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The conformist, p.32
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       The Conformist, p.32

           Alberto Moravia
 

  But he was keeping watch on himself; and when he came out again into the crowded street, with the joy of the crowd exploding in his face, boisterous, tumultuous, earnest, and aggressive, he asked himself anxiously whether this joy did not spark off some less than serene emotion in his heart. No, he thought, after a moment of attentive self-examination; he felt neither regret nor spite nor fear. He was truly calm, apathetic, almost totally spent, and disposed to contemplate the joy of others — without participating, of course, but also without resenting it as a threat or an affront.

  They began to walk aimlessly through the crowd, from one group to another, from one block to another. By this time Giulia was no longer afraid; she seemed as calm and self-controled as he did. But for different reasons, he thought, for her good-natured ability to empathize with the feelings of others.

  The crowd, far from diminishing, seemed to get bigger every minute; and it was, Marcello observed, almost entirely joyful, with a stunned, incredulous joy, awkward in its expression, not yet sure it could do so with impunity. Opening a path through the multitude with effort, they passed other trucks full of workers, men and women, some of them waving red flags and others the tricolor. They walked past a small German convertible, with two calm officials idling in the seats and a uniformed soldier perched on the edge of the door with a submachine gun in his fist, trying to ignore the whistles and catcalls aimed at him from the sidewalks. Marcello noticed that there were a lot of soldiers on the streets, disheveled and weaponless, many of them hugging each other, their stolid peasant faces lit up by an intoxicated hope. Watching two of these soldiers, who were walking with their arms around each other’s waists like lovers, their bayonets bouncing against their unbuttoned tunics, Marcello was aware for the first time that night of feeling something very like contempt: they were in uniform and, invincibly for him, a uniform meant decorum and dignity, whatever the person wearing it was feeling.

  Giulia, as if she were guessing his thought, pointed out the two sloppy, affectionate soldiers and asked, “But didn’t they say that the war wasn’t over?”

  “Yes, that’s what they said,” Marcello replied, suddenly reversing his judgment in an almost painful effort to comprehend, “but it’s not true. And those poor guys are right to be happy … for them the war is truly over.”

  In front of the door of the ministry to which Marcello had gone to receive his orders on the eve of his departure for Paris, a large crowd was protesting, shouting, waving their fists in the air. Those that were closest to the door beat on it with their fists to make it open. The name of the newly fallen minister was being chanted over and over by many voices, in an unmistakable tone of hatred and scorn. Marcello observed this gathering for a long time but failed to understand what the demonstrators wanted. Finally the door opened, just barely, and an usher, pale and pleading in his braided uniform, appeared in the crack. He said something to the closest people; someone went in through the door, which shut immediately; the crowd shouted a while more and then dispersed. But not all of them — a few of the most stubborn demonstrators hung around to shout and knock at the closed door.

  Marcello left the ministry and started walking toward the adjacent piazza. A cry of “Make way! Make way!” pushed back the crowd, Marcello among them. Craning his neck, he saw three or four rough teenage boys dragging a big bust of the dictator behind them with a rope. The bust, the color of bronze, was really only painted plaster, as you could see from the white chips caused by the bumping they were giving it as they dragged it over the cobblestones. A dark little man, his face devoured by an enormous pair of round, tortoiseshell glasses, turned toward Marcello after looking at the bust and said, chuckling sententiously, “We thought he was bronze, but in reality he was just common clay.”

  Marcello didn’t answer him; still craning his neck, he watched the bust intently for a moment as it bounced heavily past him. It was one of hundreds of similar busts scattered throughout the ministries and public offices, grossly stylized: jutting jaw; round, deepset eyes; smooth, swollen skull. He couldn’t help but think of the living mouth, so arrogant, so alive, represented by its fake bronze replica now dragging through the dust, accompanied by jeering whistles and catcalls from the same crowd that had once so heatedly cheered it on.

