained consciousness now. Thatís good. Iím Dr. Gratarolo. Forgive me if I ask you some questions. How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Thatís a hand and those are fingers. Four of them. Are there four?"
"Thatís right. And whatís six times six?"
"Thirty-six, of course." Thoughts were rumbling through my head, but they came as if of their own accord. "The sum of the areas of the squaresÖ built on the two legsÖ is equal to the area of the square built on the hypotenuse."
"Well done. I think thatís the Pythagorean theorem, but I got a C in math in high schoolÖ"
"Pythagoras of Samos. Euclidís elements. The desperate loneliness of parallel lines that never meet."
"Your memory seems to be in excellent condition. And by the way, whatís your name?"
That is where I hesitated. And yet I did have it on the tip of my tongue. After a moment I offered the most obvious reply.
"My name is Arthur Gordon Pym."
"That isnít your name."
Of course, Pym was someone else. He did not come back again. I tried to come to terms with the doctor.
"Call meÖ Ishmael?"
"Your name is not Ishmael. Try harder."
A word. Like running into a wall. Saying Euclid or Ishmael was easy, like saying Jack and Jill went up a hill. Saying who I was, on the other hand, was like turning around and finding that wall. No, not a wall; I tried to explain. "It doesnít feel like something solid, itís like walking through fog."
"Whatís the fog like?" he asked.
"The fog on the bristling hills climbs drizzling up the sky, and down below the mistral howls and whitens the seaÖ Whatís the fog like?"
"You put me at a disadvantage-Iím only a doctor. And besides, this is April, I canít show you any fog. Todayís the twenty-fifth of April."
"April is the cruelest month."
"Iím not very well read, but I think thatís a quotation. You could say that todayís the Day of Liberation. Do you know what year this is?"
"Itís definitely after the discovery of AmericaÖ"
"You donít remember a date, any kind of date, beforeÖ your reawakening?"
"Any date? Nineteen hundred and forty-five, end of World War Two."
"Not close enough. No, today is the twenty-fifth of April, 1991. You were born, I believe, at the end of 1931, all of which means youíre pushing sixty."
"Fifty-nine and a half. Not even."
"Your calculative faculties are in excellent shape. But you have had, how shall I say, an incident. Youíve come through it alive, and I congratulate you on that. But clearly something is still wrong. A slight case of retrograde amnesia. Not to worry, they sometimes donít last long. But please be so kind as to answer a few more questions. Are you married?"
"You tell me."
"Yes, youíre married, to an extremely likable lady named Paola, who has been by your side night and day. Just yesterday evening I insisted she go home, otherwise she would have collapsed. Now that youíre awake, Iíll call her. But Iíll have to prepare her, and before that we need to do a few more tests."
"What if I mistake her for a hat?"
"There was a man who mistook his wife for a hat."
"Oh, the Sacks book. A classic case. I see youíre up on your reading. But you donít have his problem, otherwise youíd have already mistaken me for a stove. Donít worry, you may not recognize her, but you wonít mistake her for a hat. But back to you. Now then, your name is Giambattista Bodoni. Does that tell you anything?"
Now my memory was soaring like a glider among mountains and valleys, toward a limitless horizon. "Giambattista Bodoni was a famous typographer. But Iím sure thatís not me. I could as easily be Napoleon as Bodoni."
"Why did you say Napoleon?"
"Because Bodoni was from the Napoleonic era, more or less. Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Corsica, first consul, marries Josephine, becomes emperor, conquers half of Europe, loses at Waterloo, dies on St. Helena, May 5, 1821, he was as if unmoving."
"Iíll have to bring my encyclopedia next time, but from what I remember, your memory is good. Except you donít remember who you are."
"Is that serious?"
"To be honest, itís not so good. But you arenít the first person something like this has happened to, and weíll get through it."
He asked me to raise my right hand, then to touch my nose. I understood perfectly what my right hand was, and my nose. Bullís-eye. But the sensation was absolutely new. Touching your nose is like having an eye on the tip of your index finger, looking you in the face. I have a nose. Gratarolo thumped me on the knee and then here and there on my legs and feet with some kind of little hammer. Doctors measure reflexes. It seemed that my reflexes were good. By the end I felt exhausted, and I think I went back to sleep.
