An Unfindable Book

At the little station of M***, on the provincial railroad founded in 1883 with the materials of Kraus & Co. and championed by progressive citizens of the day, clusters of travelers were gathered waiting for the departure of the train to Finale. The prevailing, unrelenting color of their clothing was grayish-green, and the smell was that of the barracks. None of the men were in civilian dress, except for the one wandering from one door of the station to the other, wearing a tricolor armband and issuing orders, all the while doing his utmost to escape military attention. There was only one attractive woman, dressed in an elegant, almost summery fashion, with a big white canvas hat and a wide petticoat embroidered with silk stars, whose bottom half could be seen through the opening in her rabbit-skin coat. She was holding by the hand a quiet little boy, from whose face you could not tell whether he was pouting or lost in thought. There were two elderly commoners who looked like sisters, so absorbed were they in an equal silence, but standing far apart, with black shawls over their shoulders, a veil over their heads, rosary beads in their hands, and their backs leaning against the wall. They were waiting in a state completely void of impatience. Every now and then the little boy whistled. Then he suddenly came out with a military tune:

I can hardly wait to see the day that you return to me.

And he, too, took a curious and cheerful look—when his mother’s footsteps turned in that direction—at a group of soldiers that were laughing and making loud remarks near a dark-haired girl (the fourth and last woman). She was leaning against the signal post, amid the late autumn fog, teasing men who had grown tired of dreams and endless marches. The girl was the famed Armellina of that Sant’Anna parish in the township of C. The war had given her notoriety and solitude. Her father and her brother, both day laborers and her only family, had left for the front back in 1915. Left without a boyfriend and future husband, and with so many soldiers about, she dedicated herself to fun and good times. She still lived, and always would, in her hometown, sleeping in a barn that was also a meeting point for passing soldiers. Nowadays she went to town often to buy perfume, kerchiefs, brooches, and other things to make herself pretty. Not back then. Whenever Armellina appeared at the station for her trip home, the soldiers and even the officers, who had come to be excluded from worldly attractions, felt as if the air had been secretly filled with the smells and sounds of the parties from days gone by. In the ears of each man echoed a song, a sonata, or especially a waltz, with a tap of the foot to mark each completed turn.

Both the child and the woman were reminded of the attitude and expressions of Giovanni and Antonio Carrieni, two handsome boys with thin faces and blue eyes, sons of a sharecropper whose family had been living on one of the woman’s properties from time immemorial. The two youths, who were not yet twenty, had left for the front a few months earlier. Thinking of them, the child remembered his mother (one year ago) running toward him, a little excited and blushing like a girl, crying out “Sweetheart, do you know what I did? I took a photograph of Giovanni and Antonio while they were picking grapes.” Flopping down in the meadow, she hugged the child and kissed him on the cheeks, whispering “…those two boys who look like your daddy, your granddad, and the daddy of all daddies.” In the child’s mind the image of Armellina (when she was still a good girl, the day she had brought over a plate of cookies as a fall offering) was now confused with that of Armelinda, a peasant woman who had cradled him in her arms in days he did not remember. At the same time unlikely images came to his mother, together with good and bad thoughts. At least she thought they were bad when she imagined, for example, the two farm boys Giovanni and Antonio dressed as gentlemen, paying court to her on the boardwalk of the Rimini bathhouse. The poor woman’s husband had died a little over one year after the child was born. Time had gone by, and although she was beautiful, gracious and rich, she had not remarried. It was not that she had taken a vow, an act of incomparable loyalty and virtue, not that she had cooled toward life. It was just that she harbored a complete and still intense love for the man she had married. Every time she met other men she made her comparisons and said, “Dear God, I’ll never be able to live without him!” And since he was no longer around, she would caress her child and find that it was good, a divine grace of sorts, to be able to live without living in the “world.”

The train departed, releasing a huge cloud of smoke from its noisy little locomotive, temporarily erasing the fog and fooling the travelers into believing they might see trees on the surrounding plain later on this short but endless trip. A young officer had just entered the station as the train was pulling out. He started running desperately alongside the tracks, guided only by the noise of the clanking iron and the soldiers’ songs scattered into the air amid the whistling of the locomotive. His triumphant cry announced that he had reached the train.

The young officer was tall and thin, with pale, delicate features. After making his way from car to car through the almost impassable crowd of soldiers, he ended up standing in the narrow passageway by the only two first-class compartments. There were twelve seats, all taken. The train rattled about, slowing down every hundred meters or so to pick up steam and then make another weighted-down run. Each try was destined for failure on the shiny, narrow gauge rails filled with adventures. You could picture them embossed and set like diamonds, proceeding along a narrow country path bordered by the red drapery of the vines. But you couldn’t see a thing through the windows. They were misted over by smoke from the fat cigars of superior officers, hearty and healthy, who were seated comfortably. Loud voices blended with the smoke and faded into the deafening movements of the train, which had become both familiar and old to the child a year or two earlier. The child was perched on the armrest of his mother’s seat. An elderly gentleman, a well-known landowner on the cities of the plain, was dozing off on the seat in front of him.

