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Authors: Ann (TRN) Alessandro; Goldstein Piperno

Persecution (9781609458744)

BOOK: Persecution (9781609458744)
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Europa Editions
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
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www.europaeditions.com
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2010 by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A., Milano
First publication 2012 by Europa Editions
Translation by Ann Goldstein
Original title:
Persecuzione. Il fuoco amico dei ricordi
Translation copyright © 2012 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
www.mekkanografici.com
Illustrations by Werther Dell'Edera
ISBN 9781609458744

Alessandro Piperno

PERSECUTION
THE FRIENDLY FIRE OF MEMORIES

Translated from the Italian
by Ann Goldstein

For Simona

Is it shamefastness or insensibleness
that makes
thee
silent?
—
BOETHIUS
,
The Consolation of Philosophy

PART I

 

O
n July 13, 1986, an embarrassing desire never to have been brought into the world took possession of Leo Pontecorvo.

A moment earlier, Filippo, his firstborn son, had been grappling with the pettiest of childhood complaints: protesting the tiny quantity of French fries that his mother had slid onto his plate compared with the unprecedented generosity she had shown his little brother. And now, an instant later, the anchorman on the eight-o'clock TV news was insinuating, before a sizable segment of the nation, that this very Leo Pontecorvo had exchanged depraved letters with the girlfriend of his thirteen-year-old younger son.

That is, that same Samuel, his plate filled with a crunchy gilded treasure that would never be consumed. Presumably unsure whether the sudden celebrity that the television had bestowed on him would be filed by his friends in the compartment of hilarious gossip or in the still empty compartment destined to receive the most unredeemable figure of shit that a boy from his spoiled and lazy tribe had ever run into.

It was pointless to pretend that Samuel's tender age kept him from intuiting what had been immediately clear to the others: someone on TV was suggesting that his father had fucked his girl. And when I say “girl” I mean a kid of twelve and a half with pumpkin-colored hair and a weaselly, freckled face. But when I say “fuck” I mean fuck. And so it was something huge, tremendously serious, too brutal to take in, even for a wife and two sons who, for some time already, had been asking themselves if that husband and father was really the irreproachable citizen whom it had always been natural to feel proud of.

The expression “for some time already” alludes to the first legal troubles that had hit Leo, imprinting a despicable mark of suspicion the exemplary career of one of the boldest lions of pediatric oncology in the country with a despicable mark of suspicion. One of those doctors who, when the old nurse was filling in the picture for her newly hired colleague, merited comments like “a real gentleman! He never forgets to say ‘thank you,' ‘you're welcome,' ‘please.' Plus, he's such a hunk!” On the other side, in the stifling waiting rooms of the Santa Cristina hospital, where the mothers of the sick children exchanged timid impressions about the nightmare that their offspring's childhood had become, it wasn't unusual to come upon such dialogues as: “He's so available. You can call him at any hour of the day. And also at night . . . ”

“I find him reassuring. Always smiling, positive.”

“And then he's so good with the children . . . ”

While the ringing of the telephone began to give rhythm, expression, frenzy to a shame that until a few seconds earlier would have been inconceivable, Leo, at the height of confusion, felt that the meal just eaten was the last that his loved ones would grant him. Then he considered the thousand other things that from that moment on would be barred to him. And perhaps it was in order not to collapse, not to give way under the weight of panic and sentimentality, not to burst into tears like an infant in front of his children and his wife, that he took refuge in a petulant and hate-filled thought.

Finally she had done it: the girl whom his son had brought home about a year earlier—and whom he and Rachel, the most open and moderate couple in their circle, had welcomed without objections—had succeeded in destroying his life. His and that of the three people he loved most.

So is this how it has to end? Leo caught himself thinking.

Wrong question, old man. What's the sense of talking about the end when we're only at the beginning?

 

All this happened at a propitious moment.

The moment when Olgiata—that exclusive residential district set in acres of woods, dotted with villas, their gardens perennially in flower, and bounded by massive walls—suddenly emptied out. Like that, like a beach at sunset.

