Authors: Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
ILJA LEONARD PFEIJFFER
, a classicist by training, made his literary debut with a poetry collection in 1999 that was an homage to the experimental poetry of his great models, Pindar and Lucebert. In the years that followed, in addition to poetry, he has written stage plays, essays, columns, travel accounts, stories, political satires, and four novels written in the spirit of Rabelais. In his other novels, including his debut he has toyed with the idea of world literature and divided the critics between those proclaiming him a genius and those who think him an antiquated stylist. He's a bit of both.
, published in Dutch in 2013, is Pfeijffer's masterpiece of a novel, and was greeted with unanimous praise upon publication, including winning the Libris Literatuurprijs, the Netherlands' most prestigious literary award, and the Tzum Prize, awarded for “the most beautiful sentence of the year,” which he has now won twice. His most recent poetry collection,
, published in 2015, became the first single work of poetry to ever win in the grand slam of the three major Dutch poetry awardsâthe VSB, Jan Campert, and Awater.
lives in Amsterdam and translates from Dutch and French. She has translated Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Joris Luyendijk, Simone van der Vlugt, Esther Gerritsen, and Pierre Bayard, alongside a number of children's books, graphic novels, and poems. She also works as an editor and blogger.
ALSO AVAILABLE BY ILJA LEONARD PFEIJFFER IN ENGLISH
Rupert: A Confession
translated by Michele Hutchison
Deep Vellum Publishing
3000 Commerce St., Dallas, Texas 75226
Deep Vellum Publishing is a 501c3 nonprofit literary arts organization founded in 2013.
Copyright Â© 2013 by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
First published in the Netherlands in 2013 by De Arbeiderspers.
English translation copyright Â© 2016 by Michele Hutchison
First edition, 2016
All rights reserved.
This book was published with the support of the Dutch Foundation for Literature.
ISBN: 978-1-941920-23-7 (ebook)
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS: 2015960718
COVER DESIGN AND TYPESETTING
Anna Zylicz Â·
Text set in Bembo, a typeface modeled on those cut by Francesco Griffo for Aldo Manuzio's printing of
in 1495 in Venice.
Consortium Book Sales & Distribution Â· (800)-283-3572 Â·
A Zena a prende ma a non rende
The most beautiful girl in Genoa works in the Bar of Mirrors. She is neatly dressed like all the girls who work there. She also has a boyfriend who drops in on her from time to time at work. He uses hair gel and wears a sleeveless t-shirt with SOHO on it. He's an asshole. Sometimes I watch them in the mirrors, kissing secretly in the cubbyhole where she prepares the small dishes they serve free with the aperitif.
This morning on the Via della Maddelena I saw someone who'd been mugged. “
” he shouted. “
” Then a boy came running round the corner. The man chased after him. He was wearing a white vest and he had a fat face and a fat belly. He looked like an honest man who'd learned to work hard for paltry pay from a young age. The boy ran uphill, to the Via Garibaldi, past the sundial and then carried on climbing, up the steps of the Salita San Francesco. The fat man who had been mugged didn't stand a chance.
Later I sat drinking on the Piazza delle Erbe. It's an unusual kind of place, evening just happens there without me having to organize anything. The little orange tables belong to the Bar Berto,
the oldest pub on the square, famous for its aperitif. The white tables belong to the nameless trattoria where it's impossible to eat without a booking. The red and yellow tables belong to various cafÃ©s and behind them there's another terrace, a little lower down. I can look up the names if you're interested. I was sitting at a blue table on the upper part of the square, looking out onto Bar Berto's terrace. The blue tables belong to Threegaio, set up by three homosexuals who brainstormed for days on end and still couldn't come up with a better name than that. I was drinking Vermentino from the Golfo di Tigullio. An impressive looking she-man wearing very dark sunglasses was sitting on a bar stool in front of the building. It was a reassuring sight, she was always there. Street musicians. Rose sellers. And then she spoke to me, “There's something feminine about you.” She ran her fingers through my hair like a man claiming something as his own. “What's your name?” Her voice was like a dockworker's. “Don't worry, I know. I'll call you Giulia.”
That night there was a short but violent thunderstorm. I was on my way home when it started. I sheltered in an arcade. It had an official name I noticed later: Archivolto Mongiardino. The black sky lit up green. I'd never seen anything like it. The rain clattered down like two cast iron portcullises on either side of the vault. After a few minutes it stopped.
But the streetlights had gone out. In the alleys barely penetrated by daylight, a medieval darkness reigned. My house wasn't far. I could find it by feeling my way, I was sure. Yes, the street went upwards here. This had to be Vico Vegetti. To my left and right, I felt scaffolding. That was right. There were renovations here.
