Ennio Flaiano: un marziano a Roma (1954).
The language used in this short story by Flaiano presents a variety of challenges, including a couple of expressions that cannot be precisely translated into English. The author's use of Italian is specific to the 1950s, and, in some cases, unique to the city of Rome and its inhabitants. The text is riddled with formal, journalistic language, which is in direct contrast with the fantastic, ironic, and at times ridiculous nature of the plotline. One of the expressions that cannot be properly rendered in English is a play on words, not entirely dissimilar to the phrase "Rome or bust." When he describes a satirical drawing by Mino Maccari, Flaiano references the exclamation "O Roma o Marte!" [Rome or Mars], an allusion to Garibaldi's historical battle cry "O Roma o Morte" [Rome or Death].
Another aspect of the Italian language that is difficult to translate is the degree of formality implied in conversation by addressing an interlocutor in the third person, without having to resort to words like "sir" or "ma'am." Since it is customary to address strangers formally in Italy, the choice not to do so is inherently informal, familiar, and possibly disrespectful. The decision to address someone in dialect or standard Italian also carries similar weight. Standard language would normally be used in school, in the professional world, and when dealing with figures of authority. It can denote a certain distance, but also respect and consideration for the listener, since he or she may not even completely understand the dialect in question. Hence, when photographers shout at the Martian to get him to move out of the way, they are being rude for more than one reason. The forceful request "A Marzia" te scansi?" is only truly clear to those who have at least a small understanding of the dialect known as Romanesco. To render the tone of derision and disdain in the original text, it was necessary to add an element of vulgarity, producing the following question: "Hey, Mr. Mars, will you move your ass?"
(Names of people and places have not been translated. The spelling of the Martian's name [Koont] has been graphically changed from the original form [Kunt] in order to avoid the vulgar connotation that this word implies in English, as it is non-existent in Italian.)
A Martian in Rome
October 12--Today a Martian descended in his spaceship upon Villa Borghese, in the racetrack lawn. So I will try to maintain, in writing these notes, the calm that I completely lost at the announcement of this incredible event, to repress the anxiety that immediately pushed me into the streets to mingle with the crowd. The entire suburban population poured into the city's center, blocking traffic completely. I must say that everyone's joy and curiosity is mixed with a hope that yesterday could have seemed absurd, and is instead growing more intense with every passing hour. The hope that "now everything will change." Rome immediately assumed the slovenly and homely appearance of grand occasions. There's something in the air that is reminiscent of July 25th, of 1943; the same people hugging; the same old commoner women that walk by heading towards imaginary barricades, shouting the praises of freedom; the same army reserve officers that wore their uniforms, convinced they would be able, in their getup, to make their way through the crowd and reach the riding track: which is instead guarded by police tanks and two regiments in fighting trim.
You already can't get through Piazza Fiume: the packed crowd, swaying, waits, sings, shouts, improvises dances. I saw the first drunks. The roofs of the buses (stuck in the streets like ships surprised by winter in a glacial sea) were swarming with young people and screaming children who were waving large dirty flags. The stores have lowered their rolling shutters. At times the blowing wind brings a distant burst of applause that reignites curiosity and causes disorientation, a greater and more cheerful confusion.
Around seven I met my friend Fellini, pale and devastated by emotion. He was at the Pincio when the spaceship landed and at first he thought he was having a hallucination. When he saw people running and yelling and heard sharp orders being shouted from the spaceship in a somewhat cold, scholastic Italian, Fellini understood. Immediately stampeded and stepped on by the crowd, he woke up without shoes on, his jacket in shreds. He wandered around the park like a dolt, barefoot, trying to find any exit whatsoever. I was the first friendly face he met. He cried while embracing me, shaken by an emotion that was communicated to me soon enough. He then described the spaceship to me: a saucer of enormous dimensions, yellow and bright like a sun. And the unforgettable rustling, the rustling of a silk foulard, upon its landing! And the silence which followed that moment! In that brief instant he felt that a new period was beginning for humanity. The prospects are, he tells me, immense and inscrutable. Maybe everything: religion and laws, art and our very lives, will soon appear to us illogical and meager. If the solitary traveler who descended from the spaceship is really--and by now after the official communique it would be foolish to doubt it--the ambassador from another planet where everything is known about ours, this is a sign that "things are more simple" else where. The fact that the Martian came alone proves that he possesses means of self defense which are unknown to us; and such knowledge that could radically alter our system of living and our conception of the world.
