8. When the Radio
After my eight days in the attic, I decided to go into town to get my blood pressure checked by the pharmacist. Too high: 170. Gratarolo had released me from the hospital with orders to keep it in the 130s, and 130 it was when I left for Solara. The pharmacist said that if I measured it after walking all the way down the hill to town, of course it would be high. If I checked it in the morning when I woke up, it would be lower. Nonsense. I knew what it had been, and for days I had lived like a man possessed.
I called Gratarolo, and he asked if I had done anything I should not have, and I had to admit that I had been moving crates, drinking at least a bottle of wine per meal, smoking a pack of Gitanes a day, and causing myself frequent bouts of mild tachycardia. He reproached me: I was convalescing, if my pressure went through the roof I could have another incident, and I might not be as lucky as I was the first time. I promised him I would take care of myself, and he raised the dosage of my pills and added others to help me get rid of salt through my urine.
I asked Amalia to use less salt in my food, and she said that during the war they had to go to the ends of the earth and give away two or three rabbits to get a kilo of salt, so salt is a gift from God and when you don’t have it nothing tastes like anything. I told her that the doctor had prohibited it, and she replied that doctors do all that studying and then they’re dumber than anybody and you shouldn’t pay them any mind-just look at her, never seen a doctor in her life and here she was well past seventy breaking her back every blessed day doing a thousand things, which she didn’t even have sciatica like everybody else. Never mind, I can pass her salt out in my urine.
It was more important to quit spending all my time in the attic, to move around a little, distract myself. I called Gianni: I wanted to see if all the things I had been reading in recent days meant anything to him. We seem to have had different experiences-his grandfather had not collected old-fashioned objects-but we had read many of the same things, in part because we used to borrow each other’s books. We spent half an hour quizzing each other on Salgari trivia, as if we were on a game show. What was the name of the Greek, the Rajah of Assam’s lackey? Teotokris. What was the last name of the lovely Honorata whom the Black Corsair could not love because she was his enemy’s daughter? Wan Guld. And who married Darma, Tremal-Naik’s daughter? Sir Moreland, son of Suyodhana.
I asked about Ciuffettino, too, but that meant nothing to Gianni. He had preferred comic books, and here he turned the tables, bombarding me with a barrage of titles. I must surely have read some of them, too, and a few of the names Gianni mentioned sounded familiar: The Phantom, Fulmine vs. Flattavion, Mickey Mouse and the Phantom Blot, and above all, Tim Tyler’s Luck… But I had found no trace of them in the attic. Maybe my grandfather, who had loved Fant^omas and Rocambole, considered comic books inferior rags that were bad for children. And Rocambole was not?
Did I grow up without comic books? It was pointless to impose on myself long breaks and forced rest. I was being gripped once more by research fever.
Paola saved me. That very morning, toward noon, she showed up unexpectedly with Carla, Nicoletta, and the three little ones. My few phone calls had not convinced her. A quick trip, just to give you a hug, she said, we’ll leave again before dinner. But she was watching me closely, weighing me.
"You’re getting fat," she said. Luckily, I was not pale, what with all the sun I had gotten on the balcony and in the vineyard, but no doubt I had put on a little weight. I said it was Amalia’s little suppers, and Paola promised to set her straight. I failed to mention that I had spent days on end curled up in some corner, not moving for hours and hours.
A nice walk is what you need, she said, and our whole family headed off toward the Conventino, which was not a convent at all, but rather a small chapel sitting atop a hill a few kilometers away. The rise was continuous, and therefore nearly imperceptible, except for the last few dozen meters. While I was catching my breath I encouraged the little ones to gather a spray of roses and of violets. Paola grumbled that I should smell the flowers and not quote the Poet-especially since Leopardi, like all poets, was lying: the first roses do not bloom until after violets are gone for the season, and in any case roses and violets cannot be put together in the same bouquet, try it and see.
To prove that I did not remember only passages from encyclopedias, I showed off a few of the stories I had learned in recent days, and the children sidled up with wide eyes; they had never heard those tales before.
