Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
THE GREAT STREET
b y   a n n a   m a r i a   o r t e s e   ~   m i l a n,   i t a l y

EVEN TODAY I remain perplexed by the simple-hearted abandon with which, as a child, I constantly returned to that great street. I can offer no precise idea of what clear motive might have prompted the girl I was—motive, or active sensation, or irrational urge—to turn that street, which coursed like an arid riverbed through the eastern part of the city, into the locus of her daily walks.

Clearly, however, that young girl’s penchant for this ancient and exotic street was anything but natural, or even rational. Something much larger than myself, something of which I had no possible realization, carried me there every day, as automatically as winds carry clouds, or as waves trail spray, or as night roams abroad with sleep and dreams.

Such a majestic, savage street! A river of rock; a colossal ship, anchored between banks of silence! A painting: a wonderful, melancholy composition that might have been entitled—like a canvas which glowed with mysterious life—“Freedom and Meditation”!

There was nothing in Naples to equal it. So strangely quiet yet animated, so open yet mysterious, it was one of the city’s most solemn and wrongly neglected thoroughfares. No other place could have given the soul a finer sense of confusion and festivity, of bewilderment and joy, of freedom and fear; or could have billowed the mind with such delicate thoughts and veiled it with such painful, absentminded music. It carried the spirit, almost in flight, to the edges of a valley not shown on any of the maps of the world—to a place where the view opens out, incomparably calm and clear, onto the constant coming and going of eternal Symbols and staggering Ideas.

But like a queen cast out onto the ruin of a sidewalk, or like a sensitive woman forced to knock with silly ruses at the hearts of men, this unhappy street, which no one loved, seemed nearly to hope for a black-market purchase of the passer-by’s attention—in exchange for a word that might soften a hostile, scattered mind—and decked itself at the start of its course with an ordinary, day-to day attitude of bourgeois charm and gaiety: bright colors and sparkling smiles such as might have been found in the customary run of time-worn beauties. And along this stretch where its path began, just above the piazza that bears the name of Dante, people quite generally liked it. The red buildings, including the Museum’s cheery façade, the small, green, gracious parks, the string of shops with their invitations to delightfully familiar purchases—everything helped to give it the air of an easy if somewhat boisterous grace. The sky’s high clouds, sailing with swan-like calm in perfect azure; the nearly continuous tide of students, vociferous and gaily multicolored, to and fro from the nearby schools; the traffic of the carriages, the trolley-cars’ clang, the wandering songs of the numerous minstrels; the recurrent sight of little old women selling violets and mums; the sequence, or more nearly the chase of cinema posters, red and blue, yellow and black, on the white, sun-washed walls: all of it seemed like a panoply of cries and joyful smiles cast off along its way by the handsome street. Banal, self-satisfied invitations. Yes, at its start in Piazza Dante and then for a lengthy stretch, this great street was nothing more than a vibrant, populous artery, a stream of traffic, simply a bit more lively than others would normally be.

But then came the hour when the day descends, almost imperceptibly, behind a dense horizon of city roofs and balconies, an hour when the light is almost always splendid; and if at that changing and somehow pensive hour which announces approaching evening, one allowed oneself the full embrace of such affectionate apparitions, obeying the heart’s inclination to be carried away by the currents of long and populous thoroughfares, and therefore accepting the street’s seductive invitations, then, on setting out between its banks, one realized, suddenly, with a twitch, that something about it had changed.

It had become a different street. No longer the one whose first bright stretch, at morning, had seemed so merry and reassuring. The fine, clear colors which had prodded the shamefully banal minds of the passers-by, and chipped a breech in their apathy, little by little were dying out, silently, on the buildings’ taciturn faces. Which seemed more gray and distant. Facades were no longer gladdened by cheerful displays of sweets or colorful clothing stores; there were only cold closed doors, and windows stunned and ajar. The very crowd which shortly before had thronged the street had suddenly thinned, as though having taken flight. The students lagged far to the rear. The trolley cars, the carriages, the cars, the bicycles, the movie posters and the newspaper stands, the wandering musicians and the aged ladies plying mums and violets had likewise receded. The street had widened unexpectedly. Evening’s arrival had made it a river of astonishing breadth. A charmed silence, like a cold flush of moonlight, loomed up from its furthest reaches and flew steadily forward along its banks, carrying shudders and presentiments of mournful, unknown beauty.