And then I almost tripped over something. A wooden beam or something similar. That's what it felt like. Dangerous leaving something like that lying around in the street. I bent down to move it to one side. But it didn't feel like wood. It was too cold and slippery for that. It was too rounded to be a beam. It felt strange, and a bit disgusting, too. I tried to use the light of my mobile phone as a torch, but it was too weak. I was almost home. I decided to push the thing behind the builders' dumpsters and come back the next day to examine it. I was curious. I really wanted to know what it was.
Prostitutes are for lunch. They appear around eleven or half past eleven. They hang around in the labyrinth of alleyways in the sloping triangle between Via Garibaldi, Via San Luca, and Via Luccoli, on either side of the Via della Maddalena, in small dark streets with poetic names like Vico della Rosa, Vico dei Angeli, and Vico ai Quattro Canti di San Francisco. In these alleys the sun doesn't even shine at midday. They lean there casually against doorposts or sit in clusters on the street. They say things like “
” to me. They say that they love me and they want me to come with them. They say they want to run their fingers through my hair. They are black. They are blacker than the anthracite shadows in this city's entrails. They give off the smell of night in the afternoon. They stand there on haughty, towering legs, a flickering glimmer of arrogance in their eyes. They sink their white teeth into men's pale white flesh. I don't know how I'd ever get out alive. Civil servants with leather briefcases dart away skittishly.
Later I see them again in the Galleria Mazzini: Genoa's magistrates in their shirtsleeves, dark blue jackets slung across their shoulders, their calf-leather briefcases filled with the few documents of any real importance in their sole charge. They like to walk on the marble floor, past the antiques on display, enjoying the lofty reverberations of their footsteps under the crystalline roof. Griffins with the Genoese coat of arms on their chests support the chandeliers, their beaks twisted with arrogance. If you walk through the Galleria from the Piazza Corvetto, you come out at the Opera. Where else?
I walked toward the sea. In the distance, a yellow airplane glided over the waves and scooped up water. There were forest fires in the mountains. I know people who can tell tomorrow's weather from the height at which the swallows soar. But the low flight of a fire plane is the most reliable indication of a blistering summer.
I've bought myself a new wardrobe so that I can slip into this elegant new world a new man. A couple of Italian summer suits, tailored shirts, an elegant pair of shoes, as soft as butter but as sharp as a knife, and a real panama hat. It cost me a fortune, but I considered it a necessary investment to give my assimilation a boost.
That evening, I spoke to Rashid. He sells roses. I usually bump into him a couple of times a night. I offered him a drink. He came to sit with me for a while. He was from Casablanca, he said, an engineer who specialized in air-conditioning and refrigeration. In Casablanca, he has a large house but no money. That's why he came to Genoa, but he can't get a job because he doesn't speak Italian. During the day, he tries to learn Italian from YouTube videos. In the evenings, he sells roses. Every evening he does the rounds of all the terraces to Nervi. Then he walks back. To Nervi
and back is twenty-four kilometers. He lives with eleven other Moroccans in a two-room apartment. “Of course there are rats, but luckily they aren't that big. All Moroccans think you can get rich without even trying in Europe. Of course they won't go back until they've saved enough to rent a Mercedes for a fortnight and put on a show that they've become spectacularly rich and successful in Europe. It's a fairy tale that gets better with every retelling. But I've seen the reality, Ilja. I've seen the reality.”
When I walked home, the flag was fluttering high on top of the Palazzo Ducale's towers. It wasn't the European flag, nor the Italian flag. It was a red cross on a white background: the Genoese flag. La Superba. Above the harbor and in the distance, above the black mountains of Liguria, I heard the griffins screeching.
And then it came back to me. The previous night I'd stumbled over an object in the dark on the Vico Vegetti. And I'd hidden the object behind a garbage can. Now the streetlights were working again and I was actually quite curious.
But the thing wasn't there anymore. There was all kinds of stuff near the garbage cans down on the corner of the Piazza San Bernardo, but nothing you could stumble over. Well, perhaps it wasn't that important. Besides, I realized that showing so much interest in garbage might look a bit funny to the few passersby. In any case, it wasn't the image I wanted to adopt as a proud, brand-new immigrant to the city. I went home.
But a little higher up in the alleyway, near the scaffolding, there was a dumpster full of builders' waste. I remembered clinging onto the scaffolding in the pitch dark when the power cut out. On the off chance, I looked to see whether the thing might be there. At first
I didn't see it, but then I did. I looked back over my shoulder to see if anyone was looking, picked it up, and got the fright of my life.
It was a legâa woman's leg. Unmistakably a woman's leg. And when it had been in the right context, it had been attractiveâslender and long, perfectly proportioned. It was no longer wearing a shoe, but it still had on a stocking, the long, old-fashioned kind that only models on the Internet still wore. To cut to the chase, there I was, in the middle of the night, in my new foreign city holding an amputated female leg, and, all things considered, this didn't seem to me the ideal start to my new life. Maybe I should call the police. But maybe I'd better not. I put the leg back and went off to bed.
