I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
From the train I could look out onto the infinite blue of the sea. I was still exhausted, wakeful from the overnight transatlantic flight to Rome, but looking out at the sea, that Mediterranean sea that was so infinite and so blue, made me forget it all, even myself. I don’t know why.
From the train I could look out onto the infinite blue of the sea. I was still exhausted, wakeful from the overnight transatlantic flight to Rome, but looking out at the sea, that Mediterranean sea that was so infinite and so blue, made me forget it all, even myself. I don’t know why. I don’t like going to the sea, or swimming in it, or walking along the seashore, still less going out in a boat. I like the sea as an image. As an idea. As a parable for something that is both mysterious and obvious; something that promises to save us, and at the same time threatens to kill us. The sea, like a woman undressing next door in her nighttime window, dazzling from afar.
The old train was chugging slowly down the whole Mediterranean coast, past Naples, past Salerno, past villages ever smaller and poorer, finally reaching Calabria. That southernmost point of the Italian peninsula. A region that is bucolic, mountainous, and still under the dominion of one of the most powerful mafias in the country: the ’Ndrangheta. The carriage was almost empty. An old lady leafed through fashion magazines. Down one end a soldier or policeman was asleep. In the row in front of mine, two teenagers, perhaps a couple, were flirting and kissing and arguing loudly in Italian. She straightened up a little in her seat, showed him her profile, and asked him if he could please look at her nose (I couldn’t see it from behind; I imagined it long and aquiline, pale and beautiful). The boy kissed it without a word and the two of them dissolved back into laughter and caresses. It took me a while to understand that on that very night they were having a big party with all their friends because the girl had decided to have it operated on the following day. A farewell party for her nose, I understood in Italian. The boy’s kisses, I understood in Italian, were kisses goodbye.
I got off the train at Paola, a small tourist town on the coast. I was standing on the station platform, wrapping myself up against the winter cold, and trying to decide what to do, which direction to walk, when I felt someone behind me grab my arm. Signor Halfon? I gave a disconcerted smile when I saw his mane of blond hair, his tangled beard, his eyes crazy like a benign sort of lunatic, the kind who’s escaped from a circus and nobody minds. I’m Fausto, he said. Benvenuto to Calabria, and he shook my hand. How was your trip? His Spanish sounded perfect, though singsong. Everything about him reminded me of an actor from comic opera. I thought he must have been about my age. It was good, I told him, but long. I’m glad, he said, scratching his beard. I was still trying to place him, to no avail. All of a sudden, without asking, he picked up my suitcase. Bene, andiamo, he said, let’s go quickly, it’s late, and he dragged off my suitcase, leading me by the elbow as though I were a blind man. I’ve got the car parked out front, he said. To take you at once, Signor Halfon, to the concentration camp.
* Fausto’s car was an old reddish Fiat that only barely complied with the most minimal traffic regulations. The trunk needed a piece of string to keep it closed. My seatbelt was broken. There was no rearview mirror (there had been one in the past, perhaps, because a trace of it was still there). The brakes smelled of burning rubber. I didn’t understand whether it was because of some flaw in the signal lights or in the electric system, but each time Fausto wanted to turn he had to stick his left hand out the window—a window that was jammed halfway open. From time to time the engine made a strange noise, as though it were drowning, as though it were about to die, but a firm whack to the dashboard from Fausto would revive it again. Though only barely.
This, said Fausto with a gesture at a huge church or cathedral, is the Santuario di San Francesco di Paola. Bellissimo, he said. Very famous. Many pilgrims from all over Calabria. And muttering something, he crossed himself. I asked him whether we were going to the hotel first, to drop off my things, for me to freshen up and have a little rest. Dopo, dopo, he replied. Later. Now straight to the concentration camp, he said, where the director’s waiting for you. I thought I’d heard him say Herr Direktor, possibly even with a slight German accent, and I almost blurted out that, while driving to a concentration camp, that’s not something you ever say to a Jew.
