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Two Old Friends by Luca Sartori
That afternoon would be like many others, I predicted to myself, boring and inconclusive, one of those common and senseless afternoons in which I loved to sink. I was thinking about it with all my might, for I could not make out my thoughts clearly. I was looking for some ideas for a new novel and was trying to fix these ideas before they vanished into thin air, as well as I was endeavouring to create connexions among these ideas to make them useful, enjoyable and tangible. But I did not succeed in doing so. The more I longed to succeed, the more I failed to succeed.
I was walking swiftly in the winter greyness and had not a precise destination. I would keep on walking until I would get tired of walking. Everybody was bustling around to buy Christmas presents. Maybe it was because of the cold, or maybe it was because of boredom, that I found myself in a small cafe in the city centre and ordered a cup of rich hot chocolate.
I saw him almost at once. I could not have missed him and had the feeling that he also had recognized me immediately. He was sitting down off to the side in a half-dark corner of the cafe, at a table partly shielded by a colour-panelled alcove. He looked somewhat melancholic. He was staring at his drink with his dull eyes and appeared to be absorbed in his own boredom. He looked extremely sad, the same way someone looks when he is ignored and lingers on his being ignored. He looked like a lonely man. I approached him.
He did not move. He just glanced at me, squeezing his lips slightly.
“Gabriele,” I said in a polite voice. “We haven’t seen each other for a long time.”
“I know,” he answered, his right hand holding his glass tightly. “At least one and a half years.”
“What are you doing around here?”
“The same as you. I am showing off my loneliness. I let everybody see my torment. I am trying to draw attention to myself so that I can divert attention to myself.”
“How can people see your torment if they don’t notice you?”
“They see it just by not noticing me.”
Shortly afterwards, I was sitting down at his table and kept him good company, the healthy and truthful company of two lonely men. Gabriele Belladonna had been one of my most intimate friends, one of those friendships that rise in youth and last up to manhood. Furthermore, we shared a special condition: we both were writers, or at least we tried to be writers. We both were united in our literary passion, united in our failure, united in one love for the same woman, and lastly divided bluntly by that one love.
Dalia had been the apple of discord, the precious diamond knife that had pierced the strongbox of our friendship. We both longed for her, and she purred at the both of us like a cunning and spoilt pussycat. A third man conquered her at last, a winner between two competitors. He was a wealthy and successful winner, or the opposite of what Gabriele and I were. When I saw Gabriele again and talked to him, I felt a strange bittersweet sensation: I did not know if I was supposed to hate him or admire him or simply sympathize with him. He was like me, my damned mirror image.
“How do you do?” he asked me on draining the last sip of cognac.
“Not very well, I daresay. I am stranded on the shore of oblivion. And what about you? I see that…”
“You see that I am still a drinker. Yes, it’s true; I am still a drinker and am not going to give up drinking. Everyone has his own rights, and mine is to benumb my sorrow as I like.”
“Drinking is a slow suicide. I’d rather shoot myself.”
“Then, why don’t you do it?”
“Because I haven’t written my masterpiece yet. I don’t want to be remembered as the good-for-nothing novelist who blew his brains out of desperation arising from his worthlessness. Hemingway killed himself, but he did it after churning out some good stuff. Furthermore, if I achieved success, I think I’d try to enjoy it.”
“I think, on the contrary, that I’m going to die like Edgar Allan Poe. My glory will be posthumous. True glory is always posthumous; therefore, it is not enjoyable, as my homonymous wrote in a novel of his, Pleasure.”
“Yes, that’s right; but what a pity D’Annunzio enjoyed his glory when he was still alive; for sure he had it all.”
Gabriele burst out laughing sarcastically, as if he wanted to hide his disappointment and bitterness behind false good humour. I observed him carefully: he was about thirty-five, some years older than me, and betrayed all the clues of premature ageing due to the prolonged consumption of spirits. His hair was stringy and prematurely grey, his cheeks were hollow, and his mouth looked like a thin slit embedded in his chubby and flabby chin that sloped down to his neck without the slightest trace of muscle tone. His unkempt beard helped in completing a picture of neglect, but it was his eyes what really impressed me most, or better what was left of his eyes: an opaque dull light deprived of vital strength. The very image of the gloomiest desperation. Everything about him whispered decline, decay and impotence. In my selfishness for survival I could not grieve sincerely for him. On the contrary, I felt a sort of self-inflicted pain, being frightened at the idea that I could end up in his state: the worn-out writer, or the writer who is done for long before he starts. His unhappy end hiding in the same words:
“Waiter, one more Martini.”
“Go easy on the drinking,” I told him. “I’m not worried about your health, I just want you to be lucid for the conversation.”
“I am able to converse lucidly even when I am blind drunk,” he answered. “And you know so very well.”
The waiter placed the Martini on the table. At first Gabriele sipped it slowly, then more and more greedily until the glass was empty again. Then we continued our chat.
“What a beautiful Christmas,” he said bitterly upon staring at the empty glass. “What a beautiful Christmas…”
“Are you writing anything ?” I asked him before he could ask me.
“Only when I am drunk.”
“Then you must be writing a lot.”
“Make a joke of it, asshole. I have something wonderful in my hands, something that will make me immortal. A masterpiece.”
“Complete. Do you doubt my word?”
“I doubt you. You really don’t look like a satisfied writer.”
“To be satisfied, I should die to let my novel live eternally. Anyway, the text exists for real. Ninety sheets, typewritten and revised. It’s on my desk. It’s the frog-prince waiting for the kiss of princess luck. I regard it as my will.”
“Then, in the name of our well-established fellowship, could I have a look at it?” To have a look at it, in my jargon, meant to read it carefully.
“Ah, you’re still interested in me, I see!”
“Not in you. In your novel. I know you’re dying to have it read by someone. A writer must have an audience, be it made up of a single reader.”
“Why should I let you read it?” answered Gabriele in a rather aggressive tone, his aggressiveness being kindled by alcohol. “Who the hell are you?”
“Me? I am Riccardo Pergolesi, your former bosom friend, if we’ve ever had a bosom friendship. I am the only one who knows you well enough to take you seriously. If you don’t want me to read your novel, never mind. We can talk about something else, or we also can break off this unpleasant conversation right now.”
These words had on him the effect I wished: he felt moved in his state of half-drunkenness; he felt as if politely put up against a wall and could not help searching for someone else’s sympathy, and I was the only someone else in this case.
“As you please,” he said upon rising up on unsteady feet. “Do you want to read my novel? Come in, then, the book is open.”
“Do you still live in the countryside?”
“Yes I do, in the family house. Where else could I live, otherwise?”
“Well, let’s go.”
“Not before having one more drink.”
In my poverty, I could hardly afford a decent car. The old Volkswagen Beetle plodded along the country road wrapped in the dark which resembled a silent landscape of bends, leafy branches, and telephone poles. It was striving hard the same way I was striving hard in my life, whereas Gabriele was on the verge of stopping once and for all. We talked a great deal on the way, which I knew by heart. Countess Blanchard was one of the first topics, which made us talk spitefully. Mrs Blanchard was the typical high-life lady, one of those flaxen-haired ladies who managed to be well-bedecked three hundred and sixty-five days a year, an icon in the style of Sylva Koscina, eternally amber-coloured with her suntan, a lover of jewels, furs and Jaguars whose only commitments were light-hearted parties and fake-charity suppers. She had never worked a day in her life and had made her only efforts in her youth to find a wealthy husband. The pages of the gossip magazines belonged to her honoris causa. Her guests were filthy and fashionable hypocrites, and among them the stars of contemporary literature camped out like backboneless writers who had achieved success by prostituting their own art. Nevertheless, they churned out best-sellers and earned lots of money, and the madding crowd regarded them as real geniuses. Among them was Edmondo Vaccari, a forty-five-year-old pansy, a ladylike guy without femininity, author of meaningless novels whose plots did not exist and whose characters were just a mirage. I wished I could have violently kicked his chubby butt, and then I would have rammed his head into a bog and rinsed it very well. Gabriele agreed with me. It was envy that kindled our hatred. It was legitimate envy, that is to say the envy of two men who could not get over being ousted by the mediocre. Then our conversation switched to the several literary contests. We could do nothing but regret the fact that the winners were the worst writers who, on the other hand, had good connections with the members of the jury. From this point, our discourse was mostly focused on the winner-loser dichotomy, on the contrast between success and failure, on the Hamlet-like doubtfulness between to be or not to be. We wondered why success made people haughty and why failure made people pathetic. We wondered how we could win without betraying ourselves. We wondered if someday, being at the top of the writers’ Olympus and regularly frequenting circles from which we had always been barred, we ourselves would change remarkably, if we would still be able to look at ourselves in the mirror without spitting at our reflections. We actually talked about many other things, except about what we had been doing in the eighteen months we had not seen each other, maybe because we had nothing worthy of telling each other. Our lives were too void, certainly not what we had imagined; our dreams were in chains, our frustration was holding sway on us. We were two souls on a highway to failure, two drifting souls to which a sole, cold comfort was left: raging invective.
