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(Eugenio Montale — Dominico)

A letter from Dominico in Brazil has been my big news in recent days. The letter is written in that language of his — half American and half Sicilian — which used to make speaking with him so difficult; and imagine what happens now that the Brazilian he’s just learned is mixed up with it in never-before-tried combinations! ‘Write me,’ he says, ‘one of your letters sera [sic] muito desejada por mim [much desired by me].’ And just yesterday I had found a photograph of Dominico, primus inter pares naturally, in a group of I’m not sure which bosses or heavyweights of the Partito Nazionale Fascista, during his stay in Florence ten years ago. In a city where almost every day a new exhibition opened or some more or less cultural ceremony was held, accompanied by the generous distribution of sweetmeats and drinks, Dominico, always ready to invite himself for gastronomic reasons, had been one of the most photographed and well-known figures. No one knew his name, but there wasn’t a party or a ‘gathering’ (the word was much used) in town in which Dominico Braga didn’t appear in the front row, smiling at the harsh magnesium flashbulb, holding in his hand a handsome triangle of puff pastry.

Here he is in this bit of photomontage, seated next to the prefect and the Fascist federal secretary; he’s wearing only his usual yellow singlet and a pair of threadbare trousers; his sandals are already yawning and his long moustaches hang down over a pursed and fleshy little mouth. His small Mongolian eyes glisten with satisfaction, and all around his head, printed in block letters, are listed the attractions of a Florence which is a city of scholarship and of 18-hole golf courses and the gateway to ‘picturesque sightseeings in Tuscany’, Easter celebrations with fireworks, a wine-fest at Impruneta, and other marvels.

This was le beau monde for Dominico, as long as it lasted; life was sweet for one who felt himself half Italian, without worries or obligations, protected by his American passport and by the light weight of a culture in which Dante and Lorenzo de’ Medici, Garibaldi and Mazzini, paired with the names of Lincoln or Jefferson, of Whitman or Ulysses Grant, genuinely did form a kind of ‘picturesque sightseeing’, a backward glance at a universe dazzled by the lights of the new imagist poetry, of which Dominico Braga, American son of a grocer from Linguaglossa transplanted to Bridgeport, boasted of being — after Ezra Pound — the most notable representative. He knew little Italian, as I’ve said, and not much more the English of educated people; his home language was that of Linguaglossa, and it was already forgotten or corrupted. Still, at twenty, ‘the call of Italy’, the mother country’s summons, had made itself felt, and Dominico had embarked as apprentice scullion on the Dardanus, a cargo boat which was to take him to Holland. On the voyage he had a stroke of good fortune, a real ‘lucky strike’, in that the ship’s baker, an inveterate pessimist and a great reader of Schopenhauer and Hartmann, had committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea, and Dominico had taken his job; which meant, once he arrived in Amsterdam, that he found himself in possession of the savings necessary for the purchase of a motor cycle, Pegasus, on which he had crossed Europe. Then, on the San Bernardo pass, Pegasus had run into a cow, and Dominico had extricated himself from the scrape by giving the remains of his clapped-out vehicle to the owner of the wounded animal, and continuing his journey on foot.

In Florence, the yellow singlet was immediately popular, and Dominico in a few days became the greediest destroyer of bignés (cream puffs) ever seen at public ceremonies. He lived on these, and only exceptionally on the soups which various Melitoni friars in the local convents dished up, pretending not to notice that he was capable of standing in line three or four times in succession. He liked the mannered existence of a city of students and foreigners; his vaguely democratic principles didn’t prevent him from finding agreeable the carnivalesque regime which Italians of that period had adopted, and which to him seemed perfectly consistent with the palio, with the traditional Florentine game of calcio played in full mediaeval strip, and with other shows put on in the place. ‘When in Rome (or Florence)…’ and Dominico did as the Florentines did without quibbling, even more so in that the Master, Ezra, had assured him that the only things lacking in Italy were extensive peanut plantations, but that in every other respect she constituted ‘a permanent and efficient model of authoritarian democracy’.

What was there to complain about? Dominico Braga paid no attention to the lamentations of his new friends; everything in our country pleased him, and more than anything he enjoyed being at big public spectacles, at the open-air performances in the Boboli gardens, where he never failed to appear, without paying for a ticket, emerging from the bushes in the company of sprites, like something out of a film by Reinhardt, always in his yellow singlet, always in the front row, always smiling. There was only one hitch on the day he welcomed into his gloomy garret on the Via Panicale two new friends with whom I — yes I, unfortunately — had put him in contact. The three of them were sleeping in one little bed: Braga, the proletarian writer Morluschi and the Bulgarian painter Angelof. But during the night raised voices — ‘Gangster! Sell-out! Spy!’ — reached down to the printers on the floor below, who realised that a violent ideological altercation had broken out between the three vagrants. It seems that between one sleeping shift and another the two new guests had discovered that Dominico belonged to the abhorred forces of ‘reaction’, and that they were endeavouring to knock him to the floor. Then they made peace; and perhaps in that ‘appeasement’ a sense of the ridiculous counted for more than any political conviction… At any rate, Dominico left Florence a few days later, and I knew that in America he had continued his unregulated life, managing to place poems and prose remuneratively only every four years, in ephemeral magazines which sprang up in every state during pre-election periods.

What will I be able to tell him today in my muito desejada letter? Linguistic difficulties are nothing compared to those born on a different spiritual wavelength. Will I be able to make him understand what is happening now in Italy? A pure soul, an innocent soul, Dominico Braga is one of those men who make the idea of being human without a country, without limits, without obedience to the laws in the classic texts on utopia, barely comprehensible and even barely desirable. Men like him can escape the established order, can wriggle through the mesh of history, only thanks to the conformism of the many, only because there exist legions of beings who are constrained to wear a label, to have a public face, a destiny which is not merely individual.

And, on the other hand, the liberty of the singular man, the liberty not of all but of one against all; up to what point can it concern us? I fear that Dominico, saving himself alone, loses himself alone, and that the person who is deserted by the religious sense of collective life is also deserted by the best of individual life, of man in himself, that he is not a person if he doesn’t take account of other people, he is not fully a man if he doesn’t accept other men. But it will be painful to explain this to Dominico, in a language which I shall have to invent especially for him, and in a moment when no matter what egoism, no matter what open anarchy, seems preferable to the specious and in the end too concrete and social musings of the ‘great ones’ who from afar, alas, are busying themselves with us and our unhappy peninsula…