Part Three. OI NOZTOI
15. You’re Back at Last, Friend Mist!
I am traveling through a tunnel with phosphorescent walls. I am rushing toward a distant point that appears as an inviting gray. Is this the death experience? Popular wisdom suggests that those who have it and then come back say just the opposite, that you go through a dark, vertiginous passageway, then emerge in a triumph of blinding light. The Hotel of the Three Roses. So either I am not dead, or they lied.
I am nearing the mouth of the tunnel, and the vapors that gather thickly beyond it are filtering in. I simmer in them, barely aware that I am now moving through a delicate tissue of hovering fumes. This is fog: not read, not described by others-real fog, and I am in it. I have returned.
Around me the fog rises, painting the world with a soft insubstantiality. If I could make out the outlines of houses, I would see the fog stealing in to nibble away a roof, starting at the edges. But it has already swallowed everything. Or perhaps this is fog over fields and hills. I am not sure whether I am floating or walking, but even the ground is only fog. Like tramping over snow. I plunge into the fog, fill my lungs with it, breathe it back out, roll in it like a dolphin, the way I used to dream of swimming through cream… The friendly fog welcomes me, circles me, coats me, breathes me, caresses my cheeks and then slips between my collar and my chin and stings my neck-and it tastes of something gone sour, of snow, of a drink, of tobacco. I move as I do beneath the arcades in Solara, where you can never see the whole sky, the arcades low like the arched ceilings of wine cellars. Et, comme un bon nageur qui se p^ame dans l’onde, / tu sillonnes gaiement l’immen-sit'e profonde / avec une indicible et m^ale volupt'e.
Several silhouettes approach. They seem at first like many-armed giants. They give off a weak heat and the fog melts around them, as if they were being lit by a feeble streetlamp, and I shrink away for fear that they will hurl themselves upon me, dominate me, I go through them the way you can with ghosts, and they disperse. It is like being in a train and watching the signal lights approach in the darkness and then seeing them swallowed by darkness, vanishing.
Now the mocking figure from the Thermog`ene ad comes forward, a satanic clown sheathed in a green and blue unitard, squeezing something to his chest, a flabby mass, like human lungs, and spewing flames from his unseemly mouth. He crashes into me, licking me like a flamethrower, then goes away, leaving a thin wake of heat that for a few moments lightens that fumifugium. A globe rolls up to me with a huge eagle atop it, and after the bird comes the ashen face of the Presbitero pencil man, with a hundred pencils bristling from his head like hair standing on end from fear… I know them, they were my companions when as a child I lay in bed with fever, feeling immersed in royal soup, in a purulence of yellow well-springs that boiled around me as I cooked in their broth. Now, as in those nights, I am lying in the darkness of my room when suddenly the doors of the dark old wardrobe open and out comes a crowd of Uncle Gaetanos. Uncle Gaetano had a triangular head, with a sharp chin and curly hair that formed two excrescences at his temples, a consumptive face, gloomy eyes, and one gold tooth at the center of
a rotten set. Like the pencil man. The Uncle Gaetanos came forth at first in pairs, then multiplied, dancing around my room with marionette-like motions, bending their arms geometrically, sometimes wielding a two-meter ruler like a cane. They would return with every seasonal flu, every measles or scarlet fever, to plague those late afternoons when my temperature would rise, and I feared them. Then they would go away as quickly as they had come-perhaps they went back into the wardrobe, and later, as I convalesced, I would open it fearfully and examine the interior inch by inch, but I never found the hidden passage from which they had emerged.
When I was well, I would, on occasion, meet Uncle Gaetano along the avenue on Sunday at noon, and he would smile at me with his gold tooth, caress my cheek, say "Good lad," and move on. He was a nice old guy, and I never understood why he came to haunt me when I was sick, nor did I dare ask my parents what was so ambiguous, so oily, so subtly threatening about Uncle Gaetano’s life, his very being.
What was it I had said to Paola when she held me back from being run over by a car? That I knew that cars run over chickens, that the driver hits the brakes to avoid them and black smoke comes out and then two men in dustcoats with big black goggles have to start it again with a crank. At the time I did not know, now I do, that these men appeared after Uncle Gaetano during my bouts of delirium.
