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The conformist, p.13
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       The Conformist, p.13

           Alberto Moravia
 

  He said, lying for the first time, “Do I have to reveal what I told you today to my fiancée before we get married?”

  “You’ve never told her anything about it?”

  “No, it would be the first time.”

  “I don’t see the necessity,” said the priest. “You’d disturb her for no reason … and you’d endanger the peace of your family.”

  “You’re right,” said Marcello.

  A new silence followed. Then the priest said in a conclusive tone, as if asking the final and definitive question, “And tell me, son … Are you now, or have you ever been, part of any subversive group or sect?”

  Marcello, who had not expected this question, was struck dumb for a moment in amazement. Evidently, he thought, the priest was asking that question by orders from higher up, for the purpose of checking the political tendencies of the congregation. Still, it was significant that he had asked it. He was asking Marcello, who had formally approached the rites of the Church, as external ceremonies of a society he wished to join, not to set himself against that society. This, rather than that he not set himself against himself.

  He would have liked to reply, “No, I’m part of an organization that hunts down subversives.” But he repressed this malicious temptation and said simply, “To tell the truth, I’m an employee of the state.”

  This response must have pleased the priest, because after a brief pause, he went on placidly, “Now you must promise me that you’ll pray. But you musn’t just pray for a few days or a few months or a few years, but all your life. You’ll pray for your soul and for the soul of that man … and you’ll make your wife pray, and your children if you have them … Only prayer can attract the attention of God to you and bring down His mercy on you … do you understand? And now collect yourself and pray with me.”

  Marcello lowered his face mechanically and heard, from the other side of the grate, the low, hurried voice of the priest reciting a prayer in Latin. Then in a louder voice but still in Latin, the priest pronounced the formula of absolution; and Marcello rose up from the confessional.

  But as he was passing in front of it, the curtain opened and the priest motioned him to stop. Marcello was amazed to see that he was similar in every way to how he had imagined him: heavy, bald, with a large, round forehead, thick eyebrows, round brown eyes, serious but not intelligent, a thick, fleshy mouth. A country priest, he thought, a begging friar. Meanwhile, the priest was silently handing him a thin booklet with a colored image on the cover: the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, for the use of Catholic youth.

  “Thank you,” said Marcello, examining the booklet.

  The priest made another gesture as if to say, “It was nothing,” and drew the curtain shut. Marcello headed toward the entrance.

  But as he was on the point of leaving, his glance embraced the entire church with its rows of columns, its paneled ceiling, its deserted floors and altar; and it seemed to him that he was saying farewell forever to the ancient and outlived image of a world he desired but now knew was no longer accessible. A kind of reverse mirage erected in an unrecoverable past, from which his own footsteps carried him steadily further away.

  Then he lifted the quilt and walked out into the strong light of the cloudless sky, into the piazza echoing with the loud clanging of trolleys, against the vulgar background of anonymous palazzi and commercial shops.

  4

  WHEN MARCELLO GOT OFF the bus in his mother’s neighborhood, he realized almost immediately that a man was following him at a slight distance. As he walked unhurriedly beside the garden walls, down the deserted street, he glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. He was a man of middle stature, a little heavyset, with a square face whose expression, although honest and good-natured, was not without a certain sly craftiness, as is often true of country people. He was wearing a light suit of a faded color somewhere between brown and purple and a light gray hat pulled down well on his head, but with the brim pushed up in front in the peasant style. If he had seen him in the piazza of a village on market day, Marcello would have taken him for a farmer. The man had been on the same bus as Marcello, had gotten off at the same stop, and was now following him along the opposite sidewalk without bothering much to hide it, adjusting his pace to Marcello’s and never taking his eyes off him. But the man’s fixed gaze was uncertain, as if he were not entirely sure of Marcello’s identity and wished to study him in person before approaching him.

  So they walked up the sloping street together like this, in the silence and heat of the early afternoon hours. Behind the bars of the closed gates there was no one to be seen in the gardens, just as there was no one to be seen for the entire length of the street, under the green tunnel formed by the clustered crowns of the pepper trees. This solitude and silence, such favorable conditions for a surprise attack, finally made Marcello suspicious; they might not have been chosen by chance by his pursuer. Abruptly, with instant decision, he stepped down from the sidewalk and crossed the street, moving toward the man.

  “Were you were looking for me?” he asked, when they found themselves a few steps away from each other.

  The man had also stopped; at Marcello’s question he looked almost frightened and said in a low voice, “Excuse me, but I only followed you because we might both be going to the same place … otherwise I would never have dreamt of it. Excuse me, aren’t you Dottor Clerici?”

  “Yes, I am,” said Marcello, “and who are you?”

  “Secret Service agent Orlando,” said the man, giving a little, quasi-military salute, “Colonel Baudino sent me. He gave me both your addresses … of the pensione where you live and this one. Since I didn’t find you at the pensione, I came to look for you here, and by a coincidence you were on the same bus … It’s an urgent matter we’re dealing with.”

