An Excerpt from
Domenico Starnone, Via Gemito (Feltrinelli 2000, Einaudi 2021)
Published in agreement with Europa Editions
Translated from Italian by Oonagh Stransky
How long did I hold that position that day? Fifteen minutes, half an hour, an eternity? It’s hard to say. To be honest, I don’t have a clear memory of the passing of time, nor do I feel the need to invent one. I prefer to let my memories jumble together, the way they have up until now: the time my father called me over and did a bunch of charcoal sketches of me; the times my mother walked in and announced “Food’s ready,” the time he called for me and told me to take up the position again so that he could transfer the sketch of the boy pouring water onto the canvas
I remember details, phrases, lighthearted moments and moments of tension, but not in any exact order. In my mind I see him drawing then painting; he’s sitting and then he’s standing; the painting is almost done, the painting is still a sketch; on the right of the canvas is a grey blotch to mark the space where my body will be – directly above the builders’ meal, which has already been completed: bread, four tomatoes, and some grapes.
I really can’t say anything specific about the experience. I only know that the position was very uncomfortable, I know the pain. I can’t rule out that as he glanced at me, intending to capture a kneecap, a big toe, or an elbow, he stopped to ask “Everything ok, Mimì?” He may well have encouraged me by saying “Another little bit and then we’re done.” He could even have said something like “We’ll stop to eat soon.” But what has stayed in my memory, above all, is the fatigue of not moving, of holding the position, a growing sense of inadequacy, the fervent way that he bragged about all the success he’d had, his precociousness as an artist, the way his father had tried so hard to belittle him into being just an ordinary guy.
As I tried to stay still, I remember thinking to myself, “What’s so bad about being an ordinary guy?” And when I had those thoughts, I suddenly felt like an empty shell, as if the admiration my father urged me to have for him left me feeling a sense of loss. There are no other words to describe that feeling. It felt, in my head, like I had lost something, all my attention would shift elsewhere, like when something sucks you in too far. My fascination with his extreme vitality, a trait he had shown ever since he was born, devitalized me to the degree that, to this day, I think that I was able to stand as still as a statue for him only because I didn’t have the strength to have a childhood, an adolescence, an existence on a par with his.
There I was: apprentice builder suffering the condition of servant to master. As he talked, the pages of his childhood and his struggle with my grandfather turned one after the other as if blown by an invisible breeze. Pain running through each muscle, I scoured my few years for something equally as powerful but found nothing comparable to those hints of his greatness. This led to a feeling of meagerness or inconsistency that sunk its teeth into me and stayed with me my whole life.
And then he’d say, “That’s enough for now,” and interrupt his storytelling. I remember that phrase perfectly, as if his voice was a cannon shot used to signal lunch break. That’s enough, he’d say, and start to pick up the sheets of paper that were scattered all over the floor, my figure roughly sketched on them.
It felt like all my extremities melted with relief. I would rest the straw-covered glass demijohn on the floor and stand up straight without even daring to rub my knee, without stretching. And thus would begin his generous praise of my self-discipline, how I never complained. And when we went to sit down at the table – my grandmother, mother, and siblings all waiting for us, food already served and covered with other plates to keep it warm – he would start insulting all the other models he had ever had, especially zio Matteo and zio Peppino, whom he recalled to be incapable of staying still for a minute. He did it just so he could say to my mother proudly, “But he didn’t even move a fraction of an inch.” He then went on to praise our race – that was the word he used, race, in the sense of bloodline – and with that he meant his family, the one he descended from, but above all, him, he was the superior example of it; and we, his offspring, held so much promise. For him I had skills that other races, those on mother’s side in particular, could never even dream of.
That’s pretty much it. Facts and the desire for facts blend together; words that were actually uttered and words that were craved. I’m not even entirely sure of his ebullience and good mood. Occasionally he was overcome with contentment: it makes me happy now to think that it derived from how he managed to resolve the pictorial puzzle of the painting. It made me happy, too. My knee was purple and the arm that had been holding the demijohn ached terribly. I’d rub my wrist theatrically so that my mother and grandmother, and especially my brothers, knew the extent to which I had suffered. I’d glance over at my father, who sat there joking and devouring his food, and I was proud of having helped him in just the way he wanted. Things at home were calm, finally.