Those men are here, I meet them suddenly in the mist.
I barely dodge them, their car is anthropomorphically hideous, and out they jump, wearing masks and trying to grab me by my ears. My ears are now extremely long, astronomically asinine, flaccid and hairy, they could stretch to the moon. Watch out, because if you’re a bad boy, never mind Pinocchio’s nose, you’ll get Meo’s ears! Why was that book not in Solara? I was living inside Meo’s Ears.
I have regained my memory. Except that now-when it rains it pours-my memories are wheeling around me like bats.
The fever has been going down since the last quinine pill: my father is sitting by my little bed reading me a chapter of The Four Musketeers. Not the three, the four. A parody that had all of Italy glued to the radio, because it was tied in to an advertising contest: every box of Perugina chocolates contained a colorful card depicting one of the characters from the program, and people collected them in albums, competing for various prizes.
But only those lucky enough to get the rarest figure, the Fierce Saladin, would win a Fiat Balilla, and the entire country was getting drunk on chocolate (or giving it away to whomever-relatives, lovers, neighbors, employers) in their efforts to capture the Fierce Saladin.
In the tale to which you’re listening, / you’ll see gloves and feathered hats, / swords, and duels, and sneak attacks, / lovely ladies, and lovers trysting… They even published it as a book, full
of witty illustrations. Pap`a would read and I would fall asleep to visions of Cardinal Richelieu surrounded by cats, or of the Beautiful Sulamite.
Why was it that in Solara (when? yesterday? a thousand years ago?) there were so many traces of my grandfather and none of Pap`a? Because my grandfather had dealt in books and magazines, and books and magazines were things I read, paper, paper, paper, whereas Pap`a worked all day and never got involved in politics, perhaps in order to keep his job. When we were in Solara, he would somehow manage to visit us on the weekends, spending the rest of his time in the city amid the bombardments, and he would appear at my bedside only when I was sick.
Bang crack blam splash crackle crackle crunch grunt pwutt roaar rumble blomp sbam buizz schranchete slam sprank blomp swoom bum thump clang tomp trac uaaaagh vroom augh zoom…
When they were bombing the city, we could see the distant flashes from our windows in Solara, could hear the rumbling of something like thunder. We would watch the spectacle, always knowing that Pap`a might be trapped in a collapsing building, never being able to find out for sure until Saturday, when he was supposed to return. Sometimes they would bomb on Tuesday. We would wait for four days. The war had made us fatalists, a bombing was like a storm. We kids kept playing calmly through Tuesday evening, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. But were we really calm? Were we not beginning to be marked by anxiety, by the stunned and relieved melancholy that grips whoever passes alive through a field strewn with corpses?
Only now do I sense that I loved my father, and I see his face again, marked by a life of sacrifice-he worked hard to acquire the car in which he would be crushed, perhaps so that he could feel independent of my grandfather, a bon vivant without financial worries, who was, moreover, haloed with heroism, thanks to his political past and his revenge on Merlo.
Pap`a is here beside me, he is reading the spurious adventures of D’Artagnan, who was shown in the book wearing knickerbockers, like a golfer. I can smell the scent of Mamma’s breast, when I would go stretch out in bed and she, so many years after she had suckled me, would put away her Filotea and sing in soft tones a hymn to the Virgin, which to me was the chromatic ascent from the Prelude to Tristan.
How is it that now I remember? Where am I? I pass from foggy vistas to the most vivid images of domestic scenes, and I see an all-encompassing silence. I sense nothing outside me, everything is within. I try to move a finger, a hand, a leg, but it is as if I had no body. As if I were floating in nothingness and gliding toward abysses that call out to the Abyss.
Has someone drugged me? Who? Where do I last remember being? A person usually recalls on waking what he did before he went to sleep, even that he closed the book and laid it on the night-stand. But sometimes it happens that you wake up in a hotel, or even in your own house after returning from a long trip, and you look for the light on the left when it is on the right, or you try to get out of bed on the wrong side, believing you are still in the other place. I recall it as if it were last night, before I went to sleep Pap`a was reading me The Four Musketeers, I know that must be fifty years ago, but I am struggling to recall where I was before waking up here.