We came to our destination. It was a cosy villa dating back to the twenties, adorned with bow-windows, oval alcoves and winding stuccos, and surrounded by a great variety of trees whose leafy branches jutted over the walls and the railing’s thin spires. We drove through the completely open entrance gate and I parked my Beetle right in front of the main entrance.
“Do you always leave that gate totally open?” I asked my passenger. “Aren’t you afraid of thieves? Aren’t you afraid of being robbed?”
“Oh, they can steal whatever they want,” answered Gabriele in a feeble voice, which was a symptom of his hardly contained drunkenness. “By the truth, everything is mortgaged. I cannot be robbed of anything. I only have debts.”
I helped him to climb the four steps that divided the untidy lawn from the heavy walnut door. A fan of light filtered through the frosted glass set at its top.
“Well, do you leave the light on to make people believe you are at home?”
“Oh, I think I forgot to switch it off.”
“Give me the keys to open the door.”
“No! Let me open it. It’s my house, and it’s me who must open the door…”
“Are you sure you can find the keyhole?”
“Of course I am sure, here it is,” he said while drawing a bunch of keys out of his coat’s inner pocket, “now I’m opening…”. He handled the bunch of keys for a few seconds but did not succeeded in inserting the right key in the lock. He tried and tried again until the whole bunch slipped out of his fingers and fell down on the stony threshold. I nervously picked it up and gave him a withering glance.
“Now I’m going to open this door, and that’s all.” He lapsed into a drowsy silence. He looked benumbed and was swaying on the borderline that separates drunkenness from consciousness.
The small lobby appeared before us in a bad state: faded tapestry, faded floor, a bare chandelier with too many bare bulbs, and very poor furniture. We climbed up the curvilinear staircase that led to the upper floor, and I once more had to hold Gabriele, who was in a sound ethylic state. A faint blue gleam crept beneath the door at the bottom of the passageway. I guessed it could come from a bedroom and was right. I left my heavy load on the double bed at last, and then went to the bathroom without turning the main light on. The soft blue shade coming from the two table lamps was enough for me. I rinsed my face and hands, came back to the bedroom, took off my leather jacket and rested it on a curious, tiny velvet-upholstered stool. There was no trace of the manuscript in the bedroom; therefore, I began exploring the rest of the villa. Just a moment before I had stepped out of the room, not without difficulty I had heard Gabriele mutter something in his half-sleep: “The club…the novel…suicide…my life”; nevertheless, I did not attach any importance to his words. On wandering from room to room, I realized that the state of decay was not restricted to the lobby but affected the entire villa: cracked mirrors, worn-out curtains, broken lamps, worm-eaten furniture covered with sheets, mouldy and empty frames revealing the absence of pictures which had been sold out of necessity. And then dust, a lot of dust. Finally I stopped myself in the study furnished with a wide pumice fireplace. I was sure I could find the novel in that room, packed with books heaped untidily on the shelves. I could make out the objects in the fascinating semi-darkness generated by the lamplight in the corridor and aimed at the desk. I came along and switched on the table lamp. A greenish light hit my pupils and blinded me for a moment. Once I had recovered my sight, I started searching the desk. An old typewriter was on top: it was Gabriele’s favourite work tool, since he rejected technology and did not want to hear anything about PCs. A sheet of paper was still inserted in the platen, fastened with the proper small bar, and apparently was ready to be used, although it was completely blank. I also noticed that a drawer was not perfectly closed: I threw it open and found what I was looking for.
A couple of hours had elapsed without my being aware of it, and now a light drizzle was falling silently. My watch said a quarter past eleven. My stomach pressed for food. As I had totally been absorbed in reading, I had forgotten that I also owned a body. The cold benumbing my limbs was getting worse. Since it was impossible to light a fire in the fireplace – no firewood at all – I decided to take my leather jacket with me. I stepped out of the study and walked down the whole hallway, going past three doors, until I got back to the bedroom. Gabriele was precisely as I had left him, that is to say lying on one hip with his clothes on and seemingly sunk into a deep drunken sleep. I put on my jacket and went downstairs to reach the kitchen, paying attention to turn on only the lights I really needed. I stuffed a sandwich with what I could find – bresaola and tomatoes – and ate it in the faint light of the open refrigerator.
I came back to the study and resumed my reading. I only had fifteen sheets left to the end of the novel, and what a novel! An amazing story set in late Victorian London, an hallucinated world with an extraordinary emotional intensity. The disclosures were rationed so skilfully, the characters were outlined so incisively, and the plot was like tangled wires of changing colours. The title was The Suicide Club, and that gave a meaning to the words Gabriele had muttered unconsciously. The main characters were two friends, foreigners on a trip: after some highs and lows they had joined the club, whose members wanted to die and wanted to kill themselves, but did not have the heart to commit such an extreme act. The club solved their problems: they would be granted a safe and worthy death whose causes would officially be ascribed to an accident or to a mysterious homicide. The method of selection was as simple as terrible: a pack of fifty-two cards, an ace of spades and an ace of clubs. The one who drew the ace of spades had to be the victim, the one who drew the ace of clubs had to be the executioner. A game of pure folly, such a fascinating game on account of that, indeed. The club imposed very strict rules: nobody was allowed to refuse the role that destiny had chosen for him and nobody was allowed to resign from the club once he had joined it. The penalty for transgressors was death, of course. Such a gang, which was totally unlawful, could not allow anyone to reveal its secrets. All of its mystery seemed to be perfectly embodied in the figure of the president, an old man who never showed himself because he was sick with an unknown eye disease and therefore could not expose himself to the light, even if it was artificial. Nevertheless, apart from the plot, the novel had that special something, that is a very particular way of studying the various disguises under which desperation may be hiding. I devoured the last fifteen pages and was filled with wonder when I realized that the novel was unfinished. The end was missing. The story was written up to the scene when one of the two friends had chosen the ace of spades and had sentenced himself to death. Gabriele had lied to me. The end was missing, and that was of paramount importance. The Suicide Club was a brilliant novel and very likely might be tempting for many publishers, but without the ending…
I could not precisely tell what happened inside me, but I felt a kind of inner turmoil. I felt I was no longer able to behave honestly and choked my morals mercilessly. I could not think of anything else but taking possession of that manuscript and passing it off as mine. I was quick in my decision and my deeds too. I had noticed that the sheets were unsigned; therefore, they officially did not belong to anyone. I seized a ream of paper from the shelf and sat down at the desk. I would copy the novel, rewriting it sheet by sheet, and then I would sign the new manuscript. It would be a hard task, of course, but it would pay off at length.
I lavished much energy to the extent that I could not completely relish the conclusion of my illicit effort. The light of the table lamp was the only contradictory thing in the room, by then illuminated by the gentle glimmer of dawn that penetrated through the bow-window. I stood up, seized with the irresistible impulse of taking a breath of fresh air. I threw the window open and let the scent of dew, leaves and damp grass penetrate into my lungs. Then I shut the window again and stepped back to the desk, whereon two identical copies of the same typescript (or manuscript if you like ) were lying side by side. I put the original one back, leaving it as I had found it in the half-closed drawer. Then I reinserted a blank sheet in the typewriter’s platen, took my copy away and set it down beneath the seat of my Beetle. As I got back inside, I glanced at the bedroom. Gabriele was sleeping soundly and made me suddenly feel the way I actually felt: tired. I decided to collapse on the sofa that was in the passageway to have rest. “No more than an hour”, I told myself.
I woke up with an unpleasant sensation of bewilderment. For some instants I could not remember where I was; then I sat up and rubbed my eyes and did some habitual stretching for my benumbed limbs. I looked at my watch: it was past noon. I returned to the bedroom but did not find Gabriele. He must have had woken up before me. Maybe he was having breakfast. In the bathroom I rinsed my face abundantly and put on my jacket. I went downstairs with the intent of cleaning out the refrigerator, but when I passed by the living room doorway, I saw Gabriele. He was a silent creature, sitting down with his back turned to me and his face aimed at the wide windows flooded with a cold autumn sunlight.
“Ah, you’re here…” I told him. “Have you sobered up?”
“Of course,” he answered without turning to me. “I guess you’ve been sleeping here, haven’t you ?”
“Yes, I have. I stayed up late. I took the liberty of reading your novel. I found it in the study while you were kayoed.”
