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The conformist, p.7
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       The Conformist, p.7

           Alberto Moravia
 

  Lino’s smile vanished, his face darkened. “What foolishness are you inventing now?” he asked, and then, regaining control immediately, he said with joking nonchalance,” Well, Signor Marcello, do you want to get into the car?”

  “I’ll get in,” said Marcello, making up his mind at last, “on one condition.”

  “What condition?”

  “That you really give me the pistol.”

  “That’s understood … come on, get in.”

  “No, you have to give it to me now, right away,” insisted Marcello obstinately.

  “But I don’t have it here, Marcello,” the man said sincerely, “I left it in my bedroom on Saturday. Let’s go to the house now and get it.”

  “Then I’m not coming,” Marcello said decisively, in a way that surprised even him. “Good-bye.”

  He took a step forward as if to go, and this time Lino lost patience.

  “Come on, don’t act like a child!” he exclaimed. Leaning out, he grabbed Marcello by one arm and dragged him onto the seat next to his own. “Now we’re going straight to the house,” he added, “and I promise you that you’ll have the pistol.”

  Marcello, who was glad, actually, to be constrained by violence to enter the car, did not protest, but only assumed a childishly sulky expression. Lino, without wasting a motion, closed the door and turned on the engine, and the car set off.

  For a long time neither of them spoke. Lino did not appear loquacious, perhaps, thought Marcello, because he was too happy to talk; for himself, he had nothing to say. Now Lino would give him the gun and then he would go back home and the next day he would take the pistol to school and show it to Turchi. His thoughts did not extend beyond these simple and pleasurable expectations. His only fear was that Lino might want to cheat him in some way. In that case, he thought, he would invent something spiteful to drive Lino to desperation and force him to keep his promise.

  Sitting still with his bundle of books on his knees, he watched the great plane trees and buildings slide by until they reached the end of the avenue. When the car started up the hill, Lino asked, as if concluding a long reflection, “Who taught you to be such a coquette, Marcello?”

  Marcello, who was not quite sure what the word meant, hesitated before answering. The man seemed to understand his innocent ignorance and added, “I mean, so sly.”

  “Why?” asked Marcello.

  “Just to ask.”

  “You’re the sly one,” said Marcello, “since you promise me the gun and never give it to me.”

  Lino laughed; he slapped Marcello’s bare knee with one hand and said in an exultant voice, “You know, Marcello, how happy I am that you’ve come today … when I think that the other day I begged you to ignore me, not to come, I realize how foolish we can be sometimes … really foolish … but luckily you had more sense than me, Marcello.”

  Marcello said nothing. He didn’t understand what Lino was saying too well and besides, that hand resting on his knee was annoying him. He had tried to move his knee away a few times, but the hand had stayed put. Luckily, at a bend in the road they saw a car coming toward them. Marcello pretended to be frightened and exclaimed: “Watch out, that car’s going to hit us,” and this time Lino withdrew his hand to turn the wheel. Marcello let out his breath.

  Here was the country road, between the garden walls and the hedges; here was the gateway with the gate painted green; here was the driveway, flanked by the sparse little cypresses and, here, at the end, was the twinkle of the veranda windows. Marcello noticed that, just as it had last time, the wind was tormenting the cypress trees under a dark, stormy sky. The car came to a halt, Lino leapt out and helped Marcello to descend, then set off with him toward the portico. This time Lino didn’t precede him but held him by the arm, hard, almost as if he were afraid he would try to escape. Marcello would have liked to tell him to loosen his grip but he didn’t have time. As if flying, holding him almost up off the ground by his arm, Lino made him cross the living room and then pushed him into the hallway. Here he unexpectedly grabbed him hard by the neck, saying, “Stupid boy that you are … stupid … why didn’t you want to come?”

  His voice was no longer playful but harsh and broken, although mechanically tender. Marcello, stunned, started to raise his eyes to look into Lino’s face; but just then he was shoved violently backward. As one might hurl away a cat or a dog after grabbing it up by the collar, Lino had flung him into the bedroom. Then Marcello saw him turn the key in the lock, pocket it, and turn toward him with an expression in which joy was mixed with an angry triumph.

