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From Centuria: one hundred ouroboric novels.

Author's Preface

The small volume now before you holds within a brief space a vast and pleasant library; it in fact contains one hundred romans fleuves, but crafted in such anamorphic ways as to seem to the hasty reader to be texts of few, spare lines. It aspires, therefore, to be a prodigy of the contemporary science allied to rhetoric, recently brought to light by the local Universities. In short, a thin but endless volume; in the reading of which the readers will need to exercise the skills they already know, and perhaps to learn a few more: games with light that allow a reading between the lines, beneath the lines, between the two faces of a page, discovering the retreats of elegantly awkward chapters, of pages of noble ruthlessness, and sober exhibitionism, where they have mercifully been hidden away from children and the aged. On closer scrutiny, the considerate reader will here discover everything required for a lifetime of bookbound readings: minute descriptions of houses in Georgia where sisters destined to turn into rivals pass an adolescence at first oblivious, then turbid; sexual, passionate, carnal equivocations, minutely dialogued; memorable conversions of tormented souls; virile farewells, female constancy, inflations, plebeian tumult; gleaming appearances of heroes with a mild and terrible smile; persecutions, escapes, and behind a word I will not speak, the oblique outline of a round table on the Rights of Man.

If I am allowed to offer a suggestion, there is an optimum way to read this little book, but costly: acquire the right to the use of a skyscraper with the same number of floors as the number of the lines of the text to be read; at each floor, station a reader holding the book; assign each reader a line; on a signal, the Supreme Reader will begin to plunge from the building's summit, and as he transits progressively past the windows, each floor's reader will read the line assigned, in a loud, clear voice. It is understood that the number of the building's floors must exactly correspond to the number of the lines, and that there be no ambiguity on second floor and mezzanine, which might cause an embarrassing silence before the impact. It is also good to read it in the outer shadows, better if at absolute zero, in a capsule lost in space.


A youthful-looking gentleman with the air of a person of median cultivation, a movie-goer with a love for film series, is waiting at the intersection of two lightly traveled streets for a woman he judges to be fascinating, gifted, and of delicate beauty. It's their first rendezvous, and he savors the dampness of the air--it's late afternoon--and takes pleasure in the observation of the rare passers-by, the or- nament of his solitary thoughts. The youthful-looking gentleman has reached the appointment early: nothing would mortify him more than the thought of making that woman wait. His feelings toward this woman, whom until now he has never seen except in the company of people whose lives he does not share, are mixed, widely skirting desire while vividly inclusive of veneration, respect, the hope of doing some service she'll appreciate. It's quite some time since he has felt so rich and happy a mixture of feelings for a woman. He discovers that he's lightly proud of himself, and registers a shiver of vanity. In that moment, seeing himself caught up in feelings he had renounced, and for which he has no esteem, he realizes what he's doing. He has gone to a rendezvous. Nothing proves it, but this could be the first of a long series of rendezvous. As his forehead moistens with a light sweat of anguish and hope, he considers that at the crossing of those two streets a "story" might begin, an inexhaustible deposit of memories. Something tells him, brusquely: "This is the start of your marriage." He twitches at the sound of a woman's rapid footstep. "It starts now?" Few minutes remain before something in the heavens, in the skies of the fixed stars, in the balance sheets of the angels, in the Volumus of the gods, in the mathematics of genetics will begin to hum. She will rest her hand on his arm, and a road that will have no end will begin. An empty house awaits them, an obvious happiness, a slow decline, the growth of children, at first lazy, then precipitous. His face now grows cunning, its expression mean; he has remembered that he is a coward. He desires both salvation and perdition, and does not know which is which. He is a sleepy incendiary. The afternoon has turned into evening, the fascinating woman has not come. Beneath his voice he insults her; and when a timid girl asks him for directions, he pretends to hold her for a prostitute who has mistaken him for a client.