It was like being trapped in an immense amusement park a couple of minutes after closing time. Traces of the athletic energy so abundant during the day were scattered everywhere: the leather Adidas ball stuck in the hedge; the worn-out skateboard overturned on the brick driveway; the orange plastic float bobbing on the oily, sparkling surface of a pool; a pair of maxi rackets, watered by timed sprays set in motion without warning by a click.

Of course, you might also come upon the jogger, in sweat shorts, with a towel over his shoulders, like Rocky Balboa, or the young father returning breathless from the supermarket—a package of diapers in one hand, condoms in the other.

But except for these off-duty loners—these strike-breakers of the evening siesta—all the others had, almost in unison, holed up in their habitations: villas that were a jumble of inconsistent and eclectic architecture, some sober, others garish (the hacienda style had lately been replacing the fashion for alpine chalets). Seeing those houses from the outside, you could imagine the basement playrooms, where everything was as it should be: the fireplace, the baseboards nibbled by green mold, the crocheted doilies, the piles of illustrated magazines, the maple boxes full of lavender leaves, the billiard table tightly covered by a cloth, like a corpse in the morgue, a potbellied television from which the tentacular tangle of wires from the VHS and the Atari console unspooled. You could smell the fake country scent of the logs, of the pinecones, of the bundles of newspapers yellowing like the ping-pong balls hidden in the shadows, wary and motionless as detectives.

It was only an instant. An instant outside the galaxy. An instant of supernatural relaxation. The instant when the epiphany of family life celebrated daily in that district, twenty miles from the center of Rome, reached its apex. A truly touching moment, after which everything would start moving again, on the way to decline.

In a few minutes the inhabitants of Olgiata, orphaned by the Filipino maids, who were off duty on Sunday, would pour into the streets to occupy, in military fashion, with their very clean cars and their shameless vitality, the parking lots of the pizzerias on the outskirts. Because, despite the feeling of satiety inspired by the persistent odor of barbecue hovering in the air, they all intended to end the day with a flourish by gorging on tomato bruschetta and strawberries with cream.

But for now they were all at home. The younger children quarreling with their mothers because they didn't want to have a bath; the older ones being scolded because they'd been spending much too much time in the bathroom lately. As for the parents, some were in boxers and T-shirts relaxing beside the pool with a glass of Chardonnay, their legs crossed. Some couldn't stop teasing the ears of the Lab. Some had trouble abandoning the canasta game. Some were making snacks of olives and miniature hot dogs for the guests. Some were packing suitcases for distant journeys; others getting out their clothes for the next day . . . Everything was a promise, everything was enveloped in romantic expectation. The only anxiety was that produced by the fear of not tasting to the fullest the warm, coppery light of that special moment. Which this time, by sheer chance, coincided with the appearance of a photograph of Leo on television screens all tuned to the same channel (in those years the TV offerings were limited): grainy and pitiless, suspended over the right shoulder of the natty-looking anchorman on the eight-o'clock news.

A photo that did not do justice to our man. A photo that none of the people watching the screen who knew Professor Pontecorvo well would have considered faithful to the original. Part passport photo, part mug shot, it showed Leo looking yellowish and weary. Nothing like the man who, at the age of forty-eight, was traversing that happy period in the life of males where nature seems to have found a balance, as perfect as it is ephemeral, between youthful energy and mature virility. Even though the dorsal spine of that handsome, long-limbed man, after almost half a century of overwork, was curving under the two hundred pounds of a tall and in its way solemn body, it was still straight enough to allow Leo's figure to tower in all its vigorous authority.

Outside Italy the beauty of his face would have been called Italian. In Italy, on the other hand, it would have been dismissed as Middle Eastern. Curly hair similar to that of a walk-on in a film about the life of Moses; olive skin that on contact with sunlight immediately took on toasted tones; eyes of an elongated shape supplied with two precious green pearls; ears as robust as the nose (both paid fervent tribute to Judaism); and those lips—the secret was there, in those lips—voluptuous, ironic, pouting.

Here were the good things that that photo had been unable to take account of. (I knew Leo Pontecorvo well enough to be able to say that for him the tragedy of that appearance on TV was also a tragedy of vanity.)

