4. Alone through City Streets I Go
They showed me a lot of family photos, which unsurprisingly told me nothing. But of course, the ones they had were all from the time since I have known Paola. My childhood photos, if any, must be somewhere in Solara.
I spoke by phone with my sister in Sydney. When she learned I had not been well she wanted to come at once, but she had just undergone a rather delicate operation, and her doctors had prohibited her from making such a taxing journey.
Ada tried to remind me of something from the past, then gave up and started crying. I asked her to bring me a duck-billed platypus for the living room, next time she came-who knows why? Given these notions of mine, I might as well have asked her to bring me a kangaroo, but evidently I know they cannot be housebroken.
I spend only a few hours a day in the studio. Sibilla is getting the catalogue ready, and of course she knows her way around bibliographies. I give them a quick glance, say they look marvelous, then tell her I have a doctor’s appointment. She watches me with apprehension as I leave. I feel sick, is that not normal? Or does she think I am avoiding her? What am I supposed to tell her? "I don’t want to use you as a pretext for rebuilding fictitious memories, my poor dear love"?
I asked Paola what my political leanings were. "I don’t want to find out I’m a Nazi or something."
"You’re what they call a good liberal," Paola said, "but more from instinct than ideology. I always used to say politics bored you-and for the sake of argument you called me La Pasionaria. It was as if you sought refuge in your antique books out of fear, or contempt for the world. No, that’s not fair, it wasn’t contempt, because you were fervent about the great moral issues. You signed pacifist and nonviolent petitions, you were outraged by racism. You even joined an antivivisection league."
"Animal vivisection, I imagine."
"Of course. Human vivisection is called war."
"And was I… always like that, even before meeting you?"
"You skated over your childhood and adolescence. And anyway I’ve never really been able to understand you about these things. You’ve always been a mix of compassion and cynicism. If there was a death sentence somewhere, you’d sign the petition, you’d send money to a drug rehab community. But if someone told you, say, that ten thousand babies had died in a tribal war in central Africa, you’d shrug, as if to say that the world was badly made and there’s nothing to be done. You were always a jovial man, you liked good-looking women, good wine, and good music, but I always got the impression that all that was a shield, a way of hiding yourself. When you dropped it, you used to say that history is a blood-drenched enigma and the world an error."
"Nothing can shake my belief that this world is the fruit of a dark god whose shadow I extend."
"Who said that?"
"I don’t remember."
"It must be something that involved you. But you always bent over backward if anyone needed anything-when they had the flood in Florence, you went as a volunteer to help pull books out of the mud at the Biblioteca Nazionale. That must be it, you were compassionate about the little things and cynical about the big things."
"That sounds fair. One does what one can. The rest is God’s fault, as Gragnola used to say."
"Who is Gragnola?"
"1 don’t remember that either. I must have known once."
What did I know once?
One morning I woke up, went to make a coffee (decaf), and started humming Roma non far la stupida stasera. Why had that song come to mind? It’s a good sign, Paola said, a beginning. Apparently every morning I would sing a song as I made coffee. No reason that one song came to mind as opposed to any other. None of Paola’s inquiries (what did you dream last night? what did we talk about yesterday evening? what did you read before falling asleep?) produced a reliable explanation. Who can say-maybe the way I put my socks on, or the color of my shirt, or a can I glimpsed out of the corner of an eye had triggered a sound memory.
"Except," Paola noted, "you only ever sang songs from the fifties or later. At most, you’d go back to the early San Remo festivals-songs like Fly, Dove or Papaveri e papere. You never went farther back than that, nothing from the forties or thirties or twenties." Paola mentioned Sola me ne v`o per la citt`a, the great postwar song, which had been on the radio so often that even she, though only a little girl at the time, still knew it. It certainly sounded familiar, but I did not react with interest; it was as if someone had sung Casta Diva, and indeed it seems I was never a great fan of opera. Not the way I am of Eleanor Rigby, say, or Que ser'a, ser'a, or Sono una donna non sono una santa. As for the older songs, Paola attributed my lack of interest to what she called a repression of childhood.
She had also noticed over the years that although I was something of a connoisseur of jazz and classical music and liked to go to concerts and listen to records, I never had any desire to turn on the radio. At best, I would listen to it in the background if someone else had turned it on. Evidently the radio was like the country house: it belonged to the past.
