Part Two. PAPER MEMORY
5. Clarabelle’s Treasure
As I drew near the places of my childhood, I tried and failed to grasp why as an adult I had never willingly gone to Solara. It was not so much Solara itself-little more than a big village that one skirts before leaving it in its hollow amid the vineyards on the low hills-but what lay beyond and above it. At a certain point, after various hairpin curves, Nicoletta turned onto a narrow side road, and we drove for at least two kilometers along an embankment that was barely wide enough for two cars to pass and that sloped away on both sides, revealing two distinct landscapes. On the right, typical Monferrato country, gently rolling hills festooned with rows of vines, proliferating languidly, green against a clear early-summer sky, at that hour when (I knew) the midday demon rages. On the left, the first foothills of the Langhe region, with its harsher, less modulated contours, like a series of ranges one after the other, each given perspective by a different hue, until the farthest ones vanish in a pale blue haze.
I was discovering that landscape for the first time, yet I felt it was mine and had the impression that, had I launched into a mad run down toward the valleys, I would have known where I was going and how to get there. In a way it was like leaving the hospital and being able to drive that car I had never seen. I felt at home. I was gripped by a vague joy, an absent-minded happiness.
The embankment continued its ascent along the flank of a hill that suddenly loomed above it, and there, at the end of a drive lined with horse chestnuts, was the house. We came to a stop in front of a kind of courtyard splashed with beds of flowers, and behind the building you could glimpse a slightly higher hill, over which stretched what must have been Amalia’s little vineyard. From the front it was difficult to discern the shape of that huge house with its tall second-story windows: you could see the vast central wing, which featured a lovely oak door set in a rounded archway beneath a balcony that overlooked the drive, and two smaller wings on either side with humbler entryways, but it was hard to tell how far the house extended in back, toward the hill. The courtyard looked out, behind me, onto the two landscapes I had just admired, and with a 180-degree panorama, for the driveway ascended gradually and the road that had led us here disappeared below us, without blocking the view.
It was a brief impression, because almost at once we heard shrieks of jubilation, and there emerged a woman who, from the descriptions I had been given, could have been no one but Amalia: short of leg, rather robust, ot uncertain age (as Nicoletta had said earlier, between twenty and ninety), with a dried-chestnut face that was lit by an irrepressible joy. In short, the welcoming ceremony, hugs and kisses, demure gaffes quickly followed by little cries cut off by a hand clapped over a mouth (does Signorino Yambo remember this and that, surely you recognize, and so on, with Nicoletta, behind me, no doubt giving her looks).
A whirlwind, no room to think or ask questions, barely enough time to unload my suitcases and carry them to the left wing, the one where Paola had settled with the girls and where I too could stay, unless I preferred to stay in the central wing, the wing of my grandparents and my childhood, which had remained closed upstairs, like a sanctum ("Well, you know, I go in pretty regular to give things a good dusting, and every now and again I air it out some, but just every now and again, so as you don’t get nasty smells, and without bothering the rooms, which for me is like being in church"). But on the ground floor those big empty rooms remained open, because that was where they set out the apples, the tomatoes, and many other good things, to ripen and to keep cool. And indeed, just a few steps into those entrance halls you could smell the pungent scent of spices and fruits and vegetables, and the first figs were already laid out on a long table, the very first, and I could not help tasting one and venturing to say that that tree always had been bountiful, but Amalia shouted, "What do you mean that tree: those trees, there’s five as you well know, each prettier than the last!" Forgive me, Amalia, I was distracted. And no wonder, with all the important things you’ve got in that head of yours, Signorino Yambo. Thank you, Amalia, if only I really did have lots of things in my head-the trouble is they all flew away, whoosh, one morning in late April, and one fig or five, it’s all the same to me.
"Are there already grapes on the vines?" I asked, if only to show I still had my wits about me.