I woke up in a place and murmured that it resembled the cabin of a spaceship, like in movies. (What movies, Gratarolo asked; all of them, I said, in general; then I named Star Trek.) They did things to me I did not understand, using machines I had never seen. I think they were looking inside my head, but I let them, not thinking, lulled by humming sounds, and now and then I dozed again.
Later (or the next day?), when Gratarolo returned, I was exploring the bed. I was feeling the sheets: light, smooth, pleasing to the touch. Less so the cover, which was a little prickly against my fingertips. I turned over and pounded my hand into the pillow, enjoying the fact that it sank into it. I was going whack whack and having a great time. Gratarolo asked me if I thought I could get out of bed. With the help of a nurse, I managed to stand up, though my head was still spinning. I felt my feet pressing against the ground, and my head was up in the air. That is how you stand up. On a tightrope. Like the Little Mermaid.
"Good. Now try going to the bathroom and brushing your teeth. Your wifeís toothbrush should be in there." I told him one should never brush oneís teeth with a strangerís toothbrush, and he remarked that a wife is not a stranger. In the bathroom, I saw myself in the mirror. At least I was fairly sure it was me, because mirrors, as everyone knows, reflect what is in front of them. A white, hollow face, a long beard, and two sunken eyes. This is great: I do not know who I am but I find out I am a monster. I would not want to meet me on a deserted road at night. Mr. Hyde. I have identified two objects: one is definitely called toothpaste, the other toothbrush. You have to start with the toothpaste and squeeze the tube. Exquisite sensation, I ought to do it frequently. But at a certain point you have to quit-that white paste at first pops, like a bubble, but then it all comes out like le serpent qui danse. Donít keep squeezing, otherwise youíll be like Broglio with the stracchini. Whoís Broglio?
The paste has an excellent flavor. Excellent, said the Duke. That is a Wellerism. These, then, are flavors: things that caress the tongue and also the palate, though it seems to be the tongue that detects the flavors. Mint flavor-y la hierbabuena, a las cinco de la tarde Ö I made up my mind and did what everyone does in such cases, quickly and without thinking much about it: first I brushed up and down, then from left to right, then around the whole set. Itís interesting to feel bristles going between two teeth, from now on I think I will brush my teeth every day, it feels nice. I also ran the bristles over my tongue. You feel a sort of shudder, but in the end if you donít press down too hard itís okay. That was a good idea, because my mouth was quite pasty. Now, I said to myself, you rinse. I ran some water from the tap into a glass and swirled it around in my mouth, happily amazed at the sound it made. And it gets even better if you toss your head back and make it-gurgle? Gurgling is good. I puffed up my cheeks, and then it all came out. I spit it out. Sfroosh Ö a cataract. You can do anything with lips, they are extremely flexible. I turned around, Gratarolo was standing there watching me like I was a circus freak, and I asked him if it was going well.
Perfectly, he said. My automatisms, he explained, were in good shape.
"It seems we have an almost normal person on our hands," I remarked, "except that he might not be me."
"Very witty, and thatís a good sign too. Now lie back down-here, Iíll help you. Tell me: what did you just do?"
"I brushed my teeth; you asked me to."
"Absolutely, and before you brushed your teeth?"
"I was in this bed and you were talking to me. You said itís April 1991."
"Right. Your short-term memory is working. Tell me, do you by any chance recall the brand of the toothpaste?"
"No. Should I?"
"Not at all. You certainly saw the brand when you picked up the tube, but if we had to record and store all the stimuli we encounter, our memory would be a bedlam. So we choose, we filter. You did what we all do. But now try to remember the most significant thing that happened while you were brushing your teeth."
"When I ran the brush over my tongue."
"Because my mouth was pasty, and after I did that I felt better."
"You see? You recorded the element most directly associated with your emotions, your desires, your goals. You have emotions again."
"Itís a nice emotion, brushing your tongue. But I donít recall having ever brushed it before."
