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The conformist, p.3
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       The Conformist, p.3

           Alberto Moravia
 

  Intimidated and afraid, he began to concoct a plausible lie in furious haste: he had not killed the cat, Roberto had — and in fact, the cat was lying in Roberto’s garden, so how could he have killed it through the ivy and the garden wall? But suddenly he remembered that the night before he had announced to his mother the cat’s murder, which had then actually happened the next day; and he understood that any lie was out of the question. As distracted as she was, surely his mother would still have mentioned his confession to his father and he, no less certainly, would have established a connection between this confession and Roberto’s accusations; so there was no possibility of lying about it. At this thought, passing from one extreme to the other, he felt a renewed impulse of desire for punishment, as long as it came soon and was decisive. What kind of punishment? He remembered that Roberto had spoken one day about boarding schools, as places parents sent their wayward sons for punishment, and to his surprise he found that he longed vividly for this sort of penalty. It was an unconscious weariness of his disordered and loveless family life that expressed itself in this desire, not only causing him to yearn for what his parents would have considered a chastisement, but also leading him to trick himself and his need for it by reasoning almost slyly that he would, in this way, simultaneously pacify his own remorse and improve his condition. This thought immediately gave rise to images that should have been disheartening but were instead enticing: a severe, cold, gray building with large windows barred by gratings; icy dormitories bereft of decoration with rows of beds aligned beneath high white walls; dull schoolrooms full of desks, with the teacher’s desk at the end; naked corridors, dark stairways, massive doors, unbreachable gates — everything, that is, as it might be in a prison, yet all preferable to the inconsistent, agonizing, unbearable freedom of his father’s house. Even the thought of wearing a striped uniform and having his head shaved like the boarding-school boys he had sometimes run across as they filed down the street in columns — even this thought, humiliating and almost repugnant, seemed pleasant in his present desperate aspiration toward any kind of order and normality.

  Lost in these daydreams, he was no longer looking at his father but at the tablecloth, dazzling with white light, onto which fell at intervals the nocturnal insects that had flown through the open window to collide against lampshade. Then he raised his eyes just in time to see, right behind his father on the windowsill, the profile of a cat. But before he could distinguish its color, the animal leapt down, crossed the dining room, and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. Although he was not absolutely sure of it, nevertheless his heart swelled with joyous hope at the thought that it might be the cat that he had seen, a few hours before, stretched immobile among the iris in Roberto’s garden. And he was happy in this hope, since it was a sign that, after all, he valued the life of the animal more than his own destiny.

  “The cat!” he cried out, in a loud voice. Then throwing his napkin on the table and stretching a leg from his chair, he asked, “Papà, I’m done, can I get up?”

  “You stay right there,” said his father in a threatening tone. Marcello, intimidated, risked: “But the cat is alive.…”

  “I already told you to stay in your place,” replied his father. Then, as if Marcello’s words had broken the long silence for him, as well, he turned toward his wife, saying: “All right, say something, speak.”

  “I have nothing to say,” she responded with a show of dignity, her eyelids lowered, her mouth twisted in contempt. She was dressed for evening, in a low-cut black dress; Marcello noticed that she was squeezing a small handkerchief between her thin fingers, dabbing her nose with it every so often. With her other hand she kept grabbing up a piece of bread and then letting it fall back onto the table — but not with her fingers, with the tips of her nails, like a bird.

  “But say what you have to say … talk, damn it.”

  “I have nothing to say to you.”

  Marcello had just begun to understand that his killing the cat was not the reason for his parent’s bad mood when suddenly everything seemed to fall apart. His father repeated one more time: “Talk, goddamnit,” his mother shrugged her shoulders in answer; then his father grabbed a wineglass in front of his plate and, shouting loudly, “Are you going to talk or not?” he brought it down violently on the table. The glass broke, his father raised his wounded hand to his mouth with a curse, his frightened mother stood up from the table and rushed toward the door. His father was sucking the blood from his hand with an almost voluptuous pleasure, arching his eyebrows over it; but seeing his wife start to leave, he interrupted his sucking to shout at her: “I forbid you to go, do you hear me?” As an answer they heard the noise of the door being violently banged shut. His father got up, too, and sprang toward the door. Excited by the violence of the scene, Marcello followed him.

  His father had already started up the stairs, one hand on the railing, without losing his composure or even, apparently, hurrying; but Marcello, coming behind him, saw that he was climbing the steps two by two, almost flying in silence toward the landing as if he were an ogre from a fairytale clad in seven-league boots. And Marcello didn’t doubt for a moment that this calculated and menacing ascent was provoked by his mother’s wild haste as she escaped up the stairs just ahead of him, climbing them one by one, her legs hampered by her tight skirt. “Now he’s going to kill her,” thought Marcello, following his father. When she reached the landing, his mother made a little run for her bedroom, not so swiftly, however, as to keep her husband from slipping through the crack of the door behind her. Marcello saw all this while ascending the stairs on his short child’s legs on which he could neither vault two stairs at a time like his father nor skip up them in a hurry like his mother. When he got to the landing he noticed that the din of the chase had now strangely given way to a sudden silence. The door to his mother’s bedroom was still open. Marcello, somewhat hesitantly, walked to the threshold and looked in.