At the Policlinico, where I take him to treat the wounds on his feet, I meet Giovannino Russo and Carletto Mazzarella among the injured. The first one had lost his glasses and does not recognize me, the second one lost his shoes and I don't recognize him. They are still devastated by their emotions. Before the crowd let loose in its enthusiasm, they had enough time to see the Martian! Hence, it is true! Their irony (they suspected a publicity stunt) suddenly desisted when they saw the blonde pilot of the ship disembark. Russo describes him as a tall man, of noble appearance, a bit melancholic. He dresses like anyone, like a Swede might dress--Mazzarella added. He spoke in perfect Italian. Two women fainted when he passed, smiling, through the police cordon to reach the police commissioner's car. No one dared get too close to him. Only a child ran towards him. The scene that followed caused shouting and tears among those present. The Martian spoke to the child, softly, caressing him. Nothing else. He smiled and was tired.
Mazzarella is particularly enthused about the Martian. He deduces that Martian girls are surely better than Spanish girls, and maybe even better than American ones. He hopes the Martian has brought the poetic texts of Martian literature with him.
October 13--The Martian was received by the President of the Republic, last night. Around two A.M. Via Veneto was swarming with people like on a Sunday morning. Small groups were forming around the fortunate ones who saw the Martian up close. It seems that the Martian knows our economic, social, and political situation well. He is a man of simple, but polite ways. He does not offer many explanations, and he requests none. When they asked him why he chose Rome in particular for his visit, he smiled subtly. It also seems that he will stay in Rome for quite some time, maybe six months. Around two thirty I met Mario Pannunzio with the usual group from Il Mondo. They spoke of the Martian, but with a certain skepticism which surprised me. "There still is no official news--said Sandro De Feo--the communique has been disproved." To which Pannunzio added: "I won't believe it even if I see him."
At three the special editions of the newspapers, forbidden by the authorities up to that point for reasons of public safety, were made available. The Martian is called Koont. He has peaceful intentions, even though, he claims, other spaceships are cruising the stratosphere. The voyage from Mars to Earth lasts no longer than three days. There is no information on the exchanges taking place between the Martian and the authorities. This is all. While returning home I stopped to read a poster for a political party, full of insults for another party. Suddenly everything seemed ridiculous to me. I felt the need to scream. I believe in the Martian, and I especially believe in his good faith! I was deranged. And who do I run into? The old man who looks after the cars on Via Sicilia, the one with the hat that says Journaux Suisses. I gave him all the money I had on me, not much, I kissed his hands, begging him to forgive me, like a good Christian. The scene did not appear at all strange to two or three people who witnessed it and hurried to give the old man money. At home I collapsed on the bed and fell asleep all of a sudden, happy and weightless as a child. Great and terrible days are to come.
October 14--The authorities had the spaceship fenced off, and from now on one will be able to see it upon payment of a fee to certain Catholic charity services. The Martian gave his approval. The fee was fixed atone hundred lire, to allow even people of modest means to see the spaceship. Nevertheless, injured veterans, officials from the Ministery of Internal Affairs, card carrying members of the press can enter for free. Members of ENAL, schools and large groups can obtain a discount.
October 15--We walk around Rome like crazed ants, seeking some friends to communicate our inebriating happiness to. Everything appears to us in a new dimension. What is our future? Will we be able to prolong our lives, combat diseases, avoid wars, give food to all? We speak of nothing else. Even more so than in the preceding days we feel that something new is to come. It's not the end of the world, but the beginning of the world. There's the wait before the curtain is raised, made harsher by a play we do not know. This wait is only disturbed by predictable prophecies, told by those who had always said so and now are ready for the new challenge; by the communists, who have already tried to secure the Martian for themselves, by the fascists, who raise the question of his race.