  “Please come with me,” said Marcello, heading without another word toward the gate of his mother’s house. He dug the key out of his pocket, opened the gate, and invited the man to enter. The agent obeyed, removing his hat respectfully and uncovering a completely round head with sparse black hairs and, in the center of them, a circular white bald patch that resembled a tonsure. Marcello preceded him up the pathway and headed toward the end of the garden, where he knew there were two iron chairs and a table set under the pergola. As he walked in front of the agent he couldn’t help but notice the wild, neglected character of the garden once again. The clean white gravel he had loved to run up and down on as a child had vanished years ago, ground under or dispersed; the pathway, which had been taken over by weeds, was revealed mostly by the two small myrtle hedges, misshapen and broken in places but still recognizable. On the two sides of the hedges, the flowerbeds were also covered with rampant field weeds; the rosebushes and other flowering plants had given way to prickly shrubs and hopelessly tangled brambles. Here and there in the shade of the trees, you could see piles of trash, broken-down packing crates, smashed bottles, and other similarly unappealing objects usually confined to the attic. Disgusted, he averted his gaze from the mess, asking himself yet one more time in sincere astonishment, “Why don’t they clean it up? Why don’t they put it back in order? It would take so little! Why?”

  Farther on, the path ran between the wall of the villa and the wall of the garden — that same wall covered with ivy across which he used to talk with his neighbor Roberto when he was a child. He preceded the agent under the pergola and sat down in one of the iron chairs, inviting his guest to sit also. But the agent continued to stand respectfully.

  “Signor dottore,” he said hurriedly, “It’s a small thing we’re talking about — I’m charged to tell you on behalf of the colonel that on the way to Paris you’re to stop at S.,” and the agent named a city not far from the border, “and look for Signor Gabrio, at Number 3, Via dei Glicini.”

  “A change of program,” thought Marcello. It was characteristic of the Secret Service, as he knew, to change its instructions at the last moment on purpose, the better to disperse responsibility and cov
er its tracks.

  “So, what’s in Via dei Glicini?” he couldn’t help asking, “a private apartment?”

  “Actually not, dottore,” said the agent with a broad, half-embarassed, half-sly smile. “There’s a whorehouse there. The madame’s name is Enrichetta Parodi, but ask for Signor Gabrio. The house, like all those houses, is open till midnight — but it would be better, dottore, if you went early in the morning … when no one’s around … I’ll be there, too.” The agent fell silent for a moment and then, unable to interpret Marcello’s completely inexpressive face, added in embarassment, “It’s to be more secure, dottore.”

  Marcello, without saying a word, raised his eyes toward the agent and considered him for a moment. It was time to take his leave of him, but he wanted — he couldn’t have said why, maybe because of the honest, familiar expression of the broad, square face — to add some unofficial sentence or two, as a show of friendly feeling on his part. Finally he asked, at random, “How long have you been in the service, Orlando?”

  “Since 1925, dottore.”

  “Always in Italy?”

  “Better say almost never, dottore,” answered the agent with a sigh, obviously eager to be on familiar terms. “Eh, dottore, if I told you what my life has been and what I’ve gone through … always on the go — Turkey, France, Germany, Kenya, Tunisia … never a moment’s rest.” He fell silent for a moment and stared at Marcello fixedly; then, with rhetorical yet absolutely sincere emphasis, added, “Anything for the family and homeland, dottore.”

  Marcello raised his eyes and looked again at the agent, who was standing very straight, hat in hand, almost at attention. Then, with a gesture of dismissal, he said, “All right, then, Orlando. Go ahead and tell the colonel that I’ll stop at S., as he wishes.”

  “Yes, signor dottore.” The agent saluted him and walked away, alongside the wall of the villa.

  Left alone, Marcello stared into the empty air in front of him. It was hot under the pergola and the sun, filtering through the leaves and branches of the creeper, spangled his face with medallions of dazzling light. The little table of enameled iron, once spotless, was now a dirty white, stained black in many places and peeling in rusty strips. Beyond the pergola, he could see the tract of wall where the door in the ivy used to be, the opening through which he used to communicate with Roberto. The ivy was still there, and perhaps it would still be possible to look into the adjacent garden, but Roberto’s family no longer lived in the villa; there was a dentist there now who used it as his office. A lizard suddenly scampered down from the trunk of the creeper and walked fearlessly onto the table. It was a big lizard of the most common kind, with a green back and a white belly that throbbed against the yellowed enamel of the table. It approached Marcello rapidly with little, darting steps and then halted, its sharp head lifted toward him, its tiny black eyes staring. Marcello looked at it with affection and remained still for fear of frightening it. He remembered when, as a boy, he had killed the lizards and then, to free himself from remorse, had searched in vain for complicity and solidarity from timid Roberto. But at the time he had not been able to find anyone who could lighten the burden of his guilt. He had been left alone to face the death of the lizards, and in this solitude he had recognized the clue to the crime. But now, he thought, he was not and would never again be alone. Even if he committed a crime — as long as he committed it for certain ends — the state; the political, social, and military organizations that depended on the state; great masses of people that thought as he did; and, outside of Italy, other states and other millions of people would stand behind him. What he was about to do, he reflected, was certainly much worse than killing a few lizards; just the same, so many people were with him — to begin with, agent Orlando, a good man, married, father of five.

