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The conformist, p.9
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       The Conformist, p.9

           Alberto Moravia
 

  One of the ushers came over to murmur that he could go in, and Marcello rose and followed him. The usher opened one of the doors, standing back to let him pass through. Marcello found himself in a vast room with frescoed ceiling and walls, at the end of which was a table scattered with papers. Behind the table sat the man with the yellow face whom he had glimpsed already in the waiting room; to one side sat another man, whom Marcello knew well, his immediate superior in the Secret Service. At Marcello’s appearance the man with the yellow face, who was one of the ministry secretaries, rose to his feet; the other man stayed in his chair and greeted him with a nod. This last, a thin old man with a military aspect, a stiff scarlet face, and a moustache as black and bristling as a false moustache on a mask, made, he thought, a complete contrast with the secretary. He was, in fact and as he knew, a loyal, rigid, honest man, accustomed to serving without protest, putting what he considered to be his duty above everything else, even his conscience. While the secretary, as far as he remembered, was a more recent and altogether different sort of man: ambitious and sceptical, worldly, with a taste for intrigue pushed to the point of brutality, beyond any professional obligation and every boundary of conscience. All of Marcello’s goodwill was directed toward the old man, naturally, and also because he seemed to recognize in that red and ruined face the same obscure melancholy that so often oppressed him. Maybe, like him, Colonel Baudino was feeling the contrast between an unshakeable, almost spellbound loyalty that had nothing rational in it and the too-often deplorable character of daily reality. But maybe, he thought, looking at the old man again, it was just an illusion and he — as can happen — was lending his own feelings to his superior because he liked him, almost in the hope that he was not alone in feeling them.

  The colonel said dryly, without looking at Marcello or the secretary, “This is the Dottor Clerici I spoke to you about some time ago,” and the secretary, with ceremonial and almost ironic eagerness, leaned over the table, extended his hand, and invited him to sit down. Marcello took a seat. The secretary seated himself as well, took up a box of cigarettes, and offered them first to the colonel, who refused, and then to Marcello, who accepted.

  Then, after lighting a cigarette for himself, he said, “Clerici, I’m very pleased to meet you. The colonel here does nothing but sing your praises … It would appear that you are, as they say, an ace.” He underlined “as they say” with a smile and went on, “The minister and I have examined your plan and found it excellent, absolutely … do you know Quadri well?”

  “Yes,” said Marcello. “He was my professor at the university.”

  “And you’re sure Quadri doesn’t know you’re an agent?”

  “As sure as I can be.”

  “Your idea of faking a political conversion to inspire their trust, infiltrating their organization, and maybe even being given a mission to carry out in Italy,” proceeded the secretary, lowering his eyes toward some point on the table in front of him, “is a good one … the minister agrees with me that something of the kind must be attempted without delay. When were you thinking of going, Clerici?”

  “As soon as necessary.”

  “Very good,” said the secretary, somewhat surprised even so, as if he had been expecting a different answer, “excellent. All the same, there’s a point we should clear up … You are proposing to carry out a mission that is, let us say, somewhat delicate and dangerous. The colonel here and I were saying that in order not to be too obvious you should find, think up, invent some plausible pretext for your presence in Paris. I’m not saying that they know who you are or that they’ll be able to figure it out … but, well, you can’t ever be too careful … all the more so since Quadri, as you tell us in your report, was not unaware at the time of your feelings of loyalty toward the regime.…”

  “If it hadn’t been for those feelings,” said Marcello dryly, “there could hardly be a conversion.”

  “Right, absolutely right … but you don’t go to Paris just to present yourself to Quadri and tell him: I’m here. You have to give the impression, instead, that you find yourself in Paris for private, not political reasons, in other words, and are taking advantage of the occasion to reveal your spiritual crisis to Quadri. You need,” concluded the secretary abruptly, lifting his eyes to look at Marcello, “to combine the mission with something personal, something unofficial.” The secretary turned toward the colonel and added, “Don’t you think so, colonel?”

