Simone Cavagna – What walls talk about

In or out. I give sense to the or. Without me in and out would be non-existent categories, inside and outside would be the same thing.
I am a wall, and as such, I divide, separate, distinguish.
We walls depend on man, the only one who can bring us to life, but death can come in many ways: the life of a wall is similar to that of men.
A tale, on the other hand, does not exist until someone tells it. Since I was born wall of an inn – one located in Brescia – I was able to see and hear countless tales, encounters, quarrels and everything that usually takes place in a self-respecting inn.
The story that I want to tell takes place in the middle of the night, in September 1909. My inner hall was still crowded with people. Among them there was a tall, thin, slight young man with large eyes and long eyelashes; and a white-haired elderly man who was wearing a pair of glasses and was talking to a man in his 50s.
The young man, who had been sitting in the same armchair for hours, seemed to be waiting for most customers to move from my inside to my outside. When they did, a strange silence fell upon the room, broken only by a few words coming from the corner where the old man and the boy were. The latter, still sitting in his armchair, seemed to be struck by the word Bohemia pronounced by the middle-aged man. I don’t know why they were talking about it: at that moment I was mostly interested in watching the youngster, who just moved his eyes trying to catch some interesting speeches within the drunks’ linguistic cacophony.
When the person speaking about Bohemia left, the old man began to leaf through La Sentinella Bresciana. The boy came near him: “I beg your pardon.” he said in a broken Italian “I accidentally heard you speak about Prague a while ago.”
The elderly man raised his eyes from the newspaper and looked at him: “Yes, I went there two years ago” he confirmed. He closed the newspaper and put it aside, then invited the youngster to sit in front of him with a wave of his hand. “It seems to me that you are not Italian…German, maybe?”
“I come from Prague. I have studied Italian for a few months in order to come here.”
“We can speak German, if you like: until a few years ago, I was a German literature professor.”
From then on, the weird couple started talking in German. I had no difficulty understanding their conversation then, as well as I have no difficulty translating it now. You’ve got to come up with something to pass the time, when you are motionless: each wall knows each language it has had the chance to listen to.
“How old are you, young man?”
“At my age, D’Annunzio had just published The Child of Pleasure.” the guy replied with a smile.
“26 six years old and a literary expert, I see. I think our conversation will be pleasant. But what are you doing awake in the middle of the night in this inn frequented by brigands?”
“I was in the company of some friends in Riva and we read in the paper that an airplane event will take place in Montichiari.”
“Me too, when I’m in a foreign country I always try to read in the local language: it immediately tests what you have studied. And in this regard, I have a vivid memory of Prague: I was struck by an article in Die Gegenwart, in which the author celebrated the advent of a new brilliant writer, whose name I don’t even remember. I asked a couple of professors I knew, but no one had ever heard of him. Curious, isn’t it? Critics celebrate a new author even before he has published anything, or without him even writing any complete prose or poem!”
The boy stared at the professor the whole time blushing a couple of times; but I don’t think his interlocutor noticed that. My inside, by night, is illuminated with few and poor candles laid on the tables, between the sofas and along my walls, beside the windows.
After a few moments the boy said: “I have a dog at home, you know. He does nothing but sleep and eat. He is a real lazybones!”
The old man gave him a confused look: “I beg your pardon, but what does it have to do with that?”
“Yes, he is a really lazy dog. I sometimes take him out for a walk, very early in the morning, when not even crickets are awake!”
The elderly man frowned: “You are talking about dogs and crickets…but what’s the meaning of that?”
It was useless. The boy kept speaking about his dog and the insects infesting the city for another ten minutes. He closed his eyes a couple of times in order to recall some details, then opened them and kept talking, always staring at me in the same spot, the top corner. The professor tried to interrupt him several times, but to no avail.
All of a sudden, the young man stopped talking, blushed and looked down in silence.
“Young man, I am really confused. You switched from literary discourse to a monologue about dogs and insects. I won’t ask you why: I think that even you wouldn’t be able to answer. Or maybe, you wouldn’t want to be understood at all.”
The boy, in fact, did not answer: he kept his head down and his eyes half-closed.
“I saw you spend the whole evening utterly alone.” the old man went on “Watching people in this room. It was quite disturbing, to tell you the truth. You waited for the inn to empty out, before coming and talking to me.
“I like waiting. It makes me think that time is going by and I am not just spending it passively. Waiting makes me active in respect of time even when I do nothing but wait, indeed.”
“Interesting…would you mind telling me what your occupation is?”
“I work in the field of insurances, in Bohemia.
“And are you used to working at night, since you don’t seem to show signs of tiredness?”
“Unfortunately I suffer from insomnia.”
“At least you can enjoy the city also by night, if you stay here for a few days. Brescia has much more to offer than one might imagine. The Monumental Cemetery, built by Vantini in 1813, is very characteristic, though I don’t know if you may like it or not. It houses very famous deceased people, among whom Zanardelli, who created the first penal code of the Kingdom of Italy and was also Prime Minister.”
“My greatest dream is to be e in a boat and fly over a dry riverbed.”
The old man stared at him, his mouth half-open, while the cigarette he had lit flickered in his hands. The guy looked back at him, bent his head backwards and squinted. “Pay no attention…” he explained.
The professor kept staring at him then went back to smoking. After having a few smokes he said: “I think you have uncommon imagination. Have you ever considered writing something?”