Was I not in Solara with the First Folio of Shakespeare in my hands? And then? Amalia put LSD in my soup and now I am hovering here, in a fog teeming with figures who emerge from every cranny of my past.
Silly me, how simple it is… In Solara I had a second incident, they thought I was dead, they buried me, and I have awakened inside the tomb. Buried alive, a classic scenario. But in such cases you become agitated, you move your limbs, bang against the walls of your zinc box, gasp for air, panic. But this is different, I do not feel like a body, I am supremely calm. I am experiencing only these memories that assail me, taking pleasure in them. That is not how you awaken in a tomb.
Then I must be dead and the afterlife is this calm, dull zone in which I will relive my past life eternally, and tough luck if it was terrible (that will be hell), otherwise it will be paradise. Oh come on! Say you were born hunchbacked, blind, and deaf-mute, or that the ones you loved died like flies around you, parents, wife, five-year-old son-does that mean that your afterlife will be nothing but the repetition, varied but continuous, of all you suffered in your earthly life? That hell is not les autres, but the trail of death we leave alive? Not even the cruelest of gods could imagine such a fate for us. Unless Gragnola was right. Gragnola? I think I knew him once, but my memories are shoving one another around and I have to put them in order, line them up, otherwise I will lose myself in the fog again and the Thermog`ene clown will come back.
Maybe I am not dead. If I were, I would feel no worldly passions, no love for my parents or anxiety about the bombings. To die is to remove oneself from the cycle of life and from the beating of one’s heart. No matter how hellish hell might be, I would be able to observe from sidereal distances what I myself have been. Being flayed in boiling pitch is not hell. You reflect on the evil you have done, you can never again free yourself from it, and you know it. But you would be pure spirit. Whereas I not only remember but also experience nightmares, affection, and delight. I cannot feel my body, but I still remember it, and I suffer as if I had it still. The way someone who has had a leg amputated can still feel it ache.
Try again. I had a second incident, this one more severe than the first. I got too worked up, first at the thought of Lila, and then, later, when I found the First Folio. No doubt my blood pressure soared to vertiginous heights. I fell into a coma.
On the outside, Paola, my daughters, everyone who loves me (and Gratarolo, tearing out his hair for letting me go when perhaps he should have kept me under tight control for at least six months), is watching me as I lie in a deep coma. Their machines are saying that my brain shows no signs of life, and they are despairing over whether to pull the plug or wait, maybe for years. Paola is holding my hand, Carla and Nicoletta have put some records on, having read that even in a coma a sound, a voice, any sort of stimulus might suddenly wake you up. And they could go on like this for years while I remained hooked up to a tube. Anyone with an ounce of dignity would say, Let’s end this right now, so that those poor women can at last feel hopeless but free. And I am able to think that they should pull the plug, but I am unable to say so.
Yet brains in deep comas, as everyone knows, show no signs of activity, whereas I think, I feel, I recall. But that is just what people on the outside believe. The encephalogram flatlines according to science, but what does science know of the body’s stratagems? Maybe my brain waves are flat on their screens and I am thinking with my guts, with the tips of my toes, with my testicles. They believe I no longer have cerebral activity, but I still have interior activity.
I am not saying that when the brain flatlines, the soul is still in operation, somewhere. I am saying only that their machines record my cerebral activity up to a certain point. Below this threshold I am still thinking, and they do not know it. If I can wake up again to tell my tale, someone might get a Nobel in neurology and those machines could be tossed on the scrap heap.
To be able to reemerge from the fog of the past, to show myself again, alive and powerful, to those who loved me and to those who wished me dead. "Look at me, I am Edmond Dant`es!" How many times does the Count of Monte Cristo appear to someone who has given him up for dead? To his former benefactors, to his beloved Mercedes, to those who brought about his downfall: "Look at me, I have returned, I am Edmond Dant`es."