  “That’s my opinion, as well,” said the colonel, without raising his eyes. And he added after a moment, “But only Dottor Clerici can find the pretext that suits him.”

  Marcello bowed his head and thought of nothing. It seemed to him that there was nothing to respond at the moment, since an excuse of this kind had to be thought about deliberately and calmly. He was just going to reply, “Give me two or three days’ time and I’ll think about it,” when, suddenly, his tongue seemed to move for him, almost against his will: “I’m getting married in a week … I could combine the mission with my honeymoon trip.”

  This time the secretary’s surprise, although he covered it up with an eager enthusiasm, was evident and profound. The colonel, instead, remained completely impassive, as if Marcello had not spoken.

  “Very good … excellent,” exclamed the secretary with a disconcerted air, “you’re getting married.… You couldn’t find a better excuse … the classic honeymoon in Paris.”

  “Yes,” said Marcello, without smiling, “the classic honeymoon in Paris.”

  The secretary was afraid he had offended him. “What I meant to say is that Paris is just the place for a honeymoon trip. Unfortunately, I’m not married … but if I did get married, I think I’d go to Paris, too.…”

  This time Marcello said nothing. He often responded this way to people he disliked: with complete silence.

  The secretary turned toward the colonel for reassurance: “You’re right, colonel … Only Dottor Clerici could have come up with this sort of pretext. Even if we had thought of it, we couldn’t have suggested it.”

  This statement, uttered in an ambiguous, half-serious tone of voice, cut both ways, Marcello thought. It could be real, if somewhat ironic, praise: “God, what fanaticism!” or it could be the expression instead of a stupid contempt: “What servility — he doesn’t even respect his own honeymoon.” Probably, he thought, it was both, since it was clear that for the secretary the boundary between fanaticism and servility was not very precise; both were means he used — now one, now the other — but always to reach the same ends. Marcello noticed with satisfaction that the colonel also refused to smile, a response the secretary seemed to be inviting with his two-way statement.

  A moment of silence followed. Marcello stared straight into the secretary’s eyes with a motionless composure that he knew and wished to be disconcerting. In fact, the secretary could not stand up to it and suddenly, supporting himself with both hands on the table top, he rose to his feet.

  “All right, then … You, Colonel, can come to an agreement with Dottor Clerici about the instructions for the mission. You,” he went on, turning to Marcello, “ought to know, moreover, that you have the minister’s full support, and mine. Actually,” he added with affected carelessness, “the minister has expressed the desire to meet you personally.”

  Marcello replied nothing to this, either, limiting himself to standing up and making a slight, deferential bow. The secretary, who had probably expected some words of gratitude, gave another start of surprise which he immediately suppressed.

  “Stay here, Clerici,” he said. “The minister ordered me to bring you directly to him.”

  The colonel stood up and said, “Clerici, you know where to find me.” He held out his hand to the secretary, but the man — attentive, obsequious, ceremonious — was determined to accompany him to the door at all costs. Marcello watched them shake hands; then the colonel disappeared and the secretary turned to him.

  “Come with me, Clerici. The minister is extremely busy — non
etheless, he’s absolutely determined to see you and let you know how pleased he is … This is the first time, isn’t it, that you’re being introduced to the minister?”

  As he was saying this, they were passing through a small waiting room adjacent to the secretary’s office. Now he went up to a door, opened it, nodded to Marcello to wait and disappeared, only to reappear almost immediately and beckon him to follow.

  Marcello entered the same long, narrow room he had observed a while ago through the crack of the door; but now it presented itself from the other side, with the table in front of him. Behind it sat the man with the broad, heavy face and overweight body he had spied letting himself be kissed by the woman in the big black hat. He noticed that the table was cleared and polished like a mirror. There were no papers on it, only a large bronze inkwell and a closed briefcase of dark leather.

  “Eccellenza, this is Dottor Clerici,” said the secretary.

  The minister stood up and held out his hand to Marcello with an attentive cordiality even more marked than the secretary’s, but completely devoid of pleasantry — on the contrary, decidedly authoritarian.