I felt like a cigarette. I asked Fausto whether he had one, whether he smoked. But he ignored me, or perhaps he didn’t hear me.
In the Santuario di San Francesco di Paola, he said, as we were already on our way out of the city, there is still one unexploded bomb. I wanted to open the window to air out some of the smell of dust, vaseline, and cheap cologne—but the window, naturally, did not work. It was dropped in 1943, he said, during the bombardments from the Allies’ air force, but it never exploded. Fausto sped up along a long, straight avenue, flanked by olive trees. And there it stayed, that bomb, intact, he said, letting go of the gear shift and raising his right hand. His long index finger slammed into the Fiat’s roof. A real miracolo, he said as though speaking from someplace else, or perhaps I was the one who was someplace else, thinking about other bombs, dreaming about Hiroshima, remembering that not long ago, on a trip to Hiroshima, a Japanese girl called Aiko had taken me to see the Fukuromachi primary school, located less than half a kilometer from the exact spot where on August 6, 1945, at eight fifteen in the morning, the atomic bomb was dropped. She and I were standing at a black wall that ran up along the side of an old flight of stairs. It looked like an old blackboard, covered in white markings. Aiko, whose own grandfather had survived the bomb (he never spoke of this to her, nor of the radiation burns on his back), told me in English that there had been 160 teachers and students inside the school at the moment of impact, just starting class, and that every one of them died instantly. All that was left of the original school was the space in which we were standing: the only part of the school that had been built in reinforced concrete. In the days that immediately followed the impact, Aiko told me, this same wall we had in front of us, already blackened by the smoke and soot from the bomb, spontaneously became a community wall, where a few survivors from the city, using little pieces of white chalk from the school, wrote messages for their relatives. Just in case any of their relatives happened also to have survived the bomb, and came to read them. Aiko fell silent and climbed a couple of steps, and it occurred to me that dressed like she was, in a skimpy plaid skirt and white socks that were loose and bunched around her ankles, she looked like a schoolgirl herself, perhaps a schoolgirl from that very school. Though when I saw her put her hand under her skirt and scratch her firm bare thigh, I remembered that she absolutely was no schoolgirl. I looked back at the black wall, at the Japanese characters in front of me. At all the white words on that black wall, all that writing in chalk from the survivors of Hiroshima, still alive and palpable after so many years. We both stood in silence, as if out of respect for something. We could hear the sounds of children playing outside. Hundreds of colored paper cranes, hanging by a window, turned in the breeze. I didn’t, or couldn’t, leave the school until Aiko had finished reading me, in Japanese and English, each of the short white stories on that smoke black wall.
* Ferramonti di Tarsia, read a small yellow sign. Ex Campo di Concentramento. Fondazione. Museo Internazionale Della Memoria. And above it all, like an emblem or logo of everything in the yellow sign, an elegant spiral of barbed wire.
A white-haired gentleman was standing and smoking at the entrance gate. He watched as I got out of the old Fiat and Fausto and I walked over toward him. He looked desperate, almost annoyed or troubled by something, then he flung his cigarette butt toward me, perhaps at me. Herr Direktor, I presumed.