And then? And then, suddenly, the way a door slams in the wind, I’m back. Bam! Back in the position I had just left, in front of the easel. Back kneeling on the floor, the empty demijohn under my arm. I don’t know what triggered it. Maybe my grandmother angered him: seeing me continually rub my wrist, she would suddenly pipe up, “Are you hurt?” I’d stop rubbing my wrist right away, afraid of his anger. But the question had already been asked, my father’s mood had already changed, and he’d say something like: “He’s fine, dear mother-in-law, nothing wrong with him at all. Your grandson isn’t made of ricotta, you know, not like your son.” And then he’d get up out of spite and leave halfway through lunch, beckoning to me to follow him back into the room where he painted. Everything was always so tenuous; it didn’t take much to break the harmony.
But maybe it happened differently. Maybe there was a long silence, with me wishing I had a net strong enough to catch my grandmother’s misspoken words and my wrist-rubbing, and even the sound of my brother snapping his fingers, because Geppe was always practicing his finger-snapping back then. But since that was impossible, I would resign myself to waiting to see which direction my father would give the rest of lunch, even though, at moments like that, it was entirely predictable. If something irked him while we were eating, he’d immediately go quiet, purse his lips tightly together, and then eventually break the silence by choosing an interlocutor – me, usually, he liked choosing me – and, just to irritate everyone, he’d start talking and talking without stopping, so that by the time the rest of us had reached the fruit, he’d still be on his first course. My mother and grandmother would wait for a bit and then, with utmost discretion, start to clear the table. He’d ignore them and keep on talking. My brothers would get up from the table and hover nearby, waiting for me to join them in the hallway. But he was oblivious to it all. He just kept talking. We’d sit there, my father and I, across from each other, dishes and cutlery on his side of the table only, everything else cleared away, while he ate and talked, talked and ate. And that’s how, thanks to some strange spell, lunch became like a guillotine blade that took forever to fall. The two women stood to one side, wondering if they should start in on the dishes or not. My brothers were nearby, uncertain if they should come and sit back down and pretend to listen. I dreamed of being liberated by a sudden flash of lightning or something. And then, Federì would brusquely stop talking to me and focus on a gesture or some slight movement that my mother had made and he’d start screaming and yelling and throwing things. We’d busted his balls, he’d yell, getting up quickly from the table. That’s exactly what he said, once, after swearing to high heaven, cursing all the saints and the virgin Mary: “You’ve busted my balls! Come on, Mimì! Let’s go.”
Or maybe it didn’t happen that way. Maybe he spent days on end mulling over the shapes of those builders – from home to his job at the railroad and back – visualizing them inside his very adult head, in all their details, while still the very same kid that grew up near the river in Reggio Calabria, the kid that scribbled numbers and colored figures all over grandmother Funzella’s door, the kid that watched everything from the balcony, the kid who saw the police come and go.
Eyes that open inward see things more broadly than eyes that look out. He imagined his figures alive, laid out in space, one next to the other at their work site: a mastiff keeping a vigilant eye over things that happened beyond the canvas; zio Matteo looking off that way, too, with a slightly bemused expression; Luigi, meanwhile, just sat there, his left hand resting on the bare ground, his right arm, which would eventually reach out with a glass in hand for the water, had not yet been painted, not even sketched yet; the water-bearing boy was still in a gestational phase like the two builders who would eventually be situated next to him, doing what? Who knows. Basically, half the painting still needed to be painted. He wasn’t entirely sure how to use the sketches that he had done; he needed a burst of imagination, energy, and time. And then one day it all became clear to him. That was the day he said “Mimì, you’ll help your dad, won’t you?” and the pain, the immobility, the posing began again.
