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The conformist, p.12
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       The Conformist, p.12

           Alberto Moravia
 

  She said exultantly, “Isn’t it beautiful? Look!” And still holding the veil out with both hands, she turned in a circle in the space between the window and the table, so that her fiancé could admire the wedding dress from every side. It was, thought Marcello, similar in every way to any other bride’s dress; but he was glad that Giulia was happy with something so common, in just the same way that millions and millions of other women had been happy before her. Her body’s strikingly round and exuberant curves strained awkwardly against the shining white silk.

  Suddenly she came close to Marcello and said to him, letting go of her veil and offering up her face, “Now give me a kiss. But don’t touch me or the dress will get wrinkled.”

  At that moment Giulia turned her back to the window so that Marcello could see it. As he bent to brush her lips with his own, he saw the diner with the white hair get up and leave the room of the apartment opposite them; and immediately the other two, the thin, dark young man and the blonde woman, rose almost automatically from the table and began to kiss each other. The sight pleased him; after all, he was acting like those two, from whom he had felt divided by such an unbridgeable distance shortly before

  Right then Giulia exclaimed impatiently, “To hell with the dress,” and without detaching herself from Marcello, closed the shutters with one hand. Then, thrusting her whole body hard against his, she threw her arms around his neck. They kissed in the dark, hampered by the veil; and as his fiancée pressed and writhed against him, sighing and kissing him, Marcello thought once more how innocently she was acting, without perceiving the slightest contradiction between this embrace and the weddding dress she was wearing: one more proof that normal people were entitled to take the greatest liberties with normality itself.

  At last they separated breathlessly and Giulia murmured, “We musn’t be impatient … Another day or two and you can even kiss me in the street.”

  “I have to go,” he said, wiping his mouth with his handkerchief.

  “I’ll see you out.”

  They left the dining room in the dark and passed into the hall.

  “We’ll see each other tonight after dinner,” said Giulia.

  Tender and softened, she leaned against the doorjamb and watched him from the threshold. The veil on her head had been mussed by their kiss and now hung crookedly to one side. Marcello went up to her and put it back in place, saying, “That’s better.”

  At the same time they heard the sound of voices on the landing of the floor below. Giulia drew back in embarrassment, flung him a kiss with the tips of her fingers, and hurriedly closed the door.

  3

  THE IDEA OF CONFESSION worried Marcello. He was not religious in practice and did not participate in any formal rites; nor was he sure that he had any natural religious inclinations. Nonetheless, he would have considered Don Lattanzi’s request for confession quite willingly, as one of the many conventional acts he must undertake in order to anchor himself definitively in normality, if such a confession had not involved the revelation of two things which, for different reasons, he felt himself unable to confess: the tragedy of his childhood and the mission in Paris. He intuited dimly that a subtle link united these two things, though it would have been hard for him to say clearly what made up this link. He also realized that among the many available norms, he had not chosen the Christian one, which forbids killing, but another completely different, political and recent one, which did not shrink from bloodshed. He did not trust the power of the Church, with its hundreds of popes, its innumerable churches, its saints and martyrs, to restore him to that communion with humankind from which the matter of Lino had barred him; he attributed that power instead to the fat minister whose mouth was smeared with lipstick, to his cynical secretary, to his superiors in the Secret Service. Marcello intuited all this obscurely rather than thinking about it; and his melancholy increased, as in someone who sees only one way out, all the others being closed, and who does not like the way left open to him.

