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The conformist, p.18
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       The Conformist, p.18

           Alberto Moravia

  He delayed on the threshold to let the conductor pass through into the corridor, and then he went in. Giulia was standing in front of the mirror, seeming not to care that the door was still open; she was taking off her blouse, unbuttoning it from the bottom up.

  She said without turning, “You take the top bunk. I’ll take the bottom one.”

  Marcello closed the door, climbed up onto the bunk, and began to undress right away, putting his clothes onto the luggage rack as he took them off. Then he sat on top of the covers holding his knees in his arms, naked and waiting. He heard Giulia moving around, heard a glass tinkle against a metal bracket, a shoe fall onto the rug on the floor, and other small sounds. Then with a dry click, the brightest of the lights went out, yielding to the violet glow of the nightlight; and Giulia’s voice said, “Do you want to come here?”

  Marcello stuck out his legs, turned around, put one foot onto the bunk below, and crouched down to one side to get in. As he did so, he saw Giulia naked and supine, one arm thrown over her eyes, her legs outstretched and spread wide. In the false, low light, her body was the cold white of mother-of-pearl, stained with black at the groin and armpits and with dark pink at the tips of her breasts. She looked inanimate, not only because of this deathlike pallor, but also because of her perfect, abandoned immobility.

  But when Marcello got on top of her she came to life all of a sudden, with the violence of a trap springing shut, drawing him to her and throwing her arms round his neck, opening her legs and locking her feet at his back. Later she pushed him away harshly and huddled against the wall, curled up on herself with her forehead pressed to her knees. And Marcello, lying by her side, understood that what she had taken from him with such fury and then closed up around and cherished with such jealousy in her own womb, no longer belonged to him; it would grow inside her. And he had done this, he thought, to be able to say at least once: “I have been a man like all other men … I have loved, I have joined myself to a woman and generated another man.”


  AS SOON AS HE THOUGHT Giulia was asleep, Marcello got up from the bed, put his feet on the floor, and began to get dressed. The room was immersed in a cool, transparent half-light that hinted at the beautiful June sun flooding both sky and sea. It was a real Riviera hotel room, high and white, decorated with blue stucco flowers, stems, and leaves. The furniture was all light wood in the same floral style as the stucco-work, and a large green palm stood in a corner. When he was dressed, he tiptoed to the shutters and pushed them aside to look out. Right away he saw the shining expanse of the sea, made even vaster by the perfect clarity of the horizon. It was a limpid, almost violent blue, and every wave seemed afire, beneath the gentle breeze, with a tiny sparkling flower of sunlight. Marcello lowered his eyes from the sea to the promenade. It was deserted: no one was sitting on the benches that faced out to sea in the shade of the palms; no one was walking on the clean gray asphalt.

  He stared out at this vista for a long time, then closed the shutters again and turned to look at Giulia stretched out on the bed. She was naked and sleeping. She was lying on one side, and the position of her body thrust up a round, pale, full hip, from which her torso seemed to hang limp and lifeless, like the stem of a wilted flower in a vase. Her back and hips, as Marcello knew, were the only tight, solid parts of that body; on the other side, invisible but present to his memory, was the softness of her belly, falling into soft folds on the bed, and of her breasts, pulled down by their weight, one on top of the other. He could not see his wife’s head, since it was hidden by her shoulder; and remembering how he had possessed her only a few minutes before, he suddenly had the sensation of looking not at a person but at a machine made of flesh, lovely and lovable but brutal, made for love and love alone.

  As if awakened by his merciless gaze, she suddenly moved and sighed deeply, then said in a clear voice, “Marcello.”

  He went to her quickly and said with affection, “I’m here.”

  He watched her turn over, heavily shifting her weight of feminine flesh from one side to the other; then she raised her arms blindly and wrapped them around his hips. Then, with her hair falling over her face, she nuzzled him slowly and persistently with her nose and mouth, searching out his sex. She kissed it with a kind of humble and passionate fetishism, remained motionless for a moment with her arms still around him, and then fell back onto the bed, conquered by sleep, her face wrapped in her hair. She had fallen asleep again in the same position as before, except that she had changed sides and now lay on her right side inside of her left. Marcello slipped his jacket from a hanger, tiptoed to the door, and went out into the hall.

