7. Eight Days in an Attic
What did I do for the past eight days? I read, mostly in the attic, but the memory of one day blurs into the next. I know only that I was reading in a wild, disorderly fashion.
I did not read everything word for word. Some books and magazines I skimmed as though I were flying over a landscape, and as I did I was aware of already knowing what was written in them. As though a single word could summon back a thousand others, or could blossom into a full-bodied summary, like those Japanese flowers that open in water. As though something were striking out on its own to settle in my memory, to keep Oedipus and Don Quixote company. At times the short circuit was caused by a drawing, three thousand words for one picture. At times I would read slowly, savoring a phrase, a passage, a chapter, experiencing perhaps the same emotions sparked by my first, forgotten reading.
It is pointless to speak of the gamut of mysterious flames, mild tachycardias, and sudden flushes that many of those readings gave rise to for a brief instant, which dissolved as quickly as they had come, making way for new waves of heat.
For eight days, I rose early to take advantage of the light, went upstairs, and remained there until sundown. Around noon, Amalia, who was alarmed the first time she could not find me, would bring me a plate with bread, salami or cheese, two apples, and a bottle of wine. ("Lordy, Lordy, he’ll get himself sick again and then what will I tell Signora Paola, at least do it for me, stop or you’ll go blind!") Then she would leave in tears, and I would drink down nearly all the wine and keep turning pages in an inebriated state, and of course I can no longer reconstruct the befores and afters. Sometimes I would go downstairs with an armful of books to hole up elsewhere, so as not to be a prisoner of the attic.
Before my first ascent I called home, to give Paola an update. She wanted to know about my reactions, and I was circumspect: "I’m getting settled in, the weather is splendid, I take walks outside, Amalia is a sweetheart." She asked me if I had been to the local pharmacist yet to have my blood pressure checked. I was supposed to do it every two or three days. After what had happened to me, I should not mess around. And above all, my pills, each morning and evening.
Right after that, with some guilt, but with a sound professional alibi, I called the office. Sibilla was still working on the catalogue. I could expect the proofs in two or three weeks. After many encouraging, paternal words, I hung up.
I asked myself whether I still felt anything for Sibilla. Strangely, the first few days in Solara had cast everything in a different light. Sibilla was now beginning to seem like a distant childhood memory, while everything I was gradually excavating from the fog of my past was becoming my present.
Amalia had told me that one entered the attic from the left wing. I had imagined a spiral wooden staircase, but instead there were stone steps, quite comfortable and practical-otherwise, I later realized, how would they have been able to carry up all that stuff they stashed away?
As far as I knew, I had never seen the inside of an attic. Nor of a cellar, for that matter, but everyone knows what cellars are like: subterranean, dark, damp, always cool, and you have to bring a candle, or a torch. The gothic romance is rich in the subterranean, the monk Ambrosio wandering gloomily among crypts. Natural underground passageways, like Tom Sawyer’s caverns. The mystery of darkness. All houses have cellars, but not all have attics, especially in cities, where they have penthouses. But is there really no literature of attics? And in that case what is Eight Days in an Attic? The title came to mind, but nothing else.
Even if you do not go through them all at once, you can tell that the attics of the Solara house extend over all three wings: you enter an area that stretches from the facade to the rear of the building, but then narrower passages open and bulkheads appear, wooden partitions that divide the spaces, routes defined by metal shelving units or old chests of drawers, the interchanges of an endless labyrinth. Having ventured down one of the corridors on the left, I turned once or twice more and found myself back in front of the entrance.
Immediate sensations: heat, above all, which is natural just beneath a roof. Then light: it comes in part from a series of dormer windows, which can be seen when you look at the front of the house, but which on the inside are largely obstructed by piles of junk, so that in some cases the sunlight barely filters through, reduced to yellow blades astir with an infinity of particles, revealing that the penumbra must also be crazed with a multitude of motes, spores, primordial atoms caught up in their Brownian skirmishes, primal bodies swarming in the void- who spoke of those, Lucretius? Sometimes those slants of light ricocheted off the glass panes of a dismantled buffet or a full-length mirror that from another angle had looked like merely another dull surface propped against the wall. And then the occasional skylight, darkened by decades of encrusted pluvial detritus but still able to make a pale zone of illumination on the floor.
Finally, the color: the attic’s dominant color, imparted by the roof beams, by the crates piled here and there, by the remains of wobbly chests of drawers, is the color of carpentry, composed of many shades of brown, from the yellowish-brown of unfinished wood to the warmth of maple to the darker tones of old dressers, their finishes flaking off, to the ivory of old papers overflowing their boxes.
If a cellar prefigures the underworld, an attic promises a rather threadbare paradise, where the dead bodies appear in a pulverulent glow, a vegetal elixir that, in the absence of green, makes you feel you are in a parched tropical forest, an artificial canebreak where you are immersed in a tepid sauna.
I had thought cellars symbolized the welcome of the mother’s womb, with their amniotic dampness, but this aerial womb made up for that with an almost medicinal heat. And in that luminous maze, where if you pushed aside a couple of roof tiles you would see the open sky, a complicit mustiness hung in the air, the odor of silence and calm.
After a while, however, I no longer noticed the heat, gripped as I was by the frenzy of discovery. Because my Clarabelle’s treasure was certainly there, though it would take a lot of digging and I had no idea where to begin.
I had to tear a lot of spiderwebs: the cats had taken care of the mice, as Amalia had said, but Amalia never worried about the spiders. If they had not overrun everything, it was thanks to natural selection; one generation died and their webs crumbled away, and so on, from season to season.
