Translated from the Italian by Pina Piccolo
Now what is popping up in my mind is the vision of a funeral on its way to
the cemetery, headed by a carriage with black decorations pulled by two horses.
A modern hero – Gianni Celati
At home we used to call her the epileptic, because one day, together with my cousin Kurg, we saw her lying on the ground at the entrance to my uncle Rocco’s newsstand in Grand Bourg, struggling like a fish in an empty bucket. She was kicking and making strange noises, like a nocturnal animal, and when a creamy, white drool started coming out of her mouth – the result of some inner suffering- Kurg and I were convinced that the devil had entered her body and possessed her. Certainly, we thought, it would take an exorcist to prevent her from turning into some kind of monster. Instead, another woman from the neighborhood, oblivious to her foaming at the mouth, intervened. She took her tongue, pulled it out and placed a wet handkerchief over her forehead to help stop the seizures.
We were about twelve years old then, and after that we always avoided her when we ran into her on the street. We also avoided her husband, who was a tall and thin gentleman, with one leg shorter than the other. We did so because, among other things, this man sneaked around my uncle’s newsstand to steal the pornographic magazines kept on a shelf dedicated to such publications. So, we avoided anyone who had dealings with the epileptic or her lame husband. Perhaps she knew or figured it out, because whenever she saw us she was a little standoffish and looked at us with obvious contempt. Anyway, for us the epileptic was possessed (and her husband, a porno kleptomaniac), even when she wandered quietly around the neighborhood, next to the lame man whose lanky frame rose and fell with every step. And in all likelihood, in her eyes, we too, that is Kurg and I, were nothing else but two possessed, hateful kids.
One day we found her at home sipping mate with my mother and my aunt, in a neighborhood not far from Grand Bourg. She, the epileptic , looked at us with a sly smile, as if to say: “I’m here, I came to spit all the foam in my body on the walls of this house, try to send me away, you damn brats”. When my mother stepped into the kitchen, I took her aside and said:
“Are you crazy? how come you are sipping mate with that woman? I told you she had all that white foam in her mouth, and now you drink from the same mouthpiece on the bombilla ? How could that thought even cross your mind? “
My mother looked at me in horror, more frightened by my words than by the possibility that the woman might fall prey to convulsions.
“What are you saying? Shut up! She came to have a dress shortened ”.
“So, do you really have to sip where she put her mouth?”
“Why don’t you just shut up”.
My mother had certainly not understood the seriousness of her action and when I reminded her, among other things, that the epileptic’s husband was a porno klepto, she replied that it was none of her business if the lame guy pilfered things.
“Ah, well,” I told her, “that’s just fine, then. The guy pilfers dirty magazines from your brother-in-law’s newsstand and you just ignore it, as if nothing happened … “
She didn’t even let me finish my sentence, went back to the room where the epileptic was and they resumed sipping their mate together.
A year later, the epileptic was crushed by a truck on Via El Callao, also in Grand Bourg. She was struck by a seizure and ended up on the road. No one, not even the driver, could explain how it happened. After the accident, every week, her kleptomaniac husband would leave a sprig of flowers by the side of the road where his wife had died. He also placed a plaque with her name and date of the accident: Alicia Guzmán, November 10, 1975 .
She wields a stick and acts as if she’s about
to chase them, then resumes her running.
