Donna Juanita

(Eugenio Montale — Donna Juanita)

The unsteady drone from a radio came through an open window. Gerda impatiently closed the window and turned towards Filippo, looking at him with half-shut eyes, like a tiger about to spring.

‘Don’t abandon me now the first experiment has gone so well. I need a second suite italiana for my series. This is how I make my living, you know. Is it possible that here in this room no object — a picture, a book, a pot, a flower, a photograph — has triggered an inspiration? Let yourself go; I must fish something absolutely spontaneous out of you. Spontaneity isn’t my forte: you can vouch for that, as you’ve found to your cost.’

‘No,’ said Filippo. ‘Here in this room, apart from you, nothing has spoken to my heart. But outside, oh, outside! You’ve no idea who has been shut out on the other side of the window.’

‘Who then?’ asked Gerda, looking curiously down the street. ‘Someone who wished to enchant me?’

‘A lady: Donna Juanita. The music which you abruptly dismissed was her; or rather, the overture from Suppé’s comic opera which bears that name. But it has restored her absolutely to me, in person.’

‘A first love?’ asked Gerda.

‘Perhaps a longer-lasting feeling. As I child I hated her; as a man I pitied her; then I forgot her… until the moment when I heard that overture again…

Donna Juanita came down to the beach to bathe, about midday, wrapped in a huge dressing gown and protected by a wide straw hat with a chinstrap. Tanned and beautiful, she didn’t permit indiscreet glances, and when she undressed, in the only cabin there, she was even more dressed than before. Skirt, underskirt down to the ankles, gloves, rope-soled shoes, dark glasses, her hat exchanged for a dark-coloured turban: a complete outfit which swelled when she was in the water and made her not so much a bather as an enormous jellyfish. She didn’t swim; she sat on the water, floating with great dignity. The shelve of the beach was not shallow, and everyone knew that after two metres you couldn’t touch the bottom. But she already had her fixed itinerary. With a flick of her tail she reached the first rock, the “carregún”, so called because it was shaped like an armchair; and there Juanita sat with her slippers in the water and her eyes proudly turned toward her balcony, suspended over the sea. Then she glided once more on Thetis’ bosom (the only bosom visible in that situation), the folds of her tunic extending to leeward and taking her to the “little rock”, where she planned a second stop; and then to the “middle rock”, a low platform, almost an atoll, bristling with sea urchins and razor-sharp clams; there too, half in and half out, Juanita rested for a few moments. Lastly there was the final flight: the “great rock”, ten metres of proper swimming and a clamber up to the pointed summit of the pyramid-shaped rock, which afforded a general view of her cream-coloured villa, built by the power of explosives and money on a high and impractical outcrop.

The stepping stones of the return trip were the same, in reverse order. Back on land, Juanita let her balloon deflate and drip, threw on a second dressing gown before her attire could assume a form outlining her shape, and retraced her steps up across the pebbles to her house. Behind her, an obliging servant closed a bull’s-blood-coloured barred gate. How old could she have been then? Perhaps less than forty.

From the height of a pine wood which overlooked her garden I observed her then with her two daughters, Pilar and Estrellita, lounging in a deckchair, absorbed in sipping maté and reading Caras y Caretas and Scena Illustrata, the only publications which penetrated those walls. Don Pedro, her husband, didn’t read even these; he walked back and forth on the terrace with his panama on his head; he had long soft moustaches, a clean-shaven chin, and he wore showy cravats and shirts of raw silk. His principal occupation was to follow the progress of the family mausoleum being built for him in the village cemetery; he wanted it to be a temple, of Carrara marble, with multiple spires, worthy of his lineage. The family was providing lengthy hospitality to a sculptor from Pietrasanta, the same man to whom they had entrusted the creation of the mighty Neptune and the other sea gods who were supporting on their shoulders the huge oyster which was their terrace. But the statues, beaten by the sea storms and the south-west wind, were each losing either a foot or a hand, and the situation remained thus for years. It finished in an interminable lawsuit because Don Pedro, taken with wild political ambitions, put himself forward as a candidate in the constituency, as representative of the party of order, losing by a narrow margin to a radical candidate who had, moreover, spent less than he had, so that he found himself in the position of not being able to satisfy the demands of his greedy artist. Don Pedro de Lagorio (do change his name, I beg you) did not survive the blow. He was taken to a mental hospital and died soon afterwards, roaring. (It’s certain that the electoral canvassers who had proclaimed him “the lion of the two coasts”, to impress those who, like him, had made a bit of money on the other shore, three thousand leagues distant, had not foreseen this.)