"Well, the grapes are still just itty-bitty clusters like babies in a mamma’s belly, though this year what with all the heat everything’s ripening sooner than usual-sure hope we get some rain. They’ll be ripe in time for you to see, I reckon you ought to stay till September. I know you’ve been a mite under the weather, and Signora Paola tells me I’ve got to give you a boost, something good and nourishing. For tonight I’m fixing what you liked when you was a boy, salad with a dressing of oil and tomato, with little pieces of celery and chopped green onion and all the herbs God could want, and I got them rolls you used to like for sopping up the dressing. Then one of fat cockerels-none of that store-bought chicken fatted on garbage-or if you’d favor rabbit with rosemary… Rabbit? Rabbit; I’ll go right over and give the prettiest one a whack on the neck, poor little critter, but that’s life. Lord, can it be true Nicoletta is leaving so quick? What a shame. That’s all right, we’ll stick around just the two of us and you can do whatever you like and I won’t get in your hair. You’ll see me in the morning, when I bring you your coffee, and at mealtimes, and the rest of the time you just come and go as you please." "So, Pap`a," said Nicoletta as she was loading the stuff she had come to retrieve, "Solara may seem a long way from here, but behind the house there’s a path that goes straight down into the town, cutting out all the switchbacks of the road. It’s a fairly steep descent, but there’s a kind of stairway, and before you know it you’re down on the plain. Fifteen minutes to get down and twenty to get back up, but you always said it was good for the cholesterol. In town you’ll find newspapers and cigarettes, but if you tell Amalia she’ll go at eight in the morning. She goes in any case for all her errands and for mass. But be sure to write down for her the name of the paper you want, every day, otherwise she’ll forget and bring you the same issue of Gente or some other celebrity rag seven days in a row. You really don’t need anything else? I’d like to stay with you, but Mamma says it’ll do you good to be alone among your old things."
Nicoletta left. Amalia showed me to the room that was mine and Paola’s (lavender scent). I arranged my things, changed into some comfortable old rags that I rounded up, including some down-at-heel shoes that must have been twenty years old, real landowner’s shoes, and then sat at the window for half an hour looking out at the hills on the Langhe side.
On the kitchen table was a newspaper from around Christmastime (we were last there for the holidays), and I began reading it, after pouring myself a glass of moscato, a bottle of which was waiting in a bucket of ice-cold well water. In late November the United Nations had authorized the use of force to free Kuwait from the Iraqis, the first shipments of American equipment had recently left for Saudi Arabia, and there was talk of one last attempt by the U.S. to negotiate in Geneva with Saddam’s ministers and convince him to withdraw. The newspaper was helping me reconstruct certain events, and I read it as if it were the latest news.
I suddenly realized that in the confusion of departure I had not had a bowel movement that morning. I went into the bathroom, an excellent place to finish reading the paper, and from the window I saw the vineyard. A thought came to me, or rather an ancient urge: to do my business between the rows. I put the newspaper in my pocket and, either at random or by virtue of my internal radar, opened a little back door. I passed through a very well kept garden. The other wing of the house was the farming wing, and behind it I saw some wooden pens that, given all the clucking and rooting that could be heard, must have been the henhouse, the rabbit hutches, and the pigsties. At the end of the garden was a path leading up to the vineyard.
Amalia was right, the vine leaves were still small and the grapes looked like berries. But it felt like a vineyard to me, with clumps of earth beneath my dilapidated soles and tufts of weeds between one row and the next. I instinctively looked around for peach trees, but I saw none. Strange, I had read in some novel that between the rows-but you have to walk barefoot among them, your heels calloused since childhood-are yellow peaches that grow only in vineyards and split in half at the pressure of your thumb, the pit popping out almost by itself, as clean as if it had been chemically treated, except for an occasional fat little worm of white pulp left hanging by an atom. You can eat them almost without noticing the velvet of their skin, which makes you shiver from tongue to groin. For an instant, I felt that shiver in my groin.
I hunkered down in the great midday silence-broken only by the voices of a few birds and the stridulations of cicadas-and I defecated.
Silly season. He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell. Human beings love the perfume of their own excrement but not the odor of other people’s. It is, after all, part of our bodies.
I was feeling an ancient satisfaction. The calm motion of the sphincter, among all that green, seemed to summon up my muddled past. Or was it an instinct of the species? I have so little that is individual and so much that is specific (I have the memory of humanity, not of a human being) that perhaps I was simply enjoying a pleasure that went back to Neanderthal man. His memory must have been worse than mine-he did not know the first thing about Napoleon.
When I finished, it occurred to me that I should clean myself with some leaves; that must have been an automatism. But I had the newspaper with me, and I ripped out the page with the TV schedule (it was six months old, after all, and in any case we have no TV in Solara).
I stood back up and looked down at my feces. A lovely snail-shell architecture, still steaming. Borromini. My bowels must be in good shape, because everyone knows you have nothing to worry about unless your feces are too soft or downright liquid.
I was seeing my own shit for the first time (in the city you sit on the bowl, then flush the toilet right away, without looking). I was now calling it shit, which I think is what people call it. Shit is the most personal and private thing we have. Anyone can get to know the rest- your facial expression, your gaze, your gestures. Even your naked body: at the beach, at the doctor’s, making love. Even your thoughts, since usually you express them, or else others guess them from the way you look at them or appear embarrassed. Of course, there are such things as secret thoughts (Sibilla, for example, though I later betrayed myself in part to Gianni, and I wonder whether she herself intuited something- maybe that is precisely why she is getting married), but in general thoughts too are revealed.