“And what do you think of it ?”
“Hum, it’s rather good. But the end is missing. You had told me that…”
“I lied to you. I hope you will forgive me.”
I stepped across the large room and approached him. His right hand was holding a snifter in which a topaz-coloured liquid was swaying gently. It was the same liquid that was contained in the crystal bottle resting on the floor. Gabriele’s breakfast.
“You start drinking early,” I remarked sarcastically. “Wasn’t last night enough?”
“I took a cold shower,” he replied with a half-smile impressed on his lips.
“Well, I had better go now.”
“Do as you please. Come and pay me a visit whenever you feel like it.”
“Let me know about the ending. I can’t bear reading a novel without an ending.”
“I’ll let you know. Maybe I’ll finish it today, or maybe tomorrow.”
“Or maybe the day after tomorrow, or the day after that.”
“You sound like a fucking publisher,” he grumbled before gulping down a couple of mouthful sips. “We could say we once were friends.”
“We once were…maybe, but now I don’t know what we are to each other.”
“Do you still think of her ?”
“Yes, I do. Yet I bear you no grudge. It was my fault. I should have been a brilliant and successful writer, and not a frustrated, moody man. Women don’t love insecure men. But I am…I am and will be until the moment when… Well, let’s not talk about it.”
“You should find a way to relieve to your pain.”
“I’ve just found it, but it’s not alcohol.”
“That’s right,” he nodded, “we once were friends, and now…well, I could not say who is more depressed between me and you. Is there a depressed man who can nourish friendship ? How can an unhappy soul bring comfort to another unhappy soul ? Well, this is one of the mysteries of life.”
At that very moment I realized I would please the both of us if I went away at once. I left my fellow going limp in an armchair and busy on setting his stomach’s inner walls on fire. I’ve never been so simple a soul, but I was almost ashamed to admit that I did not feel anything for him, not a single feeling of pity nor human tenderness.
As soon as I got home, the telephone rang. I quickly took my coat off and threw it onto the bed – such was the comfort of living in a studio apartment – and then I laid my personal papers down on the chest of drawers. I did all that just before answering the phone.
“Hello ? Hi Rebecca…yes, I’ve just come back home…what ? See each other in an hour ? At my house, yes…well, I’ll wait for you. Then we’ll have a little talk. See you later…”
Rebecca was whom I would call my girlfriend. I say whom I would call because I did not strain myself too much to love her the way she would have deserved to be loved and was not at all convinced about the two of us. Our relationship was a very feeble fire that hardly warmed. I enjoyed that little warmth which I could get but did nothing to kindle the fire. The day when it would go out…
Rebecca worked as a proofreader in a small publishing house. She was not a knockout and was in need of a man. I guess she was involved with me on account of that, as I guess I was involved with her to use her as an editorial go-between. That afternoon we unavoidably talked about Gabriele and his economic and human decay, as well as his miserable lot of impoverished nobleman. Then we made love, or better, we had sex just tinted with love. It was in the bed, of course, where the truest and most intimate speech blossoms, that she decided to try out my moodiness.
“Now tell me…” she whispered not very spontaneously, “what do I mean to you?”
“Well, I can’t say precisely. Maybe a hook.”
“A hook…for publishing?”
“This is a leading question.”
“But I wish I could know if you really like me, or if you are keeping me by your side to reach the desk of some big publisher…”
“You know that I don’t like talking about that. However, I can tell you that I like you for what you are and for what you could do for me. Are you pleased now?”
“You take advantage just because you’re good at making love.”
“I don’t think I’m the only one.”
“The last boyfriends I had seemed to be distant and cold. They had sex with me so unwillingly…but you, I don’t know how to explain it, there’s something in your way of screwing me that…oh, good heavens, it’s so hard to explain. You could explain it, perhaps. You’re a writer, after all.”
“I couldn’t explain it, on the contrary. I’m not able to explain what I’m able to do.”
“What kind of writer are you, then ?”
“Me ? I am a person who blindly believes in the willing suspension of disbelief. All the rest is of lesser importance. The events I describe almost never happen to me. If it were so, I wouldn’t be able to describe them properly. In my opinion, literature feeds on the emptiness of life.”
Rebecca rubbed on my body and for some moments her vocal pitch was deadened to faint moans. I contained myself not to get too excited. I acted aloof but did not act too coldly.
“Phew !” she grumbled, “you’re so resentful today. Meeting that drunkard Gabriele has not been good for you.”
“I only know one thing that might be good for me, and you know what it is very well.”
“A fine novel in every window of every bookshop. One hundred thousand copies. I know that might be good for you…by the way, what are you writing?”
“A psychodrama set in Victorian London. I only have to write the ending. Well, is there a chance for me?”
“Maybe or for sure ?”
“Maybe, as you say you love me. Maybe. Meanwhile, try to finish your novel, then we’ll see.”
“I didn’t think you were so touchy.”
“On the contrary, I thought you were very conceited.”
Like the sky laden with clouds that do not pour down rain, my conscience felt the load of imprisoned energies and unexpressed rage. That vile action I had committed against Gabriele, cruel to such extent that I could not even tell Rebecca about it, had not taken me where I hoped it would take me: I believed I could draw up an ending worthy of the story, but I was wrong. I was in the same position as a nail driven into a board: motionless, repressed, with no chance of getting out. I never would have thought that it would be so hard to finish a novel written by another writer. Furthermore, I had resolved to resign from my job, which I really did not like, and that was turning up harmful to the oxygenation of my cyanotic finances. I was in balance on the hedge of a chasm waiting to soar up or to fall down. Gabriele’s desperation and his crazy talent were the only immediate chance for me. I prayed – a lay and visceral prayer– that The Suicide Club would be completed and I could get hold of it.
One afternoon I really believed that God had lent his ear to my silent entreaties. Gabriele phoned me. He was unusually lucid:
“I’ve just finished my novel. The end is a whirl, you must absolutely read it.”
I pushed the gas pedal of my Beetle to make it run fast up to my unaware benefactor’s abode and dusk was falling by the time I reached my destination. I quivered with frenzy and rushed to the living-room in the twinkling of an eye. Gabriele was sitting at a majestic piano, a romantic grand piano lacquered in black.
“Here you are,” he welcomed me, “the trip took you a very short time, I see.”
“Your call has made me restless.”
“Oh, you’ve always been restless.”
“Listen to who’s talking! Well, let’s say that I am more restless than usual.”
“Well, you’ll be even more restless in a few minutes.”
“Because of your novel? I don’t think so. If I had been the one to write it…”
“Well, my friend, let me tell you that it’s as if it were you to have written it.”
My heart skipped a beat, slightly, then it recovered its pace. The strange hint by Gabriele had aroused within me the fear that he might be acquainted with my ignoble deed. I tried to mask my uneasiness and completed my speech in the best way possible, turning his statement into a question.
“As if it were me to have written it?”
“Yes,” he answered on skimming over some keys at random. “I decided to present you with it…Ah ! If only I could play the piano…”
“To present me with it?” I started. “You’re joking, aren’t you?”
“I’m not joking at all. The Suicide Club is yours. You can submit it to any publisher as a creation of your own.”
“I don’t understand the reason why you should give away a novel that cost you a great deal of trouble ? I am a writer too and know perfectly that to give away a novel means to people like us what it means to a father to give away one of his children. Now, I’d like to know…”
“There’s nothing to know,” replied Gabriele cutting me short. “I don’t need it. I don’t need anything that is future…by now my life is senseless.” Then he struck a heavy blow on the keys with both hands, stressing the instrument’s strings seriously.
At this point I wondered whether Gabriele was in possession of all his faculties or whether he was trying to muddle my ideas as I was trying to di muddle his. When I got a little bit nearer him everything turned out to be less complicated than I had thought. His breath gave off an unpleasant smell which was unmistakeably alcohol, and the usual bottle containing the topaz-coloured liquid towered in its lowness under the stool.
“Whisky?” I asked him mockingly.
“No, brandy,” he answered me keeping his eyes low.
“You’re not willing to give up hurting yourself. If you go on like that…”
“If I go on like that I will come to a bad end, I know. But it’s what I want, after all. My life is alive only when it longs for death.”
“This is a typical oxymoron, and you’re typically drunk.”
“It doesn’t matter that I am drunk, what really matters is that I am desperate. That’s why the novel is so brilliant and exciting. You must be desperate to describe desperation, don’t you think so?”
“Well, I don’t think so.”
We remained in silence for a few moments and I let myself be enticed by the arabesques that the soft sunset light, entangled in the leafy branches, cast on the sandy-marble floor. Then Gabriele stood up and went to an old Burma vetyver writing desk and beckoned me to get closer to him. He took a clipping out of a drawer and put it into my right hand. “Read it”, he told me.
