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Summer  14  Moon and GNAC

(Italo Calvino — Estate  14  Luna e Gnac)

Night lasted twenty seconds, and GNAC lasted twenty seconds. For twenty seconds you could see the blue sky flecked with black clouds, the sickle of the golden crescent moon fringed by an impalpable halo, and then stars which, the more you looked at them, the more their spiky tininess thickened to the dust cloud of the Milky Way; all this viewed in great haste, each detail on which your eye settled being a fragment of the whole which was then lost to you, because the twenty seconds suddenly finished and GNAC began.

GNAC was a part of the advertising sign SPAAK-COGNAC on the roof opposite, which lit up for twenty seconds and went dark for twenty, and when it was lit up nothing else could be seen. The moon suddenly faded, the sky became uniformly black and flat, the stars lost their brilliance, and the male and female cats that for the last ten seconds had been uttering their amorous miaows, moving languidly towards each other along the gutters and the roof edges, now, during GNAC, crouched on the tiles with their fur bristling in the phosphorescent neon light.

At the window of the attic apartment where they lived, contrasting currents of thought were going through the minds of Marcovaldo’s family. It was night, and Isolina, who was a big girl now, felt herself transported by the moonlight, her heart consumed with yearning, and even the most muffled crackle from a radio on the lower floors of the building came to her ears like the melody of a serenade; GNAC came on, and that radio seemed to take on a different rhythm, a jazz rhythm, and Isolina thought of brightly lit dance halls, and of her, poor thing, left up in the attic all alone. Pietruccio and Michelino gazed wide-eyed into the night and let themselves be invaded by a warm, cuddly fear of being surrounded by forests full of brigands; then, GNAC!, and they leapt up with thumbs erect and index fingers extended, one against the other: ‘Hands up! I’m Superman!’ Domitilla, their mother, at each plunge into darkness, thought, ‘We must get the children to bed; this air can’t be good for them. And Isolina showing herself at the window at this time of night: it’s improper!’ But then everything was luminous and electric again, outside and in, and Domitilla felt as if she were being introduced into the home of a distinguished family.

Fiordaligi, on the other hand, a melancholy youth, saw, each time GNAC went out, the faintly illuminated window of a dormer apartment within the loop of the G, and behind the glass the face of a moon-coloured, neon-coloured, light-shining-in-the-night-coloured girl, her mouth still almost that of a child which, as soon as he smiled at her, opened a little tiny bit and seemed to widen into a smile; when suddenly out of the darkness that pitiless G of GNAC stood out again, and the face lost its outlines, was transformed into a faint pale shadow, and he could no longer tell from the girlish mouth whether it had responded to his smile.

In the midst of this storm of passions, Marcovaldo was trying to teach his children the positions of the heavenly bodies.

‘That is the Big Dipper, one two three four and there’s the handle; that is the Little Dipper; and the Pole Star shows us north.’

‘And that other one, what does that show?’

‘That one shows us C. It’s nothing to do with the stars. It’s the last letter of the word COGNAC. But the stars show us the points of the compass: north, south, east, west. The moon has its bulge towards the west. Bulge to the west, waxing moon. Bulge to the east, waning moon.

‘So the cognac is waning, Daddy? The C has its bulge to the east!’

‘It’s got nothing to do with waxing or waning; it’s writing put there by the Spaak company.’

‘And which company put the moon there?’

‘No company put the moon there. It’s a satellite, and it’s always the same.’

‘If it’s always the same, why does it change its bulge?’

‘Those are its quarters. You’re only seeing a piece of it.’

‘And you only see a piece of COGNAC.’

‘That’s because the roof of the Pierbernardi building, which is higher, is in the way.’

‘Is it higher than the moon?’

And so, with each illumination of GNAC, Marcovaldo’s stars were muddled up with terrestrial businesses, and Isolina transformed a sigh into the panting breath of a hummed mambo, and the girl in the garret disappeared in that dazzling, cold ring of light, hiding her response to the kiss that Fiordaligi had finally plucked up the courage to blow her from the tips of his fingers, and Filippetto and Michelino played at aerial machine-gun fire with their fists before their faces — ‘Ta-ta-ta-ta’ — against the luminous lettering, which went dark after twenty seconds.

‘Ta-ta-ta… Daddy, did you see how I put it out with only one burst?’ said Filippetto, but already, without the neon light, his warlike fantasy had vanished and his eyes were filling with sleep.

‘I wish you had!’ his father exclaimed. ‘I wish you had shot it to pieces. Then I would show you Leo — that’s the lion — and Gemini — that’s the twins.’

‘The lion?’ Michelino was fired with enthusiasm. ‘Wait!’ He’d had an idea. He took his catapult, loaded it with the little stones of which he always kept a supply in his pocket, and fired a volley of pebbles with all his strength at GNAC.