  He walked down the broad, echoing staircase, crossed the threshold of the hotel, and stepped out onto the promenade. The sun, reflected from the sea in blades of sparkling light, dazzled him for a moment; he closed his eyes, and, as if called up from the darkness, the sharp odor of horse urine assailed his nostrils. He found the carriages behind the hotel in a strip of shade, three or four in a row with their drivers asleep on their boxes and the passenger seats draped in white covers. Marcello went up to the first carriage and climbed in, calling out the address, “Via dei Glicini.” He saw the coachman launch a brief, meaningful look at him and then crack his whip over the horse without saying a word.

  The carriage rolled along the seashore for a good while and then entered a short street full of villas and gardens. At the end of the street the Ligurian hill rose skyward, luminous, covered in vineyards and dotted with silver olive trees, an occasional tall red house with green windows standing upright on its slopes. The street they were on led straight toward the foot of the hill; at a certain point the sidewalks and asphalt stopped, yielding to a kind of grassy path. The carriage came to a halt and Marcello raised his eyes: at the end of a garden he could see a gray, three-story house with a black roof of slate tiles and mansard windows.

  The driver said dryly, “It’s here,” took the money, and turned the horse around quickly. Marcello thought that he had been offended, perhaps, at having to bring him to this place; but maybe, he reflected as he pushed on the gate, he was simply attributing to the coachman the revulsion he felt himself.

  He walked down a path between two hedges whose glossy leaves and small white flowers were dulled with dust. He had always hated these houses and had been to one only two or three times, as an adolescent, bringing back with him each time a sense of revulsion and repentance as of something unworthy of him, which he shouldn’t have done. Sick at heart, he climbed the two or three steps and pushed on the glass-paned door, setting off a gossipy alarm, then found himself in a Pompeian entrance hall in front of a stairway with a wooden railing. He recognized the sickly-sweet stench of face powder, sweat, and male semen; the house was immersed in the silence and torpor of the summer afternoon. While he was looking around, a kind of maid emerged from who knows where, dressed in black, with a white apron tied at the waist, small, slim, with the sharp face of a ferret enlivened by two brilliant eyes; she appeared before him with a shrill “good morning” uttered in a cheerful voice.

  “I have to speak to the padrona,” he said, taking off his hat with perhaps excessive urbanity.

  “All right, handsome, you can talk to her,” answered the woman in dialect, “but in the meantime go into the salon … The padrona will come … go in there.”

  Marcello, offended by her familiarity and by the misunderstanding, nonetheless let himself be pushed toward a half-open door. The salon appeared in the dim half-light, long and rectangular, deserted, with little sofas covered in red material lined up all around the walls. The floor was as dusty as the waiting room of a train station; even the cloth of the couches, filthy and threadbare, confirmed the squalor of this public place within the intimacy and secrecy of the house. Marcello, unsure of himself, sat down on one of the sofas. At the same time, like a belly whose bowels, after long immobility, suddenly discharge their burden, there came from all over the house a disintegration, a clatter, a ruinous rush of f
eet down the wooden stairs. And then what he had feared would happen happened. The door opened and the petulant voice of the maid announced: “Here are the young ladies … all for you.”

  The women who came in were listless and indifferent. Some of them were partly naked, others more fully dressed. There were two with dark hair and three blondes, three of medium build, one decidedly small, and one who was enormous. This last woman came to sit next to Marcello, letting herself fall full-length on the sofa with a sigh of weary satisfaction. At first he averted his face; then, fascinated, he turned it a little and looked at her. She was really enormous, pyramidal in shape, with hips broader than her waist, waist broader than her shoulders, and shoulders wider than her head, which was tiny, with a flat, snub face and a black braid wound around her forehead. A yellow silk brassiere bound her swollen, low-hung breasts; beneath her navel a red skirt opened widely, like a theater curtain, onto the spectacle of the black pubis and massive white thighs. Seeing that she was observed, she smiled conspiratorially at one of her companions who was seated against the front wall, heaved a sigh, and then slid one hand between her legs as if to open them and cool off. Marcello, irritated by this passive shamelessness, would have liked to pull away the hand with which she was stroking herself beneath her belly; but he didn’t have the strength to move.

