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The conformist, p.2
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       The Conformist, p.2

           Alberto Moravia

  Nevertheless, the need for absolution that had driven him to seek Roberto’s complicity lived on, changed now into its opposite: a need for condemnation. While Roberto could have saved him from remorse by falling in with him, he lacked the authority to confirm a sound base for that remorse and instill order in the confusion of Marcello’s mind with an irrevocable verdict. He was a boy like himself, acceptable as an accomplice but inadequate as a judge. But Roberto, in refusing his proposal, had invoked maternal authority to support his own repugnance. Marcello thought that perhaps he, too, could appeal to his mother. Only she could condemn or absolve him and, however it went, make some sort of sense of what he had done. In reaching this decision Marcello, who knew his mother, was reasoning in abstract, as if referring to an ideal mother — what she should have been, not what she was. In reality he doubted that there would be any good outcome of his appeal. But there it was; she was the only mother he had, and besides, his impulse to turn to her was stronger than any doubt.

  Marcello waited for the moment when his mother, once he was in bed, would come into his room to tell him good-night. This was one of the few times he could manage to see her alone, just the two of them; most of the time, during meals or on the rare walks he took with his parents, his father was always present. Although Marcello did not, instinctively, have much faith in his mother, he loved her; and perhaps even more than loving her, he admired her in a fond and perplexed manner, the way you might admire an older sister of singular habits and capricious character. Marcello’s mother, who had married very young, had remained morally and even physically a girl; besides which, though she was not at all intimate with her son, to whom she paid very little attention due to her numerous social obligations, she had never separated her own life from his. Thus Marcello had grown up in a continual tumult of rushed entrances and exits, of dresses tried on and thrown down, of telephone conversations as interminable as they were frivolous, of tantrums with tailors and salespeople, of quarrels with the maid, of continuous mood swings for the slightest reasons. Marcello could go into his mother’s bedroom at any moment, the curious and ignored spectator of an intimacy in which he had no part. Sometimes his mother, as if rousing herself from inertia because of some sudden remorse, would decide to devote herself to her son and would trail him behind her to a seamstress or milliner. On these occasions, constrained to sit on a stool for long hours while his mother tried on hats and dresses, Marcello almost missed her usual whirling indifference.

  That evening he understood right away that his mother was more rushed than usual; and in fact, before Marcello even had time to overcome his shyness, she turned her back on him and crossed the dark bedroom to the door, which had been left ajar. But Marcello did not intend to wait one more day for the judgement he needed. Pulling himself up to sit up in the bed, he called out in a loud voice: “Mamma.”

  He saw her turn round on the threshold, with an almost irritable gesture.

  “What is it, Marcello?” she asked, approaching his bed again.

  Now she was standing close to him, backlit, white and slender in her black, low-cut dress. Her pale, delicate face, crowned by black hair, was in shadow; still, Marcello could make out its hurried, irritable, and impatient expression. Nontheless, carried away by his impulse, he announced: “Mamma, I have to tell you something.”

  “Yes, Marcello, but make it quick … mamma has to go … papà is waiting.” Meanwhile she was fumbling with both hands at her neck, fiddling with the clasp of her necklace.

  Marcello wanted to disclose the slaughter of the lizards to his mother and ask her if he had done something wrong. But her hurry made him change his mind — or rather, modify the statement he had mentally prepared. Lizards suddenly seemed to him animals too small and insignificant to catch the attention of such a distracted person. Right on the spot, without knowing why, he invented a lie that enlarged his own crime. He hoped, by the enormity of his guilt, to startle to life a maternal sensitivity which, in some obscure way, he knew to be obtuse and inert. He said with a sureness that amazed him: “Mamma, I killed the cat.”

  At that moment his mother finally managed to make the two parts of the clasp come together. Her hands joined on her neck, her chin tucked to her breast, she was looking down and every once in a while beating the heel of her shoe on the floor in impatience. “Oh, yes,” she said in an uncomprehending tone, as if emptied of attention by the effort she was making. Marcello reaffirmed, feeling insecure: “I killed it with my slingshot.”

  He saw his mother shake her head in frustration and then take her hands from her neck, holding in one of them the necklace she had been unable to close. “This damned clasp,” she said angrily. “Marcello … be a good boy … help me put on my necklace.” She was sitting on the bed at a slant, her shoulders turned toward her son, and added impatiently, “But be sure to click the clasp shut … otherwise it will come undone again.”

  As she spoke, she displayed to him her thin shoulders, naked to the middle of her back, white as paper in the light spilling in through the door. Her long slim hands with their sharp, red nails held the necklace suspended on her delicate neck, shadowed by curled tendrils like down. Marcello thought to himself that once the necklace was clasped, she would listen to him with more patience; leaning forward, he took the two ends and joined them with a single click. But his mother rose to her feet immediately and said, bending over to brush his face with a kiss: “Thanks … now go to sleep … good-night.” Before Marcello could even recall her with a gesture or a shout, she had vanished.

  The following day was hot and overcast. Marcello, after eating in silence between his two silent parents, slid furtively out of his chair and went out into the garden through the French windows. As usual, digestion provoked in him a sort of dark unease mixed with a swollen, reflective sensuality. Walking slowly, almost on tiptoes on the crunching gravel under the shade of the trees buzzing with insects, he went to the gate and peered out. The road he knew so well appeared before him, sloping gently downward, flanked by two rows of pepper trees of a feathery, almost milky green. The road was deserted at that hour and strangely dark because of the low black clouds that blocked out the sky. Directly opposite, he glimpsed other gates, other gardens, other villas similar to his own. After observing the road attentively, Marcello detached himself from the gate, pulled the slingshot out of his pocket, and bent down to the ground. Mixed in among the minute chunks of gravel were a few larger white stones. Marcello chose one the size of a nut, inserted it in the leather pouch of the slingshot, and began to stroll along the wall that separated his garden from Roberto’s. His idea, or rather his feeling, was that he was in a state of war with Roberto and must guard the ivy that covered the garden wall with the greatest attention and fire at the least movement — that is, let loose the stone he was holding so tightly in his slingshot. It was a game in which he expressed both his rancor at Roberto, who had not wanted to be his accomplice in the slaughter of the lizards, and the cruel and warlike instinct that had driven him to the slaughter to begin with. Naturally, Marcello knew very well that Roberto, who was usually asleep at that hour, was not spying on him from behind the foliage of the ivy; nonetheless, even knowing this, he acted with serious purposefulness, as if he were sure, instead, that Roberto was there. The ivy, old and gigantic, climbed all the way to the tips of the spikes of the railing, and its overlapping leaves, huge, dark, and dusty, like lace frills on the tranquil breast of a woman, were still and limp in the heavy, windless air. A couple of times it seemed to him that a very slight shudder made the foliage tremble; at least he pretended to himself that he had seen this shudder and immediately, with intense satisfaction, let fly his stone into the thick of the ivy.

  Right after the hit, he bent down hurriedly, gathered another pebble, and repositioned himself for combat, his legs spread wide, his arms stretched out before him, his slingshot ready to fire. You never knew; Roberto could be behind the leaves aiming at him that very moment, with the advantage of being hidd
en while he, instead, was completely in the open. Finally, playing this game, he reached the bottom of the garden, where he had cut out the doorway in the ivy. Here he stopped, watching the garden wall with attention. In his fantasy, the house was a castle, the railings hidden by the creeper the fortified walls, and the opening a dangerous and easily crossed breach. Then, suddenly and this time without any possibility of doubt, he saw the leaves move from right to left, trembling and rocking. Yes, he was sure of it, the leaves were moving and someone must have made them move. All in the same moment he thought that Roberto was not there, that it was only a game and that, since it was only a game, he could hurl the stone; and at the same time, that Roberto was there and that he should not hurl the stone unless he wanted to kill him. Then, with instant and thoughtless decision, he pulled back the bands and let fly the stone into the heart of the leaves. Not content with this, he bent down, feverishly inserted another stone in the slingshot, shot it, put in a third stone and shot that one, too. By now he had put fears and scruples aside and no longer cared whether Roberto was there or not; he felt only a sense of hilarious and bellicose excitement. Finally, panting, having torn the foliage to shreds, he let the slingshot drop to earth and clambered up onto the garden wall. As he had foreseen and hoped, Roberto was not there. But the bars of the railing were very widely spaced, allowing him to stick his head through into the adjacent garden. Stung by he knew not what curiosity, he did so and looked down.