  “How are you, Clerici?” he asked, pronouncing his words carefully, slowly, and imperiously, as if they were full of particular significance. “You’ve been praised very highly to me … The regime needs men like you.”

  Then he sat back down and, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket, blew his nose as he examined some papers the secretary was showing him. Marcello retired discreetly to the farthest corner of the room. The minister looked at the papers while the secretary whispered in his ear, and then he looked at his handkerchief. Marcello saw that the white linen was smeared with red and recalled that when he had come in, the minister’s mouth had seemed redder than was natural: the lipstick of the woman in the black hat. Still continuing to examine the papers the secretary was showing him, without losing his composure or worrying about being observed, the minister started rubbing his mouth hard with the handkerchief, looking at it every once in a while to see if the lipstick was still coming off. At last the examination of the papers and of the handkerchief ended together, and the minister stood up and held out his hand to Marcello once more.

  “Good-bye, Clerici. As my secretary will have told you, the mission you’re setting out on has my complete, unconditional support.”

  Marcello bowed, shook the thick, blunt hand, and followed the secretary out of the room. They returned to the secretary’s office, where he put the papers the minister had examined on his table and then accompanied Marcello to the door.

  “Well, Clerici, best of luck,” he said with a smile, “and congratulations on your wedding.”

  Marcello thanked him with a nod of the head, a bow, and a murmured word. The secretary shook his hand with a final smile. Then the door closed.

  2

  BY NOW IT WAS LATE; as soon as he was out of the ministry, Marcello quickened his gait. He got in line at the bustop with the rest of the hungry, restless midday crowd, and patiently waited his turn to climb into the already crowded bus. He spent part of the ride hanging on outside on the footboard; then, with a great effort, he managed to insinuate himself onto the platform, where he remained, jostled on every side by other passengers as the bus, jerking and rumbling, wound its way out of the city center and climbed up the streets toward the periphery. These discomforts, however, did not irritate him; on the contrary, they felt useful inasmuch as they were shared with so many others, contributing in some small measure to his similarity to everyone else. Besides, he liked these contacts with the crowd, unpleasant and uncomfortable as they were, and preferred them to contact with individuals; from a crowd, he thought, as he stood on tiptoes on the platform to breathe more freely, he got the comforting sensation of multiple communion, whether it involved being crushed inside a bus or the patriotic enthusiasm of a political rally. But individuals only caused him to doubt himself and others, like this morning during his visit to the ministry.

  Why, for example, he thought again, right after he had offered to combine his honeymoon trip with the mission, had he felt the painful sensation of having committed an act of unasked-for servility or obtuse fanaticism? Because, he told himself, his offer had been made to that sceptical, scheming, corrupt man, that unworthy and hateful secretary. It was he, just by his presence, who had inspired shame in Marcello for an act so deeply spontaneous and selfless. And now, as the bus rolled from one stop to the next, he reassured himself that he would have felt no shame if he had not found himself in front of a man like that, for whom neither loyalty nor dedication nor sacrifice existed, only calculation, prudence, and his own interests. In fact, Marcello’s offer had not been the result of any mental speculation but had emerged from the obscure depths of his nature, which surely proved that his posture of social and political normality was authentic. Someone else, the secretary for example, would have made such an offer only after long and sly reflection, whereas he had simply improvised. As for the impropriety of combining his honeymoon with his political mission, it wasn’t worth wasting the time to examine it. He was what he was and everything he did was right if it conformed to what he was.

