My Brilliant Friend By Elena Ferrante: Book Review
Prepare yourself for a bit of surprise, because the Italian bestseller My Brilliant Friend has little (in fact, nothing) in common with the choices that have gone before, other than once you've picked it up you won't be able to put it down.
It's neither poetically stifling like Hausfrau, edge of your seat gripping like Disclaimer, nor painfully funny like How To Build A Girl.
The first of Elena Ferrante's four Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend is the story of two friends, Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished district of Naples just after the second world war.
Simultaneously intimate and sweeping, it's a portrait of adolescent female friendship that will be startling in its familiarity more than fifty years later.
You'll be reaching for the second novel in the series before you've even finished the first.
My Brilliant Friend By Elena Ferrante: Book Extract
Eliminating All The Traces
This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.
“Since two weeks ago.”
“And you’re calling me now?”
My tone must have seemed hostile, even though I wasn’t angry or offended; there was just a touch of sarcasm. He tried to respond but he did so in an awkward, muddled way, half in dialect, half in Italian. He said he was sure that his mother was wandering around Naples as usual.
“Even at night?”
“You know how she is.”
“I do, but does two weeks of absence seem normal?” “Yes. You haven’t seen her for a while, Elena, she’s gotten worse: she’s never sleepy, she comes in, goes out, does what she likes.”
Anyway, in the end he had started to get worried. He had asked everyone, made the rounds of the hospitals: he had even gone to the police. Nothing, his mother wasn’t anywhere. What a good son: a large man, forty years old, who hadn’t worked in his life, just a small-time crook and spendthrift. I could imagine how carefully he had done his searching. Not at all. He had no brain, and in his heart he had only himself.
“She’s not with you?” he asked suddenly.
His mother? Here in Turin? He knew the situation perfectly well, he was speaking only to speak. Yes, he liked to travel, he had come to my house at least a dozen times, without being invited. His mother, whom I would have welcomed with pleasure, had never left Naples in her life. I answered:
“No, she’s not with me.”
“Rino, please, I told you she’s not here.”
“Then where has she gone?”
He began to cry and I let him act out his desperation, sobs that began fake and became real. When he stopped I said: “Please, for once behave as she would like: don’t look for her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. It’s pointless. Learn to stand on your own two feet and don’t call me again, either.” I hung up.
Rino’s mother is named Raffaella Cerullo, but everyone has always called her Lina. Not me, I’ve never used either her first name or her last. To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over.
It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide, repulsed by the idea that Rino would have anything to do with her body, and be forced to attend to the details. She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world.
Days passed. I looked at my e-mail, at my regular mail, but not with any hope. I often wrote to her, and she almost never responded: this was her habit. She preferred the telephone or long nights of talk when I went to Naples.
I opened my drawers, the metal boxes where I keep all kinds of things. Not much there. I’ve thrown away a lot of stuff, especially anything that had to do with her, and she knows it. I discovered that I have nothing of hers, not a picture, not a note, not a little gift. I was surprised myself. Is it possible that in all those years she left me nothing of herself, or, worse, that I didn’t want to keep anything of her? It is.
This time I telephoned Rino; I did it unwillingly. He didn’t answer on the house phone or on his cell phone. He called me in the evening, when it was convenient. He spoke in the tone of voice he uses to arouse pity.
“I saw that you called. Do you have any news?”
“No. Do you?”
He rambled incoherently. He wanted to go on TV, on the show that looks for missing persons, make an appeal, ask his mamma’s forgiveness for everything, beg her to return.
I listened patiently, then asked him: “Did you look in her closet?”
Naturally the most obvious thing would never occur to him. “Go and look.”
He went, and he realized that there was nothing there, not one of his mother’s dresses, summer or winter, only old hangers. I sent him to search the whole house. Her shoes were gone. The few books: gone. All the photographs: gone. The movies: gone. Her computer had disappeared, including the old-fashioned diskettes and everything, everything to do with her experience as an electronics wizard who had begun to operate computers in the late sixties, in the days of punch cards. Rino was astonished. I said to him:
“Take as much time as you want, but then call and tell me if you’ve found even a single hairpin that belongs to her.”
He called the next day, greatly agitated.
“Nothing at all?”
“No. She cut herself out of all the photographs of the two of us, even those from when I was little.”
“You looked carefully?”
“Even in the cellar?”
“I told you, everywhere. And the box with her papers is gone: I don’t know, old birth certificates, telephone bills, receipts. What does it mean? Did someone steal everything? What are they looking for? What do they want from my mother and me?”
I reassured him, I told him to calm down. It was unlikely that anyone wanted anything, especially from him.
“Can I come and stay with you for a while?”
“Please, I can’t sleep.”
“That’s your problem, Rino, I don’t know what to do about it.”
I hung up and when he called back I didn’t answer. I sat down at my desk.
Lila is overdoing it as usual, I thought.
She was expanding the concept of trace out of all proportion. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.
I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.
The Story of Don Achille
My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.
I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage. For some time, in school and outside of it, that was what we had been doing. Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole, and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that the cockroaches wouldn’t run over my skin, that the rats wouldn’t bite me. Lila climbed up to Signora Spagnuolo’s ground-floor window, and, hanging from the iron bar that the clothesline was attached to, swung back and forth, then lowered herself down to the sidewalk, and I immediately did the same, although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself. Lila stuck into her skin the rusted safety pin that she had found on the street somewhere but kept in her pocket like the gift of a fairy godmother; I watched the metal point as it dug a whitish tunnel into her palm, and then, when she pulled it out and handed it to me, I did the same.
At some point she gave me one of her firm looks, eyes narrowed, and headed toward the building where Don Achille lived. I was frozen with fear. Don Achille was the ogre of fairy tales, I was absolutely forbidden to go near him, speak to him, look at him, spy on him, I was to act as if neither he nor his family existed. Regarding him there was, in my house but not only mine, a fear and a hatred whose origin I didn’t know. The way my father talked about him, I imagined a huge man, covered with purple boils, violent in spite of the “don,” which to me suggested a calm authority. He was a being created out of some unidentifiable material, iron, glass, nettles, but alive, alive, the hot breath streaming from his nose and mouth. I thought that if I merely saw him from a distance he would drive something sharp and burning into my eyes. So if I was mad enough to approach the door of his house he would kill me.
I waited to see if Lila would have second thoughts and turn back. I knew what she wanted to do, I had hoped that she would forget about it, but in vain. The street lamps were not yet lighted, nor were the lights on the stairs. From the apartments came irritable voices. To follow Lila I had to leave the bluish light of the courtyard and enter the black of the doorway. When I finally made up my mind, I saw nothing at first, there was only an odor of old junk and DDT. Then I got used to the darkness and found Lila sitting on the first step of the first flight of stairs. She got up and we began to climb.
We kept to the side where the wall was, she two steps ahead, I two steps behind, torn between shortening the distance or letting it increase. I can still feel my shoulder inching along the flaking wall and the idea that the steps were very high, higher than those in the building where I lived. I was trembling. Every footfall, every voice was Don Achille creeping up behind us or coming down toward us with a long knife, the kind used for slicing open a chicken breast. There was an odor of sautéing garlic. Maria, Don Achille’s wife, would put me in the pan of boiling oil, the children would eat me, he would suck my head the way my father did with mullets.