Or else to be able to escape this silence, drift incorporeally above the hospital room, see the people crying beside my motionless body. To attend one’s own funeral and at the same time be able to fly, no longer hindered by the flesh-two universal wishes granted at once. Instead I dream, imprisoned in my immobility…
In truth, I nurse no grudges. If I have reason to be upset, it is because I feel fine and cannot say so. If only I could move a finger, an eyelid, send a signal, maybe in Morse code. But I am all thought and no action. No sensation. I might have been here a week, a month, a year, and I feel no heartbeat, no pangs of hunger or thirst, no desire to sleep (should this continual wakefulness frighten me), I do not even know if I excrete (perhaps tubes take care of everything), or sweat, or even breathe. For all I know, outside me and around me there may not even be any air. I suffer at the thought of Paola, Carla, and Nicoletta suffering, thinking me out of commission, but the last thing I ought to do is give in to this suffering. I cannot take on the pain of the entire world-may I be granted the gift of fierce selfishness. I live with myself and for myself, and I can remember that which, after my first incident, I had forgotten. For now, and perhaps forever, this is my life.
So then, nothing to do but wait. If they revive me, it will be a surprise for everyone. But I may never wake up, and I must prepare myself for this uninterrupted reliving of the past. Or perhaps I will last only a little longer, then go out-in which case I must take full advantage of these moments.
If I were suddenly to cease to think, what would happen next? Would some other kind of afterlife kick in that would resemble my ultraprivate present life, or would it be darkness and unconsciousness forever?
I would be a fool to waste whatever time has been granted me in pondering such questions. Someone, or perhaps chance, has given me the opportunity to remember who I am. I must take it. If I turn out to have something to be penitent for, I will do penance. But in order to repent, I must first remember what it is I have done. As for the sleaziness I know about, Paola, or the widows I cheated, will have forgiven me already. And in the end, after all, if hell exists, it is empty.
In the attic in Solara, before entering this sleep, I found a tin frog that was linked to the name Angelo Bear and to the phrase "Dr. Osimo’s candies." Those were words. Now I see.
Dr. Osimo, with his egg-bald head and pale blue glasses, is the pharmacist on Corso Roma. Whenever Mamma takes me with her on her errands and stops by the pharmacy, Dr. Osimo, even if she is buying nothing more than a roll of absorbent gauze, opens a towering glass container full of fragrant white orbs and gives me a packet of milk candies. I know I must not eat them all right away, must make them last at least three or four days.
On our previous outing I noticed-I am less than four-nothing out of the ordinary about Mamma’s belly, but one day after our last visit to Dr. Osimo, I am sent downstairs and entrusted to Signor Piazza. Signor Piazza lives in a great room that resembles a forest, full of animals that look alive: roosters, foxes, cats, eagles. I have been told that he takes animals, but only when they die of their own accord, and rather than burying them he stuffs them with straw. Now I am sitting in his house, and he is entertaining me by explaining the names and traits of the various animals, and I spend who knows how much time in that marvelous necropolis, wherein death seems gentle, Egyptian, and exudes perfumes I smell only there, probably a blend of chemical solutions and the odor of dusty feathers and tanned hides. The most beautiful afternoon of my life.
When someone comes to retrieve me and I go back up the stairs at home, I learn that during my sojourn in the kingdom of the dead my baby sister has been born. The midwife found her in a cabbage and brought her. All I can see of my baby sister, through the whiteness of lace, is a single flushed purple ball featuring a black hole out of which piercing shrieks emerge. That does not mean she is sick, they tell me: when a baby sister is born she does that because that is her way of saying how happy she is that she now has a mamma and a pap`a and a little brother.
I am exceedingly agitated, and I offer at once to give her one of Dr. Osimo’s milk candies, but they explain that when a baby sister is first born she has no teeth and can only suck milk from her mamma. It would have been great to throw those little white balls and make them go into that black hole. Maybe I would have won a goldfish.
I run to the toy chest and take out the tin frog. She might have just been born, but a green frog that croaks when you squeeze its belly cannot fail to entertain her. But no, and I put the frog away too, and slink off. What good, then, is a new baby sister? Would it not have been better to remain among Signor Piazza’s dead old birds?
The tin frog and Angelo Bear. In the attic they had popped into my mind at the same time because Angelo Bear, too, became linked to my sister, when she later became an accomplice in my games-and a glutton for milk candies.
