A Stranger’s Story

(Eugenio Montale — Racconto d’uno Sconosciuto)

‘Perhaps you remember having seen the Amico delle famiglie in my house? Every Saturday morning the postman delivered to me, through the railings of our gate, our copy of this innocuous magazine — I don’t remember whether you would call it parochial or missionary — to which a certain aunt living at Pietrasanta had subscribed for life; and I would open it, glance anxiously at the puzzles and games page, and then announce in a triumphant voice: “Buganza!”

From inside the house, my father gave a grunt of deep satisfaction.

Amid the many causes of disagreement prevailing between me and him, one at least, the anxious need which the name of the Very Reverend Father Buganza unfailingly called forth, every weekend, amongst the ‘solvers’ of the Amico’s puzzles (anagrams, rebuses and charades), from whose company one reader, drawn by lot, would receive an edifying book, constituted an element of cohesion, a thread which kept me attached to my parent. To the simple-minded mania of the aged ecclesiastic, who of course would have felt it dishonourable not to respond to the weekly call, there corresponded in a certain manner that of our expectation, always hopeful and always rewarded. At that time there were no such things as crossword puzzles; but what was happening to us will show that, despite this lack, certain intersecting destinies did exist. And now I’ll tell you what happened next.

I couldn’t say who, as between my father and me, had at first settled on this strange practice. The Very Reverend gentleman was a stranger to us, he didn’t live in our city, nor did we ever bother to find out anything about him: that he was old was simply our assumption. The fact is that for many years (how many?) he had never been missing from that list of winners’ names, and by this time he had become a necessity to us, a part of our most jealously maintained habits. What would he have said had he realised the abyss which he was excavating beneath our feet? Perhaps he would have judged it the work of the devil. And yet, at that time, it was a ritual we observed most carefully. The city was changing fast, opening up to the sinister influx of modernity. Instead of cafés, bars were arriving, on whose stools were roosting strange young people in bowler hats and frock coats, who fed themselves night and day on potato crisps and Americani, if not yet the stronger cocktails. Likewise there was a feverish increase in theatres, where Viennese operettas had taken the place of La Gran Via, of Boccaccio, and of the other consolations our fathers had enjoyed. “Girly” revues didn’t yet exist, but variety shows with their starlets and chanteuses, and the first experiments in the cinematograph, were opening vast possibilities for the corruption of youth. Even I, who didn’t go to such places, had stuck onto the mirror in my bedroom the portrait of the adorable star for whom, one fine day, the name of a venerable crowned head of Europe would be altered to “Cleopoldo”. When my father discovered the portrait, a violent row erupted between us. I threatened to pack my bags and to gain, at last, my “independence”. But I didn’t have a farthing, and could I leave, on a Friday, without waiting for the visit of the Very Reverend gentleman? The next morning, Buganza, the winner of a life of the Blessed San Benedetto Giuseppe Labre, arrived in order to seal — in hoc signo! — our reconciliation.

Life ran on, unchanging, in this way. Month by month, year by year, Buganza continued to bind us together. My father lived between the house and the office (where my brothers, who were properly independent, helped him); I lived between the house and the arcades of the city’s new streets, unemployed. I was seeking a job worthy of me and of my aptitudes, that goes without saying; but what these aptitudes were, neither I nor my father had ever been able to identify. Amongst our old-established families there was always one son, usually the last, the favourite, who was not expected to occupy a respectable position. Youngest son of a widowed father, somewhat delicate since infancy, and filled with indefinable vocations of a non-commercial kind, my fifteenth, then my twentieth, then my twenty-fifth birthdays passed without my having taken a decision. The war came, which didn’t prise me from the house, then the after-war years, the economic crisis, and the great revolution which was supposed to save us from the horrors of Bolshevism. Business was going badly; you couldn’t get import licences unless you stuffed fat envelopes addressed to the offices of commendatori in Rome. But Buganza continued his visits, uninterrupted, and in our life there was a certain stability, a certain something which “held”.

One Saturday morning, there was a more than usually fierce altercation between my father and me. Some thugs had slapped my face in the street, because I hadn’t raised my hand to salute a camicia nera, and my old man maintained that they had been quite right to do so: my recklessness merited no better. The Amico delle famiglie arrived, I opened it casually, only to behold the most improbable thing, the thing which changed the whole course of our life: Buganza’s name wasn’t there!

“Buganza, goodbye!” I shouted after a brief silence; and having repaired to my bedroom I began making preparations for departure. I had decided on the fatal blow; the thread had been broken, the chain snapped; now that Buganza’s “continuo” had disappeared from our life, everything could and must change. A new existence was beginning, and it didn’t matter that I knew neither where nor how. My father acknowledged the blow with dignity, and made no further comment. But I saw that as he was watering the dahlias in the garden he looked frailer and more worried than usual, although he had no suspicion of my decision. For the rest of the day, part of the night and then the next day I was busy destroying old papers (and the portrait of Cléo de Mérode, rediscovered after years, suffered the same fate), while packing others. Unhurriedly I prepared two suitcases. Resolved as I was, what could frighten me? The following Saturday would not have found me at home, and besides, any foreseeable reappearance of the spectral priest was no longer to be feared. Buganza had interrupted his rhythm, broken his word; from now on he would be a nonentity in my life, and I could do without him. Having prepared myself for all eventualities, I felt safe from any danger, and took pleasure in prolonging the eve of my departure and savouring its sweetness. One by one I walked down the streets I had known in infancy, and retraced the routes I had followed for years when going to school; I had no friends, but I didn’t neglect a few farewell visits, not hinting at my departure and amazing everyone by my strange conversation. In the end I told my father that I needed to go away for a few days, and I don’t know whether he suspected anything further. Through the week I exchanged a few monosyllables with him. The brief days of delay I had allowed myself flew by almost without my realising it; and I didn’t notice that another Saturday had dawned until a whistle from the postman drew me back to our gate, and the greenish cover of the Amico was once more before my eyes. I opened the magazine without feeling; whether the spectre were there or not, what did it matter? Yes, the name was restored to its usual place, but a note at the bottom of the puzzles and games page struck me an unexpected blow. “We do apologise,” it said, “that due to a error on the part of our diligent printing overseer, there was omitted from last week’s edition the name of the Very Reverend D. F. Buganza, to whom we offer, with our apologies, etc., etc…”

The Amico delle famiglie slipped from my hand.

After a brief silence I went to my father, who was absorbed in reading the Caffaro, and I announced, “He’s back, did you know?”

“Who? Buganza?”

“Him. He never went away. It was a printing error. I thought it was strange anyway.”

“So did I,” said my dad with a sigh of relief.

Half an hour later I began to unpack my bags. It was no go! The chain which I had deceived myself I wanted to smash into pieces was stronger than before. And now that my father is no more, and that the Amico has disappeared and the Very Reverend Father has followed the same path, and my house is still standing, only a powerful bomb could… But not for the time being, I’d say. D’you hear? The all-clear is sounding. We can go up again.’

A hoarse whistle from the siren, a delicately waning F, did indeed penetrate from outside. I saw the stranger get up, take his friend by the arm and set forth, to finish his story in the open air.