The child looked at the officer, who seemed so pale and exhausted that he wondered how he managed to stay on his feet. The officer was indeed very ill. The only thing that kept him from falling to the ground in a faint was nervous tension. No one noticed anything out of the ordinary except the child. The officer’s hand was desperately gripping the net of the luggage rack above the woman’s head. He was afraid the other travelers might hear the endless cries for help that his exhausted senses were wringing from his imagination. Finally the child whispered into the woman’s ear, “Mamma, I think that boy doesn’t feel very well.” She looked at the officer, and looked at the travelers. Together with the child she stood up, grabbed the officer’s cuff at the point where a star indicated his rank, and lowered his body to the seat with all the strength of a feather lifted by the breeze.

The old man woke up. After ceding his place to the woman, he directed his attention to the officer, placing a little bottle under his nose. “I may be old,” the man said, “but I’m still a gentleman, even if I am from the country.” With slight malice he was alluding to the other travelers, who had not budged and were still pretending that nothing had happened. “Besides, standing won’t be a problem for me. I’m getting off in Bomporto. I may be seventy years old, but I still take my walks through the fields and oversee the weighing of the grapes. And then for a lady like yourself…and for this young officer…I have a grandson on the front who is your age, my young lieutenant. You must have suffered a great deal. Your wounds must not have been dressed very well. How are you doing now? Better, eh!…No, stay still, please. Don’t get the wrong idea. In Sicily, when I was a soldier in Garibaldi’s army, I was wounded. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was a kind, beautiful woman, like this woman here. She took wonderful care of me, and I still remember how ashamed I felt. How can it be—I thought—a strong young man like me…So stay calm and get some rest.”

So spoke the old man who got off the train a little while later at Bomporto, saying goodbye with big gestures and repeated wishes for a safe trip. From the platform he shouted “Viva l’Italia!” to the soldiers who were sticking their heads out of the windows and singing:

“Viva the lady of the morning/Viva the lady of the night!/We want to be with Armellina/Who steals our hearts and does us right.”

This is how our woman and the young officer met during the European War. They spent a little over one hour together on a rattling train whose whistle pierced the air and filled the child’s imagination with distant adventures, shapeless reflections brought to life by the excitement of childhood. He saw the young officer as both familiar and miraculous, and how else could it be? For who was this thin youth with deep pensive eyes—shy, elegant, uncomplaining—bigger yet so much more inexperienced? The child felt that he knew far more than this innocent before him in the form of a soldier, a man. Letting his pride and imagination run wild, he pictured himself as a grown man, with many, many more stars than the officer. “I will be a great general,” he thought, “and conquer everything on the maps in my atlas.” To be alone with his plans, he pretended to fall asleep, and started daydreaming and letting his heart sail into the infinite sea of excitement.

When the officer began to regain consciousness, the realization that a sweet woman with serene but sad and distant eyes had given up her seat for him made his face change color. The sudden youthful discomfort in which he found himself made him blush. “Thank you,” he told her, with a wisp of a voice that could barely be heard. But his tone was also tinged with the pride of a man asking a woman to act as if nothing had happened. The incident in itself was already enough to make him fear that he had been ridiculous. Sensing this, the woman spoke about the annoying fog that blurred cities, villages, and countryside into a single color, gazing at him in a carefree feminine way to remove his sense of wounded pride. She asked him if he liked the area, if he was staying in a town or village. She told him about her villa in the country where she lived alone with her son, about the peasants’ cottages filled with soldiers, about the four officers they had put in her house, and the risk that she would have to provide hospitality for who knows how many more. She asked him if he was married, if he had a girlfriend, if he had a mother and siblings.

I’ve never had a girlfriend, ma’am. I’ve left no one behind at home. Just my father, who is also recovering from an injury.

A long silence ensued. The woman looked to see what was on the other side of the window reflecting their images. She looked and thought: “I’ll bet he’s never been with a woman, and been disappointed at every turn. He must have spent his youth worrying over lord knows how many unhappy infatuations. His forehead is so soft, his features so delicate! If I were another kind of woman I’d fall in love with him. How clearly I remember those Sunday mornings when I used to leave the Carpi cathedral, arm in arm with my father and mother, dreaming about a distant youth who would always think of me but never come to visit! The days when I lost my appetite and was cooped up in the house. I didn’t want to tell my mother that I had caught a boy from out of town staring at me. He dared to follow me home, the full length of the portico in the town square all the way to the front door! I only looked at him out of the corner of my eye, but I thought he had the handsomest face I’d ever seen. He must have gone into the bookstore downstairs. Maybe he went in for an excuse to be near me.”

Do you have a library in your villa? —the officer asked, breaking the silence into which the woman and her memories had sunk.

Yes, I have many books: my father’s, my husband’s, and my own, of course. I couldn’t tell you how many. You’re probably not interested in the ones that I read, that I read for the sake of reading. They’re all novels…

But I am interested. I’ve read many novels. But I’ve been looking for one book for a few months. Every time I see a bookstore, when I’m lucky enough to be in a city, I go in to check, but I never find it.

What book? —the woman asked.