And then—as if the murmuring voices of the black trees, outlined in the distance at the sides of the street, or the gyrating wisps of bluish smoke shaped like animals, queens, gallows and flowers, which someone sent constantly upward into that livid sky, were not enough; as if the alarming impression of a river’s waters, provoked by the curious gleam of the cobblestones, might not have sufficed to create an air of bewitched expectation—strange things began to present themselves to the dazed observer’s eyes. One began to grow aware of stores and tiny shops which during the day were of no particular interest; of faded displays of second-hand books, or of cages with birds, or of plaster cemetery sculpture. On the street’s two banks—their lamps shining wan and astray in the darkness—incredible doors now filled with lights and scenes that were still less credible. Heroes, birds, and pale dead youths were the core of these night-time displays.

A sweet, putrid odor of crumbling paper issued from some of those shops. Illustrated magazines stood in piles at the sides of the doorways and served as pedestals for columns of likewise illustrated books that generations of children, burning with a pure and turbid joy, had passed back and forth from one to the other of their little hands. Many of those children were now no longer alive, or had grown up into corrupt adults, or in any case preserved no memory of those readings they once had loved. Yet those books and magazines survived. How the colors of their covers glowed in the whiteness of the moonlight! How naïve and devoutly rhetorical were the faces of the heroes, the smiles and tears of the heroines! And how laden with calm and heartfelt beauty the landscapes in which they moved: lakes and forests, mountains and seas upon which the gazes of ancient schoolboys had lingered and strayed! The flags of all nations sparkled in the sun on the masts of brightly painted wooden ships that majestically entered and departed from the world’s most famous ports and traveled the most distant seas. Young sailors with heads of curls like girls, and salty old pirates as dangerous and happy as eagles, sang and boozed around villainous tables in the yellow gleam of a lantern which shed more gloom than light on smoke-filled vaults where bats had built their hanging nests. Cliffs crowned by storm clouds and jolted by forks of lightning slightly more grandiose than natural plunged down onto dark and deserted beaches washed by a constant, roiling surge of long steely waves, topped with eerie shocks of spray. And those noises, those confused and alarmed voices of waves full of muted explosions—like frightened crowds in flight, or a train falling from a precipice, or the thunder of furious stampeding herds—set savage lights aglow in the eyes of Yann of the Iceland Fishers, sitting dazed and alone before that sea. Other more ingenuous personages, disquieted and delightfully menacing, here and there paced back and forth among these curious papers. Colonel Cody, on horseback, followed by a pack of red coyotes, finely painted, shaded his eyes with his hand and peered toward the hollow of a flaming canyon: framed at his back by an aery valley with the sparkling blue ribbon of a mountain stream, or the gleaming veil that drops from a waterfall’s diadem, he attempts to espy the hidden, insidious movements of the advancing enemy. Bearded and attired in skins, the aging Robinson Crusoe shows an always magnificent bearing of courage and hope; with his prehistoric rifle over his arm, he walks through a perfect morning to hunt wild goats in the paradisiacal valleys of his Island, his eyes clouding over with regret for the loss of England and his much-loved mother as he watches the fineness of the sky. The Explorers of the Deep and the heroes of Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath The Sea advance like ghosts, distraught, ecstatic, and forgetful