Fausto introduced us. His surname was Panebianco. That’s what everyone called him: Panebianco. He was dressed as though in mourning, in a black coat over a white shirt and a black tie. He had a cap on that was also black, Sicilian-style, called a coppola. I said pleased to meet you and held out my hand, but Panebianco, saying something to Fausto I didn’t understand, seemed not to notice my hand dangling right in front of him, and went on talking. I didn’t know what to do. I held it there, in the air between us, forgotten. Then a girl walked over, with very short black hair, big black eyes, black boots, black stockings, and a black coat, and she stopped right behind the director. His daughter, perhaps. Also in mourning, perhaps. Finally Panebianco stopped talking, looked down, and gave me the weakest handshake of my life. The director says you’re late, Fausto told me as though it was my fault. He also says the people are arriving right now. Panebianco said something else to Fausto that I didn’t understand, and I gathered then that he must have been speaking in dialect. I knew a little about the various dialects still used in Calabria, dozens of dialects, the speakers of some of which could barely understand one another. The director says we can wait a few more minutes, Fausto told me, so that you can see a bit of the concentration camp, Signor Halfon, before getting started. I said yes, thank you, that sounded good, and Panebianco turned around and disappeared off through the main entrance, hobbling, as though in a hurry. I thought the old man was nuts. I thought he wanted me to follow him in, and I was about to do so when his daughter suddenly held out her hand, offering me a silvery pack of Marlboros. Her fingernails were also painted black. A fragment of a tattoo shone from the back of her wrist. Thanks, I don’t smoke, I said, taking a cigarette. Or I don’t smoke much. Or I only smoke when I’m traveling. Or I only smoke as a kind of ritual. She handed me her lighter and opened her big gothic eyes as though disgusted, and sighing a veil of bluish smoke toward me, whispered in perfect Spanish: As you wish.
* Her name was Marina. She wasn’t Panebianco’s daughter, but a postgraduate history student at the University of Cosenza who sometimes helped Panebianco out a little with the events at the Fondazione. She told me, while we were still smoking outside, that Ferramonti di Tarsia had been the largest of the fifteen concentration camps built by Mussolini in 1940. She told me, as we trod our cigarettes on the ground, that it hadn’t been an extermination camp, or not exactly. She told me, as we were going in through the main entrance, that Mussolini had built it there, in the valley of the Crati river, because this was a marshy, malaria-infected region, and that the Jewish prisoners who caught malaria were simply left to die. She told me, as she led me toward one of the blocks, that almost four thousand Jews had been prisoners there, most of them not Italian but from other places in Europe. She told me, as we stood on the threshold of the block, looking in, that this was a model, similar to the camp’s original ninety-two blocks that no longer existed. I looked in at the shed of white walls and beautiful wooden beams, with a perfect row of false little beds, neat-looking, with perfectly folded sheets. What do you mean, a model? I asked. Marina, without turning to look at me, barely opening her mouth, said that the ninety-two original blocks had been demolished in the sixties to build the new highway across Calabria, and that everything here—everything—was a reconstruction.
I stood in silence on the threshold, as though paralyzed, just beginning to understand that what I was seeing was no more than a replica; that they had first decided to destroy the original camp and then they had decided to build, on the same spot, a fake camp; that they had, in other words, built a kind of mock-up or sample or theme park dedicated to human suffering; and that I myself, at that very moment, standing on the threshold of that fake block, was a part of the whole performance. And I don’t know whether it was tiredness from the trip or the time change, or because of the tobacco, or the fact that I hadn’t eaten all day, or the growing feeling of guilt or complicity with that whole farce, but I began to feel sick.
I’m not feeling too good, I said to Marina, smiling a little so as not to alarm her. I need to sit down, maybe have some water, I said with bravado, playing the hero. But she looked at me, confused. I asked her whether she had something sweet, maybe a bit of chocolate, and this seemed to confuse her even more. I felt cold and hot. I felt my knees weaken. I was about to say to hell with my bravado and drop to the floor on that very spot, on that fake floor of that fake camp, in the doorway to that fake fucking block, and either fall asleep or start bawling like a child. But Marina suddenly took me firmly by the arm and pushed me toward another wooden door, just a few steps away, and as we were going through I heard her shout some words to someone in Italian, words I didn’t understand but which sounded beautiful, indispensible, like the serene and precise orders of a war nurse.