The gentleman dressed in a linen suit, with loafers and short socks, looks at the clock. It is two minutes to eight. He is at home, seated, slightly uneasy, on the edge of a stiff and demanding chair. He is alone. In two minutes--by now no more than ninety seconds--he will have to begin. He got up a little early in order to be truly ready. He washed carefully, attentively urinated, patiently evacuated, meticulously shaved. All of his underwear is new, never worn before, and this suit was tailored more than a year ago for this morning. For a whole year he has not dared. He has frequently gotten up very early--in general, moreover, he's an early riser--but at the moment when all preparations were completed and he took his place on the chair, his courage had always failed him. But now he is about to begin. Fifty seconds remain before eight o'clock. Properly speaking, there is absolutely nothing he must begin. From another point of view, he stands at the beginning of absolutely everything. In any case, there is nothing he must "do." He must simply go from eight o'clock to nine o'clock. Nothing more: traverse the space of an hour, a space he has traversed innumerable times, but now he must traverse it as pure and simple time, nothing else, absolutely. Eight o'clock has already passed, by a little more than a minute. He is calm, but feels a slight tremor gather within his body. At the seventh minute, his heart begins little by little to accelerate. At the tenth minute, his throat begins to close, while his heart pulses at the brink of panic. With the fifteenth minute, his whole body douses itself in sweat, almost instantaneously; three minutes later, the saliva in his mouth begins to dry; his lips grow white. At the twenty-first minute, his teeth begin to chatter, as though he were laughing; his eyes dilate, their lids cease to beat. He feels his sphincter open, and all his body hairs erect, immobile in a chill. Suddenly, his heart slows, his vision clouds. At the twenty-fifth minute, a furious tremor shakes him through and through for twenty seconds; when it stops, his diaphragm begins to move: his diaphragm now grips his heart. Tears flow, though he does not cry. A roar deafens his ears. The gentleman dressed in a linen suit would like to explain, but the twenty-eighth minute deals him a blow on the temple, and he falls from the chair; upon striking the floor, absolutely without a sound, he disintegrates.


"But what are you doing here?" an astonished voice inquired of an elderly gentleman, dressed in a dark suit, and carrying an absurd umbrella. "Pardon?" said the elderly gentleman, with a foreign accent. "But are you dead?" "No, not at all," the elderly gentleman replied. "Are there dead people here?" "But how did you get in?" the first voice continued. More perplexed than irritated, it was the voice of a younger man by nature respectful of the elderly. "Please wait here for a moment," he added, and went off to talk with another young man intent on moving large skeins of a light, thread-like material. The elderly gentleman noticed that the two young men were dressed in the same pale blue uniform, slightly cheap, of messenger boys, he couldn't help saying to himself. The second guard approached the elderly gentleman, and was decidedly alarmed: "Now, you have to understand that this is something serious," he said, "nobody gets in here, alive." "Am I in hell?" the elderly gentleman asked, without sarcasm, but with much curiosity. "Oh no, oh no," said the good guard, "it's just that this is a secret place, you understand? Are you sleeping now?" "But of course," the elderly gentleman replied, "it's two o'clock in the morning," and consulted his watch. "And tomorrow I have to get up early." "So, he must have ended up in here by way of a dream," said the first guard to the second. "Shall we kill him?" "Are you crazy?" the other snapped. "Kill the professor?" "Well, you surely can't say that this isn't a fine mess. By now he's seen everything. Shall we send him back?" The professor perused them attentively, as though he understood, and then again did not. "So, you're Jewish?" the first guard said, with a cordial air. The gentleman nodded yes. "What's needed here is a good repression," the second muttered. "Just a moment," replied the first, with a slightly Milanese accent. He turned to the elderly gentleman, "Do you know where you are?" The gentleman replied with an ambiguous nod of the head. Then he added, "But I ended up here by accident, through a dream." Another voice rang down from a railing: "I need those incests!!!!!" "Holy ghosts," the second said, "the incests!" and ran to his enormous skeins of thread. "Have you understood?" the young man reverently looked at the elderly gentleman. "You just go back to sleep, but after this you're one of us." The gentleman showed the shadow of a smile. "You see, by day you won't know anything, but at night, by now, you know it all. So, we can't just let you go around like that, wandering about by chance. You understand?" And since that time, the professor, at night, takes on minor roles in the dreams of the rich, partly playful, partly threatening.