I began rummaging through several shelves, at the risk of toppling the stacks of containers that had accumulated there. My grandfather, apparently, had also collected containers, especially colorful metal ones: illustrated tins of Wamar biscotti showing cherubic children on swings, an Arnaldi cachet box, the Coldinava pomade tin with the gold borders and the plant motifs, a box of assorted Perry nibs, a sumptuous, shiny coffer of Presbitero pencils, all still perfectly aligned and untouched, like a scholar’s ammo belt, and finally a can of Talmone cocoa featuring an old woman tenderly offering that easily digested beverage to a smiling old man, ancien r'egime, still wearing breeches. I could not help identifying the elderly couple with my grandfather and the grandmother I must have barely known.
Next I came across a tin, late-nineteenth-century in style, of Effervescente Brioschi. A couple of cheerful gentlemen are tasting flutes of table water proffered by a charming waitress. My hands remembered first: you take an envelope containing a soft white powder, you pour it slowly into the neck of the bottle after it has been filled with tap water, and you swirl it around a little to make sure no powder sticks to the neck; then you take another envelope, which contains a grainy powder made of tiny crystals, and you pour that in too, and quickly, because the water begins to seethe immediately and you have to hurry to get the cap on and then wait for the chemical miracle to take place in that primordial soup, as the liquid gurgles and tries to bubble out around the rubber gasket. Finally the tempest subsides, and the sparkling water is ready to drink: table water, children’s wine, home-made mineral water. I said to myself: vichy water.
But besides my hands, something else had been set in motion, almost as it had been that day in front of Clarabelle’s Treasure. I looked for another container, this one not a tin but a small carton, definitely from a later period, one which I had opened on countless occasions before we sat down to our meals. Its illustration would have been slightly different: still the same gentlemen, who still were drinking the amazing water from champagne glasses, except that clearly visible on the table before them was a carton identical to the actual carton, and on that second one were depicted the same
gentlemen, drinking in front of a table on which appeared yet another carton of powder, that one also with gentlemen who… and so on forever. You knew that all you needed was a magnifying glass or a high-powered microscope to see other cartons within cartons, en ab^ime, like Chinese boxes or Matrioshka dolls. Infinity, as seen through the eyes of a boy who has yet to study Zeno’s paradox. The race toward an unreachable goal; neither the tortoise nor Achilles would ever have reached the last carton, the last gentlemen, the last waitress. We learn as children the metaphysics of the infinite and infinitesimal calculus, though we are unaware of what we are learning, and it might be the image of an Endless Regress or its opposite, the dreadful promise of the Eternal Return and of the turning of the ages that bite their own tails, because upon reaching the final carton, were there such a thing, we might have discovered, at the bottom of that vortex, ourselves, holding the first carton in our hands. Why had I decided to become an antiquarian book dealer if not in order to have a fixed point, the day that Gutenberg printed the first Bible in Mainz, to go back to? At least you know that nothing existed before that, or rather, other things had existed, but you know that you can stop there; otherwise you would be not a book dealer but a decipherer of manuscripts. One chooses a profession that involves only five and a half centuries because as a child one daydreamed about the infinitude of vichy water tins. The attic’s entire accumulation would not have fit in my grandfather’s study or anywhere else in the house, so even in the days when the study was crowded with stacks of papers, a lot of stuff must already have been up there. No doubt that was where many of my childish explorations had been undertaken, my Pompeii, the place I used to go to disinter remote artifacts dating back to a time before my birth. To get a whiff of the past, as I was doing now. Thus I was again enacting a Repetition.
Beside the tin were two cardboard boxes full of packs and cases of cigarettes. So he collected those too, my grandfather, and it must have cost him no little trouble to go out and filch them from travelers, who knows where or from where, because in those days collecting ephemera was not as organized as it is now. They were brands I had never heard of-Mjin Cigarettes, Makedonia, Turkish Atika, Tiedemann’s Birds Eye, Calypso, Cirene, Kef Orientalske Cigaretter, Aladdin, Armiro Jakobstad, Golden West from Virginia, El Kalif from Alexandria, Stambul, Sasja Mild Russian Blend-in sumptuous cases, with images of pashas and khedives and (as on the Cigarrillos Exc'elsior de la Abundancia) Oriental odalisques, or else spiffy English sailors sporting white and blue outfits and King George (V?) beards. And there were also packs I seemed to recognize, as though I had seen them in some gentleman’s hand, such as the ivory-white Eva or the Serraglio; and finally the flimsy paper packets, crushed and wrinkled, of working-class cigarettes, such as Africa or Milit, that no one would have ever thought to save, that by pure luck had been snatched from the garbage for future memory.
I lingered for at least ten minutes over a flattened, tattered toad of a packet, No. 10 Macedonia Cigarettes, 3 lire, murmuring, "Duilio, the Macedonias are turning your fingertips yellow…" I had still learned nothing about my father, but now I was sure that he had smoked Macedonias, perhaps even those Macedonias, from that very packet, and that my mother had complained about his nicotine-yellow fingertips: "yellow as quinine tablets." A guess at my father’s image based on pale shades of tannin was not much, but it was enough to justify the trip to Solara.
I recognized, too, the marvels of the next box, to which I was drawn by the reek of their cheap perfumes. You can still find them, though they are quite expensive now (I had seen some a few weeks earlier among the stalls at the Cordusio market): the wallet-sized cal-endarettes that barbers used to give out at year’s end, so unbearably perfumed that after more than fifty years they still retained a certain fragrance, a symphony of cocottes, of ladies clad in crinolines and little more, of beauties on swings and lost lovers, of exotic dancers and Egyptian queens… Women’s Hairstyles Through the Ages; Good Luck Ladies; The Italian Firmament, with Maria Denis and Vittorio de Sica; Her Majesty, Woman; Salom'e; the Empire-Style Perfumed Almanac with Madame Sans-G^ene; Tout Paris; the Grand Savon Quinquine, an all-purpose soap that cleanses and disinfects, invaluable in hot climates, effective against scurvy, malarial fevers, dry ezema (sic)-it bears Napoleon’s monogram, God knows why, and the first image shows the Emperor receiving news of the great soap’s invention from a Turk, and approving it. There was even a calendarette devoted to The Poet-Prophet Gabriele d’Annunzio-barbers had no shame.