October 18--I finally managed to see the spaceship. It is impressive. The police guards are kind, they speak softly, almost as if to have their presence forgiven. After all, no one commits the slightest disrespectful act. A child who tried to write something in chalk on the shiny surface of the spaceship has been spanked by his parents. I too, like everyone, touched the spaceship, and in that metallic warmth I felt a profound sweetness I had never experienced before. A stranger and I were smiling, looking at each other, and in the end we shook hands, moved by the same fraternal impulse; and later on I did not feel embarrassed of my state of commotion. It seems that the spaceship has already performed two miracles, but there is no proof, even though some women have insisted on leaving memorial marble tablets on the ground, with their thanks. A municipal employee has already been contracted to sell candles, but it seems that the proceeds will benefit a Catholic charity.
Leaving the enclosure I see Mario Soldati. He's there, sitting on the grass, his tie undone, wearing a shirt and vest. He was sighing, actually devastated by the reality that was a few steps away. "It's over!" he said when he saw me. He held my hands and I felt that his emotion was sincere. "C'est la fin!" he added then in French, and he repeated the phrase many times, until both of us lost track of its meaning: we looked at each other bewildered, not knowing what else to say. We then went to have a drink instead, in one of the many improvised kiosks which popped up illegally in the riding track. Soldati wanted a soda, the kind that used to be sold at fairs, with a ball floating inside, and he insisted in vain. They don't make them anymore. The curious incident caused by a young thief who had managed to make his way into the spaceship distracted us from our extremely favorable considerations on the Martian. Recognized by a guard as one of those guys who steal from foreigners' cars, he tried to escape feigning an epileptic seizure. He has an opaque face, suspicious, and hardened by his work. Fear made him a savage.
October 19--The reception at the Campidoglio had some great moments, they tell me. I was not even able to get to Piazza Venezia because of the crowd. There was a calmer curiosity in the air which I liked. This calm degenerated perhaps into indifference in the bus drivers and ticket salesmen, who looked tired and nervous. Trapped for hours, always hoping that the crows would disperse, they did not abandon their vehicles. A few idiots were already getting mad at the Martian: "What the heck did he come here for?" said a ticket salesman. A colleague of his answered: "Do you think that life on Mars can measure up to life in Rome? Would you live on Mars?" "I'd sooner die," replied the first one. A bit later, walking by again, I heard the same two talking about football. Next Sunday there will be a fairly important match.
At the Campidoglio, the mayor made a fool of himself speaking of Rome, master of civilization. There were a few coughs, the gaffe was unfixable by now, and the mayor did not insist on the subject, limiting himself to praising the planetary system, the discovery of which was aided by Galileo, with his telescope and his studies on the sun. The Martian was smiling, and at a certain point it seems that he leaned in close to the ear of a cardinal sitting beside him to tell him something. The cardinal smiled paternally. When they offered him a certificate of honorary citizenship, the Martian said a few words. The loudspeakers broadcasted them, but not clearly. The press reports them, it's nothing special, maybe we expected more effort out of him; but you must also keep the delicate situation of the Martian in mind, he feels he's a guest.
October 21--The first photograph of the Martian, they say, was sold the very evening of his arrival for three million to an American news agency. The fortunate photographer could have made more, but he gave in real quick at the sight of the banknotes.
The political life seems to have come to a halt. Today the Martian attended a session of the Chamber of Deputies. The speakers stuttered. A proposed law to increase certain customs tariffs has been unanimously approved, euphorically. The deputies were all dressed in black tie, and they gave way to each other with courteous detachment. "It seemed--Vittorio Gorresio told me--like the last day of school." Everyone pretended not to look at the Martian, well knowing that the Martian was observing everyone. It seems that the Martian had a good impression of it all.