Of that I am certain: it definitely began again. From the top. And so, here I am, holding the pose in the center of the room, next to the vitrine with its broken glass where the silver is kept, a few inches away from the table. Even if there had been a period of reprieve (and as I remember it now, there wasn’t one; I believe I stayed in that position day in and day out for weeks on end), it definitely didn’t ease the tension or fatigue. I’m a rope full of tight knots that’s been pulled taut. Time passes, I’m overcome with nausea, I’m running a fever. I start hallucinating ugly things: I imagine that the man behind the easel busily painting The Drinkers, is not my father, but Federì, as a child. He’s the one who’s doing the painting: a three-year-old version of my father is painting his ten-year-old son. What difference does it make if it’s the toddler version or the man version painting me anyway? My father always insisted that either you have talent or you don’t, and if you do it’s because you were born with it. He was born with talent. And that’s why I see him as he appears in a childhood photo, with that large head of his and chubby cheeks, a cigarette between his lips, a paintbrush in his right hand, looking at me, mumbling as he dabs the canvas with his brush.
I see this and other things. I see the floor has turned to dirt. The scene in the painting has taken over the room. My knee rests on the earth of the worksite, my bare foot touches the white cloth on which there is a half loaf of bread, a plate with four tomatoes, and some grapes – the builders’ lunch. But the perspective has changed: I now see those things from my position, not from the desired perspective of my father; I see them and I see Luigi. If my father placed him so that he can see his back and partial profile, I see his face from the front, his dark hair, his low forehead, his stubbly cheeks, unshaven for days, his hairy chest. The only thing that’s missing is his right arm, the one that will hold the glass.
I’m dreaming with my eyes wide open – or maybe they’re closed, I don’t know, the vision is perfectly clear either way – when something else strange happens. Water begins to pour out of the empty demijohn that I am holding. But the water doesn’t spill into a glass, it splashes onto the tomatoes, onto the plate, it soaks the coarse cloth, it wets the grapes, it’s absorbed by the earth and the doughy part of the bread. I flinch as I realize something terrible. In my mind’s eye, I quickly complete Luigi’s arm. I place an imaginary glass in his hand and have him reach it out towards the demijohn. I’m overcome with despair and feel like I’m going to die.
My position is all wrong.
The water will forever spill onto the tomatoes, the plate, the cloth. My father placed me in a position where, even with Luigi reaching as far as he can, I will never be able to pour the water into his glass.
As I write this, I try and put order in my thoughts, I look for reasons, I draw on what I have learned over the years. Back then, however, I felt the urgent need to save Federì from discovering his error, which he’d blame on me or my mother or my relatives or anyone else in the family.
Emotions amassed in my mind, I think, and I was paralyzed with panic: I felt bitterly angry because all the energy I had put into being a statuesque model had been pointless, I was afraid that he’d be furious for all the time he had wasted, I imagined him scraping off the fresh paint from the canvas with his spatula or knife, cursing all of god’s creations in heaven and on earth; I felt pain for him because, ever since he was born, he had never managed to actually become the great artist that he said he was; I was throbbing with a sense of responsibility, the destiny of that painting now depended both on my figure of apprentice builder and on my filial devotion.
It didn’t take much to double check it: the distance between Luigi and me was excessive. My father would be forced to paint a disproportionately long arm if he wanted the builder’s glass to reach the demijohn.
I couldn’t think about it without feeling ill. The more I pictured just how long that arm would have to be the more my body broke out in a cold sweat. There was no fix for it and I knew how he would justify his mistake. First, he would shout at me: “See what you’ve done? You moved!” Then he would start whining that it was all because he didn’t have a proper painting studio the way other genius painters did. That would’ve made him angry with my mother, who hadn’t let him move the rest of the furniture out or throw it out or burn it, as need be, which would have granted him all the room he needed to give shape to the idea that lived inside his head. Finally, he would’ve railed against his great misfortune of being a decent man, a family man, incapable of abandoning us and going to live on his own in some attic in Paris. It would’ve been pointless to try and say something like, “Alright, Papà, but it was you who made the mistake; not me, not mamma, not the rest of the family.” That would only have made him angrier. He would’ve gotten bitterly upset by that, he would’ve claimed that he was misunderstood even by his oldest son, he would’ve justified himself by enumerating all the specific complexities of that painting, how difficult it was in terms of both conception and execution. How could we possibly understand, he’d scream, the gravity of the problems an artist has to face? Did we have any idea of the number of thoughts that ran through his head? Did we have any idea, for fuck’s sake, of how they tormented him? How each of the thousands of different hypotheses, each one varying ever so slightly, pushed him this way and then that and then back again? For crying out loud, we’re not talking about slicing cheese here! It’s not like filling pastries with cream!
