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Two friends, p.10
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       Two Friends, p.10

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  booming voice that was also perfectly courteous, like a bear who has been trained to bow to guests. “Please forgive me for asking you to travel all the way to this gloomy old house. I thought we might be more comfortable here than at a café.”

  “We’re very comfortable!” Lalla exclaimed, in a friendly tone.

  “You’re limping,” Sergio said, out of the blue, as Maurizio crisscrossed the room, moving chairs so that they could sit more comfortably.

  “Yes, I’ve had a limp since ’43,” his friend answered, casually. “I was shot in the leg.”

  “Where?”

  “In Africa … I was a Blackshirt,” he said, watching Sergio, as if to judge his reaction. Sergio couldn’t help crying out: “You were a Blackshirt?”

  “Yes … I was eighteen … you know … the errors of youth,” Maurizio said, in a flippant tone that seemed in stark contrast with his rich voice. “I’ve never mentioned it … I was a true believer … and then I was a prisoner of war … I was held for three years.”

  “Where?”

  “In the United States.”

  “So you were a Fascist,” Sergio repeated, almost in disbelief.

  “A rabid Fascist … as Fascist as one can be … I idolized Mussolini, and I even admired Hitler.”

  He invited them to another area of the sitting room: “There’s no light over there … it feels like one is being punished … Come sit here.” They moved to another group of armchairs and couches. Sergio sat in an armchair, and Lalla on the couch next to Maurizio. He crossed his legs. Sergio noticed a small detail: Maurizio was wearing a dark blue suit with pinstripes, like a stock character in a movie. Which character? The international swindler, the sharp-dressing shyster, the professional seducer.

  Soon after they sat down, the butler returned with a large silver tray carrying a bottle of whiskey, a siphon, and an ice bucket, as well as olives and some crackers. In silence, he placed everything on the coffee table in front of them. Sergio noticed the massive, antiquated design of the silver tray. This was a bourgeois household, he reflected, but of the old-fashioned kind,

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  typical of the Fascist period: wealthy, opulent, solid, massive. “I asked the butler to bring us some whiskey,” Maurizio said, pouring a glass. “I know that you and Lalla enjoy it, and I do too … but if you prefer coffee, tea, or a sweet liqueur, don’t hesitate to ask.”

  “No, whiskey is fine,” Lalla said, smiling.

  Maurizio poured the whiskey, picked up a few cubes of ice with the tongs and dropped them into the glasses, adding some seltzer water. Sergio noted that he did this with a surprising grace for such a bear-like man. He also noticed that Maurizio had poured himself a small amount of whiskey, about half what he served them. “Don’t you drink?” he asked.

  “Not much. I drank too much as a young man, and now I have to be careful … I have trouble with my liver.”

  He took a sip, refusing the cigarette that Sergio offered: “I don’t smoke.”

  “You have no vices, it seems,” Lalla said in a frivolous tone that irritated Sergio. “You don’t drink, you don’t smoke …”

  Maurizio did not respond. Sergio lit a cigarette in order to give himself a more nonchalant air. He felt that he had to move the conversation as quickly as possible away from this generic chitchat to the subject he had come to discuss. But he realized that his cheeks were once again burning and his heart was beating furiously. He picked up his glass, took a big gulp to steady his nerves, and said, looking straight into Maurizio’s eyes: “Shall we pick up our discussion where we left off the other day?”

  Lalla began to laugh: “How single-minded you are … You haven’t even given him a chance to catch his breath …”

  “No, no,” Maurizio said, in a friendly voice, “by all means, let’s talk … after all, isn’t that why you’ve come? Let’s continue where we left off the other day.”

  Sergio took another gulp of whiskey and realized that he had almost finished the glass. Maurizio filled it again. Sergio thanked him in a vexed tone and began, “We had reached, shall we say, the negative side of the question … You were saying the other day that your social circle, which you have always been a part of and which you belong to by birth and by wealth—in other words the bourgeoisie—disgusts

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  and bores you, and that you find it insufferable.”

  “Exactly,” Maurizio said, very serious. “I find it empty, incompetent, corrupt, stupid, and quite worthless …”

  “And you said that you’ve felt this way for a long time, but that you used to believe that all people were the same. Then, you realized that these defects were not human defects but rather social defects, and this realization led you to distance yourself from these people.”

  “Yes.”

  “And you said that this social circle does not deserve to survive … not because it is unjust for a few to control so much wealth but rather because it is unjust that these few, who have so much wealth, should be so contemptible.”

  “Yes.”

  “And what did I say to you?”

  “You said that I was a Communist even if I didn’t know it.”

  “Exactly,” Sergio said, somewhat taken aback by his friend’s calm. “That’s exactly what I said.”

  “But then,” Maurizio interjected, fiddling with his glass, “I said that it wasn’t true … I know everything about Communism that a person like myself can know … Didn’t I say that?”

  “Yes, it’s true.”

