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The conformist, p.33
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       The Conformist, p.33

           Alberto Moravia
 

  “Don’t you want to take a walk anymore?”

  “No … I’d rather go home.”

  They reached the car, got in, and drove home without speaking. Even as he was driving, Marcello was thinking back on Lino’s unconsciously meaningful words: we all lose our innocence in one way or another. That’s normality. Within those words, thought Marcello, was condensed a judgment on his entire life. He had done what he had done to redeem himself from an imaginary crime. All the same, Lino’s words had made him understand for the first time that even if he had not met him, had not shot him, had not been convinced he had killed him — in other words, if absolutely none of it had happened — since he would have had to lose his innocence anyway, and would consequently have wanted to get it back, he still would have done what he had done. This was what normality was — this breathless, futile desire to justify one’s own life, already stained by original sin — not the deceptive mirage he had been following since the day of his meeting with Lino.

  He heard Giulia ask him, “What time are we leaving tomorrow morning?” and flung away his thoughts as just so many troublesome, by now also useless, witnesses to his own error.

  “As soon as possible,” he said.

  3

  TOWARD DAWN, MARCELLO woke up and saw, or thought he saw, his wife standing in the corner near the window, looking out through the glass in the first gray light of the early hours. Entirely naked, she was holding back the curtain with one hand and covering her breasts with the other, whether from modesty or fear he didn’t know. A long lock of her hair had come undone and was hanging down beside her cheek; and the face she was holding up to the window, colorless and pale, wore an expression of desolate reflection, of sorrowful contemplation. Even her body seemed to have lost overnight its robust and lusty exuberance: her breasts, which motherhood had somewhat flattened and slackened, revealed in profile a fold of flaccid weariness he had never noticed before; and her belly, not so much round as swollen, gave her an awkward, heavy vulnerability, emphasized by the way she was holding her trembling thighs, as if to conceal her sex. The cold light of the dawning day illumined her nakedness squalidly, like an indiscreet and apathetic glance. As he was watching her, Marcello couldn’t help wondering what was going through her mind as she stood there, motionless in that sliver of first, faint light before the dawn, looking down at the empty courtyard. With a vivid sense of compassion, he told himself that he could imagine those thoughts all too well. “Here I am,” she was surely thinking, “here I am, driven out of my home in almost the middle of my life, with a tender young child and a ruined husband who no longer has any hopes for the future; whose fate is uncertain; whose life may be in danger. So this is the result of all that effort, all that passion, all those hopes.”

  She was truly, he thought, Eve driven out of Eden; and Eden was that house with all the modest objects it contained: the stuff in the closets, the utensils in the kitchen, the living room she entertained her girlfriends in, the silver plate, the imitation Persian rugs, the china crockery her mother had given her, the icebox, the vase of flowers in the entrance hall, this bedroom in fake Imperial style bought on installments, and him, in the bed, looking at her. Eden was also, without a doubt, the pleasure of sitting down to the table twice a day with her family, of formulating plans for her future and the futures of her husband and child. Lastly, Eden was peace of mind, of soul, harmony with herself and her world, the serenity of the appeased and satisfied heart. Now a raging and merciless angel armed with a flaming sword was driving her out of this Eden forever, thrusting her, defenseless and naked, into the hostile outside world.

  Marcello watched her for a while more as she stood motionless, lost in her melancholy contemplation; then, through the sleep that had returned to weigh down his eyelids, he saw her turn from the window, tiptoe to the peg she had hung her robe on, put it on, and slip out of the room without a sound. He thought she was probably going off to sit beside the sleeping child’s bedside and think more unhappy thoughts; or perhaps she was finishing up the packing for the trip. He thought for a moment of getting up and going to her to console her in some way. But he was still very sleepy and after a minute or two he fell back asleep.