We stopped often, and each time I hoped that Lila would decide to turn back. I was all sweaty, I don’t know about her. Every so often she looked up, but I couldn’t tell at what, all that was visible was the gray areas of the big windows at every landing. Suddenly the lights came on, but they were faint, dusty, leaving broad zones of shadow, full of dangers. We waited to see if it was Don Achille who had turned the switch, but we heard nothing, neither footsteps nor the opening or closing of a door. Then Lila continued on, and I followed.
She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary; I had forgotten every good reason, and certainly was there only because she was. We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors of that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it.
At the fourth flight Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.
It was her fault. Not too long before—ten days, a month, who can say, we knew nothing about time, in those days—she had treacherously taken my doll and thrown her down into a cellar. Now we were climbing toward fear; then we had felt obliged to descend, quickly, into the unknown. Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us. When you haven’t been in the world long, it’s hard to comprehend what disasters are at the origin of a sense of disaster: maybe you don’t even feel the need to. Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night. I was small and really my doll knew more than I did. I talked to her, she talked to me. She had a plastic face and plastic hair and plastic eyes. She wore a blue dress that my mother had made for her in a rare moment of happiness, and she was beautiful. Lila’s doll, on the other hand, had a cloth body of a yellowish color, filled with sawdust, and she seemed to me ugly and grimy. The two spied on each other, they sized each other up, they were ready to flee into our arms if a storm burst, if there was thunder, if someone bigger and stronger, with sharp teeth, wanted to snatch them away.
We played in the courtyard but as if we weren’t playing together. Lila sat on the ground, on one side of a small barred basement window, I on the other. We liked that place, especially because behind the bars was a metal grating and, against the grating, on the cement ledge between the bars, we could arrange the things that belonged to Tina, my doll, and those of Nu, Lila’s doll. There we put rocks, bottle tops, little flowers, nails, splinters of glass. I overheard what Lila said to Nu and repeated it in a low voice to Tina, slightly modified. If she took a bottle top and put it on her doll’s head, like a hat, I said to mine, in dialect, Tina, put on your queen’s crown or you’ll catch cold. If Nu played hopscotch in Lila’s arms, I soon afterward made Tina do the same. Still, it never happened that we decided on a game and began playing together. Even that place we chose without explicit agreement. Lila sat down there, and I strolled around, pretending to go somewhere else. Then, as if I’d given it no thought, I, too, settled next to the cellar window, but on the opposite side.
The thing that attracted us most was the cold air that came from the cellar, a breath that refreshed us in spring and summer. And then we liked the bars with their spiderwebs, the darkness, and the tight mesh of the grating that, reddish with rust, curled up both on my side and on Lila’s, creating two parallel holes through which we could drop rocks into obscurity and hear the sound when they hit bottom. It was all beautiful and frightening then. Through those openings the darkness might suddenly seize the dolls, who sometimes were safe in our arms, but more often were placed deliberately next to the twisted grating and thus exposed to the cellar’s cold breath, to its threatening noises, rustling, squeaking, scraping.
Nu and Tina weren’t happy. The terrors that we tasted every day were theirs. We didn’t trust the light on the stones, on the buildings, on the scrubland beyond the neighborhood, on the people inside and outside their houses. We imagined the dark corners, the feelings repressed but always close to exploding. And to those shadowy mouths, the caverns that opened beyond them under the buildings, we attributed everything that frightened us in the light of day. Don Achille, for example, was not only in his apartment on the top floor but also down below, a spider among spiders, a rat among rats, a shape that assumed all shapes. I imagined him with his mouth open because of his long animal fangs, his body of glazed stone and poisonous grasses, always ready to pick up in an enormous black bag anything we dropped through the torn corners of the grate. That bag was a fundamental feature of Don Achille, he always had it, even at home, and into it he put material both living and dead.
Lila knew that I had that fear, my doll talked about it out loud. And so, on the day we exchanged our dolls for the first time—with no discussion, only looks and gestures—as soon as she had Tina, she pushed her through the grate and let her fall into the darkness. Next chapter
Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad. In that class we were all a little bad, but only when the teacher, Maestra Oliviero, couldn’t see us. Lila, on the other hand, was always bad. Once she tore up some blotting paper into little pieces, dipped the pieces one by one in the inkwell, and then fished them out with her pen and threw them at us. I was hit twice in the hair and once on my white collar. The teacher yelled, as she knew how to do, in a voice like a needle, long and pointed, which terrorized us, and ordered her to go and stand behind the blackboard in punishment. Lila didn’t obey and didn’t even seem frightened; she just kept throwing around pieces of inky paper. So Maestra Oliviero, a heavy woman who seemed very old to us, though she couldn’t have been much over forty, came down from the desk, threatening her. The teacher stumbled, it wasn’t clear on what, lost her balance, and fell, striking her face against the corner of a desk. She lay on the floor as if dead.
What happened right afterward I don’t remember, I remember only the dark bundle of the teacher’s motionless body, and Lila staring at her with a serious expression.
I have in my mind so many incidents of this type. We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died. One of the daughters of Signora Assunta, the fruit and vegetable seller, had stepped on a nail and died of tetanus. Signora Spagnuolo’s youngest child had died of croup. A cousin of mine, at the age of twenty, had gone one morning to move some rubble and that night was dead, crushed, the blood pouring out of his ears and mouth. My mother’s father had been killed when he fell from a scaffolding at a building site. The father of Signor Peluso was missing an arm, the lathe had caught him unawares. The sister of Giuseppina, Signor Peluso’s wife, had died of tuberculosis at twenty-two. The oldest son of Don Achille—I had never seen him, and yet I seemed to remember him—had gone to war and died twice: drowned in the Pacific Ocean, then eaten by sharks. The entire Melchiorre family had died clinging to each other, screaming with fear, in a bombardment. Old Signorina Clorinda had died inhaling gas instead of air. Giannino, who was in fourth grade when we were in first, had died one day because he had come across a bomb and touched it. Luigina, with whom we had played in the courtyard, or maybe not, she was only a name, had died of typhus. Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.
You could also die of things that seemed normal. You could die, for example, if you were sweating and then drank cold water from the tap without first bathing your wrists: you’d break out in red spots, you’d start coughing, and be unable to breathe. You could die if you ate black cherries and didn’t spit out the pits. You could die if you chewed American gum and inadvertently swallowed it. You could die if you banged your temple. The temple, in particular, was a fragile place, we were all careful about it. Being hit with a stone could do it, and throwing stones was the norm. When we left school a gang of boys from the countryside, led by a kid called Enzo or Enzuccio, who was one of the children of Assunta the fruit and vegetable seller, began to throw rocks at us. They were angry because we were smarter than them. When the rocks came at us we ran away, except Lila, who kept walking at her regular pace and sometimes even stopped. She was very good at studying the trajectory of the stones and dodging them with an easy move that today I would call elegant. She had an older brother and maybe she had learned from him, I don’t know, I also had brothers, but they were younger than me and from them I had learned nothing. Still, when I realized that she had stayed behind, I stopped to wait for her, even though I was scared.