* Inside everything was dark, cool, silent. Marina led me through the darkness to the only bench, in the middle of the small room. I sat down. She remained standing, right behind me. Fausto soon arrived and handed me a bottle of chilled water. He also stood behind me. None of us spoke. I was grateful, and they knew it. I drank slowly, breathed deeply, and was starting to feel better when suddenly the whole room lit up. There were three huge screens, at right angles—one on the wall to my left, one on the wall to my right, the other in front of me—on which began the simultaneous projection of a short movie, in black and white, about the history of the camp and prisoners of Ferramonti di Tarsia. The voiceover was in Italian. The soundtrack playing in the background was supermarket muzak. The images were the usual ones. The bench was right in the middle of the room so that the spectator might feel surrounded by light, immersed in the sensationalism of bitterness and wretchedness and death. I closed my eyes. I tried not to pay the film any attention and to relax while drinking small sips of water, and breathed deeply. I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder, firm on my shoulder, as though taking care of me from behind. Maybe it was Marina’s hand. Maybe it was Fausto’s hand.
* Panebianco was already sitting in one of the two red armchairs on the stage, holding up a microphone, telling the audience something or other about the museum. As he went on talking, Marina pushed me down the aisle to the stage and whispered to me that I should go up and sit in the other red armchair. I was feeling better, though not completely well, and once sunk into the armchair I smiled at the audience with a mix of piety and pathos.
The auditorium was full. There were people standing at the back. I struggled to understand Panebianco, perhaps because of the accent or the rhythm of his Italian, perhaps because he was speaking with the microphone right up close against his lips, as though kissing it. He said something to the Calabrian audience about the importance of memory when Marina returned to the stage. On a small wooden table she placed another bottle of chilled water for me, and a copy of my book translated into Italian for Panebianco.
When they first got in touch to invite me, months earlier, I didn’t even know that concentration camps existed in Italy. My event, I was told over the phone, would make up part of the week’s program of events relating to Holocaust Memorial Day, celebrated annually in Italy, every January 27th, in commemoration of the day in 1945 that Auschwitz was liberated. They wanted me to come talk about my book, about my Polish grandfather, about his time in Auschwitz. And they didn’t tell me anything else. And I accepted the invitation because I was too much of a coward to say no.
Panebianco had already spent fifteen or twenty minutes chewing on the microphone. He was now saying something about his efforts at the Fondazione to reclaim history by reconstructing the camp, to welcome and educate boys and girls from schools all over Calabria. It sounded like a speech from a politician after people’s votes. While still talking into the microphone, he put his hand in his inside coat pocket and passed me a sealed white envelope. I could feel the wad of bills inside it. My travel expenses, I assumed, which Panebianco was giving me right there on the stage, in front of our audience, as though wanting the whole audience to witness his gesture, as though in an official public display of his generosity. A wad of dirty bills, I guessed, which Panebianco himself, standing at the front gate, had received from the little hands of boys and girls from all over Calabria as they entered his fake concentration camp. I put the envelope down on the small wooden table beside my book, and gulped down half a bottle of water.
At last, Panebianco stood up. He said even more loudly that he wanted to give a very warm welcome to the afternoon’s guest of honor. He turned to me and smiled. To the writer and professor, he said in Italian. To the Guatemalan, he said in Italian. And with exaggerated enthusiasm, after leaning over toward the table and quickly scanning the jacket of my book, he shouted: Il signor Hoffman.
And handed me the spit-soaked microphone.
* My room in the Pensione Toscana was all upholstered in red wine–colored velvet, or at least a fabric that looked like red wine–colored velvet. The bedspread. The armchair. The curtains. The wallpaper, floor to ceiling.