  Later, while he was driving the car toward Tagliacozzo in the pure light of the late summer morning, he thought back to that heartbreaking vision and wondered whether he had dreamed it or really seen it. His wife was sitting at his side, pressing her hip against him to make room for Lucilla, who was kneeling on the seat with her head out the window, enjoying the ride. Giulia was sitting very straight, her light jacket unbuttoned over a white blouse, her head erect, her face shadowed by a traveling hat. Marcello noticed that she was holding an oblong-shaped object on her knees, wrapped in brown paper and tied with strings.

  “What do you have in that package?” he asked in surprise.

  “It will make you laugh,” she answered, “but I couldn’t seem to leave behind that crystal vase that we kept in the entrance hall … I was fond of it first of all because it’s lovely and then because you gave it to me … do you remember? A little after Lucilla was born … it’s a weakness, I know, but it will help … I’ll put flowers in it in Tagliacozzo.”

  So it was really true, he thought, he hadn’t dreamed it; it was really her in flesh and blood and not an image from a dream he had seen that morning, standing by the window. After a moment he said, “If it gave you pleasure to bring it along, that’s fine … but I swear to you, we’ll go back home just as soon as the summer’s over. There’s absolutely no reason for you to be alarmed.”

  “I’m not alarmed.”

  “Everything will work out for the best,” said Marcello, shifting gears as the car attacked a hill, “and then you’ll be as happy as you’ve been the past few years and even happier.”

  Giulia didn’t say anything but she didn’t seem convinced. Although he was driving, he turned to observe her for a moment. With one hand she was holding the vase on her knees; her other arm encircled Lucilla’s waist as the child hung out the window. All her loves and all her possessions were right here now, her gestures seemed to say, in this car: her husband on one side, her daughter on the other, and, as a symbol of their family life, the crystal vase on her knees. He recalled that just as they left she had said, casting one last look at the front of the house, “Who knows who will come to live in our apartment,” and he understood that he could never convince her because she had no room in her for indirection conviction, only for the terrified presentiments of instinct.

  Still, he asked calmly, “Will you tell me what you’re thinking now?”

  “Nothing,” she replied, “I’m not thinking anything … I’m looking at the countryside.”

  “No, I mean, what do you think in general?”

  “In general? I think things are going badly for us … but no one’s to blame.”

  “Maybe they’re my fault.”

  “Why should they be your fault? It’s never anyone’s fault … everyone’s wrong and right at the same time. Things go wrong because they go wrong, that’s all.” She said this in a curt tone, as if to indicate that she didn’t want to talk any more. Marcello said nothing, and from that moment on there was silence between them for quite a while.

  It was still early in the morning, but the day was already hot; and already in front of the car, between the dusty hedges dazzling with light, the air trembled and the reflection from the summer heat lifted mirrorlike mirages from the asphalt. The road was winding through rolling country between yellow hills bristling with dry stubble, an occasional brown or gray farmhouse lost at the bottom of desertlike, treeless valleys. Every once in a while they crossed paths with a horse-drawn wagon or an old provincial car; it was a seldom-frequented backroad and the military traffic was taking other routes. Everything was calm, normal, indifferent, thought Marcello as he drove; no one would ever have thought they were in the heart of a country torn by revolution and war. The faces of the few peasants they passed, leaning against th
e fences or in the middle of the fields, spade in hand, expressed only the time-honored feelings of solid, peaceful attention to the normal, obvious, everyday things in life. They were all people whose thoughts were of harvests, sun, rain, the price of food, or nothing at all. Giulia had been like those peasants for years, he thought, and now it hurt her to be ripped away from that peace. He thought suddenly, almost irritably: it serves her right. For human beings life didn’t mean letting go to the sluggish peace offered by indulgent nature, but to be restless, to be struggling continually, to be resolving at every moment a tiny problem within the confines of vaster problems, contained in their turn within the overall problem: the problem of life.