Already then there was something that kept me from abandoning her. I didn’t know her well; we had never spoken to each other, although we were constantly competing, in class and outside it. But in a confused way I felt that if I ran away with the others I would leave with her something of mine that she would never give back.
At first I stayed hidden, around a corner, and leaned out to see if Lila was coming. Then, since she wouldn’t budge, I forced myself to rejoin her; I handed her stones, and even threw some myself. But I did it without conviction: I did many things in my life without conviction; I always felt slightly detached from my own actions. Lila, on the other hand, had, from a young age—I can’t say now precisely if it was so at six or seven, or when we went together up the stairs that led to Don Achille’s and were eight, almost nine—the characteristic of absolute determination. Whether she was gripping the tricolor shaft of the pen or a stone or the handrail on the dark stairs, she communicated the idea that whatever came next— thrust the pen with a precise motion into the wood of the desk, dispense inky bullets, strike the boys from the countryside, climb the stairs to Don Achille’s door—she would do without hesitation.
The gang came from the railroad embankment, stocking up on rocks from the trackbed. Enzo, the leader, was a dangerous child, with very short blond hair and pale eyes; he was at least three years older than us, and had repeated a year. He threw small, sharp-edged rocks with great accuracy, and Lila waited for his throws to demonstrate how she evaded them, making him still angrier, and responded with throws that were just as dangerous. Once we hit him in the right calf, and I say we because I had handed Lila a flat stone with jagged edges. The stone slid over Enzo’s skin like a razor, leaving a red stain that immediately gushed blood. The child looked at his wounded leg. I have him before my eyes: between thumb and index finger he held the rock that he was about to throw, his arm was raised to throw it, and yet he stopped, bewildered. The boys under his command also looked incredulously at the blood. Lila, however, manifested not the least satisfaction in the outcome of the throw and bent over to pick up another stone. I grabbed her by the arm; it was the first contact between us, an abrupt, frightened contact. I felt that the gang would get more ferocious and I wanted to retreat. But there wasn’t time. Enzo, in spite of his bleeding calf, came out of his stupor and threw the rock in his hand. I was still holding on to Lila when the rock hit her in the head and knocked her away from me. A second later she was lying on the sidewalk with a gash in her forehead.
Blood. In general it came from wounds only after horrible curses and disgusting obscenities had been exchanged. That was the standard procedure. My father, though he seemed to me a good man, hurled continuous insults and threats if someone didn’t deserve, as he said, to be on the face of the earth. He especially had it in for Don Achille. He always had something to accuse him of, and sometimes I put my hands over my ears in order not to be too disturbed by his brutal words. When he spoke of him to my mother he called him “your cousin” but my mother denied that blood tie (there was a very distant relationship) and added to the insults. Their anger frightened me, I was frightened above all by the thought that Don Achille might have ears so sensitive that he could hear insults even from far away. I was afraid that he might come and murder them.
The sworn enemy of Don Achille, however, was not my father but Signor Peluso, a very good carpenter who was always broke, because he gambled away everything he earned in the back room of the Bar Solara. Peluso was the father of our classmate Carmela, of Pasquale, who was older, and of two others, children poorer than us, with whom Lila and I sometimes played, and who in school and outside always tried to steal our things, a pen, an eraser, the cotognata, so that they went home covered with bruises because we’d hit them.
The times we saw him, Signor Peluso seemed to us the image of despair. On the one hand he lost everything gambling and on the other he was criticized in public because he was no longer able to feed his family. For obscure reasons he attributed his ruin to Don Achille. He charged him with having taken by stealth, as if his shadowy body were a magnet, all the tools for his carpentry work, which made the shop useless. He accused him of having taken the shop itself, and transforming it into a grocery store. For years I imagined the pliers, the saw, the tongs, the hammer, the vise, and thousands and thousands of nails sucked up like a swarm of metal into the matter that made up Don Achille. For years I saw his body—a coarse body, heavy with a mixture of materials—emitting in a swarm salami, provolone, mortadella, lard, and prosciutto.
These things had happened in the dark ages. Don Achille had supposedly revealed himself in all his monstrous nature before we were born. Before. Lila often used that formulation. But she didn’t seem to care as much about what had happened before us—events that were in general obscure, and about which the adults either were silent or spoke with great reticence—as about the fact that there really had been a before. It was this which at the time left her puzzled and occasionally even made her nervous. When we became friends she spoke so much of that absurd thing—before us— that she ended up passing on her nervousness to me. It was the long, very long, period when we didn’t exist, that period when Don Achille had showed himself to everyone for what he was: an evil being of uncertain animal-mineral physiognomy, who—it seemed—sucked blood from others while never losing any himself, maybe it wasn’t even possible to scratch him.
We were in second grade, perhaps, and still hadn’t spoken to each other, when the rumor spread that right in front of the Church of the Holy Family, right after Mass, Signor Peluso had started screaming furiously at Don Achille. Don Achille had left his older son Stefano, his daughter Pinuccia, Alfonso, who was our age, and his wife, and, appearing for a moment in his most hair-raising form, had hurled himself at Peluso, picked him up, thrown him against a tree in the public gardens, and left him there, barely conscious, with blood coming out of innumerable wounds in his head and everywhere, and the poor man able to say merely: help.
I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us. Of course, I would have liked the nice manners that the teacher and the priest preached, but I felt that those ways were not suited to our neighborhood, even if you were a girl. The women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other. To cause pain was a disease. As a child I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighborhood at night, they came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti, from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs. They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.