I went near the window to have more light and glanced through the short article:
CRASH ON THE LAKE, ART GALLERY MANAGER DIES
VERBANIA – Yesterday night, a short time after 9.30, a motorboat collided into a mass of rocks near Pallanza. The people who live in the area, alarmed by the terrible crash, called 113 and 115 immediately. By the time the Carabinieri and first aid arrived, the motorboat, a Caribe T300, was just a heap of burning wreckage. The identification of the driver was carried out by the victim’s young girlfriend, Dalia Gigli. He was a manager from Milan, Franco Cecchi, 39 years old, owner of a famous art gallery in via Brera. According to testimonies, it seems that Mr Cecchi, for causes which are still to be ascertained, lost control of his motorboat and crashed into the rocks at high speed. The autopsy on the remains of the burnt body is scheduled for today.
I could not utter a word for a few seconds. Franco Cecchi was dead. Franco Cecchi, the man who had taken Dalia away from me was no longer on this earth. I had hated him intensely, and at that very moment that same man stirred a sort of pity in me which was ashamed of itself. “When did it happen?” I asked Gabriele.
“More than five months ago, at the beginning of July.”
“I hadn’t heard anything about it.”
“It’s because you never read newspapers.”
“Well, I cannot say I’m going to weep over him.”
“Nor can I,” he answered me a moment before putting the clipping back in the drawer. “That man has hurt the both of us.”
“How come you keep that clipping?”
“For her, for Dalia. I grieved for her, for her sorrow.”
“I guess I would have grieved for her as well, maybe because I’ve never given up loving her.”
“In that case you surely will be pleased to see her again,” said Gabriele. And what he said left me dumbfounded.
I went upstairs quivering with excitement, with no thoughts in my mind but her. I had completely forgotten the novel’s ending. “You’d better go to the bedroom,” Gabriele had told me, “there’s a surprise for you”. I opened the door very slowly, as though I wanted to avert a possible disappearance of the surprise, and I saw her. She was standing opposite the closed window. She was shrouded in a soft evening backlight which hardly allowed me to guess whether she was staring at me or not.
“Hi, Riccardo”. Her voice was low and gentle as I remembered it. “Hi,” I answered as I got closer to her. “So much time has gone by.”
“Yes, but recollections never fade .”
I was by her side. Her features, her amber-coloured eyes, her long and silky hair which had the same hue of ripe wheat, her finely wrought body wrapped in the dark grey dress. She was still beautiful and attractive, she was seduction, a dream I could never tell. “That’s true,” I answered, “time rolls by fast, but memories roll by slowly.”
“Especially the unpleasant ones.”
“That’s right…I know what happened…I’m sorry.”
“I’m trying to get over it, but I cannot reconcile myself. That night we had had an argument and he looked very nervous. His heart…a heart attack, I feel terribly guilty about that.”
“You must not, a heart attack cannot be provoked. It’s something predestined and congenital.”
“But I had not been straightforward with him. I had lied to him about several things. If only I could have begged him for forgiveness…forgiveness…”
What I did a moment after neither belongs to the sphere of instinct nor to that of reason exclusively, yet is shared by the two. I embraced her most tenderly. I held her, neither too tight nor too lightly, and made her understand that I sympathized with her. At that moment I felt all the ardour of our past of lovers and had to restrain myself not to give in to my desire of kissing her voraciously.
Then we parted. After smiling, she said: “This place is so nice…the air is good around here. Gabriele is a lucky man.”
“Well, not that lucky,” I remarked. “He hasn’t been having a good time of it lately, and he drinks like a fish. I didn’t imagine he could think of contacting you again.”
“Oh, nor did I. When I saw him appear among those journalists…I thought he must be crazy.”
“He is, indeed. As I am, of course. We novelists are all a bit crazy, in our own way…”
“So, how’s your writing career ?”
“Very bad, I daresay. Success is a mirage in the desert, and what’s more I am going through a creative crisis. You must know that I had to…ah ! It’s despicable.”
“The way I’ve done him. I stole a novel from him with the intent of passing it off as mine and would have already done so if it had not been finished. Just today he told me that he’s going to present me with it…”
“And does he know what you have done?”
“I don’t think he does.”
“In my opinion, you ought to tell him,” she answered a moment before sitting down on the bed. “It would be fair of you.”
“Hum, you’re right. I believe that…”
I could not complete my sentence, for a loud and shrill voice interrupted me: “I think you shall not tell it to me, because I already know.”
Gabriele was standing on the threshold. His chest was thrust out, his jaw was clasped, and his eyes were bloodshot. “Your will is no longer meaningful to me. You have betrayed me. I thought you were a friend, but now I have to acknowledge that you have a cold heart. You’re a despicable person, and I…”
He was holding the usual bottle in his left hand. Then, in a moment, he put his right hand in a pocket and drew out a polished, chromed revolver. “I might kill you, you know, I might kill you…”
Gabriele looked beside himself and I saw death staring me in the face. I saw the legendary beheaded coachman waiting just for me, but I was wrong. Dalia was screaming and I could not utter a single word for fear but, to my great astonishment, Gabriele turned the revolver to himself and pointed it at his temple. I closed my eyes and waited for the gloomy detonation, but I only heard a dull metallic click. Then I heard him laugh out loud sarcastically.
“You fell for it completely,” he giggled under our bewildered gaze. “This revolver is empty. I’ve made a fool of you since the first time we met in that bar. All of a sudden I decided to make you believe that I was an alcoholic, maybe because I was bored…and then I decided to test your honesty. This bottle contains peach tea, and for alcohol-flavoured breathe I just needed a sip of real whisky. As to my appearance, well…I’ve never been a handsome man. I happen to drink, at times, but for sure I am not an alcoholic. You must admit it, I’ve been reciting very well, I have been a great actor, haven’t I?”
“Great and toxic,” I remarked bitterly.
“Yes, my surname is Belladonna, after all. Atropa Belladonna, a well-known toxic plant. Ah, one more thing: my novel has been completed for some time and is now being printed by a big publisher. Those sheets you have in your hands are not worth a bean. We always believe what we want to believe.”
“You bastard, you…you…you have made use of me, of us…”
“Yes I have, as you wanted to make use of me and as you, my dear Dalia, made use of me in the past.”
“Go to hell, Gabriele !” she burst out rising to her feet.
“Yes, of course I will. Maybe in fifty years…yes, my dear Riccardo, I made you believe that I was prone to suicide, when I’ve never thought of committing suicide. But I had to know. I suspected you and your tricks. You must know that, to be precise and to ward off ill-luck, I am used to counting carefully all the reams of paper which I keep in my study. Moreover, when I place a sheet in the typewriter’s platen, I always leave a blank line, but you couldn’t know that and replaced the sheet in a normal position. Suspicions must be proved, of course, and Dalia has disclosed you as I hoped she would.”
“Fuck you! You damned asshole!” Dalia cried out before hurling herself on him. Gabriele grabbed her and flung her to the ground with a harsh wrench. The vehemence of his deed caused the bottle to slip out of his hand and shatter after falling down on the walnut flooring.
“Ah ! Damn’ it !” he exclaimed. “Some tasty tea has been wasted.”
“And so,” I went on, “all those stories about debts and creditors…”
“Nothing really serious, by the truth. And I will make money with my novel. Ah, if you want to read the ending, you shall wait to read it in the published book. Don’t worry anyway: I will send a free copy to you. An autographed copy, of course.”
As he finished his speech, he rested the revolver on the tiny stool and began to collect the fragments of the bottle, while Dalia was slowly rising to her feet again. At that very moment I grabbed the revolver and pointed it at him. “You’re a damned bastard,” I spitted at him.
“So what?” he asked, “What are you doing? You relieve your feelings by pointing an unloaded gun at me? You’re pathetic.”
Even now, I don’t know the reason why I pulled the trigger. Maybe I did it because of his deceit, or maybe out of my repressed rage of anonymous writer, or maybe simply because I wanted to feel the pleasure of killing him at least in a symbolic way, in my imagination. But nothing of all that happened.
I killed him for real.
The revolver was not totally unloaded. One bullet was left in the cylinder, unbeknownst to Gabriele. Destiny could have chosen the first self-inflicted shot to his temple, yet it chose my shot, or the last dazzle in a dazzling game of folly with an unhappy ending.