Lautréamont – The songs of Maldoror
Nobody knew her name, but the elders of San Miguel had no doubts that the woman who lived on the street and terrorized people with stones or sticks in her hand was indeed Elsa Cicirelli, known as Maria la Pazza (Mary the Crazed), as they called her in the neighborhood. She had hair that looked like spider legs, stunk so badly you could smell her over a mile away, and looked at people with such creepy hatred, as if seeking revenge. She always wore dark rags that she never changed and whenever school was out she would lurk in a street corner and throw stones at anyone who came within range. If she felt the urge to shit, she would crouch in the middle of the street and do it right there as if nothing out the ordinary had transpired. Some of the town elders say that her father was a street vendor selling fruit near the old cemetery, between San Miguel and José C. Paz. He used to live in via Letonia, in a house with two windows on the front. They say she was a very beautiful girl who ran away from home one day. She had then worked in a cabaret, had been the mistress of a bandoneonist who drove her to madness and then left her. She then went to work abroad and married a doctor, had a daughter who died as a child, and no one knows what the cause was. She returned to her old neighborhood and bought some land, but no one could figure out how she managed to do it. She would always sing a song from the thirties, Marta, by Cuban composer Moisés Simons, and insisted that everybody call her Marta, because she had, supposedly, composed it. Few people remember her and no one knows why she started living on the street or why she got into the habit of attacking people. Her fall from grace just happened like that, without explanation, and it had been a while since she enjoyed torturing people in the street with sticks and stones. All she had left to her name was sort of a dump on a plot of land in Via Muñoz where she retired to at night. During the day she would eat in a love hotel, the Rodaro, when the cleaning staff had their lunch break. At other times, she would knock on a neighbors’ door unannounced, or press her finger on the doorbell until someone opened and she would demand something:
“Come on Elvira, you filthy old lady,” Mad Maria would say, “why don’t offer me something? Don’t be a bastard, come on, you motherfucker!”
“Stop insulting me, Elsa, or else I won’t give you anything. What is it you want today?”
“Some mate and biscuits, give me some mate with biscuits, I’m not asking you for the moon.”
Then dona Elvira would take a box of biscuits and give it to her, along with a jar of yerba mate and she, Mad Maria, would shut herself up in her hovel and eat it in silence.
One evening, I was at the bar in the San Miguel station; there were a few customers at the counter getting drinks when in walks Maria la Pazza, fixes her eyes on me and then plops right in front of me. She had a stone in her hand. I stood still staring at my glass of wine and did not turn around. She approached me and unleashing her pestilential breath over me said: “Sooner or later I’ll kill you, you can be sure of that!” Then she touched my temple with the stone and left.
In recent years she took to walking around with a black dog. She took it wherever she went and the little dog was forever chasing after her. Any time she attacked someone with a stick, the little dog would reinforce her by barking or baring her fangs. Mad Maria’s death caused quite a stir in the area. She was nowhere to be seen and a strange stench started emanating from her hovel. The day the neighbors decided to force the door open, they found her lying on the ground with her whole face eaten by the dog, who kept on licking and biting off her skin. Those who saw her that day still remember her, completely disfigured, with no nose and no lips.
His name was Maciccia, or that was what some of the kids had nicknamed him. He lived on a street opposite the railway, once called Pacifico and now Ramón Landín, in the Santos Lugares neighborhood, in an old house that had number, but actually was around three thousand something, near Beazley Street. He was a sick, elderly gentleman, with a shaved head and no teeth. Rumor had it that he had once been a bolero singer, now fallen from grace. He always wore a long tunic that might once have been white and his sandals were always untied. In the eight years I lived in that neighborhood, I never saw him go beyond the threshold of his house, at most he would look out from the entrance and carefully step out on the sidewalk, walking slowly, taking short steps. He lived with his wife, an equally shabby old woman, and a dozen small, mangy dogs full of lice that were also known to never come outside, they too looking as shabby. Neither Maciccia nor his wife had children or relatives. There was also another elderly man in that house who came in and out with shopping bags. If there ever was a place in the neighborhood that we kids found disquieting, it would be Maciccia’s house. That was, perhaps, because whatever went on in there was beyond our wildest imagination: two or three crazy old people who didn’t talk to anyone and all those dogs barking from morning til night. At first, I remember, we had started knocking on the door and then running away, before old Maciccia opened it and would let out that pack of dogs which, aided by the daylight, would start chasing us along the road. Later, in order to prevent the dogs from getting to us when he opened the door, we began picking up the stones from the railroad tracks and throwing them against his door from a safe distance. We stood in front of the door aiming at that target. I don’t know why we did it and why the life of those poor old people elicited such behavior. It was a time that we spent hours around the railroad and the area beyond it, where there was a kind of cemetery for retired train wagons. One of our favorite games was to bet on who could lay stretched across the tracks the longest without being hit by a train. I think I didn’t last long in that position, whenever the locomotive came within about fifty meters I would jump away from my post in a hurry. But then there were others, more courageous and reckless ones, who only moved when the locomotive was almost on top of them and we would shout: “Get off, get off!” The train engineer would scream too, while blaring his horn to the max; then he would wave an arm out of the window and swear at us and our stupid games. There was no prize, except for the admiration doled out by the other boys who complimented the most daring. It was a great test of endurance and valor. Whereas throwing stones at Maciccia’s door was just a way to pass the time or escape boredom. We were amused to see the poor old woman go out with all those furious dogs and swear at us, threatening us with a raised stick. Old Maciccia would never respond to our provocations, only his wife screamed at us from the threshold, he wasn’t up to it.
After I left that neighborhood, every now and then I would pass in front of Maciccia’s house while riding the train. When the facade came into view from the compartment window, I felt a pang of sadness in the pit of my stomach. I wished I could get off at the station and knock on that door without running away. I wished I could ask those old people anything at all; it would have been enough for me to see them and know they were still there. But I never did it and I don’t even know if anyone remembers them or if any of my peers, scattered around the world, remember anything beyond throwing those stones. To this day, the house has remained the same as it was in all those years, only now it is closed and abandoned. I don’t know how those old people and all those dogs died, I don’t even know if anyone noticed their disappearance. Sometimes, in my travels, I return to those places and the train goes by Maciccia’s house. When it does, I like to think that the old people and the dogs are still living there, waiting for some kid to come knocking on their door, even if only with a stone.
The last time I saw Cambalache I was about eight or nine. He had come to my house to play, even though he was three or four years older than me, when I lived on Beazley Street in Santos Lugares. I remember him to be tall, with a massive build and lots of black hair on his head. He had a lot of trouble moving and no matter how hard I pushed him, he couldn’t run in the backyard. He was especially attracted to my parrot. I still remember his twitchy smile as the bird landed on his shoulder and repeated what he heard.
“He is my friend Cambalache. Come on Pedrito, say Cambalache, Cambalache, Cambalache”.
Then Pedrito, as my parrot was named, changed his eye color, ruffled his feathers a bit and repeated: “Cambalache, Cambalache”.
After we had out snack, the boy limped back home. He lived on a corner house on the same street as mine. I don’t know why we called him Cambalache, like the song, I don’t think I ever knew his real name, maybe Antonio, but I wouldn’t swear to that. I don’t think I ever saw him again after that day he came to visit me. It seems that Cambalache stopped going out and spent his time in bed in a dark room, without even opening the windows. I don’t know if he had parents, if he had them I never saw them or I don’t remember them. He lived with an elderly grandfather, of this I am sure, his name was Don Díaz. Among us boys from the neighborhood, we never talked about Cambalache, but everyone knew that he was there behind one of those windows overlooking Via Beazley. He was there with his strange hypertrophy condition that was paralyzing him day after day. I can’t explain why I never asked Don Díaz if I could visit his grandson, and yet, every time I would see him I greeted him respectfully and say in sing-song: “Buen día Don Díaz”, expecting the old man himself to tell me something. This inability of mine to ask questions, due to an excess of discretion, has caused me over time to be surrounded by empty spaces that can never be filled with answers. Rumor had it that Cambalache sometimes went to a medical institution for treatment, then returned and holed up again in his room in that house. I don’t know when the boy died. I remember that on the last day of school, which we customarily celebrated in the full spirit of fun, I was returning home with my leather satchel and my white smock all marked up my classmates’ signatures. When I arrived at the corner of Beazley, as I crossed the sidewalk, I stopped in front of one of Cambalache’s windows to see if I could detect any noise. Since I didn’t hear anything, I got closer and just knocked, asking: “Cambalache, are you there?”