  Once more Giulia seemed to intuit his thoughts, and murmured, “Just think, once all it took was a bust like this in the lobby to make people talk in a whisper.”

  He replied dryly, “If they get ahold of him in flesh and blood right now, they’ll treat him just like they’re treating this bust.”

  “Do you think they’ll kill him?”

  “Absoutely, if they can.”

  They walked on a little farther, in the midst of the crowd streaming and swirling in the darkness like the waters of an untamed, directionless flood. At a street corner a group of people had leaned a long ladder against the corner of a palazzo and one of them had climbed to the top and was wielding a hammer in great blows against a stone marker inscribed with the name of the regime. Someone turned to Marcello and said, laughing, “The Fascists are everywhere … it will take years just to chip them away.”

  “Too true,” said Marcello.

  They crossed the piazza and, pushing their way through the crowd, reached the arcade. In almost complete darkness, with only the dim, diffused light of their veiled flashlights, a group of people had made a circle around something Marcello and Giulia couldn’t see, right at the point where the two branches of the arcade came together. Marcello approached them, leaned over, and saw that they were watching a boy dance. He was doing a funny parody of a mime executing the movements and contortions of a belly-dancer; and he was wearing a portrait of the dictator, a colored holeograph, which he had made a slit in and slipped over his shoulders like a collar. He looked like someone who had been put in the pillory and who was dancing with the instrument of torture still locked around his neck.

  As they were walking back toward the piazza, a young official with a little black beard and spirited eyes, arm in arm with an excited girl, her dark hair blowing in the wind, leaned toward Marcello and shouted in a tone that was at once exalted and didactic, “Long live liberty, of course … but above all, long live the king!”

  Giulia glanced at her husband.

  “Long live the king,” said Marcello, without batting an eye. They walked on and he said, “There are a lot of monarchists who are hoping to turn this to the monarchy’s advantage … let’s go see what’s happening in the Piazza del Quirinale.”

  With an effort, they managed to get back to the alley where they had left the car. Giulia said to Marcello, as he was starting it up, “Do we really have to go? I’m so tired of all this shouting.”

  “Why not? It’s not as if we have anything better to do.”

  Marcello drove the car swiftly up the sidestreets to the Piazza del Quirinale. When they reached it, they saw that it was not completely full. The crowd was thickest beneath the balcony where the royal family was accustomed to show itself, but thinned out toward the edges of the piazza, leaving a lot of empty space. Here, too, there was very little light; the great iron lamposts with their sad, yellow lamps shaped like clusters of grapes only faintly illuminated the dark multitude in the square. Half-hearted applause and calls to the royal family broke out, but infrequently; even less than anywhere else, it seemed, did the crowd in this piazza know what it wanted. It seemed more curious than enthusiastic; the same way people used to gather to see and hear the dictator, as if they were at a performance, they now gathered to see and hear the one who had thrown the dictator over.

  Giulia asked softly, as the car was slowly circling the square, “Do you think the king will come out onto the balcony?”

  Before answering, Marcello scrunched up his neck to look up at the balcony through the glass of the windshield. It was dimly illuminated by two reddish torches, between which he could see the closed shutters of the window. Then he said, “I don’t think so. Why should he come out?”


  “Then what are all these people waiting for?”

  “Nothing … they’re just in the habit of going into the piazza and calling for someone.”

  Marcello circled the square very, very slowly, almost bumping his fenders gently against groups who were reluctant to move.

  Giulia said unexpectedly, “You know, I’m almost disappointed.”

  “Why?”

  “I don’t know what I thought they’d be doing … burning houses, killing people … when we came out I was afraid for you and that’s why I came along. But they aren’t doing anything, just shouting, cheering, saying ‘up with,’ ‘down with,’ singing, marching around.…”

  Before he could stop himself, Marcello answered, “The worst is yet to come.”

  “What do you mean?” she cried, in a suddenly frightened voice. “For us or for the others?”

  “For us and the others.”