I was asleep on the velvet of the bedspread, face up, completely naked. No sooner had I arrived than I took a long, hot shower and collapsed onto the bed to rest a little, without unpacking anything. I had no intention of sleeping, but my tiredness defeated me. Or perhaps the warm softness of the velvet defeated me. Immediately I began to dream about my mother. She was sitting on a bench in a small room, watching a black and white movie on three screens. Each screen showed, consecutively, my sister, my brother, and me. Each on our own screen. Each of us, in black and white, were prisoners in our own concentration camp. And each of us, to save ourselves, had to do on our screen whatever our mother told us to do, as though our mother were the screenwriter and director of our three movies. She told my sister that in order to save herself she had to do some modern dance, like she’d done as a little girl, and my sister started dancing on her screen. She told my brother that in order to save himself he had to dig a pit in the ground with his hands, a big, deep pit using only his hands, and my brother started scratching away at the earth on his screen. She told me from her place on the bench that in order to save myself I had to shave off my beard, since a Jew never lets his beard grow as long as his father is alive, that wearing a beard was an act of disrespect toward my father, toward her, toward the Jewish people. I, confused and sad, looking into the camera as though it were a mirror, shaved off my beard with an old straight razor.
A loud banging woke me.
For a few seconds, I didn’t know where I was. I could still see or sense my mother sitting on the bench. I could still see or sense my sister and brother on their screens, dancing and digging away. I felt my face with my hand, as if checking. Because of the cold, or out of modesty, I covered myself up with the velvet bedspread. I gave a sigh of relief, still half-asleep. Looking over at the digital clock on the bedside table, I saw that it was ten fifteen at night. I’d been asleep for less than an hour.
There was another knock at the door. Just a moment, I called, getting up, stretching, fighting to shake off the last black and white images from my dream. I found a bath towel and wrapped it around my waist. It was too small. Half-naked and holding the towel precariously with one hand, I opened the door. There were Marina and her cigarettes.
* It was seedy, but it was the only bar in town we found open on a Sunday night. The owner, a potbellied, bald old man, was called Luigi. From his post behind the bar, he smoked one cigarette after another while talking animatedly to the Sunday news bulletin on a television set hanging from the ceiling. He wore a white sleeveless T-shirt, a pair of old gabardine shorts, black socks, and rubber sandals. As if he were waiting on us in the living room of his house. On our table he put plates of shrivelled black olives, pickled eggplant, a kind of salami called soppressata, a spicy red pesto called sardella (made of sardines, red pepper flakes, and the tips of wild fennel, Marina told me), and a basket with slices of rustic bread. We were both drinking dark beer. We were the only two customers in the bar.
Marina took off her black coat. She had firm arms with smooth skin, a soft olive color. Around her forearm she had an elegant, delicate tattoo of an Asian dragon; the dragon’s tail was wrapped around her wrist. She told me she’d learned Spanish in Alicante, where she’d lived and worked one summer. She told me she’d finished her postgraduate program, but didn’t know what to do next, what work she wanted to do. She told me that in the meantime she was helping out in a few of Calabria’s museums and historical foundations, including Panebianco’s. She told me that even though she’d lived in Cosenza many years, while she studied at the university, she was really from a town at the opposite end of Calabria, on the coast of the Strait of Messina, called Scilla. Like the monstrous Scylla, from Homer? I asked. Marina smiled, maybe for the first time that day, but her smile dissapeared just as quickly, as if her Gothic pose didn’t allow it. So you’re from a mythological town, then, I said, a bit haughtily. Marina took the last sip of her beer. And is that where your family’s from, from Scilla? My family, she said without looking at me, has always been from there. And then she added, very seriously: Since before Homer.
At the bar, Luigi shouted something at Berlusconi’s face on the television screen. We both fell silent a moment, as though startled by Luigi’s shout or by Berlusconi’s face on the television screen.
My grandfather was also in a concentration camp, Marina said.
She lit a cigarette for me, then another for herself. I inhaled deeply, noticing that the end of the cigarette was damp.