  This thought gave him back faith in himself, as the car left the flat, desolate country behind and wound between the high red cliffs of a chain of hills. Maybe because, driving the car, it seemed to him that his body was merging with the motor, which was easily and inflexibly confronting and resolving the difficulties of the road, all climbing curves, he felt a kind of cocky, adventurous optimism, for the first time after so many years, finally clearing the stormy skies of his heart like a sudden gust of wind. He would now consider a whole period of his life closed and buried, he thought, and start over from the beginning, on another level and in other ways. His meeting with Lino had been very useful; not so much because it had freed him from remorse for a crime he hadn’t committed, but because with the few words Lino had spoken at random on the inevitability and normality of the loss of innocence, he had made Marcello understand that he had stubbornly persisted for twenty years on a wrong path, which he must now abandon without looking back. This time there would be no need for justification and communication, he thought, and he was determined not to let the crime he had actually committed, his crime against Quadri, poison him with the torments of a futile search for purification and normality. What had been had been; Quadri was dead; and he would have liked to drop on top of that death, heavier than a tombstone, the definitive stone of complete and utter oblivion. Perhaps because the landscape had now changed from the suffocating desert it had been, and an abundance of invisible waters had given rise to grasses, flowers, and ferns at the sides of the road and, further up, on top of the tuff, to the thick, luxurious green of woodland copses, it seemed to him that from now on he would know how to avoid forever the desolation of the deserts in which man follows his own shadow and feels persecuted and guilty; and would instead, freely and adventurously, seek out places like this one he was driving through now, rocky and inaccessible places, fit only for brigands and wild beasts. He had voluntarily, stubbornly, stupidly bound himself in unworthy chains and to even more unworthy duties; and all this for the mirage of a normality that did not exist. But now those chains were broken, those duties dissolved, and he was free again and would know what to do with his freedom. At that moment the landscape was showing itself at its most picturesque. On one side of the road stretched the woods, covering the hillside; on the other lay a grassy slope scattered with a handful of enormous oaks in full leaf, and at its foot a ditch thick with bushes and the shining waters of a foaming torrent. Beyond the ditch towered a rocky wall down which the gleaming ribbon of a waterfall was streaming. Suddenly Marcello stopped the car and said, “This is a very beautiful place … let’s stop for a minute.”

  His daughter turned from the window and asked, “Have we already arrived?”

  “No, we haven’t arrived, we’re just stopping for a minute,” said Giulia, taking her in her arms and helping her get out of the car.

  Once they were out, she said they might as well take advantage of the stop to satisfy the child’s natural needs, and Marcello stayed next to the car while Giulia, holding Lucilla by the hand, walked a little ways away. She was walking slowly without leaning toward her daughter, who was wearing a short white dress and a big bow in her hair, which flowed loosely down her back, and was chattering away with her usual animation, lifting her face every so often toward her mother as if asking her a question. Marcello asked himself what place his daughter would have in the free, new future his sudden exaltation had painted for him shortly before; and he told himself with vivid affection that if nothing else, he would know enough to steer her toward a life inspired by entirely different values than the ones that had guided his own. Everything in his daughter’s life, he thought, should be spirited and inspired, graceful, light, limpid, fresh, and adventurous; everything in it should resemble a landscape that knows neither fog nor the close oppression of heat, but only the swift, purifying storms that render the air clearer and colors brighter. Nothing should remain of the bloody pedantry that up until yesterday had been his own fate. Yes, he thought again, she must live in full freedom.

  Lost in reflection, he left the roadside and strolled toward the woods that shaded the other side. The trees were tall and thick with leaves; beneath them blackberry brambles and other wild briars grew up in a tangle; and under these he could see grasses and flowers in the woodland shadow, and a bellflower of a blue that was almost purple. The bellflower was simple, its petals streaked with white; when he brought it to his nostrils, he smelled a bitter scent of grass. This flower had grown in the shaded tangle of the underbrush, thought Marcello, in the little bit of earth clinging to the barren tuff; it had not sought to limit the taller, stronger plants or to recognize its own destiny so that it could accept it or reject it. In full unconsciousness and freedom, it had grown where the seed had happened to fall, up until the day he had picked it. To be like that solitary flower on a strip of moss in the dark underbrush, he thought, was a truly humble, natural destiny. Whereas the voluntary humility of an impossible adaptation to a deceptive normality concealed only vanity, pride, self-love reversed.