At ten-thirty in the morning, a heavyset man, bearded, and dressed in a slightly rumpled suit, realized that he had the gift of performing miracles. A very simple gesture was all it took: rubbing his right thumb on the tips of the index, middle, and ring fingers of the same hand. Naturally, it had happened by chance the first time, and he had healed a despondent cat, instantaneously. It was a question of miracles, not of "wish fulfillments." When he made that gesture and asked for money--he specified the sum, quite reasonable--nothing happened. He had to be of benefit to someone else. He healed a child, quieted a horse, placated the fury of a homicidal maniac, held in suspension a wall that risked collapsing on grandparents and infants. Disgusting: there was no other word for it. He would never have believed that being a thaumaturg could be--how to put it?--so cheap. There was only one point in favor to the heavyset man, but an important one: he was not a believer. He was not, precisely speaking, an atheist, since he did not have a philosophic soul; but religions--all of them--got on his nerves. And why had this miracle thing happened precisely to him? Maybe we could call this fact the proof of the existence of a supreme Power. But what sort of power would it be? There were dozens of gods, and demigods, demons, pixies, ghosts. He wasn't interested in performing miracles. So, was it all some kind of joke? An attempt to convert him? A way of "confounding" him? The heavyset man was irritated. On reaching the fortieth miracle, and the realization that news was beginning to get around, he decided to make a move. This was what led him to enter, with vivid reluctance, the church of a neighborhood in which he had never performed any miracles, and there to confront a priest. He made himself clear: he indicated not only that he was no believer, but as well that those miracles might come from a God entirely different from the one which that church worshipped. The priest showed no astonishment. "It's not the first such case," he said, "even though here we haven't had any examples. Are you married?" "No." "Why don't you become a priest?" "But I'm not a believer," he replied. "So, who's a believer by now? Look, you perform miracles: if you had a mathematical talent, I'd tell you to become an engineer." The heavyset man's penultimate miracle was to convert the priest and direct him to repentance. His last: his self-abolition, to allow the priest to convince himself that he had experienced the miracle of grace. This last of his miracles was much admired by the experts.


A shadow runs quickly among the fences, the trenches, the nighttime silhouettes of artillery; the courier is in a hurry, is guided by a happy fury, an unrelenting impatience. He holds a dispatch bag in his hand and must consign it to the officer in command of that section of the front, a place of many deaths, of many thunderous noises and laments and imprecations. The courier passes nimbly through the great tunnels of the long war. And now he has reached the commanding officer: a taciturn man, attentive to the nighttime noises, to the distant explosions, to the rapid, unlocatable bursts of gunfire. The courier salutes; the commander--a man no longer young, his face creased--unlatches the dispatch bag, opens it, reads. His eyes read again, attentively. "What does that mean?" he strangely asks the courier, since the message is not coded, and the words in which it's written are clear and common. "The war is over, sir," the courier confirms. "It finished three minutes ago." The commander lifts his face. And with infinite astonishment, the courier sees on that face something incomprehensible: an onset of horror, of dismay, of fury. The commander trembles, trembles with ire, with rancor, with desperation. "Get away from here, you carrion," he orders the courier: the courier does not understand, and the commander stands up and strikes him in the face with his hand. "If you don't get out of here, I'll kill you." The courier flees, his eyes charged with tears, of anguish, nearly as though the commander's dismay had been contagious. So, the commander thinks, the war is over. We now go back to natural causes of death. The lights will be turned back on. He hears voices from the enemy positions: some shout, others cry, others sing. Someone lights a lantern. The war is finished everywhere; there's no longer any trace of war; the meticulous, rusty arms are definitively useless. How many times has he taken aim to kill them, those men who are singing now? How many men has he killed and ordered killed, in the legitimacy of war? Because war legitimizes violent death. And now? The commander's face is streaked with tears. It is not true: it must immediately be made understood, once and for all, that the war cannot end. Slowly, with an effort, he lifts his rifle and takes aim at those men who sing, laugh, embrace each other, the pacified enemies. Without hesitation, he begins to fire.