But later I awoke with a start, bathed in sweat. How could I have been so stupid? Of course I could tell myself that I had my own reasonsâwhich for that matter many would have found understandableâfor not wanting to have anything to do with a chopped-off woman's leg I'd accidentally discovered in a public placeâbut I'd stood there holding it in my hands. What I'm saying is I'd stood there groping it twice with my callow, canicular paws. Hadn't I ever heard of fingerprints? Or DNA evidence? And when the leg attracted the attention of the
, which sooner or later it was likely to do, would they carelessly toss it to one side as yet another sawn-off woman's leg found in the alleyways, or wouldn't they possibly be curious as to whom it had belonged to, who had amputated it, and whether this had happened with the approval of its rightful owner? And wouldn't they, once that curiosity had taken root, carry out a simple search for clues? And wasn't an investigation of the neighborhood then quite an obvious next step? Wake up, you dope.
But I no longer needed to tell myself that. I was already wide awake. More than that, I was already getting dressed. It was still nighttime, dark, no one about. I had to act quickly. The leg was still there. I didn't have any kind of detailed plan, but removing the
from the public arena seemed a sensible place to start. I took it home with me and leaned it against the back of the IKEA wardrobe in my bedroom.
I want to be part of this world. When I woke up, I heard the city starting to chew the day between her ancient, rotten teeth. In different parts of the neighborhood, her crumbling ivories were being drilled. Neighbors swore at each other through open windows. On the wall of the palazzo my bedroom looked out on, someone had written that all smiles are mysterious. Someone else had written that he thinks the Genoa football club is better than the Sampdoria football club, but in terms much more explicit than that. Someone else had written that he loved a girl named Diana and that to him she was a dream become reality. Later on, he or somebody else had crossed out the confession. There was garbage on the street. Pigeons pecked around in their own shit.
Today ships will arrive with Dutch, German, and Danish tourists on their way back from Sardinia and Corsica. They arrive dozens of times a day, and the tourists cautiously and reluctantly lose themselves a bit inside the labyrinth for an afternoon. They seldom dare venture much further than the alleys a few meters from the Via San Lorenzo. Others walk along the Via Garibaldi to
the Palazzo Rosso and the Palazzo Bianco, oblivious to the dark jungle lying at their feet.
I like tourists. I can watch them and follow them for hours. They are touching in their tired attempts to make something of the day. When I was a boy, school used to give us lists of all the things we shouldn't forget to take on our school trip. The last item on the list was always “a good mood.” That's what tourists carry in their rucksacks when they trudge through the streets and look at the map on every corner to try to find out
on earth they are. And
was that again? Finding every building pretty, every square nice, and every little shop cute is a matter of survival. Sweat pours from their foreheads. They think they understand everything, but they're suspicious at the wrong moments, while not fearing the real dangers. In Genoa, they are more helpless than anywhere else. Incomprehension and insecurity are written all over their faces as they hesitantly wander around the labyrinth. I like them. They're my brothers. I feel connected to them.
But I want to be part of this world. I want to live in the labyrinth like a happy monster, along with thousands of other happy monsters. I want to nestle in the city's innards. I want to understand the grinding of its old buildings' teeth. I went outside and walked along the Vico Vegetti, the Via San Bernado, past the garbage cans and the Piazza Venerosa, down to the Via Canneto Il Lungo to do some shopping at Di per Di. I bought detergent,
, and a bottle of wine. Then I took the same route home. But I did happen to be walking along with a plastic bag from Di per Di. My bag was my green card, my residence permit, my asylum. Everyone could see that I'd been admitted. Everyone could see I lived here. I had
spoken scarcely more Italian than the words “
” and “
,” but when they spotted my plastic bag from the supermarket, no one could consider me an outsider any longer. I stopped at a kiosk and bought
Il Secolo XIX
, Genoa's local paper. I had resolved to read it every day. I clamped it proudly under my arm, making sure it was folded in such a way that everyone could see that it was
When I got home, I looked at the wall of my building. I live on the ground floor of a tall palazzo in a narrow alleyway that climbs steeply. “Ground floor” is a relative concept for an alley at such a steep gradient. To the right of my entrance, there must be a large area under my bedroom that is probably storage space for the restaurant at number one rosso, which has been closed since my first day here. The whole building is made of deeply-pitted, grayish chunks of rock, crumbling cement, and patches of old layers of plaster here and there. All in all, the entire thing is rotten, peeling, and decayed. But it has been for centuries. And proud of it. When this was built, there was no gas, electricity, running water, television, or Internet. All these amenities had been tacked onto the outside in a makeshift way over the years. There are wires running from the roof along the front wall, entering through holes drilled into the various apartments. The plumbing and sewage have been added to the outside tooâa disordered tangle of lead piping. Next to my front door, I noticed a thick pipe entering my house through a hole. And then I saw the sticker again: