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Love Far from Home

Occasionally a train sets off along the seafront and on that train there's me, leaving. Because I don't want to stay in my sleepy, cabbage-patch village, puzzling out the licence plates of out-of-town cars like a kid down from the mountains sitting on the wall of a bridge. I'm off, bye bye village.

In the world, beyond my village, there are other towns, some on the sea, others, why I don't know, lost in the depths of the lowlands, on the banks of railways that arrive, how I don't know, after breathless journeys through endless stretches of countryside. Every so often I get off in one of these towns and I always have the look of the first-time traveller, pockets stuffed with newspapers, eyes smarting with dust.

At night in my new bed I turn off the light and listen to the trams, then think of my room in my village, so distant in the night it seems impossible that two places so far apart could exist at the same moment. And, where I'm not sure, I fall asleep.

In the morning, outside the window, there's so much to explore: if it's Genoa, streets that go up and down and houses above and below and a rush of wind between them; if it's Turin, straight streets that never end, looking out over the railings of the balconies, with a double row of trees fading away beyond into white skies; if it's Milan, houses that turn their backs on you in fields of fog. There must be other towns, other things to explore: one day I'll go and see.

But in every town the room is always the same, it seems the landladies must send the furniture on from town to town as soon as they know I'm coming. Even my shaving kit on the marble dresser top looks as if I'd found it there when I arrived rather than putting it there myself, it has such an air of inevitability, doesn't seem mine at all. I could live years in one of these rooms after other years in other and absolutely similar rooms, without ever managing to feel it was mine or make my mark on it. Because my suitcase is always ready for the next journey, and no town in Italy is the right town, no town has work to offer, no town would be good enough even if you did find work because there's always another and better town where you hope to go to work one day. So I put my stuff in the drawers exactly how it was in my suitcase, ready to be packed again.

Days and weeks go by and a girl begins to come to the room. I could say it was always the same girl because at first there's no difference between one girl and the next, they're strangers and you communicate with them following a prescribed ritual. You have to spend a bit of time and do a lot of things with this girl for you both to understand the whys and wherefores; and then begins the season of enormous discoveries, the real, perhaps the only exciting season of love. Then, spending still more time and doing still more things with this girl, you realize that the other girls were like this too, that I too am like this, we all are, and everything she does is boring, as if repeated in a thousand mirrors. Bye bye, girlfriend.

The first time a girl comes to see me, let's say it's Mariamirella, I hardly do anything all afternoon: I go on with a book I'm reading, then realize that for the last twenty pages I've been looking at the letters as though they were pictures; I write, but really I'm doodling all over the white paper and all the doodles together become the sketch of an elephant, I shade it in and in the end it turns into a mammoth. Then I lose my temper with the mammoth and tear it up: why a mammoth every time, you baby!

I tear up the mammoth, the bell rings: Mariamirella. I run to open the door before the landlady can appear at the barred toilet window and start shouting; Mariamirella would be frightened off.

One day the landlady will die, strangled by thieves: it's written down, there's nothing anyone can do about it. She thinks she can save herself by not going to open the door when they ring, not asking: 'Whoozzat callin'?' from the barred toilet window, but it's a pointless precaution, the typesetters have already prepared the headline -- Landlady Adelaide Braghetti Strangled by Unknown Killers -- and are waiting for confirmation to lay out the page.

Mariamirella is there in the half-light, with her sailor's beret and pompom and her heart-shaped mouth. I open the door and she's already prepared a whole speech to make as soon as she's in, it doesn't matter what she actually says, only that we talk without a break as I lead her down the dark corridor to my room.

It ought to be a long speech, so as not to get stuck in the middle of my room without having anything left to say. The room offers no prompts, hopeless in its squalor: the metal bedstead, titles of unknown books in the little bookcase.

'Come and look out of the window, Mariamirella.'

The window is a French window with a waist-high railing but no balcony; you have to go up two steps to it and it feels as if we were climbing and climbing. Outside, a reddish sea of tiles. We look at the roofs stretching off all around as far as the eye can see, the stumpy chimneys suddenly puffing rags of smoke, the ridiculous balustrades on cornices where no one can ever look out, the low walls enclosing empty spaces on top of tumbledown houses. I put a hand on her shoulder, a hand that hardly feels like mine, swollen almost, as if we were touching each other through a layer of water.

'Seen enough?'


'Down then.'

We go down and close the window. We're underwater, we fumble with vague sensations. The mammoth roams about the room, ancient human fear.


I've taken off her sailor's beret and tossed it on the bed.

'No. I'm off now anyway.'

She puts it back on her head, I grab it and throw it up in the air, flying, now we're running after each other, playing with gritted teeth, love, this is love one for another, a scratching biting longing one for another, punching too, on the shoulders, then a weary weary kiss: love.

Now we're smoking sitting face to face: the cigarettes are huge between our fingers, like things held underwater, big sunken anchors. Why aren't we happy?

'What's the matter?' asks Mariamirella.

'The mammoth,' I tell her.

'What's that?' she asks.

'A symbol,' I tell her.

'What of?' she says.

'I don't know what of,' I tell her. 'A symbol.'

'Look,' I tell her, 'one evening I was sitting on a river bank with a girl.'


'The river was called the Po, and the girl Enrica. Why?'

'Oh nothing: I like to know who you've been with.'

'Okay, so we were sitting on the grassy river bank. It was autumn, in the evening, the banks were dark already and coming down the river was the shadow of two men rowing standing up. In town the lights were going on and we were sitting on the bank the other side of the river, and we were full of what they call love, that rough discovering and seeking of each other, that sharp taste of one another, you know, love. And I was full of sadness and solitude, that evening on the bank of rivers and their black shadows, the sadness and solitude of new loves, the sadness and nostalgia of old loves, the sadness and desperation of future loves. Don Juan, sad hero, ancient burden, he was full of sadness and solitude and nothing else.'

'Is it the same with me too?' Mariamirella asks.

'What if you spoke a bit, now, if you said what you know?'

I started to shout with rage; sometimes when you speak you hear what might be an echo, it drives you crazy.

'What do you expect me to say? All this stuff . . . you men . . . I don't understand.'

That's how it is: everything women have been told about love has been wrong. They've been told all sorts of things, but all wrong. And their experiences, all imprecise. And yet, they trust the things they're told, not the experiences. That's why they're so wrong-headed.

'I'd like, you see, us girls,' she says. 'Men: things you read, things they whisper in your ear from when you're a little girl. You learn that that is more important than anything else, the aim of everything else. Then, you see, I realized that you never get to that, really to that. It's not more important than everything else. I wish it didn't exist at all, any of it, that you didn't have to think about it. Yet you're always expecting it. Maybe you have to become a mother to get to the real sense of everything. Or a prostitute.'

There: it's great. We all have our secret explanations. You only have to reveal your secret explanation and she's not a stranger any more. We lie cuddled up together like two big dogs, or river gods.

'You see,' Mariamirella says, 'maybe I'm afraid of you. But I don't know where to hide. There's nothing on the horizon, only you. You're the bear and the cave. That's why I'm cuddled up in your arms now, so that you can protect me from my fear of you.'

And yet, it's easier for women. Life flows in them, a great river, in them, the perpetuators, nature is sure and mysterious, in them. Once there was the Great Matriarchy, the history of peoples flowed as simply as that of plants. Then the conceit of the drones: a rebellion, and we had civilization. That's what I think, but I don't believe it.

'Once I found I couldn't make it with a girl,' I tell her, 'on a meadow in the mountains. The mountain was called Mount Bignone and the girl Angela Pia. A big meadow, amongst the bushes, I remember, and a cricket jumping on every leaf. That trilling of crickets, so high, no escape. She couldn't really understand why I got up then and said that the last cable car was about to leave. Because it was a place you got to by cable car: and going over the pylons you felt yourself go empty inside and she said: "It's like when you kiss me." That was quite a relief, I remember.'

'You shouldn't tell me this sort of thing,' Mariamirella says. 'There'd be no more bear nor cave either. All I'd be left with was fear, all around.'

'You see, Mariamirella,' I tell her, 'we mustn't separate things from thoughts. The curse of our generation has been just that: not being able to do what we thought. Or not being able to think what we did. I'll give you an example: years ago (I'd changed my age on my identity card because I wasn't old enough), I went to a woman in a brothel. The brothel was at 15, via Calandra and the woman was called Derna.'


'Derna. We had the empire then and the only novelty was that the women in the brothels were called Derna, Adua, Harrar, Dessie.'


'Even Dessie, as I recall. You want me to call you Dessie from now on?'