  He came to at the sound of his wife’s voice, saying, “Let’s go, then,” and took back his place at the wheel. The car wound swiftly up the curving road, following the slope of the hill scattered with oak trees and then, after a thick tract of brush, emerged through a notch in the hill onto the vista of an immense plain. The close humidity of July blurred the distant horizons, ringed by blue mountains; in the golden, slightly foggy light Marcello made out a solitary, craggy hill in the midst of the plain, surmounted by a village of a few houses huddled together under the towers and walls of a castle as if by an acropolis. He could see the gray sides of the houses suspended vertically along the highway that wound around the hill in spirals; the castle was square, with a rough, cylindrical tower to one side; the village was a rosy color and the sun burning in the sky struck deadly sparks from the windows of the houses. The road ran straight on at the foot of the hill, an absolutely straight stretch toward the farthest boundaries of the plain; opposite the hill, on the other side of the road, lay the vast, razed, yellowing green of an airfield. In contrast to the ancient homes of the village, everything in the airfield looked new and modern: the three long hangars, camouflaged in green, blue, and brown; the antenna from the top of which a red and white flag was waving; the many shining pieces of equipment, placed as if at random around the edges of the camp.

  Marcello observed this landscape at length while the car, turning round one bend after another of the steep road, descended swiftly toward the plain. The contrast between the ancient fortress and the very modern airfield felt full of meaning to him, although a sudden distraction kept him from being able to pinpoint its precise significance. At the same time he became aware of a strange sense of familiarity, as if he had already seen this landscape in the past. But he knew it was the first time he had ever driven down this road.

  Once the car had reached the bottom of the hill, it turned onto a straight stretch that seemed interminable. Marcello speeded up and the speedometer’s arrow climbed gradually to eighty, then ninety kilometers an hour. The road was now running between two stretches of metallic yellow harvested fields, without a tree or a house. Evidently, thought Marcello, the inhabitants all lived in the village and came down in the morning to go to work in the fields. Then in the evening, they returned
to the village.…

  His wife’s voice distracted him from his reflections. “Look,” she said, pointing toward the airfield. “What’s happening?”

  Marcello looked and saw that a lot of people were running back and forth across the great razed field, waving their arms. At the same time, strange sight in the dazzling light of the summer sun, a sharp, red, almost smokeless tongue of flame licked up from one of the hangars. Then another flame burst upwards from the second roof, yet another from the third. The three fires joined and merged into one, which moved violently in all directions while clouds of black smoke drifted to earth, hiding the hangars and billowing outward. Meanwhile, all signs of life had vanished and the airfield was deserted once more.

  Marcello said calmly, “An air raid.”

  “Is it dangerous?”

  “No, they will have passed over already.”

  He speeded up; the arrow of the tachometer climbed to a hundred, a hundred and twenty kilometers. Now they were beneath the town; you could see the spiraling road, the sides of the houses, the castle. At the same time, Marcello heard the angry iron roar of the attacking airplane behind him. He could distinguish, in all the noise, the thick hail of bullets from a machine gun and understood that the plane was behind them and would soon be on top of them; the noise of its engine was in line with the road, as direct and inflexible as the road itself. Then the metallic roar was above them, deafening, just for a moment before receding into the distance.

  He felt a strong blow to the shoulder, like a punch, and then a deathly weariness. Desperate, he managed to gather his forces and stop and park the car on the edge of the road.

  “Let’s get out,” he said in a spent voice, putting his hand on the door and opening it.

  The door opened and Marcello fell out. Then, dragging himself forward with his face and hands in the grass, he pulled his legs out of the car and lay on the ground near the ditch. But nobody spoke and nobody, though the door remained open, got out of the car. Just then he heard the roar of the airplane banking and turning again. He thought once more, “God, let them not be hit … they’re innocent.”

 
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