Napoleon. Nineteenth-century mental asylums were overrun with men convinced they were the Emperor of the French. Roaming about in crumpled, ungainly tricorne hats, they gave orders to invisible troops in their institutions’ English gardens. These men weren’t aberrations, just outliers on a spectrum of absolutely normal human behavior. We all have to believe we’re somebody. If we don’t give ourselves a face, if we don’t occupy some position, all action becomes impossible. At times we go too far and end up in an asylum, but generally speaking, we can’t do without imagination.
For instance, I was at my parents’ house, Christmas dinner 2005, and I had to ask my father for a loan. What kind of person was I? A Sergey Brin? A Julien Sorel? A Trump? Someone who, given a hundred-thousand-euro loan, could move the world? Or was I one of those sons of successful men, their faces swollen from seaside vacations, with childlike smiles and the lumpy bodies of unfinished men? One of those aristocrats who drown in their own pools, or the Kennedy kids, the Agnelli kids, with their vices, their complexes? Because my father was rich. And not even excessively so—he was happy rich, without serious obligations to the world. And not only was he happy rich, he was also the master of his own destiny, because when he was young he’d used his considerable talent to rescue his father-in-law’s fortune and make a name for himself. In the late seventies, when the furniture market threatened to tank, aggressive new dealers started coming out of nowhere and selling off their stock at ridiculously low prices, but my father saw it coming and advised his father-in-law to get out of the business in time. So my grandfather cut a deal with these new low-cost entrepreneurs and diversified. What he lost from one pocket was returned to him in the other, and the damage was limited. My father became Achilles, Hector, an unblemished hero.
It was none other than this charming and self-confident man whom I had to ask for a loan, I who was the soul of drab. My belly strained against my sky-blue tailored shirt, my stooped back ached, and as if that weren’t enough, I always kept my eyes to the ground. Just like Jesus when he looked down and prodded the earth with a stick instead of facing the crowd baying for the adulteress’s stoning: I followed his example.
What with my stoop and my belly, my wife had lost interest in me and my body, and I in turn had lost all confidence in myself. She didn’t show the least interest even though I was tall and had the broad shoulders of a champion—prevailing over it all were the two startled little folds beneath my butt cheeks, excesses of fat, of physical resignation. And on that Christmas Day as well my thighs swelled the pants of my suit, the suit I was married in. Why an elegant suit for Christmas dinner? As everybody knew—because I took every opportunity to explain—it was my custom, on holy days, to set aside my usual shabby dress, my unlikely argyles and gray corduroys, and put on my good suit so everyone would understand that I cared only for the Lord; only for Him did I get dressed up, and certainly not to please women. With the anxious and contrite air that always clung to me, especially at my parents’, where I insisted on saying grace before meals even though it had never been the custom in our house, with that anxious and contrite air and my gray English-style suit, it was impossible for me to make allies when I needed them. A good Christian should be more accommodating but, I told myself, the times are what they are, and if you speak softly, people won’t understand that the Lord is their shepherd. The state of things really bothered me, and everybody knew it and gave me a wide berth, refusing to take me into their confidence, denying me their loving touch. I gave anyone who found fault with the opinions of Pope Ratzinger a mouthful, and turned up my nose if anyone made dirty jokes; in short, I was totally committed, in my own way, to becoming a saint. Go and read the lives of the saints; they didn’t mess around.
Now, even a saint, when asking his father for a loan, has to decide what kind of son he is: one with balls who knows his own mind, or nothing but a big baby who’ll live in the shadow of his parents forever and die still soft. That’s why saints don’t ask their parents for loans and instead choose a life of poverty. But I wanted to change jobs. I absolutely had to change jobs, I was going crazy. I had to give up my position as an editor at the Catholic publishing house Non Possumus and look for something less stressful. But as you’ll gather from the conversation in which I ask Daddy for money, at the time I had just the sort of job to make people shake their heads and say, “You made your bed…”
I was difficult. And if you’re a difficult person, you’ll agree that even if your obstinacy at times just seems to others like a bad habit, being difficult in fact prevents you from living well. In my particular case, I should add that before the conversion that struck me blind with the love of Jesus, I was a good-looking kid. Many people were dismayed by my voluntary transformation into a homely and unsociable man. I may have had my father’s and brothers’ sallow skin, but what with my height, my good shoulders and slim legs, my way with words, my tendency to philosophize, a nose somewhere between Jewish and Imperial Roman, I’d been able to take my pick before becoming engaged to Alice.