  At first, in the half-light at the end of the bedroom, he saw only the two huge, filmy window curtains on either side of the wide, low bed, lifted up to the ceiling by some current of wind in the room so that they almost brushed the ceiling lamp. These silent, dazzlingly white curtains suspended in midair in the dark bedroom gave it a sense of being deserted, as if his parents in the heat of the chase had flown out of the wide-open windows into the summer night. Then in the strip of light from the hallway, which fell on the bed through the open door, he finally made out his parents. Or rather, he saw only his father, from the back, under whom his mother had vanished almost completely except for her hair, spread across the pillow, and one arm raised toward the headboard of the bed. This arm sought convulsively to grip the headboard with its hand, but to no avail; and meanwhile his father, crushing his wife’s body under his own, was making gestures with his shoulders and hands as if he wanted to strangle her. “He’s killing her,” thought Marcello with conviction, standing still on the threshold. At that moment he felt an unusual sensation of cruel and aggressive excitement, and at the same time a strong desire to interfere in the struggle — whether to give a hand to his father or to defend his mother he didn’t know. Simultaneously, he was almost encouraged by the hope of seeing his own crime cancelled out by this, so much more serious one: what, in fact, was the murder of a cat compared to that of a woman? But just when he had overcome his hesitation and was moving across the threshold, fascinated and filled with violence, his mother’s voice, not strangled at all — on the contrary, almost caressing — murmured softly, “Let me go,” while, in contradiction to this plea, the arm she had till now kept raised to find the edge of the headboard, lowered itself to circle the neck of her husband. Astonished, almost disappointed, Marcello backed out into the hallway.

  Very slowly, trying not to make any noise on the stairs, he went back down to the first floor and wandered toward the kitchen. Now he was stung once more by curiosity to know whether the cat that had jumped down from the windowsill in the dining room was the one h
e had feared he had killed. Pushing open the kitchen door, he found a tranquil, homey scene: the middle-aged cook and the young maid sitting down to eat at the marble table in the white kitchen, between the electric stove and the icebox. And on the floor beneath the window, the cat, absorbed in licking milk from a bowl with its rosy tongue. But, as he realized immediately with disappointment, it was not the gray cat but a completely different cat, with stripes.

  Unsure how to justify his presence in the kitchen, he went over to the cat, squatted down, and caressed its back. Without bothering to stop licking the milk, the cat began to purr. The cook got up and went over to close the door. Then she opened the icebox, took out a slice of cake on a plate, put it on the table and, pulling up a chair, said to Marcello: “Do you want a little of last night’s cake? I set it aside just for you.”

  Marcello, without saying a word, left the cat, sat down, and began to eat the cake. The maid said, “Well, I just don’t understand certain things … they have so much time during the day, they have so much space in the house, and instead they have to quarrel right at the table in front of the child.”

  The cook replied sententiously, “If you don’t want to take care of your children, it’s better not to bring them into the world.”

  The maid observed, after a brief silence, “He could be her father at his age … it’s obvious they don’t get along.…”

  “If it was only a matter of that.…” said the cook, casting a meaningful look in Marcello’s direction.

  “And what’s more,” continued the maid, “in my opinion that man’s not normal.…”

  At this word Marcello pricked up his ears, though he continued slowly eating his cake.

  “She thinks so, too, just like me,” the maid went on, “Do you know what she said to me the other day when I was undressing her for bed? Giacomina, one day or another my husband will kill me. I said to her: But, Signora, why are you waiting around for him to do it? And she.…”

  “Ssshhh.…” interrupted the cook, indicating Marcello. The maid understood and asked Marcello, “Where are Papà and Mamma?”

  “Upstairs in the bedroom,” replied Marcello. And then all of a sudden, as if driven by an irresistible impulse: “It’s really true that Papà isn’t normal. Do you know what he did?”

  “No, what?”

  “He killed a cat,” said Marcello.

  “A cat? How?”

  “With my slingshot.… I saw him in the garden, he was following a gray cat that was walking on the wall.… Then he picked up a stone and aimed at the cat and hit him in the eye. The cat fell into Robertino’s garden and then I went to see and I saw it was dead.”

  As he went on talking he was carried away, without, however, abandoning the tone of an innocent, who with unconscious and candid naivtè recounts some crime he has witnessed.

  “Just think,” said the maid, clasping her hands, “a cat … a man of that age, a gentleman, taking his son’s slingshot and murdering a cat … it stands to reason he’s abnormal.”

  “Who’s wicked to beasts is wicked to Christians, too,” said the cook. “It starts with a cat and he ends up killing a man.”

  “Why?” asked Marcello suddenly, lifting his eyes from the plate.