  What struck him most about this female livestock was the irreparable character of their fall, the same character that made him shiver with horror before his mother’s naked body and his father’s madness, the origin of his almost hysterical love for order, calm, neatness, and composure.

  Finally the woman turned toward him and said, in a benevolent, playful tone, “Well, don’t you like your harem? Are you going to decide?” and immediately, on an impulse of frantic disgust, he rose and ran out of the salon to the accompaniment, or so he thought, of laughter and some obscene fragments of dialect. Furious, he headed toward the stairs, meaning to go up to the next floor and look for the madame, but at that moment the doorbell rang behind him again, and when he turned, he saw the astonished and — to his eyes, in those circumstances, almost paternal — agent Orlando.

  “Dottore, hello … but where are you going, dottore?” exclaimed the agent immediately. “It’s not up there that you’re supposed to go.”

  “Really,” said Marcello, suddenly stopping and calming down, “I think they took me for a client.…”

  “Stupid women,” said the agent, shaking his head. “Come with me, dottore, I’ll take you there myself. They’re waiting for you, dottore.”

  He preceded Marcello through the glass-paned door and into the garden. Walking single file, they followed the driveway by the hedge and circled behind the villa. The sun was burning this part of the garden, with a dry heat made bitter by dust and vegetation run wild. Marcello noticed that all the shutters of the villa were closed, as if it were uninhabited; the garden, too, was full of weeds and seemed abandoned. The agent was now heading toward a low white building that occupied the entire end of the garden. Marcello remembered observing housing like this at the end of similar gardens and in the back of similar villas in seaside towns; in the summer the proprietors rented their villas, restricting themselves, for love of money, to a couple of rooms.

  The agent, without knocking, opened the door and looked in, announcing: “Here is Dottor Clerici.”

  Marcello stepped forward and found himself in a little room furnished minimally as an office. The air was thick with smoke. At the table sat a man, his hands joined and his face turned toward Marcello. The man was albino; his face had the shining, rosy transparence of alabaster, scattered with yellow freckles; his eyes were a burning blue, almost red, with white lashes, like those of certain savage beasts that live in the polar snows. Used to the disconcerting contrast between the dull bureaucratic style and often ferocious duties of many of his collegues in the Secret Service, Marcello couldn’t help admitting that this man, at least, was perfectly in his place. There was more than cruelty in that spectral face, there was a kind of ruthless fury, but contained within the conventional rigidity of a military attitude. After a moment of embarassing immobility, the man stood up brusquely, revealing his small stature, and said, “Gabrio.”

  Then he sat down immediately and continued, in an ironic tone, “Well, here you are, finally, Dottor Clerici.” He had an unpleasant, metallic voice.

  Without waiting for him to offer one, Marcello took a seat in his turn and said, “I arrived this morning.”

  “And in fact I expected you this morning.”

  Marcello hesitated: should he tell him that he was on his honeymoon? He decided not to and finished peaceably, “It wasn’t possible for me to be here any sooner.”

  “So I see,” said the man. He pushed the box of cigarettes toward Marcello with a “do you smoke?” devoid of pleasantry; then he lowered his head over a piece of paper lying on the table and began to read it.

  “They leave me here, in this perhaps hospitable but certainly not secret house, without information, without directions, almost without money … here.” He read a moment longer and then added, lifting his face, “In Rome you were told to come find me, right?”

  “Yes, the agent who brought me in came to notify me that I would have to interrupt the trip and introduce myself to you.”

  “Just so.” Gabrio took the cigarette out of his mouth and placed it carefully on the lip of the ashtray. “At the last minute, it seems, they changed their minds. The plan is altered.”