So now people would say, “How did Piero Rosini ever come to this? He’s become ugly and even more insufferable than before. A lousy philosopher he always was, but now you won’t even get a laugh out of him.” They stopped calling. And I would think, Blessed are those who suffer for His cause.
I remained seated at the table, waiting to find the courage to approach my father. The others had already moved into the living room behind me. The two large, unequal rooms were separated by a pair of short partition walls that made them seem like mirrored stage sets. There I was on one stage, pure Harold Pinter: hunched over the table, my shirt cuffs resting among the crumbs on a battlefield of white linen, the gold-thread-embroidered tablecloth strewn with dessert plates smeared with Chantilly cream and the remains of pangiallo and parrozzo. Across from me, my little five-year-old nephew, wearing a red vest over a blue-and-white-striped shirt with an unbuttoned and crumpled collar, his fine brown hair parted to one side, was enraptured by the task of filling a page with alternating upper- and lowercase H’s. No doubt certain family members—my wife, for instance—had understood, knowing my temperament, that I remained there out of spite. I couldn’t stomach the fact that my father had given the order to break ranks before coffee, before Mamma had even turned on the machine, just to cover up my older brother Carlo’s dirty tricks. As Carlo nibbled on a crumbly slice of parrozzo, his cell phone gave a short ring; seconds later it gave another, longer this time. He’d checked the display and, after a second’s hesitation, eyebrows raised, answered with a “Hey there!” and disappeared from the room, leaving his lobster-colored sweater on the back of the overstuffed chair. His mistress, obviously. And Papa, ever faithful to his sons, especially the two oldest, Carlo and Fausto, who had always accompanied him on his work trips and got up to who knows what together (I’ll never know), had proposed, “Shall we move into the living room? Dear, will you bring us the coffee in there?”
Mamma had stood up, asking, “How many?”
Papa, big and tall, had shuffled away like a grizzly, dragging his leather slippers. Coming in for landing on the turquoise velvet easy chair, he asked for his cigarettes, which Mamma presently provided.
Christmas dinner should never be interrupted by a mistress. I remained at the table with my little nephew—“Uncle Piero, how many words do you know beginning with H?” “How is a word beginning with H.” “It … it’s at the start of the word. How many do you know?” “How is a word starting with H.” “Whaat?”—and in the air between us, among the dessert plates, glasses, and silverware, hung the memory of the linguine with lobster, the turbot covered in thinly sliced potatoes, the prawns in cocktail sauce, and all that Piedmontese and Apulian wine we’d befuddled ourselves with as we talked about A.S. Roma, potholes, makes of scooters, the lengths of scarves.
At that point my father’s heart must have ached with joy: the phone call already ably forgotten, he rested behind me, basking in the meal’s success. What did it matter to him if two of his three daughters-in-law were suffering, scratching up the doorjambs with their cuckold’s horns? If he had raised two older children (the younger ones, my sister and I, were Mamma’s creation) as second-rate pleasure-seekers, uninspired, slaves to material needs, so what? In any case, the grandkids would be the ones to pay, the sons and daughters of mothers and fathers who didn’t love each other in the light of Christ.
As you can see, my extravagant mind transformed familiar faces into ugly brutes and wretched victims, and well-known houses into inhospitable deserts where I was at the mercy of the Tempter. Such images may well suit Jesus of Nazareth as the Devil leads him up the mountain to offer him the riches of the world—for him reality truly is threatening and sinister. But for me? Well, I needed money, and it’s hard to ask for money from someone you regard as the Devil Incarnate.