I was nosing around hesitantly, as if I were an intruder in a forbidden kingdom. The barbers’ calendarettes might have seriously
inflamed a boy’s imagination; perhaps they had been off-limits to me. Perhaps I could learn something in that attic about the formation of my sexual consciousness.
By now the sun was beating straight down on the skylights, yet I was not content. I had seen many things, but no object that had been truly and wholly mine. I wandered at random and was drawn toward a closed chest. I opened it, and it was full of toys.
Over the course of the preceding weeks I had seen my grand-kids’ toys: all of them colorful plastic, most electronic. When I gave Sandro a new motorboat, the first thing he said was not to throw the box away, since the battery must still be inside. The toys of my childhood were made of wood and metal. Sabers, cap guns, a little colonial helmet from the period of the Ethiopia conquest, an entire army of lead toy soldiers, and other, larger soldiers made of a sort of friable clay, some now with no heads, some with no arms, or rather with nothing but the jutting wire that once supported the painted clay arms. I must have spent day after day with those guns and those mutilated heroes, in the grip of warlike passions. It was a necessity of the times that boys be schooled in the cult of war.
Beneath all that were some of my sister’s dolls, which she must have been given by my mother, who had no doubt received them from my grandmother (toys in those days were passed down). Porcelain complexions, dainty pink mouths and fiery cheeks, little organdy dresses, eyes that still moved languidly. One, when I shook it, still said "mamma."
Foraging between one toy rifle and another I uncovered some curious soldiers: flat wooden cut-outs with red kepis, blue tunics, and long red trousers with yellow stripes, mounted on little wheels. Their faces were not martial, but rather grotesque, with potato-shaped noses. It occurred to me that one of them was Captain Potato of the Soldiers-of-Cockaigne Regiment. I was certain that was what they were called.
Finally I pulled out a tin frog, which, when I pressed its belly, still emitted the faintest croak croak. If she doesn’t want Dr. Osimo’s milk candies, I thought, she’ll want to see the frog. What did Dr. Osimo have to do with the frog? And whom did I want to see it? Pitch darkness. I would have to give it some thought.
After looking at the frog and touching it, I spontaneously said that Angelo Bear must die. Who was Angelo Bear? What was his relationship to the tin frog? I felt something thrumming; I was sure that both the frog and Angelo Bear connected me to someone, but in the aridity of my purely verbal memory, I had nothing else to go on. Except I murmured a rhyme: "The procession is set to begin, Captain Potato says when." Nothing more: I was back in the present, in the hazel silence of the attic.
On the second day, Mat`u paid me a visit. He immediately climbed onto my lap as I was eating, earning himself the rinds of my cheese. After the now standard-issue bottle of wine, I went about haphazardly until I saw, in front of a dormer window, two large, wobbly armoires that stood more or less upright, thanks to a few rudimentary wooden chocks slipped beneath them. I had some trouble opening the first, which continually threatened to collapse, and when it did open a shower of books fell at my feet. I was unable to stave off the landslide; it seemed that those owls, those bats that had been imprisoned for centuries, those bottled genies, had been awaiting nothing other than some imprudent man who would grant them their vengeful freedom.
Between the books that were piling up around my feet and those I was trying to grab to keep them from tumbling down, too, I had discovered an entire library-or, more likely, the inventory of the old shop that my grandfather had owned in the city and that my aunt and uncle had liquidated.
I could never have managed to see it all, but I was already dazed by recognitions that flared and were snuffed in an instant. Books in various languages, from various eras, some with titles that sparked no flames, because they belonged to the repertoire of the already known, like the many old editions of Russian novels, though even glancing at their pages I was struck by the muddled Italian, the work (according to the title page) of a lady with a double surname who had evidently translated the Russians from French, for the characters’ names all ended in ine, like Myskine and Rogozyne.
The pages of many of these volumes crumbled in my hands when I touched them, as if the paper, after decades of sepulchral darkness, could not bear the light of the sun. It certainly could not bear the touch of a finger and had been lying there for years waiting to be reduced to tiny shreds, shattering at the margins and corners into thin shavings.
Jack London’s Martin Eden caught my eye, and I turned mechanically to the last sentence, as if my fingers knew what they would find there. Martin Eden, at the height of his fame, kills himself by slipping out through the porthole of his steamer cabin into the Pacific, and as he feels the water slowly filling his lungs, he gains, in a final glimmer of lucidity, some understanding, maybe of the meaning of life, but "at the instant he knew, he ceased to know."
Should one really demand a final revelation, if as soon as one has it one sinks into darkness? That rediscovery cast something of a pall over what I was doing. Perhaps I should have stopped there, seeing that fate had already granted me oblivion. But I had begun and could not help but keep going.
I spent the day skimming this and that, at times discovering that some great masterpiece that I thought had been absorbed by my public, adult memory, had probably come to my attention for the first time in the abridged Golden Stairway children’s editions. The lyrical verses of The Basket, poems for children by Angiolo Silvio Novaro, sounded familiar to me: What does the March rain say / when it sprinkles its silvery way / down from the eaves / to clatter against the parched leaves / of the holly? Or: When the springtime comes a-dancing, / comes a-dancing to your door, / what do you think it has in store? / Little wreaths of butterflies, / little bells of morning glory … Did I know back then what morning glory was, or holly? Right after that my eyes lit upon the covers of the Fant^omas stories-The Hanged Man of London, The Red Wasp, The Hempen Necktie-with their dark episodes involving chases through Parisian sewers, girls emerging from crypts, dismembered
bodies, severed heads, and the prince of crime in his tailcoat, always ready with his derisive laugh to conjure and control a nocturnal, subterranean Paris.