  Marcello didn’t bat a lash; but he felt a wave of relief and hope, whose source was mysterious to him, wash over him and swell his heart. Maybe he would be allowed to keep his trip separate, reduce it to its apparent motive: a honeymoon in Paris. He said, however, in a clear voice, “Meaning?”

  “Meaning, the plan has changed and, in consequence, your mission,” continued Gabrio. “The aforesaid Quadri was to be kept under surveillance, you were to establish a relationship with him, inspire his trust, maybe even get him to give you some task or other … Now instead, in this last message from Rome, Quadri is designated as an undesireable to be eliminated.”

  Gabrio picked up his cigarette again, breathed in a mouthful of smoke, and set it back on the ashtray. “In substance,” he explained in a more conversational tone, “your mission is reduced to almost nothing. You will limit yourself to contacting Quadri, making use of the fact that you already know him, and pointing him out to agent Orlando, who is also going to Paris. You could, perhaps, invite him to some public place where Orlando will be waiting — a caffè, a restaurant … Just so Orlando can see him and verify his identity. This is all that’s being asked of you; then you can devote yourself to your honeymoon in whatever way you wish.”

  So, even Gabrio knew about his honeymoon, thought Marcello, stunned. But this first thought, he realized immediately, was no more than an affected mask beneath which his mind sought to hide its own turmoil from itself. In reality, Gabrio had revealed something more important than his knowledge of Marcello’s honeymoon: the decision to eliminate Quadri. With a violent effort, he forced himself to examine this extraordinary and ominous piece of news objectively. And he concluded something fundamental right away: his presence and participation in Paris were not at all necessary for the elimination of Quadri; agent Orlando could find and identify his victim very well by himself. In reality, he thought, they only wanted to involve him, even if it wasn’t really necessary, compromising him completely once and forever. As far as the change in plan was concerned, he did not doubt that it was only apparent. Surely, at the time of his visit to the minister, the plan just now disclosed by Gabrio had already been decided on and defined in all its details; and the apparent change was due to their characteristic method of dividing and confusing responsibilities. Neither he nor, probably, Gabrio had received written orders; in this way, if things went wrong, the minister would be able to declare his own innocence, and the blame for the assassination would fall on him, on Gabrio, on Orlando, and on the others who ac
tually executed the orders.

  He hesitated and then, to gain time, objected, “I don’t see that Orlando needs me to find Quadri … I think he’s even in the telephone book.”

  “Those are the orders,” said Gabrio, answering almost too quickly, too readily, as if he had foreseen the objection.

  Marcello lowered his head. He understood that he had been lured into a kind of a trap; and that having offered a finger, he was now being manipulated into giving a whole arm; but strangely, once he had gotten over his first surprise, he realized that he felt no rebellion at the change of plan, only a sense of dull and melancholy resignation, as if confronting an ever more thankless, yet unalterable and inevitable duty. Agent Orlando was probably not aware of the hidden mechanics of this duty, while he, Marcello, was; but it was only in this way that they differed. Neither he nor Orlando could disobey what Gabrio called “the orders,” but which were actually personal circumstances, by now fixed, outside of which there was nothing for either of them but chaos and lawlessness.

  At last he said, raising his head, “All right. Where will I find Orlando, in Paris?”

  Gabrio replied, glancing at the same piece of paper on the table, “You give him your address there … Orlando will find you.”

  So, Marcello couldn’t help thinking, they didn’t altogether trust him; at any rate, they didn’t choose to disclose the agent’s address in Paris to him. He named the hotel where he would be staying, and Gabrio noted it at the foot of the page.

  Then he added, in a more affable tone, as if to indicate that the official part of the visit was over, “Have you ever been to Paris?”

  “No, it’s the first time.”

  “I was there for two years before I ended up in this hole,” said Gabrio, with a kind of bureaucratic bitterness. “Once you’ve been to Paris, even Rome seems like a dump … and as for a place like this, well, you can imagine.” He lit a cigarette from the stub of his last one and added, boasting dryly, “In Paris I had it made … apartment, automobile, friends, affairs with lots of women … you know, as far as that goes, Paris is ideal.”

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