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The Tender-Hearted Bullies. A Journey into the Weaknesses of the Hard-Boiled Heroes. by Sara Casavecchia
Translated by Luca Sartori
Dozens of characters featuring a detective have followed one another from the early forties (the golden age of hard-boiled) to the present day both in novels and movies. Although the passing of time and the changes in society have determined a parallel adjustment of the character to new demands, some elements have not changed and have helped to create the myth of this figure and have made it ambiguous as well. We are accustomed indeed to seeing the private investigator as a rude, brisk flint-hearted hero. These impressive features, which can be easily seen, conceal less evident and intuitive characteristics in direct contradiction to these, that is to say those weaknesses characterizing the detective’s unconscious and state of mind, which make him vulnerable despite his tough appearance.
The characters that will be introduced in the following paragraphs had the starring roles in three famous hard-boiled movies and novels through which we can trace back the history of this genre starting from the forties to the present day, they feature three different stereotypes of detectives who share a common demeanour that outlines their emotional sphere.
The Maltese Falcon by John Huston (1941)
Sam Spade is a private investigator. He has to look into his business partner’s death after a woman asks him to shadow a man who, according to her, has fled with her sister. Sam Spade comes across a group of shady characters, somehow related to the woman, in the course of his investigations while he is searching for a statuette which is said to be entirely made out of gold. At the end of the story, we discover that the author and intriguer of the whole plot is the very Dark Lady who charged into Sam Spade’s office desperately asking for his help. The falcon statuette isn’t coated with gold at all, and yet everybody is looking for it very eagerly. In order to highlight the presence of absurd characters who absurdly follow an absurd character, Sam Spade will quote Shakespeare in his final line and say that the falcon is ‘such stuff that dreams are made of’.
Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock (1958)
The main character of the story is detective Scootie who, after running the risk of hurtling downward in a manhunt in which a colleague of his who helped him has died, is a prey to a paralysing fear of falling. Not being able to live with his sense of guilt, he resolves to resign from the police district, when an old friend of his asks a favour from him: he shall shadow his friend’s wife who has recently behaved strangely, believing she was the reincarnation of an ancestor of hers who had committed suicide when she was the same age as she. The detective falls in love with the woman during the investigation and when she suddenly kills herself by jumping the top of a bell-tower, he sinks into depression again for not succeeding in saving her.
After being discharged from hospital, Scottie keeps on searching for the woman until he has clear visions of her. He finds his woman at last, a woman who, despite her different hairstyle and make-up, reminds him of the woman he was looking for. This woman is the real lost woman who had agreed to act as a double of his friend’s wife in a perfect wife-killing. This plot had also foreseen the phobia of the detective, who would not be able to reach the top of the bell-tower and stop the crime. In order to cure himself the man demands that the girl change her look and she accepts this because she is also in love with him. Nevertheless, Scottie will recognize the woman when he happens to see a necklace that was presented to her by his friend as a reward for acting in the plot. This notwithstanding, he won’t be able to save her from death when, finding himself at the top of the bell-tower once again, the woman hurtles to the ground and dies.
In the Cut by Jane Campion (2003)
The starring character is Frannie, a New York teacher who leads a boring life. Frannie is involved as the sole witness in an investigation aimed at stopping a dangerous serial killer who is slaying young ladies in New York. Frannie gets more and more involved until she embarks on a love affair with detective Malloy, who is entrusted with the investigations. When the killer slays Frannie’s sister as well, she runs to Malloy and discovers that the tattoo he has on his wrist is the same as the killer’s. Bewildered and desperate, Frannie opens her heart to a colleague of Malloy, who, unexpectedly, takes her hostage and reveals his true identity. Frannie, who had fled with the detective’s jacket, manages to shoot the killer with a gun she finds in a pocket of the jacket.
Main Emotional Characteristics
- Detective Sam Spade
Even though he is a real tough guy of no sensitivity, Sam Spade betrays himself through his behaviour, both when, as a token of his friendship, he decides to look into his business partner’s murder and when he hands the Dark Lady over to justice. There is one shot in the movie where the woman appears behind the bars of an elevator – an obvious reference to jail – and rude Sam tells her ‘I will wait for you’.
Powerlessness and incapacity to live a relationship.
The characters of his calibre seem like the gods. He tries to dissimulate self-confidence through his male chauvinist and little unsympathetic attitude, that is to say of a man who always knows what to do in any situation. Sam Spade actually behaves in this way to protect himself in a corrupt, ill-famed environment where confidence in other people is rare stuff. The degraded and dangerous metropolis does not leave room to private life. Sam is a man who is able to make any single woman kneel at his feet, but he always finds himself alone in the end, because everything is soiled with falsehood and deceit. The woman he begins to fall in love with turns out to be indeed the intriguer of the plot.
Among the characters that we find in the hard-boiled stories of the thirties even the detective himself is blighted by a shadow of ambiguity. He is frowned upon by policemen, who believe he is a former gangster maintaining hidden connections with criminals. His behaviour, indeed, leaves much to be desired, since he constantly challenges the police and seems to share mutual respect with the scoundrels of San Francisco, who, on their part, do not disprove this guesswork. Nevertheless, every time Spade breaks the law he does so for the sole purpose of delivering a criminal to justice.
- Detective Scottie Ferguson
Detective Scottie is definitively the character who better than anyone embodies the inborn sense of frailty in the stereotype. His greatest fear is to be frightened with the idea of hurtling down because of his constant vertigos. Hurtling down to an abyss, indeed, is the obsession which continues to afflict the detective and which becomes tangible through a system of recurrences and repetitions echoing the idea of a spiral. Not only do they represent his physical bewilderment, but above all symbolize his moral and psychological decay.
Powerlessness and incapacity to live a relationship
The powerlessness of this character is highlighted since the very first scene, where he runs the risk of hurtling downward during a manhunt. He is not able to save himself and therefore a colleague of his comes to his rescue and dies because of it. The detective, not being able to live with his sense of guilt, will be compelled to resign from his job. The man thinks that by doing so he can avoid the hindrance but does not know that his life itself has become an illness and his sense of guilt turns into a sense of powerlessness when he cannot save the woman he loves, who falls down from the tower. This happens again, even when the detective thinks he has recovered his health and has found the woman he was in love with again. As the woman reaches the top of the tower, indeed, she falls down and dies.
The ambiguity that we can see in these characters is a moral ambiguity. Scottie is actually in love with a woman who does not exist. When he shadows Judy, indeed (thinking she is Madeleine), he falls in love with her and when chance leads Judy back into Scottie’s arms, he does not recognize her. The detective does everything he can do to transform Judy so she can look like Madeleine. The ambiguity of this character is nonetheless related to his illness which has become an obsession. The fear of losing the only woman he has ever been in love with causes him to lose her twice.
- Detective Giovanni Malloy
Detective Malloy can be considered an intermediate character between the previous two. In a certain sense he very similar to San Spade because he is ill-mannered and ill-tempered. On the other hand, he reveals his weakness when he courts an intelligent attractive woman like Frannie, since he does not succeed in understanding her complex mind. He is a brave, male chauvinist detective who feels inferior to the woman he loves, more cultured and sophisticated than he.
Powerlessness and incapacity to live a relationship
Although Malloy has already divorced once, he cannot treat Frannie coldly. Behind the mask of a daring man there is an old-fashioned fellow who is willing to start a long term relationship. This notwithstanding, he is not able to live a normal relationship with a woman due to the events and murders in which they are involved. Frannie is indeed endangered because of her affair with Malloy. The detective will never be able to protect his lady up to the final scene where she saves her own life thanks to her own bravery.
The ambiguity created by this character comes from a simple, casual sequence of events. Frannie mistakes Malloy for the killer because of a tattoo which he and a colleague of his had had done on their wrists to celebrate the solving of a case some years before.
I have analyzed these three characters not only to make a comparison of the emotional traits which characterize the detective’s weakness and vulnerability, but above all to draw a line of continuity between the past and the present. If it is true that changes in society and a new call for action have also determined a change in the detective’s role – closely related to that of the police – his figure is still linked to the past. Despite the passing of the years, indeed, detective stories continue to be all the rage on the screen and in novels, more and more often captivating teenagers and the female audience. Since the past decade, indeed, movies and novels belonging to this genre have featured female characters more and more, not only as objects of desire or negative characters but also as detectives or at least as active participants.
It is important to reach an audience as large as possible to save this genre from extinction, a genre which has brought to the screen many of the social and literary topics of the twentieth century. For instance, in Vertigo we find the poetics of ineptitude and dual identity. The Maltese Falcon, or the “hard-boiled” story, above all others, has tried to make America accept a moral view of life based upon style, giving birth to a new artistic universe which was something more than a reflection of society: it was a real nightmare. A film which has not been particularly been held in high regard by critics due to the excessive simplicity of its plot, In the Cut, features some typical issues characterizing modern society: love, death, and conflictual relationships among family members.
