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The conformist, p.30
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       The Conformist, p.30

           Alberto Moravia

  Suddenly Marcello knew where he had seen those eyes before, so strange and sparkling. Those eyes held the same expression as his father’s eyes — his father, who was even now locked up in an asylum for the mentally ill.

  He said coldly, “Maybe the homeland didn’t require quite that much.”

  “If it didn’t require it,” asked Orlando, leaning toward him a little and raising his voice, “then why did they make us do it?”

  Marcello hesitated and then said dryly, “Orlando, you did your duty and that should satisfy you.”

  He watched the agent make a slight, deferential bow, half of mortification and half of approval. Then, after a moment of silence he added gently, not sure himself why he was doing it — maybe somehow to dissipate the agent’s anguish, so similar to his own, “Do you have any children, Orlando?”

  “Do I, dottore … I have five.” He pulled a large, worn wallet out of his pocket, extracted a photograph from it, and handed it to Marcello, who took it and looked at it. The picture was of five children lined up according to height and ranging in age from thirteen to six — three girls and two boys all dressed up for a party, the girls in white, the boys in sailors’ outfits. Marcello noticed that all five had round, peaceful, wise faces very like their father’s.

  “They live in the village with their mother,” said the agent, taking back the photograph Marcello held out to him. “The oldest is already working as a seamstress.”

  “They’re beautiful and they look like you,” said Marcello.

  “Thank you, dottore … once again, dottore.” The agent stepped to one side to let Giulia by, then disappeared.

  Giulia came up to Marcello and said immediately, “I was passing by and I thought I’d drop in and visit. How are you?”

  “I’m just fine,” said Marcello.

  Standing up in front of the desk, she looked at him uncertainly, doubtfully, apprehensively. Finally she said, “Don’t you think you’re working too hard?”

  “No,” answered Marcello, with a fleeting glance out the open window. “Why?”

  “You seem tired.” Giulia came around the desk and stood still for a moment, leaning against the armrest of the chair and looking at the newspapers scattered on the desk. Then she asked, “Is there anything new?”

  “About what?”

  “In the newspapers, about the thing with Quadri.”

  “No, nothing.”

  After another moment of silence she said, “I’m more convinced all the time that he was killed by men from his own party. What do you think?”

  It was the official version of the crime, furnished to the newspapers by the propaganda offices the very morning the news arrived from Paris. Giulia, Marcello noticed, had grasped at it with a kind of willed positivity, almost as if hoping to convince herself.

  He replied dryly, “I don’t know … I suppose it’s possible.”

  “I’m convinced of it,” she repeated resolutely. After a moment’s hesitation, she went on ingenuously, “Sometimes I think that if that evening, in that nightclub, I hadn’t treated Quadri’s wife so badly, she would have stayed on in Paris and she wouldn’t have died … and I feel such remorse … but what could I do? It was her fault, since she wouldn’t leave me in peace for a minute.”

  Marcello wondered if Giulia suspected anything about the part he had played in Quadri’s murder and then, after a brief reflection, he excluded the possibility. No love, he thought, could have survived such a discovery, and Giulia was telling the truth: she felt remorse at Lina’s death because she had been its indirect cause, though in a wholly innocent manner. He wanted to reassure her, but he could find nothing better than the word Orlando had already uttered with such emphasis.

  “Don’t reproach yourself,” he said, putting an arm around her waist and drawing her close. “It was fate.”

  She answered, lightly stroking his hair, “I don’t believe in fate. It was really because I loved you … if I hadn’t loved you, who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have treated her so badly, and she wouldn’t have gone and she wouldn’t be dead. What does fate have to do with it?”

  Marcello recalled Lino, the primary cause of all the vicissitudes of his life, and explained thoughtfully, “When you say ‘fate’ you’re saying all these things, as well, love and all the rest of it. You couldn’t have not acted the way you acted, just as she couldn’t have not gone with her husband.”

  “Then we can’t do anything?” asked Giulia in a dreamy voice, gazing down at the papers scattered across the desk.

  Marcello hesitated and then answered, with profound bitterness, “Yes, we can know that we can’t do anything.”

  “What good does that do?”

  “For us, the next time … or for others who come after us.”

  She broke from him with a sigh and went to the door. “Remember not to be late today,” she said from the threshold. “Mamma’s made a good dinner … and remember not to make any appointments for the afternoon. We have to go look at apartments together.” She waved good-bye and disappeared.

  Left by himself, Marcello picked up a pair of scissors, carefully cut the photograph out of the French magazine, put it into a drawer next to some other papers, and closed the drawer with a key. At that moment the piercing wail of the noonday siren dropped into the courtyard out of the burning sky. Right afterwards, the close and distant bells of the churches began to chime.