It’s by a German poet —the officer said. —The truth is that I would hate to go back to the front without having read it. Life has given me so few satisfactions! The war caught me by surprise… —the officer seemed to start rambling, turning pale and looking ready to faint. I didn’t want to go off to the army without having a family to leave behind at home. Imagine what it would be like to have a son! I always remember what a schoolmate used to tell me: “You’ll never have children. How could you, with that face of yours…you’re nothing but a child yourself!” To think that before being called up I had met a woman, a woman who reminds me of you, ma’am. I got up the courage to speak to my father. He told me: “The girl you’re thinking of is the daughter of the Count of B. She is very upper class. They might not let you marry her. Anyway I’ll try asking if they’ll give you her hand.” Then the war broke out. When I left I had no wife and no children. My father also left without doing anything for me. Now I can’t even find that book. What’s wrong with wanting to read a book of poetry anyway? If you have it, do you think you might send it to the hospital in F.? I’m going to be there for a while.

You mean you still need treatment? —the woman asked, unable to hide her concern. In the meantime the little boy, roused from his daydreams, delicately pinched his mother’s arm as if to ask her whether there wasn’t something they could do to cheer up the young man.

Yes —the officer said —they still have to remove bullets from my chest and back. And then I have to be treated for some nervous illness I’ve never heard of. During my first convalescence, you see, I was struck by violent fits of despair. It’s not the war I’m afraid of; it’s my memories. Finally the doctors told me that I was suffering from exhaustion. But they were wrong. Just now I managed to run and catch this train.

Who wrote the book that you’re looking for? —the woman asked.

It’s by… —the officer mentioned the name of a great writer, as well as the title of a little known work that had not circulated much. Most people would have imagined it had never been published.

No, we don’t have it at home —the woman said.

Then maybe it isn’t anywhere in the world —said the officer with an air of resignation. He stopped talking and stared straight ahead, as if no one was around him and every possible image had disappeared from his mind.

But he quickly revived and went back to his story. He talked about his oppressive shyness and indecision. About the loneliness he detested and could not overcome. About the disappointments that he always blamed on his father. About the sudden euphoria that gripped him every now and then, making his future look easy and fun, something that could be sketched in a few lines. About the angry outbursts that upset him whenever he noticed the passage of time, an uncontrollable reality less clear or tangible than either the future or his fantasies. About his daily vows to change and set himself on the path of normalcy. About the discomfort he felt the day the war broke out, since joining the army meant he could no longer prove, at least to his father, that he was on the road to reform and good will. In the end he said that all his wishes had turned into the wish to die, that he had sought death as best he could, and soon he would be going back to the front to find it. “Sure I would like to have lived. I would have loved a life smoking a pipe in a desert, free from my memories and my future. But not anymore.” He stopped talking and went back to staring. Gradually his strength and his senses gave out. He had fainted again.

Two small teardrops welled in the child’s eyes. He quickly hid them with a discretion he had learned from some unknown source. The woman stood up and called for help, since their compartment had emptied from station to station. A colonel arrived, an elderly gentleman from the reserves who had recently been called back to arms. Seeing the officer who had fainted he said, “I know this young man, madam. They say he was very brave and valorous. His latest injuries caused a rather serious neurosis. I can’t understand how they could let him travel to the new hospital alone.”

The minutes went by, with the child pale and dumbstruck; the woman busying herself with packages that she piled in her arms first one way then another; the old colonel who had stopped talking, and taken to clearing his parched smoker’s throat with every bounce of the train; the young officer who did not look as if he was going to come around, and would have looked dead were it not for the bitter twist of his lips and his elegant position on the seat, revealing a vitality that was not yet extinguished.

Finally they reached the station at C. The woman got off immediately. She was distraught. Her voice seemed to have lost all feeling and warmth as she cried out in the fog to be recognized by the Bissa carriage that was supposed to take her home. The child hung back just long enough to see the officer open his eyes. It lasted a second: the young man removed his chain bracelet with a St. Martin’s medal and placed it in the child’s hands.

“Wait for me, Mamma.” The officer heard the boy’s last words and the train departed. In front of him sat the old colonel, muttering some gibberish that was even more incomprehensible and annoying than the noise of the train. Everything in the world seemed to have disappeared, even the hope of having that book of poetry.

Bios

Antonio Delfini

Antonio Delfini was a writer and poet born in Disvetro di Cavezzo, Emilia-Romagna, in Northern Italy. In the 1930s, he started writing poems which blended fantasy, magic realism, and surrealism. He also wrote provincial stories, such as Ritorno in città (1931), Il ricordo della Basca (1938), and Il fanalino della Ballimonda (1940). Other works include Poesie della fine del mondo (1961) and Racconti (1963). His Diari, an autobiographical novel, was published in 1982.

Michael F. Moore

Michael F. Moore is a writer, translator, and interpreter. His published translations include Erri De Luca's novels God's Mountain and Three Horses, the aphorist Guido Ceronetti's Silence of the Body, and the poems of Alfredo Giuliani. He may be reached at michael.f.moore@verizon.net.

"An Unfindable Book." Copyright (c) Antonio Delfini, 1940. English translation copyright (c) Michael F. Moore, 2007.