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Winter  4  A city lost in the snow

(Italo Calvino — Inverno  4  La città smarrita nella neve)

That morning the silence woke him up. Marcovaldo dragged himself out of bed with a sense of something strange in the air. He didn’t know what time it was; the light between the slats of the blinds was different from that of any hour of the day or the night. He opened the window. The city was no longer there; it had been replaced by a white sheet. Straining his eyes, he made out, amid the white, a few outlines, almost erased, corresponding to those of the usual view: windows and roofs and street lamps here and there, but lost under all the snow which had fallen on them during the night.

‘Snow!’ shouted Marcovaldo to his wife, or rather he made as if to shout, but his voice was deadened as he uttered. As it had on outlines and colours and perspectives, the snow had fallen on sounds, or rather on the very possibility of making sounds; sounds don’t vibrate in a cushioned space.

He went to work on foot; the snow had stopped the trams. On the road, making his own way, he felt free as he had never felt before. In the city streets all the differences between pavements and carriageways had disappeared, vehicles couldn’t travel along them, and Marcovaldo, even as he sank halfway up his legs at each step and felt the snow leaking into his socks, had become a man in authority, able to walk in the middle of the road, to trample on the flower beds, to overstep the lane markings, to go forward zig-zag.

The streets and avenues opened before him endless and deserted, like shining gorges between mountain rocks. Who knew if the city hidden under that blanket was the same as before, or if during the night it had been exchanged for another? Who knew whether the petrol pumps, the newspaper kiosks, the tram stops were still there under those white mounds, or whether they were just heaps and heaps of snow? As he walked, Marcovaldo dreamed of getting lost in a different city; but his footsteps took him straight to his everyday place of employment, the familiar warehouse, and once he had crossed the threshold Marcovaldo the labourer was amazed to find himself again within its walls, the same as ever, as if the transformation which had wiped out the world outside had spared only his factory.

Waiting there for him was a shovel, longer than he was. The warehouse foreman, Signor Viligelmo, handing it to him, said, ‘Clearing the pavement in front of the works is our job, and that means yours.’ Marcovaldo picked up the shovel and went outside again.

Shovelling snow is no game, especially for someone who hasn’t eaten much, but Marcovaldo felt that the snow was his friend, as if it were an element annulling the walled cell in which his life was imprisoned. And he applied himself to the work at a good rate, tossing great shovelsful of snow from the pavement to the middle of the street.

Sigismondo, unemployed, was also full of gratitude to the snow, because having been hired that morning as one of the municipal shovellers, he had at last before him the prospect of a few days of guaranteed work. But his sentiment led him, rather than to vague fantasies as in Marcovaldo’s case, to quite precise calculations as to how many cubic metres of snow he had to shift in order to clear so many square metres of road; he aimed, in fact, to put himself in a good light with his team leader, and — his secret ambition — to advance his career.

Sigismondo turned round, and what did he see? The stretch of carriageway he had just cleared was again being covered with snow by the chaotic shovelling of a breathless individual over there on the pavement. He almost had a fit. He ran to confront the man, pushing Marcovaldo’s shovel, heaped up with snow, against his chest. ‘Hey, you! Is it you chucking that snow over there?’

‘Eh? What?’ said Marcovaldo, startled, but he admitted, ‘Well, perhaps it is.’

‘OK. Either you take it back sharpish with that shovel of yours, or I’ll make you eat it down to the last snowflake.’

‘But I have to clear the pavement.’

‘And I have to clear the road. So?’

‘Where should I put it?

‘You work for the city?’

‘No. For SBAV Ltd.’

Sigismondo taught him how to heap up the snow on the edge of the pavement, and Marcovaldo re-cleared the whole of Sigismondo’s stretch. Pleased with their work, their shovels planted in the snow, they stood to examine the completed job.

‘Got a fag?’ asked Sigismondo.

They were just lighting half a cigarette each when a snowplough came down the street, throwing up two great white waves which fell back on either side. That morning, every noise was only a whoosh. When the two men looked up, the whole expanse they had cleared was once more covered with snow. ‘What happened? Did it snow again?’ And they looked up at the sky. The snowplough, rotating its great brushes, was already turning the corner.

Marcovaldo learnt how to amass the snow into a compact little wall. If he carried on making little walls like that, he’d be able to build streets for himself alone, streets which would have taken him to a place only he knew, where everyone else would be lost; he’d be able to rebuild the city, to heap up mountains as high as houses, which no one would be able to distinguish from real houses. Or perhaps all the houses had already become snow houses, inside and out: a whole city of snow with its monuments and bell towers and trees, a city which could be demolished with blows of the shovel and remade in another style.

At a particular point on the edge of the pavement there was a heap of snow of impressive size. Marcovaldo was just going to level it to the height of his little walls when he realised that it was a car: the luxurious vehicle belonging to Commendatore Alboino, chairman of the board of administration, all covered in snow. Since the difference between a car and a heap of snow was so slight, Marcovaldo began with his shovel to fashion snow into the shape of a car. And it turned out well; in truth, comparing the two, you couldn’t distinguish which was the real one. To put the finishing touches to his work, he used a few bits of scrap which his shovel had come across: a rusty can was just right to suggest the shape of a headlight; with part of a tap the car door had its handle.

With much bowing and scraping of doormen, ushers and bellhops, chairman Commendatore Alboino exited the front door. Short-sighted and business-like, he marched decisively forward, in a hurry to get to his car, grabbed the protruding tap, pulled, lowered his head and slipped into the heap of snow up to his neck.

Marcovaldo had already turned the corner and was shovelling in the courtyard.

The boys living in the courtyard had made a snowman. ‘He needs a nose!’ said one of them. ‘What can we give him? A carrot!’ And they ran to their respective kitchens to search amongst the vegetables.

Marcovaldo contemplated the snowman. ‘There you have it: in the snow you can’t tell what is made of snow and what is only covered with it. Except in one case: man. Because it’s clear that I am I and not this one here.’

Absorbed in his meditations, he didn’t realise that two men were shouting from the roof, ‘Hey, mate, get away from there a bit!’ They were the men who shift snow off the roof tiles. And all at once, a load of three hundred kilos of snow plunged right on top of him.

The children came back with the carrots they’d snaffled. ‘Oh, they’ve made another snowman!’ There, in the middle of the courtyard, were two identical manikins, side by side.

‘Let’s give them both a nose!’ And they sank two carrots into the heads of the two snowmen.

Marcovaldo, more dead than alive, felt, through the envelopment in which he was buried and frozen, food reach him. And he chewed it.

Mamma mia! The carrot has disappeared!’ The children were very frightened.

The bravest of them didn’t lose his nerve. He had a spare nose, a pepper, and he applied it to the snowman. The snowman swallowed that too.

Then they tried to give him a bit of coal, one of those shaped like a stick, for a nose. Marcovaldo spat it out with all his strength. ‘Help! It’s alive! It’s alive!’ The boys ran away.

In a corner of the courtyard there was a grate from which issued a cloud of heat. Marcovaldo, with a snowman’s heavy tread, took himself over there. The snow melted off him, fell in rivulets over his clothes; and from the snowman there reappeared a Marcovaldo all puffy and bunged up with a cold.

He took the shovel, mainly to warm himself, and set to work in the courtyard. He had a sneeze which had stopped at the top of his nose; it was stuck just there, and couldn’t make up its mind to burst out. Marcovaldo shovelled, his eyes half closed, and the sneeze still stayed perched at the top of his nose. Suddenly, the ‘Aaaah…’ was almost a roar, and the ‘…chooo!’ was louder than a mine exploding. Marcovaldo was slammed against the wall by the blast.

Hardly a blast: the sneeze had caused a veritable tornado. All the snow in the courtyard rose, whirled round as if in a blizzard, and was sucked upwards, pulverised in the sky.

When Marcovaldo, having been stunned, reopened his eyes, the courtyard was completely clear, without even a flake of snow. And before his eyes there appeared the familiar courtyard, the grey walls, the crates in the warehouse: everyday things, sharp-edged and unfriendly.