'Well, to go back to that time, with this Derna. I was young and she was big and hairy. I ran away. I paid what I had to pay and ran away: down the stairs I had the impression everybody came out of their rooms to look at me and laugh. But that's not important: the thing is that as soon as I was home that woman became a thought, something mental, and I wasn't afraid of her any more. I began to want her, want her terribly . . . That's the point: for us things thought are different from the things themselves.'

'Right,' says Mariamirella, 'I've already thought of everything possible, I've lived hundreds of lives with my thoughts. Of marrying, of having lots of children, of having abortions, of marrying someone rich, of marrying someone poor, of becoming a high society lady, of becoming a prostitute, a dancer, a nun, a roast-chestnut seller, a star, an MP, an ambulance driver, a sportswoman. Hundreds of lives with all their details. And they all ended happily. But in real life none of those things I think ever happens. So every time I find myself imagining things, I get scared and try to stop the thoughts, because if I dream something it will never come true.'

She's a nice girl, Mariamirella; by nice girl I mean she understands the difficult things I say and immediately makes them easy. I'd like to give her a kiss, but then I think that if I kissed her I'd think of kissing the thought of her and she'd think of being kissed by the thought of me, so I do nothing about it.

'Our generation must reconquer the things themselves, Mariamirella,' I say. 'Think and do things at the same time. Not do things without thinking them through. We have to put an end to this difference between the things we think and the things themselves. Then we'll be happy.'

'Why is it like this?' she asks me.

'Well, it's not like this for everybody,' I tell her. 'When I was a boy I lived in a big villa, with balustrades high as if flying over the sea. And I spent my days behind those balustrades, I was a loner as a child, and for me everything was a strange symbol, the spacing of the dates hanging from the tufts on the stalks, the crooked arms of the cactuses, the strange patterns in the gravel of the paths. Then there were the grown-ups, whose job it was to deal with things, real things. All I had to do was discover new symbols, new meanings. I've stayed that way my whole life, I still live in a castle of meanings, not things, I still depend on the others, the "grown-ups", the ones who handle things. But there are people who've worked at lathes ever since they were children. At a tool that makes things. That can have no other meaning than the things it makes. When I see a machine I look at it as if it were a magic castle, I imagine tiny men turning amongst the cogs. A lathe. God knows what a lathe is. Do you know what a lathe is, Mariamirella?'

'A lathe, I'm not sure, right now,' she says.

'They must be really important, lathes. They should teach everybody to use them, instead of teaching you to use a rifle, a rifle is just another symbolic thing, with no real purpose.'

'I'm not interested in lathes,' she says.

'See, it's easier for you: you've got your sewing machines to save you, your needles and whatnot, gas rings, typewriters even. You've only got a few myths to escape from; everything's a symbol for me. But what is definite is, we've got to reconquer things.'

I'm caressing her, very softly.

'So, am I a thing?' she asks.

'Ugh,' I say.

I've found a small dimple on one shoulder, above the armpit, soft, with no bone beneath, like the dimples in cheeks. I speak with my lips on the dimple.

'Shoulder like cheek,' I say. It's incomprehensible.

'What?' she asks. But she doesn't care in the least what I say to her.

'Race like June,' I say, still in the dimple. She doesn't understand what I'm doing, but she likes it and laughs. She's a nice girl.

'Sea like arrival,' I say, then take my mouth from her dimple and put my ear there to listen to the echo. All I hear is her breathing and, buried far away, her heart.

'Heart like train,' I say.

There: now Mariamirella isn't the Mariamirella in my mind, plus a real Mariamirella: she's Mariamirella! And what we're doing now isn't something mental plus something real: the flight above the roofs, and the house swaying high like the palm trees at the window of my house in the village, a great wind has taken our top floor and is carrying it across the skies and the red ranks of rooftiles.

On the shore by my village, the sea has noticed me and is welcoming me like a big dog. The sea -- gigantic friend with small white hands that scratch the shingle -- all at once it sweeps over the buttress of the breakwaters, rears its white belly and leaps over the mountains, here it comes bounding along cheerfully like a huge dog with the white paws of the undertow. The crickets fall silent, all the lowlands are flooded, fields and vineyards, till just one peasant raises his fork and shouts: the sea disappears, as though drunk by the land. Bye bye, sea.

Going out, Mariamirella and I start running as fast as we can down the stairs, before the landlady appears at the barred window and tries to understand everything, looking us in the eyes.