"Weíll get there. Now, Signor Bodoni, Iíll try to explain all this in plain language, but itís clear that the incident has affected certain regions of your brain. And even though a new study comes out every day, we donít yet know as much as weíd like to know about cerebral localizations, especially as regards the various forms of memory. Iíd dare say that if what has happened to you had happened ten years from now, weíd have a better idea how to manage the situation. Donít interrupt, I understand, if it had happened to you a hundred years ago youíd already be in a madhouse, end of story. We know more today than we did then, but not enough. For example, if you were unable to talk, I could tell you exactly which area had been affectedÖ"
"Bravo. But weíve known about Brocaís area for more than a hundred years. Where the brain stores memories, however, is still a matter of debate, and more than one area is certainly involved. I donít want to bore you with scientific terms, which in any case might add to the confusion you feel-you know how, when the dentist has done something to one of your teeth, for a few days afterward you keep touching it with your tongue? Well, if I were to say, just for instance, that Iím not as concerned about your hippocampus as I am about your frontal lobes, and perhaps the right orbital frontal cortex, you would try to touch yourself there, and itís not like exploring your mouth with your tongue. Endless frustration. So forget what I just said. And besides, every brain is different from every other, and all brains have extraordinary plasticity, so that over the course of time yours may be able to assign the tasks that the injured area can no longer perform to some other area. Do you follow, am I being clear enough?"
"Crystal clear, keep going. But first are you going to tell me that Iím the Collegno amnesiac?"
"You see? You remember the Collegno amnesiac, which is a classic case. Itís only your own, which isnít classic, that you donít remember."
"Iíd rather have forgotten about Collegno and remembered where I was born."
"That would be more unusual. You see, you identified the toothpaste tube immediately, but you donít recall being married-and indeed, remembering your own wedding and identifying the toothpaste tube depend on two different cerebral networks. We have different types of memory. One is called implicit, and it allows us to do with ease various things weíve learned, like brushing our teeth, turning on the radio, or tying a tie. After the toothbrushing experiment, Iím willing to bet that you know how to write, perhaps even how to drive a car. When our implicit memory is assisting us, weíre not even conscious of remembering, we act automatically. And then thereís something called explicit memory, by which we remember things and know weíre remembering them. But this explicit memory is twofold. One part tends nowadays to be called semantic memory, or public memory-the one that tells us a swallow is a kind of bird, and that birds fly and have feathers, but also that Napoleon died inÖ whenever you said. And this type seems to be working fine in your case. Indeed, I might even say too well, since all I have to do is give you a single input and you begin stringing together memories that I would describe as scholastic, or else you fall back on stock phrases. But this is the first type to form even in children. The child quickly learns to recognize a car or a dog, and to form general categories, so that if he once saw a German shepherd and was told it was a dog, then heíll also say Ďdogí when he sees a Labrador. It takes the child longer, however, to develop the second type of explicit memory, which we call episodic, or autobiographical. He isnít immediately capable of remembering, when he sees a dog, say, that a month earlier he saw a dog in his grandmotherís yard, and that heís the person who has had both experiences. Itís episodic memory that establishes a link between who we are today and who we have been, and without it, when we say I, weíre referring only to what weíre feeling now, not to what we felt before, which gets lost, as you say, in the fog. You havenít lost your semantic memory, youíve lost your episodic memory, which is to say the episodes of your life. In short, Iíd say you know all the things other people know, and I imagine that if I were to ask you to tell me the capital of JapanÖ"
"Tokyo. Atom bomb on Hiroshima. General MacArthurÖ"
"Whoa, whoa. Itís as though you remember all the things you read in a book somewhere, or were told, but not the things associated with your direct experience. You know that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, but try to tell me the name of your mother."
"You only have one mother, your mother is still your motherÖ But as for my mine, I donít remember her. I suppose I had a mother, since I know itís a law of the species, butÖ here againÖ the fog. Iím sick, doctor. Itís horrible. I want something to help me go back to sleep."
"Iíll give you something in a moment, Iíve already asked too much of you. Just lie back now, goodÖ To repeat, these things happen, but people get better. With a great deal of patience. Iíll have them bring you something to drink, perhaps some tea. Do you like tea?"
"Maybe I do and maybe I donít."
They brought me tea. The nurse had me sit up against my pillows and placed a tray in front of me. She poured some steaming water into a cup with a little bag in it. Go slow, she said, it burns.