And together there with Fant^omas were the tales of Rocambole, another crime lord. The Woes of London fell open to a page on which I read this description:
At the southwest corner of Wellclose Square is an alley about ten feet wide; halfway down there stands a theater where the best seats in the house go for a shilling, and for a penny you may sit in the stalls. The leading actor is a Negro. There one may smoke and drink during the performance. The prostitutes who frequent the boxes are barefoot; the stalls are full of thieves.
Unable to resist the allure of evil, I spent the rest of the day with Fant^omas and Rocambole, among their errant, dazzling pages, interspersing their stories with those of two other criminals: the gentleman burglar Ars`ene Lupin and an even greater gentleman, the supremely elegant Baron, an aristocratic jewel thief of many disguises, and of an exaggeratedly Anglo-Saxon appearance-thanks, I imagine, to some Anglophilic Italian artist.
I trembled before a lovely edition of Pinocchio, illustrated by Mussino in 1911, its pages torn and coffee-stained. Everyone knows the story of Pinocchio; I had retained a cheerful, fairy-tale image of him, and who knows how often I told my grandkids his story to entertain them, and yet now I shuddered before those terrifying illustrations, most of them done in only two colors, either yellow and black or green and black, whose art nouveau whorls assaulted me in Fire-Eater’s riverlike beard, in the fairy’s unsettling blue hair, in the nocturnal visions of the Assassins, and in the Green Fisherman’s rictus. Did I cringe beneath the covers on stormy nights after having looked at that Pinocchio? Weeks ago, I asked Paola whether all those movies on television, full of violence and the living dead, were bad for children, and she told me that one psychologist had revealed to her that in his entire clinical career he had never seen children seriously traumatized by a movie except in one case, and that child was irrevocably wounded to the core: devastated by Walt Disney’s Snow White.
And elsewhere I learned that equally terrifying visions lay behind my very name. I found The Adventures of Ciuffettino, by a certain Yambo, along with other adventure books by the same author, with more art nouveau drawings and dark scenery: castles standing out above steep hills, black against the dark night; flame-eyed wolves in phantasmal forests; underwater visions like something out of a homegrown, latter-day Verne; and Ciuffettino, the charming little boy with the quiff of a fairy-tale bravo: "An immense quiff that gave him a curious appearance, causing him to resemble a feather duster. And do you know, he was fond of his quiff!" That was where the Yambo I am now, and the one I wanted to be, was born. In the end I suppose it is better than identifying with Pinocchio.
Was this my childhood? Or worse? Still rummaging around, I brought to light (wrapped in blue sugar paper and held by rubber bands) various volumes of the Illustrated Journal of Voyages and Adventures on Land and at Sea. It had come in weekly installments,
and my grandfather’s collection included issues from the first decades of the century, as well as a few copies of the original French edition, Journal des Voyages.
Many of the cover images depicted ferocious Prussians shooting valiant Zouaves, but for the most part they had to do with exploits of ruthless cruelty in foreign lands: impaled Chinese coolies, scantily-clad virgins kneeling before a gloomy Council of Ten, rows of decapitated heads atop sharpened poles in front of the buttresses of some mosque, children slaughtered by scimitar-wielding Tuareg raiders, the bodies of slaves torn apart by huge tigers-as if the Nuovissimo Melzi’s table of tortures had inspired these perverse illustrators, arousing an unnatural imitative frenzy. It was an overview of Evil in all its guises.
Faced with such abundance and stiff from sitting in the attic, and because the heat had become unbearable, I brought the stack of issues downstairs into the big room with the apples, and my first thought was that the apples lined up on the big table must all be moldy. Then I realized that the smell of mold came from the pages in my hands. But how could they smell musty after fifty years in the dry atmosphere of the attic? Perhaps in the cold, rainy months moisture came in through the roof and the attic was not quite so dry, or perhaps those issues, prior to being stored there, had spent decades in some cellar, where water trickled down the walls, before my grandfather discovered them (he too must have courted widows) in a state so rotten that they had never lost their odor, even in this heat that had shriveled them. But as I was reading about atrocious events and ruthless vendettas, the scent of mold conjured up not cruel feelings but rather thoughts of the Wise Men and Baby Jesus. Why? When did I ever have anything to do with the Wise Men, and what had they to do with massacres in the Sargasso Sea?
My concern at the moment was something quite different, however. If I had read all those stories, if I had really seen all those cover images, how could I have accepted that springtime comes
a-dancing? Did I have some instinctive ability to keep the realm of good, domestic feelings separate from those adventure stories that spoke to me of a cruel world modeled on the Grand Guignol, that realm of the torn asunder, the flayed, the burnt at the stake, the hung?
The first armoire had been completely emptied, though I had not been able to look at everything. On the third day I started in on the second one, which was less congested. These books did not appear to have been tossed aside by my aunt and uncle in their rabid haste to divest themselves of unwanted junk, but instead had been arranged in nice rows, as if by my grandfather in earlier times. Or by me. They were all books that were more suited to childhood, and perhaps they had belonged to my personal mini-library.
I took out the entire collection of My Children’s Library, the series published by Salani, whose covers I recognized and whose titles I began reciting, even before pulling out the individual volumes, as surely as I identified the most famous books-M"unster’s Cosmographia or Campanula’s De Sensu Rerum et Magia-in a competitor’s catalogue or a widow’s library. The Boy Who Came from the Sea, The Gypsy’s Legacy, The Adventures of Sun-Blossom, The Tribe of Wild Rabbits, The Mischievous Ghosts, The Pretty Prisoners of Casabella, The Painted Chariot, The North Tower, The Indian Bracelet, The Iron Man’s Secret, The Barletta Circus…
Too many-had I stayed in the attic, I would have cramped into the hunchback of Notre Dame. I took an armful and went downstairs. I could have gone to the study, I could have sat in the garden, but instead, for some obscure reason, I wanted something else.