But the next morning, as I was waking up and making coffee, I found myself singing Sola me ne v`o per la citt`a:
All alone through city streets I go,
Walking through a crowd that doesn’t know,
That doesn’t see my pain.
I search for you, I dream of you, but all in vain…
All in vain I struggle to forget,
First love is impossible to forget,
Inside my heart a name is written, a single name.
I knew you well, and now I know that you are love,
The truest love, the greatest love…
The melody came of its own accord. And my eyes teared up.
"Why that song?" Paola asked.
"Who knows? Maybe because it’s about searching for someone. No idea who."
"You’ve crossed the barrier into the forties," she reflected, curious.
"It’s not that," I said. "It’s that I felt something inside. Like a tremor. No, not like a tremor. As if… You know Flatland, you read it too. Well, those triangles and those squares live in two dimensions, they don’t know what thickness is. Now imagine that one of us, who lives in three dimensions, were to touch them from above. They would feel something they’d never felt before, and they wouldn’t be able to say what it was. As if someone were to come here from the fourth dimension and touch us from the inside-say on the pylorus-gently. What does it feel like when someone tickles your Pylorus? I would say… a mysterious flame."
"What does that mean, a mysterious flame?"
"I don’t know-that’s what came to mind."
"Was it the same thing you felt when you looked at the picture of
"Almost. Not really. Actually, why not? Almost the same." "Now that’s an interesting signal, Yambo, let’s take note of that." She is still hoping to redeem me. And me with my mysterious flame
sparked, perhaps, by thoughts of Sibilla.
Sunday. "Go take a stroll," Paola told me, "it will do you good. Stick to the streets you know. In Largo Cairoli, there’s a flower stall that’s usually open even on Sundays. Have him make you a nice spring bunch, or just some roses-this house feels like a morgue."
I went down to Largo Cairoli and the flower stall was closed. I meandered down Via Dante toward the Cordusio, then turned right toward the Borsa and saw the place where all the collectors in Milan gather on Sundays. Philatelic stalls along Via Cordusio, figurines and old postcards along all of Via Armorari, and the entire T of the Passaggio Centrale filled with vendors selling coins, toy soldiers, holy cards, wristwatches, even telephone cards. Collecting is anal-I should know. People collect all kinds of things, even Coca-Cola bottle caps, and after all, telephone cards are cheaper than my incunabula. In Piazza Edison, stalls to my left were selling books, newspapers, and advertising posters, while in front of me yet others were selling miscellaneous junk: art nouveau lamps, no doubt fake; flowered trays with black backgrounds; bisque ballerinas.
In one stall I found four cylindrical containers, sealed, filled with an aqueous solution (formalin?) in which were suspended various ivory-colored forms-some round, some shaped like beans-linked together by snow-white filaments. Marine creatures-sea cucumbers, shreds of squid, faded coral-or perhaps the morbid figments of some artist’s teratological imagination. Yves Tanguy?
The vendor explained to me that they were testicles: dog, cat, rooster, and some other beast, complete with kidneys and the rest. "Take a look, it’s all from a scientific laboratory from the nineteenth century. Forty thousand apiece. The containers alone are worth twice that, this stuff is at least a hundred and fifty years old. Four times four is sixteen, I’ll give you all four for a hundred and twenty. A bargain."
Those testicles fascinated me. For once, here was something I was not supposed to know about through my semantic memory, nor did it have anything to do with my personal history. Who has ever seen dog testicles in their pure state-I mean, without the dog attached? I rummaged around in my pockets. I had a total of forty thousand, and it’s not as though a street vendor is going to take a check.
"I’ll take the dog ones."
"A mistake to leave the others, you won’t get that chance again."
You cannot have everything. I went back home with my dog balls and Paola blanched: "They’re curious, they really do look like a work of art, but where will we keep them? In the living room, so that every time you offer guests some cashews or some Ascoli olives they can vomit on our carpet? In the bedroom? I think not. You can keep them in your studio, perhaps next to some lovely seventeenth-century book on the natural sciences."
"I thought it was a real find."
"Do you know you’re the only man in the world, the only man on the face of the earth from Adam up to now, who when his wife sends him out to buy roses comes home with a pair of dog balls?"
"If nothing else, that’s something for the Guinness book of records. And besides, you know, I’m a sick man."
"Excuses. You were crazy even before. It was no accident that you asked your sister for a platypus. Once you wanted to bring home a 1960s pinball machine that cost as much as a Matisse painting and made a hellish racket."