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From a Beach of Haiti Da una spiaggia di Haiti by Gordiano Lupi
Translated by Aida Cavalera
A month has gone by since I first found refuge in this corner of the world off the Caribbean Sea. Hispaniola is a fantastic island. According to Columbus, it was the most beautiful land anyone had ever set foot on, or perhaps he was talking about Cuba, I can’t quite remember…but after all, what does it matter? I’m surrounded by a population of negroes that speak a French dialect and live in misery and desperation. I could have chosen Santo Domingo or another Caribbean island, but I didn’t want any tourists around; a wild landscape of banana and palm trees is better to drown one’s sad thoughts in. My solitary days go by on a tropical shore whitened by a cascade of surreal light, a shelter to old seagulls.
Haiti is a good place to forget. A sweltering sun that paints the sky and intensely colored vegetation allow me to take pleasure in watching African dancers swaying their hips along the shoreline, while an everlasting summer goes by. I have no regrets because I have no reason to have any. I was the one who chose this. My wife and my son are part of the past. I don’t need anyone to feel alive. The simplicity of these places, the tropical warmth that slows down movement, both invaluable conquests.
I feel no pain when I think about our last fight. I see Raffaella’s face and her scowl of disdain, Giacomo’s sad gaze of bewilderment . I know I will no longer see anyone, a long awaited escape is my only life companion. Before this beach I am able to continue my work, thanks to a laptop resting on a wooden table by the shore, under an awning of palm leaves and bird droppings, observing the feline movements of a waitress of African features who is serving icy beer. I have nothing more to do but fully take pleasure in my newly restored liberty, as I savour the smiles of splendid women, consoling to mesmerized eyes.
I managed to talk to the editor and I reassured him. The novel is going well and soon I’ll be able to send off the short stories for the magazine. I’m in Haiti, escaping from my old world, but I must work in order to survive. The erotic magazine for which I theatre comics and write short stories is my only form of income, along with a contract that requires me to hand in two novels per year for a collection of porno books.
I didn’t become the writer I had always dreamed of, I have nothing in common with Hemingway, but at least now I can live the same lifestyle as he and, all in all, I earn my living by writing. My masterpiece might not be “Fiesta” or “The Old Man and the Sea”, but “ The Porno Desires of a College Girl” was a hit at highway stop-offs and even “Pornotales” went well. I can’t complain. All in all, I have fun and they pay me well to stir up readers’ repressed cravings and desires. I have no knowledge of writer’s block, the words just chase after each other and my fingers run unstoppably over the laptop keyboard. Now I’m writing a series of erotic short stories that take place in a school and I think the idea might work. I can draw from my student memories, and where memory fails me, imagination intervenes. Perhaps later on I’ll work on a parody of Salgari, since it should turn out well from this island, and I can jot down twenty chapters of “ The Porno Pirates of Malaysia”. The atmosphere works well. No pain-in-the-ass kids. No demanding wives who ask you to go grocery shopping. Finally, free as I have never been before. I could even write a real novel, an old existential idea, something lofty , so I can sign it with my real name. I’ve got nothing but peace, I spend many a long day at the bar on the beach; I drink icy beer, fruit cocktails supplemented with homemade, stomach-busting rum.
Every day brings new emotions, among maliciously dancing females who provoke and let you know they are willing to give themselves in exchange for a gift. I might as well take advantage. Why shouldn’t I? I might as well take the good things this new life is offering me; a woman has no more worth that a freshly picked ripe fruit. I stretch my gaze to the Caribbean Sea, past banana trees and endless coconut palms and I look for a new idea, while between dark lustful legs I tell of unforgettable moments of sex.
Yesterday I met Karin, a beautiful mulatta with brown eyes and black hair that sinuously caresses her hips. There aren’t that many mulatte in Haiti, but she is most certainly the daughter of a black mother and some old French pig who has now gone back to his country. I was at the usual bar on the beach near the small home I share with a local, while she was helping her uncle unload crates of fish after a day at sea.
“If we want to survive, we need to make do” a man told me in a broken French dialect.
“Even my niece has to work, although she is young and this is no job for a woman; nobody thinks about us in this country, they never have thought of us…”
I drank some terrible rum with them and I bought two lobsters for dinner, which I will make my landlord cook. A few words pronounced in my school-learnt French, while she answered in a melodic dialect, full of indigenous influences. Many gazes of complicity and smiles tossed on unexplored territory. The sun was setting and we were still on that white shore, shaded by huge palm trees. I was there, letting the sun burn my white skin, while Karin was savoring the salty taste of her land, with the intense aromas of tropical plants. Her young body caressed the heat of the sand, as I let myself be captivated by the scent of her amber-coloured skin. Raffaella had vanished from my thoughts. My son was but a memory. The overwhelming beauty of Karin captured my senses as she swept away my bygone days.
I haven’t seen Karin in two days. Two long days of waiting, gone by spying on the movements of black-skinned girls among the palm trees and sensual rhythms of seductive mulatte. The locals are always dancing, even when there is no reason to; it seems their religion imposes magic rites around bonfires, frantic body movements as holy men sing chants and prayers. I don’t understand these things. I have never had a faith. I have never entered a church. These people’s rites seem like the ceremonies of savages. Karin is nowhere in sight. That is my only thought. And I can’t write. The editor is expecting short stories, but I can’t manage to do a thing.
The novel is stuck even though the terms of consignment are about to expire. Karin has had the effect of a hurricane that has disrupted confused thoughts, modified the present and destroyed the past. I’m alone on this beach and I’m awaiting her smile. Now that she is gone, I can’t help thinking about her. I see her uncle unloading crates of fish. He tells me Karin can’t come to the beach because she must work. He complains to me about living conditions, but there is little I can do about it and it interests me even less. I haven’t come to Haiti to take care of them.
“We’re not tourists. For us life is hard. Papa Doc or some sort of democracy changes very little. We’ve always been taken advantage of. If foreigners start coming here, we’ll become like Santo Domingo and Cuba. A land for woman-hunting…”.
Come to think of it, I know nothing about Karin, we’ve spent such little time together. She had never spoken to me about her job, I don’t know what she does for a living. However, I have an extreme need to see her again, to stroke her scented skin, to taste the salty flavour emanating from her hair and to kiss her full lips after a run on the foreshore. Karin has bewitched me with a smile and I let myself be lulled by the sound of waves and the tribal beats of Haitian music. I observe some natives as they sing ritual chants and dance frantically releasing droplets of sweat. I get up from the table and I examine the rapid movements of their young bodies. How I would like to be like them, so I wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable around Karin. She is young and beautiful, perhaps too much so for my forty-year-old self. I remain immersed in my thoughts while the magic of tropical music generates the image of Karin’s luminous eyes in the distance. It is nothing but a visual deception caused by the light, a trickery produced by the setting sun, a daydream which I am determined to forget.
Haiti heals my suffering. I let myself go, I chase away sad thoughts, I follow the rites of this population. I’m much calmer now. I know I will soon see Karin again. Perhaps I won’t need to write a diary anymore and I will live a new love story. Karin’s uncle has invited me to a celebration and he said it would be an unusual event for European eyes. They’re going to allow me to participate in magic rites which are usually forbidden to outsiders. They’re making an exception for me. I will be allowed to take part in a voodoo ceremony, some sort of tribal black magic. I’ll witness how they capture a soul to transform a man into a zombie, a slave who follows orders without asking questions. I have nothing to fear, Karin will be by my side. I only wish to see her again, I’m willing to face any danger to caress her skin once more and come across her smile. Plus, I am a writer and seeing these magic rites will prove useful for my job. I’m already thinking of my next story, a sort of sequel to “ The Serpent God” a hard version, with a few references to “The Serpent and the Rainbow”, but with lots of sex.
A warm wind is troubling the Caribbean Sea, it messes up my hair and disperses sensations, as a whirlwind of sand announces bad weather. Haiti had accustomed me to abrupt changes. One minute the rain is raging in the form of a tropical storm, it bends the palm tree branches and strikes the thriving ceiba trees and makes vultures and condors fly and chases away seagulls. Perhaps it’s the right time to write.
It’s been a couple of days since the ceremony and I am feeling stranger and stranger. I recall a wrinkly woman with white hair, her skin as black as coal and her rotten teeth scattered in a mouth which kept savouring puffs of smoke and sips of rum. Everyone calls her the “the Priestess”. She twists her body in a strange dance, while, at her side, two black servants slit the throats of young goats and kill snakes with machetes. Lots of blood is streaming around me, the music becomes more intense and follows the rhythm of the drums, the dances become frantic. I remember Karin’s gaze, she held my hand before kissing me on the lips, the indelible seal of an evening impossible to forget. I stay and watch the horrible show just for her. If I weren’t for Karin, I would run far away from these savages who sing and shout dark sentences of death. Strange guttural noises which seem to come from the afterworld to evoke distant spirits and lost souls. I see sacrificed animals and I hear ritual prayers, immediately after, the hands of crazed, possessed people raise a cloth dummy and stab it with long pointed pins. The Priestess, bathed in sweat and under the effect of convulsions, sanctifying the horror with her hands towards the sky in sign of prayer. Luckily Karin is by my side, she gives me strength, she squeezes my hand, she comforts me. I would like to escape after the first drop of blood and after the first slaughtered goat.