  EVENING HAD FALLEN, and Marcello, who had spent the day lying in bed smoking and thinking, got up and went to the window. Black against the green-tinged light of the summer dusk, the houses that surrounded his own rose up around bare cement courtyards relieved by small green yards and clipped myrtle hedges. An occasional window shone red in the twilight, and in the servants’ rooms he could see waiters in their striped working jackets and cooks in white aprons tending to the household chores, moving to and fro between the lacquered wardrobes and the flameless stoves of their electric kitchens. Marcello raised his eyes to gaze beyond the balconies of the apartments; the last smoky, purple wisps of sunset were vanishing in the evening sky. He lowered his eyes again and saw a car come in and stop in the courtyard, and the driver get out with a big white dog that immediately started running through the little plots of grass, whining and barking for joy. It was a wealthy neighborhood, completely new, built in the last few years; and looking at those courtyards and those windows, no one would have guessed that the war had been going on for four years and that this very day, a government that had lasted for twenty had fallen. No one but him, thought Marcello, and all those who found themselves in his circumstances. For a moment an image flashed through his mind, of a divine rod suspended above the great city lying so peacefully under the clear sky, which struck at families here and there, hurling them into terror, consternation, and grief while their neighbors remained unscathed. His family was among those struck down, as he knew and as he had foreseen since the beginning of the war. It was a family like all others, with the same affections and the same intimacy, completely normal, with that normality he had sought so tenaciously for years and which now revealed itself to be purely exterior and entirely composed of abnormalities. He recalled saying to his wife, the day the war broke out in Europe, “If I were logical, I’d kill myself today,” and he remembered, too, the terror those words had caused her. As if she had known what they concealed, above and beyond the simple presentiment that the conflict would have an unfavorable outcome. He asked himself yet again whether Giulia knew the truth about him and the part he had played in Quadri’s death; and it seemed impossible to him, yet again, that she should know, although by certain signs she seemed to indicate she did.

  By now he realized with perfect clarity that he had, as they say, bet on the losing horse; but why he had bet that way and why the horse hadn’t won was not, apart from observation of the most obvious facts, really clear to him. But he would have liked to be sure that everything that happened had had to happen — that is,
that he could not have bet any differently or with any different result — and he needed this certainty more than he needed to be freed from a remorse he did not feel. In fact, the only possible source of remorse, for him, was to have been mistaken, that is, to have done what he had done without an absolute and destined necessity. To have, in other words, deliberately or involuntarily ignored the possibility that he could have done things completely differently. But if he could be certain that this was not true, it seemed to him that he could live in peace with himself, even if it were only in his usual listless and depressed way. In other words, he thought, he needed to be sure that he had recognized his own destiny and accepted it as it was, useful to himself and others — perhaps only in a negative way, but useful nonetheless.

  Meanwhile, he was consoled in his doubt by the idea that even if there had been a mistake — and he couldn’t exclude this — he had bet more on it than anyone else, more than all the others who now found themselves in the same circumstances. It was a consolation to his pride, the only one that remained. By tomorrow other people could have changed ideas, parties, lives, even characters; but for him this was impossible, not only in relationship to others but also to himself. He had done what he had done for reasons that were his alone, that had nothing to do with comunion with others; to change, even if it were allowed him, would have meant annihilating himself. And now, in the midst of so much destruction, this was exactly what he wished to avoid.

  At this point he thought that, if there had been an error, the first and greatest one had been his desire to escape his own abnormality, to find whatever sort of normality he could through which to communicate with other people. This error had sprung from a powerful instinct; but unfortunately, the normality this instinct had collided with was nothing but an empty form, within which all was abnormal and gratuitous. At the first jolt of contact, the form had shattered into pieces; and the instinct, so justified and so human, had turned him, from the victim he had been, into an executioner. His mistake, in other words, was not so much that he had killed Quadri, but that he had tried to obliterate the original sin of his own life with inadequate means. But, he went back to wondering, would it have been at all possible for things to have gone otherwise than they had?

  No, it would not have been possible, he thought, answering himself. Lino had had to compromise his innocence and he, to defend himself, had been compelled to kill him; and then, to free himself from the sense of abnormality that had sprung from this, he had no choice but to seek normality in the way he had sought it; and to obtain this normality he had had to pay a price that corresponded to the burden of abnormality he had meant to free himself from; and this price had been Quadri’s death. So all had been destined, though freely accepted, as all was at once just and unjust.

  He seemed to be feeling rather than thinking these things, with the sharp and painful perception of an anguish he rejected and rebelled against. He would have liked to feel calm and detached, faced with the disastrous ruin of his life, as if observing a dismal but distant event. But his anguish made him suspect himself of panicking at the turn of events, in spite of the clarity with which he was forcing himself to examine them. Besides, it wasn’t easy just then to distinguish clarity from fear; and perhaps the best he could do was to maintain, as always, a decorous and impassive mode of behavior. After all, he thought a little ironically, as if summing up his modest ambitions, he had nothing to lose; at least, if his “loss” was understood as the renunciation of his mediocre position as a civil servant, this house he had to pay for in installments for the next twenty-five years, the car he must pay for in the next two, and the few other sundry expenses of a comfortable life that he had felt he must concede to Giulia. It was true, he had nothing to lose; and if they had come to arrest him right that minute, the meagerness of the material benefits he had acquired by virtue of his position would have amazed even his enemies.