"Stop it, Nuccio, Angelo Bear can’t take it any more." Who knows how many times I asked my cousin to end the torture. But he was bigger than I was, and had been sent by the priests to a boarding school where he spent his days chafing in a uniform, and so when he came back to the city he let loose. At the end of a long battle of the toys he captured Angelo Bear, tied him to the foot of the bed, and subjected him to unspeakable floggings.
Angelo Bear, how long had I had him? The memory of his arrival disappears into the time that Gratarolo described, before we learn to organize our personal memories. Angelo, my yellowish plush friend, had movable arms and legs, like a doll’s, so he could sit or walk or raise his arms to the sky. He was large and impressive, with two twinkling, bright brown eyes. Ada and I had elected him king of the toys, of the soldiers as well as the dolls.
Age, as it wore him down, rendered him even more venerable. He gained a halting authority all his own, which only increased over time, as one by one, like a veteran of many battles, he lost an eye, then an arm.
Turned upside down, the footstool would become a boat, a pirate ship, or a Vernian craft with its square stem and stern: Angelo Bear sat beside the helmsman, and in front of him, setting a course for adventure in distant lands, were Captain Potato and the Soldiers of Cockaigne, who were more important, because of their size, though also more comical, than their earnest brothers-in-arms, the clay soldiers, who by this time were more disabled than Angelo, several having lost heads or limbs, leaving only wire hooks sticking out of the compressed, friable, and now faded substance of their flesh, like so many Long John Silvers. While that glorious vessel sailed out of the Bedroom Sea, traversed the Hallway Ocean, and made land in the Kitchen Archipelago, Angelo towered above his Lilliputian subjects, but the disproportion, rather than bothering us, merely emphasized his Gulliverian majesty.
Over time-thanks to his generous service, his proclivity for all manner of acrobatics, and Cousin Nuccio’s rage-Angelo Bear lost his second eye, his second arm, and finally his legs. As Ada and I grew, tufts of straw began falling out of his mutilated torso. Our parents somehow got the notion that his mangy body had become a host for bugs, and perhaps bacterial cultures, and so, with the appalling threat to toss him in the garbage while we were at school, they goaded us into getting rid of him.
By this point, for both Ada and myself, our beloved plantigrade was a painful sight: so frail, unable to stand on his own, exposed to that slow disembowelment and that indecorous spillage of internal organs. We had accepted the idea that he had to die-should indeed be considered already deceased-and thus that he should have an honorable burial.
We are up early in the morning, and Pap`a has just turned on the boiler, the central unit that distributes heat to all the radiators in the house. We have formed a slow, hieratic cortege. Beside the boiler, the ranks of surviving toys, marshaled under the command of Captain Potato. They stand in orderly rows, at attention, to bestow the honors of war, as befits the defeated. I proceed, bearing the cushion on which is laid the nearly departed, followed by each member of my family, including the cleaning woman, all united in mournful veneration.
With ritual compunction I am now introducing Angelo Bear into the maw of that fiery Baal. Angelo, now no more than a sack of straw, goes up in a single burst of flame.
It was a prophetic ceremony, because not long afterward the boiler itself was extinguished. Originally it had fed upon anthracite, and then, when that ran out, upon egg-shaped lumps of coal dust, but as the war went on those were rationed, too, and we had to rehabilitate an old kitchen stove, much like the one we would later use in Solara, that could swallow wood, paper, cardboard, and a type of briquette made of a compressed, wine-colored substance that burned poorly but slowly and gave the appearance of flame.
The death of Angelo Bear does not grieve me, nor does it bring on a surge of nostalgia. Perhaps it did in the years that immediately followed, and perhaps I felt it again, at sixteen, when I began devoting myself to the recovery of the recent past, but not now. Now I do not live in the stream of time. I am, blessedly, in the eternal present. Angelo is before my eyes, the day of his obsequies and also the days of his triumphs. I can move from one memory to the other, and I experience each as the hic et nunc.
If this is eternity, it is splendid-why did I have to wait until I was sixty before deserving it?
And Lila’s face? Now I should be able to see it, but it is as though memories were coming to me of their own accord, one at a time, in an order they have chosen. I simply must wait. I have nothing else to do.