What do you mean, slow? I sniffed the cup and detected the odor, I wanted to say, of smoke. I wanted to see what tea was like, so I took the cup and swallowed. Dreadful. A fire, a flame, a slap in the mouth. So this is boiling tea. It is probably the same with coffee, or chamomile, which everyone talks about. Now I know what it means to burn yourself. Everybody knows you are not supposed to touch fire, but I did not know at what point you could touch hot water. I must learn to recognize the threshold, the moment when before you couldnít and after you can. I blew mechanically on the liquid, then stirred it some more with the spoon, until I decided I could try again. Now the tea was warm and it was good to drink. I was not sure which taste was the tea and which the sugar; one must have been bitter and the other sweet, but which was the sweet and which the bitter? In any case, I liked the combination. I will always drink my tea with sugar. But not boiling. The tea made me feel peaceful and relaxed, and I went to sleep.
I woke again. Perhaps because in my sleep I was scratching my groin and scrotum. I was sweating under the covers. Bedsores? My groin is damp, and when I rub my hands over it too energetically, after an initial sensation of violent pleasure, the friction feels very unpleasant. Itís nicer with the scrotum. You take it between your fingers-gently I might add, without going so far as to squeeze the testicles-and you feel something granular and slightly hairy: itís nice to scratch your scrotum. The itching does not go away immediately, in fact it gets worse, but then it feels even better to continue. Pleasure is the cessation of pain, but itching is not pain, it is an invitation to give yourself pleasure. The titillation of the flesh. By indulging in it you commit a sin. The provident young man sleeps on his back with his hands clasped on his chest so as not to commit impure acts in his sleep. A strange business, itching. And my ballsÖ Youíre a ballbuster. That guyís got balls.
I opened my eyes. A woman was standing there. She was not all that young, over fifty I would guess, with fine lines around her eyes. But her face was luminous, still youthful. A few little streaks of white hair, barely noticeable, as though she had had them lightened on purpose, coquettishly, as if to say, Iím not trying to pass for a girl, but I wear my years well. She was lovely, but when she was young she must have been stunning. She was caressing my forehead.
"Yambo," she said.
"Iambo who, Signora?"
"Youíre Yambo. Thatís what everyone calls you. And Iím Paola, your wife. Recognize me?"
"No, Signora-I mean, no, Paola. Iím very sorry, the doctor must have explained."
"He explained. You no longer know whatís happened to you, but you still know perfectly well whatís happened to others. Since Iím part of your personal history, you no longer know that weíve been married, my dear Yambo, for more than thirty years. And we have two daughters, Carla and Nicoletta, and three wonderful grandchildren. Carla married young and had two children, Alessandro whoís five and Luca whoís three. Nicolettaís son, Giangiacomo, Giangio for short, is also three. Twin cousins, you used to say. And you wereÖ you areÖ you will still be a wonderful grandfather. You were a good father, too."
"AndÖ am I a good husband?"
Paola rolled her eyes skyward: "Weíre still here, arenít we? Letís say that over the course of thirty years there have been ups and downs. You were always considered a good-looking manÖ"
"This morning, yesterday, ten years ago, I saw a horrible face in the mirror."
"After whatís happened to you, thatís the least youíd expect. But you were, you still are, a good-looking man, you have an irresistible smile, and some women didnít resist. Nor did you-you always said you could resist anything but temptation."
"I ask your forgiveness."
"Well, thatís a bit like the guys dropping smart bombs on Baghdad and then apologizing when a few civilians die."
"Bombs on Baghdad? There arenít any in A Thousand and One Nights."
"There was a war, the Gulf War. Itís over now. Or maybe not. Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Western nations intervened. You donít recall any of it?"
"The doctor said that episodic memory-the kind that seems to have gone tilt-is tied to the emotions. Maybe the bombing of Baghdad was something I felt strongly about."
"Iíll say. Youíve always been a devout pacifist, and you agonized over this war. Almost two hundred years ago Maine de Biran identified three types of memory: ideas, feelings, and habits. You remember ideas and habits but not feelings, which are of course the most personal."
"How is it you know all this good stuff?"
"Iím a psychologist, thatís my job. But wait a second: you just said that your episodic memory had gone tilt. Why did you use that phrase?"
"Itís an expression."
"Yes, but itís a thing that happens in pinball and you areÖ you were fanatical about pinball, like a little kid."
"I know what pinball is. But I donít know who I am, you see? Thereís fog in Val Padana. By the way, where are we?"
"In Val Padana. We live in Milan. In the winter months you can see the fog in the park from our house. You live in Milan and youíre an antiquarian book dealer. You have a studio full of old books."
"The curse of the pharaoh. If I was a Bodoni and they baptized me Giambattista, things couldnít have turned out any other way."