I went behind the house, to the right, toward the place where, on the first day, I had heard pigs rooting and hens twittering. There, behind Amalia’s wing of the house, was a threshing floor, just as in the old days, with chickens scratching around on it, and beside it were the rabbit hutches and pigsties.
On the ground level was a huge room full of farming tools-rakes, pitchforks, shovels, lime buckets, old tuns.
On the other side of the threshing floor, a path led into a fruit orchard, wonderfully lush and cool, and my first impulse was to climb a tree, straddle a branch, and do my reading there. Maybe that was what I had done as a boy, but at sixty you can never be too careful, and besides, my feet were already leading me elsewhere. In the midst of that greenery I came upon a small stone stairway, at the bottom of which was a circular area enclosed by low, ivy-covered walls. Directly across from the steps, against the wall, a trickling fountain gurgled. A gentle breeze was blowing, the silence was total, and I squatted on a jutting rock between the fountain and the wall, ready to read. Something had carried me to that place, perhaps I used to go there with those same books. Accepting the choice of my animal spirits, I plunged into those slim volumes. Often a single illustration brought the entire plot to mind.
Several, judging from the forties-style drawings and the authors’ names, were clearly Italian in origin (The Mysterious Cableway and The Pure-Blooded Milanese Boy), and many were inspired by patriotic, nationalistic sentiments. But most were translated from the French and written by people with names like B. Bernage, M. Goudareau, E. de Cys, J. Rosmer, Valdor, P. Besbre, C. P'eronnet, A. Bruy`ere, M. Catalany-an eminent roster of unknowns; even the Italian publisher may not have known their first names. My grandfather had also collected some of the French originals, which had appeared in the Biblioth`eque de Suzette series. The Italian editions came out a decade or more later, but their illustrations harked back at least to the twenties. As a young reader, I must have detected a pleasantly old-fashioned air about them, and so much the better: all the stories were set in a bygone world, and seemed to be told by gentle ladies writing for young girls from good families.
In the end, it seemed to me, all those books told the same story: typically three or four kids of noble lineage (whose parents for some reason were always off traveling) come to stay with an uncle in an old castle, or a strange country house, and they get caught up in thrilling, mysterious adventures involving crypts and towers, finally unearthing some treasure, or the plot of a treacherous local official, or a document that restores to an impoverished family the estate some wicked cousin has usurped. Happy ending, celebration of the children’s bravery, and good-natured remarks from the uncles or grandparents about the dangers of such reckless behavior, no matter how well motivated.
You could tell from the peasants’ work shirts and clogs that the stories were set in France, but the translators had performed miraculous balancing acts, shifting the names into Italian and making it appear that the events were taking place somewhere in our country, despite landscapes and architecture that suggested now Brittany, now Auvergne.
I found two Italian editions of what was clearly the same book (by M. Bourcet), but the 1932 edition was called The Ferlac Heiress, and the names and characters were French, whereas the 1941 edition was called The Ferralha Heiress and featured Italian characters. Clearly in the intervening years an order from on high, or spontaneous self-censorship, had brought about the story’s Italianization.
And I finally came across the explanation for that phrase that had come into my head while I was in the attic: one of the books in the series was Eight Days in an Attic (I had the original too, Huit jours dans un grenier), a delightful story about some children who hide a girl named Nicoletta, who has run away from home, in the attic of their villa for a week. Who knows whether my love for attics derived from that book, or whether I had discovered the book while exploring the attic. And why had I named my daughter Nicoletta?
Nicoletta shared the attic with a cat named Mat`u, an Angora type, jet-black and majestic-so that was where I had got the idea to have a Mat`u of my own. The illustrations depicted little boys and girls who were well dressed, sometimes in lace, with blond hair, del-
icate features, and mothers who were no less elegant: neat bobbed hair, low waists, triple-flounced skirts to their knees, and barely pronounced, aristocratic breasts.
In my two days beside the fountain, when the light waned and I could make out only pictures I would think about the fact that I had no doubt cultivated my taste for the fantastic in the pages of My Children’s Library, while living in a country where even if the author’s name was Catalany the protagonists had to be named Liliana or Maurizio.
Was this nationalistic education? Had I understood that these children, who were presented to me as brave little compatriots of my own time, had lived in a foreign land decades before I was born?
Back in the attic, having returned from my vacation by the fountain, I found a package tied with string that contained thirty or so installments (sixty centesimi each) of the adventures of Buffalo Bill. They were not stacked in sequential order, and the first cover I saw sparked a burst of mysterious flames. The Diamond Medallion: Buffalo Bill, his fists tensed behind him, his gaze grim, is about to hurl himself upon a red-shirted outlaw who is threatening him with a pistol.
And as I looked at that issue, No. 11 in the series, I could anticipate other titles: The Little Messenger, Big Adventures in the
Forest, Wild Bob, Don Ramiro the Slave Trader, The Accursed Estancia … I noticed that the covers referred to Buffalo Bill, the Hero of the Plains, whereas the inside heading said Buffalo Bill, the Italian Hero of the Plains. To an antiquarian book dealer, at least, it was clear what had happened, you had only to look at the first issue of a new series, dated 1942: it featured a large boldfaced notice explaining that William Cody’s real name was Domenico Tombini and that he was from Romagna (just as Mussolini was, though the note passed over that amazing coincidence in modest silence). By 1942 we had, I felt sure, already entered the war with the United States, and that explained everything. The publisher (Nerbini of Florence) had printed the covers at a time when Buffalo Bill could simply be American; later, it was decided that heroes must always and only be Italians. The only thing to do, for economic reasons, was to keep the old color cover and reset only the first page.