Lila was deeply affected by what had happened to Melina Cappuccio, a relative of her mother’s. And I, too. Melina lived in the same building as my family, we on the second floor, she on the third. She was only a little over thirty and had six children, but to us she seemed an old woman. Her husband was the same age; he unloaded crates at the fruit and vegetable market. I recall him as short and broad, but handsome, with a proud face. One night he came out of the house as usual and died, perhaps murdered, perhaps of weariness. The funeral was very bitter; the whole neighborhood went, including my parents, and Lila’s parents. Then time passed and something happened to Melina. On the outside she remained the same, a gaunt woman with a large nose, her hair already gray, a shrill voice that at night called her children from the window, by name, the syllables drawn out by an angry despair: Aaa-daaa, Miii-chè. At first she was much helped by Donato Sarratore, who lived in the apartment right above hers, on the fourth and top floor. Donato was diligent in his attendance at the Church of the Holy Family and as a good Christian he did a lot for her, collecting money, used clothes, and shoes, settling Antonio, the oldest son, in the auto-repair shop of Gorresio, an acquaintance of his. Melina was so grateful that her gratitude became, in her desolate woman’s heart, love, passion. It wasn’t clear if Sarratore was ever aware of it. He was a friendly man but very serious—home, church, and job. He worked on a train crew for the state railroad, and had a decent salary on which he supported his wife, Lidia, and five children; the oldest was called Nino. When he wasn’t traveling on the Naples-Paola route he devoted himself to fixing this or that in the house, he did the shopping, took the youngest child out in the carriage. These things were very unusual in the neighborhood. It occurred to no one that Donato was generous in that way to lighten the burdens of his wife. No: all the neighborhood men, my father in the lead, considered him a womanish man, even more so because he wrote poems and read them willingly to anyone. It didn’t occur even to Melina. The widow preferred to think that, because of his gentle spirit, he was put upon by his wife, and so she decided to do battle against Lidia Sarratore to free him and let him join her permanently. The war that followed at first seemed funny; it was discussed in my house and elsewhere with malicious laughter. Lidia would hang out the sheets fresh from the laundry and Melina climbed up on the windowsill and dirtied them with a reed whose tip she had charred in the fire; Lidia passed under her windows and she spit on her head or emptied buckets of dirty water on her; Lidia made noise during the day walking above her, with her unruly children, and she banged the floor mop against the ceiling all night. Sarratore tried by every means to make peace, but he was too sensitive, too polite. As their vindictiveness increased, the two women began to insult each other if they met on the street or the stairs: harsh, fierce sounds. It was then that they began to frighten me. One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood begins with the shouts of Melina and Lidia, with the insults they hurl from the windows and then on the stairs; it continues with my mother rushing to our door, opening it, and looking out, followed by us children; and ends with the image, for me still unbearable, of the two neighbors rolling down the stairs, entwined, and Melina’s head hitting the floor of the landing, a few inches from my shoes, like a white melon that has slipped from your hand. Next chapter
It’s hard to say why at the time we children took the part of Lidia Sarratore. Maybe because she had regular features and blond hair. Or because Donato was hers and we had understood that Melina wanted to take him away from her. Or because Melina’s children were ragged and dirty, while Lidia’s were washed, well groomed, and the oldest, Nino, who was a few years older than us, was handsome, and we liked him. Lila alone favored Melina, but she never explained why. She said only, once, that if Lidia Sarratore ended up murdered she deserved it, and I thought that it was partly because she was mean in her heart and partly because she and Melina were distant relatives.
One day we were coming home from school, four or five girls. With us was Marisa Sarratore, who usually joined us not because we liked her but because we hoped that, through her, we might meet her older brother, that is to say Nino. It was she who first noticed Melina. The woman was walking slowly from one side of the stradone, the wide avenue that ran through the neighborhood, to the other, carrying a paper bag in one hand from which, with the other, she was taking something and eating it. Marisa pointed to her, calling her “the whore,” without rancor, but because she was repeating the phrase that her mother used at home. Lila, although she was shorter and very thin, immediately slapped her so hard that she knocked her down: ruthless, as she usually was on occasions of violence, no yelling before or after, no word of warning, cold and determined, not even widening her eyes.
First I went to the aid of Marisa, who was crying, and helped her get up, then I turned to see what Lila was doing. She had left the sidewalk and was going toward Melina, crossing the street without paying attention to the passing trucks. I saw in her, in her posture more than in her face, something that disturbed me and is still hard to define, so for now I’ll put it like this: she was moving, cutting across the street, a small, dark, nervous figure, she was acting with her usual determination, she was firm. Firm in what her mother’s relative was doing, firm in the pain, firm in silence as a statue is firm. A follower. One with Melina, who was holding in her palm the dark soft soap she had just bought in Don Carlo’s cellar, and with her other hand was taking some and eating it.
The day Maestra Oliviero fell from the desk and hit her cheekbone against it, I, as I said, thought she was dead, dead on the job like my grandfather or Melina’s husband, and it seemed to me that as a result Lila, too, would die because of the terrible punishment she would get. Instead, for a period I can’t define—short, long—nothing happened. They simply disappeared, both of them, teacher and pupil, from our days and from memory.
But then everything was surprising. Maestra Oliviero returned to school alive and began to concern herself with Lila, not to punish her, as would have seemed to us natural, but to praise her.
This new phase began when Lila’s mother, Signora Cerullo, was called to school. One morning the janitor knocked and announced her. Right afterward Nunzia Cerullo came in, unrecognizable. She, who, like the majority of the neighborhood women, lived untidily in slippers and shabby old dresses, appeared in her formal black dress (wedding, communion, christening, funeral), with a shiny black purse and low-heeled shoes that tortured her swollen feet, and handed the teacher two paper bags, one containing sugar and the other coffee.
The teacher accepted the gifts with pleasure and, looking at Lila, who was staring at the desk, spoke to her, and to the whole class, words whose general sense disoriented me. We were just learning the alphabet and the numbers from one to ten. I was the smartest in the class, I could recognize all the letters, I knew how to say one two three four and so on, I was constantly praised for my handwriting, I won the tricolor cockades that the teacher sewed. Yet, surprisingly, Maestra Oliviero, although Lila had made her fall and sent her to the hospital, said that she was the best among us. True that she was the worst-behaved. True that she had done that terrible thing of shooting ink-soaked bits of blotting paper at us. True that if that girl had not acted in such a disruptive manner she, our teacher, would not have fallen and cut her cheek. True that she was compelled to punish her constantly with the wooden rod or by sending her to kneel on the hard floor behind the blackboard. But there was a fact that, as a teacher and also as a person, filled her with joy, a marvelous fact that she had discovered a few days earlier, by chance.
Here she stopped, as if words were not enough, or as if she wished to teach Lila’s mother and us that deeds almost always count more than words. She took a piece of chalk and wrote on the blackboard (now I don’t remember what, I didn’t yet know how to read: so I’m inventing the word) “sun.” Then she asked Lila:
“Cerullo, what is written there?”
In the classroom a fascinated silence fell. Lila half smiled, almost a grimace, and flung herself sideways, against her deskmate, who was visibly irritated. Then she read in a sullen tone:
Nunzia Cerullo looked at the teacher, and her look was hesitant, almost fearful. The teacher at first seemed not to understand why her own enthusiasm was not reflected in the mother’s eyes. But then she must have guessed that Nunzia didn’t know how to read, or, anyway, that she wasn’t sure the word “sun” really was written on the blackboard, and she frowned. Then, partly to clarify the situation to Signora Cerullo, partly to praise our classmate, she said to Lila:
“Good, ‘sun’ is what it says there.”
Then she ordered her:
“Come, Cerullo, come to the blackboard.”
Lila went unwillingly to the blackboard, the teacher handed her the chalk.
“Write,” she said to her, “ ‘chalk.’ ”
Lila, very concentrated, in shaky handwriting, placing the letters one a little higher, one a little lower, wrote: “chak.” Oliviero added the “l” and Signora Cerullo, seeing the correction, said in despair to her daughter:
“You made a mistake.”
But the teacher immediately reassured her:
“No, no, no. Lila has to practice, yes, but she already knows how to read, she already knows how to write. Who taught her?”
Signora Cerullo, eyes lowered, said: “Not me.”
“But at your house or in the building is there someone who might have taught her?”