Sandro was the biggest little one, and I recounted Treasure Island for him. I told him how, departing from the Admiral Benbow Inn, I had sailed off on the schooner Hispaniola, along with Lord Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and Captain Smollett, but by the end his two favorite characters seemed to be Long John Silver, because of his wooden leg, and that poor wretch Ben Gunn. His eyes grew big with excitement, he began seeing pirates lying in wait in the shrubs, kept saying, "More, more," and then, "That’s enough," because once we had gained Captain Flint’s treasure the story was over. As compensation we sang Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest-Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum over and over.
For Giangio and Luca, I did my best to conjure up the naughtiness of Giannino Stoppani from The Diary of the Hurricane Boy. When I inserted the stick up through the drainage hole in the bottom of Aunt Bettina’s pot of dittany, or when I yanked Signor Venanzio’s last tooth out with a fishhook, they laughed endlessly, though who knows how much sense those stories made to three-year-olds. The tales’ best audience may have been Carla and Nicoletta, who had never been told a thing (a sad sign of the times) about Gian the Hurricane Boy.
But for them, I was more interested in explaining how, in the guise of Rocambole, I had eliminated my mentor in the art of crime, Sir William, now blind but nonetheless an embarrassing witness to my past, by throwing him to the ground and driving a long, sharp hat pin into the nape of his neck, and I had only to remove the small spot of blood that had formed in his hair for everyone to think he had had an apoplectic stroke.
Paola yelled that I should not be telling such stories in front of the children, and thank God nobody kept hat pins lying around the house these days, otherwise they would probably try one out on the cat. But more than anything she was intrigued by the fact that I had told all those things as if they had happened to me.
"If you’re doing that to entertain the kids," she said, "that’s one thing, but if not, then you’re identifying too much with what you’re reading, which is to say you’re borrowing other people’s memory. Are you clear about the distance between you and these stories?"
"Come on," I said, "I may be an amnesiac, but I’m not crazy. I do it for the kids!"
"Let’s hope so," she said. "But you came to Solara to rediscover yourself, because you felt oppressed by an encyclopedia full of Homer, Manzoni, and Flaubert, and now you’ve entered the encyclopedia of pulp literature. It’s not a step forward."
"Yes it is," I replied, "first of all because Stevenson isn’t pulp literature, and second because it’s not my fault if the guy I’m trying to rediscover devoured pulp literature, and, finally, you’re the very one, with that business about Clarabelle’s treasure, who sent me here."
"That’s true, I’m sorry. If you feel it’s useful for you, go ahead. But be careful, don’t get drunk on what you’re reading." Changing the subject, she asked me about my blood pressure. I lied: I said I had just had it checked and it was 130. That made her happy, poor thing.
When we returned from our outing, Amalia had prepared a lovely snack, with water and fresh lemon for everyone. Then they left.
That evening I was a good boy and went early to bed.
The next morning, I revisited the rooms of the old wing, which I had only breezed through the first time. I went back to my grandfather’s bedroom, at which I had barely glanced, daunted by some reverential awe. There, too, as in all the old bedrooms, was a chest of drawers and a large wardrobe with a mirror.
Inside the wardrobe I found a tremendous surprise. In the back, almost hidden behind several hanging suits to which the scent of old mothballs still clung, were two objects: a horn gramophone, the kind you crank by hand, and a radio. Both were covered with pages from a magazine, which I reassembled: it was the Radiocorriere, a publication devoted to radio programs, an issue from the forties.
An old 78, covered with a layer of dirt, was still in place on the gramophone. I spent half an hour cleaning it, spitting on my handkerchief. The song was "Amapola." I set the gramophone on the chest of drawers, cranked it, and a few muddled sounds came through the horn. You could barely make out the melody. The old gadget had by now attained a state of senile dementia, nothing to be done. After all, it must already have been a museum piece when I was a boy. If I wanted to listen to music of that era, I would have to use the record player I had seen in my grandfather’s study. But the records-where were they? I would have to ask Amalia.
The radio, though it had been protected, was nonetheless coated with fifty years of dust, enough that you could write on it with your finger, and I had to clean it with care. It was a nice mahogany-colored Telefunken (that explained the box I had seen in the attic), with a speaker that was covered in a coarse grille cloth, which may have helped the sound resonate better.