"They turned out well. Youíre considered very good at what you do, and weíre not billionaires but we live well. Iíll help you, and youíll recover a little at a time. God, if I think about it, you might have not woken up at all. These doctors have been excellent, they got to you in time. My love, can I welcome you back? You act as if youíre meeting me for the first time. Fine, if I were to meet you now, for the first time, Iíd marry you just the same. Okay?"
"Youíre very sweet. I need you. Youíre the only one who can tell me about the last thirty years."
"Thirty-five. We met in college, in Turin. You were about to graduate and I was the lost freshman, roaming the halls of Palazzo Campana. I asked you where a certain classroom was, and you hooked me immediately, you seduced a defenseless high-school girl. Then one thing and another-I was too young, you went off to spend three years abroad. Afterward, we got together-as a trial, we said, but I ended up getting pregnant, and you married me because you were a gentleman. No, sorry, also because we loved each other, we really did, and because you liked the idea of becoming a father. Donít worry, Pap`a, Iíll help you remember everything, youíll see."
"Unless this is all a conspiracy, and my name is really Jimmy Picklock and Iím a burglar, and everything you and Gratarolo are telling me is a pack of lies, maybe, for instance, youíre secret agents, and you need to supply me with a false identity in order to send me out to spy on the other side of the Berlin Wall, The Ipcress File, andÖ"
"The Berlin Wall isnít there anymore. They tore it down, and the Soviet empire is falling to piecesÖ"
"Christ, you turn your back for a second and look what they get up to. Okay, Iím kidding, I trust you. What are stracchini?"
"Huh? Stracchino is a kind of soft cheese, but thatís what itís called in Piedmont, here in Milan itís called crescenza. What makes you bring up stracchini?"
"It was when I was squeezing the toothpaste tube. Hang on. There was a painter named Broglio, who couldnít make a living off of his paintings, but he didnít want to work because he said he had a nervous condition. It seemed to be an excuse to get his sister to support him. Eventually his friends found him a job with a company that made or sold cheeses. He was walking past a big pile of stracchini, each one wrapped in a packet of semitransparent wax paper, and because of his condition, or so he said, he couldnít resist the temptation: he took them one by one and whack, he smashed them, making the cheese shoot out of the package. He destroyed a hundred or so stracchini before he was fired. All because of his condition. Apparently smacking stracchini, or as he said, sgnach'e i strach`en, was a turn-on. My God, Paola, this must be a childhood memory! Didnít I lose all memory of my past experiences?"
Paola started laughing: "Iím sorry, I remember now. Youíre right, it is something you heard about as a kid. But you told that story often-it became part of your repertoire, so to speak. You were always making your dinner companions laugh with the story of the painter and his stracchini, and they in turn told others. Youíre not remembering your own experience, unfortunately-itís just a story youíve told on numerous occasions and that for you has, how shall I say?, entered the public domain, like the story of Little Red Riding Hood."
"Youíre already proving indispensable to me. Iím happy to have you as my wife. I thank you for existing, Paola."
"Good Lord, just a month ago you would have called that expression soap-opera schmaltzÖ"
"Youíll have to forgive me. I canít seem to say anything that comes from the heart. I donít have feelings, I only have memorable sayings."
"That sounds like a stock phrase, too."
This Paola really loves me.
I had a peaceful night-who knows what Gratarolo put in my veins. I woke gradually, and my eyes must still have been closed, because I heard Paola whispering, so as not to wake me: "But couldnít it be psychogenic amnesia?"
"We canít rule that out," Gratarolo replied. "There may always be unfathomable tensions at the root of these incidents. But you saw his file, the lesions are real."
I opened my eyes and said good morning. Two young women and three children were also present. I had never seen them before, but I guessed who they were. It was terrible, because a wife is one thing, but daughters, my God, they are blood of your blood, and grandchildren too. The eyes of those two young women were shining with happiness, and the kids wanted to get up on the bed. They took me by the hand and said Hi, Grandpa. And nothing. It was not even fog, it was more like apathy. Or is it ataraxia? Like watching animals at the zoo-they could have been little monkeys or giraffes. Of course I smiled and said kind words, but inside I was empty. I suddenly thought of the word sgurato, but I did not know what it meant. I asked Paola. It is a Piedmontese word that means when you wash a pot thoroughly and then scrub it out with that metal wool stuff, so that it looks new again, as shiny and clean as can be. That was it, I felt thoroughly sgurato. Gratarolo, Paola, and the girls were cramming a thousand details of my life into my head, but they were like dry beans: when you moved the pot, they slid around in there but stayed raw, not soaking up any broth or cream-nothing to titillate the taste buds, nothing you would care to taste again. I was listening to things that happened to me as though they had happened to someone else.
