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The Snow Statue

(Eugenio Montale — La Statua di Neve)

It’s cold. Saint Moritz is buried in snow, the heating is going full blast and I’m taking a stroll (in my room) in pyjamas. I’m not a skier, a skater or a hiker, and I don’t go out on a sledge; to me the mountains are boring in the summer and unbearable in the winter. I come here at the end of the year to see the ballet which my friend Kind organises, to be given a little cardboard donkey, a toy trumpet, a paper hat and whatever other kind of nonsense, and to rejoice in the spectacle of families embracing as they pop bottles of champagne. And I come most of all to see the statue — the giant puppet, that is — made out of snow, which Signor S. builds in front of his hotel, which is directly opposite mine. From the window I delight in the sight of the puppet. He’s three metres high, he has a plumed hat on his head, a cigar in his mouth with ash that’s about to fall, two carrots for ears, two onions for eyes, and three turnips for coat buttons. He’s something halfway between Churchill and Grock. But it’s the onion-eyes that attract me. From my very first day here they have aroused in me, by association of ideas, the most mournful of feelings. The huge bogeyman is crying; that is certain. He’s the only character here who, during these festive days, is capable of crying with sincerity. He cries red stinging tears, huge drops as big as billiard balls. But no one apart from me sees those tears flow. He isn’t the puppet of years gone by; he’s remade every year, but for me he’s always the same. He doesn’t weep simply because he has onions in his eye sockets; he weeps for other reasons too, which I can’t explain but which seem to me useless to pry into. And when a fresh flurry of snow muffles him and the eyes become more bleary, more powdery, he no longer looks like Churchill; he only looks like Grock. There he is, saying, ‘Are you enjoying yourselves? Have a good time. I’m crying for all of you, as I wait to melt and to drop these onions into the filthy mud in the street.’

I’ve never met Moby Dick, the white whale, but I’ve seen Grock a few times, and standing next to the window panes which are misting with my breath, I’m trying to talk to this wonderful puppet. ‘Allow me, maestro,’ I say to him, ‘to join with you in your unrestrained, absolute, universal weeping. I’ve come here on purpose to see you; shamefully, I am perhaps the only person here capable of glimpsing the reasons for your tears. I also will melt into your mud; I also have two little onions in my eye sockets, a turnip in place of a nose… Allow me, maestro, to…’

There’s a gentle tap on the door and the waitress comes in, bringing my tea. She’s Tuscan, down to earth, and little inclined to mysticism.

‘Have you seen it?’ she says, seeing me absorbed at the window. ‘And this year they’ve put up the peas scarecrow.’

‘Yes,’ I say casually. ‘What a huge puppet! Why do they do it?’