They could hear the hail of pebbles spattering on the tiles of the roof opposite, on the sheet metal of the eaves, the clinking of struck windowpanes, the clang of a pebble banging on the casing of a streetlamp, and a voice in the street: ‘It’s raining stones. Hey up there! Rascal!’ But the luminous sign had gone out for its twenty seconds just at the moment of the shot. And in the attic they all began mentally to count: one two three, ten eleven, up to twenty. They counted nineteen, they held their breath, they counted twenty, they counted twenty-one twenty-two, fearing that they had counted too fast, but no, nothing, GNAC didn’t light up again; it remained a black, barely decipherable squiggle on its supporting frame, like vines on a pergola. ‘Aaah!’ they all shouted, and the dome of the sky, infinitely studded with stars, rose above them.

Marcovaldo froze, his hand in mid-air for the smack he was going to give Michelino. He felt as if he were projected into space. The darkness which now reigned at rooftop level made a kind of opaque barrier, cutting out the world below, where yellow, green and red hieroglyphs, the blinking eyes of traffic lights, the luminous progress of empty trams, and invisible cars spilling in front of them cones of light from their headlights, continued to swirl. From that world there ascended only a diffuse phosphorescence, insubstantial as smoke. And when they looked up, no longer dazzled, the whole prospect of space opened to them, the constellations deepened, the firmament revolved on every side, a sphere containing everything and contained within no limits, and only one thinning of its weft, like a breach, opened towards Venus, making it stand out alone above the backdrop of the earth, with its fixed stab of light exploded and concentrated in one spot.

Suspended in this sky, the new moon, rather than offering the abstracted appearance of a half moon, revealed its true nature as an opaque sphere lit all around by the slanting rays of the sun now lost to the earth, but still keeping — as can only be seen on certain nights in early summer — its warm colour. And Marcovaldo, looking at that narrow strand of moon, slivered between shadow and light, felt a nostalgic longing, a desire to step onto a beach which had miraculously remained sunlit in the night.

So they remained there at the window of the attic, the children scared by the immeasurable consequences of their action, Isolina rapt as if in ecstasies, and Fiordaligi, alone in the group, descrying the dimly lit garret and, at last, the girl’s moonlike smile. The children’s mother roused herself: ‘Now then, now then, it’s late; what are you doing leaning out of the window? You’ll catch a chill, with that bright moon!’

Michelino pointed his catapult upwards. ‘And I’ll put the moon out!’ He was grabbed and bundled off to bed.

So, for the rest of that night and the whole of the night following, the illuminated sign on the roof opposite only said SPAAK-CO, and from Marcovaldo’s garret the firmament could be seen. Fiordaligi and the moonlike girl blew each other kisses from the tips of their fingers, and perhaps, using sign language, might have managed to arrange a meeting.

But on the morning of the second day, on the roof amongst the framework of the illuminated sign, the slight forms of two electricians in overalls stood out, checking the tubes and the wires. With the air of an old-timer predicting the weather to come, Marcovaldo stuck his nose out of the window and said, ‘Tonight will be a GNAC night again.’

Someone knocked at the door of the garret. They opened. It was a bespectacled gentleman. ‘I do beg your pardons; might I take a look from your window? Thank you.’ And he introduced himself: ‘Dottor Godifredo, illuminated advertising executive.’

‘We’re ruined! They want to make us pay for the damage!’ thought Marcovaldo, with a murderous look at his children, forgetful of his astronomical raptures. ‘Now he’s looking from the window and he’s worked out that the stones couldn’t have been fired from anywhere but here.’ He tried to own up: ‘They’re only kids, you know, they fire little stones like that, at sparrows, I don’t know how it came about that they damaged that Spaak sign. But I’ve punished them, oh, have I punished them! And you can be sure that it won’t happen again.’

Dottor Godifredo looked at Marcovaldo attentively. ‘To tell you the truth, I work for Cognac Tomawak, not for Spaak. I’ve come to look at the possibility of an illuminated advertisement on that roof. But tell me, tell me all the same; I’m interested.’

So it was that half an hour later Marcovaldo concluded a contract with Cognac Tomawak, Spaak’s principal competitor. The children were to fire their catapult at GNAC every time the sign was reactivated.

‘That should be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,’ said Dottor Godifredo. He wasn’t wrong. Already on the verge of bankruptcy because of the high cost of sustained advertising campaigns, Spaak saw the continual breakdowns of its finest illuminated advertisement as a bad omen. The sign which now said COGAC, now CONAC, now CONC introduced the thought of insolvency to creditors’ minds; at a certain point the advertising agency refused to make further repairs if its arrears weren’t paid; the extinguished sign increased alarm amongst the creditors. Spaak collapsed.

In Marcovaldo’s sky the round disc of the full moon showed in all its splendour.

It was in its last quarter when the electricians returned to clamber on the roof opposite. And that night, in letters of fire, letters twice as tall and thick as before, COGNAC TOMAWAK could be read, and there was no more moon nor firmament nor sky nor night, only COGNAC TOMAWAK, COGNAC TOMAWAK, COGNAC TOMAWAK lighting up and going dark every two seconds.

The person worst affected of all was Fiordaligi; the moonlike girl’s little window had disappeared behind an enormous, impenetrable W.