I decided that I needed to do the one thing that up until that moment I had tried with all my might not to do: move. It seemed to be the only way I could fix that terrible situation. I couldn’t possibly say to my father: “The position you put me in is wrong. Where I am now the water won’t flow into the glass. Maybe you don’t realize it from where you are – I know you have so many other things to think about. But from my position, I can imagine Luigi in front of me, and I tell you that I’m too far away, the water will spill onto the ground, bread and tomatoes. Please, before the damage is irreparable, move me.” No. Even if I had found the courage to speak up, which I exclude a priori, he would’ve been so shocked by my first few words, that he would’ve just sneered at me and laughed; on the off chance that he was in a good mood, he would’ve said, at the very most, “Mimì, please, just trust Papà.” Or he wouldn’t even have bothered replying: he would’ve just looked at me in complete silence as if to say, “Ah, so you’re an artist now, are you? You, a painter? Be quiet and don’t move.” And so, I made a plan to shift my position by making miniscule movements, by moving so carefully that he’d never even realize I was doing it. There was no other solution.
It was a long process and, as I recall it now, one of the most arduous and tense experiences of my whole life. I actually only had to move a tiny bit: with my right knee acting as a hub, all I needed to do was inch my left foot forward so that I could rotate my chest the right amount so that the neck of the demijohn would be in line with the future glass in Luigi’s hand. With the bones in my right knee aching and my foot and leg asleep, I began the undertaking.
Children exist on the cusp of either dreams or nightmares – or at least that’s how I existed. Back then I was always chasing down feverish thoughts, trying to find explanations or see details in meaningless facts, experiences that made time either fly by or slow down and dilate, depending on the situation. I’m positive that I would’ve rather died than give up; every day I died a number of times. As for the fractions of the inch that lay ahead of me, it was an interminable distance, and yet I was better equipped without shoes than that cat and its seven league boots. As for time, and how long the attempt took… I can’t be sure. Sometimes, duration depends on the significance that we attribute to our actions. In some ways, I think that I am still rotating, and that I will be for as long as I live, or for as long as I think about it and tell the story.
In the meantime, my father talked: he talked about his childhood, his teenage years, his girlfriends, the women he’d known, his own father, other painters, his enemies. I shifted slowly, with minimal movements. First, my big toe and the toes of my left foot gripped the tile floor; the muscles in my leg tensed up. My body rotated imperceptibly on my right knee. Ever so slowly, the neck of the demijohn moved away from the white cloth and the plate of tomatoes that I had clearly imagined in order to orient myself, and made its way towards Luigi’s glass, another necessary fiction. I was the boy who was pouring water. I wanted to pour it well, not so much for my father and the success of his painting but for the peace it would bring my mother and the quiet that would descend on the whole family.
Suddenly Federì stopped talking. His silence sent a chill up my spine. I stopped my slow rotation and waited. “Mimì, you’re moving,” he said drily. “What’s the matter? Are you tired? Do you want to rest?” he asked. “You’ve been so good, up until now,” he said, trying to encourage me. “We’re almost done for the day, just a little bit longer,” he promised, and started to paint again.
I waited a few moments, then started shifting again. I was drenched in sweat, my toes were too slippery to grip the floor. But I was almost there: the green neck of the glass demijohn was almost at the height of Luigi’s glass. I had reached the right position.
Not for my father, though. He jumped to his feet, brush in his hand and cigarette between his lips. He had lost his patience. How was it possible that I couldn’t stay still for just one more minute? Just one more minute, for crying out loud.
He came over to me, kneeled down gruffly, and shifted my body back to its original position.
Oonagh Stransky has translated works by Pasolini, Pontiggia, Lucarelli, Saviano, Pericoli, Stassi, Prunetti, Spaziani, Pope Francis, and is currently translating The Butterfly of Dinard by Eugenio Montale with Marla Moffa for NYRB.
This excerpt is published in agreement with Europa Editions.
This excerpt is part of the special issue Reading Domenico Starnone (October 2021), edited by Enrica Maria Ferrara and Stiliana Milkova.