And yet, all things considered, that unfaithful representation had a meaning. It expressed a threat. A qualitative leap in the bestiality of the aggression whose victim Leo had been for several weeks. And primarily it signified something very precise and extremely disturbing: this time Leo Pontecorvo could not and must not be deceived—he had to give up hope, expect no allowances. They would come as far as this to hunt him down, maybe that very evening. In the middle of a fierce and splendid summer. That was the meaning of that photograph. That was what that photograph—appearing brutally on the TV screen—was promising him.

They would chase him out of domestic intimacy by force, like a mouse from its hole. To let public resentment feed on him just as he was now: barefoot, in khaki Bermuda shorts and wrinkled blue shirt, disastrously perched on a stool in the elegant kitchen that looked out on a garden enjoying in blessed peace, like everything else out there, the last candied scraps of day.

No, they would not be intimidated by the dwelling that he, in due course, had had built in the lush belly of Olgiata, in the likeness of the human being that he wished to appear to be: sober, modern, eclectic, ironic, and above all transparent. The house of a designer rather than of a medical celebrity, whose massive plate-glass windows, especially at night when the lights were on, let you glimpse the comfortable life that was going on inside: a lack of modesty that Rachel—a woman not culturally equipped to live in a shop window—had done all she could to neutralize by means of heavy curtains, whose installation at the start of every autumn was the occasion of one of the most classic conjugal arguments.

On the other hand, when Leo had decided to live there, in a place like that, in a house of that type, he had met with resistance far more authoritative than that presented by the curtains of his young and at least for now devoted consort.

“If only you would come with me . . . you'd realize that the place gives you such a sense of protection.”

Those were the words that Leo recalled saying to his mother twenty years earlier on that fateful evening when he had communicated to her his intention of selling the apartment in the center of Rome that she had generously if incautiously put in his name, and buying a lot in Olgiata where he would build a “house just for us.”

“And from what, exactly, would you need to be protected?”

Leo had perceived in his mother's voice a ripple of disappointment, an expression of that woman's increasing impatience with her only son: the
bechor
who, according to her, the older he got the less able he was to look after himself.

“I suppose it's your wife's idea?” She had laid it on. “Is she the one who put it into your head to go and live in the sticks? Another of her schemes to keep you a safe distance from me? She's the one who's trap-shooting with my money, with my patience, with my feelings?”

“Come on, Mamma. It's my idea. Leave Rachel out of it.”

“Only when you can explain to me what sort of name Rachel is! It seems right out of the pages of the Bible . . . ”

Was it possible that he, who had been seriously considered by rigorous committees, which had judged him fit for a prestigious post in the hospital; he, whose profession expected him to announce to distraught and incredulous parents that their children were as good as dead; he, who was capable of striking fear in students nearly his age, and whom many, even then, considered the designated heir of the academic domain belonging to the very powerful Professor Meyer—was it really
he
, here, who was still unable to stand up to a mother past sixty?

If he had been able to, of course, he would not have felt the need to communicate to her where he intended to live. If the apartment in the center was his, if she had deeded it to him, why go on and on like that? Why not sell it and be done with it? Why so childishly seek her consent? And why, in spite of knowing that he couldn't obtain it, and now that she had, in fact, refused it, was he incensed?

That woman's capacity to exasperate him. Her talent for driving him into a corner. For making him feel that he was the capricious son he had in fact never been. The charisma of that woman. The stubbornness. Her talent for interfering. Her indestructible, matronly conviction of being right. The whole seasoned with a sarcasm that in recent times—ever since her son had informed her, not without difficulty, that Rachel Spizzichino would soon be her daughter-in-law—had become extremely sharp.

That's how he had gotten caught up in this business of protection and security.

Pressed by his mother, who continued to ask for an account of his crazy idea of going to live “in the sticks,” Leo had begun to mumble something pompous about the dangerous time they lived in, all that wretched political antagonism, about his old dream of living in a place that was green, about how he and his young wife already felt a responsibility toward the children they would have, and how that mania for protecting their young had been stimulated by a visit to the neighborhood, which was equipped with checkpoints, security guards, tall fences, green lawns, and sports facilities, all in the most absolute safety . . .

“If it's armed people and tall fences you're looking for, then you might as well go and live in Israel like that fanatical cousin of yours.”

BOOK: Persecution (9781609458744)
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