For Issue 23, the short story Incontrarsi by Giuseppe Pontiggia undergoes revolving translations.
For the first in the series, award-winning contemporary novelist, essayist and critic Zadie Smith translates the story about one man’s rejection of politics, aversion to risk and thwarted desires from the original Italian into English
It’s true: like all mammals it has two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and, somewhere, four limbs.
— J.R.Wilcock, The Book of Monsters
He is born in Empoli on the 30th of April 1931, son of Stefano Buti, holder of a degree in chemistry, and of Concetta Valori, a mathematics teacher at the technical institute.
His father, director of the Osveco firm – it produces thermal valves – has published three literary articles and five rather minor editorials in Livorno’s Telegraph. He often claims to have sacrificed the lettered life for two plus two equals four. He still recalls those Greek and Latin verses of his schooldays, declaiming them with all the sonority of an auctioneer. He asks his son to name their authors, and each time his son denies all knowledge of them. He dedicates the same attention to modern poetry. He is like a spectator in the gallery, always ready to boo or applause, in a manner usually reserved for the efforts of opera singers. For poets, he lies in wait. He has an unbounded admiration for D’Annunzio, whose lyrics he calls ‘sheet music’.
At least once a week he meets with a doctor, Luciano Natalucci – another literature connoisseur – and as they travel together in a Lancia Ardea, toward Pisa or Montecatini, raising a trail of dust along the Broads, pausing to rapturously contemplate the landscape, a subtle competition of citation passes between them – of elaborate, spiralling footnotes and academic dates – all of which render the son (sat behind them, with his mother) irritable and unhappy.
It is from this car trip, during the summer of 1946, that he dates his hatred of culture. Around the same time he begins to cultivate certain circumscribed ideals, making him appear precociously mature to others. His choice of university – excluding the humanities faculties altogether – he bases on the demands of the market. In the Italy of the reconstruction this choice of direction is considered marvellously farsighted. The maxim ‘To keep one’s feet on the ground’ is here elevated to a life principle. Marriage with a woman who has no literary tendencies. Two children, perhaps one male and one female, separated by a few years. The refusal of all political involvement. The diligent practice of gymnastics. To be among the first to make use of the word hobby.
Steadily, he tries to implement his programme. On the 16th of October 1950 he signs up to study in the faculty of agriculture, where the attempt is made to link rural Italy with the Italy of industry. He tells people there will be no shortage of career opportunities in the farmlands of Tuscany and Emilia. He repeats: In no field does he aim for more than he has stated.
The brothels of Florence, Arezzo, and Siena – which he regularly frequents – appear to him like cubicles linked by stairs, cells of a sordid and inexhaustible beehive. In the summer the windows open on to a small internal courtyard, sometimes throwing light upon erotic scenes that give him a sudden feel of languorous weakness in his blood. And every time the miracle happens. In exchange for a piece of paper he climbs the steps behind a woman, assured of imminent pleasure, without complication.
“It’s not at all psychological,” he says. “It’s as if one’s head has been cut off.”
He establishes pleasant relations with the madam and with the escorts who come and go, periodically.
“It works for us,” he says, a phrase dear to him, though it arouses hilarity in his companions. Welcomed even after hours, at dead of night – like a form of loyalty bonus – he brings a reluctant pleasure to halfasleep whores, astonished by his indefatigable commitment. During the busiest hours he tends to choose the one most overlooked by other clients, as she leans in gloomy silence upon one side of the door. He thinks she’ll save her best for him, but sometimes the exact opposite happens, and he doesn’t understand why this should be. His friend Francesco Salani explains it to him, the evening of the 27th of June 1953, in Arezzo, as they leave a smoky room into tepid air, and walk the cobblestones leading downhill, between the high walls of the alley over which the swifts skim: “It’s because they understand who you are.”
At the university he does not aspire to high marks. Asked by Professor Caspani (at the end of an exam on chemical fertilisers) whether he wants to retake to improve his average, he replies that a pass mark is enough. His father, listening with illconcealed discomfort, doesn’t know whether to support or condemn him.