  He shouted loudly, “That’s enough now! You’ll do what I want! That’s enough, Marcello, tyrant, little swine, enough … behave, obey, not another word from you.”

  He uttered these words of command, disdain, and dominion with a savage joy, almost a voluptuous pleasure; and Marcello, as confused as he was, could not help but perceive that they were words without sense, more like the strophes of a triumphal song than the expressions of thought or of conscious will. Frightened, dumbfounded, he watched as Lino paced around the little room, taking long strides, ripping his cap off his head and flinging it onto the windowsill; balling up a shirt hung on one of the chairs and shoving it into a drawer; smoothing the rumpled bedcover; and performing all these practical actions with a fury full of obscure significance. Then he saw him, still yelling his incoherent declarations full of arrogance and power to the air, approach the wall above the bed, wrench free the crucifix, cross over to the wardrobe, and hurl it into the bottom of a drawer with ostentatious brutality; and he understood that in some way, by this gesture, Lino wanted to show him that he had set aside his last scruples. As if to confirm him in this fear, Lino opened the drawer of the bedside table and took out the much-desired pistol; and showing it to Marcello, he screamed: “See it? Well, you’ll never get it! You’ll have to do what I want you to do without presents, without pistols … for love or by force.”

  So it was true, thought Marcello, Lino wanted to cheat him, just as he had feared. He felt himself go white in the face from anger, and said, “Give me the gun or I’m going.”

  “Nothing, nothing … for love or by force!” Lino still brandished the pistol in one hand; with the other he grabbed Marcello by the arm and threw him onto the bed. Marcello fell to a sitting position so violently that he hit his head against the wall. Immediately Lino, passing suddenly from violence to sweetness and from command to supplication, fell to his knees before him. He circled the boy’s legs with one arm and placed his other hand, still gripping the pistol, on the cover of the bed. He moaned and invoked Marcello by name; then, still moaning, he embraced his knees with both arms. The pistol was abandoned on the bed now, black against the white coverlet. Marcello looked at Lino, down on his knees, who was alternately raising his pleading face to him, wet with tears and inflamed by desire, and lowering it to rub it against his legs the way certain devoted dogs do with their muzzles. He seized the pistol and, pushing himself up strongly, got to his feet. Immediately Lino, perhaps thinking he wished to return his embrace, opened his arms and let him go. Marcello stepped forward into the middle of the room and then turned.

  Later, thinking about what had happened, Marcello had to remember that just the contact of the cold butt of the gun had aroused in his soul a bloody and ruthless temptation; but in that moment all he was aware of was a sharp pain in his head where he had hit it against the wall and, at the same time, an irritation, an acute repugnance for Lino. The man had remained on his knees by the bed; but when he saw Marcello take a step backwards and point the pistol, he turned round completely without getting up and, throwing his arms wide in a theatrical gesture, cried out histrionically: “Shoot, Marcello … kill me … yes, kill me like a dog!”

  It seemed to Marcello that he had never hated him so much as at that moment, for his loathsome mixture of sensuality and austerity, repentance and lust; and, both terrified and self-aware, almost as if he must satisfy the man’s request, he pulled the trig
ger.

  The shot cracked out suddenly, echoing in the little room; and he saw Lino fall onto his side and then right himself, turning his back and clinging to the edge of the bed with both hands. Lino pulled himself up very slowly, fell onto his side on the bed, and remained motionless. Marcello approached him, placed the pistol on the bed, called out, “Lino,” in a low voice, and then, without waiting for an answer, went to the door. But it was locked and Lino, he recalled, had taken the key from the keyhole and put it into his pocket. He hesitated, revolted by the idea of rummaging through the dead man’s pockets; then his glance fell on the window and he remembered that he was on the ground floor. Climbing up onto the sill, he glanced around hurriedly, throwing a long, circumspect, fearful look at the clearing and the car sitting in front of the portico. He knew that if anyone came by at that moment, they would see him astride the windowsill; still, there was nothing else he could do. But no one was there and, beyond the sparse trees that surrounded the clearing, even the bare and hilly countryside appeared deserted as far as the eye could see. He clambered down from the sill, retrieved his bunch of books from the car seat, and began walking slowly toward the gate.