October 27--What is the Martian doing? We await new information, and hope there is big news. For now the papers limit themselves to informing us on how he spends his time. One could point out that he participates in too many receptions, banquets, and cocktail parties: but he does have some diplomatic obligations, and he's the only one to fulfill them. Perhaps there is a conspiracy of silence concerning his intentions, which he may have clearly expressed to the government. The communists already say so, albeit covertly. There were rumors of his decision to leave, and an evening paper sold 100,000 copies publishing the news, refuted later on, that the Martian had left. Many photographs of the Martian are still published. They say that the aristocracy, however, has abandoned him. But these are inevitable tall tales. And already some shady bon mots, some atrocious witticisms are repeated. I won't relate them, as they are very humiliating to the human race.
November 3--Life in Rome is almost back to normal. The police have reestablished the usual closing time for the bars, and major raids take place during nighttime hours, in the public parks that by now had become the meeting place for lovers. Nine films about the Martian are in preparation, one with the comedian Toto.
November 5--The Martian has been received by the Pope. The Roman Observer gives news of this, however without publishing photographs, in the column "Our Information." In this column, as it is known, the names of the people to whom the Holy Father granted a private audience are recorded in order of importance. The Martian is among the last, and is so mentioned: Mr. Koont from Mars.
November 8--Today the Martian suddenly agreed to be part of a jury of artists and writers for the crowning of Miss Vie Nuove. When they pointed out to him that the jury was made up of leftist artists and writers, the Martian showed a certain disappointment: but he had already given his word. The evening was marked by a very joyful atmosphere, and the communists did not conceal their satisfaction for this first victory. The Martian, seated between Carlo Levi and Alberto Moravia, did not say a word. The photographers literally blinded him with their flashes. The competing beauties went unnoticed. Alberto Moravia broke his chair by nervously shifting around.
That evening, I met Carlo Levi with other friends. I joined them to hear his impressions on the Martian. Favorable. The Martian knows about the southern question, certainly not like Levi himself. He's an intelligent man, even though his upbringing is affected by the flaws of Martian education. All in all, Carlo Levi finds him very likeable, and he'll go far is he follows Levi's advice. Levi gave him some books to read, and, among them, Christ Stopped at Eboli, that the Martian was already familiar with in the American edition.
November 19--I meet Amerigo Bartoli. We talk about the weather. He shows me some red wool socks which he bought in a store downtown at a good price. Then he asks me if I received his postcard.--"What postcard?"--"I had sent you a postcard to ask you for a cigarette, did you not receive it?" He tells me that now, with the cold, he's forced to go to bed early because he has to get up late in the morning. In the end, he confesses that he's looking for an idea for a humorous sketch of the Martian. In truth, the topic is a bit passe: everything has been done. Mino Maccari conceived a good sketch, in Il Mondo. It shows some old imperialist fascists in uniform shouting "O Roma o Marte!" Bartoli wants to do something literary, not political. I advise him to try this drawing: the Martian looks at his little, distant, native planet from the terrace of the Pincio. "It's not funny," observes Bartoli. "It's not supposed to be funny--I reply--but rather, it's supposed to move you." Bartoli does hot answer and we speak of other things. Bartoli will never understand the Martian.
November 20--As of today the Martian has received around two hundred thousand letters. A team of secretaries is at work reading them. They are, for the most part, from misunderstood inventors, dissatisfied women, good children. In a letter, postmarked from Catania, they found a single word: cuckold. But letters also arrive in which the Martian is asked to act, soon, and he's reproached for wasting precious time. Disappointment is already rife. Mario Soldati, whom I met today in a bookstore, whispered in my ear: "Treason!" And he went away, bent forward under the weight of his thoughts, like a conspirator pondering his resignation.
November 27--The scene which took place the other night at the Cisterna, in Trastevere, between the drunk Martian and a popular film actor disgusted me. It seems that the actor insisted on the Martian agreeing to eat some spaghetti at his table. Naturally the paparazzi did not miss this chance to photograph the Martian wolfing down spaghetti, hand fed by the actor. The afternoon papers publish the photographs. The meaning of the vulgar comments is this: the Martian appreciates Roman cuisine very much, and is happy to be living in Rome, where life is undoubtedly better than in every other city on the planet.