Beside the speaker was the station panel, dark and illegible, and below that three knobs. Evidently it was a valve radio, and when I shook it I could hear something rattle inside. It still had its cord and plug.
I took it into the study, set it gently on the table, and plugged it into an outlet. A near miracle, and a sign that back then they built things to last: the station-panel bulb, though weak, still worked. The rest did not; the valves must have been shot. I knew that somewhere, perhaps in Milan, I could find one of those enthusiasts who are able to refurbish these receivers, because they have warehouses of old parts, like the mechanics who put cars of that period back together using the good bits of junked cars. Then I imagined what an old electrician full of good common sense might tell me: "I don’t want to steal your money. Look, if I get it working again for you, you won’t hear what they broadcast back in those days, you’ll hear what they broadcast today, and so you’re better off buying a new radio, and it’ll cost you less than fixing this one." A clever man. I was playing a losing game. A radio is not an antique book, which you can open and discover what people thought, said, and printed five hundred years ago. That radio would have subjected me, with all its crackling, to horrendous rock music or whatever they call it these days. Like pretending to feel again the fizzy touch of vichy water on your taste buds as you drink a bottle of San Pellegrino just purchased from the supermarket. That broken box in the attic promised me sounds that have been forever lost. If only I could bring them back, like the frozen words of Pantagruel… But although my brain’s memory could conceivably return someday, the memory that consisted of Hertzian waves was now irrecoverable. Solara was of no help when it came to sounds other than the deafening noise of its silences.
But I still had the illuminated panel with the names of the stations-in yellow for medium-wave, red for shortwave, green for long-wave-names that must have mesmerized me as I moved the station indicator in search of unfamiliar sounds from magical cities like Stuttgart, Hilversum, Riga, Tallinn. Names I had never heard before, which I may have associated with Makedonia, Turkish Atika, Virginia, El Kalif, and Stambul. Had I daydreamed more over atlases, or more over that list of stations and their whispers? But there were also domestic names like Milan and Bolzano. I began humming:
When her radio broadcasts from Turin, it means: I’ll wait for you down by the Po, but if she suddenly changes the station, it means: Be careful, my mother is home. Radio Bologna means: I am dreaming about you, Radio Milan means: You feel so far away, Radio Igea, I feel like I’m dying without you, Radio San Remo, I’ll see you later today…
The names of the cities were once again words that called to mind other words.
By the look of it, the radio dated from the thirties. Radios must have been quite expensive at that time, and no doubt it entered the family only at a certain point, as a status symbol.
I wanted to figure out what people did with radios during the thirties and forties. I called Gianni again.
The first thing he said was that I should pay him by the job, since I was using him like a diver to bring submerged amphorae up to the surface. But then he added, with some emotion in his voice, "Ah, the radio… We didn’t get one until around 1938. They were expensive; my father was an office worker, but unlike yours he worked for a small company and didn’t make much. Your family went on vacation in the summer, and we stayed in the city, visited the public gardens in the evenings to enjoy the cool air, and had gelato once a week. My father was not a talkative man. That day he came home, sat down at the table, ate dinner in silence, and afterward took out a bag of pastries. Why, it isn’t Sunday? my mother asked. And he: Just because, I felt like it. We ate the pastries and then, scratching his head, he said: Mara, apparently things have been going well the past few months, and today the boss gave me a thousand lire. My mother nearly had a stroke, she brought her hands up to her mouth and screamed: Oh Francesco, now we can buy a radio! Just like that. A popular song of the time was called ‘If I Could Make a Thousand Lire a Month.’ It was the song of a humble office worker who dreamed of making a thousand lire a month, so he could buy lots of things for his pretty young wife. A thousand lire must have been the equivalent of a good month’s salary, maybe it was more than my father made, and in any case it was like a Christmas bonus no one was expecting. That’s how the radio came into our house. Let me think-it was a Phonola. Once a week there was the Martini and Rossi opera concert, on some other day there was a play. Ah, Tallinn and Riga, I wish they were still on the radio I’ve got now-it just has numbers… And then during the war the only heated room was the kitchen, so we moved the radio there, and in the evenings, with the volume turned way down, otherwise they’d have thrown us in jail, we’d listen to Radio London. Shut up in our house with the windows covered with light blue paper, the kind sugar came in, for the blackout. And the songs! When you come back, I’ll sing them all to you if you want, even the Fascist anthems. You know, I’m not a nostalgic man, but now and then I get the urge to hear those Fascist anthems; they remind me how it felt to be sitting by the radio in the evening… What did the ad say? Radio, the voice that enchants."