  And all the time, as he was walking, an image was reflected in his consciousness as if in a mirror, the image of himself : a boy in short pants, his books under his arm, on the path flanked by cypresses, an incomprehensible figure filled with a stunned premonition of doom.

  PART I

  1

  CARRYING HIS HAT IN one hand and using the other to pull the sunglasses off his nose and tuck them back into the breast pocket of his jacket, Marcello entered the lobby of the library and asked the usher where he might find the newspaper files. Then he headed unhurriedly toward the broad stairway, at the top of which the large window on the landing shone brilliantly in the strong May light. He felt light and almost vacant, aware of his perfect physical well-being and youthful vigor; and the new suit he was wearing, gray and simply cut, added the no less pleasant sensation of neat and serious elegance which was to his taste. On the second floor, after filling out a request slip, he made his way to the reading room, to a counter behind which an old usher and a girl were standing. He waited until it was his turn and then handed in his form, asking for the major daily newspaper’s files for 1920. He waited patiently, leaning against the counter, gazing out at the reading room in front of him. Countless rows of writing desks, each with a lamp with a green lampshade, were lined up all the way to the end of the room. Marcello surveyed these desks, sparsely populated for the most part by students, and mentally selected his own, the last one in the room, on the right at the end. The girl reappeared, holding the large bound file of the newspapers he had asked for in her arms. Marcello took the file and went to the desk.

  He placed the file on the slanted desktop and sat down, taking care to hike his pants a bit above the knee; then he calmly opened the file and began to flip through its pages. The headlines had lost their original clarity, their black had become almost green; the paper had yellowed; the photographs had no highlights and looked blurred and confused. He observed that the bigger and more extensive the headlines, the more they gave off a sense of futility and absurdity: announcements of events that had lost importance and significance the very evening of the day they had appeared and which now, clamorous and incomprehensible, defied not only memory but imagination. The most absurd headlines, he noticed, were those accompanied by a more or less tendentious comment; at once exaggerated and hollow they reminded him of the extravagant ravings of a madman, which deafen but fail to move his listeners. Marcello compared his own feelings, faced with these headlines, to what he imagined he would feel when confronted with the headline that concerned him, and wondered whether even the news he was looking for would rouse the same sense of absurdity and emptiness in him. So this was the past, he thought, continuing to turn the pages, this uproar now silenced, this fury now spent, to which the very material of the newspaper, that yellowed paper that would soon crumble and fall into dust, lent a vulgar and contemptible character. The past was made up of mistakes, violence, deceits, foolishness, and lies, he thought again, reading the news items on the pages one after another; and these were the only things, day after day, that men considered worthy of publication and by which they wished to be remembered by generations to come. Normal life, with its depth, was absent from those pages; and yet, even as he was making these reflections — what else was he looking for if not the report of a crime?

  He was in no hurry to find the report that involved him, though he knew the date with precision and could find it unerringly in a moment. Here was the twenty-second, the twenty-third, the twenty-fourth of October, 1920; he was getting ever closer, with every page he turned, to what he considered the most important fact of his life. But the newspaper made no preparations for the announcement; it ignored all the preliminaries. Among all those news items that had nothing to do with him the only one that concerned him would surface suddenly, without warning, as a fish rising to the bait will surface from the belly of the sea. He tried to joke with himself, thinking, “Instead of all these big headlines about political events, they should have printed: Marcello meets Lino for the first time, Marcello asks him for the gun, Marcello agrees to get in the car.” But then the joke died in his mind and a sudden anxiety took his breath away: he had reached the date he was looking for. He turned the page hurriedly and found the news in the crime reports, as he had expected, with a headline above one column that read: Fatal Accident.