“I believe that…writing is a sort of prayer to me. I mean, nothing concerning religion but something very personal and intimate, almost sacred.”
“It is an understandable feeling. And in this regard, you cannot miss the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista: it is rich in paintings made by Moretto, a famous local painter who…”
“Heine came to Brescia, too.” the boy interrupted him smiling “he wrote it in his Reisebilder”
The old men, who by then was getting used to his interlocutor’s constant interruptions, remarked: “You know, there is something in you which gives a sense of security, despite what you say. I think it is the result of a combination of your smile – one of the simplest and purest I have ever seen – and of your soft but constant gestures. It is as if in you a clear naturalness and a dark depth were taken to extremes, and such extremes were always fighting one another…but this may be a difficult combination…You show a new point of view about things, which was totally unthinkable formerly but perfectly applicable once you have listened to it. And you do it so naturally!” Right at that moment, he realized that he had said too much.
The young man, looking rather embarrassed, did not dare look him in the eyes. “I am just naturally curious.” he explained. Then he tried to change the subject. “In La Sentinella Bresciana I read that there will be very important people in Montichiari. You have read The Child of Pleasure, if I have understood correctly.”
“Practically as soon as it was published.”
“The author himself will be there tomorrow”
“Giacomo Puccini will be there as well. And in this regard, do you know that his Madame Butterfly premiered right here in Brescia? Actually, the official premiere was held at Teatro alla Scala in Milan but was a complete fiasco. And we still wonder why, because the version that Puccini proposed for the “new” premiere at Teatro Grande in May 1904 changed very little from the one performed in Milan.” The youngster listened to him carefully. “By the way, now that I think about it, 1904 was also the year of the famous Exhibition, which you have surely heard of. Thanks to it, we practically reconquered our Castle.”
Oh, lucky you, my friends Great and Castle, since you have had the chance to hear so much and see such works in your lives!
The young man replied: “The Castle, yes…on the contrary, the work contains two elements which I am unable to sum up: music and drama. Unfortunately I am tone-deaf. Instead, I prefer theatre, for its visual system as well as for the poetic language lying at the bottom of it.”
The professor got excited hearing those words, his eyes moist with tears, but the boy did not realize it; he had once again put his head down and had started to twiddle with his fingers, staring at them. “I did not mean to embarrass you, believe me…You know, my whole life I have met people who were more or less good at studies and creativity, boys or old bookworms like me…but what I feel for you is different: you release particular energy, singularly deep.”
“Please…”
“I apologize, you are right; I got caught up in the excitement. That should no longer happen at my age.”
“No, this is untrue, let me say that. You chose to devote your life to studies and you invested all your energy in it. Energy itself is enthusiasm. If you didn’t have it anymore, we wouldn’t be here talking, right here, right now.”
For a few seconds, the pendulum clock was the only noise they could hear in the room. The old man took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the sweat from his cheeks and forehead. Then, he took another cigarette, turned it around in his fingers and eventually put it in his mouth. He lit it. The other, still motionless and looking out into the air, put his hands together.
Again, the professor broke the silence: “An observer like you must have a difficult relationship with himself.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You must have analysed yourself too, I suppose”
The youngster sighed. By glancing at the objects on the table one by one, he stated: “I think I’m jealous of you.”
“What?”
“Yes, I do think I envy you…specifically for your enthusiasm. For your energy. You have lived life. Or rather…you are living it!” he emphasized the last verb “That is exactly what I miss. I miss faith in life. Everytime I put my feet on the ground, I think I have put them in the wrong place. This is why I envy you and people like you. Ils sont dans le vrai.”
“Are you saying that you have no certainties and such lack makes you feel different from everybody else?”
“Rather, I do have one certainty, common to humankind. Man owns something indestructible, an incorruptible, untouchable nucleus. Although one cannot move without stumbling upon intrigues and concerns, either real or imaginary, man keeps a part of himself perennially stable.” The professor looked at him carefully. “A faraway certainty, maybe unattainable…but its very existence makes me accept all the tangible uncertainties.”
At that very moment the pendulum clock struck. The young man jumped at that unexpected sound, which was followed by four more identical strokes. He laughed. “It seems to me that this is the perfect ending. Unfortunately, like for any other actions in the world, we are not allowed to end our conversation. However, we could not escape that either. Thank you for the talk, professor. Goodnight.”
In so saying, he stood up and bowed before the professor, shaking his hands. The latter looked disoriented: the long conversation was ending too quickly, almost painfully.
As the guy was walking towards the staircase, the old man called him back.
“Boy, may I ask you your name?”
“I beg your pardon?” said the guy turning back.
“Your name. What’s your name?”
I could not hear the answer. Right then the landlord entered the room and opened my doors, which creaked loudly: soon after, the old man remained thoughtful for a few seconds, as if he were trying to remember something.
Thus, they parted ways, and who knows whether they met again in their lives of men. I did not meet any of them again in my life of wall. Strange is human knowledge, which remembers and passes on certain events and forgets some others, such as the conversation that I have reported.
I do not know whether the young man in question actually became someone, but I do not think that matters. Actually, I think that even wondering that is unimportant. And this could well be the boy’s answer to the professor’s last question.

 

Third classified of the “Muri di storie” [Walls of Stories] contest.

 

 

Translation by Valentina Ornaghi (edited by Irene Tossi)