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The conformist, p.15
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       The Conformist, p.15

           Alberto Moravia

  Hurriedly climbing the steps that led to the porch, the attendant said, “The professor is waiting for you, Signora Clerici.” He preceded the two visitors into a bare, dark entranceway, and went to knock on a closed door above which, on an enamelled nameplate, one could read: Administration.

  The door opened right away and the director of the clinic, Professor Ermini, exploded out of it, precipitating himself, with all the impetuousness of his massive and towering bulk, toward the visitors.

  “Signora, my respects … Dottor Clerici, good-day.” His booming voice resounded like a bronze gong in the frozen silence of the clinic, between those bare walls. Marcello’s mother held out a hand which the professor, bending his huge body wrapped in its white coat with visible effort, tried gallantly to kiss; Marcello, on the contrary, limited himself to a sober greeting. The professor’s face very strongly resembled a barn owl’s: big round eyes, great curved nose like a beak, red moustache drooping over the wide, clamorous mouth. But its expression was unlike the melancholy nightbird’s; far from it, it was jovial — even if the joviality was studied and shot through with veins of cold cunning. He preceeded Marcello and his mother up the stairs.

  When they were halfway up the flight, a metal object hurled with great force from the landing sailed, ricocheting, down the stairs. At the same time, a piercingly sharp scream rang out, followed by scornful laughter. The professor bent down to pick up the object, an aluminum plate.

  “Donegalli,” he said, turning to the two visitors, “no fear … we’re just dealing with an old woman who’s usually as peaceful as she can be, except that now and then she decides to throw whatever she finds at hand … hah hah … she’d be a bocce champion, if we’d let her.” He continued to chat as they went down a long corridor, between two rows of closed doors. “And how is it, Signora, that you’re still in Rome? I thought you’d already be in the mountains or at the seaside.”

  “I’m leaving in a month,” said his mother. “But I don’t know where I’ll go … I’d like to avoid Venice for once.”

  “A word of advice, Signora,” said the professor, turning the corner of the corridor, “go to Ischia. I was there the other day on an outing … it’s a marvel. We went into a certain Carminiello’s restaurant and ate a fish soup that was simply a poem.” The professor turned halfway and made a vulgar but expressive gesture with two fingers at the corner of his mouth. “A poem, I tell you: tocchi [morsels] of fish this big … and then, a little of everything — polpetto, scorfanello, palombetto, ostricuccia tanto buona, totanuccio, and all with a sughillo alla marinara … garlic, oil, tomato, peperoncino … Signora, I say no more.”

  Having adopted a false, jocular Neapolitan accent to describe the fish soup, the professor now fell back into his native Roman dialect, adding, “Do you know what I said to my wife? What do you bet we get a little cottage in Ischia before the year’s out?”

  Marcello’s mother said, “I prefer Capri.”

  “But that’s a place for intelligentsia and homosexuals,” said the professor, with a kind of distracted brutality. At that moment a heart-stopping scream reached them from one of the cells. The professor approached the door, slid open the spy-hole, looked in for a minute, closed the spy-hole again, and then, turning around, concluded, “Ischia, dear woman … Ischia’s the place: fish soup, sea, sun, life in the open air … nothing beats Ischia.”

  The attendant Franz, who had preceded them by a few paces, was waiting for them now, standing motionless by one of the doors, his massive figure outlined in the pale light from the window at the end of the hall.

  “Has he taken the medicine?” the professor asked in a low voice.

  The attendant nodded in the affirmative. The professor opened the door and entered, followed by Marcello and his mother.

  It was a little bare room, with a bed attached to the wall and a small table of white wood in front of the window, which was barred with the usual grating. With a thrill of revulsion, Marcello saw — seated at the table, his back to the door, intent on writing — his father. A fury of white hair stuck out from his head, above a slender neck lost in the wide collar of a stiff, striped jacket. He was sitting a little crookedly, his feet thrust into enormous felt slippers, his elbows and knees turned out, his head leaning to one side. He was just like a puppet with broken strings, thought Marcello. He did not turn around at the entrance of his three visitors; on the contrary, he seemed to redouble his zealous attention to writing.