An illustrious bell-caster, with a long beard and unconditionally an atheist, one day received a visit from two clients. They were dressed in black, and very serious, and showed a swelling on their shoulders, which made it cross through the atheist's mind that that was where their wings might be, as are said to be found on angels; but he paid this thought no attention, since it didn't align with his convictions. The two gentlemen commissioned a bell of great dimensions--the master had never before made anything similar--and they wanted it cast in an alloy he had never before employed. They explained that the bell would emit a special sound, utterly different from the sound of any other bell. At the moment of departing, the two gentlemen explained, not without a trace of embarrassment, that the bell was to serve for Judgment Day, which by now was imminent. The master bell-maker laughed a friendly laugh, and said that there would never be a Judgment Day, but that all the same he would make the bell as indicated, and within the established time. The two gentlemen paid him a visit every two or three weeks to see how the work was proceeding. They were two gloomy gentlemen, and, despite their admiration for the master's work, seemed secretly dissatisfied. Then, for a time, they didn't return. Meanwhile, the master bell-caster had brought to completion the largest bell of his life, and recognized that he was proud of it; and in the secret place of his dreams he could see himself desire that so beautiful a bell, unique throughout the world, be used on the occasion of Judgment Day. When the bell had been finished, and mounted on a great wooden trestle, the two gentlemen reappeared; they looked upon the bell with admiration, and at the very same time with profound despondency. They sighed. Finally, the one who seemed more authoritative turned to the bell-caster and confessed in a low voice, "You were right, dear master; there will not be, neither now nor ever, any Judgment Day. There has been a terrible mistake." The master bell-maker regarded the two gentlemen, he too with a melancholy air, but his melancholy was happy and benevolent. "I'm afraid it's too late, gentlemen," he said with a quiet, steady voice. He pulled the cord, and the great bell swung and sounded, loud and strong, and, as it had to be, the Heavens opened.


A woman has given birth to a sphere: it's a question of a globe some twenty centimeters in diameter. Delivery was easy, without complications. Whether or not the woman is married is unknown. A husband would have presumed a relationship with the devil, and would have thrown her out of the house, or perhaps would have beaten her to death with a hammer. So, she has no husband. She is said to be a virgin. In any case, she is a good mother: she is very attached to the sphere. Since the sphere has no mouth, she feeds it by immersing it in a small basin filled with her milk. The basin is decorated with flowers. The sphere is perfectly smooth and uninterrupted. It has no eyes, nor any limbs by way of which to move itself, but all the same it rolls about the room, goes up the stairs, bouncing lightly and very gracefully. The material of which it's made is more rigid than flesh, but not completely inelastic. Its movements show will and decision, something that might be referred to as clear ideas. Its mother washes it every day, and feeds it. In reality, it is never dirty. It seems it does not sleep, even though it never disturbs its mother: it emits no sounds. All the same, she believes herself to understand that, in certain moments, the sphere is anxious for her touch; it seems to her that in those moments its surface is softer. People avoid the woman who gave birth to a sphere, but the woman does not notice it. All day long, all night long, her life revolves around the sphere's pathetic perfection. She knows the sphere, no matter how much a prodigy, to be extremely young. She watches it slowly grow. After three months, its diameter has increased by nearly five centimeters. At times its surface, generally gray, takes on a pinkish hue. The mother has nothing to teach the sphere, but tries to learn from it; she follows its movements, attempts to understand if there's something it's "trying to tell her." She has the impression that, no, the sphere has nothing to tell her, but all the same is a part of her. The mother knows the sphere will not remain forever in her home; but this precisely is what touches her: to have been involved in a story both alarming and utterly tranquil. When the days are warm and sunny, she takes the sphere in her arms and goes for a walk outside, around the house. At times she goes as far as a public park, and has the impression that people are getting used to her, to her sphere. She likes to let it roll among the flower beds, to follow it and catch it, with a gesture of fright and passion. The mother loves the sphere, and wonders if ever a woman has been so much a mother as she.