I stroked the children and could smell their odor, without being able to define it except to say that it was tender. All that came to mind was there are perfumes as fresh as a childís flesh. And indeed my head was not empty, it was a maelstrom of memories that were not mine: the marchioness went out at five oíclock in the middle of the journey of our life, Abraham begat Isaac and Isaac begat Jacob and Jacob begat the man of La Mancha, and that was when I saw the pendulum betwixt a smile and tear, on the branch of Lake Como where late the sweet birds sang, the snows of yesteryear softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves, messieurs les Anglais je me suis couch'e de bonne heure, though words cannot heal the women come and go, here we shall make Italy or a kiss is just a kiss, tu quoque alea, a man without qualities fights and runs away, brothers of Italy ask not what you can do for your country, the plow that makes the furrow will live to fight another day, I mean a Nose by any other name, Italy is made now the rest is commentary, mi esp'iritu se purifica en Paris con aguacero, donít ask us for the word crazed with light, weíll have our battle in the shade and suddenly itís evening, around my heart three ladiesí arms I sing, oh Valentino Valentino wherefore art thou, happy families are all alike said the bridegroom to the bride, Guido I wish that mother died today, I recognized the trembling of manís first disobedience, de la musique o`u marchent des colombes, go little book to where the lemons blossom, once upon a time there lived Achilles son of Peleus, and the earth was without form and too much with us, Licht mehr licht "uber alles, Contessa, what oh what is life? and Jill came tumbling after. Names, names, names: Angelo DallíOca Bianca, Lord Brummell, Pindar, Flaubert, Disraeli, Remigio Zena, Jurassic, Fattori, Straparola and the pleasant nights, de Pompadour, Smith and Wesson, Rosa Luxemburg, Zeno Cosini, Palma the Elder, Archaeopteryx, Ciceruacchio, Matthew Mark Luke John, Pinocchio, Justine, Maria Goretti, Tha"is the whore with the shitty fingernails, Osteoporosis, Saint Honor'e, Bactria Ecbatana Persepolis Susa Arbela, Alexander and the Gordian knot.
The encyclopedia was tumbling down on me, its pages loose, and I felt like waving my hands the way one does amid a swarm of bees. Meanwhile the children were calling me Grandpa, I knew I was supposed to love them more than myself, and yet I could not tell which was Giangio, which was Alessandro, which was Luca. I knew all about Alexander the Great, but nothing about Alessandro the tiny, the mine.
I said I was feeling weak and wanted to sleep. They left, and I cried. Tears are salty. So, I still had feelings. Yes, but made fresh daily. Whatever feelings I once had were no longer mine. I wondered whether I had ever been religious; it was clear, whatever the answer, that I had lost my soul.
The next morning, with Paola there, Gratarolo had me sit at a table where he showed me a series of little colored squares, lots of them. He would hand me one and ask me what color it was. A-tisket, a-tasket, a green and yellow basketÖ Was it red? Was it brown? Was it blue? No! Just a little yellow basket. The first five or six I recognized without any trouble: red, yellow, green, and so on. Naturally I said that A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu, voyelles, je dirais quelque jour vos naissances latentes. But I realized that the poet or whoever was lying. What does it mean to say A is black? Rather it was as if I were discovering colors for the first time: red was quite cheerful, fire red, but perhaps too strong. No, maybe yellow was stronger, like a light suddenly switched on and pointed at my eyes. Green made me feel peaceful. The difficulties arose with the other little squares. Whatís this? Green, I said. But Gratarolo pressed me: what type of green, how is it different from this one? Shrug. Paola explained that one was emerald green and the other was pea green. Emeralds are gems, I said, and peas are vegetables that you eat. They are round and they come in a long, lumpy pod. But I had never seen either emeralds or peas. Donít worry, Gratarola said, in English they have more than three thousand terms for different colors, yet most people can name eight at best. The average person can recognize the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet-though people already begin to have trouble with indigo and violet. It takes a lot of experience to learn to distinguish and name the various shades, and a painter is better at it than, say, a taxi driver, who just has to know the colors of traffic lights.