Yes, that’s what I thought my father was. The last of the devils, like Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco is the very last of the Mafiosi, but still part of the hierarchy, Evil’s lackey. Because he’d cheated on my mother (I know even if I don’t have proof, as Pasolini had it), because he didn’t approve of my ultrapapist religious turn, because ever since I set my sights on becoming a modern saint, an intellectual martyr, he no longer knew how to deal with me or even, literally, how to talk to me.
From another point of view, he was just an old man, a sentimental old man, easily moved to tears, who wanted nothing more from life than to enjoy his family gathered round the table for a four-course dinner, and afterward, Super Light Camel in hand like an orchestra director’s baton, to watch his grandkids scampering about on the rugs, popping out of one door and immediately dashing through another, raising hell, while his three lovely daughters-in-law and his daughter, Federica, vestals of the household religion, conversed happily in groups of two.
And this was the scene on the other stage, which I took in at a glance as I turned, slice of panettone in hand: the custard-colored living room, the pin-striped wallpaper; Carlo in shirtsleeves and Fausto in a pea-green cashmere-blend sweater, smoking on the terrace with the rain and the pines shaking over the avenue behind them; their wives dressed in black with pearl necklaces, sitting on a satin settee, coffee in hand; three children, a girl and two boys (the one with the H’s had deserted me for his cousins), who scurried away from and then returned to their mothers, one dragging a plastic fire engine. On a pair of armchairs sat my sister, Federica, and my wife, Alice, all animated hand gestures and bright orange stockings, both women (Federica’s stockings sporting three bright stripes of color, her legs brushing up against Alice’s) a sharp contrast to the daughters-in-law in black. Federica, with her rounded shoulders, her knee-length chestnut-brown wool dress and ice-blue angora shawl, was a honeyed, unsettling pet of a woman with lots of wrinkles—she was thirty-six years old, seven years older than I was. That left Mamma behind the scenes in the kitchen, the barrista set to appear with the tray every two minutes to serve coffee, and my father center stage in his easy chair, meeting my gaze as he reached over to turn on a table lamp. With the light, the yellow pin-striped wallpaper suddenly lost its luster, as if oxidized; outside, intermittent rain stained the window ledges and tickled the glass.
Piercing the fourth wall, I went to join their performance, my gray suit in that composite chaos à la De Filippo making me the intruder in a coup de théâtre, the civil servant, the gravedigger, the bearer of bad news.
“Listen, Papa, I’d like to talk to you about work.”
“With me? What an honor.”
He’d taken his slippers off. He tapped a cigarette against its silver case. Placing the cigarette in his mouth, he brushed back the sparse white hair over his ears. He was wrapped in a blue cardigan like a sumo wrestler, tall and big-bellied. The cardigan took me back to my childhood. In his fifties he used to wear it under his jacket when he went to dinner with a bunch of yuppie socialists from Monte Mario, big fans of basketball and sailing.
He lights his cigarette, blows smoke, and stretches out; then with one hand he catches a passing grandkid, tells him, “Go and get us a chair, amore.” The child gives his cousin and sister a superior look and runs into the dining room, where he begins to grapple with a chair like a dockworker. I walk over and grab the chair from him; the child looks at his grandfather, who, cigarette in mouth, slips a hand into a cardigan pocket and pulls out a fifty-centesimi piece. The child runs to his grandfather’s hand, seizes the golden doubloon, and flees into another room, followed by the other two little ones, dumbfounded at the appearance of money.
“So, then, what’s on your mind? Cigarette?”
“No, I don’t smoke, no.”
“What do you mean, you don’t smoke? I thought you did.”
I didn’t like watching him smoke, him sucking on the cigarettes as if they were oysters.
“I wanted to tell you that…, to tell you about work. The thing is, I’m starting to look around, and I wanted—”
“Of course, of course. Rightly so.”
“Look, as I see it, Fede is keeping an eye on you.” He leaned forward with a confidential, knowing air, the tip of his cigarette glowing like a precious stone. “As I see it, Fede is trying to figure out what you’re up to at that … eccentric publishing house of yours … and as soon as she thinks you’ve got the right experience, she’ll introduce you to the right people, understand? It’s a matter of months, I’d say.”