  On Roberto’s side of the garden there was no creeper, only a flowerbed planted with iris that ran between the wall and the graveled path. Then Marcello saw, right under his eyes between the wall and the row of white and purple iris, lying on its side, a large gray cat. An unreasoning terror took his breath away as he noted the animal’s unnatural position: lying sideways, with its paws stretched out and relaxed, its muzzle abandoned to the soil. Its fur, thick and bluish gray, appeared slightly ruffled and bristly and at the same time lifeless, like the feathers of certain dead birds he had observed a while back on the marble table of the kitchen. Now his terror increased. He jumped down, pulled out a pole supporting a rosebush, clambered back up and, stretching his arm through the bars, managed to poke the flank of the cat with the earthy tip of the pole. But the cat did not move. All of a sudden the iris on their tall green stems, with their white and purple corollas tilted forward, surrounding the motionless gray body, looked funereal, like so many flowers placed by a compassionate hand around a cadaver. He threw the pole away and, without bothering to shove the ivy back into position, leapt down to the ground.

  He felt himself prey to various terrors and his first impulse was to run and shut himself up in a closet, a shed, anywhere, actually, where there was darkness and closure, to escape from himself. He was terrified, first of all, for having killed the cat, and then, maybe even more so, for having announced this killing to his mother the night before: an incontestable sign that he was, in some fatal and mysterious way, predestined to commit acts of cruelty and death. But the terror aroused in him by the death of the cat and the meaningful premonition attached to this death were as nothing compared to the terror inspired in him by one idea — that while killing the cat he had, in reality, intended to kill Roberto. It was only by chance that the cat had died in place of his friend. A not insignificant chance, however, since it was undeniable that there had been a progression from the flowers to the lizards, from the lizards to the cat, and from the cat to the murder of Roberto, thought about and desired and, although not executed, still possible and perhaps even inevitable. So he was abnormal, he couldn’t help thinking, or rather feeling, with a vivid, physical awareness of this abnormality, an abnormal person marked by a solitary and threatening destiny, already launched on a bloody path on which no human force would be able to stop him. Full of these thoughts, he circled frantically in the small space between the house and the gate, lifting his gaze every once in a while to the windows, almost in hopes of seeing the figure of his frivolous and scatterbrained mother appear there. But by now there was nothing more she could do for him, even if she had been able to do anything to begin with. Then, with a flash of hope, he ran down to the bottom of the garden again, climbed up to the wall, and looked out through the bars of the railing. He had almost persuaded himself that he would find the place he had first seen the motionless cat empty. But the cat had not gone away, it was still there, gray and immobile within the funeral wreath of the white and purple iris. And its death was confirmed, with a macabre sense of rotting carrion, by a black file of ants that had turned aside from the pathway and marched up the flowerbed, right up to the muzzle and even the eyes of the cat. He looked at it and all of a sudden, almost as if superimposed there, he seemed to see Roberto in place of the cat, he too stretched out among the iris, he too inanimate, with ants coming and going through his spent eyes and half-open mouth. With a thrill of horror, he tore himself away from this terrible contemplation and jumped down. But this time he was careful to pull the doorway of ivy back into place. For now, along with remorse and terror at his own self, he felt the fear of discovery and punishment blossom within him.