I am sitting in the hall, beside the Telefunken. There is a play on. Pap`a is following the whole thing, and I am in his lap, thumb in my mouth. I do not understand such things-family tragedies, affairs, redemptions-but those distant voices lead me toward sleep.
When I go to bed I ask that my bedroom door be left open, so that I can see the hall light. I have become enormously shrewd at a tender age, have figured out that the Wise Men’s gifts, on the eve of Epiphany, are bought by our parents. Ada does not believe it, I cannot strip a little girl of her illusions, and on the night of January 5, I try desperately to stay awake to hear what happens out there. I hear them arranging the gifts. The next morning I will feign joy and wonder at the miracle, because I am a manipulative bastard and do not want this game to end.
I am a sharp one, I am. I have figured out that babies are born from their mother’s bellies, but I keep it to myself. Mamma talks about female matters with her friends (so-and-so is in a delicate, ahem, condition, or that one has adhesions there, ahem, on her ovaries), one of them shushes her, warns her there is a child around, and Mamma says it does not matter, because at that age we are so slow on the uptake. I peek from behind the door and penetrate life’s secrets.
From the small circular door of Mamma’s dresser, I have purloined a book: It Isn’t True that Death, by Giovanni Mosca, a well-mannered, ironic elegy on the joys of cemetery life and the pleasures of lying beneath a cozy blanket of earth. I like this invitation to demise, perhaps it is my first encounter with death, before Valente’s green stakes. But one morning, chapter five, sweet Maria, who in a moment of weakness has known a gravedigger, feels a wing-beat in her belly. Up to that point, the author has been quite modest, has merely referred to an unhappy love and a creature yet to come. But now he allows himself a realistic description that terrifies me: "Her belly, from that morning on, came to life with flutters and flaps, like a cageful of sparrows… The baby was moving."
This, with its unbearable realism, is the first time I have ever read about a pregnancy. I am not surprised by what I learn, which confirms what I have gathered on my own. But I am frightened by the thought that someone might catch me in the act of reading that forbidden text, and learn that I have learned. I feel sinful, because I have violated a prohibition. I place the book back in the dresser, trying to hide every trace of my intrusion. I know a secret, and I feel guilty for knowing it.
This happens long before I kiss the face of the lovely diva on the cover of Novella, and it is part of the revelation of birth, not of sex. Like certain primitive peoples who, they say, never managed to establish a direct correlation between the sexual act and pregnancy (and nine months is a century, as Paola would say), I, too, went a long time before grasping the mysterious link between sex, that adult activity, and babies.
Not even my parents worry that I might feel distressing sensations. It seems their generation felt them late, or else they have forgotten their childhoods. They are leading me and Ada by the hand, they run into an acquaintance, Pap`a says we are on our way to see Goldene Stadt, and the acquaintance grins mischievously at us little ones and whispers that the movie is "a little saucy." Pap`a replies nonchalantly, "I guess we’ll have to wipe their chins." And me with my heart in my throat watching Kristina S"oderbaum’s clinches.
In the hallway at Solara, as I was thinking of the expression "races and peoples of the earth," a hairy vulva came to mind. Indeed, here I am, with a few friends, around the time of middle school perhaps, in someone’s father’s study, where we are looking at Biasutti’s Races and Peoples of the Earth. We flip the pages quickly until we reach a page with a photo of Kalmyk women, `a poil, their sexual organs visible, or rather their fur. Kalmyk women, women who sell by themselves.
I am in the fog again. It reigns supreme in the dark of the blackout, as the city contrives to vanish from the celestial sight of enemy aircraft, and does in any case vanish from my sight as I observe it from the ground. I advance through that fog, like the boy in that picture in my first-grade reader, holding Pap`a’s hand, and he is wearing the same Borsalino hat as the man in the picture, though his coat is less elegant, shabbier, and slope-shouldered, raglan-style- and mine is even more threadbare, with the buttonholes on the right, a sign that it is made of reversed material from one of Pap`a’s old overcoats. In his right hand he holds not a walking stick but an electric flashlight, though not the kind with batteries. It recharges with friction, like a bicycle headlamp, and as he presses four fingers on a kind of trigger, it buzzes softly and lights up the sidewalk enough to see a step, a corner, the edge of an intersection, and then his fingers loosen their grip, and the light vanishes. We walk another ten paces or so, on the basis of what little we have seen, as in blind flight, then he turns it back on for a moment.