  The professor went to put himself between the window and the table and said, with false joviality, “Major, how’s it going today, eh? How’s it going?”

  The madman did not answer but limited himself to raising a hand as if to say, “One moment, don’t you see that I’m busy?”

  The professor launched a glance of complicity at Marcello’s mother and said, “Still those memoranda, eh, Major? But won’t they be too long? Il Duce doesn’t have time to read things that are too long … he’s always brief and concise … brevity, concision, Major.”

  The madman repeated his gesture of acknowlegement, raising and agitating his bony hand; then, with the strange fury particular to him, he flung a piece of paper through the air over his inclined head. It fell down in the middle of the room and Marcello leaned over to pick it up. It contained only a few incomprehensible words written in a calligraphy full of flourishes and underlines. Maybe they weren’t even words. While he was examining the piece of paper, the madman began hurling away others, always with the same, furiously busy gesture. The pieces of paper flew over his white head and scattered around the room. Gradually, as he continued to launch the paper, the madman’s gestures became ever more violent until the whole room was now filled with pieces of graph paper.

  Marcello’s mother said, “Poor dear … he always did love writing.”

  The professor leaned a little toward the madman. “Major, here are your wife and your son. Don’t you want to see them?”

  At last, this time, the madman spoke, in a low, stumbling, hurried, hostile voice, just like someone who has been disturbed while doing an important job. “They should come by again tomorrow … that is, if they have no concrete proposals to make … don’t you see that I have a waiting room full of people I can’t find time to see?”

  “He thinks he’s a minister,” Marcello’s mother whispered.

  “Minister of Foreign Affairs,” confirmed the professor.

  “The Hungarian affair,” said the madman suddenly in a swift, low, labored voice, continuing to write, “the Hungarian affair … that government chief in Prague … what are they doing in London? And why don’t the French understand? Why don’t they understand? Why? Why? Why?”

  Each “why” was uttered by the madman in an ever louder voice, until, at the final “why,” offered up almost in a shout, the madman leapt from the chair and turned to face his visitors. Marcello raised his eyes and looked at him. Beneath his bristling white hair, the thin, ruined face, dark and deeply scored by vertical wrinkles, appeared to assume an expression of contrite and solemn gravity, an expression almost anguished from the effort to adapt to an imaginary occasion calling for both rhetoric and ceremony. He held one of his papers at eye level, and without further comment, in a strange and breathless haste, began to read it:

  “Duce, chief of heroes, king of the earth and of the sea and of the sky, prince, pope, emperor, commander, and soldier” — here the madman made a gesture of impatience, tempered however by a certain amount of formality, as if to signify, “etcetera, etcetera” — “Duce, in this place that” — the madman made a new gesture, as if to say, “I’ll skip over this, these things are superfluous,” then continued, “In this place I have written my memoranda, which I beg you to read from the first” — the madman stopped and stared at his visitors — “to the last line. Here are the memoranda.”

  After this debut, the madman threw the piece of paper into the air, turned to the desk, took up another one, and began to read the memoranda. But this time Marcello coul
d not grasp a single word. The madman read in a clear, very loud voice, it’s true, but a singular haste made him slide one word into another, as if the entire discourse were no more than one continuous word of a length never seen before. The words, thought Marcello, must melt on his tongue before he could even pronounce them; it was almost as if the devouring fire of madness had dissolved their shapes like wax, amalgamating them into one single soft, elusive, indistinct oratorical material. Gradually, as he read, the words seemed to penetrate more deeply one into the other, shortening and shrinking, and the madman himself began to seem overwhelmed by the verbal avalanche. With growing urgency he began to throw away the papers after reading just the first lines; then, all of a sudden, he ceased to read entirely, leapt with surprising agility onto the bed, and there, withdrawing into a corner and standing upright against the wall, began — or so it appeared — to deliver a speech.