He wasn’t Jewish, my nonno, she said. He was an Italian soldier who was captured by the Germans in 1943 after the signing of the armistice between Italy and the Allies, and he spent the next two years as a prisoner of war in a concentration camp in Hamburg. Internati Militari Italiani, that’s what they called these prisoners in Italian, she said, or Italienische Militärinternierte, in German. My grandfather was called Bacicio. Or at least that’s what we called him. Il nonno Bacicio, she said, and turned to the bar to ask Luigi for two more beers. But your grandfather was saved, then? Marina waited for Luigi to arrive, place the two bottles on the table, and leave. He was, yes. But he didn’t like to talk about those years, like your grandfather. We smoked for a bit in the white noise of the news bulletin and Luigi’s mutterings. The only thing he told me, near the end of his life, said Marina, was about the day the American troops liberated them from the Hamburg concentration camp. He told me he’d never been as frightened as he was that day, already free, walking with all the other prisoners of war. He had nothing. No food, no water, no money. He didn’t know where he was walking. My nonno told me he was just walking forward amid thousands of other prisoners, not knowing where he was headed, when suddenly he heard a voice behind him calling his name. It was another Italian soldier who was also Calabrian, called Menzaricchi. Or that was his nickname, Menzaricchi, meaning half-ear. They barely knew each other, my nonno Bacicio told me, but the two men embraced and wept and took each other’s hands and began to walk together toward Italy. Marina drank a long gulp of beer. My nonno told me that the whole way to Italy, I don’t know how many days or weeks or months heading toward Italy, the two men never let go of each other’s hands. Marina stretched out an arm and grabbed my hand too hard, a little clumsily. The whole way like this, she said with a squeeze. And like this, hand in hand, they finally reached their homes in Calabria.
Marina let go of me as though letting go of an inanimate object. She leaned back in her chair, weary, and took another drink of her beer.
They didn’t see each other again for many years, she said. But at the end of their lives, when they were both already old and retired, they used to sit every afternoon on the same bench in front of the sea. Just looking out to sea. Sometimes for an hour. Sometimes not even that. Without saying a word. They no longer had anything left to say, I guess. They just wanted to be together a while. As though at the end of their lives they once again needed each other to survive, to keep on surviving a little longer.
Marina fell silent. She was smoking as she watched the television on the ceiling, her eyes even blacker, even bigger. The fangs of her dragon rested on the table. I made an effort not to yawn. Once again sleep was starting to take me over, and without realizing it I started to dream about the two soldiers from the Hamburg concentration camp; the two soldiers walking hand in hand along alleyways, through villages, and across fields of wheat or barley; the two soldiers who were battered, dirty, skinny, holding hands; the two soldiers on a bench looking out to sea.
It took me a few moments to understand Marina, who was stubbing her cigarette out in the glass ashtray.
Hoffman died today, Marina said again. I looked up at the television. On the small screen there was a photo of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, unshaven, gaunt. Suspected overdose, Marina said. They found him a few hours ago in the bathroom of his New York apartment, a heroin needle still in his arm.
I stood and walked over toward the television set. Maybe to see it better. Or to better understand the voiceover of the Italian news bulletin. Or to confirm that what she was saying was true. I stared at the photo of Hoffman.
I thought about the one time I’d seen him in person, by chance, years earlier, in a café in Greenwich Village. He was standing in front of me, waiting his turn in line, dressed as though he’d just woken up. I was about to say something to him, anything, maybe just hello, maybe how much I followed his work as an actor, maybe how much I admired his ability to use his art to make a small story great, to raise to the sublime and appealing, in select scenes, men who were nobodies, men who were fragile and dejected and commonplace. To tell him: Wilson reading the last letter from his suicide wife. To tell him: Jack blushing and childish as he learned to swim in a Harlem pool. To tell him: Lester talking about art as guilt and longing and love disguised as sex and sex disguised as love. To tell him: Freddie playing a single piano key in Rome. To tell him: Andy broken in the car after the confrontation with his father. To tell him: Phil, the nurse, administering the last drops of morphine. To tell him: Scotty stealing a kiss. To tell him any of them, all of them. To tell him something. But I said nothing, fortunately, or unfortunately. I just watched him from behind as he ordered his coffee (a quadruple espresso, I remember), paid for it and thanked the girl at the cash register, and set off again on his bicycle along the streets of Greenwich Village. And then, still looking at his lifeless face on the television screen, I immediately thought of Panebianco. I thought with a shudder of how Panebianco had called me Hoffman by mistake, a few hours earlier, perhaps at the exact same moment that Hoffman had died in his bathroom in New York. Hoffman, Panebianco had called me, while Hoffman died. As though it were more than a slip, more than a coincidence. As though in dying he had liberated his name to float freely around the world, for anyone else in the world to catch it in the air, and say it, and embody it. As though the names of dead artists were butterflies. As though this was what always happened to men who, in their lives and in their art, gave voices to everyman, to all men. As though all of us men, at that exact moment, were called Hoffman.