But Paola knew that street market already. Indeed, she said I should have known it too: once I found a first edition of Papini’s Gog there, original covers, uncut, for ten thousand lire. And so the next Sunday she wanted to go with me: you never know, she said, you might come home with some dinosaur testicles and we’ll have to call a mason to widen the doorway to get them inside.
Stamps and telephone cards did not arouse my interest, but the old newspapers did. Stuff from our childhood, Paola said. "Then forget it," I said. But at a certain point I saw a Mickey Mouse comic book. I picked it up instinctively. It could not have been really old-a 1970s reprint, judging from the back cover and the price. I opened it to the middle: "It’s not an original, because those were printed in two colors, with shading from brick red to brown, and this one is printed in white and blue."
"How do you know that?"
"I don’t know, I just do."
"But the cover is a reproduction of the original cover. Look at the date and the price: 1936; one and a half lire."
Clarabelle’s Treasure: the title jumped out from a colorful background. "And they got the wrong tree," I said. "What do you mean?" I flipped quickly through the pages and immediately found the right panels. But it was as if I did not feel like reading what was written in the balloons-as if it were written in some other language or the letters had all been smeared together. Instead I told the story from memory.
"You see, Mickey Mouse and Horace Horsecollar, taking an old map, went in search of a treasure that had been buried by Clarabelle Cow’s grandfather or great-uncle, and they’re racing against the slimy Eli Squinch and the treacherous Peg-Leg Pete. They come to the place and consult the map. They’re supposed to start from a big tree, make a line to a smaller tree, then triangulate. They dig and dig but find nothing. Until Mickey has a flash of inspiration: the map is from 1863, more than seventy years have passed, this little tree couldn’t possibly have existed at that time, so the tree that now appears big must have been the little one then, and the big one must have fallen, but may have left traces. And indeed they look and look, find a piece of the old trunk, redo the triangulation, start digging again, and there it is, exactly in that spot, the treasure."
"But how do you know all that?"
"No, everyone does not," said Paola, excited. "That isn’t semantic memory, that’s autobiographical memory. You’re remembering something that made an impression on you as a child! And this cover sparked it."
"No, not the image. If anything the name, Clarabelle." "Rosebud."
Of course we bought the comic book. I spent the evening with that story but got nothing more from it. I knew it, and it was all there, but no mysterious flame.
"I’ll never come out of this, Paola. I’ll never enter the cavern."
"But you suddenly remembered that business about the two trees."
"Proust at least remembered three. Paper, paper, like all the books in this apartment, or those in my studio. My memory is made of paper."
"Use the paper, then, since madeleines don’t tell you anything. So you’re not Proust, fine. Zasetsky wasn’t either."
"What name, fair lady?"
"I had almost forgotten about him; Gratarolo reminded me. In my line of work I couldn’t have helped reading The Man with a Shattered World , a classic case. But I read it a long time ago, and for academic reasons. Today I reread it with a personal interest, it’s a delicious little book you can skim in a couple of hours. In it, Luria, the great Russian psychologist, presents the case of this man Zasetsky, who during the last world war was hit with a piece of shrapnel that damaged the left occipitoparietal region of his brain. He wakes up, as you did, but in a terrible chaos. He isn’t even able to discern the position of his body in space. He sometimes thinks certain of his body parts have changed- that his head has become inordinately large, that his torso is incredibly small, that his legs have moved onto his head."
"That doesn’t seem much like my case. Legs on his head? And his penis in place of his nose?"
"Hang on. Never mind about the legs on the head, that happened only occasionally. The worst thing was his memory. Reduced to shreds, as if it had been pulverized-much worse than yours. Like you, he couldn’t remember where he was born or the name of his mother-but he could no longer even read or write. Luria begins observing him. Zasetsky has an iron will and relearns how to read and write, and he writes and writes. For twenty-five years he records not only everything he disinters from the devastated caverns of his memory but also everything that happens to him day by day. It was as if his hand, with its automatisms, was able to put in order what his head couldn’t. Which is like saying that what he wrote was more intelligent than he was. And thus, on paper, he gradually rediscovered himself. You’re not him, but what struck me is that he reconstructed for himself a memory made of paper. And it took him twenty-five years. You already have plenty of paper here, but evidently it isn’t the right paper. Your cavern is in the country house. I’ve given it a lot of thought in recent days, you know. All the papers of your childhood and your adolescence-you locked them away too abruptly. Maybe something there will hit home for you. So now, please do me the great favor of going to Solara. Alone, because for one thing I can’t get away from work, and for another this is something, as I see it, that you have do by yourself. Just you and your distant past. Stay as long as you need to and see what happens. You’ll lose a week at most, maybe two, and you’ll get some good air, which won’t hurt a bit. I’ve already phoned Amalia."