Curious, I said to myself, falling asleep over Buffalo Bill’s latest adventure: I was raised on adventure stories that had come from France and America but had then been naturalized. If this was the nationalistic education that a boy received under the dictatorship, it was a fairly mild one.
No, it had not been mild. The first book I picked up the next day was Italy’s Boys in the World, by Pina Ballario, with sinewy modern illustrations dominated by black and red.
A few days earlier, on finding the Verne and Dumas books in my bedroom, I had the feeling that I had read them curled up on some balcony. I paid little attention to this at the time, it was just a flash, a simple sense of d'ej`a vu. But now it occurred to me that there was indeed a balcony in the center of the main wing, and that was where I must have devoured those adventures.
To recreate the balcony experience, I decided to read Italy’s Boys in the World out there, and so I did, even attempting to sit with my legs dangling down, sticking through the narrow gaps in the railing. My legs, however, no longer fit. I roasted for hours beneath the sun, until it had traveled around to the other side of the house and things had cooled off. In that way I was able to experience the Andalusian sun, at least as I must have imagined it back then, even though the story I was reading was set in Barcelona. A group of young Italians, having emigrated with their family to Spain, were caught up in Generalisimo Franco’s antirepublican rebellion, except in this book the usurpers seemed to be the Red Militia, drunk and out for blood. The young Italians regained their Fascist pride, ran intrepidly in their black shirts through the streets of a Barcelona in the throes of upheaval, and saved the pennant of the Fascist headquarters after the building had been closed down by the Republicans; the brave protagonist even managed to convert his father-a socialist and a drunkard-to the Word of Il Duce. A story that must have made me glow with Fascist pride. Did I identify back then with those Italian boys, or with the little Parisian kids Bernage described, or with a man who at the end of the day was still named Cody and not Tombini? Who had inhabited my childhood dreams? Italy’s boys in the world, or the little girl in the attic?
A return to the attic offered two new thrills. The first was Treasure Island. Of course I recognized the title, a classic, but I had forgotten the story, a sign that it had become part of my life. I spent two hours reading through it in a single sitting, each chapter bringing to mind what would happen in the next. I had gone back to the fruit orchard, where I had glimpsed, at one end, some wild hazelnut bushes, and there I sat, on the ground, alternately reading and stuffing myself with hazelnuts. I would crack three or four at a time with a stone, blow away the shell fragments, and toss the plunder into my mouth. I lacked the apple barrel into which Jim climbs to eavesdrop on Long John Silver’s councils, but I really must have read that book that way, munching dry foods, as they do on ships.
It was my story. Relying on a slender manuscript, the characters go off to discover Captain Flint’s treasure. Toward the end of it, I went to get myself a bottle of grappa I had noticed on Amalia’s sideboard, and I alternated my reading of that pirate tale with long sips. Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest-Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum.
After Treasure Island, I came across The Tale of Pipino, Born an Old Man and Died a Bambino, by Giulio Gianelli-the story that had come to mind a few days earlier, except this book was about a pipe that had been left, still hot, on a table beside a clay statue of a little old man, and the pipe decided to breathe warmth into that dead thing to bring it to life, and thus an elderly man was born. Puer senex, an ancient commonplace. In the end, Pipino dies as an infant in his cradle and is carried up to heaven by fairies. It was better the way I had remembered it: Pipino was born as an old man in one cabbage and died as a nursling in another. In either case, Pipino’s journey toward infancy was my own. Perhaps when I reached back to the moment of my birth, I would dissolve into nothing (or All), as he had.
That evening Paola called, worried because I had not been in touch. I’m working, I’m working, I said. Don’t worry about my blood pressure, everything’s fine.
But the next day I was once again rummaging around in the armoire, where I found all the Salgari novels, with their art nouveau covers that featured, among gentle swirls, the brooding, ruthless Black Corsair, with his raven hair and his pretty red mouth, finely drawn upon his melancholy face; the Sandokan of T w o T i g e r s , with his fierce Malay-prince head grafted on to a catlike body; the voluptuous Surama and the prahus from The Pirates of Malay.
It was hard to say whether I was rediscovering anything or simply triggering my paper memory, because people today still talk about Salgari all the time, and sophisticated critics devote nostalgia-drenched screeds to him. Even my grandkids, a few weeks ago, were singing "Sandokan, Sandokan"-apparently they had seen him on television. I could have written an entry on Salgari for a children’s encyclopedia even without coming to Solara.
Certainly I had devoured those books as a child, but if I had any individual memory to reactivate, it was blurring with my general memory. It might be that the books that had marked my childhood most indelibly were those that sent me smoothly back to my adult, impersonal knowledge.
Still guided by instinct, I read most of Salgari in the vineyard (and later brought several volumes to bed and spent the following nights with them). Even among the vines it was quite hot, but the sunny blaze acclimated me to deserts, prairies, and flaming forests, to tropical seas plied by trepang fishermen, and every so often, lifting my eyes to wipe sweat from my face, I glimpsed, among the scant vines and the trees that rose at the hill’s edge, a baobab, pombos as huge as those that surrounded Giro-Batol’s hut, mangrove swamps, palm cabbages with their mealy flesh that tastes of almonds, the sacred banyan of the black jungle. I could almost hear the sound of the ramsinga, and I kept expecting to see a nice babirusa pop out from between the rows of vines, perfect for roasting over a spit between two forked branches planted in the earth. For dinner, I would have liked Amalia to prepare some blachan, highly prized by Malayans: that potpourri of shrimp and fish ground together, left to rot in the sun, and then salted, with a smell that even Salgari thought vile.