On one occasion saying: “How different you are from me.”
“I know,” his son replies.
Under the guidance of Aldo Faravelli, an elderly gymnastics trainer, he devotes himself to the various apparatus of the Virtus gym.
When he swings, legs together, on the parallel bars and then gives himself a push toward the top, he has the soaring sensation of flying not toward the skylight but straight to the centre of the world. But when he trains with boxing gloves against the bag, mowing down his target with a hail of punches; sweating, panting, continually sinking blows into the leather – it is as if he has finally found his enemy. Until, exhausted, dazed, lifeless, dissatisfied, satisfied, he lays himself down on the wooden bench that runs along the wall.
On the 31st of July 1954, after graduation, he leaves for the Cadets Course of Ascoli Piceno. He will remember his early days as among the most serene of his life. Running, marching, fixed hours, lights out at twentytwohundred hours, wake up at six, days defined by precise pro grams, by unchangeable rules. He is the only one in his platoon to think like this, but this makes him proud.
On the 16th of October 1954, in the sunlit whiteness of the shooting range – standing in the hole of cement, keeping a thumb on the trigger of the Breda machine gun – he sees the target, three hundred meters away, widen and move. Then, instead of taking a few shots, he presses until the magazine is empty: a deafening noise that echoes round the walled space.
“You got him!” yells a gravelly voice from on high. Emerging from the trench, a kick to the helmet dazes him.
He asks for and receives an eye test and a sudden decline is noted – like attenuating circumstances – in his ability to see. Just two diopters. Escaping a reprimand, his punishment arrives eleven days later, while recovering in an infirmary from a state of acute asthenia following the refusal of food. Anorexia, with an origin in depression, is the diagnosis. It is decided he will be transferred to the military hospital in San Giorgio. Two days of intravenous feeding, then a gradual assumption of food, first liquids, then solids. And a talk with the army chaplain, Don Cerioni. To the chaplain he confesses that the discovery of a physical imperfection has thrown him into despair. The chaplain, stupefied, asks:
“For two diopters?”
No, he says, it’s not because of the diopters. I don’t know how to explain it. I never believed that the body could betray one like this. The mind doesn’t interest me, but the body is everything.
“This is the real sickness,” says Don Cerioni.
He gets up out of bed and walks in his pajamas on shiny tiles. Sometimes he walks in the courtyard, under the trees, along windows that repeat like the battlements of a fortress. At twilight, when the noises from afar weaken and disperse in the clear air, it feels like the courtyard has become a prison.
“It is your head that is a prison,” says Don Cerioni.
And when he confesses to the chaplain that his mistrust of the world has only grown, the other man responds, laughing, that he has exchanged the world for himself and this is the reason for his mistrust. He decides not to confess anything more to the chaplain.
Discharged on the 6th of February 1956, three months later he is employed by the livestock holding Diulio Vallegani, in Piacentino, breeders of milking cows. He discovers that despite their apparent fixity cows are in fact mobile and curious, and that Gianluca Vizzini, their guard, recognises – and knows the names of – all one hundred and ninety-nine of them.
He erects a hill of earth in the immense pen, around which the cows lazily move, or, in the closeness of the afternoon, lay themselves down and rest like an industrial nativity scene. On the 2nd of July 1957, as a hot smell radiates from the herd, he leans on a fence and watches them for a long time. Then he says to Vizzini (who is shovelling dung at the foot of the little hill):
“They’re better than us.”
With clear admiration he observes the sexual performance of Timoteo, a black bull on loan from a Canadian stud farm.
“It’s lucky that the cow is fake,” he comments, while the animal – eyes dilated, bright, enormous – copulates with an iron outline, covered by a black caparison. Ultimately all they needed to collect the sperm was that outline.
“In the end we’re technological animals,” he says, eyes shining.
On the 18th of September 1959 he turns to Florence, to Via della Scala, to the matrimonial agency ‘Meetings’. Doctor Amelia Ristori, the director, is politely amazed by his youth. Might she be permitted to ask him – she adds with one flowing movement, while extracting a drawer from the filing cabinet – whether he has female acquaintances among his peers?
