Authors: Alessandro Baricco
was born in Turin in 1958. He has written four other novels and a modern rendition of
which have been translated into English. His latest novel,
, was recently published to great acclaim in Italy, and he has also produced five collections of essays and a
OTHER NOVELS BY ALESSANDRO BARICCO
Lands of Glass
First published in Great Britain in 2008 by
Canongate Books Ltd, 14 High Street,
Edinburgh EHI ITE
First published in the US in 1999 by Alfred A. Knopf,
a division of Random House Inc., New York,
and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto
Originally published in Italy as
by Rizzoli Libri, S.p.A., Milan, in 1993
This digital edition first published in 2013 by Canongate Books
Copyright © 1993, 2007 RCS Rizzoli Libri S.p.A., Milan
English translation copyright © 1999, RCS Rizzoli Libri S.p.A.
Translation into English by Alastair McEwen
The moral rights of the author and translator have been asserted
This English translation was supported by the Italian Cultural Institute
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 84767 074 8
eISBN 978 1 78211 161 0
amata amica mia
The Almayer Inn
AND AS FAR AS
the eye can see, between the last hills and the sea—
—in the cold air of an
afternoon almost past, and blessed by the wind that always blows from the north.
The beach. And the sea.
It could be perfection—an image for divine eyes—a world that happens, that is all, the mute existence of land and water, a work perfectly accomplished,
—but once again it is the redeeming grain of a man that jams the mechanism of that paradise, a trifle capable on its own of suspending all that great apparatus of
inexorable truth, a mere nothing, but one planted in the sand, an imperceptible tear in the surface of that sacred icon, a minuscule exception come to rest on the perfection of that boundless
beach. From afar he would be no more than a black dot: amid nothingness, the nothing of a man and a painter’s easel.
The easel is anchored by slender cords to four stones placed on the sand. It sways imperceptibly in the wind that always blows from the north. The man is wearing waders and a large
fisherman’s jacket. He is standing, facing the sea, twirling a slim paintbrush between his fingers. On the easel, a canvas.
He is like a sentinel—this you
realize—standing there to defend that part of the world from the silent invasion of perfection, a small crack that fragments that
spectacular stage set of being. As it is always like this, you need only the glimmer of a man to wound the repose of that which would otherwise be a split second away from becoming
but instead immediately becomes suspense and doubt once more, because of the simple and infinite power of that man, who is a slit, a chink, a small doorway through which return a flood of stories
and the enormous inventory of what
an infinite gash, a marvelous wound, a path made of thousands of steps where nothing can be true anymore but everything
—just as the steps
of that woman who, wrapped up in a purple cloak, her head covered, is pacing the beach with measured tread, skirting the backwash of the sea, her feet
tracing furrows from right to left across what is by then the lost perfection of the great picture, consuming the distance that separates her from the man until she comes to within a few paces of
him, and then right beside him, where it takes nothing to pause and silently look on.
The man does not even turn. He continues staring out at the sea. Silence. From time to time he dips the brush in a copper cup and makes a few light strokes on the canvas. In their wake the
bristles of the brush leave a shadow of the palest obscurity that the wind immediately dries, bringing the pristine white back to the surface. Water. In the copper cup there is only water. And on
the canvas, nothing. Nothing that may be
The north wind blows as it always does, and the woman pulls her purple cloak closer around her.
“Plasson, you have been working for days and days down here. Why do you carry all those colors around with you if you do not have the courage to use them?”
This seems to wake him up. This hits home. He turns to observe the woman’s face. And when he speaks, it is not to reply.
“Please, do not move,” he says.
Then he brings the brush up to the woman’s face, hesitates a moment, rests it on her lips, and slowly runs it from one corner of her mouth to the other. The bristles come away tinged with
carmine. He looks at them, dips them ever so slightly in the water, and looks up once more toward the sea. On the woman’s lips there lingers the hint of a taste that obliges her to think
“sea water, this man is painting the sea with the sea”—and it is a thought that brings a shiver.
For some time now she has already turned around, and is already pacing measuredly back along the immense beach, her steps a mathematical rosary, when the wind brushes the canvas to dry a puff of
rosy light, left to float unadorned amid the white. You could stay for hours looking at that sea, and that sky, and everything, but you would find nothing of that color. Nothing that may be
The tide, in those parts, comes in before night falls. Just before. The water surrounds the man and his easel, it clutches them, slowly but with precision, they stay there, the one and the
other, impassable, like a miniature island, or a wreck with two heads.
Plasson, the painter.
Every evening a boat comes to pick him up, just before sunset, when the water has already reached his heart. This is the way he wants it. He boards the boat, stows away the easel and all, and
allows himself to be taken home.
The sentinel goes away. His duty done. Danger averted. Against the sunset the icon that has again failed to become sacred fades away. All because of that manikin and his paintbrushes. And now
that he has gone, time has run out. The dark suspends everything. There is nothing that can, in the dark, become
, and in a way that some people, in those moments, when they saw her, were heard to whisper . . .
“She’ll die of it”
“She’ll die of it”
“She’ll die of it”
“She’ll die of it.”
All around, hills.
My land, thought Baron Carewall.
T IS NOT EXACTLY
an illness, it could be one, but it is something less, if it has a name it must be lighter than air, say it and it’s already
“When she was a little girl, one day a beggar came and began to sing a lullaby, the lullaby startled a blackbird that flew off . . .”
“. . . startled a dove that flew off and the fluttering of wings . . .”
“. . . the wings that fluttered, the faintest sound . . .”
“. . . it must have been ten years ago . . .”
“. . . the dove flashed past the window, in a trice, so, and she looked up from her toys and I don’t know, a dread came upon her, but it was a blank dread, I mean to say that she was
not like one afraid, she was like one on the point of disappearing . . .”
“. . . the fluttering of wings . . .”
“. . . one whose soul was fleeing . . .”
“. . . do you believe me?”
They believed that she would grow and everything would pass. But in the meantime all over the castle they were laying carpets because, it is obvious, she was afraid of her own footsteps, white
carpets, everywhere, a color that could do no harm, soundless footsteps and sightless colors. In the park, the paths were circular with the single bold exception of a pair of snaking avenues that
curled to form smooth regular curves—psalms—and this was more reasonable, in fact all you need is a little sensitivity to understand that any blind corner is a possible ambush, and two
roads that cross are a perfect geometrical violence, enough to frighten anyone who possesses real sensitivity and all the more so her, who was not exactly possessed
a sensitive spirit
but, to put it in exact terms, possessed
an uncontrollable sensitivity of spirit forever exploded in who knows which moment of her secret life—the merest scrap of a life, young as
she was—only to return by mysterious ways to her heart, and her eyes, and hands and all over, like an illness, although it was not an illness, but something less, if it has a name it must be
lighter than air, say it and it’s already gone.