Gratarolo gave me a pen and paper. Write, he said. "What the hell am I supposed to write?" was what I wrote, and it felt as if I had never done anything but write. The pen was sleek and glided smoothly over the paper. "Write whatever comes to mind," Gratarolo said.
Mind? I wrote: love that within my mind discourses with me, the love that moves the sun and the other stars, stars hide your fires, if I were fire I would burn the world, Iíve got the world on a string, there are strings in the human heart, the heart does not take orders, who would hear me among the angelsí orders, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, tread lightly she is near, lie lightly on her, a beautiful lie, touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, wonder is the poetís aim.
"Write something about your life," Paola said. "What did you do when you were twenty?" I wrote: "I was twenty. I wonít let anyone say thatís the best time of a personís life." The doctor asked me what first came to mind when I woke up. I wrote: "When Gregor Samsa woke one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect."
"Maybe thatís enough, Doctor," Paola said. "Donít let him go on too long with these associative chains, or he might go crazy on me."
"Right, because I seem sane to you now?"
All at once Gratarolo barked: "Now sign your name, without thinking, as if it were a check."
Without thinking. I traced "GBBodoni," with a flourish at the end and a round dot on the i.
"You see? Your head doesnít know who you are, but your hand does. That was to be expected. Letís try something else. You mentioned Napoleon. What did he look like?"
"I canít conjure up an image of him. Just words."
Gratarolo asked Paola if I knew how to draw. Apparently Iím no artist, but I manage to doodle things. He asked me to draw Napoleon. I did something of the sort.
"Not bad," Gratarolo remarked. "You drew your mental scheme of Napoleon-the tricorne, the hand in the vest. Now Iíll show you a series of images. First series, works of art."
I performed well: the Mona Lisa, Manetís Olympia, this one is a Picasso, that one is a good imitation.
"See how well you recognize them? Now letís try some contemporary figures."
Another series of photographs, and here too, with the exception of one or two faces that meant nothing to me, my answers were on target: Greta Garbo, Einstein, Toto, Kennedy, Moravia, and who they were. Gratarolo asked me what they had in common. They were famous? Not enough, thereís something else. I balked.
"Theyíre all dead now," Gratarolo said.
"What, even Kennedy and Moravia?"
"Moravia died at the end of last year. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963."
"Oh, those poor guys. Iím sorry."
"That you wouldnít remember about Moravia is almost normal, he just died recently, and your semantic memory didnít have much time to absorb the event. Kennedy, on the other hand, baffles me-thatís old news, the stuff of encyclopedias."
"He was deeply affected by the Kennedy affair," Paola said. "Maybe Kennedy got lumped with his personal memories."
Gratarolo pulled out some other photographs. One showed two men: the first was certainly me, except well groomed and well dressed, and with that irresistible smile Paola had mentioned. The other man had a friendly face, too, but I did not know him.
"Thatís Gianni Laivelli, your best friend," Paola said. "He was your desk mate from first grade through high school."
"Who are these?" asked Gratarolo, bringing out another image. It was an old photograph. The woman had a thirties-style hairdo, a white, moderately low-cut dress, and a teeny-tiny little button nose. The man had perfectly parted hair, maybe a little brilliantine, a pronounced nose, and a broad, open smile. I did not recognize them. (Artists? No, it was not glamorous or stagy enough. Maybe newlyweds.) But I felt a tug in the pit of my stomach and-I do not know what to call it-a gentle swoon.
Paola noticed it: "Yambo, thatís your parents on their wedding day."
"Are they still alive?" I asked.
"No, they died a while ago. In a car accident."
"You got worked up looking at that photo," Gratarolo said. "Certain images spark something inside you. Thatís a start."
"But what kind of start is it, if I canít even find pap`a and mamma in that damn hellhole," I shouted. "You tell me that these two were my parents, so now I know, but itís a memory that youíve given me. Iíll remember the photo from now on, but not them."