In this city, everyone possesses something which is indispensable to someone else, without the possessor knowing what to do with it, or even knowing they possess it. All are aware of the lack of something entirely indispensable, but no one knows who has it, or if the person who has it knows they have it, or, in case they do know, if they might be willing to part with it. It also never happens, so far as anyone knows, that each of two persons possesses what's indispensable to the other, which would make, if indeed they recognized each other, for a fairly easy situation, reducible to an act of symmetrical exchange. So, the person in possession of something indispensable to someone else will find no advantage in giving it up unless this someone else is capable of finding what in turn is indispensable to the other. It follows that whoever truly desires what's indispensable to him or her must not so much, or must not only, search out the party in possession of what they find indispensable, but must also, or first of all, seek out the individual presumed to possess what's indispensable to the party in possession of what's indispensable to themselves. As a result, the city has seen the creation of a system of supplication, inquiry, research, investigation, and begging in which everyone is involved, but indirectly. It is legitimate to ask how a supplicant can expect to know what's indispensable to the individual who holds what's indispensable to the supplicant himself. In truth, there are no sure rules, but little by little there has taken shape a method of divination, or deduction, that approximately follows a course as follows: something is indispensable to me, but is not indispensable to the person in possession of it; now, if what is indispensable to me is useless to him, this means that he must be in need of something that's external to what's indispensable to me, and external as well to everything I possess, but in some way contiguous with both. So, some believe themselves to be able through a process of self-analysis to perceive what it is, at least approximately, that's indispensable to the other. But at this point, it's necessary to discover the person who possesses that indispensable thing, and who in turn would find it advantageous to give it up only if he in turn is furnished with what's indispensable to him. The problem would seem to be insoluble, but since it's a question of indispensable things, no one can abandon the search for solutions, and the search for the indispensable thing becomes finally in its own right indispensable, and it isn't entirely clear whether, in this city, one desires that it come to an end.


When appointed custodian of the public toilets, he felt at first a certain humiliation; and certainly his task was and remains a humble one. He had to clean the tiles, mop up the water, present the paper to those who asked for it, open to demanding clients the stall that holds the bidet. On the social scale of the society in which he lives, he was and remains at a very low level, lower even than the street sweeper who works in the open air. He remains, in fact, in the toilets for many hours every day and never sees the sun, since the toilets are under-ground, and open from morning to evening. His toilet is exclusively male, which pleases him, since he is timid in character and would find it highly embarrassing to open a booth for a lady. The environment in which he works is damp, always tepid, of a temperature that doesn't much vary from one season to the next; the facilities are not perfect, since water is frequently missing, or one of the two wash basins does not function, and those who have urinated form a line to wash their hands, or return outside with dirty hands, and this does not seem right to him. He receives a salary, and those who descend into the urinal generally leave him a small tip; all the same, he had suffered for quite some time. Then, gradually, he started not to suffer, not because he no longer feels the poverty of his work, but because of feeling now that it is simply work. He has come, indeed, to feel a certain pride. Holding so low a post on the social scale gives him a dignity, since the toilet attendants throughout the city are barely a dozen, and they constitute its lowest point, and thus an extreme; and not everyone is capable of reaching an extreme of anything. Now, moreover, another change is taking place within him; in fact, he has come to see that the man who urinates, the man who retreats into a hole to defecate, is radically different from the man who walks the city streets: he is a man who does not lie, who knows himself to be a creature, a transit of food-stuffs, and mortal; and at the very same time he sees in the man who urinates, leaning against the tiles, the man distracted by his own feces, by the sinister efficiency of his body, by the uncertainty of what it means that the human being employs its genitals for urination. This lowest of places is also a catacomb, and the toilet custodian realizes that the gesture of urination contains a supplication, is ugliness and reality, the lowest and the highest: he now considers his urinal a church, himself an officiant.