I recall Karin offering me a drink. “It’s love nectar. If we both drink it no one will ever be able to separate us.” I can’t decline an offer like that. A stunning mulatta, whom I met on the beach of Port-au-Prince, offers me her love through a magic-tasting beverage. I want nothing else. I drink without thinking much about it. It feels as if my stomach has been pierced by a hard stab; that unfamiliar liquid burns like live fire and stirs up my innards. The Priestess watches the scene with a smile. It’s not a normal smile, but a derisive sneer. I remember nothing else, perhaps because the pain is making me faint.
Upon awakening, I am lying in my bed without knowing how I got here. Perhaps it was Karin. What I would like to know now is why I feel so ill, my stomach is struck by a vortex of fire, the pain becomes wrenching, excruciating, then suddenly it subsides. I need to ask Karin. She’ll know how to reassure me.
I see Karin sitting on the shore early in the morning. As soon as she sees me, she says hello and comes towards me, beaming as always. I tell her that since the evening of the magic rite I haven’t been feeling well. I explain I’m feeling strange and I have agonizing pains in my stomach. I’m restless. She reassures me. She says I’m frightened because I’ve witnessed an unusual ceremony. According to her, even the love filter needs to be assimilated by my body. In the end I seem to feel better. I feel no more pain. I hug Karin impetuously and I end up with her on the beach, sizzling under the sun, beneath a huge palm tree. We make love as I never have before in my whole life, seized by a whirlwind of passion, uninhibited. My illness starts again when she leaves, as a matter of fact, it gets worse and worse. The strangest thing is, I see my body become downy, words come slowly from my lips, I find it difficult to articulate sentences and construct logical discourse. I sweat a lot, but it’s a cold, unnatural sweat that never abandons me, even when the sea wind blows forcefully. I find no peace, in my home I find not one instant of tranquility. I am not able to write and when I’m sleeping, I am the victim of desperate nightmares. I see monsters riding huge waves, fiery words coming out of ancient books and sorcerers reciting terrorizing magic spells. What’s happening to me?
Upon awakening, I go down to the kitchen for my breakfast but the landlord becomes frightened and escapes, shouting. My hands are covered in hair and most of my body has acquired a beastly appearance. I can hardly hold the pen in my hand to write these few lines. Where is Karin? I would like to go out on the beach and look for her, but I can’t. I must stay inside. I’m experiencing terrible headaches and the sunlight annoys me. Suddenly, I think I’m seeing Karin’s face, the stunning mulatta who has sent my life in turmoil. But the transformation is rapid. She comes to me as she has always been: old and deformed, her face plagued, her mouth toothless, her hands shriveled in a horrible menacing gesture.
The real Karin is before me as I attempt to write these sentences. She gets closer taking slow, menacing steps. Now I understand everything. I know I cannot escape. I know I will never see my wife and son again. My future is before my eyes and it looks at me with a disturbing expression. The hair will stop growing and my teeth will become sharper. In the early morning sky, I read the nocturnal vision of a full-moon. In the spectral atmosphere of the tropical night, a cry will rise in the sky of Port-au-Prince. I now know I have a duty to fulfill. I’ll dive into the darkness like hunted prey and discover my destiny as an avenger. A population of slaves needs an inhuman hero who must feed on the blood of new conquerors. My destiny is to punish my own lineage of rich Westerners who pretend to be defenders of the poor, but who only want to exploit them. This is what Karin and her people expect of me. I will be their slave during full-mooned nights. A sinister howl echoes in the silence of the morning. On a forgotten shore in Haiti, the first night of revenge is being prepared.
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A Halloween to Be Forgotten by Elena Garbugli
Translation by Crystal Bianchi
Serena was preparing to go out, she had to accompany her sister while she went “trick or treating” with her friends. She didn’t want to, not because she didn’t want to be with her sister, or because she had something to do, but simply because she didn’t like Halloween night at all. She was frightened of it. Every thirty-first of October, she hoped the day would end soon and she moped around all day long, locked in her room. She preferred to stay at home and give chocolates and sweets to the children who rang the doorbell rather than going out among the people who cackled while wearing costumes. There wasn’t a real reason for why she didn’t love this holiday, it simply gives her the shivers. Everyone always made fun of her, they said that it was a childish fear, but what could she do?
That year it was up to her to accompany her sister. Her parents had gone out along with her brother, who used to take on the responsibility knowing her hatred for this holiday, and so there wasn’t any alternative. She also tried to convince her sister not to go. She had promised her endless sweets, toys and gifts of all kinds, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
Sara loved Halloween, she would go out at any price to show off her beautiful witch costume. In fact she looked really nice in her costume, and how could she say “No” to that adorable, supplicating gaze? Therefore, Serena took courage and she dressed up to go out. She wouldn’t have worn any costume, that’s all we needed! It was hard enough just to peek out the door. It was 8 o’clock pm when they went out and Serena held Sara’s hand tightly, looking around as if something terrible were going to happen at any moment.
“Hey, don’t squeeze me so tight! “ said Sara, trying to wriggle from the grip of her sister.
“Sorry…”, rumbled Serena, slackening off.
“Don’t tell me you are scared!” Sara complained, “What a wimp! Who are afraid of meeting? You should know that monsters don’t exist for real! Being told something like that by her ten-year-old baby sister made her feel a bit foolish. In fact, if her sister wasn’t frightened in any way, why should she be? It was just a matter of a children’s festival. She looked at her while she was running towards her friends. She was carefree and happy. There was nothing to be afraid of. She heaved a sigh and she caught up with her to start the tour of the houses. Going from house to house, Serena seemed to be relaxed. She was surrounded by children, for many of whom she had babysat, so she felt at ease. On the contrary, she was having fun: it was nice to see them laugh, joke and give out the sweets. It was 9.30 pm when they arrived at the last house. The tour was finished, and it was time to go back home, so Sara would be in bed at ten. Everything had gone off smoothly. Maybe she was wrong to be so frightened of that holiday. They were right to make fun of her, and from that moment she would laugh at it. After taking all the children home, she was alone with her sister, who had offered her many sweets from her bag full of goodies, and she was telling her sister she was disappointed she hadn’t even had the chance to play a trick. She was very happy that Serena had accompanied her. They had almost reached their walkway when Sara exclaimed: “Look!”
Serena turned to the direction indicated by her sister, but she didn’t see anything and she couldn’t say it in time because her sister was already running toward that direction.
“Sara! Where are you going? Come back here! Serena screamed while she was chasing her sister. Sara was running fast and Serena was afraid of losing touch with her. What was she thinking? She had never behaved like that, and had always been a good child, the typical girl who never ran off and always obeyed. While Sara was running, Serena realized that the road was deserted. What had happened to the other people? Until recently there were many people all around. They had arrived at the outskirts of the neighborhood, and Sara had turned left too. She couldn’t see her, the grass in the field was so tall that she couldn’t even see the peaky hat that Sara was wearing. She thought she had seen something move in front of her, and without thinking twice, she went into the field. She ran fast and was calling her sister. She was terrorized, what would happen if she lost her? The moon shone in the sky, by that time it was night and Serena could hardly breathe. She didn’t even know how long she had been running. She couldn’t take it anymore so she stopped to catch her breath. Looking up to the sky, she realized she had stopped in a clearing where the grass seemed to have been cut recently; in front of her, there was a windmill. She didn’t know that there was a windmill out there, she had never heard of it. While she was observing it, she noticed that a little witch was slipping into the small opening which was left open by the windmill’s heavy wooden door. It was Sara. Serena rushed into the windmill looking for her sister.The door opened with loud creaking and, once she was inside, Serena was wrapped in darkness. It took some time before her eyes got used to the darkness. When she began to see again, she noticed that the room was empty ; it looked like an old , abandoned barn, and the dim light of the moon filtered through a small window in the wall opposite the door. It seemed that nobody was inside, and there weren’t other doors except the main door. Then, where was her sister? She panicked, and she felt paralyzed, frozen and petrified. Then, she saw a tiny door at the other end of the room; Sara must be in there. Serena approached the door and opened it. Suddenly, she was overwhelmed by a strong, foul smell, so she had to cover her nose and her mouth. She found herself before a winding staircase; the walls were made of bricks covered with moss. There were burning torches and the trembling flames created weird plays of light reflected on the steps. It was cold, and Serena had to keep her shoulders close together while she was going downstairs. Who knows where they led to. She thought she had heard some whispers more than once, she turned quickly because she was sure of being chased. The more she descended, the colder it was, and the more she went down she, the more she felt discouraged and anguished. Where was Sara? What happened to her? While she was walking, she whispered her name. At the end of the staircase, she found herself in a big hall, which seemed to be the exact copy of the windmill’s hall, but it was not as dark as the room upstairs; on the contrary, it was lit up by torches hung on the walls and many candles spread on the floor. On the walls there were weird symbols written with red paint. Was it paint? Wasn’t it? Now, Serena was really upset, she almost passed out, but couldn’t. She had to find Sara. In front of Serena, at the opposite side of the room, there was a door. She had to go through it to get her sister home, no matter what. She sighed, trying to take courage. As she was making for the door, she heard a scream. Sara! Serena leapt toward the door, she opened it wide and…
…the alarm clock rang. Serena had never been so happy to wake up. The only problem was that the calendar marked the thirty-first of October, and at that early hour of the day she was angry because the day had begun with the wrong foot and it would have been so long. How she detested Halloween! That night, would she have taken her sister around the neighborhood to “trick or treat”?