  But he needed to make a decision, he thought, as he climbed on the trolley going to Santa Maria Maggiore; he needed to choose whether to make a complete confession, according to the rules of the Church, or to limit himself to a partial confession just to please Giulia. Although he neither practiced nor believed, he was drawn to the first alternative, almost hoping that through confession he might, not change his own destiny, but at least conform to it more fully. As the trolley rolled forward, he wrestled with this problem in his usual pedantic and rather dully serious manner. As far as Lino was concerned, he felt more or less tranquil: he would be able to tell it all as it had actually happened and the priest, after the customary examination and advice, could not refuse to absolve him. But the mission, which, as he knew, involved the deceit, betrayal, and ultimately perhaps even the death of a man, was a completely different matter. With the mission, it was not just a question of obtaining approval, but of talking about it at all. He was not at all sure he could do it, since talking about it would mean abandoning one standard for another, submitting to Christian judgment something he had till now considered completely independent of it. He would be betraying an implicit promise of silence and secrecy, putting the whole laborious edifice of his insertion into normality at risk. But it was still worth trying, he thought, if only to convince himself one more time, by means of a definitive test, of the solidity of that edifice.

  Yet he was aware of considering these alternatives without much emotion, with the cold and passive mind, almost, of a spectator; as if in reality he had already made his choice and foreseen everything that was to happen in the future, though he knew not how or when. He was so far from harboring any doubt that as he entered the vast church, its cool, shadowy silence truly consoling after the light, noise, and heat of the street, he actually forgot about the confession and began to wander around the deserted stone floor from one nave to another, just like any idle tourist. He had always liked churches; they were points of security in a fluctuating world. In other times these structures, built with such specific intent, had given massive, splendid expression to what he was seeking: an order, a standard, a rule. The truth is, he often found himself wandering into one of the many churches in Rome and sitting down in a pew without praying, to contemplate something he thought he might have done if only conditions had been different. What seduced him in the churches were not the solutions they offered, which he could not possibly accept, so much as a result he could not help but admire and appreciate. He liked all churches, but the more imposing and magnificent, that is, the more profane they were, the better he liked them. In these kinds of churches, in which religion had evaporated into a majestic and ordered worldliness, he seemed almost to be able to see the transition point between a naive religious faith and a society that had grown into adulthood, but which still owed its very existence to that ancient faith.

  At that hour the church was deserted. Marcello approached the altar and then, standing near one of the columns in the right-hand nave, looked down the whole length of the floor, trying to abolish the sense of height and gaze, as it were, from ground level. How vast the floor was, seen from that perspective, the way an ant might see it, almost like a great plain; it made him dizzy. Then he raised his eyes, and his gaze, following the faint gleam that the dim light cast on the convex surfaces of the enormous marble shafts, traveled from column to column until it reached the front door. At that moment someone came in, lifting the heavy quilt in the doorway in a splinter of crude white light: how small the figure of the believer was, standing there at the threshold down at the bottom of the church. Marcello walked behind the altar and looked at the mosaics in the apse. The figure of the Christ between four saints caught his attention: whoever had depicted him that way, thought Marcello, had certainly nurtured no doubt about what was normal and what was abnormal. He lowered his head, starting off slowly in the direction of the confessional in the right-hand nave. He was thinking, now, that it was useless to regret not having been born in other times and u
nder other conditions; he was what he was precisely because his times and conditions were no longer those which had encouraged the building of that church, and it was in the awareness of this reality that his entire task lay.

  He approached the confessional, made of dark, carved wood and enormous in proportion to the basilica, and was in time to glimpse the priest seated inside it close the curtain and sequester himself; but he was unable see his face.

  Before kneeling, he hitched his pants up over the knees so they wouldn’t wrinkle, a habitual gesture; then he said in a low voice, “I would like to confess.”

  From the other side the voice of the priest, low-pitched but frank and brusque, replied that he could do so and said no more. It was the deep, large, sing-song voice of a mature man with a strong accent of southern Italy. In spite of himself, Marcello conjured up the figure of a monk with a black beard, thick eyebrows, a massive nose, and ears and nostrils full of hair. A man, he thought, made of the same dense, heavy material as the confessional, without suspicions and without subtleties. The priest, as he had expected, asked him how long it had been since he had last confessed, and he replied that he had never confessed except as a child and that he was doing so now because he was about to get married.

  The priest’s voice, after a moment of silence, said from the other side of the grate somewhat indifferently, “You’ve done something very wrong, my son. How old are you?”

  “Thirty,” said Marcello.

