Where are they all? Tamara, whom only her husband called Mara, the Lawyer, with his sidekicks Rosa and Cicia, Maria-la-pioggia (“Maria-the-rain,” heaven knows why) and Maria del Nilo (heaven knows why)? Where are the old Notary, with his accidental offspring, and the old Pharmacist, who kept a violin hidden in his wardrobe? And their wives, who were so very different—one shy and gloomy, the other brusque and decisive—and yet both as tiny as children. Where are they? And Peppo from the posthouse, and Nina, who loved ghosts, Emilio, who didn’t start talking until he was twenty, Ciccio Bombarda, the chauffeur without a driving license, and Luigi, known as “Sciammerga,” with Gemma his wife, Virginia his lover, and the others who never had names. Where are those who belonged to the past historic—up in the hills, cool breezy summers, paths lined with hawthorn, like a page out of Proust but without any aristocrats—just farmers, the huddled masses, and a scattering of bourgeoisie? And those who inhabited tenses less remote—on the coast, by the sea, all of it humid and smelling of fish: a noisier penury that in the space of a few years would transform itself into ’ndrangheta?
Where are they all? They once populated the recesses of his dreams. By night he had seen them file by like paper figurines: he had watched them mutate from shadows into bodies and from bodies into statues, and every statue was a story. By day, though, they disappeared into that patchy, inconclusive fog of which memory is made—faces crumbled, words stole away—and he didn’t try to stop them or batten them down.
Valentino left at the end of the seventh decade of the twentieth century. He was a boy, and like all boys, he made sure not to look over his shoulder. The world was such an inviting place to dive into. Added to which, Tamara, in other words Mara, in other words his mother, had told him and had repeated until she was blue in the face that he must not stay there, with them, in the south, because it was a land of barbarians and he had better escape to some distant place of safety, as far away as possible. Thus—except in the recesses of his dreams—he slowly forgot them all, discovering that—contrary to popular belief—oblivion is delightful. And for almost forty years he experienced the joy of never quite being himself.
He sped through his youth and then the years of his manhood with the efficient strides of those who carry only hand luggage. The windblown hair of those who are free to live anywhere and reside nowhere in particular. Rome, New York, Rome again, London, Milan, Rome again, Berlin, and, between one waypoint and the next, journeys far and wide, down into Africa, or into Asia, racking up miles and joie de vivre. Meanwhile, little by little, in the oblique and furtive style so typical of death, both the past historic and the past simple began to retreat from his vocabulary. As the picture grew more complex, language grew simpler.
When he lived in England, the thought of Tamara and the Lawyer had once rapped unexpectedly at the wall of his memory, igniting a lonely but nonetheless vehement flare of remorse; but then, as it always does, physiology prevailed. In some ways he had almost not noticed them slipping away—to say nothing of all the others, who had vanished long before leaving this world. He hadn’t noticed it for the simple reason that something already erased cannot vanish, in the same way that one cannot lose what one doesn’t possess. Time and tenses were an eternal present, busy with pleasant human intercourse, the scenery continually changing—as good a way as any to drag things out. Because with every new backdrop the civilities began afresh, and death seemed to retreat somewhere behind him, into a pleasingly hypothetical location.
The glory of days devoid of memory, the delight of not being oneself, a perpetual childhood for the mind. Voyaging into oneself, as though into a landscape being created with every exploratory stride. And loving those new places, that virginal land inhabited not by ghosts but by people of flesh and blood who possess the immense virtue of being deliberately, carefully, chosen on a daily basis, and not on the grounds of hazy bonds of kinship.
Until one day Tecla, too, disappeared. In other words, the very last panel of the never-completed tapestry of his origins; in other words, his identity. Apart from her name—so orotund and so lovely—he almost didn’t know who she was. Tecla. Yet, the instant he learned that that name no longer existed, the entire past historic and all of the past simple came to an end, irrevocably: they were part of a contracting universe, of which he was the final piece. He alone.
So for a fraction of a second, in a final flicker, as a glint in his eye, they returned: Tamara, whom only her husband called Mara, and the Lawyer, with his sidekicks Rosa and Cicia, Maria-la-pioggia and Maria del Nilo (in both cases: heaven knows why), and then the old Notary, with his accidental offspring, and the old Pharmacist, with the violin hidden in his wardrobe, and the wives of each, different but identical, and that strange, largely unexplored, vast, and barbaric world that—being directly descended from one of history’s most advanced civilizations, Magna Graecia— lived suspended between hills devoted to Bacchus (the name reserved for Dionysus when in his trance) and that sea called Ionian (after Ionius, great-grandson of Poseidon, accidentally killed by Heracles). Which was how Valentino came to discover something he would have preferred not to know.
1. ON THE PATERNAL SIDE
The Notary was an only child. Perhaps it was that which drove him to sire a dozen heirs, or thereabouts: it began with a housemaid, Dinda, when he was just eighteen years old, it continued with his first wife and then his second, but it is not entirely clear with whom it ended, because, from time to time and in various locations, other descendants materialized. All three women passed away long before he did, as did many of his children, whom he had once, in one of his frequent fits of ire, defined as “the inadvertent result of a poke or two.” In any event, he died a centenarian in 1977, and one can easily imagine that, with a century of life behind one, cynicism becomes rather tempting.
The Notary was a tall man, thin and stern. His sternness was reserved primarily for others; as far as he himself was concerned, he tended toward a certain indulgence. Although cultured, brilliant, and almost obsessively correct, he can’t have been a pleasant man, if nothing else but for the fact that he was convinced he was one of the few intelligent people in circulation—a sign that he wasn’t, or that he wasn’t to a degree sufficient to ensure he nurtured any doubts in that regard. At any rate, he was certainly an uncommon man.
