Why we were so fond of books
You can ask why we were so fond of books. You are right. My father, my mother, my sister and I spent a lot of money every month to buy piles of the most disparate books that we can find in the central library of Nugoro, the one of the Piras brothers, yes, in the middle of the Corso Garibaldi, you know? In the 1960s, books didn’t cost much, it is true, but due to the poor economic situation in Sardinia buying collections of books was a kind of extravagant luxury anyway. Certainly, there was in our family a predisposition to literature; I have to say. Otherwise we would have found other entertainments like religion—the red wine religion, for example, of which there was an outstanding consumption in Nugoro—or hunting in the countryside (actually there were in the province more guns than hares), or becoming a subspecies of bandit, always a good and promising career.
Beyond the predisposition to literature, the truth is that a cloud of shame hovered and persisted over our family, and so in our spare time we preferred to stay home, avoiding any external contact, reading and reading, day and night.
I, 17 years old, loved the American writers of the glorious twentieth century: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Falkner, Fitzgerald, etc. My sister, 15, the Russian and French giants like Tolstoy, Chekov, Dostoyevsky, and then Verlaine, Rimbaud, Flaubert, Hugo… My mother, who was a teacher at the elementary school, devoured poems. My father, an employee at the Labour Inspectorate, read history books, especially about the WWI and in particular about the strategic default of Caporetto, of which he was a strenuous scholar—he thought that in those seventeen missing pages of the Italian Official History there were written both the real character and so the final destiny of our nation. So his obsession was to rewrite those documents, always finding conspiracies of silence, manipulations, red herrings and scapegoats.
Sorry, I know that I’m using a roundabout way to approach the true point of the matter, but even now it is distressing to speak about our shame, try to understand me.
The problem, the humiliation, the stain on our family was that my Uncle Graziano, my father’s brother, was mad.
I can say that he was maybe a strange person, fixated with the idea of order and punctuality, but the very truth is that he was irreparably mad. Gentle, polite and inoffensive, but crazy. And this shameful blot on our family changed our sensibility and behaviour too. We lived in Nugoro, you know, and back then Sardinia was a poor land, closed in on itself and self-possessed, so hypersensitive and glass-like fragile. So we always had to pay attention not to look mad, and this terrible effort, well bolted into our minds, had a terrible effect on our own spontaneity first and thus on the others. We tried to be natural, reasonable and spontaneous, always, but we seemed artificial, affected and false. Other people, seemingly dealing with a family of lunatics, reacted with the same goal of simulating completely natural behaviour, like gentlemen who pretend to know nothing, reaching the same result of rigidity and fictitiousness. So each social event became a kind of theatre piece, stressful for everyone.
“Be natural!” my father would say when we were about to leave our house to go to a party, a wedding or a funeral, pointing his finger upwards in a biblical posture. My mother, my sister and I nodded, well conscious of our duty. There was nothing that we should be ashamed of. Uncle Graziano’s madness was only an unlucky disease, of course an affliction, but neither a fault nor a genetic predisposition. Did we remember other members of our family who were mad? Impossible. My sister and I were too young to recall our grandfather’s brother, Uncle Salomone, who claimed to be immortal (he died of an awful pimple on the inside of his anus, at the age of 59) and our mother’s aunt, Filippa, who was convinced that she had supernatural powers in her left hand—luckily she used it only to kill chickens and rabbits. To tell the truth, she died a violent death. When she was in agony, in fact, she put her hand on her chest languidly. And her hand suddenly burnt her skin as if it was radioactive. Rumour has it that she died as if she were a witch, horrifyingly burnt and confessing the most diabolic sins.
Poppycock. Ours was a normal family indeed and Uncle Graziano only a sad case. So, the most important thing for us was to be natural, always. For this reason, being after an impossible goal, we all became fond of books—yes, we renounced the social family events progressively, preferring to go separately, lying low—and my sister then developed such a strong passion for the theatre that she lives now in Rome, working as a cashier.
Uncle Graziano’s apartment looked out over Giardinetti Square, or square of small gardens, where in the 1960s the bus station was moved from the Market Square. A tragic relocation indeed, because from that moment, with all those departures and arrivals of buses just under his eyes, my uncle developed a growing form of fixation: every day his life was ruled by the strict timetable of the station. He woke up at 6 am, on time to check the departure of the bus to Tertenia—a forgotten village in the interior—at 6.30 am, and fell asleep at 11 pm, exhausted, as soon as the last bus from Olbia had arrived. Every delay was a tragedy for him. At the beginning of his mental disorder, he confined himself to banging the table and the walls, in a growing nervousness.
“What’s wrong?” you might ask, entering his apartment.
“Bolotana (the name of another village) hasn’t come yet! Bolotana hasn’t arrived!”
“Bolotana? What time was it scheduled at?”
“It is only 11.59 now. Calm down, it is a uncomfortable road, you know, with many stops…”
He started wailing, desperate: “Bolotana, oh Bolotana!”
And his only moments of calm were just after of the arrival of a bus, when there was a long period of time before the next event, a few moments without stress during a long day of departures and arrivals.
Then, his illness became, I’d say, more visible, because he started coming out onto the balcony and attracting the attention of the crowd, passengers and people looking forward to some arrival. The first time he appeared on the balcony—by the way, it was spring, and he wore an inappropriate woollen nightgown, white like those of the KKK or better of a mystic prophet—and shouted: “Macomer has gone missing, Macomer has gone!” A wave of panic passed through the people below, and someone started crying since he thought that the bus had had a terrible, devastating accident.
