The Communist by Guido Morselli
Translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall
Worse than the last time.
When was the last time? March, or April. Always when the season changed. But worse this time, much worse, and those great, familiar Po Valley oaths, porca vita, porca matina, did not even come to his lips. At mid-afternoon his friend arrived (she’d been waiting for his usual phone call, and was worried). He was in bed, his face had taken a sharp edge that made him look younger in a pitiful way. He lay on one side, the nape of his slender neck white under the bare light bulb, and she nearly didn’t recognize him.
“Walter, this is crazy, what’s going on?”
The eyes that met hers wore an expression of fear and wonder. Nuccia would never forget it.
He’d been afraid. The crushing sensation had gone on too long, it was really bad. Desolately alert, he anticipated and weighed every symptom: the pain from neck to shoulder he’d felt before (the warning, even before he’d gotten into bed), the collapsing blood pressure, the heaving and the squeezing of the “pump”. Breathlessness becoming suffocation. He’d been lucid, repeating the technical terms to himself: brachicardia, dyspnea. Desperate.
He didn’t want to drop dead in that room. In the dark. Alone, without a helping hand: it was pure misery. The sound of his breathing did not seem to be him, but a machine. He had sugared water and Coramine by his side. But he couldn’t even sit up to take them. Still, everything was sharp, clear; at midnight he heard the shutters banging downstairs, someone had come home.
The dark tormented him; he was sure it was dark, unaware of the light on behind him. He listened attentively to the church bells marking the hours, heard them chime every quarter hour up to 1 am; his sense of hearing was intact, acute: the drop of water that fell on the landing outside the front door; sometimes in hallucination, a voice that kept repeating words of reproach (he knew he shouldn’t take it seriously, that it was a dream), a voice he knew, it must be Nancy. What was she saying to him? Air, meanwhile. More air.
After 1 am the feeling he was suffocating grew even worse. And, he saw, the muscular force of his breathing was slowly declining, the spasm that raised his chest. He thought: now I’m at the end.
He was sweating, his brow and chin. He passed a handkerchief across his face. And then he could no longer raise his arm. The damp handkerchief lay on his shoulder.
When morning came (no-one having come to wake him or bring him coffee) he was asleep, slumped on the chair next to the table, his forehead pressed onto the table top, his arms forlornly spread over his papers.
He woke, and the surprise of finding himself there in that posture was greater than the terror he was coming out of. He was already forgetting. His breathing had returned to normal; there was just the weakness, and a great chill. The pain in his neck was now just soreness. The crushing (the attack) had passed and Ferranini, cardiopathic recidivist for the last quarter century, now had a good physical recovery, and a psychic rebound that was all too quick.
He was a man prepared for anything, not passive, fatalistic; he was even a natural optimist. He couldn’t make up his mind to seek treatment. Nor to take precautions, or look for medical assistance. (He’d never thought of it before, but in March when it hit him at Fubini’s house, the coffee that Oscar’s mother had brought to his bedside had worked, by power of suggestion, to shorten the attack.) He felt he could rely on his generally simple habits and the mediocrity of the fate that had been handed to him. He was convinced that disease is in no hurry to carry off people who don’t enjoy this world too much. Sometimes the attack came with warning signals, usually that pain in his neck, his shoulder, and so he would get into bed with a glass of water into which he stirred a couple of sugar cubes. It was his primary heart tonic, along with the Coramine, which he’d added after the last experience in March.
He went back to bed. He didn’t feel able to open the window, the weakness was in truth exhaustion, his pulse (he tested it) was not much more than feeble. He spent hours trying to decipher the words he’d dreamed, words in another language that must mean something. The busiest muscle, the busiest muscle. In his cold room, he heard off and on the sounds of Giordano’s tools at work.
Finally, the words came into focus. One winter evening in ’42 he’d been returning from work to Camden, and it was snowing. He’d fallen ill in the car and they had taken him to a police station. They thought he was drunk and had called a doctor. Now the episode was coming together in all its minute details: the doctor was Polish, a poor devil with a threadbare necktie and a shabby bag. He examined him very thoroughly, as if he were a paying patient, and then, index finger pinned to his chest, said:
“Well, mister. What’s wrong with you is the busiest muscle in your body.”
The busiest muscle, his worn-out heart. At 28 years old. He attempted an ironic, “oh yeah?” but he didn’t mean it.
The doctor was looking at him sympathetically, wanting to be forgiven for the bad news.
“Did you do heavy labor when you were younger?”
“I worked as a loader.”
“Be careful. If there’s a blizzard you try to stay put.”
In the dream (and there were those who took dreams seriously) he was saying the Polish doctor’s word to his wife. He, a man who would rather have been hanged than confess to Nancy that he was ill. In two years of marriage Nancy had never once asked how he was with even a tiny speck of interest. For half a day, in the clammy darkness of his room, Ferranini ruminated over these bitter thoughts.