  Still, as much as he feared it, he felt simultaneously that he wanted to be discovered and punished, if for no other reason than to be stopped in time on this slippery incline, at the end of which, inevitably it seemed, murder awaited him. But his parents had never punished him that he remembered; and this was not so much due — as he vaguely comprehended — to any educated concept excluding punishment as to indifference. Thus to the suffering incurred by suspecting himself to be the author of a crime and, above all, to be capable of committing other, even graver ones, was added that of not knowing whom to turn to to be punished, or even what that punishment might be. Marcello was dimly aware that the selfsame mechanism that had driven him to confide his guilt to Roberto in hopes of hearing him say it was not a crime but a common thing that everyone did, was now urging him to make the same revelation to his parents in the contrary hope: to see them exclaim with indignation that he had committed a horrible crime for which he must atone with appropriate pain. And it mattered little to him that in the first case Roberto’s absolution would have encouraged him to repeat the action which, in the second case, would instead have exposed him to severe condemnation. In reality, as he himself understood, in both cases he longed to escape from the terrifying isolation of his abnormality at any cost and by any means.

  Maybe he would have decided to confess the cat’s murder to his parents if, that same evening at dinner, he had not had the sensation that they already knew all about it. In fact, when he sat down at the table, he noted with a mixture of dismay and uncertain relief that his father and mother seemed hostile and bad-tempered. His mother, her childish face assuming an expression of exaggerated dignity, sat very upright with her eyes lowered, in a clearly contemptuous silence. Opposite her, his father revealed, by different but no less speaking signs, analogous feelings of temper. His father, who was many years older than his wife, often gave Marcello the disconcerting sensation of being relegated, along with his mother, to a communal realm of infancy and submission, as if she were not his mother but his sister. He was thin, with a dry, wrinkled face, only rarely illuminated by brief bursts of joyless laughter, and in which two traits, undoubtedly linked to the same source, were especially notable: the inexpressive, almost mineral sheen of his bulbous eyes and the frequent flicker, under the drawn skin of his cheek, of who knew what frenetic nerve. Perhaps he had retained, from his many years in the army, a taste for precise gestures and controlled attitudes. But Marcello knew that when his father was angered, his control and precision became excessive, turning into their opposites — that is, into a strange, contained, and punctual violence whose purpose, it would seem, was to burden the simplest gestures with significance. Now, this evening, at the table, Marcello noticed right away that his father was strongly emphasizing, as if to call attention to them, habitual actions of no particular importance. He took up his glass, for example, drank a sip, and th
en returned it with a harsh bang to its place on the table; he reached for the saltcellar, took a pinch of salt from it and then put it down with another loud bang; he grabbed the bread, broke it in half, and then put it back with a third bang. As if invaded by a sudden mania for symmetry, he began to square off — still banging everything around — the silverware surrounding his plate, so that the knife, fork, and spoon met each other at right angles around the circle of his bowl. If Marcello had been less preoccupied with his own guilt he would easily have recognized that these gestures, so dense with meaningful and pathetic energy, were not directed at him but at his mother, who, in fact, at each of these blows, withdrew into her own dignity with certain condescending sighs and certain long-suffering arcs of her eyebrows. But worry blinded him, so that he did not doubt that his parents knew all; surely Roberto, rabbit that he was, had told on him. He had wanted to be punished, but now, seeing his parents so cross, he felt a sudden horror of the violence he knew his father capable of in similar circumstances. Just as his mother’s demonstrations of affection were sporadic, casual, obviously dictated more by remorse than maternal love, so his father’s severities were sudden, unjustified, excessive — provoked, one might say, more by a desire to catch up after long periods of distraction than by any instructive intent. All of a sudden, after some complaint by his mother or the cook, his father would remember that he had a son, would scream, throw a fit, and hit him. The beatings frightened Marcello most of all, because his father wore on his little finger a ring with a massive bezel that somehow, during these scenes, was always turned in to the palm of his hand, thus adding to the humiliating harshness of the slap a more penetrant pain. Marcello suspected that his father turned the bezel round on purpose, but he wasn’t sure.

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