November 28--I stop by the offices of Il Mondo to say hello to my friends. The photographer arrives with the package full of new stuff. They reprimand him because he brings many photographs of the Martian. It seems that Pannunzio has decided to no longer publish photographs of the Martian. Enough!
December 2--F. calls me to invite me to a cocktail party he's throwing today in honor of the Martian. I respond imitating the voice of the maid, saying that I'm not home. Meeting the Martian seems useless to me, among people who want to get their hands on him, some to tell him how things really are in Italy, some to invite him to another cocktail party, some to involve him in a literary prize.
December 6--Finally I saw the Martian. It was last night, at 2 A.M., Pierino Accolti-Gil and I were quietly smoking when we saw him coming, in the company of two girls, tall, leggy, maybe two chorus-girls. He was laughing and speaking in English. He quit laughing when he passed by, even though we were purposefully not watching him. Near the newsstands in Via Lombardia the Martian ran into the ex-King Faruk, who was walking slowly, bored. They did not greet each other. The ex-King Faruk was looking for some cigarettes, and he gestured at the old man who was there selling them. "Here you are!" answered the old man, running towards his client.
We later passed by two prostitutes who were muttering. One was saying: "Will you go with the Martian? Come on, already!" The other appeared nervous and put out: "Not me. You go with him. I'm not going with the Martian." I did not understand if her refusal was due to a fear of the unknown, or only misguided nationalism.
December 7--Ercole Patti tells me that the Martian, invited to the Ciampino airport to welcome a movie star, was asked by the photographers to get out of the way. It seems, in fact, that his presence in a photograph may prevent their sale to magazines. "Hey, Mr. Mars, will you move your ass?" they said to him laughing, but resolutely. And the Martian, sweet, smiling, without fully understanding what was being said to him, was shaking his head and his hands, waving hello.
December 18--Vittorio Ivella and I, the other night, were speaking about Italy, when Ivella shared his hypothesis with me. I don't know why it really amused me. He said: "But for what reasons would he have landed here of all places? I say he didn't come on purpose, he fell here!" The thought of the Martian forced to make an emergency landing, then behaving like a discoverer of new worlds, was, I repeat, very amusing to me. All night I did nothing but laugh thinking about it. Attilio Ricci claims, instead, that the Martian is a typical case of idolization of the unknown. He predicts that the Martian will end up lynched.
They also say, and I take notice of it as a matter of record, that the Martian has fallen in love with a ballerina, who plays hard to get, and speaks of him in despicable terms.
December 20--Today for the first time I spoke with the Martian. I was in Fregene, and I recognized him immediately. He was walking along the sunny, but windy beach. He was watching the sea and stopping to pick up sea shells: some he put in his pocket. Since we were alone on the beach, he walked up to me to ask for a match. I pretended not to recognize him, so as not to offend him with my curiosity, and also because in that moment I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. It was he who told me, pointing a finger at his chest: "Me, Martian." I feigned surprise. Then the idea popped into my head that I should interview him. I intended to jot down an interview different from the rest, something a bit literary, if you know what I mean, to coax him into broader reflections than usual, which could have been justified by the proximity of the sea, if it's true what Flaubert says that the sea inspires deep thoughts in the bourgeois. Then laziness stopped me. I should have asked questions, insisted, explained. No--I told myself--let's content ourselves to watch him up close. His excessive height struck me in a bad way. He's too tall, so much that he appears defenseless, like certain elderly men from the North who look younger than their real age, but who, in their childish smile, reveal an existence lead without great pains and far from sin, or rather, totally uninteresting to my eyes. I invited him to get a drink. At the bar he asked for a whisky and, certainly to thank me, he placed a hand on my shoulder, smiling. For just a moment, a fleeting and slight impression, I was certain that he was unhappy.