Nunzia shook her head no emphatically.
Then the teacher turned to Lila and with sincere admiration asked her in front of all of us, “Who taught you to read and write, Cerullo?”
Cerullo, that small dark-haired, dark-eyed child, in a dark smock with a red ribbon at the neck, and only six years old, answered, “Me.”
According to Rino, Lila’s older brother, she had learned to read at the age of around three by looking at the letters and pictures in his primer. She would sit next to him in the kitchen while he was doing his homework, and she learned more than he did.
Rino was almost six years older than Lila; he was a fearless boy who shone in all the courtyard and street games, especially spinning a top. But reading, writing, arithmetic, learning poems by heart were not for him. When he was scarcely ten his father, Fernando, had begun to take him every day to his tiny shoemaker’s shop, in a narrow side street that ran off the stradone, to teach him the craft of resoling shoes. We girls, when we met him, smelled on him the odor of dirty feet, of old uppers, of glue, and we made fun of him, we called him shoesoler. Maybe that’s why he boasted that he was at the origin of his sister’s virtuosity. But in reality he had never had a primer, and hadn’t sat for even a minute, ever, to do homework. Impossible therefore that Lila had learned from his scholastic labors. It was more likely that she had precociously learned how the alphabet worked from the sheets of newspaper in which customers wrapped the old shoes and which her father sometimes brought home and read to the family the most interesting local news items.
Anyway, however it had happened, the fact was this: Lila knew how to read and write, and what I remember of that gray morning when the teacher revealed it to us was, above all, the sense of weakness the news left me with. Right away, from the first day, school had seemed to me a much nicer place than home. It was the place in the neighborhood where I felt safest, I went there with excitement. I paid attention to the lessons, I carried out with the greatest diligence everything that I was told to carry out, I learned. But most of all I liked pleasing the teacher, I liked pleasing everyone. At home I was my father’s favorite, and my brothers and sister, too, loved me. The problem was my mother; with her things never took the right course. It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking. Nor did her right leg work properly— she called it the damaged leg. She limped, and her step agitated me, especially at night, when she couldn’t sleep and walked along the hall to the kitchen, returned, started again. Sometimes I heard her angrily crushing with her heel the cockroaches that came through the front door, and I imagined her with furious eyes, as when she got mad at me.
Certainly she wasn’t happy; the household chores wore her down, and there was never enough money. She often got angry with my father, a porter at the city hall, she shouted that he had to come up with something, she couldn’t go on like this. They quarreled. But since my father never raised his voice, even when he lost patience, I always took his part against her, even though he sometimes beat her and could be threatening to me. It was he, and not my mother, who said to me, the first day of school: “Lenuccia, do well with the teacher and we’ll let you go to school. But if you’re not good, if you’re not the best, Papa needs help and you’ll go to work.” Those words had really scared me, and yet, although he said them, I felt it was my mother who had suggested them, imposed them. I had promised them both that I would be good. And things had immediately gone so well that the teacher often said to me:
“Greco, come and sit next to me.”
It was a great privilege. Maestra Oliviero always had an empty chair next to her, and the best students were called on to sit there, as a reward. In the early days, I was always sitting beside her. She urged me on with encouraging words, she praised my blond curls, and thus reinforced in me the wish to do well: completely the opposite of my mother, who, at home, so often rebuked me, sometimes abusively, that I wanted to hide in a dark corner and hope that she wouldn’t find me. Then it happened that Signora Cerullo came to class and Maestra Oliviero revealed that Lila was far ahead of us. Not only that: she called on her to sit next to her more often than on me. What that demotion caused inside me I don’t know, I find it difficult to say, today, faithfully and clearly what I felt. Perhaps nothing at first, some jealousy, like everyone else. But surely it was then that a worry began to take shape. I thought that, although my legs functioned perfectly well, I ran the constant risk of becoming crippled. I woke with that idea in my head and I got out of bed right away to see if my legs still worked. Maybe that’s why I became focused on Lila, who had slender, agile legs, and was always moving them, kicking even when she was sitting next to the teacher, so that the teacher became irritated and soon sent her back to her desk. Something convinced me, then, that if I kept up with her, at her pace, my mother’s limp, which had entered into my brain and wouldn’t come out, would stop threatening me. I decided that I had to model myself on that girl, never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed and chased me away. Next chapter
I suppose that that was my way of reacting to envy, and hatred, and of suffocating them. Or maybe I disguised in that manner the sense of subordination, the fascination I felt. Certainly I trained myself to accept readily Lila’s superiority in everything, and even her oppressions.
Besides, the teacher acted very shrewdly. It was true that she often called on Lila to sit next to her, but she seemed to do it more to make her behave than to reward her. She continued, in fact, to praise Marisa Sarratore, Carmela Peluso, and, especially, me. She let me shine with a vivid light, she encouraged me to become more and more disciplined, more diligent, more serious. When Lila stopped misbehaving and effortlessly outdid me, the teacher praised me first, with moderation, and then went on to exalt her prowess. I felt the poison of defeat more acutely when it was Sarratore or Peluso who did better than me. If, however, I came in second after Lila, I wore a meek expression of acquiescence. In those years I think I feared only one thing: not being paired, in the hierarchy established by Maestra Oliviero, with Lila; not to hear the teacher say proudly, Cerullo and Greco are the best. If one day she had said, the best are Cerullo and Sarratore, or Cerullo and Peluso, I would have died on the spot. So I used all my childish energies not to become first in the class—it seemed to me impossible to succeed there—but not to slip into third, fourth, last place. I devoted myself to studying and to many things that were difficult, alien to me, just so I could keep pace with that terrible, dazzling girl.
Dazzling to me. To our classmates Lila was only terrible. From first grade to fifth, she was, because of the principal and partly also because of Maestra Oliviero, the most hated child in the school and the neighborhood.
At least twice a year the principal had the classes compete against one another, in order to distinguish the most brilliant students and consequently the most competent teachers. Oliviero liked this competition. Our teacher, in permanent conflict with her colleagues, with whom she sometimes seemed near coming to blows, used Lila and me as the blazing proof of how good she was, the best teacher in the neighborhood elementary school. So she would often bring us to other classes, apart from the occasions arranged by the principal, to compete with the other children, girls and boys. Usually, I was sent on reconnaissance, to test the enemy’s level of skill. In general I won, but without overdoing it, without humiliating either teachers or students. I was a pretty little girl with blond curls, happy to show off but not aggressive, and I gave an impression of delicacy that was touching. If then I was the best at reciting poems, repeating the times tables, doing division and multiplication, at rattling off the Maritime, Cottian, Graia, and Pennine Alps, the other teachers gave me a pat anyway, while the students felt how hard I had worked to memorize all those facts, and didn’t hate me.
In Lila’s case it was different. Even by first grade she was beyond any possible competition. In fact, the teacher said that with a little application she would be able to take the test for second grade and, not yet seven, go into third. Later the gap increased. Lila did really complicated calculations in her head, in her dictations there was not a single mistake, she spoke in dialect like the rest of us but, when necessary, came out with a bookish Italian, using words like “accustomed,” “luxuriant,” “willingly.” So that, when the teacher sent her into the field to give the moods or tenses of verbs or solve math problems, hearts grew bitter. Lila was too much for anyone.
