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The Albanians: the fabulous real-life fables of Ermanno Cavazzoni's Brief Lives of Idiots portray "fools" who can't recognize their own kin, miserably fail at suicide, or didn't think the concentration camp was half bad. Ignorance--like sainthood--is indeed a state of bliss.


Naldo Govi worked at the city pound. One afternoon, a dog escaped from the pound; they ran after him, uphill, for an hour and a half, he and one of the dogcatchers; they caught up to him at the top of a hill, but the dog went ballistic and bit Govi on the shin. This probably did something to him, or maybe there was something wrong with him already. He went home and said to his wife: "Hello, Ma'am, can I help you?" His wife replied: "Is the village idiot back so soon?" She often used this formulation when they talked. He stared at her--it was as if he'd never seen her before. His wife was no beauty. So Govi thought: "This woman is crazy. I'd better humor her." Indeed, his wife's hair was disheveled, and she was wearing an old housecoat that she wore to clean. In other words, she didn't look like the lady of any house. "This is some crazy vagrant"--he thought--"who thinks she lives here." Govi said nothing more to her because he started to feel a burning sensation in his stomach. In the kitchen there was a little man--this was his son, but he didn't recognize him. He assumed he'd come in with the woman. This little man, however, didn't even turn to greet him; be was eating something, some cheese. Govi didn't kick them out because he thought maybe there was something he hadn't figured out. For example, how they'd gotten in. And why they weren't afraid of him. They were acting like it was their house.

So from that day on, every morning when he woke up he found those people in the kitchen. He was particularly disgusted by the little man, with his peach fuzz and pimply face. But he just acted normal. The woman always seemed to worry that the little man wasn't eating enough. These people were his family, but he didn't recognize them anymore. Sometimes he would remark on the coffee, meanwhile observing them as they spread butter on their toast and the little man are some sausage.

For a while he thought they were from Albania and that he had somehow signed some agreement to host them. He had in fact signed something in support of refugees--he did remember that--and his co-worker at the pound, Zamboni, remembered it too. Govi told him, "There are refugees in my house, a man and a woman." Zamboni said, "Wel1, yeah, you did sign that petition."

His family didn't notice that he no longer knew who they were; his statements just seemed a little more generic. His wife had always thought him a pathetic idiot, as she always told him; lately, she thought so even more.

Then, since Govi had a peptic ulcer, he requested a house call from the doctor, Dr. Prini--the person who reported this case, which would have otherwise remained unknown (and unknowable). "Those people are here, in the other room," he told the doctor. "There's a middle-aged woman, and a little man"--his son--"who's kind of gross." Dr. Prini examined him, listening attentively, in case this was related to the ulcer. In extreme cases, ulcers can also affect the brain. Govi said that the little man was about five feet tall and that he tried to stay away from him because he smelled like elastic nylon. He wore secondhand clothes from the Red Cross. "Generally speaking," he asked, "do they disinfect those?" And the woman had an indefinable smell too, like a hospital smell. "Maybe," he asked, "it's a smell caused by some iliness?" This woman went around like she was in her own house, back home in Albania. In a way, it was handy having her around, since she made omelettes or meatballs every day, most of which were for the little man. When there was extra, he would eat some. The little man was a total pig--that's just how Albanians are--and the woman too. They'd fill their plates with meatballs and stuff their faces; then they'd take a drink and wolf down some more. This process usually took about ten minutes, though sometimes longer because they would alternate meatballs and omelettes. Govi managed to eat some of an omelette, which actually wasn't half bad. But the little man would give him dirty looks, and the woman would look at him like he was the pig. These two Albanians had taken over his house and treated it like a greasy spoon by day and a hotel by night. Especially because the woman slept in his bed. "Better her than that little man," he thought, even if he couldn't decide which of the two he found more revolting. The woman made a lot of noise when she slept, especially her breathing. He could also hear the little man's breathing from the other room, where he occupied the couch. It was like some kind of camp. But the problem was: what exactly had he signed? "Couldn't you perhaps inquire, discreetly of course"--he asked the doctor--"without letting on that I want to take it back?" What be actually wanted the doctor to find out was, How long do Albanians usually stay--ballpark? Don't they have concentration camps for them? These Albanians, he said, were aggravating his ulcer, since now he ate nothing but fried food.

What's more, despite his young age, the son also had a mild ulcer--perhaps it was genetic--and he began not to recognize his parents. This according to Dr. Prini. He would wake up during the night, no idea what time it was, and wander around the house with this burning in his stomach. In the adjacent room, he came upon two people sleeping in the same bed. He racked his brains trying to figure out who they could be. Then he went to get a closer look and in the semidarkness he was able to make out a man and a woman. The man was snoring a little. He stood there staring at him, the woman too. He couldn't figure out how they'd got in. It was a mystery to him. They seemed like some married couple who'd come to sleep in his house. Maybe a couple of homeless people or squatters. They were there during the day too. The woman was always in the kitchen frying something, he (the son) ate it, and she would fry up something else. Then the man, who was balding, would come and he would eat something too, especially if there was an omelette, after which he would rub his stomach and say he had indigestion. Since he often heard the man mention the far-off land of Albania, he assumed they were originally from there.

Dr. Prini believes that the cause of all this is the ulcer, a hereditary form that causes partial lipo-mnemonic cretinism (i.e., gaps in memory). He says that family members often don't recognize one another, without anyone ever acknowledging it. The root cause of all this is fried food, which is toxic to the body. Dr. Prini is writing an article on the subject that will appear in the Bulletin of Hygiene and Disease Prevention.


Translation from the Italian By Jamie Richards

Editorial note: From Ermanno Cavazzoni's Vite brevi di idioti, copyright [c] 1994 by Feltrinelli Editore. English-translation copyright [c] 2011 by Jamie Richards.

To read two more stories by Cavazzoni, visit WLT's website (worldliteratu

Ermanno Cavazzoni (b. 1947), from Seggio Emilia, is the award-winning author of many fantastic and absurd tales. Of his many books, including Vite brevi di idioti, Cirenaica, Gli scrittori inutili, Storia naturale dei giganti, and Il limbo delle fantasticazioni, two novels have been published in English translation: The Nocturnal Library (Vagabond Voices, 2010) and Voice of the Moon (Serpent's Tail, 1990). He is also a professor at the University of Bologna and a member of the literary group OpLePo (

Jamie Richards, currently a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of Oregon, is the translator of several literary works from Italian, including Giancarlo Pastore's Jellyfish (2008), Nicolai Lilin's Free Fall (forthcoming in 2011), and Giovanni Orelli's Walaschek's Dream (forthcoming in 2012).
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Title Annotation:FICTION
Author:Cavazzoni, Ermanno
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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