  Before reading it he looked around, almost as if he were afraid of being observed. Then he lowered his eyes to the newspaper. The report said:

  Yesterday the chauffeur Pasquale Seminara, residing at Number 33 Via della Camilluccia, accidently triggered off a few shots as he was cleaning a gun. Promptly treated, Seminara was taken by ambulance to the hospital of Santo Spirito, where doctors discovered a bullet wound in his chest near the heart and judged the case to be desperate. In fact, notwithstanding the medical attentions lavished upon him, Seminara died that evening.

  The report could not have been more concise or conventional, he thought, rereading it. All the same, even the worn-out formulas of the most anonymous journalism revealed two important facts. The first was that Lino was really dead, something of which he had always been convinced but had never had the courage to confirm; the second was that this had been attributed, evidently by suggestion of the dying man, to accident. So he was completely shielded, safe from any consequence; Lino was dead, and his death could never be pinned on Marcello.

  But it was not to reassure himself that he had finally determined to look in the library for news of what had happened so many years ago. His anxiety, never entirely soothed during those years, had not focused on the practical consequences of his action. Rather, he had crossed the library’s threshold to discover how he would feel when Lino’s death had been confirmed. From this feeling, he thought, he would be able to judge whether he was still the boy he had once been, obsessed by his own fatal abnormality, or the altogether normal man that he had afterwards wished to be and was convinced he was.

  He felt an intense relief and, perhaps even more than relief, surprise, when he realized that the news printed on the yellowed, seventeen-year-old paper stirred no appreciable echo in his soul. He was like, he thought, someone who has kept a bandage wrapped over a deep wound for a long time, finally decides to remove it, and discovers with amazement that where he had thought to find at least a scar, the skin is smooth and seamless, without any mark of any kind. Looking up the report in the newspaper had been like taking off the bandage, he thought again, and discovering himself to be unmoved was like discovering that he was healed. How this healing had come about, he couldn’t say. But without a doubt, it was not time alone that had produced such a result. He owed a lot to himself, as well, to his conscious desire, throughout all those years, to escape his abnormality and become like other people.

  Still, with a kind of scrupulousness, raising his eye
s from the newspaper and fixing them on the empty air, he willed himself to think explicitly about Lino’s death, something which until now he had always instinctively avoided. The newspaper’s report was written in the conventional language used for news, and this could also have contributed to his indifference and apathy; but seeing it again could not fail be vivid and tender, and, as such, capable of reawakening the ancient terrors in his soul if they were still there. So, following his memory, a pitiless and impartial guide leading him backward in time, he walked down the same path he had traveled as a young boy: the first encounter with Lino on the avenue; his own desire to own a gun; Lino’s promise; the visit to the villa; the second meeting with Lino; the man’s pederastic cravings; himself, pointing the pistol; the man crying hystrionically with open arms, kneeling next to the bed, “Kill me, Marcello … Kill me like a dog.” Marcello shooting almost as if he were obeying him; the man collapsing against the bed, pulling himself up, then falling still, tilted on his side. He realized immediately, as he examined all these details one by one, that the indifference he had noticed in himself when confronted with the news in the paper was now confirmed, had grown even stronger. In fact, not only did he feel no remorse, but the emotions of compassion, rancor, and repugnance for Lino, which had long seemed inseparable from that memory, did not even brush the motionless surface of his awareness. In other words, he felt nothing; and an impotent man lying alongside the naked and desirable body of a woman was not more inert than his mind confronted with that remote event in his life. He was glad of this indifference, a sure sign that there was no longer any relationship — not even hidden, not even indirect, not even suspended — between the boy he had been and the young man he now was. He was truly anther person, he thought again, closing the file very slowly and raising himself up from the desk, and although his memory was mechanically able to recall what had happened in that faraway October, in reality his whole being, even down to its most secret fibers, had forgotten it by now.

 
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