  “For the family and homeland”: this phrase, innocent despite the emphasis, similar to a beautiful banner of bright colors unfurling on a sunny day in a playful breeze while the fanfare resounds and the soldiers pass by, this phrase echoed in his ear, stirring and melancholy, a mixture of hope and sorrow. “For the family and homeland,” he thought, “is enough for Orlando … why shouldn’t it be enough for me?”

  He heard the sound of an engine in the garden near the entrance and rose immediately, with an abrupt movement that made the lizard run off. Without hurrying, he left the pergola and began to walk toward the entrance. An old black automobile was parked in the driveway, not far from the still-open gate. The driver, dressed in white livery with blue braiding, was just closing it, but when he saw Marcello he stopped and took off his cap.

  “Alberi,” said Marcello in his quietest voice, “today we’re going to the clinic, don’t bother to put the car back in the garage.”

  “Yes, Signor Marcello,” replied the chauffeur. Marcello looked at him askance. Alberi was a young man with an olive complexion and eyes as black as coal, their whites the shining white of porcelain. He had very regular features, clenched white teeth, and black, carefully pomaded hair. Although not tall, he gave one a sense of great proportion, perhaps because of his very small hands and feet. He was Marcello’s age but appeared older, due, perhaps, to the Oriental languor expressed in his every feature, a languor destined, it seemed, to turn to fat with the passage of time. Marcello looked at him again, as he closed the gate, with profound aversion; then he set off toward the villa.

  He opened the French doors and walked into the living room, which was almost in darkness. He was immediately assailed by the stench that fouled the air, still faint in comparison to the other rooms in which his mother’s ten Pekinese dogs wandered freely, but all the more noticeable here where they were rarely allowed. Opening the window, he saw for a moment, in the pale light he had let in, the furniture draped in its gray dustcovers, the carpets rolled and perched upright in the corners, the piano muffled in sheets held in place by pins. He crossed the living room and dining room, passed through the hallway, and started up the stairs. Halfway up on a marble step (the threadbare carpet had disappeared some time ago and had never been replaced) there was a mound of dog turds and he circled around it so as not to step in it.

  When he reached the landing, he went to the door of his mother’s bedroom and opened it. Before he had even had time to open it completely all ten Pekinese, like a long-contained flood suddenly spilling over, launched themselves between his legs and scattered in a flurry of barking throughout the hallway and down the stairs. Uncertain and annoyed, he watched them run away, graceful creatures with their plumed tails and sullen, almost catlike faces. Then, from the bedroom immersed in shadow, he heard the voice of his mother.

  “Is that you, Marcello?”

  “Yes, mamma, it’s me … but these dogs?”

  “Let them go, poor saints … they’ve been shut in all morning … let them go where they want.”

  Marcello frowned to signal his displeasure and went in. At once he felt that he could not breathe the air in that bedroom. The closed windows had contained the mingled odors of the night — the different smells of sleep, dogs, and perfume — and the heat of the sun burning behind the shutters seemed already to have fermented and soured the air. Rigid, wary, almost as if he feared by moving to dirty himself or be contaminated by those smells, he went to the bed and sat down on its edge, his hands on his knees.

  Now, slowly, as his eyes adjusted to the half-light, he could see the whole bedroom. Beneath the window, in the diffuse light coming from the long, stained, yellowed curtains, which seemed to be made of the same limp material as the many pieces of underwear strewn around the room, a number of aluminum plates full of dog food were lined up in a row. The floor was littered with shoes and stockings; in a dark corner near the bathroom door he caught sight of a pink bathrobe, draped over a chair where it had been thrown the night before, half on the floor, its sleeve hanging empty. His cold glance, full of disgust, turned from the room to the bed where his mother lay. As usual, she had not thought to cover herself at his entrance and was partly naked. Stre
tched out, her arms raised and her hands joined behind her head against the backboard quilted in worn, soiled blue silk, she stared at him in silence. Under her mass of hair, spread out in two great dark wings, her face appeared thin and pinched, almost triangular, devoured by eyes enlarged and darkened by shadow so as to appear almost deathlike. She was wearing a transparent, light green slip that barely covered the top of her thighs; and again, this made him think, not of the mature woman she was, but of an aged and withered little girl. Her scrawny upper chest showed like a rack of small, sharp bones; behind their veil, her flattened breasts were revealed by two dark, round stains on an absolutely flat surface. But her thighs, above all, roused both repugnance and pity in Marcello: skinny and meager, they were those of a child of twelve who has not yet grown into her woman’s curves. His mother’s age showed in certain softened stretchmarks on her skin and in her coloring: a chilly, nervous white stained by mysterious bruises, some of them bluish, others livid.

 
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