"Who knows how many times over the past thirty years you were reminded of them because you kept seeing this photo? You canít think of memory as a warehouse where you deposit past events and retrieve them later just as they were when you put them there," Gratarolo said. "I donít want to get too technical, but when you remember something, youíre constructing a new profile of neuronal excitation. Letís suppose that in a certain place you had some unpleasant experience. When afterward you remember that place, you reactivate that initial pattern of neuronal excitation with a profile of excitation thatís similar to but not the same as that which was originally stimulated. Remembering will therefore produce a feeling of unease. In short, to remember is to reconstruct, in part on the basis of what we have learned or said since. Thatís normal, thatís how we remember. I tell you this to encourage you to reactivate some of these profiles of excitation, instead of simply digging obsessively in an effort to find something thatís already there, as shiny and new as you imagine it was when you first set it aside. The image of your parents in this photo is the one weíve shown you and the one we see ourselves. You have to start from this image to rebuild something else, and only that will be yours. Remembering is a labor, not a luxury."
"These mournful and enduring memories," I recited, "this trail of death we leave aliveÖ"
"Memory can also be beautiful," Gratarolo said. "Someone said that it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura: it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original."
"I want a cigarette."
"Thatís a sign that your organism is recovering at a normal pace. But itís better if you donít smoke. And when you go back home, alcohol in moderation: not more than a glass per meal. You have blood-pressure problems. Otherwise I wonít allow you to leave tomorrow."
"Youíre letting him leave?" Paola said, a little scared.
"Letís take stock, Signora. From a physical standpoint your husband can get by pretty well on his own. Itís not as though heíll fall down the stairs if you leave him alone. If we keep him here, weíll exhaust him with endless tests, all of them artificial experiences, and we already know what theyíll tell us. I think it would do him good to return to his environment. Sometimes the most helpful thing is the taste of familiar food, a smell-who knows? On these matters, literature has taught us more than neurology."
It is not that I wanted to play the pedant, but if all I had left was that damned semantic memory, I might as well use it: "Proustís madeleine," I said. "The taste of the linden-blossom tea and that little cake give him a jolt. He feels a violent joy. And an image of Sundays at Combray with his Aunt L'eonie comes back to him Ö It seems there must be an involuntary memory of the limbs, our legs and arms are full of torpid memoriesÖ And who was that other voice? Nothing compels memories to manifest themselves as much as smells and flame."
"So you know what I mean. Even scientists sometimes believe writers more than their machines. And as for you, Signora, itís practically your field-youíre not a neurologist, but you are a psychologist. Iíll give you a few books to read, a few famous accounts of clinical cases, and youíll understand the nature of your husbandís problems immediately. I think that being around you and your daughters and going back to work will help him more than staying here. Just be sure to visit me once a week so we can track your progress. Go home, Signor Bodoni. Look around, touch things, smell them, read newspapers, watch TV, go hunting for images."
"Iíll try, but I donít remember images, or smells, or flavors. I only remember words."
"That could change. Keep a diary of your reactions. Weíll work on that."
I began to keep a diary.
I packed my bags the next day. I went down with Paola. It was clear that they must have air-conditioning in hospitals: suddenly I understood, for the first time, what the heat of the sun was. The warmth of a still raw spring sun. And the light: I had to squint. You canít look at the sun: Soleil, soleil, faute 'eclatanteÖ
When we got to the car (never seen it before) Paola told me to give it a try. "Get in, put it in neutral first, then start it. While itís still in neutral, press the accelerator." I immediately knew where to put my hands and feet, as if Iíd never done anything else. Paola sat next to me and told me to put it in first, then to remove my foot from the clutch while ever so slightly pressing the accelerator, just enough to move a meter or two forward, then to brake and turn the engine off. That way, if I did something wrong, the worst I could do was run into a bush. It went well. I was quite proud. I defiantly backed up a little too. Then I got out, left the driving to Paola, and off we went.
"How does the world look?" she asked me.
"I donít know. They say that a cat, if it falls from a window and hits its nose, can lose its sense of smell and then, because cats live by their ability to smell, it can no longer recognize things. Iím a cat that hit its nose. I see things, I understand what sort of things they are, of course-those are stores over there, hereís a bicycle going by, there are some trees, butÖ but they donít quite fit somehow, as if I were trying to put on someone elseís jacket."
"A cat putting on someone elseís jacket with its nose. Your metaphors must still be loose. Weíll have to tell Gratarolo, but Iím sure it will pass."
The car continued on. I looked around, discovering the colors and shapes of an unknown city.