  There was a pause. Sergio’s cheeks were still burning. He attributed this to the whiskey. Even his sight seemed to be obscured by the tension he felt. He couldn’t see Lalla, and could only barely make out Maurizio’s face. Sighing, he continued: “Yes, that’s where we were when you suddenly stood up and walked off. Actually, I must admit that it crossed my mind that you left because you had no more arguments with which to defend yourself and wanted to escape our discussion. But then I changed my mind when you called the next morning.”

  Maurizio said nothing. Lalla was sitting very close to Maurizio, smoking, looking at each of them in turn. She had unbuttoned her coat. She got up abruptly. “I hope you don’t mind if I take this off. It’s very hot in here.” And without waiting for a response, she removed her coat. Maurizio poured more whiskey into her glass. He returned to his seat and once again faced Sergio, who took a puff of his cigarette and said: “In other words, looking at the issue from the negative side, you yourself have said that you are dangling

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  from the branch of the bourgeoisie like an overripe fruit, about to drop … Nothing keeps you there, not even money …”

  “Least of all, money,” Maurizio said, completely calm.

  Lalla interrupted: “Wait a minute … Are you saying you would be willing to give up this house, your butler, your old habits, and go to work?”

  “I already work,” Maurizio said, without looking at her, “in agriculture.”

  “You mean, you manage your properties.”

  “Actually, I’m a land surveyor and assessor …,” he said, calmly. “But of course I also manage my properties, which are quite vast.”

  Sergio felt impatient. He waited for this parenthesis to close before continuing. “As we were saying, from the negative point of view, you are ripe, about to drop from the branch … so let’s move on to the positive side of the question: you claim to understand our ideas, our aspirations, our doctrine, and all the rest.”

  “More or less, yes.” There was a moment of silence. “Well enough, anyway,” he added in an ambiguous tone. “You don’t need to repeat them … it would be pointless.”

  Sergio had not expected this last comment. He had prepared a series of arguments, based on his readings and on the enthusiasm he felt for the cause. With this comment, Maurizio rendered all of this irrelevant. “Are you so sure?” he asked, somewhat vexed. “Many people think they understand Marx, without ever having read his writings.”
<
br />   “Don’t worry, I’ve read Marx.”

  “And you can’t stop there … You have to read Lenin, and Stalin …”

  “I’ve done that as well.” Maurizio paused to reflect for a moment, and then went on: “You see, I’m very conscientious, even pedantic … When I have doubts about something, I leave no stone unturned, I try to find out as much as I can … I read and study. As soon as I saw that I did not approve of the bourgeois way of life, I turned to your beliefs, of course … But I wasn’t satisfied with the marches, the militant songs, and the red flags. I began to read and study. I’ve done little else the last five years.”

  “Five years?”

  “That’s right … I also read about Russia and the

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  Soviet state, in English and in French.”

  “You also speak English?”

  “I learned when I was a prisoner of war.”

  “So you’re sure I can’t tell you anything you don’t know?”

  “Forgive me for saying it, but I don’t think so.” He took the whiskey bottle and, after asking “Would you like another drop?” poured more into their glasses without waiting for a response. Sergio noticed that it was the fifth time Maurizio had filled their glasses, while his own remained untouched. He leaned forward. “Well, then … I have to ask: What effect have your readings had? Did they convince you that we are on the right path?”

  Maurizio paused to reflect. “They convinced me that Communism is a serious matter and that unless something dramatic happens, the world will most likely become Communist.”

  “You think so.”

  “Yes, I do,” Maurizio said, calmly.

  Sergio felt a question on the tip of his tongue, but he resisted asking it, saying instead, “On paper, after reading about our doctrine, you have no arguments against Communism.”

  “None.”

  “You think the Communists have it right.”

  “Yes, of course … certainly they do.”

  The moment had come for the crucial question: “So, since you are practically a Communist already, why don’t you join the Party?”

  Lalla began to laugh out loud, which irritated Sergio intensely. He turned to her angrily and snarled, “What is there to laugh about?”

  “Nothing, it’s just that I’ve been expecting this question, and you finally got around to asking it.”

  “I don’t see what’s so funny.”

  “You’re right, there’s nothing to laugh about,” Maurizio said, and then paused for a moment. “I’m not going to join the Party … that’s all there is to it.”

  “But why?”

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  “For no reason. I’m just not going to do it.”

  “But that’s not a reasonable answer.”

  “I know.”

  There was a long silence. Sergio realized that he was almost drunk, but he didn’t mind. He felt a powerful affection toward Maurizio and would have liked to embrace him. Finally, he said, warmly, “I’m still waiting for your answer …”

  “I’ve already given it to you.”

  “That’s not an answer.”

  Maurizio laughed, showing his white teeth. “Listen,” he said, “try to follow my logic … There are rational arguments that can be countered with other, equally rational arguments … right? If one does not have a rational argument, it means that one is in the wrong. Don’t you agree?”

  “Of course.”

  “But then there are irrational arguments … Do you agree that such a thing exists?”

  “Of course.”

  “Well then … rationally, I have no response to your arguments. You’re right, I agree, I should be a Communist. But irrationally … I have many objections. You yourself admit that such irrational objections exist. Well, for irrational reasons, I cannot become a Communist.”

  “Fear is one example,” Sergio said, with some bitterness.

