He knows that every published book is an imperfect representation of the book one imagined writing, its final shape determined by painful exclusions, second thoughts, and corrections that mercilessly cut out its best, most difficult parts; sometimes he thinks back on what his book could have been, or it would be more accurate to say the thousands and thousands of books he could have written which have remained hidden in a folder in his computer called “rejects,” where these different versions of his book no less authentic than the so-called final version and in some ways more genuine than the completed work-are chaotically stored. One night he discusses these “rejected” sections with his editor with whom he worked on the final version, who is having second thoughts about having advised him to cut a brutal chapter, which at the time he found overly personal.
. . . because he cannot describe the deaths of the victims of Auschwitz, deaths which have disappeared into the mist and mud of the plain, he recalls another agony that he witnessed and which has left an indelible mark in his memory.
In the comfortable sitting room, surrounded by family portraits, the deleted fragments and uncertainties return to him, along with an irritating feeling of vulnerability.
. . . perhaps, he tells himself, this wasting away he is trying to describe is similar to theirs and so compelled as always to compare his personal experiences with that of the book he is writing-he forces himself-against his will, overcoming an understandable resistance, but compelled by a strong determination-to return to the night of April 7, 1991, his father’s last night in this world, and to the months that preceded his death in the early afternoon of the following day . . .
And so, as he prepares a rather strong drink-martinis and margaritas being his specialties, favored also by his editor-he thinks back to that discarded version, silenced by the passing of time but not completely, having returned often over the months in the form of a complaint to his editor or a regret in the process of approaching the impossible goal of the perfect novel.
. . . his father, at a moment which is difficult to determine exactly, but which reasonably can be placed sometime in the spring of 1989, having recently turned sixty, had developed lung cancer, an illness to which he was in a certain sense predestined. He was an inveterate smoker of at least fifty years, and was by now uninterested in life and disposed to leave it with relative serenity . . .
I’ll have a margarita, says the editor, yes, I’d like a margarita, and so the author takes the ice out of the freezer and pours it into the mixer, adding Cointreau because he has run out of Triple Sec, and then pours in the tequila and squeezes the limes, and then moistens the edge of the glass and rubs it with salt, enough to counterbalance the sweetness of the liquor and the tartness of the citrus, and then the editor, perhaps reassured by the alcoholic content of the drink or perhaps answering to a distant sense of urgency, finally suggests, perhaps we shouldn’t have cut the death of the father.
. . . the first symptom of the illness, underestimated until at least December of 1989, was thickening in the cartilage of one rib, a lump that felt more like a fracture in the rib and which produced a constant but tolerable pain. The second symptom was much more troublesome; at first it was taken to be a problem with the sciatic nerve and was treated undiscerningly by physical therapists and acupuncturists, obviously with no improvement.
A CAT scan exposed the seriousness of the illness, revealing primary tumors throughout the lungs and secondary tumors in the ribs, the hip, and the brain. The scans clearly showed “greenstick” bone fractures and a large quantity of white spots, each about the size of a lentil, in different areas of the brain.
His father underwent a first round of chemotherapy which after a few months miraculously led to the total disappearance of symptoms, generating a sense of euphoria in the patient and his family which was probably ill-founded; in fact, in January of 1991, the hip fracture had returned and the scans of his brain revealed an extraordinary proliferation of the same small white spots . . .
But the suggestion is only that, a suggestion; the author changes the subject and-as he often does a few months after the publication of a book-asks about the first returns, the so-called sales figures and the year-end prospects, while his wife puts the final touches on an asparagus risotto, but it is evident that the notion of second thoughts, of having cut a perhaps significant part of the book, disturbs him and keeps him from fully participating in the conversation.
. . . perplexed as to what treatment to pursue, the author’s father had consented to another round of chemotherapy, which had been interrupted after two or three sessions because, in the meantime, due to a weakening of his immune system, his body had been invaded by an extremely bothersome whitish fungus which had first appeared on his tongue and, according to his family doctor, had found a congenial habitat throughout his digestive tract, invading, still according to the doctor, his stomach and his intestines all the way to the anus.
Assaulted by this terrible uninvited guest, one January afternoon as he was conversing with his son, still in full control of his senses, the old antiques dealer, who was visibly losing weight and had begun refusing food and any further debilitating treatments, put his hand to his mouth and with the slightest effort pulled out a tooth that had begun to wiggle irritatingly. And so the father found himself, tooth in hand, staring at his son with a desperate expression which he will never forget, as if to say, look what is happening to me. He got up with difficulty, still holding the tooth in his hand, and went to throw it away in the bathroom. He returned to the sitting room and asked his son to buy one of those La-Z-Boy armchairs, the wide, comfortable reclining kind with a footrest that one often sees advertised in the papers. Accompanied by the errand-boy from the antiques shop, the author-who was not yet an author-had gone to the furniture store that supplied these chairs and had bought one, making no fuss about prices or upholstery-in his memory it was a kind of brownish fustian-because these issues seemed superfluous, his absolute priority being the immediate purchase of any model of that armchair . . .