Giacomo Fodde, the policeman at the station, looking up at the balcony, asked: “Did the Carabinieri call? By phone?” because he was always afraid he would be anticipated by the hated Carabinieri, the first enemies of the police, thanks to their superior technology—the telephone.
My uncle, flapping his arms like wings, continued to shout: “Macomer has gone missing, Mother of God, Macomer!” And the crowd echoed: “A mortal accident! The bus coming from Macomer!”
As the news spread like a wave on a pond, the details became more precise: “The bus dropped down from a bridge, oh Jesus!”
“That damn bridge of Caparedda, I knew it!”
“They are all dead, poor people!”
“Forty-four people dead, Jesus and Mary, what real carnage!”
When the priest came—he was just at the barbershop, not far from the square—people tried to assault him because God was God, okay, but He should not allow himself to exaggerate. However, all sorts of reasons and excuses were used to attack the official Church, the one that had extirpated our traditional religion based on natural beings like fairies, goblins and night demons.
Only the arrival of the bus from Macomer (twenty-nine minutes late, pretty good for those times) avoided a lynching.
Giacomo Fodde, the policeman, was somehow satisfied because, taking advantage of the disorder, he got to kick the priest’s ass. The priests were the second enemies of the policemen, after the Carabinieri, because of their ability to whisper gossip, even while maintaining the code of silence for confessions.
After that episode, you know, things became less dramatic, even though Uncle Graziano added new features to his performances. The most successful one was during a very hot day in summer, when he materialised completely naked on the balcony: “Twelve minutes! Orosei is twelve minutes late, Jesus!”
The crowd exploded in a shout of appreciation because he was strangely horny, maybe because of the adrenaline, and, surprisingly, red-haired. His swaying prick became a kind of benchmark since nobody had seen such a thing on a balcony from below before, and they had never seen such red a pubic bush appearing and disappearing among the iron columns of the terrace.
You may wonder why in our family there was such a red-pubic-haired feature, but that is really another story, which I can tell you only after two glasses of wine, not now.
After that season, he added a whistle to his equipment because he couldn’t bear that the buses wouldn’t leave on time. And so when you approached the square it would sound like a football stadium with a crazy referee whistling for any small fault: “Leave, leave! It is 9.32! What are you waiting for, damn jerk? Orune is going to arrive!” And a long whistle again, which made the whole square reverberate.
Now you understand that for us, our family, this was a terrible embarrassment. When I entered my school, my teacher would politely joke: “You were delayed by three minutes today!” Everywhere naughty lads would stop and ask about the arrival of the strangest buses: “Sorry, what time do you expect the bus from Paris, buddy?” Or worse “Is the red pubic hair a homage for the Italian flag, man? Is your mother’s white and your sister’s green?”
My father paid the most distinguished doctors—even, I remember, the famous Professor Deiana, who came directly from Sassari and was involved in the incredible case of a man who believed he was an electric train when electric trains weren’t yet running on Sardinia—to fix that embarrassing problem, but they all gave up. My Uncle Graziano was too much for them, and the only suggestion that we got from them was to move the bus station from the Giardinetti Square back to the Market Square again.
The city council disagreed.
We had a flash of hope when the city council met to discuss a claim by a councillor, someone called Pietro Madeddu, who poetically asserted: “The bus station is like our harbour. People from the most remote and various parts of Sardinia arrive here, in Giardinetti Square. Giardinetti means plants and flowers, beautiful trees, fountains. This is the place that we designed and built. And what is the first impression that they get of our city? That of a… you know, a red-pubic-haired man, who jumps from the left to the right of an overlooking balcony, like a possessed soul, often naked, and who whistles unflaggingly, scaring the foreign passengers.”
But our hopes broke against the untouchable pride of Nugoro; it was to be expected. “The foreign passengers? They can stay away without coming here to bother us!” The mayor said, and all the council applauded unanimously. Nugoro was the chief town of Barbagia, with a populace that had defeated the Romans too, and so it was the chief town of the known world, the light for everyone. Nugoro couldn’t accept criticism, ever.
So Uncle Graziano became unintentionally a flag for our city. “Don’t you like his prick? Go to a different bus station, anywhere you like.”
Eventually, it was my friend Capelli, or Long hair (I will explain about him, I know, but not when speaking about literature, please), who solved the problem. He spoke with my father over several weeks, chatting and whispering and hissing as if he was Eve’s snake. Finally, as soon as he got a budget from my father, he hired Maria Pettorra, the official whore of Nugoro, to assist my Uncle Graziano by acting as if she was his servant.
Magically, in a short time his appearances on the terrace dwindled away and then ceased. Nobody asked why. Nugoro forgot about his madness as it had done for all the other people who suffered from to one of the thirty-four forms of madness officially recognised in the town: with perfect nonchalance.
In our family, we all held our breath, still incredulous.
Until I went to visit him, one day, and as soon as I entered the room I saw an amazing performance. My uncle was sitting in an armchair and Maria Pettorra was in front of him, on her knees, masturbating him and saying: “Macomer is coming, yes, yes, is coming, is coming, is coming…”
So, to answer your question, in the meantime literature had taken deep roots in our family. And then it was difficult to extirpate it, you know.
And when someone asked about that incredible display—we had an incredible two thousand books packed into our apartment of ninety square metres, with a kind of path between the piles and piles of volumes from the main door to the kitchen, the bedrooms and the bathroom too—I could say that, yes, our passion for literature was really an expensive form of madness, as we knew very well.
p.s.: the point is of course that this short story too is a NFN, be careful