I walked back to the table. I felt simultaneously euphoric and dejected. My sleepiness had gone. All my spirit had gone. Any sense I had of space and time and even of myself had gone. Suddenly I no longer understood what I was doing there, in Italy, in Calabria, in that dark, empty bar, in that icy winter night. I didn’t understand anything.
Marina asked if I was feeling alright, if I needed a bit of fresh air. I said nothing. What could I say? How to put into words everything I was feeling? How to put into words a feeling that was so full of life, and death, and friendship, and hatred? How to find and use the right words without betraying them?
I put my hand in my coat pocket and searched there for the white envelope with the travel expenses. I opened it. I took out the wad of bills, and put it sharply down on the table. It was a wad of ten-euro bills, just ten-euro bills. I shouted to Luigi in Spanish to bring me two shot glasses of gin. Due bicchieri de gin, I repeated in my bad Italian. Il suo miglior gin, I shouted, your best. Marina said nothing, did nothing. She just glared at me with violence and even a little fear. I knew—perhaps from the violence in her stare, perhaps from the olive tone of her skin, perhaps from the dragon that seemed to be biting her elbow—that she also liked gin. Luigi brought us the two glasses and I handed him a ten-euro bill. Marina and I toasted in silence. The gin was thick and strong and immediately set my whole chest ablaze. Two more, I said to Luigi in Spanish, handing him another ten-euro bill. Marina was still looking at me, as though wanting to tell me something or ask me something with her eyes. Luigi came back quickly with two more shots of gin, and again Marina and I toasted in silence. Both of us knew exactly what it was we were toasting. Or maybe we didn’t. I began to feel gradually lighter.
Luigi took a cigarette from the pack of Marlboros that was on the table, and stood there in front of us. Hoffman’s face was still dead and gaunt on the television screen. The hands of the Italian soldiers were still firmly grasped together in the past, as the two men walked across a golden field of wheat or barley and arrived at the shore of the sea. Panebianco was still talking from the podium in his theme park. My mother, from her bench, was still trying to save me.
I looked up. I told Luigi, in Spanish, to keep bringing us gins and taking ten-euro bills. But Luigi seemed not to understand. Translate please, I said to Marina, and Marina, for the second time that day, smiled at me. Tell Luigi I want him to keep bringing gins and taking bills, I pronounced vigorously, as though giving some imperial command. Tell Luigi, I said to Marina, that I want him to keep bringing gins and taking bills until there are no more dirty bills left on the table, or until there are no more dirty bills left anywhere, or until you and I collapse drunk and naked onto the floor of the bar, or until love kills us all.
Eduardo Halfon has published eleven books of fiction in Spanish. The Polish Boxer, his first book to appear in English, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection and finalist for the International Latino Book Award. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he is currently the Harman Writer in Residence at Baruch College in New York.
Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor, and translator, with forty-something books to his name. His translations from Portuguese, Spanish, and French include fiction from Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and nonfiction by writers ranging from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago to Brazilian footballer Pelé. He is currently chair of the Society of Authors, the UK writers’ union. Recent books include The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature and a translation of the Angolan novel A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee