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The conformist, p.20
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       The Conformist, p.20

           Alberto Moravia
 

  He was roused from these thoughts by the voice of one of the hotel staff, who was rapidly crossing the lobby, calling out his name. For a minute he almost thought it was someone else’s name, and was aided in his illusion by the man’s French pronunciation. But this “Monsieur Clarisi” was him, all right; as he realized with a kind of queasiness while pretending to himself that he really believed it was someone else and trying to imagine what he would be like: him, with his face, his figure, his clothes. Meanwhile, the hotel employee was walking away in the direction of the writing room, still calling him. Marcello got up and went directly to the telephone booth.

  He picked up the receiver, which had been placed on the shelf, and brought it to his ear. A limpid, feminine, somewhat lilting voice asked in French who was there.

  Marcello replied, in the same language, “I’m Italian … Clerici, Marcello Clerici … and I’d like to speak to Professor Quadri.”

  “He’s very busy … I don’t know if he can come to the phone … did you say your name was Clerici?”

  “Yes, Clerici.”

  “Wait a moment.”

  He heard the sound of the receiver being set on a table, then footsteps walking off, and finally silence. He waited a long time, expecting the sound of footsteps to announce either the woman’s return or the arrival of the professor. Instead, all of a sudden, Quadri’s voice was booming in his ear, shattering the deep silence without warning.

  “Pronto, Quadri here … who’s speaking?”

  Marcello explained in a rush, “My name is Marcello Clerici … I was one of your students when you were teaching in Rome … I’d like to see you.”

  “Clerici,” repeated Quadri doubtfully. Then, after a moment, he said decisively, “Clerici. Don’t know him.”

  “But you do, professor,” insisted Marcello. “I came to find you a few days before you quit teaching … I wanted you to look at my thesis project.”

  “One moment, Clerici,” said Quadri. “I don’t remember your name at all. But that doesn’t mean you’re not right … and you want to see me?”

  “Yes.”

  “Why?”

  “No particular reason,” answered Marcello. “Since I was one of your pupils and I’ve heard a lot of talk about you lately … I wanted to see you, that’s all.”

  “All right,” said Quadri in a yielding tone. “Come see me at my house.”

  “When?”

  “Today if you like … this afternoon … after lunch, come and have coffee … around three o’clock.”

  “I should tell you,” said Marcello, “that I’m on my honeymoon. May I bring my wife?”

  “But of course, naturally. I’ll see you later.”

  Marcello heard the phone being put down, and after a moment’s thought he did the same. But before he had time to leave the booth, the same man that had called out his name in the lobby shortly before stuck his head in and said, “They want you on the telephone.”

  “I already talked to them,” said Marcello, trying to pass by.

  “No, someone else wants you.”

  Mechanically, he went back into the booth and picked up the receiver again.

  Immediately a loud, jolly, friendly voice yelled into his ear, “Is that you, Dottor Clerici?”

  Marcello recognized agent Orlando’s voice and answered calmly, “Yes, it’s me.”

  “Did you have a good trip, dottore?”

  “Yes, excellent.”

  “Your wife is well?”

  “Very well.”

  “And what do you think about Paris?”

  “I haven’t left the hotel yet,” answered Marcello, a little put out by this familiarity.

  “You’ll see … Paris is Paris … So dottore, shall we meet?”

  “Certainly, Orlando. You tell me where.”

  “You don’t know Paris, dottore, so I’ll make the appointment for somewhere easy to find … the caffè on the corner of a piazza called della Maddalena … you can’t go wrong, it’s on the left coming from Rue Royale … it has a lot of little tables outside. But I’ll be waiting for you inside … There won’t be anyone else there.”

  “All right, what time?”

  “I’m already at the caffè. But I’ll wait for as long as you want.…”

  “Half an hour, then.”

  “Perfect, dottore. Half an hour.”

  Marcello emerged from the booth and headed toward the elevator. Just as he was getting in, he heard the same employee call out his name for a third time; and this time he was really astonished. He almost hoped it was some superhuman intervention, an oracle using the black Bakelight receiver of the telephone to speak a word and tell him something decisive about his life. In a kind of suspension he retraced his steps and entered the booth for the third time.

  “Is that you, Marcello?” asked the caressing, languid voice of his wife.

  “Oh, it’s you,” he couldn’t help exclaiming, whether with disappointment or relief he couldn’t say.

  “Yes, of course. Who did you think it was?”

  “Nothing … it’s just that I was expecting a phone call.…”

  “What are you doing?” she asked, in yearning, tender tones.

  “Nothing … I was just about to come up to tell you I was going out and I’d be back in an hour.”

  “No, don’t come up, I’m about to get in the bath. I’ll be waiting for you in an hour, in the hotel lobby.”

  “It could be an hour and a half.”

  “All right, an hour and a half … but please don’t be late.”

  “I said that so you won’t have to wait. But you’ll see, I’ll only be an hour.”

  She said quickly, as if she were afraid that Marcello was going, “Do you love me?”

  “Well, of course, why are you asking me?”

  “Just because … If you were here with me right now, would you give me a kiss?”

  “Of course … do you want me to come up?”

  “No, no, don’t come up … but tell me.…”

  “What?”

  “Tell me, did I please you tonight?”

  “What questions, Giulia!” he exclaimed, a little embarrassed.

  She said immediately, “Forgive me … even I don’t know what I’m saying … so you love me?”

  “I already told you I did.”

  “Forgive me … all right, it’s agreed, I’ll be waiting for you in an hour and a half … good-bye, love.”

  This time, he thought as he hung up the receiver, he really couldn’t expect another phone call. He went to the door, pushed on the panel of crystal and mahogany and went out into the street.

  The hotel looked out on the embankments of the Seine. As he stepped across the threshold, he stopped a moment and stood still, surprised by the thriving spectacle of the city and by the beautiful, sunny day. Alongside the river for as far as the eye could see, huge, leafy trees rose up from the sidewalks, crowned with shining spring foliage. They were trees he didn’t know: maybe horse chestnuts. The brilliant sun shone on every leaf and was transformed into a glad, clear, luminous green. Lined up on the parapets, the stalls of old book dealers offered rows of used books and stacks of printed matter of all kinds; people strolled slowly beside the stalls beneath the trees in the shifting play of light and shadows; it all had the soothing atmosphere of a tranquil Sunday outing. Marcello crossed the street and went to look over the parapet between one stall and another. Beyond the river he could see gray palaces with mansard roofs on the other shore; beyond that, the two towers of Notre Dame; even farther away the spires of other churches, profiles of huge apartment buildings, roofs and chimneys. He noticed that the sky was paler and vaster than in Italy, as if resonant with the invisible, teeming presence of the immense city lying beneath its vault. He lowered his eyes to the river: flowing between massive, crooked stone walls, flanked by clean footpaths, it seemed no more than a canal at that point; the oily, thick, cloudy green water swirled around the white piers of the nearest bridge in whirlpools that
sparkled like jewels. A black and yellow barge slid rapidly downriver, creating no wake on the dense water; its funnel spewed out smoke in jerky puffs; he could see two men talking on the prow, one in a light blue shirt and the other in a white undershirt. A fat, familiar sparrow came to rest on the parapet next to Marcello’s arm, twittered vivaciously as if telling him something, and then flew off again in the direction of the bridge. A skinny, badly dressed young man with a beret on his head and a book under his arm, probably a student, attracted his attention; he was walking slowly in the direction of Notre Dame, stopping every once in a while to look at the books and printed material. As he was watching him, Marcello was struck by a sense of his own liberty, despite all the duties that oppressed him. Why, he could be that young man, and then the river Seine, the sky, the trees, all of Paris would have a completely different meaning for him. At the same time he saw a taxi rolling slowly forward on the asphalt and hailed it with a gesture that almost surprised him; he hadn’t thought of it a moment before. He climbed in and gave the address of the caffè where Orlando was waiting for him.

  Facing backwards on the cushions, he gazed out at the streets of Paris as the taxi manoeuvered through it. He noted the cheerfulness of the city, lovely and gay despite its grayness and age, and filled with a kind of intelligent sweetness that seemed to come in through the windows in gusts along with the wind of their journey. He liked the guards standing upright at the crossroads, he wasn’t sure why; they seemed so elegant, with their hard, round kèpi, their short capes, their slender legs. One of them looked in at the window to say something to the driver: a pale, energetic little blond, his whistle clamped between his teeth, his arm holding a white stick stretched out behind him to stop the traffic. He liked the big horse chestnuts lifting their branches toward the shining windows of the old gray facades; he liked the antiquated signs hanging over the shop doors, with their white writing full of flourishes on brown or wine-colored backgrounds; he even liked the unesthetic shape of the taxis and buses, with their hoods that looked like the lowered muzzles of dogs sniffing along the ground. After a brief stop, the taxi passed in front of the neoclassical temple of the Chambre des Députés, turned onto the bridge, and speeded toward the obelisk of the Place du Concorde. So, he thought, staring at the immense military square, closed at the end by porticos lined up like regiments of soldiers on parade, so, this was the capital of France, which must be destroyed. It seemed to him now that he had loved this city stretched out before his eyes for a long time, from way before this day, his first day here. Yet this admiration for the majestic, cultured, cheerful beauty of the city only emphasized his unhappiness at the duty he was about to carry out. Perhaps if Paris had been less lovely, he pondered, he would have been able to elude that duty, escape, free himself from his fate. But the city’s beauty reconfirmed the hostile, negative part he had to play, as did the many repulsive aspects of the cause he served. As he was thinking these things, he became aware that he was trying to explain the absurdity of his position to himself. And he understood that he was explaining it this way because there was no other way to explain it and so to accept it consciously and freely.

  The taxi came to a halt and Marcello got out in front of the caffè designated by Orlando. The tables set out on the sidewalk were packed with people, as the agent had said they would be; but as soon as he entered the caffè, he saw that it was deserted. Orlando was sitting at a table set into the recess of a window. As soon as he saw Marcello, he rose to his feet and gestured him to come over.

  Marcello approached the agent unhurriedly and sat down opposite him. Through the window glass he could see the backs of the people sitting outside in the shade of the trees and, in the distance, part of the colonnade and triangular pediment of the church of the Magdalen. Marcello ordered a coffee.

  Orlando waited until the waiter had left and then said, “Maybe you think, dottore, that they’re going to make you an espresso like they do in Italy, but you’ll be disappointed. Good coffee like ours doesn’t exist in Paris … you’ll see, dottore, what kind of dishwater they’ll bring you.” He was speaking in his usual respectful, calm, good-natured tone of voice.

  “An honest face,” thought Marcello, casting a sidelong glance at the agent as he poured out a little of the despised coffee with a sigh, “the face of a farmer, a sharecropper, a small rural landowner.” He waited for Orlando to drink his coffee and then asked, “Where do you come from, Orlando?”

  “Me? From the province of Palermo, dottore.”

  Marcello, for no particular reason, had always thought that Orlando was native to central Italy, Umbria perhaps, or the Marche. Now, looking at him more closely, he understood that he had been led into this error by the agent’s rural, level-headed aspect. But his face bore not a trace of Umbrian mildness or the placidity of the Marche. Yes, it was a friendly, honest face, but the black, somewhat weary eyes were informed with a feminine, almost Oriental gravity never seen in central Italy. The smile on the wide, lipless mouth beneath his small, crudely shaped nose was not meek or placid, either.

  Marcello murmured, “I never would have thought it.…”

  “Where did you think I was from?” asked Orlando, showing some spirit.

  “From central Italy.”

  Orlando seemed to reflect for a moment; then he said, respectfully but frankly, “Even you, dottore — I bet even you participate in the general prejudice.”

  “What prejudice?”