"And who’s Amalia-Zasetsky’s wife?"
"Yes, his grandmother. I didn’t tell you quite everything about Solara. In your grandfather’s time there were tenant farmers, Tommaso, who went by Masulu, and Maria, because in those days the house had quite a bit of land around it, mostly vineyards, and a fair amount of livestock. Maria watched you grow up and loved you with all her heart. As did Amalia, her daughter, who’s about ten years older than you and who played the role of your big sister, nanny, everything. You were her idol. When your aunt and uncle sold the lands, including the farm on the hill, there was still a small vineyard left, and the fruit orchard, vegetable garden, pigsty, rabbit hutch, and henhouse. It no longer made sense to speak of tenant terming, so you just left it all to Masulu to use as he liked, with the proviso that his family would take care of the house. Eventually Masulu and Maria passed on, too, and because Amalia never married-she was never a great beauty-she’s still there, selling her eggs and chickens in town, the pork butcher comes by when the time is right to kill the pig for her, some cousins help her apply the Bordeaux mixture to the vines and harvest her small crop of grapes; in short, she’s content, except she feels a little lonely, so she’s happy when the girls visit with the little ones. We pay her for any eggs, chickens, or salami we consume, for fruit and vegetables there’s no charge-she says they belong to us. She’s a gem, and you’ll see what a cook she is. When she heard you might come, she was beside herself-Signorino Yambo this, Signorino Yambo that, how wonderful, you’ll see, his illness will disappear when I fix him that salad he likes…"
"Signorino Yambo. How extravagant. By the way, why does everyone call me Yambo?"
"For Amalia, you’ll always be Signorino, even when you’re eighty. And as for Yambo, it was Maria who explained it to me. You chose it yourself when you were little. You used to say, My name is Yambo, the boy with the quiff. And you’ve been Yambo ever since."
"You must have had a cute little quiff. And you didn’t like Giambattista, I can’t say I blame you. But enough personal history. You’re leaving. You can’t really go by train, since you’d have to change four times, but Nicoletta will take you-she needs to pick up some things she left there at Christmas, then she’ll turn right around and leave you with Amalia, who’ll pamper you, who’ll be around when you need her and disappear when you want to be alone. Five years ago we put a phone in, so we can be in touch at any time. Give it a try, please."
I asked for a few days to think about it. I was the one who had first brought up the idea of a trip, to escape those afternoons in my studio. But did I really want to escape those afternoons in my studio?
I was in a maze. No matter which way I turned, it was the wrong way. And besides, what did I want to get out of? Who was it who said Open sesame, I want to get out? I wanted to go in, like Ali Baba. Into the caverns of memory.
Sibilla was kind enough to solve my problem. One afternoon she emitted an irresistible hiccup, blushed slightly (in your blood, which spreads its flames across your face, the cosmos makes its laughter), tormented a stack of forms she had in front of her, and said: "Yambo, you should be the first to know… I’m getting married."
"What do you mean, married?" I replied, as if to say, "How could you?"
"I’m getting married. You know, when a man and woman exchange rings and everyone throws rice on them?"
"No, I mean… you’re leaving me?"
"Why would I? He works for an architecture firm, but he doesn’t make a whole lot yet-both of us will have to work. And besides, how could I ever leave you?"
The other planted the knife in his heart and turned it there twice.
The end of The Trial, and indeed, the end of the trial. "And is this something… that’s been going on a long time?"
"Not long. We met a few weeks ago-you know how these things go. He’s a great guy, you’ll meet him."
How these things go. Perhaps there were other great guys before him, or perhaps she took advantage of my accident to wash her hands of an untenable situation. Maybe she threw herself on the first guy who came along, a shot in the dark. In which case I have hurt her twice. But who hurt her, you imbecile? Things are going as things go: she is young, meets someone her own age, falls in love for the first time… For the first time, okay? And someone will pluck your flower, mouth of the wellspring, and not having sought you will be his grace and good fortune…
"I’ll have to get you a nice present."