  Maurizio waved away Sergio’s words. “No, I don’t mean contemptible reasons like fear, money, or self-interest … don’t worry.”

  “So what is it then?”

  “I already said it … no reason … What does it matter?”

  “It does matter, it matters a lot … I may be able to respond, explain, argue …”

  “But you would respond with rational arguments, and reason has no power to refute its opposite … You would need to find an irrational argument that is more powerful than my own.”

  “Perhaps I can.”

  Maurizio reflected for a moment. “If you did, you

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  wouldn’t be a Communist.”

  “Why?”

  “Because Communists argue with reason and not with irrational arguments … It is the Fascists who use irrational arguments.”

  “By now, Communism has incorporated even the irrational arguments of Fascism.”

  “But I don’t believe in Fascism anymore.”

  Sergio realized that there was nothing he could do, at least for now. He suddenly became aware of how tired and drunk he felt. His head was spinning, his throat was dry, and he had no arguments left. Or rather, the process of converting his feelings into rational arguments was no longer possible because his thoughts had been frozen by the alcohol and his exhaustion. Still, he felt he had not done quite enough to try to convince Maurizio. He said, in an exasperated voice, “What you say sounds clever, but I’m telling you, if you, who claim to be a Communist in every way except for a few irrational objections, keep living like this, going against your true nature, stifling what is best in you, you will end up in a bad way … That’s what I think …”

  Maurizio smiled. “But if I were to become a Communist, I wouldn’t be following my true nature but rather denying it … The irrational part of me is who I really am.”

  “Those are just words.”

  What exasperated Sergio more than anything was Lalla’s silence. He imagined her to be full of skepticism and irony. He turned to her. “Why are you so quiet? Say something, speak.”

  She laughed. “I’m not saying anything because I’m drunk … Maurizio has made me drunk.”

  “And besides,” said Sergio, picking up where he had left off, “there aren’t as many irrational arguments as you claim … The only irrational obstacle that counts is a lack of courage … You’re afraid to take the leap … that’s all.”

  “Hic Rhodus, hic salta … What you say is nothing new … it’s the Rubicon all over again …,” Maurizio said, quietly.

  “That’s right, it’s just like the Rubicon,” Sergio said,

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  becoming impassioned. “People like you don’t have the courage to cross.”

  “People like me?”

  “Bourgeois types like you, who are convinced of the decadence and corruption of the bourgeoisie … A working man would leap over the abyss, but not you.”

  “For the working man there is no abyss … that’s why he jumps.”

  “So you admit,” Sergio exclaimed, in a loud voice, “that what holds you back is your social class, your butler in his striped jacket, your silver trays, your whiskey bottles.”

  Maurizio did not respond directly to this attack. He seemed to reflect for a moment, and then smiled. “If you look carefully, it turns out that Communism does not seek to persuade through rational arguments, though it makes much of rationality and pretends to base itself solely upon it … The Party apparatus is rational, but its means of persuasion is absolutely irrational … Even the worker cannot be seduced through reason, though you insist that it is so. The truth is that it takes something other than reason.”

  “And what is that?”

  “I don’t know … hope for a better world … the hatred of injustice … the will to struggle, and to vanquish …”

  “And?”

  “The same is true of people like me,” Maurizio laughed; “even a debased bourgeois like me needs an irrational argument to be won over.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean that man is not a ra
tional animal … or rather that man is rational only when he speaks, not when he acts … In order to make him act, one must call on something beyond reason …”

  “Such as?”

  “Well, it’s different for each person, for each group … I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to complete your task … you know better than I.”

  “What task?”

  “Do you deny,” Maurizio said, in a calm voice, “that you came here specifically to win me over?”

  “I don’t deny it, no.”

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  “Well then that is your task.”

  There was a long silence. Maurizio played with his glass, peering up at Sergio with his dark, perfectly limpid, calm eyes. Lalla’s laughter broke the silence:

  “Sergio, you’ve been defeated … time to throw in the towel.”

  “Perhaps I’ve been defeated, at least superficially,” Sergio said, bitterly, “but he is the true loser … He admits that he is in conflict with his nature.”

  “Yes, but still, you’ve been defeated …,” she said, laughing drunkenly, “at least today. Your plans for today have been foiled.”

  Lalla laughed again, and Sergio looked at her, as if for the first time. It was as if a fog had suddenly lifted. She was sitting very close to Maurizio with her powerful legs crossed, her chest protruding beneath her dress. There was no more than a palm’s width between her and Maurizio on the couch. Sergio could clearly see that their hands were touching, or rather that Maurizio was holding her hand. It all happened in a moment; then, like a fog that is momentarily lifted by the wind but returns once again, he could no longer see anything at all, and even doubted what he had seen before. For the first time, he thought: “What if all these discussions about Communism are simply a pretense? What if Maurizio is simply trying to seduce Lalla?” He noted that he was not jealous, perhaps because of his affection for Maurizio or perhaps because the alcohol made it seem quite natural for the two of them to be holding hands on the couch. As if guessing at his thoughts, Maurizio asked: “Why do you care if I convert to Communism? Why does it matter to you?”

 
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