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Spring  13  Where the river is bluer

(Italo Calvino — Primavera  13  Dov’è più azzurro il fiume)

There was a time when the simplest foods contained threats, hidden dangers and frauds. Not a day went by without some newspaper reporting horrifying discoveries facing shoppers at the market: cheese was made of plastic, butter with tallow candles, the percentage of arsenic from insecticides concentrated in fruit and vegetables was higher than that of vitamins, chickens stuffed with synthetic pills to fatten them up could turn anyone who ate a chicken leg into a chicken. ‘Fresh’ fish had been fished the previous year in Iceland and had make-up put on their eyes so it seemed they’d been caught yesterday. A mouse had popped out of certain bottles of milk; it wasn’t clear whether it was alive or dead. From some bottles of oil it wasn’t the golden juice of the olive that flowed, but the fat of old mules, cunningly distilled.

At work or in the café, Marcovaldo listened to these things being discussed, and each time he felt as if a mule had kicked him in the stomach, or a mouse had run down his throat. At home, when his wife Domitilla came back from shopping, the sight of her shopping bag, which once had brought him such joy, with the celery, the aubergines, the coarse, porous paper around the packages from the grocer and the pork butcher, now struck fear into him, as if enemy presences had infiltrated the walls of the house.

‘All my efforts must be directed,’ he promised himself, ‘to providing the family with food which hasn’t passed through the hands of treacherous speculators.’ In the mornings, going to work, he sometimes met men with rod and line and rubber boots, heading for the riverbank. ‘That’s the way to go,’ Marcovaldo said to himself. But the river there in the city, which collected rubbish, wastewater and sewage, inspired a profound repugnance in him. ‘I must look for a place,’ he said to himself, ‘where the water is really water, and the fish are really fish. That’s where I’ll throw my line.’

The days were beginning to lengthen; on his moped, Marcovaldo ventured after work to explore the river in its course upstream from the city, and its little tributaries. He was most interested in the stretches where the water ran furthest from the asphalt road. He made his way along tracks, through scrubby willows, as far as his moped would allow, then, leaving it in a bush, continued on foot until he arrived at the stream. Once he got lost; he wandered along steep overgrown slopes, having lost sight of any track, and no longer knowing on which side the river was; then suddenly, pushing aside a few branches, he saw, a few metres below, the silent water. It was a widening of the river, almost a calm little pond, so blue in colour that it seemed like a mountain lake.

Emotion didn’t prevent him from looking closely down through the gentle ripples of the current. And there they were; his determination had been rewarded! A flash, the unmistakeable dart of a fin cutting through the surface, and then another, and yet another: a happy sight his eyes could hardly believe. This was the place where all the fish in the river congregated, a fisherman’s paradise, perhaps still undiscovered by anyone except him. On the way back — it was already growing dark — he stopped to carve marks on the bark of the elms, and to pile up stones at particular spots, so as to be able to find the track again.

Now he only needed to get hold of equipment. In truth, he had already thought about it; amongst his neighbours and the people working at his firm he had already identified ten or a dozen passionate fishermen. With half-suggestions and hints, promising to tell each of them, as soon as he was sure of it himself, about a place full of tench known only to himself, he managed to borrow, with a bit from one person and a bit from another, the most complete collection of fishing gear ever seen.

At this point he lacked nothing: rod, line, hooks, bait, landing net, boots, fish basket, a morning (at last!) with two hours — six to eight — to spend before going to work, the river with the tench… What was to stop him catching them? And sure enough, he only had to throw out his line and he caught them; the unsuspecting tench swallowed the bait. Seeing that it was so easy with the line, he tried with the net; the tench were so obliging as to fall over themselves into it.

When the time came to leave, his fish basket was almost full. He looked for a track, walking upstream by the river.

‘Hey, you!’ At a bend in the bank, amongst the poplars, a chap was standing with an official’s cap on, staring unpleasantly at him.

‘Me? What’s the problem?’ said Marcovaldo, fearing an unknown threat to his tench.

‘Where did you catch those fish there?’

‘Eh? Why?’ Marcovaldo’s heart was already in his mouth.

‘If you’ve caught them downstream, throw them away at once. Didn’t you see the factory upriver here?’ And he pointed to a long, low building, beyond the willows, which had come into view now that Marcovaldo had followed a bend in the river, and which was belching smoke into the air and a dense cloud of an incredible colour, between turquoise and violet, into the water. ‘You must at least have seen the colour of the water! It’s a paint factory. The river is poisoned because of that blue, and so are the fish. Throw them back now, or I’ll confiscate them!’

Marcovaldo would by now have liked to throw them far away as soon as he could, just to get rid of them, as if the smell alone were enough to poison him. But he didn’t want to look an idiot in front of the official. ‘And suppose I caught them further up?’

‘Then that’s another matter. I’ll confiscate them and fine you. Above the factory there’s a fishing reserve. D’you see the sign?’

‘To be honest,’ said Marcovaldo quickly, ‘ I’m carrying the rod and line like this so my friends will think I’ve caught them, but actually I bought the fish from the fishmonger in the village near here.’

‘No problem, then. There’s just the tax to pay, to take them back to town; we’re outside the city limits here.’

Marcovaldo had already opened the fish basket and was emptying it into the river. Some of the tench must still have been alive, because they darted away perfectly happy.