Shadows pass each other in the fog. Sometimes a greeting is whispered, or a pardon me, and it seems right that they are whispered, though if you think about it the bombardiers can see light but cannot hear sounds, so we could go around singing in that fog at the top of our lungs. But no one does, and it is as though our silence encourages the fog to protect our steps, to render us invisible, us and the streets.
Are such strict blackouts really helpful? Perhaps they merely comfort us, especially since when they want to bomb they come during the day. It is the middle of the night and the sirens have sounded. Mamma, crying, wakes us up-she is crying not out of fear of the bombs, but over her babies’ ruined sleep-slips little overcoats over our pajamas and takes us down to the shelter. This is not in our house, which has nothing more than a cellar reinforced with a few beams and sandbags, but in the house behind ours, which was built in 39, in anticipation of the conflict. We get there not by crossing the courtyards, which are separated by walls, but by going around the block, hurriedly, trusting in the fact that the sirens sound when the planes are still fairly far away.
The air-raid shelter is lovely, its cement walls grooved by rivulets of water, its lights dim but warm. All the grown-ups are sitting on benches and jabbering, and we kids are running around in the middle. We hear the muffled sound of antiaircraft artillery; everyone is convinced that if a bomb falls on this block of flats the shelter will withstand it. It is not true, but it helps. The building guard, who is my elementary school teacher, Maestro Monaldi, mills around with a self-absorbed air, mortified because he is a centurion in the militia but did not have time to don his uniform, with his squadrista decorations. At this time, anyone who had been part of the March on Rome was like a veteran of the great Napoleonic battles-it was only after September 8, 1943, that my grandfather explained to me how the march had been a procession of petty thieves armed with walking sticks, and if the king had given the order, a few companies of infantry could have stopped them in their tracks. But the king was Stumpy Quickfoot, and betrayal was in his blood.
In any event, Maestro Monaldi now walks among his fellow tenants, calms them, pays attention to the pregnant ladies, explains that there are small sacrifices that must be endured for the final victory. The cease-fire signal sounds, families swarm out into the street. One man- no one knows him, he took refuge with us because the alarm caught him while he was on the road-lights a cigarette. Maestro Monaldi grabs him by the arm and asks him sarcastically whether he knows that we are at war and that there is a blackout.
"Even if there was still a bomber up there, he couldn’t see the light of one match," the man replies, and he begins to smoke.
"Oh, you’re sure, are you?"
"Of course I’m sure. I’m a pilot and I fly bombers. You ever bombed Malta?"
A real hero. Maestro Monaldi flees, seething with rage. Amused comments from some of his fellow tenants: I always said he was a stuffed shirt, the ones in charge are always like that.
Maestro Monaldi and his heroic compositions. I see myself in the evening, with Pap`a and Mamma hovering over me. The next day we are to have an in-class composition as part of the Culture Competitions. "No matter what the topic is," Mamma says, "it will have something to do with Il Duce and the war. So you need to prepare some nice phrases that will make an impression. For example, faithful and incorruptible guardians of Italy and its civilization is a phrase that always works well, no matter what the subject."
"And what if the topic turns out to be the wheat battle?" "You can work it in anyhow, use your imagination." "Remember that our soldiers redden the burning sands of Marmarica with their blood," Pap`a suggests. "And don’t forget that our civilization is new, heroic, and blessed. That always makes a good impression. Even if it is the wheat battle."
They want a son who gets good grades. A fine goal. If a good grade depends on knowing the parallel postulate, one studies the geometry text. If it depends on being able to talk like a Balilla Boy, one memorizes what a Balilla Boy is supposed to think. Regardless of whether it is right or not. My parents did not know this, but even Euclid’s fifth postulate holds only for flat surfaces, so ideally flat that they do not exist in reality. The Fascist regime was the flat surface to which everyone by this time had adapted-ignoring the curvilinear vortices in which the parallels clash or hopelessly diverge.
I see again a brief scene that must have taken place some years earlier. I ask:
"Mamma, what’s a revolution?"