  He stepped away from the window and turned to look at the room. It was a married couple’s bedroom, as Giulia had wanted, of dark, shining mahogany and handles and ornaments of bronze in an approximation of Empire style. It came to him that this room had been bought on installment, too, and that they had just finished paying for it the year before.

  “Our whole life,” he thought with sarcasm, picking his jacket up from the chair and putting it on, “is in installments, but these last are the biggest and we’ll never manage to pay them.” He smoothed out the rumpled rug by the bed with his foot and walked out of the room.

  Going down to the end of the hall, he reached a door that had been left ajar, through which a little light was shining. It was his daughter’s bedroom; and as he entered, he delayed a moment on the threshold, almost unable to believe the ordinary, familial scene unfolding before his eyes. The room was small and furnished in the pretty, colorful style appropriate to rooms where young children sleep and live. The furniture was painted pink, the curtains were light blue, the walls were papered with a design of little baskets of flowers. Dolls of various sizes and other toys were scattered haphazardly here and there on the pink carpet. His wife was sitting on the side of the bed and Lucilla, his daughter, was already in it. Giulia, who was conversing with the child, turned around as soon as he entered and gave him a long look without saying a word. Marcello took one of the little pink chairs and sat down next to the bed, too.

  The little girl said, “Hello, papà.”

  “Hello, Lucilla,” said Marcello, looking at her.

  She was a dark, delicate child, with a round face, huge expressive eyes, and features so fine that they seemed almost affected in their excessive delicacy. He himself was not sure why, but in that moment she actually seemed too lovely and, above all, too conscious of her loveliness in a way, he thought, that suggested the beginnings of an innocent flirtatiousness and that reminded him in an unpleasant manner of his mother, whom she resembled closely. This flirtatiousness could be seen in the way she rolled her large, velvety eyes when she was talking to him or her mother, which produced a strange effect in a child of six; above all, it showed in the almost incredible self-confidence with which she spoke. Dressed in a light blue nightgown, all puffs and lace, she was sitting up in bed with her hands joined for the evening prayer, which the arrival of her father had interrupted.

  “Come on, Lucilla, don’t daydream,” said her mother good-naturedly. “Come on, now, say the prayer with me.”

  “I’m not daydreaming,” said the child, raising her eyes to the ceiling with an expression of impatient condescension. “You’re the one who stopped when papà came in … so I stopped, too.”

  “You’re right,” said Giulia with composure, “but you know the prayer. You could have gone on by yourself. When you’re bigger, I won’t always be here to prompt you, but you’ll still have to say it.”

  “Look how you’re wasting my time … I’m tired,” said Lucilla, shrugging her shoulders slightly with her hands still joined. “You’re sitting around talking and we could have finished the prayer by now.”

  “All right,” said Giulia, smiling this time despite herself, “let’s start over: Hail Mary, full of grace.”

  The little girl repeated in a drawling voice, “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

  “The Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women.”

  “The Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women.”

  “And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

  “And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

  “Can I rest for a minute?” asked the child at this point.

  “Why?” asked Giulia. “Are you already tired?”

  “You’ve kept me here an hour like this, with my hands together,” said Lucilla, separating her hands and looking at her father. “When papà came in, we’d already said half of the prayer.” She rubbed her arms with her hands, spitefully, flirtatiously, making a show of how tired she was. Then she raised and joined her hands again and said, “I’m ready.”

  “Holy Mary, mother of
God,” Giulia continued calmly.

  “Holy Mary, mother of God,” repeated the child.

  “Pray for us sinners.”

  “Pray for us sinners.”

  “Now and in the hour of our death.”

  “Now and in the hour of our death.”



  “Papà, don’t you ever say your prayers?” asked Lucilla without pausing.

  “We say them at night before we go to bed,” answered Giulia quickly. The child, however, was looking at Marcello with an interrogative and, as it seemed to him, incredulous air. He rushed to confirm it: “Of course, every night before we go to bed.”

  “Now lie down and go to sleep,” said Giulia, getting up and trying to make Lucilla lie down. She managed, but not without effort, as the child did not seem at all disposed to sleep, and then she pulled the sheet, her only cover, up to her daughter’s chin.

  “I’m hot,” said Lucilla, kicking at the sheet, “I’m so hot.”

  “Tomorrow we’re going to grandma’s and you won’t be hot anymore,” answered Giulia.

  “Where does grandma live?”

  “Up in the hills, where it’s cool.”

  “But where?”

  “I’ve already told you a million times — Tagliacozzo. It’s a cool place and we’ll be staying there all summer.”

  “Won’t the airplanes come?”

  “The airplanes won’t come anymore.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because the war is over.”

  “Why is the war over?”

  “Because two doesn’t make three,” said Giulia brusquely, but without losing temper. “Now that’s enough questions … go to sleep, because tomorrow we’re leaving early in the morning. Now I’m going to go get your medicine.”

  She went out, leaving her husband alone with his daughter.

  “Papà,” the little girl asked right away, sitting back up in the bed, “remember the cat that belongs to the people downstairs?”

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