  “You’ve lived in sin for thirty years,” said the priest, in the tone of an accountant announcing a debit on the balance sheet. He continued after a moment, “Thirty years you’ve lived like a beast and not like a human being.”

  Marcello bit his lips. Now he realized that the confessor’s authority, expressed by his brusque and familiar way of judging the case even before knowing its details, was unacceptable and irritating to him. Not that he disliked the priest, probably a good man who carried out his office conscientiously, nor that he disliked the place or the rite; but as opposed to government offices, where he disliked everything but where the authority seemed to him obvious and incontestable, here he felt an instinctive desire to rebel.

  However, he said with an effort, “I’ve committed all the sins … even the gravest.”

  “All of them?”

  He thought, “Now I’ll tell him I’ve killed and I want to see how it affects me to say it.” He hesitated and then by pushing himself slightly to do so, managed to say in a clear, firm voice, “Yes, I’ve even killed a man.”

  Right away the priest exclaimed keenly, but without any indignation or surprise, “You’ve killed a man and you haven’t felt the need to confess.”

  Marcello thought that that was precisely what the priest should have said: no horror, no amazement, only an official displeasure for not having confessed such a serious sin sooner. And he was grateful to the priest, as he would be grateful to a captain of police faced with this same confession, who arrested him swiftly without wasting his time in comments. Everyone, he thought, had to play their part and only in this way could the world endure. Meanwhile, however, he realized once more that he felt no particular emotion at revealing his tragedy; and he marveled at his own indifference, in such contrast to the profoundly disturbed reaction he had experienced when Giulia’s mother announced that she had received the anonymous letter.

  He said in a calm voice, “I killed when I was thirteen years old … and to defend myself and almost without wanting to.…”

  “Tell me how it was.”

  He shifted position a little on his stiffening knees and began: “One morning when I got out of school, a man approached me on some pretext. At that time I wanted very badly to own a pistol … not a toy one but a real gun. By promising me that he would give me the pistol, he managed to get me to climb into his car … He was some foreign woman’s chauffeur and he had the car for his own use all day because the owner had gone off on a trip. At that time I was totally ignorant and when he made certain proposals to me, I didn’t even understand what he was talking about.”

  “What kind of proposals?”

  “Sexual proposals,” said Marcello soberly. “I didn’t know what physical love was, either normal or abnormal … so I got in, and he took me to his employer’s villa.”

  “And what happened there?”

  “Nothing or almost nothing. First he tried something, but then he regretted it and made me promise not to pay any attention to him anymore, even if he invited me to get into his car again.”

  “What do you mean by ‘almost nothing’? Did he kiss you?”

  “No,” said Marcello, a little surprised. “He just put his arm around my waist for a minute, in the hallway.”

  “Go ahead.”

  “He knew ahead of time, though, that he wouldn’t be able to forget me. And in fact, the next day he was waiting again outside the school. This time, too, he said he would give me the gun, and since I wanted it so badly, first I made him beg me a little and then I accepted and got in the car.”

  “And where did you go?”

  “The same place as the other time, to the villa, in his bedroom.…”

  “And this time how did he act?”

  “He was completely changed,” said Marcello. “He seemed to be out of his mind … He told me he wouldn’t give me the gun and that for better or worse I was going to have to do what he wanted. While he was saying these things he was holding the gun in his hand … Then he grabbed me by the arm and threw me on the bed, making me hit my head against the wall. Meanwhile, the gun had fallen onto the bed and he was kneeling in front of me hugging my legs.… I picked up the pistol, got up from the bed, and took a few steps backwards, and then he threw out his arms and shouted, ‘Kill me, kill me like a dog.…’ So I … it was almost like I was obeying him … I shot him and he fell down on the bed. This all happened many years ago. Recently I went to look up the newspapers of the time and found out that the man died the same night, at the hospital.”

  Marcello had not rushed through his story; he had chosen his words with care and uttered them with precision. As he talked he was aware that he felt nothing, as always; nothing but that sense of cold, distant sorrow that he always felt, whatever he did or said.