Delicious. Perhaps that is why, according to Paola, I love Chinese food, and in particular shark fins, birds’ nests (harvested amid their guano), and abalone, the more putrid the better.
But, blachan aside, what happened when an "Italian boy in the world" read Salgari, where often the heroes were dark-skinned and the whites evil? It was not only the English who were odious, but also the Spanish (how I must have loathed the Marquis of Mon-telimar). The Black, Red, and Green Corsairs may have been Italians, and counts of Ventimiglia to boot, but other heroes were named Carmaux, Wan Stiller, or Yanez de Gomera. The Portuguese had to seem good because they were a bit Fascist, but were not the Spanish also Fascists? Perhaps my heart raced for the valiant Sambigliong as he fired off cannonades of nailshot, without my wondering which of the Sunda Islands he had come from. Kammamuri could be good and Suyodhana bad, though both were Indian. Salgari must have made my first forays into cultural anthropology rather confusing.
Then, from the bottom of the armoire, I pulled out magazines and books in English. Many issues of The Strand, with all of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures. I certainly did not know English in those days (Paola told me I had learned it only as an adult), but luckily there were also many translations. The majority of the Italian editions, however, were not illustrated, so perhaps I had read the Italian and then looked up the corresponding illustrations in The Strand.
I dragged all the Holmes into my grandfather’s study, which had a more civil atmosphere, better suited to reviving that universe where well-mannered gentlemen sat beside the hearth in the lodgings on Baker Street, intent on their calm conversations-so different from the damp cellars and the macabre sewers haunted by the characters in the French feuilletons. The few times that Sherlock Holmes was shown pointing a pistol at a criminal, he always had his right leg and arm stretched forward in an almost statuesque pose, maintaining his aplomb, as befits a gentleman.
I was struck by the almost obsessive recurrence of images of Holmes seated, with Watson or others, in a train compartment, in a brougham, before the fire, in an armchair covered with white fabric, in a rocking chair, beside a small table, in the perhaps greenish lamplight, in front of a just-opened chest, or standing, while reading a letter or deciphering a coded message. Those images said to me: de te fabula narratur. At that very moment Sherlock Holmes was me, intent on retracing and reconstructing remote events of which he had no prior knowledge, while remaining at home, shut away, perhaps even in an attic. He too, like me, motionless and isolated from the world, deciphering pure signs. He always succeeded in making the repressed resurface. Would I be able to? At least I had a model.
And like him, I had to combat the fog. It was enough to open A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four at random:
It was a September evening, and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghostlike in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light-sad faces and glad, haggard and merry.
It was a foggy, cloudy morning, and a dun-coloured veil hung over the housetops, looking like the reflection of the mud-coloured streets beneath. My companion was in the best of spirits, and prattled away about Cremona fiddles and the difference between a Stradivarius and an Amati. As for myself, I was silent, for the dull weather and the melancholy business upon which we were engaged, depressed my spirits.
By contrast, that evening in bed, I opened Salgari’s The Tigers of Mompracem:
On the night of December 20, 1849, a ferocious hurricane raged over Mompracem, an untamed island of sinister repute, the lair of fearsome pirates, located in the Malay Sea a few hundred miles off the western shores of Borneo. Black masses of vapor, driven by an irresistible wind, raced through the sky like unbridled steeds, roiling tumultuously, unleashing at intervals furious downpours onto the island’s gloomy forests… Who would be awake at that hour, amid such a storm, on an island of bloodthirsty pirates?… One room in that dwelling is illumined, its walls covered with heavy red fabrics, velvets and brocades of great price, though creased in places, or torn, or stained; its floor disappearing beneath a thick layer of Persian carpets, blazing with gold… In the room’s center stands an ebony table, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and trimmed in silver, laden with bottles and glasses of the purest crystal; in the corners rise great dilapidated shelves, filled with jugs overflowing with gold bracelets, earrings, rings, medallions, precious sacred objects now twisted or flattened, pearls that had doubtless come from the pearl fishers of Ceylon, emeralds, rubies, and diamonds that glinted like stars beneath the light of a gilded lamp that hung from the ceiling… In that strangely furnished room, in a decrepit armchair, sits a man: tall and slim of stature, powerfully built, with vigorous, masculine, proud features, and a strange beauty.
Who had been my hero? Holmes, reading a letter by the fire, rendered politely amazed by his seven-percent solution, or Sandokan, tearing his chest madly as he utters the name of his beloved Marianna?
I then gathered up a number of paperback editions; they had been printed on cheap paper, but I must have finished them off, slowly wearing them out through repeated readings, writing my name in the margins of many pages. Some, their bindings completely destroyed, held together only by a miracle; others had been patched up, probably by me, with new spines of sugar-paper and carpenter’s glue.
But I could no longer read even the titles; I had been in that attic for eight days. I knew I should have reread everything, word for word, but how long would that have taken? Assuming that I learned to read at the end of my fifth year, and that I had lived among those artifacts at least until high school, it would have taken at least ten years, on top of those eight days. And that is without counting all the other books, especially the ones with pictures, that were read to me by my parents or my grandfather before I was literate.
Had I tried to remake myself completely among those pages, I would have become Funes the Memorious, I would have relived moment by moment all the years of my childhood, every leaf I heard rustling in the night, every whiff of coffee in the morning. Too much. And what if they remained merely and forever and nevertheless words, confusing my ailing neurons even more without throwing the hidden switch that would open the way to my truest, most hidden memories? What is to be done? Lenin in his white armchair in the anteroom. Maybe I have been all wrong about this, and Paola too: had I not come back to Solara, I would have remained merely feebleminded; having come back might drive me truly mad.