My sister Federica was a writer whose books were brought out by a big publisher. The original plan, hatched when we were still close, was for her to get me into publishing as well. Before Holy Scriptures swept it away, literature was my life. My father had failed to pick up on this change in me and listened only to what he wanted to hear, the way winners do; he overlooked certain details because he was always looking ahead. In the Anglo-Saxon managerial language that he had cheerfully made his own, for him a problem was an opportunity. Papa was a true believer.
“You know very well,” he explained, “that before entrusting your brothers with paying jobs I made them toil for free until they showed me they really had the balls for it. Fede is doing the same thing with you; she’s waiting for you.”
Federica and I were no longer on speaking terms. Fede went out with married men, wrote about clitorises and theatrical salons; she thought I was a bigot. The bigot and the whore, that’s what our literary alliance came to. Ever since we were little, Mamma had endeavored to make us better than Carlo and Fausto, whose overly bourgeois and paternally influenced upbringing (tennis, five-a-side soccer, girlfriends from Parioli, not much reading) she had come to regret. Federica, the pedagogical masterpiece, had turned out as Mamma had hoped, becoming a relatively famous writer of newspaper articles, exhibition catalogs, and novels full of declines of the West and wet crotches. Who knows what she and my wife had to say to each other whenever they met.
“Leave Fede out of this, Papa. There’s something I want to talk to you about. It’s the publishing house. Recently, I’ve been feeling I can’t get behind it anymore.”
“Only recently?” He was trying not to laugh.
It pained me to have to say this, but money is money. “It’s become pure paranoia. I don’t think it’s doing me any good, spiritually.”
He puffed his cheeks and snorted, unable to resist: he now had to scoff, “Do you have any idea what you sound like, Piero?”
“No, I don’t, please let me speak. Alice and I are leaving soon.”
“We have to go, and anyway I don’t feel like staying and playing the fool for you with my work problems.”
“And what would be so wrong with giving your old father some amusement?”
“Papa, will you just listen to me for a minute?”
“What would be so wrong with playing the fool for your father? You’re so serious. Well, don’t get me started.”
“Fine, what is it you have to say to me, Papa?”
In my pocket I clutched the little tin cross and ten cherrywood beads of my mini-rosary. My white boxers were slipping around inside my pants. A year and a half earlier my father had taken me to his tailor, perhaps the only time in more than ten years I had done something with him and in his style; but it was for a sacred occasion, my wedding outfit.
He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray, pressing down hard with the tip of his index finger, crushing it. As he spoke, my heart sank.
“You don’t realize how much fun it is to talk to people about you. Whatever it is, their eyes always get big, like this! Once, someone told me that from what I said, you were like someone running toward a burning city while everyone else was trying to escape.”
“Something I might have learned from you…”
“Of course, my dear fellow, of course, but you also have to know which abandoned city to choose. I only run in if I know they’ve left their safes open.”
“Very funny, Papa, so you’re better than me, way to go.” I’d been shaken but had to remember that the money was still in his pockets.
“Anyway, the story I love telling, usually at dinner after the dirty jokes, it goes like this: ‘One time those crazies from the publishing house had him do some research for a book. He’s good at what he does, you see, so they have him rewrite the books, make them better, get the subjunctives right, stretch out the material.’” He looked at me, extended his large hand toward my large hand, but I had broken out in a cold sweat and he noticed, hesitated, then continued: “I’m painting you a picture of the situation from the outside, you have to learn to see things in perspective. ‘They had him rewrite a book about subliminal pornographic messages. In our family we renamed it the Book of Cocks.’”
I wanted to ask him if it was true about the name, but some great weight prevented me from speaking up.
“‘Piero analyzed a series of advertisements and cartoons and Disney movies in which hidden cocks appeared. That is, a skyscraper with a round penthouse. A mountain cave full of shrubs. Subliminal cunts. A lamppost.’ ‘And why?’ my friends asked. ‘Because in the world according to Ratzinger…’”
“Papa.” I tried to smile but I really wasn’t the smiling type. “That’s enough, leave the Pope out of this.”