And after that, the zabaglione-coloured villa stayed closed.

Doña Juanita took hold of her babies, her “cocorite” as she liked to call them, whom no one had ever seen on the beach, and departed for La Boca, the Italian suburb of Buenos Aires where the lion had sharpened his claws and taken his first steps towards wealth.

Back to her homeland, you say? No; Italy was her country, and the lion was home-grown too. He arrived at La Boca as a lad, to which place, once he had made his “shavings” (that is to say, his loot), he had imported his “Gioannina” from her native country, to marry her; she was a cousin of his, although he knew little more of her than from a photograph. Giovannina’s transformation to Donna Juanita occurred there, as the years passed in an avenida of shopkeepers where people spoke the argot of Cicagna or Borzonasca rather than Cocoliche, the immigrants’ creole. Down there the plump butterfly emerged from her chrysalis, never managing to learn the new language, while half forgetting her own dialect and almost all her Italian, which she had never understood too well anyway. From girlhood she had always been a prisoner in the house or in the nuns’ kindergarten. She knew nothing of life. Her beloved music she had learned when she was little, listening at the puppet theatre to Il diluvio universale, with Barudda, the shipbuilder. (Barudda, make sure you get this right, is a sort of Ligurian version of the comic character Brighella.) Even God came on stage in the form of an eye inserted into a cardboard triangle. From the centre of the pupil a ray of light sprang out, produced by a dangling candle, and at that moment an automatic piano, worked by cranking handle, replaced the angels’ song with one which it was better able to spout: the aria of the three thieves, from Chueca’s zarzuela La Gran Via.

As you see, since she died I’ve made a few enquiries into Donna Juanita’s past. I’ve even discovered the plotline of the zarzuela which seals her fate. Not with three but with two thieves, she returned to the villa after the exodus. She had temporarily stopped the leak in her own perilous vessel, and the two daughters came back with her, married. Cleverly arranged marriages! But the illusion was to be short-lived. The two sons-in-law, Ramirez and Bertrán, haughty, rapacious and sporting long side-whiskers, played havoc with whatever worldly wealth remained, and kept the three women prisoner, raining blows and insults on them. Violent scenes occurred in the dining room dominated by signed photographs of great presidents, from the Mexican Porfirio Diaz onwards. Then, when there was nothing more to sell or smash, all three left again “for the Americas” (as our compatriots used to say), where it appears that they had a sad life and a worse end. Donna Juanita died first: she was in a hurry, for fear of finding the celestial “carregún” to which she aspired already occupied; and perhaps she attained it, accompanied by the Cavaliere di grazia arietta, if La Gran Via had left other lasting impressions on her. I don’t think the daughters had aspirations to anything, in life or in death. They never really had a home or a country or a language or a family. They never gained a proper life of their own, and perhaps they didn’t even suspect that an existence other than theirs were possible. I can’t tell you who now occupies the mausoleum constructed with such labour and expense. Perhaps other crazy members of the family, on the fringes; perhaps even the artist himself, regaining possession of his own work once more.

Is that enough for you? I know, you’d want to know the name of the place, the name of the beach, the springboard that launched the lion into the New World. In your neat portrait you’d like to insert a little boy hidden in the reeds so as to chuck a few harmless pebbles at Donna Juanita and her “cocorite”, guilty of having built a palace worthy of Semiramis in the cove where for years before there had been only Don Pedro’s father’s house. You’d want to know in what kind of land of prisoners, victims and alcoholics such histories were possible, at the dawn of a century which hadn’t yet dropped its mask of well-being and progress. You’d want to know…’

‘Oh, not to write it down,’ Gerda protested, having already inscribed a large title — UPSTARTS — on a piece of paper. ‘Come back soon; who knows, I might organise a cup of maté for you. But don’t fool yourself; any similarities between Donna Juanita and me stop there.’