When Nuccia arrived the doorman’s little girl was there. Sitting on a chair next to the bed staring at him in silence, immobile, her eyes wide. He, on his side, staring at the girl in scowling silence. They had been like that for quite some time, two creatures with nothing in common who in some way understood each other.
Nuccia had straightened up the bedclothes and turned on the electric heater. She sent the girl away. And meanwhile she tried to get him to talk.
“Nothing,” said Ferranini, the negation providing him a way in. “Just some fatigue. What’s the matter with you?”
“Your colleague Amoruso is a doctor. Get Amoruso to examine you.”
“I already know what I have. I’m decrepit. I’m past 45 years old.”
“You can’t let yourself go this way. Those eyes of yours are begging for mercy, you’re unrecognizable. Promise me…”
“I make no promises to anyone. Rather, you should tell them down at the bar to send up a glass of milk and a couple of sandwiches. Damn, tomorrow I want to go up to Reggio.
And the following day, with the Chamber adjourned till the end of the week, he left town.
At Termini Station, the ticket collector, who was in the Quarticciolo party section and knew him, reminded him that this train didn’t stop at Reggio Emilia.
“But don’t you worry. I’ll tell the conductor and they can make a special stop. You be ready…”. Ferranini was furious.
“Are you kidding? Trains do not stop for individuals. Not even for comrade Khrushchev, understand?”
He changed trains at Bologna. The north welcomed him with fog, but it was not a pleasure, that fog of his he usually longed for and would ordinarily have come north just to savor.
When he arrived at Reggio he got down from the train at the very same spot on the platform where one evening, maybe it was ’49 or ’50, he’d come to speak at a rally for some rail-workers on strike. He’d wound up his speech saying, “today there are two dynamic points in Western communism, Catalonia and Emilia”. Even that didn’t please him. That was rhetoric. Him, too.
He went right off to the Federation, straight to his friend Fubini.
Fubini was signing up members. Young, intelligent, ex-insurance man, he was quite well-informed about the question of work injuries. He asked about Ferranini’s project and promised him statistics and information. But Ferranini had come to get a sense of the atmosphere inside the Federation. Where, despite everything, he still felt himself father and patron, tenderly but also inconveniently. The position of local party chief was open and Viscardi, who’d been in the Bologna leadership and had been doing the Reggio job ad interim for three months, was up for confirmation. But Viscardi was a candidate not everyone liked, there was opposition, there were reservations, from various sides, from Fubini himself.
“He’s from Bologna,” the latter observed, in a low voice because Viscardi was in the next room. “The environment’s different here; here socialism is in ferment, the masses are different, problematic. We need energy. He’s nervous and has a persecution complex, sees enemies where there aren’t any. Here? Here, he probably would have enemies.”
“He’s spineless. And as a matter of fact I know; I know him fairly well.”
“That’s not true, he did his duty as a partisan and he’s anything but a coward. At home in Bologna he’s quite popular and Dozza is behind him.”
“And his personal life?”
“He’s crazy about harness racing; you can find him at Arcoveggio track every Sunday.
“Great! Some Communist. And of course he goes there in the Giulietta.”
Fubini offered to take him to Vimondino. But he was tired and decided to stay in town, to spend the night at the Scudo d’Italia. He woke late in the morning, in time for Vittorio Bignami, who had telephoned, to arrive. Polite, open, extremely well-informed as usual. Bignami filled in the picture that Fubini had sketched out the night before. At the base things were going well, even going forward; up above they were going less well because of deficiencies, interference, disagreements. And the same was true in those areas that Ferranini considered his own province: the Reggio Cooperative League and Inter-Agraria, founded by him in ’53 and his creature even in the name. Inter-Agraria was set up to be an alternative to the odious, pro-government Corsorzio Agrario. For a month now Inter-Agraria had been headed up by Asvero Ancillotti, well-known accumulator of titles, city assessor for education, local metal-workers’ union rep, vice president of the Chamber of Labor, and now the man behind all the sports clubs. In Reggio he was known, among other things, for his appreciation of the female sex and because he was step-brother to the bishop of Modena.
“Ancillotti? You put him in?”
“He put himself in.”
And that was not all. Before he’d gone to Rome, Ferranini had taken the trouble to name someone he trusted to head the League, an older woman, a retired teacher both capable and modest, who’d been a Communist since the PCI was founded at the Livorno Congress of 1921. Luigia, who he visited and wrote to, and who was, in effect, his longa manus, so that he did not feel entirely excluded and maintained an entry point should he wish to return. But now Luigia had confided to Vittorio Bignami that she was fed up. Ancillotti was digging the ground out under her feet. Now that he was set up at Inter-Agraria, he’d decided—by now it was common knowledge—to gobble up the League too.
Half an hour until noon.
“I’m going to go speak to him,” said Ferranini.
“Forget it. He’s at Rovigo with our soccer team, Reggiana, for a rescheduled match. He’s our sports Duce. Anyway you mustn’t seek him out, you who are altogether superior to him. After lunch he’ll most likely be back, and I’ll let him know you’re here and see if he doesn’t come over. Oh, don’t forget that tomorrow you’re at Favellara with us. We’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of Workers Mutual Aid and we need you.
The “Red Hunchback” kept him waiting until evening came. The nickname was due, deformity aside, to his heated political eloquence in a city that itself was neither tepid nor rosy pink. And then there was the energy he’d devoted to fighting the Nazi-Fascists in the winter of 44-45. But with Ferranini he behaved as if he were shy, made a show of acting subordinate.
“Ferranini, it was you who taught us how to build socialism. We used to go to the section at Porta Castello to listen to Radio Prague and you provided the commentary. There’s no third force either in foreign or domestic politics; it’s either reaction or socialism, either with us or against us. That was your byword. We were kids—me, the two Bignami boys and Caprari—working with you. Here’s something I remember: Saragat was supposed to come up for a rally, and the town was plastered with long, narrow posters spelling out his name. And you had as many posters printed up that said “Is Looking Fat” sent us out to stick them up under the others.
“I wasn’t the greatest slogan-writer,” Ferranini said dryly.
“What brings you up from Rome once again?”
“Again? It’s a month since I last showed up.”
Ancillotti saw he had been clumsy, and corrected himself.
“Sure, you don’t come often enough. Really.”
The flattering tone turned Ferranini’s stomach, worsening the effect of that silly voice, the evasive gaze. He wanted to get this over quickly.
“Okay, enough chitchat. I invited you here to say two things. One, the Cooperative and Mutual League needs to go forward in full liberty and autonomy, because it serves a different function from that of Inter-Agraria (which you now control), and any attempt to limit that autonomy is a strike against its very existence–an act of sabotage against the agrarian and worker masses. Two, in defending the existence of the League, I, Walter Ferranini, will use all my determination and whatever influence I may have in Reggio. And beyond.”
Beyond where? In Rome? He hadn’t previously caught himself bluffing like that. He was angry with himself, and even more with the other man. Who meanwhile had grown indignant.
“What are you on about? I don’t get it! Ah, Luigia, you’re thinking about old Luigia Sanguinetti. A couple of days ago we were together with Viscardi at the Federation. And then I put her in my car, we stopped for a coffee at Caffè Boiardo, and I took her to her house on via Vignanella. Luigia and I are bosom buddies (sorry!), even if she’s a Jew and I keep my distance from Jews. A while back, at the Caffè Boiardo in fact, they were saying she’d gotten herself into a land speculation mess, outside town….”
The insinuation just gushed out, there was no escaping it. These Reggio swine fed on polenta and grana padano cheese, on polenta and innuendo. He had a copy of l’Unità rolled up in his right hand and he pointed it at Ancillotti’s chest, forcing him back a step.
“Not another word. I warn you, not another word!”
The other man adjusted his necktie, a resounding red, gold and blue. They said he got his way with women on account of the overbearing flashiness of his ties and shirts in green or blue, as well as the largesse with which he dispensed gifts, and the irresistible appeal of his hunchback to the purblind sex. But with Ferranini, Ancillotti sensed he would get his way by displaying calm, a guarantee of superiority before a man who was weak enough to lose his.
“You wave l’Unità at me. And that suggests my reply to you. Very good then, we must seek unity, which builds strength. I do nothing to threaten the League’s autonomy, but certainly it’s unnecessary, a mistake; it’s contrary to keeping our masses unified. Two different organisms are too many. Sooner or later we will have to think about unification.”
Ferranini had forseen the objection and considered it sophistry. But he admired the other’s command of his nerves and could only imitate him:
“Nossir. The League does political organization. Inter-Agraria—and I can say this because I created it myself—is purely commercial. It sells seed and fertilizer, machines and tools, at good prices. It makes things difficult for the local Federconsorzi. And in order to make things difficult, it has to work on its own. If it were openly Communist, we’d lose our non-Communist clients, the Christian Democrat growers in Coltivatori Diretti, one after another. Get it?”
“Perfectly, my dear Ferranini, perfectly. I couldn’t agree more. And in fact, I repeat, I don’t in any way want to see the two confused. What I’m thinking of is a close coordination like you might have if the two things were under one management, which could even be joint. I’m not building a cult of personality, are you kidding? Aren’t we de-Stalinizing?”
Jerk, thought Ferranini. Who contained himself this time.
“However,” Ancillotti continued, “the two things must not be in competition, as is the case now. Nor should there be confrontation. Policies must be closely coordinated.”