"It’s when the workers go to the government and chop the heads off all the office workers, like your father."
Just two days after I wrote my composition, the Bruno episode occurred. Bruno, two cat eyes, pointy teeth, and mouse-gray hair with two bare spots, as if from alopecia or impetigo. They were scab scars. Poor kids always had scabs on their heads, the result of less-than-clean environments combined with poor nutrition. In our elementary school class, De Caroli and I were the rich kids, or so people thought; in fact, our families belonged to the same social class as the teacher, in my case because my father was an office worker and wore a tie and my mother wore a pretty hat (making her not a woman but a lady), and in De Caroli’s because his father owned a small fabric store. The others were all from lower classes and still spoke dialect at home with their parents and thus made spelling and grammatical errors, and the poorest of them all was Bruno. The black smock of Bruno’s uniform was torn, he did not wear the white collar, or when he did it was dirty and threadbare, and it goes without saying that he did not have a blue bow like respectable boys. He had scabs, and so his head had been shaved-that was the only cure the family knew for that or for lice- and the bare spots were from scabs that had already healed. Stigmata of inferiority. The teacher was, all things considered, a good man, but since he had been a squadrista he felt obliged to set a manly example, and he could give a mighty cuffing. Though never to me or De Caroli, because he knew we would tell our parents, who were his equals. (And because my mother and the headmaster’s sister-in-law were cousins, and you never know.) Since he and I lived on the same block, he offered to accompany me home every day after school, together with his son, to save my father the trouble of coming to meet me.
With Bruno, on the other hand, cuffings were daily, because he was lively and so behaved badly, and came to school in a greasy smock. Bruno was always being sent to stand behind the blackboard, our pillory.
One day Bruno came to school after an unexcused absence, and the teacher was rolling up his sleeves when Bruno started crying and between sobs gave us to understand that his father had died. The teacher was moved, because even squadristi had hearts. Of course for him social justice meant charity, so he took up a collection from us all. Even our parents must have had hearts, because the next day everyone came in with a few coins, some cast-off clothes, a jar of marmalade, a kilo of bread. Bruno had his moment of solidarity.
But that same morning, as we marched in the courtyard, he started crawling on all fours, and we all thought that such behavior in the wake of his father’s death was truly disgraceful. The teacher shouted that he lacked the most basic sense of gratitude. Orphaned two days earlier, now the beneficiary of his classmates’ generosity, and already delinquent: with the family he came from, he would never be redeemed.
A deuteragonist in that little drama, I had a moment of doubt. I had felt something similar the morning after the composition, when I woke unsettled, wondering if I really loved Il Duce or if I was just a hypocritical boy writing that I did. Watching Bruno go around on all fours, I understood that it was a spasm of dignity, a way of reacting to the humiliation that our clammy generosity had inflicted on him.
I understood it better days later, during one of those Fascist Saturday rallies, when all the Balilla Boys lined up in uniform-ours looked brand-new, Bruno’s looked like his school smock, and his blue neckerchief was poorly knotted-to recite the Oath. The centurion said, "In the name of God and Italy, I swear to carry out the orders of Il Duce and to serve with all my strength and, if need be, with my blood, the cause of the Fascist Revolution. Do you all swear it?" While the rest of us shouted "I swear!", Bruno, who was close enough for me to hear him perfectly, shouted "Pierre!" He was rebelling. It was the first act of revolt I had ever witnessed.
Was he rebelling of his own accord, or because his father, like the father of Italy’s boy-in-the-world, had been a drunkard and a socialist? Regardless, I now understand that Bruno was the first to teach me how to react to the rhetoric that was suffocating us.
Between the composition of my tenth year and the chronicle of my eleventh, at the end of fifth grade, I had been transformed by Bruno’s lesson. He was a revolutionary anarchist, I a budding skeptic, and his Pierre became my unbreakable glass.
It is clear now, in the coma’s silence, that I understand better all that has happened to me. Is this the illumination others achieve when they come to the brink, at which point, like Martin Eden, they understand everything, but as they know, they cease to know? I, who am not yet on the brink, have an advantage over those who die. I understand, I know, and I even remember (now) that I know. Does that make me one of the lucky?