How many copies have we sold, asks the author, with the hope that he has outsold the advance and begun eating away at the back stock, giving his publisher some slight source of satisfaction, what moderate satisfaction can be provided by the kind of “difficult” books that a publishing house prides itself in issuing but which it later regrets having published because of the loss that they usually represent in the accounting books.
. . . once the armchair had been delivered to his apartment, the antiques dealer sat in it, tried out the handle that regulated the inclination of the footrest and the back of the chair, asked for a Scottish plaid blanket, and confided to his son:
“I don’t want anyone to see me die in bed.”
And during the following four months, neither his children, nor his companion, nor his siblings or their spouses, nor the doctors or the nurses, and not even his friends-who rarely visited because they found it difficult to see him inexorably, progressively wasting away-saw him lying down on a bed.
His son, who was then writing the section of his book about how people die, is confronted by this image of his father resting on his La-Z-Boy recliner, wasting away day after day, refusing all food and treatment by now superfluous-and does not wish to forget, just as he will never forget the last night, when his father muttered disconnectedly and incomprehensibly except for a few incongruous phrases which have remained imprinted in his mind. At one point he referred to a watercolor by an eighteenth-century painter belonging to one of his customers. And in the middle of the night, his father asked him a question:
“What is the name of the place where they put sheep?”
“A sheepfold,” the son answered, and the father nodded slightly and did not utter another intelligible, meaningful word or phrase; from then on he only mumbled indistinctly, and even this mumbling was slowly overcome by his respiratory difficulties which were not alleviated by the oxygen that his son went to buy early that morning at a pharmacy on Via del Corso, and which the pharmacist had handed him with a concerned look, accompanied by a few comforting words . . .
The editor’s response, now that the risotto is ready and served, is reassuring, because it seems that there have as yet been no returns and that the book continues its gradual path in the bookstores and has found a public composed, for the most part, of strong mature female readers and young enthusiasts who are easily seduced by Léon.
. . . the writer believes that his father’s wasting away was not so different from that of Léon, Béatrice, Fanny and Bertrand, fenced in like sheep in a sheepfold, their strength fading away, perhaps searching for a hidden spot in which to take leave of this world. Because the image of his father’s desire to die, if possible, with dignity-not laid out on a bed, but sitting in the chair of death which his son had bought for him-was indelibly imprinted in his mind, he has decided that their deaths should not be researched or revealed in any way, even if in his mind he can see their gaunt faces, cracked lips, sunken eyes, grayish-yellow flesh, listless, trembling movements, fragile hands, and thin, prematurely gray hair, with spots and sores on the skin and parched mouths, their speech timid, uncertain, almost inaudible, and he can see the rising to the surface of the unfathomable internal life of a person who is about to die, the re-emergence to the surface of the baggage of experience and memory for just one instant, vivid and unpredictable, an image that is clearly profiled in the memory of those who witness this passing away . . .
Then, obviously, they discuss other projects, books that the author feels compelled to write right away, books that that he feels that he is ready to undertake, though he does not know when or how; and in this manner, after they have finished eating he lights his pipe and returns to the comfort of the sofa and while he smokes and the editor converses with the lady of the house he reflects again on the sections of the book that they eliminated and remembers the precise moment when he decided, along with the editor, to cut the death of his father; he had uttered a thought which at the time seemed clear and profound.
. . . unable to recount the death of the Reinachs, he had decided to describe the wasting away of his father, and did not see any contradiction in this, but perhaps simply an imperfect and partial response to his recurring dream, to the muffled sound of banging inside a coffin, to the desire to be heard, even by death itself, because someone should bear witness to the last days . . .
What is important is writing it, not necessarily publishing it, he remembers clearly that he said these words, repeating something that his friend Peppo had said to him many times, and now, as he sits on the sofa, he’s not so sure because it’s not always enough for stories to be written, sometimes they insist on leaving us, as they say, perhaps sometimes they really need to be published, even in a fragmentary form, even if they’re readapted for a different purpose than the original one. And so somehow he reassures the editor, the scene will be included in a new edition of the book or perhaps it will appear as a separate fragment to illustrate a different point, the irrefutable fact that a book is never truly finished, even when each page of the final galley has been stamped for the printer, it still continues to inspire concern in the mind of the editors, the author, and even the readers.
. . . then, one day, in his office, he had begun to sway slightly back and forth in the manner of the Musselman at Auschwitz when they reached the last hours of their existence, and he continued to sway until he was dazed by the almost imperceptible and somehow mesmerizing motion, and as he swayed and his mind proceeded down long, never before traveled paths, he promised himself, I will write this book . . .
At the end of the evening, as he accompanies the editor to the door, and the editor thanks his wife for the lovely dinner and they make a tentative appointment for sometime the following week, he thinks that this book he has written in fact still needs to be written and that the books one writes are simply a working hypothesis, nothing more.
From Le variazioni Reinach (Milan: Rizzoli, 2005). Copyright © 2005 by Filippo Tuena. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2005 by Marina Harss. All rights reserved.