Besides, she offered no openings to kindness. To recognize her virtuosity was for us children to admit that we would never win and so there was no point in competing, and for the teachers to confess to themselves that they had been mediocre children. Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite. And there was nothing in her appearance that acted as a corrective. She was disheveled, dirty, on her knees and elbows she always had scabs from cuts and scrapes that never had time to heal. Her large, bright eyes could become cracks behind which, before every brilliant response, there was a gaze that appeared not very childlike and perhaps not even human. Every one of her movements said that to harm her would be pointless because, whatever happened, she would find a way of doing worse to you.
The hatred was therefore tangible; I was aware of it. Both girls and boys were irritated by her, but the boys more openly. For a hidden motive of her own, in fact, Maestra Oliviero especially enjoyed taking us to the classes where the girl students and women teachers could not be humiliated so much as the males. And the principal, too, for equally hidden motives, preferred competitions of this type. Later I thought that in the school they were betting money, maybe even a lot, on those meetings of ours. But I was exaggerating: maybe it was just a way of giving vent to old grudges or allowing the principal to keep the less good or less obedient teachers under his control. The fact is that one morning the two of us, who were then in second grade, were taken to a fourth-grade class, Maestro Ferraro’s, in which were both Enzo Scanno, the fierce son of the fruit and vegetable seller, and Nino Sarratore, Marisa’s brother, whom I loved.
Everyone knew Enzo. He was a repeater and at least a couple of times had been dragged through the classrooms with a card around his neck on which Maestro Ferraro, a tall, very thin man, with very short gray hair, a small, lined face, and worried eyes, had written “Dunce.” Nino on the other hand was so good, so meek, so quiet that he was well known and liked, especially by me. Naturally Enzo hardly counted, scholastically speaking, we kept an eye on him only because he was aggressive. Our adversaries, in matters of intelligence, were Nino and—we discovered just then—Alfonso Carracci, the third child of Don Achille, a very neat boy, who was in second grade, like us, but looked younger than his seven years. It was clear that the teacher had brought him there to the fourth-grade class because he had more faith in him than in Nino, who was almost two years older.
There was some tension between Oliviero and Ferraro because of that unexpected summoning of Carracci, then the competition began, in front of the two classes, assembled in one classroom. They asked us verbs, they asked us times tables, they asked us addition, subtraction, multiplication, division (the four operations), first at the blackboard, then in our heads. Of that particular occasion I remember three things. The first is that little Alfonso Carracci defeated me immediately, he was calm and precise, but he had the quality of not gloating. The second is that Nino Sarratore, surprisingly, almost never answered the questions, but appeared dazed, as if he didn’t understand what the teachers were asking him. The third is that Lila stood up to the son of Don Achille reluctantly, as if she didn’t care if he beat her. The scene grew lively only when they began to do calculations in their heads, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Alfonso, despite Lila’s reluctance and, at times, silence, as if she hadn’t heard the question, began to slip, making mistakes especially in multiplication and division. On the other hand, if the son of Don Achille failed, Lila wasn’t up to it, either, and so they seemed more or less equal. But at a certain point something unexpected happened. At least twice, when Lila didn’t answer or Alfonso made a mistake, the voice of Enzo Scanno, filled with contempt, was heard, from a desk at the back, giving the right answer.
This astonished the class, the teachers, the principal, me, and Lila. How was it possible that someone like Enzo, who was lazy, incapable, and delinquent, could do complicated calculations in his head better than me, than Alfonso Carracci, than Nino Sarratore? Suddenly Lila seemed to wake up. Alfonso was quickly out of the running and, with the proud consent of Ferraro, who quickly exchanged champions, a duel began between Lila and Enzo.
The two competed for a long time. The principal, going over Ferraro’s head, called the son of the fruit and vegetable seller to the front of the room, next to Lila. Enzo left the back row amid uneasy laughter, his own and his friends’, and positioned himself, sullen and uneasy, next to the blackboard, opposite Lila. The duel continued, as they did increasingly difficult calculations in their heads. The boy gave his answers in dialect, as if he were on the street and not in a classroom, and Ferraro corrected his diction, but the figure was always correct. Enzo seemed extremely proud of that moment of glory, amazed himself at how clever he was. Then he began to slip, because Lila had woken up conclusively, and now her eyes had narrowed in determination, and she answered correctly. In the end Enzo lost. He lost but was not resigned. He began to curse, to shout ugly obscenities. Ferraro sent him to kneel behind the blackboard, but he wouldn’t go. He was rapped on the knuckles with the rod and then pulled by the ears to the punishment corner. The school day ended like that.
But from then on the gang of boys began to throw rocks at us.
That morning of the duel between Enzo and Lila is important, in our long story. Many modes of behavior started off there that were difficult to decipher. For example it became very clear that Lila could, if she wanted, ration the use of her abilities. That was what she had done with Don Achille’s son. She did not want to beat him, but she had also calibrated silences and answers in such a way as not to be beaten. We had not yet become friends and I couldn’t ask her why she had behaved like that. But really there was no need to ask questions, I could guess the reason. Like me, she, too, had been forbidden to offend not only Don Achille but also his family.
It was like that. We didn’t know the origin of that fear-rancor-hatred-meekness that our parents displayed toward the Carraccis and transmitted to us, but it was there, it was a fact, like the neighborhood, its dirty-white houses, the fetid odor of the landings, the dust of the streets. In all likelihood Nino Sarratore, too, had been silent in order to allow Alfonso to be at his best. Handsome, slender, and nervous, with long lashes, hair neatly combed, he had stammered only a few words and had finally been silent. To continue to love him, I wanted to think that was what it had been. But deep down I had some doubts. Had it been a choice, like Lila’s? I wasn’t sure. I had stepped aside because Alfonso really was better than me. Lila could have defeated him immediately, yet she had chosen to aim for a tie. And Nino? There was something that confused and perhaps saddened me: not an inability, not even surrender, but, I would say today, a collapse. That stammer, the pallor, the purple that had suddenly swallowed his eyes: how handsome he was, so languid, and yet how much I disliked his languor.
Lila, too, at a certain point had seemed very beautiful to me. In general I was the pretty one, while she was skinny, like a salted anchovy, she gave off an odor of wildness, she had a long face, narrow at the temples, framed by two bands of smooth black hair. But when she decided to vanquish both Alfonso and Enzo, she had lighted up like a holy warrior. Her cheeks flushed, the sign of a flame released by every corner of her body, and for the first time I thought: Lila is prettier than I am. So I was second in everything. I hoped that no one would ever realize it.
But the most important thing that morning was the discovery that a phrase we often used to avoid punishment contained something true, hence uncontrollable, hence dangerous. The formula was: I didn’t do it on purpose. Enzo, in fact, had not entered the competition deliberately and had not deliberately defeated Alfonso. Lila had deliberately defeated Enzo but had not deliberately defeated Alfonso or deliberately humiliated him; it had been only a necessary step. The conclusion we drew from this convinced us that it was best to do everything on purpose, deliberately, so that you would know what to expect.