  Marcello gathered that he was addressing a crowd more by his gestures than by his words, which were as disconnected and senseless as ever. Exactly like an orator standing on an imaginary balcony, the madman would raise both arms to the ceiling, lean down to thrust out a hand as if to imply some subtlety, threaten them with his closed fist, lift both open palms to the level of his face. At a certain point, the imaginary crowd to whom the madman was speaking must certainly have broken out into applause, since he, with the characteristic gesture of the downturned palm, seemed to be calling for silence. But clearly the applause not only did not cease, but grew in intensity, since the madman, after requesting silence once more with his supplicatory gesture, jumped down from the bed, ran to the professor, grabbed him by the sleeve, and asked, in a tearful voice, “Will you make them shut up … what does applause matter to me … a declaration of war … how can you make a declaration of war, if they keep you from speaking by clapping?”

  “We’ll make the declaration of war tomorrow, Major,” said the professor, looking down at the madman from his towering height.

  “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow,” yelled the madman, giving way to an instantaneous rage in which anger and desperation were all mixed up, “always tomorrow … the declaration of war has to be made right away.”

  “And why is that, Major? What’s it matter to us? In this heat? Those poor soldiers — do you want them to make war in this heat?” The professor shrugged his shoulders slyly.

  The madman stared at him, perplexed; evidently the objection disconcerted him. Then he shouted, “The soldiers will eat ice cream! We eat ice cream in the summer, don’t we?”

  “Yes,” said the professor, “we eat ice cream in the summer.”

  “Right, then,” said the madman with a triumphant air, “ice cream, lots of ice cream, ice cream for everyone.”

  Muttering to himself, he went over to the table and, standing up, grabbed the pencil, wrote a few hurried words on one last piece of paper, then came back to hand it to the doctor.

  “Here is the declaration of war. I can’t deal with it anymore … you take it to whoever will … these bells, oh, oh, these bells!” He gave the paper to the doctor and went over to huddle on the floor in the corner near the bed like a terrified beast, squeezing his head between his hands and repeating in anguish, “These bells … can’t these bells stop a minute?”

  The doctor glanced at the piece of paper and then handed it to Marcello. At the top of the page was written: “Slaughter and gloom,” and underneath, “The war is declared,” all in the usual large handwriting full of flourishes. The doctor said, “Slaughter and gloom is his motto. You’ll find it written on all those papers. He’s fixated on those two words.”

  “The bells,” moaned the madman.

  “But does he really hear them?” asked Marcello’s mother, perplexed.

  “Probably so. They’re aural hallucinations, like the applause earlier. Mentally ill people can hear different kinds of sounds … even voices saying words … or animal cries, or engine noises, a motorcycle, for example.”

  “The bells!” screamed the madman in a terrible voice.

  Marcello’s mother backed up toward the door, murmuring, “But it must be so frightening. Poor dear, who knows how much he suffers … if I find myself under a belltower when the bells are ringing, I feel like I’m going mad.”

  “Does he suffer?” asked Marcello.

  “Wouldn’t you suffer if for hours and hours you heard huge bronze bells ringing as loud as they could right next to your ear?” The professor turned toward the sick man and added, “Now we’re going to make the bells stop ringing … we’re going to send the bellringer off to sleep. We’ll give you something to drink and you won’t hear them anymore.”

  He nodded to the attendant, who left immediately; then, turning to Marcello, he said, “These are fairly serious sorts of anguish.… The afflicted person passes from a frenetic euphoria to a profound depression. A little while ago when he was reading, he was exalted, now he’s depressed. Would you like to say something to him?”

  Marcello stared at his father, who continued to moan piteously, his head between his hands, and said in a cold voice, “No, I have nothing to say to him, and besides, what would be the use? He wouldn’t understand me anyway.”

  “Sometimes they understand,” said the professor. “They understand more than you think; they recognize people, they trick even us doctors … eh, eh, it’s not so simple.”

