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(Eugenio Montale — Il Condannato)

In one of those zinc tanks which are used to keep cod wet, the lobster — commonly known as a sea elephant or sea wolf, and already celebrated by Lewis Carroll in his immortal story of Alice — was protruding from two inches of water. Its carapace was of a colour between shark blue and putrid green; its eyes were two black marbles shining at the top of two twigs; and its claws, very large, were tightly tied with string. If someone raised a finger to touch it, the lobster followed closely the direction of the finger and promptly lifted a claw, perhaps to chop off the digit with a good stab of its pincer. But the string prevented it from clawing, and so the razor-sharp cutter fell back into the water. We were at Trieste, in the fish shop on the promenade. The sky was overcast and it was beginning to drizzle.

‘In half an hour, perhaps, it’ll be in the pot,’ said a bespectacled gentleman, ‘and meanwhile it’s still trying to cause injury. It shows that you can’t eliminate the instinct of aggression from either men or beasts.’

‘I’d say it’s a question of defensive instinct,’ said a gentleman in a Basque beret. ‘It grabs hold of whoever wants to catch it to eat it. Which is not unreasonable.’

‘No,’ said a third gentleman. ‘With those garden shears it has, who knows how many oysters it’s opened? Oysters and clams and mussels. Sea wolves are gluttons for sea food.’

All three of them, one by one, raised a finger, and three times the lobster lifted and let fall its harmless weapon. The two eyes were paying close attention, but they didn’t seem irascible.

‘I think it’s being playful, like a cat,’ said the second gentleman. ‘It doesn’t want to hurt anyone. And a cat can scratch you when it’s playing. Perhaps it doesn’t realise it’s been condemned to death. Anyway, it knows that its pincer doesn’t work any more.’

‘It understands perfectly well what’s happening to it,’ said the first gentleman, ‘and it’s trying to sell its skin — or rather its carapace — dear. When it’s boiled it changes to a scarlet colour, like a cardinal’s cassock. The claw is the best part; it’s tender and a bit gelatinous. The rest is rather leathery.’

They were all clicking their tongues at the beast; then they had to make way for a new group of commentators.

‘This is the classic homard, which the French prefer to the spiny lobster,’ said a thin young man, turning to an elderly gentleman. ‘It’s very expensive there. In Paris homard à l’américaine is on all the menus.’

‘That’s a misnomer! Originally, it was homard à l’armoricaine,’ said the old gentleman. ‘When I was sous-chef at the Ritz it was written like that. How times have changed!’

‘Oh, what a lovely big prawn!’ said a little boy. ‘May I touch it, daddy?’ And before his father could say yes or no he put his little finger into the tank and poked it right into one of the claws, so that his action loosened the knot in the string. The lobster closed its nippers, lingered for a moment on the finger as if to stroke it, then let go its prey. Everyone shrieked, ‘Be careful! Let it go!’ but the finger bore no scratch. In the meantime the fishmonger had rushed up and grabbed the crustacean so as to retie the knot; but with a flip of its tail the sea wolf had skedaddled onto the floor and, limping on its pincers and on the hard edge of its tail, in leaps and jerks, as if it had a faulty engine on board, it scooted towards the wharf in an attempt to throw itself back into the sea. A brief chase ensued: a melee around the fugitive which, after a few seconds, wrapped in a piece of yellow paper but still leaping around, was thrown onto the scales. Who wanted it? It was even going at a discount, to get it off the premises.

All those present followed with their eyes the customer who took away the strange and shapeless package from which issued a tired ‘click clack’ of grappling hooks.

‘Will they put it in the pot?’ said the little boy in a tearful voice. ‘Why? It wanted to play with me.’

‘Into the pot live,’ came the reply.

‘Goodness no, not in a pot!’ said the old sous-chef. ‘I would do it in the oven, with a good brandy sauce before it cools. But who bothers about that sort of thing any more?’

He opened his umbrella and went off with some of the others, talking about the old menus at the Ritz.