After a while I heard his voice seemingly coming from afar: “Yes, I am here”.
“School is over today”.
“I know,” he replied.
“I’ll be off until March. And what about you? How are you doing?” I asked, pulling that question out of I don’t know where. But Cambalache didn’t answer me right away. Only after a few minutes, understanding that I was still there, he said with great difficulty, enunciating in just a few words words enough information to provide me with an answer for something he surely could not expand upon: “Tomorrow I am going to the institution”. These few words were enough for me to understand that he was about to leave and that maybe I would never see him again.
From that day Cambalache disappeared from my life and that of all my friends. Even many years later, whenever I passed by that shut window, I slowed down, lowered my voice and looked at it remembering the twitchy smile on that atrophied boy’s face, and his shoulder where my parrot Pedrito had landed one day.
Translator's Note - Letter to the elderly writer stretched out on a striped beach chair in Brighton
I picture the recipient of this letter to be an elderly Italian man (84 years old to be exact) with a lean and angular face, endowed with an understated elegance, wearing jeans and a striped shirt, stretched out on a beach chair in Brighton attempting to sun his creaky joints. As he sits there observing the seagulls and measuring the trajectory of their flight with his gaze, he exchanges a few words of commentary with his wife, sitting next to him in a matching striped chair. His thoughts at first turns to them as a ‘foodie’ tribe visiting this beach with an opportunistic agenda. But, on second thought, the writer, an expert at sniffing out non-places, is intrigued by what they may actually be seeking, as he is thoroughly aware that those sands have preserved a high degree of distinctiveness compared to other beaches, particularly those in the Romagna Riviera he used to tread on as a young man, before their Disneyfication. Be that as it may, he is currently reveling in these sands of Brighton and their reflecting warmth in the hopes to get some benefit for his weary bones. He then muses that it was this very sandy beach that incessantly beckoned his English wife and that she finally managed to put a halt to their planet-wide wandering and return to them. In those earlier days of constant motion, she was a creaturely presence (creaturale as Celati would have it) and companiably striding along at his side, giving her critical opinion as they walked and philosophized. But now, here they are, both stretched out on their beach chairs.
By now Gianni Celati’s fans may have identified the elusive writer that is the object of this attempt at a ‘portrait of the artist of an old man’. I am sure that their portraits do not in the least match mine, as each one of us has their own private Gianni Celati, and unsurprisingly so because the writer himself has, over the decades, cultivated ideas about multiple imaginaries, appearances and substance.
After so many years of his books lying dormant in my consciousness, I caught a whiff of their second life shining through Adrian Bravi’s “Four Stories on Growing Sad” which are introduced by a Gianni Celati quote in the epigraph. This literary madeleine took me back to 35 years ago, when I was still in academia and working precisely on “Quattro novelle sulle apparenze” (“Four Novellas on Appearances”) which inspired Bravi’s shorter stories.
My essay was titled “Celati’s Quattro Novelle: on Vacillation and Suspension” and explored how the portrayal of difficult, impeded movement – vacillation and suspension-, whether it be in the motion of the protagonists or in the conditions of light in the Po valley, were used by Celati to reveal the philosophical underpinnings of the estranging situations his characters were experiencing. Behind appearances there are only other appearances, seemed to be his conclusion, as a varied cast of characters discovered after much meandering and aimless wandering.
Adrian Bravi’s four short stories are instead teeming with a more homogeneous chorus of protagonists – gangs of children inhabiting poor neighborhoods in a small town in Argentina. The glue that holds together their esprit de corps is a childlike imaginative misreading of and sometimes contempt for the adult world, which leads them to exercise their power as a group by tormenting or further excluding marginalized people in their community. The ‘growing sad’ part of the stories increasingly relates to a later time, it involves the adult eye of a narrator looking back on those years, realizing the psychological cruelty they inflicted and wishing it could have been avoided and amends made. But as we all know, time marches on inexorably and our actions cannot be undone. Consciousness of this unbridgeable gap unleashes a certain melancholy tone in Adrian Bravi’s writing that is absent in Celati’s story where the temporal dimension generally remains on the present plane.