  The priest asked immediately, without commenting on the story in any way, “Are you sure you told the whole truth?”

  “Yes, of course,” replied Marcello, surprised.

  “You know,” continued the priest, suddenly agitated, “that by hiding or bending the truth or even a part of it, you render your confession invalid and commit a grave sacrilege, besides. What really happened between you and that man, the second time?”

  “But … what I told you.”

  “There was no carnal relationship between you? He didn’t use you with violence?”

  So, Marcello couldn’t help thinking, the murder was less important than the sin of sodomy. He confirmed, “No, there was nothing more than what I told you.”

  “One might think,” continued the priest inflexibly, “that you killed the man to revenge yourself for something he had done to you.”

  “He did absolutely nothing to me.”

  There was a brief silence, full of what Marcello perceived as poorly dissimulated incredulity.

  “And so,” asked the priest suddenly in a wholly unexpected manner, “have you ever had sexual relationships with men after that?”

  “No, my sexual life has been and still is perfectly normal.”

  “What do you mean by a normal sexual life?”

  “That as far as that goes, I’m a man like all the others … I knew a woman for the first time in a whorehouse when I was seventeen, and after that I’ve only had sex with women.”

  “And you call that a normal sexual life?”

  “Yes, why?”

  “Because that’s abnormal, too,” said the priest triumphantly, “that’s a sin, too … Hasn’t anyone ever told you, poor boy? What’s normal is to get married and have sexual intercourse wit
h your own wife in order to bring children into the world.”

  “That’s what I’m about to do,” said Marcello.

  “Good, but it’s not enough. You can’t approach the altar with blood on your hands.”

  “Finally,” Marcello couldn’t help thinking. For a moment he had almost believed that the priest had forgotten the principal object of the confession. He said as humbly as he could, “Tell me what I should do.”

  “You must repent,” said the priest. “Only by sincere and profound repentance can you expiate the wrong you’ve done.”

  “I have repented,” said Marcello thoughtfully. “If repentance means wishing with all my heart I had never done certain things, I’ve repented for sure.” He would like to have added, “But this repentance was not enough … It couldn’t have been enough,” but he held himself back.

  The priest said hastily, “My duty is to warn you that if what you’re saying now isn’t true, my absolution is worthless. Do you know what awaits you if you’re deceiving me?”

  “What?”

  “Damnation.”

  The priest uttered this word with particular satisfaction. Marcello searched his imagination for what the word conjured up and found nothing, not even the ancient image of the flames of hell. But at the same time he felt that the word meant more than the priest had intended by it. He shivered painfully, almost as if he understood that damnation existed, whether he repented or not, and that it was not within the priest’s power to free him from it.

  “I have truly repented,” he repeated bitterly.

  “And you have nothing else to tell me?”

  Marcello remained silent for an instant before responding. Now, he realized, the moment had come for him to speak of his mission, which, as he knew, involved actions not only open to condemnation but condemned already by Christian law. He had foreseen this moment and had rightly attributed the maximum importance to his own ability to reveal the mission. Then, with a calm, sad sense of preordained discovery, he realized as soon as he opened his mouth to speak that something would not let him go forward. It was neither moral disgust, nor shame, nor any other manifestation of guilt, but something very different that had nothing to do with guilt. It was an absolute inhibition, dictated by a profound complicity and loyalty. He was not to speak of the mission, that was all; the same conscience that had remained mute and passive when he had announced to the priest, “I have killed,” now imposed this silence on him with great authority. Not yet completely convinced, he tried to speak once more, but felt that resistance bind his tongue and block his words again, as automatically as a lock clicks in when the key turns. So once again — and this time with much more evidence — the strength of the authority represented at the ministry by the despicable official and his no less contemptible secretary was confirmed beyond doubt. It was, like all authorities, mysterious, and seemed to plunge its roots into very depths of his soul, while the Church, apparently so much more powerful, only reached its surface.

 
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