“And I told them: ‘According to righteous, hard-line Catholics like my genius of a son, there are secret, hidden powers in the world who control the newspapers and TV and movies and comic strips and they insert cocks everywhere in order to corrupt children.’ Because let’s be clear here, my son whom I love, this is what you all think.”
I clutched the rosary and tried silently to recite a Hail Mary, but immediately made a mess of it.
“And do you know what people do? They buy me dinner. Because the story is just too good to be true. Nobody can believe people like that exist, let alone one of my own, my flesh and blood. Now listen to the end—”
“They don’t really buy you dinner—”
He stopped me with a gesture. “Listen to the end of my story and see if they don’t buy me dinner.”
My father must be a Mason, I thought, otherwise he wouldn’t be waging this war against me. Mazzini reincarnated. My imagination was running wild again and I found it telling that he and Mamma lived in Prati, the neighborhood of the liberal, anticlerical elite, of elegant nineteenth-century boulevards and apartment blocks, a little slice of Paris in Arcadian Rome, the Catholic village—Prati, the neighborhood constructed in such a way that St. Peter’s could be seen only from one or two streets. My father the Mason. Ever since I became a great Christian of the saturnine Russian stripe, the city drove me crazy. Mazzini and the non expedit Pope, the soubrettes on their coffee breaks behind the RAI building, the civil servants, gaudy Neapolitans or gloomy Turinese, corrupt souls. I belonged to the Pope, not to newspaper publishers or bustling undersecretaries with flakes of croissant between their teeth, and I certainly didn’t belong to my father.
“So how does your story end?”
“‘And my son,’ I tell them, ‘comes to me one day and says, “Papa, Papa … I see cocks everywhere…”’ And everyone dies laughing. And they buy me dinner.”
I looked at him, perplexed. “Did I really say that to you?”
Nodding, he says, “No, you didn’t say it to me. Irregardless, if you had, I’d have died laughing. And let’s face it, you might well have said it.”
“Irregardless?” I reply.
“Yes, irregardless, so what?”
What a poker face. He probably said “irregardless” on purpose in order to force me into being a pedant. A businessman’s tricks. “Should I get up and leave?” I threatened.
“No no no, c’mon, stay, let’s have some fun. Are you trying to bury me alive? Laughing’s good for my heart condition.”
Unfortunately, he was right, I did see cocks everywhere. That book was the beginning of my nightmares. The author’s thesis was that postwar sexual liberation didn’t arise spontaneously, but was induced by esoteric strains of Masonry intent on establishing a new world order based on pleasure as religion, on nonreproductive sex. To this end, corrupt producers had inserted nudity into children’s movies and cartoons in the form of photographs or drawings of breasts, vaginas, and penises, as new single frames or montaged into the existing ones. After three months spent reviewing the illustrations, I’d seen enough penises and vaginas to last me the rest of my life. The skyscraper with the glans-shaped penthouse on the cover of a Duck Avenger adventure was lodged in my head forever. Likewise, anything long looked like a cock and anything round and concave looked like a cunt. Wine bars, with all those bottlenecks on the shelves, were scenes of perdition. I told myself: This is why working women on the pill go drink wine at cocktail hour. Bottles in rows on the shelves, red and turgid, sheathed with labels. They surround themselves with cocks, they drink from cocks. I had an immoderate imagination. I always went too far.
“All right, let’s not argue. So then, amore, what’s your idea?”
I tried to keep my mind on the money. “I’m thinking of opening a publishing house.”
“A publishing house. Good grief. But aren’t they all going over to electronic books?”
“No, no,” I explained (he always thought he knew everything). “What does that have to do with anything? It’s been a flop, no one ever talks about it.”
“But in the long run?”
“What the fuck, Papa, listen to me. A publishing house that’s a bit less about taking sides than Non Possumus, and more literary. That’s the idea.”