I asked him to stop. True, I was the one who had prompted him, but now he was polluting my tabula rasa with his memories. I needed to relive those evenings by myself. Things would have been different for me: he had a Phonola, and I had a Telefunken, and besides, maybe he tuned in to Riga and I to Tallinn. But could we really pick up Tallinn, and did we then listen to people speaking Estonian?
I went downstairs to eat and, in spite of Gratarolo, to drink, but only to forget. I of all people. But I had to forget the upheavals of the past week, had to bring on the desire to sleep in the afternoon shadows, stretched out in bed with The Tigers of Mompracem, which may once have kept me awake into the small hours, but which the past two evenings had proved blessedly soporific.
But between a forkful for myself and a scrap for Mat`u, I had a simple but enlightening thought: the radio transmits whatever is on the airwaves now, but the gramophone allows you to hear what was on the records of the past. They are the frozen words of Pantagruel. To feel what it was like to listen to the radio fifty years ago, I needed records.
"Records?" Amalia muttered. "Keep your mind on your food, why don’t you, instead of records, or this good stuff will go down wrong and turn toxic and then you’ll need a doctor! Records, records, records… Jumping Jehoshaphat, they’re not in the attic at all! When your aunt and uncle put everything away, I helped, and… hang on here… I thought to myself that them records in the study, if I was to carry them all up to the attic I’d drop them and they’d go to pieces on the stairs. And so I put them… I put them… I’m sorry, you know it’s not that my memory doesn’t work anymore, which at my age I could be forgiven that, but it’s been more than fifty years, and it’s not like I’ve been sitting here all that time thinking about them records. But that’s it, what a noggin! I bet I stuck them in the settle outside your dear grandfather’s study!"
I skipped the fruit and went upstairs to find the settle. I had paid little attention to it in the course of my first visit, but I opened it and there they were, one on top of the other, all of them good old 78s in their protective sleeves. Amalia had set them down in no particular order, and there were all kinds of things. I spent half an hour transporting them onto the desk in the study, then began to put them in some kind of order on the shelves. My grandfather must have been a lover of good music: Mozart was there, and Beethoven, opera arias (even a Caruso), and a lot of Chopin, but also a fair share of popular songs.
I looked at the old Radiocorriere: Gianni was right, the listings included a weekly opera program, plays, the occasional symphonic concert, the Radio News, and the rest was light music, or melodic music, as they called it then.
I had to listen to the songs again, then; they must have been the sonic furnishings of my childhood. Perhaps my grandfather had sat in his study listening to Wagner while the rest of the family listened to those pop songs on the radio.
I immediately picked out "If I Could Make a Thousand Lire a Month," by Innocenzi and Soprani. My grandfather had written dates on many of the jackets: whether these represented the year each song had come out or the year he had acquired it I was not sure, but the dates gave me a rough sense of when the songs were being played on the radio. In this case, the year was 1938. Gianni had remembered well; the song had come out around the time his family purchased their Phonola.
I turned the record player on. It still worked: the speaker was no prodigy, but perhaps it was proper that everything crackled as it once had. And so it was that, with the radio panel illuminated, as if broadcasting, and the record player spinning, I listened to a transmission from the summer of 1938:
If I could make a thousand lire a month,
it wouldn’t be a lie to say that it would buy
all the joy a man could want.
I’m just an office man, I don’t aim too grand,
and if I keep on trying, maybe I can find
all the peace a man could want.