  Lost in these thoughts, he got down from the bus and headed toward a street in the white-collar district; pink and white oleanders were planted beside the sidewalk. The massive, shabby palazzi of the state employees opened their huge entranceways onto the street, and he caught glimpses of vast and squalid courtyards behind them. Alternating with the entranceways were modest shops, which Marcello knew well by now: the tobacconist’s, the baker’s, the greengrocer’s, the butcher’s, the grocery store. It was noon, and even among those anonymous buildings the tenuous, ephemeral joy characteristic of the suspension of work and the reunion with family revealed itself in many ways: kitchen smells wafting out of the half-open windows on the ground floors; badly dressed men in such a hurry they practically ran through their front doors; bits of radio voices, fragments of sound from record players. From an enclosed garden in a recess of one of the palaces, the espalier of climbing roses on the railing greeted his passage with a wave of sharp, dusty fragrance. Marcello quickened his pace, turned into entranceway number nineteen along with two or three other employees — imitating their haste with satisfaction — and headed up the stairs.

  He started to climb slowly up the broad flights, in which squalid shadow alternated with brilliant light from the large windows on the landings. But on the second floor he recalled that he had forgotten something: the flowers that he never failed to bring his fiancée, every time he was invited to lunch at her house. Happy to have remembered in time, he ran back downstairs and into the street and went directly to the corner of the palazzo, where a woman huddled up on a stool displayed seasonal flowers in jars. He hastily chose a half-dozen roses, the most beautiful the florist had, long and straight-stemmed, a dark red. Holding them to his nose and breathing in their perfume, he re-entered the palazzo and climbed the stairs, this time to the top floor. Here only one door opened onto the landing; a very short flight of steps led to a rustic porch, beneath which the strong light of the terrace was shining.

  He rang the bell, thinking, “Let’s hope her mother doesn’t come to the door.”

  His future mother-in-law, in fact, displayed an almost yearning love for him that embarrassed him deeply. In a moment the door opened, and in the twilight of the entrance hall Marcello made out, to his relief, the figure of the maid — who was almost a child — bundled up in a white apron too big for her, her pale face crowned by a double twist of black braids. She shut the door behind them, not without poking her head out a moment to look curiously around the landing; and Marcello, flaring his nostrils to breathe in the strong cooking smells that filled the air, passed on into the living room.

  The living-room window was half-shut to keep the heat and light from coming in, but it was not too dark for him to distinguish the dark faux-Renaissance-style furniture cluttering the room among the thin shadows. They were heavy, severe, dens
ely carved pieces, and formed a strange contrast with the room’s knick-knacks, all shoddily made and common in taste, that were scattered over the shelves and on the table: a small nude woman kneeling on the edge of an ashtray, a blue majolica sailor playing a harmonica, a group of black-and-white dogs, two or three lamps shaped like blossoms or flowers. There were a lot of metal and porcelain ashtrays that had originally contained, as he knew, the confetti, or sugared wedding almonds, that friends and relatives of his fiancée had given them. The walls were papered with fake red damask, and landscapes and still lifes painted in bright colors and framed in black were hanging from them. Marcello sat down on the couch, already sporting its summer slipcover, and looked around with satisfaction. It was truly a bourgeois apartment, he reflected once again, product of the most conventional and modest middle class, similar in every way to the other apartments of that same palazzo and that same district. And this was the most pleasant aspect of it for him: the sensation of viewing something very common, even cheap, and yet perfectly reassuring. He realized that he felt, at that thought, an almost abject sense of pleasure at the ugliness of the place. He had grown up in a beautiful, tasteful home and knew very well that everything that surrounded him was ugly beyond remedy; but it was exactly what he needed, this anonymous ugliness — one more thing he would have in common with his peers. He recalled that for lack of money, at least in the first years, Giulia and he would live in that house once they were married, and he almost blessed his poverty. Acting by himself, following the dictates of his own taste, he could never have put together a house this ordinary and ugly. Soon this would be his living room; as the Liberty-style bedroom in which his future mother-in-law and her deceased husband had slept for thirty years would be his bedroom; and the mahogany dining room in which Giulia and her parents had consumed their meals twice a day their whole lives long would be his dining room. Giulia’s father had been an important official in some ministry, and this house, assembled according to the fashion of the times when he was young, was a kind of temple pathetically erected in honor of the twin divinities, respectability and normality. Soon, he thought again with an almost greedy, wanton joy that was also sad, he would insert himself by right into this normality and respectability.

 
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