The following is an excerpt from Nicola Gardini's novel Lost Words, translated by Michael Moore and out January 25 from New Directions.
The novel is a meditation on class and language, told through a coming of age story set inside a working-class apartment complex in 1970's Milan.
The moment had come for me to choose which high school to attend. The Maestra took it for granted that I would enroll at the Classical Lyceum. But my parents felt a technical school that taught bookkeeping would be more suitable. To my mother the Lyceum sounded too abstract; to my father it sounded ridiculous. What the hell was the point of studying Latin and Greek, two languages that hadn’t been spoken for centuries? There was no point whatsoever. It would be a joke, a waste of time and money . . .
One night, after closing, the Maestra came downstairs to the loge to plead her case for the Classical Lyceum. Bewildered by her unexpected visit, my father was completely disarmed by her arguments. He just timidly suggested that we were proletarians who couldn’t afford to waste money and time on a useless education. She replied that the word proletarian was as old as the law of the twelve tables, the most ancient Roman legislation, and she launched into a praise of etymology and dead languages that left my parents tonguetied.
The next day she helped me fill out the preregistration form.
“Very good, Luca,” she said approvingly, after a final look at the duly filled out application. “Let me be clear about one thing: no school really does its job . . . School is a factory of lies. But a classical education is better than the others. At least you’d learn a few words of ancient Greek. You’d read Thucydides in his own language! Did I ever tell you about the opening of the Peloponnesian War? Wait . . . now where did I put it?”
She browsed through the volumes on the top shelf and found what she was looking for. She read quietly, to herself, the opening lines of the work in the original, and then she translated it for me, along with other passages from the introduction.
“Beautiful,” I said, to gratify her.
She admitted that Thucydides was a very difficult author, and that she wasn’t sure if she had understood him herself, even after many re-readings. “A possession for all time. . . ” she ruminated. And addressing me again: “I wonder whether it is right to expect things to last forever . . . Certainly, for love of the truth . . . Let me give you an example. In Moscow, in Red Square, the embalmed body of Lenin is on display. You know who he is, don’t you? . . . I was only able to observe it for a few moments, because there was a long line of visitors and the guards refused to allow me enough time for serious contemplation. But those few moments were enough to impress on my memory the unmistakable color of his hair and beard, the yellow pallor of his skin . . . At that moment I didn’t think about his fame or historic importance—I thought, instead, about the durability of matter, about the physical survival of something that no longer has a direct relationship with the reality around it. Lenin belonged to the past, yet there he was, looking the same as he had when he was alive, as if the dead man before me were not really him but rather everything that had surrounded him when he was still alive. That’s what moved me: the solitude of the embalmed body. And what that solitude represented—a self-consciously transient universe that was determined to endure, and had chosen Lenin to represent that era to posterity. Lenin was a remnant, a relic, a trace . . . And the rest? Where were his contemporaries? What was the purpose of preserving only one man’s body, of spurning the laws of death and becoming not just a contemporary of posterity, but surviving it? . . . And what of the mummy of Ramses II, at the Cairo Museum? . . . To think that after so many centuries he still bears the face of a despot . . . Are you following? . . . What is the truth? . . . Now it’s time for you to go . . . ”
She was dismissing me earlier than usual. I walked the short distance from the chair to the door, reluctantly picking up my notebooks and the preregistration form. The Maestra held the door handle and added: “Tomorrow there’s no need for you to come, Luca. Maybe it would be better if we suspended our afternoon lessons for a while. It won’t hurt you to study by yourself. By now you know what to do. I need my rest. Why the long face? Don’t tell me you’re offended?” She didn’t have a very cheerful expression, either. Speaking to me this way seemed to pain her. “Chin up . . . no one has died. Come on! Look at me . . . ”
My heart stopped. All the happiness of the previous months evaporated in an instant. I cast a final glance around the room where I had spent the happiest hours of my life and then I shuffled outside with the first teardrops welling up in my eyes.
“Luca,” she called to me.
I didn’t listen. Why should I? She didn’t want me anymore.