A nice little house on the edge of the city,
and a little wife too, so young and so pretty
and so very much like you.
If I could make a thousand lire a month,
I’d buy so many things, such beautiful things,
oh anything you want.
Over the previous few days, I had been trying to imagine the divided self of a boy exposed to messages of national glory while at the same time daydreaming about the fogs of London, where he would encounter Fant^omas battling Sandokan amid a hail of nailshot that ripped holes in the chests and tore off the arms and legs of Sherlock Holmes’s politely perplexed compatriots-and now here I was learning that in those same years the radio had been proposing as an ideal the life of a humble accountant who longed for nothing more than suburban tranquillity. But perhaps that song was an exception.
I had to reorganize the records, by date when possible. I had to retrace year by year the formation of my consciousness through the songs I used to hear.
During my rather frantic reorganization-among a succession of my love my love bring me all your roses, you’re not my baby anymore, oh baby how I love you, there is a chapel love hidden in an apple grove, come back my darling, play just for me o gypsy violin, you divine music, just a single hour with you, little flower in the field, and ciribiribin, and among the orchestral stylings of Cinico Angelini, Pippo Barzizza, Alberto Semprini, and Gorni Kramer, on records labeled Fonit, Carisch, and His Master’s Voice, with the little dog listening with pointed snout to the sounds emanating from the horn of a gramophone-I stumbled across some Fascist anthems, which my grandfather had tied together with string, as if to protect them, or segregate them. Had my grandfather been Fascist, or anti-Fascist, or neither?
I spent the night listening to things that sounded familiar to me, though with some songs only the words came to mind and with others only the melodies. I could not help but know a classic like "Youth of Italy," which must have been the official anthem of every rally, but neither could I overlook the fact that it had probably emanated from my radio in close proximity to "Penguin in Love,’ sung, as the record jacket noted, by the great Trio Lescano.
I felt as if I had known those female voices for ages. The three of them managed to sing in intervals of thirds and sixths, creating an apparent cacophony that was sheer delight to the ear. And while Italy’s boys in the world were teaching me that the greatest privilege was to be Italian, the Lescano sisters sang to me of Dutch tulips.
I decided to go back and forth between anthems and songs, the way they had likely come to me through the radio. I went from the tulips to Balilla’s anthem, and as soon as I put the record on I began singing along, as if reciting from memory. It exalted that courageous youth (a proto-Fascist, since-as every encyclopedia knows-Giovan Battista Perasso, known as Balilla, lived in the eighteenth century) who hurled his stone against the Austrian troops, sparking the revolt of Genoa.
The Fascists must not have disapproved of acts of terrorism, and my version of "Youth of Italy" even included the lines "Now I have Orsini’s bomb / I will sharpen terror’s blade"-I think Orsini was the man who tried to kill Napoleon III.
But as I was listening, night fell, and from the orchard or the hill or the garden came a strong scent of lavender, and other herbs I did not recognize (thyme? basil? I think I was never very good at botany, and after all I was still the guy who, when sent out to buy roses, came home with dog testicles-maybe they were Dutch tulips). I could smell some other flower that Amalia had taught me to recognize: dahlias or zinnias?
Mat`u appeared and began rubbing up against my pant leg, purring.
I had seen a record with a cat on the cover-"Maramao, Why Did You Die?"-and so I put it on in place of Balilla’s anthem and succumbed to its feline threnody.
But did Balilla Boys really sing "Maramao"? Perhaps I should return to the Fascist anthems. It would matter little to Mat`u if I changed songs. I got comfortable, put him on my lap and began scratching his right ear, lit a cigarette, and prepared for full immersion in Balilla’s world.
After I had listened for an hour, my brain was a hodgepodge of heroic phrases, incitements to attack and kill, and oaths of obedience to
II Duce even to the point of ultimate sacrifice. Like Vesta’s fire erupting from her temple our youth goes forth on wings of flame a manly corps of youth with Roman will and might will stand and fight we don’t care a whit about the jails we don’t care a whit about
sad fate the mighty people of the mighty State don’t care a whit when it’s time to die the world knows the Black Shirt never fails we wear it when we fight and when we die for Il Duce and for the Empire eia eia alal`a hail O Emperor King Il Duce gave new law to Earth and to Rome new Empire this is good-bye I’m off to Abyssinia my dear Virginia I’ll see you later I’ll send from Africa a lovely flower that blooms in the sun of the equator Savoy and Nice and deadly Corsica Malta that bulwark of Rome Tunisian shores mountains and sea resound with liberty at home.