At the beginning, when they first met, they loved each other because both of them, in different ways, had known an extreme and lonely unhappiness. Her life had been profoundly bitter, his precociously unfortunate. They conjoined their bitterness and misfortune, and lovingly attempted to help one another, they succeeded in helping one another, while experiencing neither a cessation of her bitterness nor a metamorphosis of his misfortune. With the strength of their tie's uniqueness, of the negativity that distinguished it, they built up around their sadness a constant, faithful, attentive love. They consoled each other while being fully aware that no consolation was possible. Each continued to be what she or he had been in their previous lives, and together they lived a relationship that did not deny but in some way made common property of their pain. But love has its ruses. For a while, love passed reciprocally across the bitterness or misfortune that marked the condition of him or her, the one and the other; but since that condition was the basis and the guarantee and the meaning of their love, each began to love directly the bitterness or misfortune of the other; each took on the task of being the custodian of the other's condition, and began to grow cautious that the other should not too much depart from that condition's pains. Each became jealous of the pain of the other, and in short would have seen an act of infidelity in any attempt on the part of the other to abandon that pain. Since by nature both of them were constant, each learned to love his or her own pain as a pledge to the love of the other; so each protected his or her own pain and kept vigil over the pain of the other. Their love thus reached a perfect equilibrium in which each attained the other's center, by traversing and controlling the territory of the other's anguish. Every day, each checked that his or her own and the other's anguish were intact. They tried, indeed, to increase and perfect their sufferings; each at first by increasing his or her own; later, by working to increase the other's. They plumbed each other to the depths, and with patience and discernment they reciprocally transfixed each other, and allowed themselves to be transfixed. Each accompanied the other toward an irreversible degradation. Now, not unaware of it, they are attentively preparing their meticulous, slow, reciprocal destruction.


In his previous incarnation, that man was a horse. This is something of which he is fully aware, in light of unassailable evidence: his favorite shoes, his food, the way he laughs. All the same, for a great deal of time he was not alarmed: he knows, in fact, that such conditions are not rare, but often do not endure. A noctambulous friend of his, formerly an owl, turned diurnal in his thirties, and now has a family; and a rattlesnake is now a subtle--only slightly venomous, in memory of her former state--art critic. He noted, however, proceeding through the years, that his symptoms tended less to disappear than to grow more complicated. This led him to begin to experience a certain anxiety, and fear as well, especially when he felt impelled to skittishness, or to take to flight, or to rearing up, in the grip of a will which remained obscure to him. He did not know, in fact, that he had inhabited not a single incarnation as a horse, but three consecutive ones: first he had been a horse as thin as a shadow, jaded, depressed, and inept, and soon to waste away in doleful, slovenly patience; then a massive draft horse, good at pulling wagons, stout and humble; and finally he had passed through a small agile race horse, more ambitious than intelligent, and a wrangler and a troublemaker who would halt to set misunderstandings straight in the middle of a race. In general terms, none of the three had had the stuff to cancel out a lingering air of frustration, nearly as though all three had been involved in an identical defeat, abasement, precocious consumption. That man who felt within himself the remnant of a horseness continued at length to reflect on a single horse; and only bit by bit did he begin to suspect that his bizarre and incongruous reactions came from several horses. From that moment on, he began to make the effort first of all to establish contact with and then to untangle the horses of his past. He recognized the race horse, but attributing to the race horse the potency of the draft horse, he supposed it to have been a great trotter; so he finds it hard to understand whether, in addition to the racer, there are two, or one, or several horses. Meanwhile, his symptoms do not disappear, indeed they grow more perverse; and they leave him debilitated. The more he probes within himself, the more he seems to discover horses: galloping horses, horses beneath the rain, horses at the slaughterhouse, horses gone crazy, beaten horses, horses tamed by an unknown, pitiless hand. He rants, frenzies, rages, cries, and when at times he whinnies, he halts and attempts to understand which it might be of the horses--suspected by now to be a herd--has whinnied through his human mouth.