I put all the books back into the two armoires, then decided to give up on the attic. But as I was leaving, I spotted a series of cardboard boxes with labels written in a lovely, almost gothic hand: "FASCISM," "THE ’40S," "WAR"… Those had to have been put together by my grandfather himself. The other boxes looked more recent; my aunt and uncle seemed to have made indiscriminate use of the empty containers they had found up there: Bersano Brothers Winery, Borsalino, Cordial Campari, Telefunken (was there a radio in the house?).
I could not bring myself to open them. I had to get out of there and go for a walk in the hills, I would come back later. I had reached my limit. Perhaps I was running a fever.
The sunset hour was fast approaching, and Amalia was already calling up in a loud voice to announce that her mouthwatering finanziera-that rustic Piedmontese concoction of calf brains and sweetbreads, giblets and wattles and cockscombs-was almost ready. The first vague shadows, gathering in the hidden corners of the attic, seemed to portend some lurking Fant^omas, awaiting my collapse so he could pounce on me, bind me with a hempen rope, and dangle me in the abyss of a bottomless well. Mainly in order to prove to myself that I was no longer the child that I would have liked to become again, I fearlessly lingered to peer into those unlit areas. Then I was assailed once more by an ancient mustiness.
Near one of the dormer windows that was letting in the last rays of late afternoon, I dragged out a large crate, its lid carefully protected with brown wrapping paper. In removing that dusty covering, I disturbed two layers of moss, real moss, though now desiccated- enough penicillin to send everyone in The Magic Mountain’s sanatorium home in a week, and good-bye to those wonderful conversations between Naphta and Settembrini. Each tuft was like a clump of sod, and putting them all together you could have made a field as large as my grandfather’s desk. Who knows by what miracle- maybe the layer of paper had created a humid zone beneath it, thanks to all those winters, those days when the attic roof was pounded with rain, snow, or hail-but the moss had retained something of its pungent stench.
Beneath the moss, packed in curly wood shavings, which I plucked out carefully so as not to damage the contents, were a hut made of wood or cardboard covered with colored plaster, with a roof of compressed straw, a windmill of straw and wood with a wheel that still turned, though barely, and a number of little painted-cardboard houses and castles, which placed on some hill must have served as background scenery for the hut, lending perspective. And finally, deep in the shavings, I found the statuettes: the shepherds with the baby lamb in tow, the knife grinder, the miller with his two little donkeys, the peasant woman with a fruit basket on her head, a pair of pipers, an Arab with two camels, and-here they are-the Wise Men, they too smelling more like mold than incense or myrrh. Then at last the donkey, the ox, Joseph, Mary, the cradle, the Baby Jesus, two angels, arms flung wide, stiffened with a glory that had lasted at least a century, the golden comet, a rolled-up blue cloth that was stitched with stars, a metal basin filled with cement so as to form the bed of a creek, with two holes through which the water came and went, and something that made me put off dinner for half an hour while I studied it: a strange contraption consisting of a glass cylinder out of which came long rubber tubes.
A complete Nativity scene. I had no idea whether my grandfather or my parents had been believers (my mother must have been, given the Filotea on her nightstand), but clearly someone used to exhume this crate as Christmas approached in order to set up the cr`eche in one of the downstairs rooms. And yet those little statues were calling to mind not more words, but an image, something I had not seen in the attic but that must have been around somewhere, so vivid did it seem to me in that moment.
What had the Nativity scene meant to me? Between Jesus and Fant^omas, between Rocambole and The Basket, between the mold on the Wise Men and that on the impaled corpses in the pages of the Illustrated Journal of Voyages and Adventure, where did I stand?
I realized that those days in the attic had been badly spent: I had reread pages I had first encountered at the age of six or twelve or fifteen, falling under the spells of different books at different times. That is no way to reconstruct a memory. Memory amalgamates, revises, and reshapes, no doubt, but it rarely confuses chronological distances. A person should know perfectly well whether something happened to him at seven years of age or at ten. Even I could now distinguish the day I woke up in the hospital from the day I departed for Solara, and I knew perfectly well that between one and the other some maturation had taken place, a change in my thinking, a weighing of experiences. And yet in the past three weeks I had taken everything in as if as a boy I had swallowed it down all at once, in one gulp-no surprise that I felt dazed as if by some intoxicating brew.
So I had to give up that grande bouffe of old papers, put things back in their places, and savor them over the course of time. Who could tell me what I had read or seen when I was eight as opposed to thirteen? I thought awhile and understood: my old school-books and notebooks simply had to be somewhere among all those containers. Those were the documents to track down: I had only to listen to their lesson, letting them lead me by the hand.
At dinner, I asked Amalia about the Nativity scene. Indeed it had been my grandfather’s, and had meant a lot to him. He was not a churchgoer, but the Nativity scene was like royal soup: it was not Christmas without it, and even if he had had no grandchildren he might have set it up just for himself. He began working on it in early December, and if I looked around the attic I would find all the framework, which had supported the sky backdrop and contained lots of little bulbs in the front part that made the stars twinkle. "A thing of beauty it was, your dear grandfather’s Nativity scene, made me cry every year. And water truly flowed in the river, why in fact one year it overflowed and got the moss wet that had come in fresh that very year, and then the moss all bloomed with itty-bitty blue flowers, which it was truly a miracle of the Christ child, and even the parish priest came who couldn’t believe his eyes."
"But how did he make the water flow?"
Amalia blushed and mumbled something, then made up her mind: "In that Nativity scene crate, which every year I helped to put it all away after Epiphany, there ought to be something, like a big bottle with no neck. You saw it? Well, I don’t know if folks still use them things or not, but it was a contraption, pardon my French, for giving enemas. Do you know what enemas are? Good, then I don’t have to explain, which that would embarrass me. And so your dear grandfather got the bright idea that if he put that enema contraption underneath the Nativity scene, and hooked up the tubes in the right places, the water would come up and then go back down again. That was something, I can tell you, forget the picture shows."