  Marcello’s mother approached her husband and said affably, “Antonio, do you recognize me? This is Marcello, your son. He’s getting married the day after tomorrow … do you understand? He’s getting married.”

  The madman looked up at his wife almost hopefully, as a wounded dog looks at his master, who is leaning over him and asking him in human words what’s wrong.

  The doctor turned toward Marcello, exclaiming, “Wedding, wedding … Dear dottore, I knew nothing about this. My most heartfelt congratulations … very sincere best wishes.”

  “Thank you,” said Marcello dryly.

  His mother said ingenuously as she headed for the door, “Poor dear, he doesn’t understand. If he understood, he’d be unhappy, the same way I’m unhappy.”

  “Please, mamma,” said Marcello briefly.

  “It doesn’t matter, your wife has to please you and nobody else,” answered his mother conciliatorily. Then she turned toward the madman and said, “Good-bye, Antonio.”

  “The bells,” whimpered the madman.

  They went out into the hallway and crossed paths with Franz, who was coming in with a glass of sedative in his hand.

  The professor closed the door and said, “It’s curious, dottore, how the insane keep themselves informed and up-to-date, how sensitive they are to everything that touches the collective. Now there’s Fascism, there’s Il Duce, and so you’ll find a lot of them that fixate, like your father, on Fascism and Il Duce. During the war you couldn’t even count the insane that thought they were generals and wanted to stand in for Cadorna or Diaz … and more recently, when Nobile flew to the North Pole, I had at least three patients who knew for certain where the famous red tent could be found, and they had invented a special gadget to rescue the survivors. Crazy people are always up-to-date. Actually, despite their madness, they don’t stop participating in public life, and it’s precisely their madness they use to participate in it — good, upstanding, crazy citizens that they are, of course.”

  The doctor laughed coldly, very much satisfied by his own humor. Then he turned to Marcello’s mother (but with the clear intention of flattering Marcello) and said, “But as far as Il Duce is concerned, we’re all as crazy as your husband, isn’t that right, Signora? All crazy as loons, we should be treated with the cold shower and the straightjacket … All Italy is just one big insane asylum, eh, eh, eh.”

  “As far as that goes, my son is crazy for sure,” said his mother, innocently seconding the doctor’s adulation. “In fact, on our way here I said to Marcello that there were points of similarity between him and his father.”

  Marcello slowed his pac
e so as not to hear them. He saw them walk toward the end of the hall and then turn and disappear, still chatting. He stopped. He was still holding the scrap of paper on which his father had written his declaration of war. He hesitated, then pulled his wallet out of his pocket and put the piece of paper in it. Then he hurried forward and reached the doctor and his mother on the ground floor.

  “Well … good-bye, Professor,” said his mother, “but that poor dear … is there really no way to cure him?”

  “For now science can do nothing,” replied the doctor without any solemnity, as if repeating a dull, mechanical formula.

  “Good-bye, Professor,” said Marcello.

  “Good-bye, dottore, and again — sincere and hearfelt congratulations.”

  They walked down the graveled pathway, came out onto the street, and headed for the car. Alberi was there, next to the open door with his cap in his hand. They got in without saying anything and the car started up.

  Marcello was silent for a moment and then said, “Mamma, I’d like to ask you a question. I think I can speak to you frankly, can’t I?”

  “What question?” asked his mother distractedly, looking into the mirror of her compact and touching up her face.

  “The man I call father, the man we just visited — is he really my father?”

  His mother started to laugh. “Really, sometimes you are so strange. Why shouldn’t he be your father?”

  “Mamma, at that time you already had,” Marcello hesitated and then finished, “lovers. Could it be … ?”

  “Oh, it couldn’t be anything, absolutely nothing,” said his mother, with calm cynicism. “The first time I decided to cheat on your father, you were already two years old. The really curious thing is,” she added, “that it was with just exactly this idea, that you were someone else’s son, that your father’s madness began … He was obsessed with the idea that you weren’t his son. And you know what he did one day? He took a photograph, of me and of you when you were a baby.…”

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