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Alastor’s Visit

(Eugenio Montale — Visita di Alastor)

In the cold and deserted suburban street, the arrival of Patrick O’ C.’s Lincoln had aroused attention. The individual who got out of it, a tall, overweight man, not young but still strong, his thin hair between grey and auburn, having consulted an address book had been shown by a grocer the house he was looking for: 117b Via delle Stringhe, the right-hand staircase, a rather poor house in an enclosed courtyard from which there arose the shouts of children and the howling of famished dogs. So, did Ponzio Macchi, the most indefatigable and perhaps the subtlest of his foreign popularisers, live there? The address and the number were certainly right, and Patrick O’ C. reproached himself for his feeling of surprise. The register of superior souls has its mysteries, and life is sometimes very hard for those who don’t follow the beaten track of the great human herds. Patrick O’ C. — known throughout the civilised world under the pseudonym Alastor — tried to remind himself of this truth as he downed a little glass of grappa; then, having generously paid the grocer and having entreated him, more by gestures than by words, to keep an eye on the car, he made for the little staircase at the top of which, on a brass name-plate, could be read the name he was looking for: Signor Ponzio Macchi. The woman who came to open the door to him after quite a few knocks (the bell must have been broken) was carrying in her arms a snotty baby boy, and had something of a sullen air. She must be the translator’s wife, this pallid figure, shabbily dressed, of indefinable age. Was Signore, that is, Professore Macchi at home? Yes, no, yes: it was difficult to know, because Patrick didn’t articulate one word of Italian, nor did the presumed Mistress Macchi have access to any language known to him; but at last the Irish American managed to get her to take a visiting card on which was printed his name, followed by a string of capital letters (M.A., Ph.D. and others besides), indicators of a distinguished cultural and social career, and by ‘Alastor’ written in pencil, in brackets.

Ushered into a freezing little sitting room in which at least four of his own volumes could easily be spotted amongst the books on a little shelf, Alastor stayed waiting for some time. At his entrance, the click-click of a typewriter in the adjoining room had stopped. Perhaps ‘the professor’ was working? Alastor, who remained standing, shivered with the cold.

Several minutes passed, and from the neighbouring room there came voices which seemed to be arguing animatedly. Then the sound of a window closing was heard; then silence again. A little later the presumed Signora Macchi reappeared, and Alastor was admitted without further delay into his worthy interpreter’s study. The room was dark, the shutters were fully closed, and when the electric light was switched on Alastor saw a man in bed, his head wrapped in a ragged woollen scarf. From under a heap of tattered blankets there emerged a pale face. On the marble of the bedside table a pile of manuscripts was in evidence, perhaps a translation in progress of Alastor’s latest book.

The sick man’s wife stayed to be present at the conversation, and Alastor, after a bow, took the initiative. He asked if he was in the presence of Professore Macchi — yes (in English) was the answer — and if indeed he had the misfortune to find him ill (yes); he expressed a certain regret for the untimeliness of his visit (yes), together with his gratitude for the work of translation and popularisation to which he, Ponzio Macchi (yes, yes) had dedicated his precious time, which could have been better spent (yes, oh yes). The monologue lasted a couple of minutes; the patient must be suffering greatly. Did he appreciate a little company? Did he want to be left in peace? Were medicines, assistance, advice, information needed? Was he entrusted to a good doctor? Would a further visit be convenient? Or was it better that he should be left entirely alone? To all these questions the answer was an unfailing yes; following which Alastor declared that he thought it appropriate to take his leave, and with another bow he left his translator’s room.

His farewell to the woman who didn’t seem flattered at being called Mrs Macchi took place at the top of the staircase, and after a short time the American was drinking a second little grappa at the grocer’s, and setting his big Lincoln silently in motion.

From 117b Via delle Stringhe, the right-hand staircase, his departure had been observed, between the slats of the still half-closed shutters, by Ponzio Macchi, on his feet, clothed and shod, by his wife and by three highly excited children.

‘Dropped suddenly out of the sky just like that,’ said Ponzio, wiping his brow. ‘He doesn’t know a word of Italian, the great goat! And now what’s he going to do? Did he say he’s coming back?’

‘If he does, you’ll get into bed again,’ his wife sniggered unpleasantly.

‘If it happens, tell him I’m not here, that I’ve left, I’ve gone away for a couple of months. It’s easy; I’ll give you two or three words to say to him.’

‘If you’d known how to say two or three words, you stupid idiot, you wouldn’t have made such a fool of yourself.’

‘Didn’t I speak the whole time, dimwit? I handled the situation pretty well in the end.’

‘You’d do better to get back to work, you donkey. If he returns I’ll deal with him. But you should have played deaf and dumb.’

In the meantime, Patrick O’ C., at the wheel, was approaching his hotel. He had to leave the next day, and already he was no longer thinking about his translator. If he had guessed the improbable truth, that in that man was hidden a personage worthy of one of his stories, he, who was so greedy for booty of that kind, would probably have considered returning to the attack, whatever the cost.