Because almost nothing had been done deliberately, many unforeseen things struck us, one after the other. Alfonso went home in tears as a result of his defeat. His brother Stefano, who was fourteen, an apprentice in the grocery store (the former workshop of the carpenter Peluso) owned by his father—who, however, never set foot in it—showed up outside school the next day and said very nasty things to Lila, to the point of threatening her. She yelled an obscenity at him, and he pushed her against a wall and tried to grab her tongue, shouting that he would prick it with a pin. Lila went home and told her brother Rino everything, and the more she talked, the redder he got, his eyes bright. In the meantime Enzo, going home one night without his country gang, was stopped by Stefano and punched and kicked. Rino, in the morning, went to look for Stefano and they had a fight, giving each other a more or less equal beating. A few days later the wife of Don Achille, Donna Maria, knocked on the Cerullos’ door and made a scene with Nunzia, shouting and insulting her. A little time passed and one Sunday, after Mass, Fernando Cerullo the shoemaker, the father of Lila and Rino, a small, thin man, timidly accosted Don Achille and apologized, without ever saying what he was apologizing for. I didn’t see it, or at least I don’t remember it, but it was said that the apologies were made aloud, and in such a way that everyone could hear, even though Don Achille had walked by as if the shoemaker were not speaking to him. Sometime later Lila and I wounded Enzo in the calf with a stone and Enzo threw a stone that hit Lila in the head. While I was shrieking in fear and Lila got up with the blood dripping from under her hair, Enzo, who was also bleeding, climbed down the embankment, and, seeing Lila in that state, he, utterly unpredictably and to our eyes incomprehensibly, began to cry. Then Rino, Lila’s adored brother, came to school and, outside, beat up Enzo, who barely defended himself. Rino was older, bigger, and more motivated. Not only that: Enzo didn’t mention that beating to his gang or his mother or his father or his brothers or his cousins, who all worked in the countryside and sold fruit and vegetables from a cart. At that point, thanks to him, the feuds ended. Next chapter
Lila went around proudly for a while, with her head bandaged. Then she took off the bandage and showed anyone who asked the black scar, red at the edges, that stuck out on her forehead under the hairline. Finally people forgot what had happened and if someone stared at the whitish mark left on her skin, she made an aggressive gesture that meant: what are you looking at, mind your own business. To me she never said anything, not even a word of thanks for the rocks I had handed her, for how I had dried the blood with the edge of my smock. But from that moment she began to subject me to proofs of courage that had nothing to do with school.
We saw each other in the courtyard more and more frequently. We showed off our dolls to each other but without appearing to, one in the other’s vicinity, as if each of us were alone. At some point we let the dolls meet, as a test, to see if they got along. And so came the day when we sat next to the cellar window with the curled grating and exchanged our dolls, she holding mine and I hers, and Lila abruptly pushed Tina through the opening in the grating and dropped her.
I felt an unbearable sorrow. I was attached to my plastic doll; it was the most precious possession I had. I knew that Lila was mean, but I had never expected her to do something so spiteful to me. For me the doll was alive, to know that she was on the floor of the cellar, amid the thousand beasts that lived there, threw me into despair. But that day I learned a skill at which I later excelled. I held back my despair, I held it back on the edge of my wet eyes, so that Lila said to me in dialect:
“You don’t care about her?”
I didn’t answer. I felt a violent pain, but I sensed that the pain of quarreling with her would be even stronger. I was as if strangled by two agonies, one already happening, the loss of the doll, and one possible, the loss of Lila. I said nothing, I only acted, without spite, as if it were natural, even if it wasn’t natural and I knew I was taking a great risk. I merely threw into the cellar her Nu, the doll she had just given me.
Lila looked at me in disbelief.
“What you do, I do,” I recited immediately, aloud, very frightened.
“Now go and get it for me.”
“If you go and get mine.”
We went together. At the entrance to the building, on the left, was the door that led to the cellars, we knew it well. Because it was broken—one of the panels was hanging on just one hinge—the entrance was blocked by a chain that crudely held the two panels together. Every child was tempted and at the same time terrified by the possibility of forcing the door that little bit that would make it possible to go through to the other side. We did it. We made a space wide enough for our slender, supple bodies to slip through into the cellar.
Once inside, we descended, Lila in the lead, five stone steps into a damp space, dimly lit by the narrow openings at street level. I was afraid, and tried to stay close behind Lila, but she seemed angry, and intent on finding her doll. I groped my way forward. I felt under the soles of my sandals objects that squeaked, glass, gravel, insects. All around were things not identifiable, dark masses, sharp or square or rounded. The faint light that pierced the darkness sometimes fell on something recognizable: the skeleton of a chair, the pole of a lamp, fruit boxes, the bottoms and sides of wardrobes, iron hinges. I got scared by what seemed to me a soft face, with large glass eyes, that lengthened into a chin shaped like a box. I saw it hanging, with its desolate expression, on a rickety wooden stand, and I cried out to Lila, pointing to it. She turned and slowly approached it, with her back to me, carefully extended one hand, and detached it from the stand. Then she turned around. She had put the face with the glass eyes over hers and now her face was enormous, with round, empty eye sockets and no mouth, only that protruding black chin swinging over her chest.
Those are moments which are stamped into memory. I’m not sure, but I must have let out a cry of real terror, because she hurried to say, in an echoing voice, that it was just a mask, an anti-gas mask: that’s what her father called it, he had one like it in the storeroom at home. I continued to tremble and moan with fear, which evidently persuaded her to tear the thing off her face and throw it in a corner, causing a loud noise and a lot of dust that thickened amid the tongues of light from the windows.
I calmed down. Lila looked around, identified the opening from which we had dropped Tina and Nu. We went along the rough bumpy wall, we looked into the shadows. The dolls weren’t there. Lila repeated in dialect, they’re not there, they’re not there, they’re not there, and searched along the floor with her hands, something I didn’t have the courage to do.
Long minutes passed. Once only I seemed to see Tina and with a tug at my heart I bent over to grab her, but it was only a crumpled page of old newspaper. They aren’t here, Lila repeated, and headed toward the door. Then I felt lost, unable to stay there by myself and keep searching, unable to leave if I hadn’t found my doll.
At the top of the steps she said:
“Don Achille took them, he put them in his black bag.” And at that very moment I heard him, Don Achille: he slithered, he shuffled among the indistinct shapes of things. Then I abandoned Tina to her fate, and ran away, in order not to lose Lila, who was already twisting nimbly between the panels of the broken door.