Fragments of Heroes in American Noir Movie
by Alessandra Calanchi
Translation by Margherita Pergolini and Maria Teresa Vitali
The secret lies behind appearances… action can no longer be one dimensional, characters cannot be people of sterling character. The rule of the game is être double. Alain Corneau
The male protagonist of the American noir movie of the 40s, very different both from the gangster movies’ “tough guy” and from the most refined British cousin in the style of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, is doubtless one of the most attractive and contradictory creations not only of the hard-boiled genre, but in all of cinema. Virtual superman of undisputed talents in solution and investigation, he actually does nothing more than handle big guns without ever using them, falling into traps which insidious blond women fatally set, letting himself be hit, imprisoned and drugged almost without blinking an eye. Nevertheless, he usually does not lose face and comes out on top. At the beginning, he is often presented to us as a name (P.I., Private Eye, appears on the office door-even better when upside down- in many films) or as a voice (Sunset Boulevard, Letter from an Unknown Woman): through a limited perception – visual or aural – the spectator is called upon to build, a bit at a time, his own cognitive process and link the fragments he arranges to unite them into a whole that will be the product of an entire organization of perceptions.
Sometimes, the “visible” character’s identity is revealed later (Sunset Boulevard); sometimes, it continues to be hidden until the end, just showing itself now and then, perhaps with a mirror trick (Lady in the Lake). Other times, we have to content ourselves with seeing physical parts (a hand, a profile) or details in attire (a hat, shoes), as if the camera were not able to offer us an “entire” version of the scene – or, turning the dialogue around, as if the view were inadequate to gather the whole reality of the situation in its totality, or maybe because, after all, reality is made up of numerous points of view which can create a “whole” only when put together.
The labyrinthine structure of many noir films seems to underline the fragmentary character not only of the image, but of the character’s identity itself. He often moves about among dark and unknown paths in a sort of trance, feeling a tension which, even if not truly part of the male hero’s prerogatives, has in any case its own moral and psychological justification in the context of the crisis that the P.I. is called to resolve. Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) is time after time represented as fragments: more frequently we see parts of his body in the foreground than his entire body, and around him the whole universe is disjoined; it is a mosaic made up of many pieces – a falling key, a bill, a statuette – which have to be combined together.
Even voice-over, a very frequent devise in noir, is part of this separation. It is a breaking point between image and word; this voice belongs to a face of which we cannot catch sight. It is a further fragment of reality, which hides an empty space. Both when explaining everything (The Lady from Shanghai, Sunset Boulevard) and when speaking in a confused or deceptive manner (Crossfire), but also when it acts as a liberating factor (Out of the Past), the voice is, again, just a piece of the whole. It is often a mere appearance of reality, or just one among the numerous points of view, up to the extreme case of Touch of Evil, in which the voice fractures into three different voices: the real one, the echoed one and the recorded one.
The elaborate expedient of Welles is coloured with an existential motivation: the more interpretations we have of the same reality, the more the same reality paradoxically loses consistency and meaning (as Kurosawa wonderfully reaffirms in his Rashomon).
Noir’s physical and mental fragmentation approaches that of the dream. It is not by chance that Spade, speaking about the statuette of the hawk, says that it is “made out of the same material with which dreams are made”: actually, this similarity can be applied to all these films.
They are perceived by the spectator as “light in the dark” (Alloway), and based on that detection, called by Edenbaum “metaphor of existence”, they are characterized by a fabric like that of the dream, in which “the psychic states… are exposed to an obscure pressure, following which the relationship between images divides; the perceptive pictures of things, people, places, events and actions of life are separately reproduced while wide-awake”(Strümpell).
Fabre says that in the American movies of the 40s and 50s, “physical presence separates and loses the total dimension of the medium”.
Part 1 -Translation by Margherita Pergolini
In a rarefied and neurotic atmosphere, where the urban background is often the enemy of the character (“the world that we know disappears”, Wood) and also where mirrors deceive rather than showing reality (The Lady from Shanghai), the hero struggles in vain against the stranger oppression of the nightmare, of the hallucination. Marlowe, unconscious and drugged, has deformed visions of a huge spider’s web and a series of narrow and unreachable doors (Murder, My Sweet). Again, the objects, or the fragments of them, get the better over the whole: as the figurative motif of the spiral in the film credits of Vertigo, or as the eye in various films by Hitchcock, the fragment becomes reality, the synecdoche takes the place of unity.
Since the structural coherence always prevails perceptively, and the observation has a subjective structure, based on what we already know or what we wish to see, the incompleteness will be filled in by the spectator in any case, who will rebuild it by a reformulation and recombination of the available fragments. The opening scenes in Crossfire, for example, in which we watch only the shadows projected on the wall and in which we vaguely perceive legs and backs in a surreal lighting effect that at the end is switched off leaving the screen completely dark for a few moments, there is no obstruction in our ability to re-establish the events even in their confusion: an argument is going on and a man is killed. This is because the parts cannot exist autonomously but only when linked together, since we have already perceived through ‘thought’. This decidedly cinematographic expedient of “rage” is particularly present in thriller films, however, in all movies suspense is of a certain importance. In “noir”, to the subject of “surprise” (we are expected to pass from surprise to surprise without understanding) that of incertitude is joined, the “broken” identity of the hero. Women who surround him (sisters, mothers, vestals, or in contrast, deceptive witches) belong to a much more stable and dualistic universe, they always know which side to be on, and even when they are playing a double game, they do so by choice. Bad or good beings with no chance for compromise, sometimes nothing more than unconscious beings, a source of agitation and upheaval or, vice versa, a source of love and protection . Sometimes, man erases them from his memory (Letter from an Unknown Woman) and sometimes he evokes them so intensely as to bring them back to life just by contemplating their portrait. (Laura)
The presence of the male protagonist in noir is contradictory and complicated: an incomplete and imperfect character, supported by the same mechanisms as the “detection” itself but always on the edge of self disintegration. He is a hero whose parts tend to join together, but his wholeness is often in danger. In him, there are always some blank spaces to fill in, invisible images that can become visible only through our active perception; there are parts to link, lines to trace. The mystery that surrounds him and he is asked to resolve is passed down to us: its detection is completed by our own.
₁ The voice-over, a part from being a frequent technique in noir, in the great majority of cases is a male phenomenon (and it is always, except for rare exceptions, when it appears in its “purest” form, that is when it belongs to someone that doesn’t belong to the story).Regarding this issue, consult G. Fink, From Showing to Telling: Off-Screen Narration in the American Cinema, in American Literatures, Bulzoni, Year 3 n. 12, 1982; A. Calanchi, The imperfect hero of the black American film in New Cinema, year 31, n. 278/279, 1982; S. Kozloff, Invisible storytellers, University of California Press, 1988.
₂ In regard to the perception problem, and in particular regarding the perception as a constructive process and the reconstruction of the whole based on its parts, please refer to a very interesting book by G. Kanizsa, Grammatica del verde. Saggi su percezione e gestalt, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1980.
₃ The German word, introduced by phenomenology (Husserl) with which the various perceptive aspects of a same object in its sensitive multiplicity are defined, is Abschattungun (in Italian we speak less of overshadow). In other words, perception doesn’t occur in just one fixed way, but it is trigged by a patrimony of knowledge already acquired individually.
Part 2- Translation by Maria Teresa Vitali