On reaching a certain point of the road, one has to be aware that, hidden in the gullies and brush, there may be bandits. The bandits are small, haggard, malnourished, and sad; they have no firearms, but only pieces of wood cut into the shapes of rifles, and in an utterly infantile way. Only an accomplice could pretend to fear their turning into roadside assassins; all the same, the adventure of encountering the bandits carries so romantic an air that very few of the area's inhabitants are willing to do without it, especially in the seasons of fine weather. People go out in carriages, since the ambush comes off better with a carriage than in a car or on the train. Generally, whole families travel together, along with the children and the servants. For the children, the attack of the highwaymen is a kind of initiation ceremony, and those who have been assaulted have stories to tell up until their wedding day. No one in this city, in fact, goes any longer to the theater or the circus: they all remain at home and talk about the bandits, especially those who have been attacked to those who haven't been. When a comfortable bourgeois family goes out to have itself attacked, a reasonable quantity of money is taken along--not an ostentatious amount, but not cheapskatish--as well as a few knick-knacks: beginning with those gifts that circulate from one wedding to the next, and nobody knows where to put. When they arrive at one of the ambush places, they make a show of speeding up, of keeping a sharp lookout, since they think the bandits find this comforting, and the bourgeois families see their gesture as socially responsible and laudable. For some time now, however, the bandits have grown more rare; assaults have diminished, and there has also been an inquiry into the nature of what may have happened. It seems that a number of bandits have moved on to holding ambushes on the outskirts of a neighboring city, where people who go out to be assaulted don't bring along old wedding presents. Thanks, in fact, to a Story of Art published in installments, the bandits have recently developed a sense of taste, and realized that the homes in which they lived, full of alabaster greyhounds and life-size dolls, were ugly. This has brought about a tension between the two cities, which had never looked favorably toward one another. Currently, the city that suffers ever fewer lootings--a month has gone by since the last--is debating whether to declare itself to have routed the bandits, or to try to attract them back with more interesting spoils: drawings by well-known artists, leather-bound books, antique chests.

Translator's note

Giorgio Manganelli was also a kind of time machine. He was not entirely at home in the twentieth century, and looked beyond it in both directions. Or as Italo Calvino remarked in his introduction to the French edition of Centuria, he was "the most Italian of Italy's contemporary writers, and as well the most isolated." He was the most traditional and the most sui generis. As remote as a classical bestiary and as close as last night's nightmare. The oxymoron was something more for Giorgio Manganelli than a favorite literary figure. His sense of the relativity of time, or even of its fragility, is also to be found in the "sources" for this book. On the one hand, one can hardly overlook the Decameron, and before it the hundred tales of the anonymous twelfth-century Novellino, for which Manganelli was asked in 1975 to supply an introduction, when it was republished by Rizzoli. Centuria was written in 1979. But commentators also note that Manganelli was asked by a magazine in 1978 to be a member of a jury whose task was to formulate a list of a hundred books that would "teach the public to read," and that earlier, in 1960, for another periodical, he had worked with two other writers on a project that hinged on resumes of each of "a hundred books for every household." Manganelli looked back on these experiences with a certain sense of dismay. He himself sites his inspiration for Centuria in the sheerest of circumstantialities: "By chance I had a number of sheets of typing paper which were slightly larger than normal, and I found myself intrigued by the thought of writing a series of narratives which each would never exceed the length of a single page: it's like the myth of the sonnet, or of a rigid and restrictive canon to which the writer must necessarily adhere." And again, "I have the feeling that Centuria's little stories are a bit like novels from which all the air has been removed. And that might be my definition of a novel: forty lines plus two cubic meters of air. I've settled for simply the forty lines: they take up less space. And with books, of course, you know that space is always an enormous problem." Readers will also discover Centuria to contain a catalogue of sins, and a modest list of virtues: one of the virtues that discretely reappears from time to time is reticence, whereas one of the major sins is a wagging tongue.

translated by Henry Martin
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Author:Manganelli, Giorgio
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Short Story
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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