Shit, however, is not. Except for an extremely brief period of your life, when your mother is still changing your diapers, it is all yours. And since my shit at that moment must not have been all that different from what I had produced over the course of my past life, I was in that instant reuniting with my old, forgotten self, undergoing the first experience capable of merging with countless previous experiences, even those from when I did my business in the vineyards as a boy.
Perhaps if I took a good look around, I would find the remains of those shits past, and then, triangulating properly, Clarabelle’s treasure.
But I stopped there. Shit was not my linden-blossom tea-of course not, how could I have expected to conduct my recherche with my sphincter? In order to rediscover lost time, one should have not diarrhea but asthma. Asthma is pneumatic, it is the breath (however labored) of the spirit: it is for the rich, who can afford cork-lined rooms. The poor, in the fields, attend less to spiritual than to bodily functions.
And yet I felt not disinherited but content, and I mean truly content, in a way I had not felt since my reawakening. The ways of the Lord are infinite, I said to myself, they go even through the butthole.
That is how the day ended. I rambled around a bit in the rooms of the left wing, saw what must have been my grandchildren’s bedroom (a large room with three beds, dolls, and abandoned tricycles in the corners), and found in my bedroom the books I had left on the night table-nothing particularly meaningful. I did not dare enter the old wing. There was time, and I needed to feel more comfortable with the place.
I ate in Amalia’s kitchen, amid old kneading troughs, tables and chairs that had belonged to her parents, and the scent of garlic from heads that hung from the beams. The rabbit was exquisite, but the salad was worth the whole trip. I took pleasure in dipping the bread in that rosy dressing with its splotches of oil, but it was the pleasure of discovery, not memory. I could expect no help from my taste buds-I knew that already. I drank abundantly: the wine of those parts is worth all the wines of France put together.
I made the acquaintance of the household pets: a hairless dog named Pippo-according to Amalia it kept excellent watch, though it inspired little confidence, old as it was, blind in one eye, and apparently addled-and three cats. Two were peevish and willful, the third, a sort of Angora, with thick, soft black fur, was graceful when asking for food, rubbing against my pant leg and emitting a seductive rumble. I love all animals, I think (did I not join an antivivisection league?), but one cannot control instinctive attraction. I liked the third cat best and gave it the choicest morsels. I asked Amalia what the cats’ names were, and she replied that cats don’t have names since they’re not God-fearing creatures like dogs. I asked if I could call the black cat Mat`u, and she said I could, if kitty, kitty, kitty wasn’t good enough for me, but I could tell she was thinking that city people, even Signorino Yambo, had crickets in their heads.
Crickets (real ones) were making a great racket outside, and I went into the courtyard to listen to them. I looked at the sky, hoping to discover familiar figures. Constellations, just constellations from an astronomy atlas. I recognized the Great Bear, but as one of those things I had always heard about. I had come this far to learn that the encyclopedias were right. Return to the interiorem bominem and you will find Larousse.
I said to myself: Yambo, your memory is made of paper. Not of neurons, but of pages. Maybe someday someone will invent an electronic contraption allowing people to travel by computer among all the pages ever written, from the beginning of the world till today, and to pass from one to another with the touch of a finger, without knowing any longer where or who they are, and then everyone will be like you.
Still awaiting my misery’s company, I went to bed.
I had just dozed off when I heard a voice calling me. It invited me to the window with a rasping, insistent pssst pssst. Who could be calling me from outside, hanging from the shutters? I flung them open and saw a whitish shadow flee into the night. It was, as Amalia explained to me the next morning, a barn owl: when houses are empty these creatures like to take up residence in attics or gutters, I’m not sure which, but as soon as they detect the presence of humans, they move elsewhere. Too bad. Because that barn owl fleeing into the night caused me to feel again what I had described to Paola as a mysterious flame. That barn owl, or one of its kind, must have belonged to me, must have woken me on other nights and on other nights fled into the dark, a clumsy, pea-witted ghost. Pea-witted? I could not have learned that word from the encyclopedias either. It must have come from within, or from before.
My sleep was full of restless dreams, and at a certain point I woke up with a sharp pain in my chest. The first thing I thought was heart attack-they say they start like that-but then I got up without thinking and went to look in the medicine bag that Paola had given me, and took a Maalox. Maalox, so gastritis. You have an attack of gastritis when you eat something you should not. In reality I had simply eaten too much: Paola had told me to practice self-control, and when she was around had watched me like a hawk, but now it was time I learned to watch myself. Amalia would be of no help, since in the peasant tradition eating a lot is always healthy-what is unhealthy is when there is nothing to eat.
There was so much I still had to learn.