  Right away he regretted saying it, since he felt Giulia’s hand grab his arm hard and heard her say in an anguished voice, “I knew all the time that what you were telling me wasn’t true, when you said that everything would work out … and now you’re saying it yourself.”

  “Don’t be scared, I was just talking to hear my own voice.”

  This time Giulia said nothing, limiting herself to holding onto his arm with both hands and pressing herself against him. Hampered but unwilling to reject her, Marcello drove back along secondary streets toward the Corso. Once he had reached it, he went down the less crowded side streets and came out into the Piazza del Popolo. From there he headed up the steep side of the Pincian Hill toward the Villa Borghese. They crossed the darkened Pincio, populated by its marble busts, and circled through the park in the direction of Via Veneto. When they reached the gate of the Porta Pinciana, Giulia said suddenly in a low, sad voice, “I don’t want to go home.”

  “Why not?” asked Marcello, slowing down.

  “I don’t know why,” she answered, looking straight ahead, “but it wrings my heart just to think about it … it feels like a home we’re about to leave forever. Nothing terrible, though,” she added quickly, “just a house we have to move out of.”

  “So where do you want to go?”

  “Wherever you want.”

  “Do you want to drive around Villa Borghese?”

  “Yes, let’s do that.”

  Marcello drove down a long, dark avenue, at the end of which they could see the Borghese museum, white against the night. When they reached the piazza in front of the building, he stopped the car, turned it off, and said, “Shall we take a little walk?”

  “Yes, if you like.”

  They got out of the car and headed, arm in arm, for the gardens behind the museum. The park was deserted; political events had emptied it even of lovers. In the penumbra they could see the marble statues, white against the dark woodland background of the trees, gesturing heroically, delivering elegies. They walked as far as the fountain and relaxed for a moment in silence, gazing at the black and motionless water. Now Giulia squeezed her husband’s hand, strongly insinuating her fingers between his own in a tiny embrace. They began to walk again, turned onto a very dark path that lead through an oak grove. After a few steps, Giulia stopped suddenly and turned around, throwing one arm around Marcello’s neck and kissing him on the mouth. They stood like that a long time, embracing each other, kissing each other, in the middle of the path.

  Then they separated and Giulia whispered, taking her husband by the hand and pulling him toward the woods, “Come on, let’s make love here … on the ground.”

  “No,” Marcello couldn’t help exclaiming, “here?”

  “Yes, here,” she said, “why not? Come on, I need to do it to feel reassured.”

  “Reassured about what?”

  “Everybody’s thinking about the war, the politics, the planes … and instead we could be so happy … Come on … I’d even do it in the middle of one of their piazzas,” she added, with sudden exasperation, “just to show them that I’m actually capable of thinking about something else … Come on!”

  She seemed exalted now, and preceded him through the thick shadows among the tree trunks. “See, what a beautiful bedroom,” he heard her murmur. “Soon we won’t have a home anymore … but this is a bedroom they can’t take away from us … we can sleep and make love here any time we want.” Suddenly she disappeared from sight, as if she had entered the earth.

  Marcello looked for her and then he caught sight of her in the darkness, stretched out on the ground at the foot of a tree, one arm beneath her, pillowing her head, the other raised toward him in silence, inviting him to stretch out by her side. He obeyed, and, as soon as he was lying down, Giulia wound her legs and arms around him tightly, kissing him with a blind, dazed force all over his face, as if in search of other mouths on his forehead and cheeks by which to penetrate him. But almost right away her embrace relaxed, and Marcello saw her raise herself slightly on top of him and stare out into the dark.

  “Someone’s coming,” she said.

  Marcello sat up as well and looked out. Between the trees, still in the distance, they could see the beam of a pocket-sized flashlight making a wavery advance, preceded on the ground by a faint circular light. Not a sound could be heard; the dead leaves covering the earth muffled the stranger’s footsteps. The flashlight continued to advance in their direction and Giulia suddenly recomposed herself and sat up, hugging her knees between her arms. Sitting side by side against the tree, they watched the light approach.