“And who would help you?”
“Alice would do the covers.”
“Uh-huh, and what about somebody who understands the market? Pardon me, but do you have somebody who understands books and isn’t distracted by cocks—do you have that?”
I made to get up.
“No, don’t, please, I’m only kidding. Don’t get so upset.”
“Papa, I’m talking to you about my life and you just can’t help yourself.”
“No, now hold it right there, we’re talking about my life too.” He leaned toward me and once again reached for my hand. He was about to get sentimental, I could tell. “First of all, if it’s an investment, you can’t expect that I won’t have my say—but let’s forget about that for the moment. What I really want to know is, how much fun can I still expect to have with my son before I go? My darling Piero who’s always in church and never visits his father. It makes me ill just to think about it. How many more Christmases with my wonderful, bat-crazy son? Well, amore? The mathematics of it, Piero!”
He gave me a wrinkly smile full of love. What was I to do? I rejected him, withdrawing my hand. An unforgivable error. He decided he needed to teach me a lesson.
“You’re always so unhappy, Piero. So serious. Why? Why doesn’t the story of the subliminal messages make you laugh? Don’t take yourself so seriously, for God’s sake. I swear”—and here he tried to laugh as inoffensively as possible—“if the cock story doesn’t make you laugh, you’re in a bad way.”
“So you’re not convinced?”
“Why don’t you have some fun once in a while? You’re so unhappy. We pay for our children’s education, waste all this time teaching them to talk, send them off into the world while we learn how not to worry ourselves to death, and then they turn out so unhappy. When you’re happy you seem crazy, and the rest of the time you seem unhappy. Why don’t you have some fun? Why not go somewhere? You never leave Rome, never stop talking about priests … go on, take a trip somewhere!”
“You’re not convinced.”
“Okay, have it your way, we’ll talk about you another time. Tell me, why should I be convinced? You want me on the board?”
“You want money? Is that what you want? Let’s hear it then, how much?”
He was smiling. I was confused. Was he going to give it to me or not?
“Just, you know, to understand what kind of guy you are. Give me a number. How much do you want to extort from me?”
I had to be swift. Although I hadn’t even come up with a budget, this was my moment to convince him I was Napoleon in charge of a vast army of euros.
“And how did you come up with this number?”
I had no idea. I said nothing.
“How did you arrive at exactly twenty-five thousand? As a number, it doesn’t seem either big or small.”
“How? Tell me.”
“I don’t know.” I bowed my head. How did I come up with the number, Papa? I was just tired of cocks and tired of how afraid I was of everyone. I wanted to get away from Non Possumus, but where do you go with a résumé like mine?
“Well, my dear boy, it would have been better if you had known. This way you look like an amateur, and somebody in your situation can never afford to look like an amateur. When Roman Abramovich was a poor young man, selling plastic toys on the street, he lived in a room that was completely empty except for an elegant suit on a hanger. In order to look serious, to make a good impression. All right, so you’ve already got the elegant suit covered … forget the example, it doesn’t work. My dear boy, your proposal is one of the most delusional…”
From “delusional” onward I stopped listening as the black veil of defeat settled over everything, making the present seem like a bad memory even as it happened. Most likely he talked about his company, about what I was made of, and about Federica. Afterward I thanked him for listening to me and went into the kitchen, where in the meantime my brothers had holed up for another coffee. Having finished that, and inspired by what they found in the fridge, they had dug into an aged cheese. I found them dipping pieces in honey and talking about food.
“Here, try some,” they said to me, “this honey is amazing.”
“No, thanks, I’m not hungry.”
“It’s acacia honey. It’s sublime.”
Seeing them eat like that, bent over a silver bowl of sticky nectar, busy with their basic needs, bumblebees with human clothes and shaved chins, I felt a violent sadness overcome me; I left the kitchen and closed myself in the bathroom for a few minutes. Rosini, I tell myself now, you had truly delicate nerves.
Copyright © 2010 by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A., Milano
Translation copyright © 2013 by Stephen Twilley