When, in his parents’ household, it came to be understood that it was he who had impregnated Dinda, their housemaid, he was packed straight off to Naples, where he enrolled at the university. Jurisprudence, like his father. A student of the legal philosopher Giovanni Bovio, whose republican ideals he shared, he was still an undergraduate when he was invited, first as a trainee and then as an associate, to join a renowned Neapolitan legal firm. And given that, back then, reaching the town of his birth involved catching the boat to Pizzo Calabro—and, from there, advancing along impervious roads infested with brigands before finally arriving at one’s destination—he vanished from his father’s house for a considerable number of years.
In Naples the young Notary who was not yet a notary applied himself to his own care with the same gusto that other men devote to drugs, and therefore to their own undoing. He read a great deal (a habit he would never abandon), developing a passion for the positivist and Lombrosian theories of his era; he dressed with a maniac’s care for detail, investing in expensive suits provided by the very best tailors in Naples and the monthly allowance that arrived from his father; he skipped from one cosmopolitan event to the next, and from one bed to the next, without making subtle distinctions among well-bred young ladies, working-class girls, married women, and prostitutes. The city’s cafés teemed with young men who, as he did, cultivated the pleasures of the flesh and socialist ideals. They smoked, they debated, they copulated—in that order of interest. Some of them also imbibed conspicuous quantities of alcohol, but not he: he was almost teetotal.
Having graduated, he began work at the renowned and aforementioned legal firm. He patronized, with equal assiduousness, the halls of justice and those drawing rooms that over a century later would be labeled “radical chic.” For roughly a year he frequented a Polish countess, Magda, who had abandoned her husband and children in Kraków to dedicate herself to the cause of socialism and her country’s independence from Russia: the woman lived in a vast but gelid flat up on the Vomero hill, gradually selling off the enormous number of jewels she had brought with her when she left her homeland. It was in that apartment, full of drafts and spies, that the young Notary who was not yet a notary went to live, just weeks after having first made the acquaintance of the mature but alluring and feisty countess.
These were the early years of the twentieth century, and the spies who frequented Magda’s home fell into the two time-honored classes standard in the sector: the political-ideological category typical of twentieth-century Europe, and the purely mercenary one, present in every era and every clime. Ascribable to the former were those individuals who, feigning friendship with the noblewoman, who notoriously sided with the philo-Bolshevik socialists in her native land, passed information about her and her Italian contacts to the enemy faction, headed up by Jósef Piłsudki, Poland’s future head of state. The second category featured the young Notary’s fellow Calabrians, who, with the excuse of bringing him letters, parcels, and news from his parents, in reality kept an eye on his private life and—handsomely compensated for their efforts—reported back to the relevant parties. It goes without saying that the mercenaries were in this case (but it is probably a general rule) a great deal more efficient and incisive than their politically and ideologically motivated colleagues. Proof of which is offered by the fact that, while Magda continued for many years to pursue her conspiratorial activities in Naples (she would reenter a liberated Poland at the end of the Second World War, only to flee almost immediately, decrepit and penniless, to Paris), the young Notary was very soon forced to leave the city.
Once informed of the scandalous relationship his son was having with the adulterous and antediluvian Polish noblewoman (thirty-six years to his twenty-five), the young Notary’s father wrote him a heartfelt letter in which he pleaded with him to return immediately home: his wife was gravely ill, and from her deathbed, she begged to see their only offspring one last time, after his long—terribly long— absence. Assailed by feelings of guilt—a sentiment he would subsequently erase from his vocabulary—the young Notary hurriedly left Naples, convinced that he would be away for a couple of months at most. In reality many years would pass before he again set foot there—the only true regret in a life otherwise immune to remorse—and he would not see Magda again until 1948, by which time, the difference in their ages long since nullified, both had grown old.
The Notary’s mother did not die before her son arrived, or in the weeks that followed: she suffered quite genuinely from a nasty gastric ulcer, but the condition worsened and took her to her grave three and a half years later. Meanwhile, the Notary resigned himself with surprising rapidity to remaining in the town, thus satisfying paternal hopes, and within a matter of weeks he married. Dinda (the housemaid who had already born him a child) having left the scene, he reencountered (but not by coincidence—their respective families had engineered the event) a girl he had known in the past: a petite girl with a childlike and secretive air to her. Her name was Vita, she rarely opened her mouth, and she bore the Notary, one after another, seven sons, the last of whom died almost as soon as he was born.
They would have named him Michele, but there wasn’t time. Fifteen days after the birth, Vita left the house to attend a neighbor’s funeral. It was mid-January, and a despotic north wind blew down from the mountains. The woman returned home chilled, with the symptoms of flu. That night her fever rose. It was pneumonia—in those days (we are in 1924) an illness that claimed abundant victims. Vita was no exception. As soon as she died, so did the baby who would have been christened Michele.
Still in his forties, the Notary found himself widowed and with six very young children to care for. The eldest was fifteen years old and named after his grandfather, Giuseppe; the second had just turned twelve, and one day they would all—including his wife Tamara—call him “the Lawyer.” Then came Vincenzo, Ernesto and Arnaldo, who were ten, seven, and three years old; the youngest was only two and bore the name of an illustrious great-uncle, but he, too, passed swiftly away, shortly after his mother, and none of them recollected ever having called him Giustino.