December 21--Last night, in a cafe in Via Veneto, a table of young pederasts were talking about the Martian: so audibly that one could not avoid hearing what they said. Thus it seems that the Martian has befriended a young and unknown film actor. But it also seems that the Martian lives in the preoccupation of appearing politically orthodox to the (invisible) eyes of his fellow planetsmen, who certainly monitor him with the means they possess which we cannot even imagine. Maybe some remote controlled microphones? All hypotheses are possible. Hence, the Martian, locked in his hotel room with the young actor, after having amused himself at length, would have gotten up and, with the attitude of someone who intends to address a visible listener, would have said aloud, articulating his words clearly: "But why don't you come live on Mars, Home of True Democracy?"
December 22--The Martian agreed to play a small role as a Martian in a film, which would be directed by Roberto Rossellini, who is pushing for the participation of a Martian company in the financing of the film. Mario Soldati, whom I saw today at Rossetti's, spoke to me about the new book he wants to write before beginning his new film. It's a story that takes place in Turin, in 1932. He was very happy, Soldati, telling me the plot. He left because he was rushing to get shaved. He had purchased some paper goods. I saw him disappear like a butterfly.
January 6--The Christmas holidays went by, as usual, melancholically. And it's hot! I was out a little late last night in Via Veneto, because I was not sleepy. At a table at Rosati's, there were Pannunzio, Libonati, Saragat, Barzini, and other political journalists. They were speaking about proportional representation. At another table, the Martian with Mino Guerrini, Talarico, and Accolti-Gil. It was obvious that they were mocking him in good humor. A bus boy was already dumping sawdust on the floor, and when I walked by I heard Accolti-Gil saying this to the Martian: "If you come to Capri for Easter, I will introduce you to Malaparte. Great brain, more than Levi. Insightful connoisseur, central and northern question." The Martian was nodding, courteous and distracted. Because a waiter, quite rudely, made it clear that it was closing time, everyone stood up. Even the Martian exited, and said goodbye to us from the doorway, then headed toward the Hotel Excelsior. Sitting at the last table, next to the gas pump at the corner of Via Lombardia, there was Faruk. He was whistling, watching the sky filled with pink clouds, he too absorbed in a melancholic thought of his own. Leaning his elbows on the wicker chair, he held his hands together in front of his mouth; he fidgeted slowly with his fingers and whistled. But softly, like a king in exile might whistle, or a Muslim who imagines the notion of pleasure. Two tables away, some taxi drivers were discussing football; and further down the old cigarette guy was bouncing around, waiting for someone to call on him. This is, for me, such a familiar picture that it never fails to move me, and in fact I smiled thinking of this sweet Rome that mixes the most distinct destinies in a maternal, implacable whirl.
To this picture the Martian has been added, who walked past the drivers and Faruk, happily ignoring them, but sticking his chest out a bit. At the Excelsior he stopped and retraced his steps. He did not feel like going to sleep, I understood this well. The boredom of the night, the fear of the bed, the horror of an unfriendly room that repulses you, were now keeping him glued to a display window full of toys, now in front of a flower shop window. It seems that beautiful flowers like ours do not grow on Mars ... he decided finally to cross the street, and, at this point, in the gray silence, someone yelled out "Hey Martian! ..." The Martian turned around immediately, but once again the silence was broken, and this time by a long sound, lacerating, vulgar. The Martian remained still and scanned the darkness. But there was nobody there, or rather, no one to be seen. He resumed his walk; an even louder sound, multiple, roaring, nailed him to the pavement: the night seemed to be ripped open by a concert of devils.
"Scoundrels!" yelled the Martian.
An outburst of sounds, prolonged, crackling like an atrocious firework, which later extinguished itself in a flowery vibrato only when the Martian managed to blend in with the small crowd which loitered in front of the cafe Strega. We were able to deduce that the youngsters were in a big group, hiding behind the newsstand in Via Boncompagni.
Later on, returning home, I saw Koont, heading alone towards Villa Borghese with long, soft steps. Above the tips of the pine trees the red dot of Mars was shining, almost solitary in the sky. Koont stopped to look at it. There is, in fact, talk of an imminent departure, if only he will be able to get his spaceship back from the hotel owners who, they say, had it distrained.
University of Notre Dame