“Yes,” he replies.
“A nice looking boy like you,” she continues, “and there’s no one you’re interested in?”
I don’t have a lot of faith, he says. He would like to make clear at the beginning the boundaries of any relationship, to avoid any future surprises. He fears they want to marry him to get ahead. She listens to him in silence, under a colour print of The Kiss by Hayez. He would prefer a relationship founded on reciprocal interests. For example: a girl with the necessary moral and intellectual gifts, living in an uncomfortable situation, who is looking for an equally gifted husband to make good her escape.
“But what’s in it for the husband?”
“Gratitude, I suppose.”
She begins to transcribe the personal data on a card. In which papers do you want to make the announcement? Regional or national? Regional. He asks her: “Do you think there will be any responses?”
When he exits at sunset onto a lively street, he comes out onto the piazza Santa Maria Novella and sees a group of girls laughing under the arcades. He has a strange feeling as he watches them, thinking that it could be one of them, but that could never be – then he sees, surfacing in the air, like a sheet of newspaper, a melancholic face looking at him. He has the sense – quietly despairing, and without knowing why – of not having any other choice.
All autumn to sift through the letters and to visit gloomy families, in which the women undergo endless persecutions, hateful silences, and incest, and where to live is to scream, to cry, to serve, to rebel. Sad appeals, hiding behind the smiles in the photographs (in the background of grassy slopes, through ports crowded with masts). Some phone contact, halfway between embarrassment and malice; farewells that in their very cordiality reveal that they are, in fact, concealed renunciations. There were also painful requests for money, and coarse offers of clandestine meetings intended to triumph over – as Adele C from Grosseto put it – shyness. Two meetings in minor train stations, under the awnings of open-air cafes, including signs to recognise each other by – which their mutual hesitations soon rendered superfluous. He listens, watches, hardly speaks, takes part, judges. He thinks that he judged in the brothel, too; the suspicious and greedy eye of those who buy animals. But here the question concerned a choice for life.
Often there are glaring differences between the photographs and the person – sometimes a difference of ten years – with metamorphoses of the body that leave them difficult to even recognise.
On the 3rd of October 1961 he has the intuitive feeling of having met, in Piazza del Campo a Siena, the woman who would be his. Three letters had been exchanged and the precise articulation of a few points. Age: twenty-four. Education: secondary-school diploma in science. Occupation: mother’s help. Her charges were her father’s two children – he had been widowed when he was forty-two, and had taken a second wife, the checkout girl in a sporting goods shop. She had a difficult relationship with both her father and her mother-in-law. She didn’t want to take a university course or work outside the house. Her calling, as she specified in her second letter, is to be a housewife for a man like her.
She is small, brunette, plump, with a fringe that lends her the air of an Egyptian baby. She says she knows what he wants. It’s her. She has a shy forwardness about her, an immediate irony that was not clear in the letters. Too much initiative – perhaps a difficult personality.
In his mind, he begins to give her up. He confesses that he is a little cowardly.
“Like many men,” she says.
“But I have the courage to say it.”
“Only so you can be more cowardly.”
She’s right. He has already given her up.
To follow another path: a thirty-year old from Perugia, Carla Salviati. In the first telephone dates she speaks slowly, a restful conversation, almost hypnotic. A serene sort of desolation, which reminds him of a landscape he has never seen, that of the tundra, though he studied it in Nangeroni’s Geography: lichen, puddles of water reflecting a grey sky, solitude as far as the eye could see. Unusual style of life. Continuity, resignation, circular horizons, impossible to escape. One of her favourite expressions: “He has his head on his shoulders.”
Her physical appearance doesn’t disappoint. Her size she described in a letter as being small and strong, which he had translated as short and fat, but instead she is only a little inflated in the breast, in the arms, and – as far as one can make out – the legs. Her physique suggests weakness, patience, availability. She laughs with a ripe indulgence that contrasts with her childlike freshness. This peculiarity makes him curious.