of self in the midst of green tunnels dripping with water of the color of rubies and emeralds; they listen in primordial silence to fated songs of freely-running streams, of cool clear water that fills their throats and calms their terrible thirst. Gordon Pym, huddled on the floor of his dug-out boat as it tosses with neither light nor hope in the arms of an unknown sea, observes the approach, like an evil sun erupted from the floes of ice, of the Phantom of the Pole, knowing that soon it will devour him. When suddenly that terrifying landscape fades away. Canoes and clipper ships, pirogues and colorful junks carried their passengers down the rivers and along the coasts of all the most exotic lands, beneath the most favorable suns and winds. The world of youthful adventures mingled with the world of the passions, the joys of discovery with the joys of dreams, the pleasures of smiles with the finer frenzy of tears, expressing the desire to step beyond the truths of everyday and to grasp something newer and far more daring. The youthful heroes on the Paris barricades—the sun and fury of the South, mixed with the virginal freshness of Nordic blood—died with foreheads wreathed in splendor beneath the volleys of Bonapartist rifles. Cosetta gave her hand to Dea. Ghastly Quasimodo perished while cavorting on the edge of the abyss, in the immense music of Notre Dame, just as the sailor perishes in a vast clamor of the waves. The happy and vibrant youthfulness of The Three Musketeers pelted fistfuls of light into the darkness of the Paris streets. One world shed its light on another; a caravan of images prepared the most suitable road, the most suggestive lights, for the ones that followed. Now comes the throng of David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber at its head, laughing and crying in the midst of his numerous offspring while climbing the gangway to the immigrant-laden deck of the boat which will finally take him to Australia, far from the horrors and delights of debtors’ prison. Here are all the members of the Pegotty family, seated around the table of the fine Yarmouth houseboat while the fascinating Steerforth, still unaware of what his much-tried heart will decide, listens thoughtfully and attentively to the artless talk of Cam and Little Emily. Beyond the tiny windows, the sea slants out in evening desolation and voices its bewildered horror of all the events which are still to come. Germanic phantoms, painfully universal, throw open the doors to a world of truth and splendor. Ysolte caresses her plaits in the light of the moon. Young Werther walks absorbed among the alleys of his ancient city. Portraits of Schubert and Beethoven are so intense as to seem to show a hundred men in a single face. And then, suddenly, everything changes: the landscape, the sky, the tone of the times. Images arose from a space a thousand fold more ample than reality: Cossacks, Napoleon at Jena, tundra, Moscow covered with snow. Who might these men have been, so shabby and tired, but bearing faces that shone with immortal goodness and joy? The hoary head of the great Leon, husband to Sophia Andreievna, gleamed weakly in the gray air, against the grimy walls of Astopov’s station where he waited, after telling the story of the earth, to depart for the skies. In the midst of tattered and afflicted rabble, madmen and boys, angelic princes and guileless monsters, Dostoievski shattered his chains; his suddenly resplendent hands, in the infinite gray of this prison which comprises the whole of the earth, were the pure, liberating hands of Christ himself. Chekov, careless of the fearful rat which nourished itself on his lungs, recounted ironic fables of a bourgeois Russia, but his gaze from time to time slipped thoughtfully behind a wall: beyond it, shining in the pink of the moonlight, his venerable Cherry Orchard, the place where the winds of by-gone days go to die.