"There’s plenty of time. We decided last night, but I want to wait until you’ve recovered, so I can take a week of vacation without feeling guilty."
Without feeling guilty. How thoughtful.
What was the last quote I had seen about fog? When we arrived at the Rome station, the evening of Good Friday, and she rode off in a coach into the fog, it seemed to me that I had lost her forever, irrevocably.
The story of our affair had ended on its own. Whatever had happened before, all erased. The blackboard shiny black. From now on, like a daughter only.
At that point I could leave. Indeed, I had to. I told Paola that I would be going to Solara. She was happy.
"You’ll like it there, you’ll see."
"O flounder, flounder, in the sea, / it really isn’t up to me, / it’s just that tiresome wife I’ve got, / for she desires what I do not."
"You wicked man. To the countryside, to the countryside!"
That evening in bed, as Paola was giving me some last-minute advice before my trip, I caressed her breasts. She moaned softly, and I felt something that resembled desire, but mixed with gentleness, and perhaps recognition. We made love.
As with the toothbrushing, my body had apparently retained a memory of how it was done. It was a calm thing, a slow rhythm. She had her orgasm first (she always did, she later said), and I had mine soon after. After all, it was my first time. It really is as good as they say. I was not surprised by that fact; it was as if my brain already knew it, but my body was just then discovering it was true.
"That’s not bad," I said, collapsing onto my back. "Now I know why people are so fond of it."
"Christ," Paola remarked, "on top of everything else, I’ve had to deflower my sixty-year-old husband."
"Better late than never."
But I couldn’t help wondering, as I fell asleep with Paola’s hand in mine, whether it would have been the same thing with Sibilla. Imbecile, I murmured to myself as I slowly lost consciousness, that is something you can never know.
I left. Nicoletta was driving, and I was looking at her, in profile. Judging by the photos of me at the time of my marriage, her nose was mine, and the shape of her mouth, too. She really was my daughter, I had not been saddled with the fruit of some indiscretion.
(Her blouse being slightly open, he suddenly espied a gold locket upon her breast, with a Y delicately engraved upon it. Great God, said he, who gave you that? I’ve always worn it, my lord, it was around my neck when I was found as an infant upon the steps of the Poor Clares convent at Saint-Auban, said she. The locket that belonged to your mother, the duchess, I exclaimed! Do you by chance have four moles in the shape of a cross upon your left shoulder? Yes, my lord, but how could you have known? Well then, then you are my daughter and I am your father! Father, oh Father! No, do not, my chaste innocent, lose your senses now. We’ll run off the road!)
We were not talking, but I had already realized that Nicoletta was laconic by nature, and in that moment she was no doubt embarrassed, afraid to draw my attention to things I had forgotten, not wanting to upset me. I asked her only what direction we were heading: "Solara is right on the border between Langhe and Monferrato; it’s a beautiful place, you’ll see, Pap`a." I liked hearing myself called Pap`a.
At first, after we had left the highway, I saw signs that referred to well-known cities: Turin, Asti, Alessandria, Casale. Later we made our way onto secondary roads, where the signs began to refer to towns I had never heard of. After a few kilometers of plains, beyond a dip in the road, I glimpsed the pale blue outline of some hills in the distance. But the outline disappeared suddenly, because a wall of trees rose up in front of us and we drove into it, proceeding along a leafy corridor that brought to mind tropical forests. Que me font maintenant tes ombrages et tes lacs?
But once we had passed through the corridor, which felt like a continuation of the plains, we found ourselves in a hollow dominated by hills on each side and behind us. Evidently we had entered Monferrato after an imperceptible and continuous ascent, high ground had surrounded us without my noticing, and already I was entering into another world, into a festival of budding vineyards. In the distance, peaks of various heights, some barely rising above the low hills, some steeper, many dominated by structures-churches, large farmhouses, castles of a sort-that made their stands with disproportionate obtrusiveness and rather than gently completing their peaks, gave them a shove toward the sky.
At a certain point, after an hour or so of traveling through those hills, where a different landscape unfurled at every turn as if we were being suddenly transported from one region to another, I saw a sign that said Mongardello. I said: "Mongardello. Then Corseglio, Montevasco, Castelletto Vecchio, Lovezzolo, and we’re there, right?"
"How do you know that?"
"Everyone knows that," I said. But apparently that was not true; do any encyclopedias mention Lovezzolo? Was I beginning to penetrate the cavern?