The kid who sells roasted chestnuts at the end of the Ponte Garibaldi gets down to work. He sits in a groove in the parapet of the bridge with a small stove between his legs, looking no one in the face, as if his relationship to the rest of humanity were at an end, or as if he had been reduced to only a hand, not the physical hand of a small boy or an elderly lady, but an abstract hand, a mechanism for accepting payment and delivering merchandise in a rigidly calculated and predetermined exchange. And most likely the young man–he is as dark as a violet, dark as only the boys from Trastevere can be–subtracts a few chestnuts from the abstract hand of the customer: one chestnut more on the grill and less in the hand amounts to nothing more than a mathematical calculation, a sum or a subtraction. The customer is an abstract figure, and, morally speaking, the fraud hardly registers.
The dark-skinned boy calculates his two sets of parallel figures–chestnuts and lire–with an avidity that is completely internalized: the trick is destined to succeed. Perhaps even these hours between the afternoon and the evening are an abstraction to him. The evening is nothing less than the moment when the ratio between two contrasting figures reaches its emotional zenith, the moment of truth, conclusive and extraordinary . . . At that moment (where? On the Via della Paglia? In some neighborhood alley, gloomily perfumed with springtime?) he will calculate his profit.
Will the wolf smile then? With his distracted air, a perfect simulation of the most honest indifference, masking his faulty arithmetic, will that embezzled chestnut make his heart leap with joy as would any normal heart? It’s a sad truth, but it is preferable for his heart to beat for ten lire won through trickery than not at all.
In any case, at this moment he is so preoccupied with his calculations that if there were even a flash of another thought in his head, it would appear in his eye only as the faintest shadow. And so, little by little, in the compact, colorless avidity of the eye, a shadow has begun to form; after all, it would be completely unnatural for an eighteen-year-old boy to have no thought for anything but the struggle between two numerical series. True, it is a struggle for survival: but how many and what diverse vocations coexist in the life of a young Trasteverino.
For my part, I would like to understand the mechanisms by which the Trastevere–shapeless, pounding, idle–lives inside of him. His eyes are like two sigils: two black wax seals impressed on the gray of his face which emanates no light from within, an opaqueness amply compensated, certainly, by the intense light of the Roman sky. His heart is like a tapeworm that constantly digests innumerable sighs, screams, smiles, and exclamations; which has digested, without its host’s knowledge, an entire generation of his peers, young men made of something slightly more than clay, young men who are less than Apollos . . .
Behind him the Tiber is an abyss drawn on tissue paper.
And one has the hopeless sense that he does not see it, as if to him it were something so external as to have no place in his reality. Or that, like a horse with blinders, he can only see a small portion of it, determined by the strictly functional nature of his reality. Thence the pain; and the pity. With his knees open savagely wide around the small stove and his torso leaning over it, he compresses himself into a circle which no magical formula can break apart. The entire length of the Tiber, with its deathly haze over the Tiber Island and its landscape that weighs on the eye, the domes light as veils in the wind, bears down on his back with the weight of a child’s little finger against the Great Wall of China.
So, Rome does not interest him; c’est la vie. His Baedeker is as dangerous as a pistol. The entry on the Trastevere does not include Santa Maria with its flaccid figures by Cavallini, but, instead, perhaps the five toughs who were hanging around the intersection of Via della Scala and Via della Lungara last night, drunk with a joy that stank of blood like a butcher’s shop. Perhaps it also includes the boy–brown as a statue pulled from the mud of the Tiber–who lingers near the Reale Cinema. What else can be found in this harsh guide, which reduces Rome to its own obsession? Things perhaps that we civilized types can not even imagine. A particular, functional segment of the Tiber . . . a functional itinerary through the boy’s neighborhood . . . The chestnut-seller knows much, of that we can be sure; he knows, but he remains silent as the tomb. In order to communicate the topography of his life, he would need to stand outside of it; but where does the Tiber end and the boy begin?
Incredibly, at a certain point he speaks to me. “A moro,”1 he says, “what time is it?” If he had stood up and flung the red-hot grille in my face I would not have been more surprised: I believed I was completely external to his functional reality, to those segments, angles, or layers of Rome which I thought were the only things that could leave a mark on his retina. The fact that I did not own a watch is for him a small sudden explosion of irrationality just as the sight of the shadow in his eyes was for me. But I am quickly swept out of his mind, while for me the mystery has only been slightly transformed, and even intensified. Now his Baedeker threatens to become an undecipherable catalogue: the Trastevere, from the Cinema Reale to the Cinema Fontana . . . a few shows at the Altieri Theatre (where for fifty lire you can also watch the variety show) . . . the Via delle Stalle and San Pietro in Montorio, on spring nights . . .
I hover around the circle created by the boy, but do not enter: the boy’s heart, which existed already before the hour which does not appear on my nonexistent watch, has lived too submerged in poverty for too many years.
There is a smell of laundry left to dry on the balconies of the alleyways, of human feces on the little stairway down to the water, of asphalt warmed by the spring air, but the boy’s heart appears and disappears on the side of the Stazione Trastevere or on the 129 bus, so distant that poverty and beauty are one and the same.
1An expression in Roman dialect that means something like “Hey, you,” or “Hey mister.”
Originally published in Il Mattino d’Italia, Rome, June 5, 1950. From the collection Stories from the City of God: Sketches and Chronicles of Rome 1950-1966, forthcoming from Other Press. Published by arrangement with Einaudi and Other Press.