It’s likely that, in the morning, a few innocent children or wandering students from time to time would stop enchanted before these shops, pondering a trade of the scant coins in their pockets for one of those books from the covers of which so many slightly sad but marvelous figures peered out at them. But then they would go away, and no one else would arrive for the rest of the day. Only the rain or the wind, the sun or the clouds in the turquoise sky offered a delicate consolation to those aging papers and ancient stories. A silence, or an air of endless meditation, or the tone of some forgotten song collected on those sidewalks, before those well-worn thresholds. Surely it was clear that the goals pursued by the owner or owners of those shops went far beyond all normal pecuniary interest. One hardly opens a shop in a desert; one doesn’t create displays for an audience of clouds and paving stones. So those shops, as far as I could see, had to be theaters of Memory; they were part of a series of Signs and Symbols through which that ancient, contemplative street provided itself with a representation of the senseless beauty of living; of the dreams of the youngsters who came to visit it during the day—those youngsters whose light-footed paces, alas, were only briefly the same.

And then, when the passer-by’s fancy already had been pierced and perturbed by these apparitions, other scenes began to advance with ever waxing urgency. Whether their indistinct whiteness derived from the light of the moon or from the absence of blood in the veins of the figures composing them is something I could not say. But the shops full of stories and birds lay ever further behind them.

No lights shone at all in these tiny stores, of far poorer aspect than the ones before.

I had been told that modest artisans worked in those shops by day and crafted figures of youths: statues, medallions, and plaster busts with which to adorn the tombs of Departed Students, long or but recently dead, who lay within the cemetery nearby.

No one, however, could relieve me of the thought that those figures in white stone or plaster were something far more alive than effigies.

The blood, yes, had abandoned their veins, but not so long ago. These bodies remained still warm and charged with sleepy dreams.

The good artisan, who as sunset approached had been anxious to sit down at table with his sons, had left some of them unfinished and they lay about the floor, tiredly resting on a flank, with a hand beneath a cheek, just as in life those students at times had fallen asleep over a difficult problem or a tedious exercise in Latin. Curls no longer brown or blond, but the color of snow and eternal old age, fell across a temple; eyes were wide and empty, since their pupils had been stolen by headlong time. One group of these students, entirely naked, as though just risen from their beds, formed a hedge of slender bodies and eager, enraptured, downward-looking faces around a young companion who, seated and holding an open book on his thin knees, seemed intent on reading who knows what fables or vibrant poems. His mouth was half open, but his eyes were empty, except that a few drops of tears, likewise in plaster, ran down from their corners and across his delicate cheek. With the back of his other hand (such a very fine hand) he wiped them away.

Other figures held a foot just barely raised from the earth, and seemed to be taking leave of some cherished threshold while casting an affectionate backward glance, perhaps to a mother or to much-loved brothers and friends who waved good-bye. All around, on high, crude shelves, were small garlanded heads of younger boys: some gazed joyously upwards to invisible suns, others cast smiling glances at the charms of a lovely garden, another looked in timid enchantment at a sky to which soon he would have to bid farewell. Still another saw nothing at all; leaning slightly back on a shoulder, with a tiredness barely heavier than that of a boy in his first year of his studies, he seemed to be resting.

One group struck me with particular force: it stood at the threshold of one of these shops and portrayed a twelve-year old schoolboy. A lovely young woman led him by the hand and pointed out a path that remained invisible to those who stood outside in the street. The young woman’s lips were slightly parted, and surely her words were wise and kind, her promises prompt with consolation. So, why, pulling back from that compassionate caress, distraught and bewildered by a pain too intense for tears, did he turn his face toward the door and cast his avid gaze out of that vast silent room, in hopes of seeing someone who might be rushing to his aid? It seemed that rivers and mountains and crystalline waters, turquoise skies and wind-blown trees with rustling boughs, and days spent running on the hill...and luminous repose and blessed maternal caresses, and home and school and unruffled childhood all lay on the other side of the threshold he had crossed; and that they called him, and he wanted with all his heart to return to them, to his fond, now-abandoned Life. But already the pupils of his eyes had dried and vanished, and his hand—owing perhaps to a lack of attention on the part of the mason who had shaped it, or perhaps for some deeper, more terrible reason—the fingers, alas, of that delicate schoolboy’s hand, which lifted to entreat those sacred gifts, were missing; his hand was a skeletal stump and could no longer grasp or hold onto anything.

No outside noise or light had the power to shake these unhappy students from their sad immobility and desperate calm. The books they read, their dreams, smiles, good-byes, and tears, everything about them now had the air of finality, suspension, eternal fixity.

It was here, one felt, rather than anywhere else, that the beat of the great street’s heart pulsed at its most majestic, most intimate, most spiritual and distressed.

These doors, these displays, were followed by no others.

Via Foria—the name of this great street—slipped away toward the gray recesses of the Botanical Gardens; away as well, it seemed, toward an even vaster park; away like a voyager too exhausted by the morning’s wonders, the midday songs, and the evening’s melancholy sweetness to be able now to look forward to anything more than a quiet stroll, free from even the palest of memories.

Translated from the Italian by Henry Martin


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