They discover in their following meetings a comforting convergence of aims: a peaceful life, with no time-wasting – neither political distractions, nor the social whirl – and above all, free of snobbish cultural aspirations. As the sun sets on the 3rd of April 1962, on the Field of Miracles in Pisa, he says to her:
“The only thing you can do is limit your illusions.”
They marry on the 19th of June 1963 in the church of San Frediano in Lucca. Only the witnesses, no relatives, no social whirl. He has the moral support of Francesco Salani, the one friend to whom he had confessed the secret of how they met, and who has said to him (while insisting on the need for sincerity): “The difficulty will come afterward, when you take off the masks.”
But the difficulty hasn’t arrived yet, he tells Salani, three months later, as they climb the stairs of the football stadium in Florence. Maybe because – he smiles – they haven’t taken off the mask. Or maybe because – insinuates his friend – they have become two masks.
Every night they watch the television and choose the same programmes by mutual consent – usually soap operas. They enjoy Carosello, too. No cultural programmes. On that breed of boredom they are in perfect agreement.
She doesn’t mind if he goes to hunt in Maremma with Salani. Or if he goes to see the Empoli matches or to a game of Fiorentina. He goes with her to buy stuff for the house, but primarily to browse. He has discovered that she is thrifty and loves to daydream about the things she failed to get. Division of labour? No. Solidarity. Maybe affection.
And in bed? asks Salani, eyes suddenly suggestive. It’s the testing ground of every couple. It’s not bad, his friend answers. It’s not bad? No, he replies, it’s not bad. She didn’t have experience, but she wasn’t slow to learn. Certainly she lacks the mastery of the kind of women he’s been having all these years. But she hasn’t betrayed him, and nor will she. Everyone should do it like this.
“Speaking seriously really brings out the worst in you,” says Salani.
Nor does she have regrets. He’s not sure she draws pleasure from intercourse – Salani listens to this impassively – but pleasure there surely is. At first it’s a muffled pleasure like the rumble of a storm, then a sudden jolt like an earthquake, and finally irrepressible like a tsunami, with cyclical waves pushing out and long shudders on the way back in. However, she says nothing, not before or after.
“That you should orgasm doesn’t surprise me,” says Salani, “if only because, if you didn’t, what would be left?”
“Look, love can be an obstacle,” he replies. “If one wants it too much, one wants everything, one is upset for nothing. But without love, what are two people doing in a bed?”
“But I love her,” he said.
Two children, just as he had imagined as a boy: Pietro, born on the 7th of January 1965, and Marta, born on the 22nd of November 1966. Life is planning, he smiles, stroking the new mother as he takes her back home in the car, through snowy scenes. The baby doesn’t cry.
When he is accepted into the Circle of the Hunt, on the evening of the 6th of May 1989, on a convivial Tuesday at the Grandluca Hotel, he introduces himself reading from a card and, as the eyes of everyone at the table turn to him, finishes thusly: “I have never had any ambitions larger than my capabilities. I have a united family, and my children have graduated and married. My wife and I” – pointing to her at his right – “Have a wonderful relationship. I have learned over the years to appreciate her, and she has never disappointed me. I have reached my fifty-eighth year without any serious illnesses. I still engage in sports, above all gymnastics, and I participate with distinction in competitions for seniors. And this only confirms what the Latins used to say: Mens sana in corpore sano.”
He bows to the unanimous applause of his fellow members. He has never before this moment said aloud this phrase so beloved by his father. He is slightly moved. His wife squeezes his hand.
On the 16th of November 1996 the cardiologist Frederico Traglia, of Arezzo, advises him against continuing with his sporting activities. It’s not anything too grave, but some caution is necessary.
In the farmhouse that he has restored on the peak of a hill in Senese, he sees the sun set in vaporous waves. He has filled a shelf with academic texts that his father had intended for a country house and it happens that he now reads the fairytales of Fedro with Chiarini’s simultaneous translation. What truth! Maybe it had been the shadow of his father that had kept him so far from the classics. Anyway, now it is late.
He dies on the 3rd of March 2005 in front of the television, watching the recording of an educational game in which he had taken part, as an expert in agriculture, forty years earlier: ‘Who Knows Who Knows It?’