The four sketches painted by Bravi are very engaging tales recording how the memory of estranging characters or situations experienced as a child trigger differing degree the psychological movement towards sadness (the saddening process evoked in the title) in the narrator (sometimes still a child, sometimes a reminiscing adult). In The epileptic, the first tale and the one in which the narrator’s voice is exclusively that of a child, it is the marginalized character that becomes the victim of mechanized movement as she is crushed by a car after falling in the street. The narrating child, who has been particularly vicious in his perception and treatment of the sick woman, moves only indirectly towards acknowledging sadness or remorse: shifting from dogged persecutory tone when either husband or wife are mentioned, his relenting judgement is marked by his description of her demise in more neutral terms followed by the devoted husband’s honoring her by weekly making a little shrine on the side of the road. A sort of suspension of judgement, not yet the empathy we’ll witness progressively with the unfolding of the stories.
In Mad Mary it is the estranging character herself who is the vector of movement, both in the older townfolks’ choral description of the many travels and changes she underwent in her life, and towards the end in the ‘match of wits’ episode when she approaches the narrator sitting at a bar counter. Having emerged unscathed from that encounter, due to his ability to stay still, he records Mad Mary’s incessant wanderings accompanied by a dog, as they hunt together for people to accost. Again, the narrator’s sadness is not explicitly stated, but a certain pietas could be intuited in the detailed report of Mad Mary’s gory death.
In a crescendo of empathy, in Maciccia, the third story, the adult narrator’s sadness is explicitly declared as mediated through memory. In this tale, at the start, the aimless movement is that of a gang of children bent on playing pranks on the sedentary household of marginalized old people, ringing the bell or throwing rocks to put a halt to their stationary state. A sort of hide and seek between stillness and movement is thus featured both in the games children play on the train tracks, and in their attempts to elicit movement from the old sedentary people. The reminiscing older narrator passing by the Maciccia’s house many years later while riding a train, explicitly recounts his sadness and remorse, a deep felt wish he could change the script.
In the final story, Cambalache, the difficulty of movement is evoked in the stricken child’s mobility problems which sets him apart from the community of children. The narrator and the rest of children are bent on avoiding interaction with him, but sadness and latent remorse lead the narrating boy to walk by the bedridden boy’s window seeking communication. There, an interactive, diffuse sadness strikes both of them and becomes an impediment to the interaction. The narrator’s sadness felt initially as a child is explicitly stated as regretful memory many years later reinforces it. The closing paragraph describes the coming together of sadness and motion: “Even many years later, whenever I passed by that shut window, I slowed down, lowered my voice and looked at it remembering the twitchy smile on that atrophied boy’s face, and his shoulder where my parrot Pedrito had landed one day.”
What was particularly inspiring to me in first reading the stories and then translating them is that the process itself restored my faith in the power of the craft of writing. In a day and age when commercial parameters have shamelessly taken over the trade, resulting in readers being submerged by trendy entertainment products, celebrity culture and the like, I find it reassuring that something meaningful and profound can be said without scaring readers away. A writer CAN engage in deeply textured writing, couched sometimes in deceptively simple and ordinary language and structure, encapsulating in fact deep, critical, challenging content stemming from a variety of experiences of the human condition. And all of this, in spite of the speed and ubiquity of technological advance, the strengthening of the neo-liberal capitalist hold, and deepening alienation experienced by society. The efficacy of dense, layered, philosophical writing which challenges us readers at an epistemological level, such as the kind of writing Gianni Celati has gifted us over the years, can and does still continue to slow release over the decades. Indeed, it inspires new writers (and translators!) who pick up where the first, aging writer left. Well done Gianni Celati and Adrian Bravi! You both deserve your hypothetical day at the beach! (and maybe even the translator can join you, if she has done a decent job….)