Did I want Nice to belong to Italy, or did I want a thousand lire a month, the value of which I did not know? A boy who plays with guns and toy soldiers would rather liberate deadly Corsica than terrorize tulips and love-struck penguins. Still, Balilla aside, had I listened to "Penguin in Love" while reading Captain Satan, and if so, had I imagined penguins in the icy North Seas? And as I followed Around the World in Eighty Days, had I seen Phileas Fogg traversing fields of tulips? And how had I reconciled Rocambole and his hat pin with Giovan Battista Perasso and his stone? "Tulips" was from 1940, the beginning of the war: no doubt I was singing "Youth of Italy" at the same time. Or perhaps I did not read about Captain Satan and Rocambole until 1945, after the war was over and every trace of those Fascist songs had vanished?
It was vital now that I find my old schoolbooks. In them, my true first readings would appear before my eyes, the songs with their dates would let me know what sounds had accompanied what readings, and perhaps I could then clarify the relationship between "We don’t care a whit about sad fate" and the massacres that drew me to The Illustrated Journal of Voyages and Adventures.
Futile to try to impose a few days of truce. The next morning, I had to go back up into the attic. If my grandfather had been methodical, my schoolbooks would be near the crates of children’s books. Unless my aunt and uncle had misplaced everything.
For the time being, I was tired of calls to glory. I looked out the window. The outline of the hills stood dark against the sky, and the moonless night was stitched with stars. Why had that tattered old expression come to mind? It must have come from a song. I was seeing the sky as I had once heard it described by some singer.
I began rummaging among the records and picked out all the ones whose titles evoked the night and some sidereal space. My grandfather’s record player was the kind that allowed you to stack several records, one on top of the other, so that as soon as one finished another would fall onto the turntable. Just as if the radio were singing to me all by itself, without my having to turn any knobs. I started the first record and stood swaying by the window, with the starry sky above me, to the sounds of so much good bad music that something should have woken up inside me.
Tonight the stars are shining by the thousand… One night, with the stars and you… Speak, oh speak in the starlight so clear, whisper sweet words in my ear, under the spell of love… Beneath the Antilles night, with the stars burning bright, there flowed the streaming light of love… Mail`u, under the Singapore sky, its golden stars dreamily high, we fell in love, you and I… Beneath the maze of stars that gazes down on all of this, beneath the craze of stars I want to give your lips a kiss… With you, without, we sing to the stars and the moon, you can’t rule it out, good fortune may come to me soon… Harbor moon, love is sweet if you never learn, Venice the moon and you, you and me all alone in the night, you and me humming a tune … Hungarian sky, melancholy sigh, I’m thinking of you with infinite love… I wander where the sky is always blue, listening to thrushes as they flutter in the bushes, their twittering coming through…
The next record had been put in the stack by mistake, it had nothing to do with the sky, just a sensual voice, like a saxophone in heat, that sang:
Up there at Capocabana, at Capocabana the woman is queen, and she reigns supreme…
I was disturbed by the noise of a distant engine, maybe a car going through the valley. I felt a hint of tachycardia and said to myself: "It’s Pipetto!" As if someone had shown up precisely at the expected moment, someone whose arrival had disturbed me nonetheless. Who was Pipetto? It’s Pipetto, I kept saying, but once again it was just my lips that remembered. Just flatus vocis. I did not know who Pipetto was. Or rather, something in me knew, but that something was simmering slyly in the injured region of my brain.
An excellent topic for My Children’s Library: The Secret of Pipetto. Perhaps it was the Italian adaptation of The Secret of Lantenac?
I racked my brain for the secret of Pipetto, and maybe there was no secret, except the one whispered to the world from a radio late at night.