  “The prejudice of the north against southern Italy, and in particular against Sicily … You don’t want to admit it, dottore, but it’s true.” Orlando shook his head in sorrow.

  Marcello protested, “Really, I wasn’t thinking about that at all … I thought you were from central Italy because of how you look.”

  But Orlando was no longer listening to him. “I’ll tell you, it’s a steady stream of abuse, uno stillicidio,” he replied emphatically, obviously satisfied by the unusual word he had used. “On the street, at home, everywhere, even in the Secret Service … certain northern colleagues come down to reproach us for everything, even spaghetti. And I tell them: first of all, you eat spaghetti too by now, even more than we do. And then: how very sweet your polenta is!”

  Marcello said nothing. Actually, he wasn’t sorry that Orlando was talking about things that had nothing to do with the mission; it was a way to avoid familiarity on a terrible subject, which he could not have borne.

  Suddenly Orlando said forcefully, “Sicily: great, slandered Sicily. For example, the mafia: if you knew all the things they come up with to say about the mafia … according to them, there’s not a Sicilian who’s not mafioso … apart from the fact that they know absolutely nothing about the mafia, anyway.”

  Marcello said, “The mafia doesn’t exist anymore.”

  “Of course, right, it doesn’t exist anymore,” said Orlando, with the air of someone who remains unconvinced, “but dottore, even if it did still exist, believe me, it would still be better, infinitely better than similar phenomena in the north — the vandals and hoods in Milan, the criminals in Turin … scoundrels, cowards, bullies, exploiters of women, petty thieves, … The mafia, if nothing else, was a school of courage.”

  “Excuse me, Orlando,” said Marcello coldly, “but would you care to explain to me just what the mafia’s school of courage consists of?”

  The question seemed to disconcert Orlando, not so much because of the almost bureaucratic chill in Marcello’s tone of voice, as much because of the complexity of the subject, which could not begin to be covered by an immediate response.

  “Eh, dottore,” he said with a sigh, “you’re asking me a question it’s not easy to answer. In Sicily courage is the primary quality of a man of honor, and the mafia calls itself ‘Honored Society.’ What do you want me to tell you? It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t seen it with their own eyes to understand it. Try to imagine, dottore, some place — a bar, a caffè, an inn, a restaurant — where a group of armed men were gathered, and these men we
re acting hostile to the mafioso. So what did he do? He didn’t run to the police and complain, he didn’t leave town … Instead, he would walk out of his house every day dressed to the nines, freshly shaved, and go to that locale alone and unarmed. He would speak the two or three words sufficient for courtesy and that was all. Now do you believe me? Everyone there — I mean his group of enemies, his friends, the whole town — had their eyes on him. He knew it, and he knew that if he showed he was afraid in any way … if his glance wavered or his voice wasn’t calm enough or if his face wasn’t completely cheerful, he was done for. He had to devote himself completely to passing this test: firm glances, tranquil voice, measured gestures, normal coloring … to tell it it sounds easy … but you have to find yourself in that situation to understand how difficult it is … Dottore, this was, just to give you an example, the mafia’s school of courage.”

  Orlando, who had been carried away as he talked, now launched a cold, curious glance at Marcello’s face, as if to say, “But if I’m not mistaken, we two didn’t come here to talk about the mafia, did we.”

  Marcello caught the look and looked ostentatiously at the watch he wore on his wrist.

  “Now let’s get down to our business, Orlando,” he said with authority. “I’m meeting Professor Quadri today. According to the instructions, I need to point out the professor to you so that you can verify his identity … that’s my role, isn’t it?”

  “Yes, dottore.”

  “All right, I’ll invite Professor Quadri to dinner or to a caffè this evening … I’m not sure where yet … but phone me at the hotel this evening around seven, I’ll know the place by then. As far as Professor Quadri goes, let’s establish how I’m going to point him out right now. For example, let’s say that Professor Quadri will be the first person I shake hands with when I enter the caffè or restaurant … Is that all right with you?”

 
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