I believed everything she told me. The shapeless mass of Don Achille running through the underground tunnels, arms dangling, large fingers grasping Nu’s head in one hand, in the other Tina’s. I suffered terribly. I got sick, had fevers, got better, got sick again. I was overcome by a kind of tactile dysfunction; sometimes I had the impression that, while every animated being around me was speeding up the rhythms of its life, solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers or swelled up, leaving empty spaces between their internal mass and the surface skin. It seemed to me that my own body, if you touched it, was distended, and this saddened me. I was sure that I had cheeks like balloons, hands stuffed with sawdust, earlobes like ripe berries, feet in the shape of loaves of bread. When I returned to the streets and to school, I felt that the space, too, had changed. It seemed to be chained between two dark poles: on one side was the underground air bubble that pressed on the roots of the houses, the threatening cavern the dolls had fallen into; on the other the upper sphere, on the fourth floor of the building where Don Achille, who had stolen them, lived. The two balls were as if screwed to the ends of an iron bar, which in my imagination obliquely crossed the apartments, the streets, the countryside, the tunnel, the railroad tracks, and compressed them. I felt squeezed in that vise along with the mass of everyday things and people, and I had a bad taste in my mouth, a permanent sense of nausea that exhausted me, as if everything, thus compacted, and always tighter, were grinding me up, reducing me to a repulsive cream.
It was an enduring malaise, lasting perhaps years, beyond early adolescence. But unexpectedly, just when it began, I received my first declaration of love.
It was before Lila and I had attempted to climb the stairs to Don Achille’s, and my grief at the loss of Tina was still unbearable. I had gone reluctantly to buy bread. My mother had sent me and I was going home, the change clutched in my fist and the loaf still warm against my chest, when I realized that Nino Sarratore was trudging behind me, holding his little brother by the hand. On summer days his mother, Lidia, always sent him out with Pino, who at the time was no more than five, with the injunction never to leave him. Near a corner, a little past the Carraccis’ grocery, Nino was about to pass me, but instead of passing he cut off my path, pushed me against the wall, placed his free hand against the wall as a bar, to keep me from running away, and with the other pulled up beside him his brother, a silent witness of his undertaking. Breathlessly he said something I couldn’t understand. He was pale, and he smiled, then he became serious, then he smiled again. Finally he said, in school Italian:
“When we grow up I want to marry you.”
Then he asked if in the meantime I would be engaged to him. He was a little taller than me, very thin, with a long neck, his ears sticking out a little from his head. He had rebellious hair, and intense eyes with long lashes. The effort he was making to restrain his timidity was touching. Although I also wanted to marry him, I felt like answering:
“No, I can’t.”
He was stunned, Pino gave him a tug. I ran away.
From that moment I began to sneak into a side street whenever I saw him. And yet he seemed to me so handsome. How many times had I hung around his sister Marisa just to be near him and walk part of the way home with them. But he had made the declaration at the wrong moment. He couldn’t know how undone I felt, how much anguish Tina’s disappearance had caused me, how exhausting the effort of keeping up with Lila was, how the compressed space of the courtyard, the buildings, the neighborhood cut off my breath. After giving me many long, frightened glances from a distance, he began to avoid me, too. For a while he must have been afraid that I would tell the other girls, and in particular his sister, about the proposal he had made. Everyone knew that Gigliola Spagnuolo, the daughter of the baker, had done that when Enzo had asked her to be his girlfriend. And Enzo had found out and got angry, he had shouted outside school that she was a liar, he had even threatened to kill her with a knife. I, too, was tempted to tell everything, but then I let it go, I didn’t tell anyone, not even Lila when we became friends. Slowly I forgot about it myself.
It came to mind again when, some time later, the entire Sarratore family moved. One morning the cart and horse that belonged to Assunta’s husband, Nicola, appeared in the courtyard: with that same cart and that same old horse he sold fruit and vegetables with his wife, going up and down the streets of the neighborhood. Nicola had a broad handsome face and the same blue eyes, the same blond hair as his son Enzo. Besides selling fruit and vegetables, he was the mover. And in fact he, Donato Sarratore, Nino himself, and Lidia, too, began to carry things downstairs, all sorts of odds and ends, mattresses, furniture, and piled it on the cart.
As soon as the women heard the sound of wheels in the courtyard, they looked out, including my mother, including me. There was a great curiosity. It seemed that Donato had got a new house directly from the state railroad, in the neighborhood of a square called Piazza Nazionale. Or—said my mother—his wife had obliged him to move to escape the persecutions of Melina, who wanted to take away her husband. Likely. My mother always saw evil where, to my great annoyance, it was sooner or later discovered that evil really was, and her crossed eye seemed made purposely to identify the secret motives of the neighborhood. How would Melina react? Was it true, as I had heard whispered, that she had had a child with Sarratore and then killed it? And was it possible that she would start shouting terrible things, including that? All the females, big and small, were at the windows, perhaps to wave goodbye to the family that was leaving, perhaps to witness the spectacle of rage of that ugly, lean, and widowed woman. I saw that Lila and her mother, Nunzia, were also watching.
I sought Nino’s gaze, but he seemed to have other things to do. I was then seized, as usual for no precise reason, by a weariness that made everything around me faint. I thought that perhaps he had made that declaration because he already knew that he would be leaving and wanted to tell me first what he felt for me. I looked at him as he struggled to carry boxes filled to overflowing, and I felt the guilt, the sorrow of having said no. Now he was fleeing like a bird.
Finally the procession of furniture and household goods stopped. Nicola and Donato began to tie everything to the cart with ropes. Lidia Sarratore appeared dressed as if to go to a party, she had even put on a summer hat, of blue straw. She pushed the carriage with her youngest boy in it and beside her she had the two girls, Marisa, who was my age, eight or nine, and Clelia, six. Suddenly there was a noise of things breaking on the second floor. Almost at the same moment Melina began screaming. Her cries were so tortured that Lila, I saw, put her hands over her ears. The pained voice of Ada, Melina’s second child, echoed as she cried, Mamma, no, Mamma. After a moment of uncertainty I, too, covered my ears. But meanwhile objects began to fly out the window and curiosity became so strong that I freed my eardrums, as if I needed clear sounds to understand. Melina, however, wasn’t uttering words but only aaah, aaah, as if she were wounded. She couldn’t be seen, not even an arm or a hand that was throwing things could be seen. Copper pots, glasses, bottles, plates appeared to fly out the window of their own volition, and in the street Lidia Sarratore walked with her head down, leaning over the baby carriage, her daughters behind, while Donato climbed up on the cart amid his property, and Don Nicola guided the horse by the bridle and meanwhile objects hit the asphalt, bounced, shattered, sending splinters between the nervous hooves of the beast.
I looked at Lila. Now I saw another face, a face of bewilderment. She must have realized that I was looking at her, and she immediately disappeared from the window. Meanwhile the cart started off. Keeping to the wall, without a goodbye to anyone, Lidia and the four youngest children slunk toward the gate, while Nino seemed unwilling to leave, as if hypnotized by the waste of fragile objects against the asphalt.
Last I saw flying out the window a sort of black spot. It was an iron, pure steel. When I still had Tina and played in the house, I used my mother’s, which was identical, prow-shaped, pretending it was a ship in a storm. The object plummeted down and with a sharp thud made a hole in the ground, a few inches from Nino. It nearly—very nearly—killed him.