  “Maybe he’s a guard,” murmured Giulia.

  Now the flashlight projected its beam onto the ground nearby, lifted, and struck them full in the face. Dazzled, they stared back at the masculine figure, no more than a shadow, from whose hand the white light was streaming — a light, thought Marcello, that would be lowered once the guard had looked them well in the face. But no, the light remained trained on them instead while the man looked on in a silence, thought Marcello, filled with reflection and wonder.

  “Do you mind telling us what you want?” he asked, in a resentful voice.

  “I don’t want anything, Marcello,” a gentle voice replied at once. At the same time the light was lowered and started to move away from them again.

  “Who is he?” murmured Giulia. “He seems to know you.”

  Marcello sat motionless and breathless, profoundly disturbed. Then he said to his wife, “Excuse me a moment. I’ll be back right away.” He leapt to his feet and ran after the stranger.

  He caught up with him at the edge of the woods, next to the pedestal of one of the pale statues. Nearby was a streetlamp; and when the man turned at the sound of footsteps, Marcello recognized him immediately, after all those years, by his smooth, ascetic face beneath the crewcut. Then, he had seen him dressed in his chauffeur’s tunic; now, he was still wearing a uniform, black, buttoned up to the neck, with puffed-out pants and black leather leggings. He was holding his cap under his arm and the flashlight in his hand.

  He smiled and said quickly, “Chi non muore si rivede, Anyone who doesn’t die will meet again.”

  Marcello thought the idiom all too apt under the circumstances, although it had been said playfully and perhaps unconciously. He said, panting from the run and his deep anxiety, “But I thought I … I thought I killed you.”

  “I was hoping you’d find out they saved me, Marcello,” said Lino tranquilly. “It’s true, a newspaper did announce that I was dead but that was because there was a mistake. Somone else died at that hospital, in the bed next to mine … And so you thought I was dead. So I did well to say chi non muore si rivede.”

  Marcello was horrified, not so much by the rediscovery of Lino as by the conversational, familiar, yet funereal tone that had been established between them at once.

  He said sorrowfully, “But so many consequences came from thinking you were dead. And instead you weren’t dead.”

  “There were a lot of consequences for me, too, Marcello,” said Lino, looking at him with a kind o
f compassion. “I thought it was a warning and got married. Then my wife died,” he added more slowly. “Everything started up again … Now I’m a night watchman. These gardens are full of beautiful boys like you.”

  He uttered these words with gentle, placid impudence, but without a shadow of flattery. Marcello noticed for the first time that his hair was almost gray and his face somewhat filled out.

  “And you got married … That was your wife, wasn’t it?”

  Suddenly Marcello couldn’t stand the submissive, squalid small talk any more. He said, grabbing the man by his shoulders and shaking him, “You’re talking to me as if nothing happened! Do you realize you destroyed my life?”

  Lino replied, without attempting to free himself, “Why are you saying that to me, Marcello? You’re married, you probably have children, you look like you’re well-off, what are you complaining about? It would have been worse if you’d really killed me.”

  “But,” Marcello couldn’t help exclaiming, “when I met you I was innocent! And afterwards I wasn’t, not ever again.”

  He saw Lino look at him with surprise.

  “But Marcello, we were all innocent. Don’t you think I was innocent, too? And we all lose our innocence, one way or another. That’s normality.”

  He freed himself with an effort from Marcello’s already loosened grip and added in a tone of complicity, “Look, there’s your wife … it would be better to go our separate ways.”

  “Marcello,” Giulia’s voice said from the shadows.

  He turned and saw Giulia approaching uncertainly. At the same time, Lino, settling his cap on his head, waved good-bye and hurried off quickly in the direction of the museum.

  “Who was that?” asked Giulia.

  “One of my friends from school,” answered Marcello, “who ended up as a night watchman.”

  “Let’s go home,” she said, taking his arm again.

 
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