Etcetera. He’d retreated, without altering the substance of things; the Hunchback’s disguised intentions were evident. At the first opportunity, he would annex the League to his own person, taking charge the way he’d already become the boss of Inter-Agraria. But Ferranini was weary; this twisted, slippery character made him feel physically ill, and the other, in turn, was in a hurry to get away, having no interest in pursuing a discussion that anyway seemed to be going his way. And so he was off, one grotesque fist pumping the air as a goodbye salute to his opponent.
Via Vignanella. Ferranini hadn’t known Luigia Sanguinetti lived in via Vignanella. A road at the edge of town; there was an old tavern where he used to go to eat rudéla, country sausage and bread, back in ’38 before he went off to Spain. I want to go and see if I can find it, he thought. He went out to get a car in the piazza; Via Vignanella must be pretty far out. But the fog dissuaded him. He wasn’t well yet, he couldn’t tolerate the cold. And then, he thought: what for? Spain, and the Reggio of once upon a time, were distant, lost, like his youth.
So he went back to the Scudo d’Italia to eat something and go to bed. Lenin’s view of music and music lovers was ever with him. “Unconvincing” was how he judged (and ideally dismissed, following Lenin’s example) frivolous and inopportune activities: clinging to memories, reading novels, taking an interest in sport, falling in love when your hair was gray (nor did he appreciate anyone who tempted him either). As for memories, better to forget them, and in any case to leave the dead in the cemetery and the mistakes at the bottom of their slippery slope.
In the morning, the plan was Favellara. At ten the two Bignami boys came to pick him up and he was getting into Vittorio’s Dauphine when someone came over. Wearing tweed and flannel, tall, elegant, breezy. Viscardi, the would-be party leader.
Here, in Italy’s Kiev, guys like this were leading the proletariat.
“Ferranini, darn it! You come to Reggio once a month and don’t stop by to see me? Come inside a minute, we need to speak.”
“What about?” he said, by now cautious.
“Politics. You know. Today I’m going to see the prefect and you’ll come along. I’ll explain. Let’s sit down a moment in the entry hall.
He put an arm around his shoulder and pushed him inside.
“While we’re at it, let me tell you about the situation in the Federation. I’ve found it to be a hostile environment, I’ve got to defend myself on all sides. Now is that a good thing? Is it in the party’s interest?”
“I’m not interested in personal matters. You wanted to talk about politics. So let’s hear.”
“But if I speak about myself, that’s politics too! Call me to Reggio, give me a role. Give me the means…”
Ferranini got to his feet.
“Goodbye. I’m off.”
“Damn! One minute, there’s the other issue. Look, the quarters we’re in are too cramped, old-fashioned. As you know. In order to work we need space, breathing room, and some amenities. I’ve had a plan drawn up to build another floor. But city hall won’t give us a permit, on the pretext the zoning law prohibits it. And damn if the mayor isn’t a Communist, and the council too. I’m skirting the problem by getting the prefect’s backing. He needs to keep us happy. But that takes the cake, no? Having to go through the prefect.
Ferranini’s smile was a bit thin.
“Are you familiar with the Communist Manifesto of 1848? Yes? Maybe you’re more familiar with the betting card at the track?”
“I’ve always been a reader.”
“I suggest you study it. There’s a page where they say: the bourgeoisie is a powerful force of cooptation. It creates a world after its own image. Even among those who should be opposing it.”
Ferranini was at the door.
He got into the car next to Bignami and signaled they should depart immediately. He was pleased he hadn’t lost his temper. As the automobile wove through fog and traffic on the Via Emilia, he went over what had happened, avoiding undue pessimism. He’d been unlucky, his return home had not been a success. No. However, in the end, Reggio could still be the Kiev of Italy despite a Viscardi or an Ancillotti. The cult of personality could also diminish and depreciate, if a couple of people abusing their offices was all it took to expose it.
Guido Morselli (1912–1973) was a novelist and essayist. Born in Bologna, he earned a law degree, served in the Italian army, and traveled abroad, writing reportage and short stories. After the war he completed eight works of fiction, including Past Conditional, Divertimento 1889, and Roma senza papa (‘Rome sans Pope’), none of them published in his lifetime, as well as a volume on Proust and one on faith and criticism. At 60, discouraged by his failure to find a publisher, he committed suicide. The following year, his novels began to come out to much acclaim.
Frederika Randall is a writer and translator of Italian literature. Her translations include Luigi Meneghello’s Deliver Us, Sergio Luzzatto’s The Body of Il Duce, Padre Pio, and Primo Levi’s Resistance, as well as Ippolito Nievo’s Risorgimento novel Confessions of an Italian. She has been awarded a Bogliasco Fellowship, a PEN/Heim grant, and, along with Sergio Luzzatto, the Cundill Prize. She lives in Rome.
Photo: Guido Morselli, Private
Photo: Frederika Randall, private
Published on April 4, 2017.