  “Well, that’s what they say,” replied the cook, giving him a caress. “Even though,” she added, turning to the maid, “it’s not always true.… That man who murdered all those people in Pistoia.… I read it in the newspaper … you know what he’s doing now, in prison? He’s raising a canary.”

  The cake was finished. Marcello got up and left the kitchen.

  2

  DURING THE SUMMER, at the seashore, the terror of that destiny so simply expressed by the cook, “It starts with a cat and he ends up killing a man,” gradually vanished from Marcello’s mind. He still thought often about that kind of inscrutable, pitiless mechanism with which his life had seemed enmeshed for a few days; but with ever less fear, taking it more as an alarm signal than the conviction without appeal that he had thought it to be for some time. The days passed happily, ablaze with sunshine, intoxicated by seasalt, filled with amusements and discoveries; and with every day that passed Marcello felt he was winning a victory, not so much over himself, as he had never felt guilty in any direct and voluntary way, as over the obscure, maleficent, astute, and extraneous force, colored completely with the dark shades of fatality and misfortune, that had carried him almost despite himself from the extermination of the flowers to the massacre of the lizards and from this to the attempt to murder Roberto. He felt this force as everpresent and menacing though no longer impending; but as happens sometimes in nightmares when, terrified by the presence of a monster, we hope to fool it by pretending to sleep while in reality it is all a dream unfolding in sleep itself, he felt that, since he could not definitively distance the threat of that force, it was advisable to lull it asleep, so to speak, by pretending to a careless forgetfulness he was still far from achieving. That was one of the most unrestrained if not one of the happiest of Marcello’s summers, and certainly the last in his life in which he was still a child without any disgust for his childishness and without any desire to escape it. In part this abandon was due to the natural inclinations of his age, but in part, too, it was due to his desire to extricate himself at all costs from that cursed circle of presentiments and fate. Marcello was not aware of it, but the impulse that drove him to throw himself into the sea ten times a morning, to compete boisterously with the most violent of his playfellows, to row for hours on the burning sea — to do everything, that is, that one does at the seashore with a kind of excessive zeal, was the selfsame impulse that had made him seek Roberto’s complicity after the slaughter of the lizards and his parents’ punishment after the death of the cat: a desire for normality; a longing to adapt to some recognized and general rule; a wish to be like everyone else, from the moment that being different meant being guilty. But the willed and artificial character of this behavior of his was betrayed every so often by a sudden, painful memory of the dead cat stretched out among the white and purple iris in Roberto’s garden. That memory scared him the way the memory of his signature at the bottom of a document proving his debt scares a debtor. It seemed to him that with that death he had taken on an obscure and terrible responsibilty which sooner or later he would no longer be able to avoid, even if he hid himself under the earth or crossed the oceans to wipe out his own tracks. At such moments he consoled himself by thinking that a month, two months, three months had gone by; that soon a year, two years, three years would have passed; and that, after all, the most important thing was not to wake the monster and to make the time go by. But these fits of dejection and fear were rare and toward the end of the summer they ceased altogether. By the time Marcello returned to Rome, all that was left from the episode of the cat and those that had preceded it was a diaphanous, almost evanescent memory, as if of an experience that he had perhaps lived through but in another life, with which, at this point, he had no relationship except that of an irresponsible memory devoid of consequence.

  Once he returned to the city, the excitement of going to school also contributed to his oblivion. Until now Marcello had studied at home, so this was his first year of public school. The novelties of his companions, professors, schoolrooms, and timetables — novelties through which shone, in a variety of aspects, an idea of order, discipline, and communal occupation — were extremely pleasing to Marcello after the disorder, lack of regulation, and solitude of his home. It was a little like the boarding school he had dreamed of that day at his table, but without constrictions or servitude, retaining only its pleasant aspects and devoid of the unpleasant things that would make it feel like a prison. Marcello soon realized that he enjoyed a profound aptitude for scholastic life. He liked to wake up to the alarm clock in the morning, wash and dress himself in a hurry, wrap up his package of books and notebooks neatly and tightly in oilcloth bound with rubber bands, and rush off through the streets to school. He liked to burst into the old
ginnasio with a crowd of his companions, run up the dirty stairways and through the squalid and resonant halls, and then tone down the excitement of the race once he reached the classroom, with its desks aligned in front of the empty desk of the teacher. Above all he liked the ritual of the lessons: the professors’s entrance; the roll call; the interrogations; the rivalry with his schoolmates to answer the questions; the victories and defeats of this rivalry; the teacher’s placid, impersonal tone of voice; the very arrangement of the schoolroom, so eloquent — all of them in rows, united by the need to learn, in front of the professor who taught them. Marcello was, however, a mediocre scholar and even, in certain subjects, one of the slowest. What he loved about school was not so much studying but its whole new way of life, more in tune with his tastes than the one he had lived so far. Again, it was normality that attracted him, and all the more so since it was neither fortuitous nor entrusted to the natural preferences and inclinations of the mind, but preestablished, impartial, indifferent to individual tastes, limited and supported by indisputable rules all directed toward a single end.

 
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