Translated by Elizabeth Harris
For many years now, I’ve left home early in the morning. I’ve walked down the street leading to the train station, crossed, gone in, come out the other side, continued another couple of blocks, and then shut myself in a room to write all day. Seven minutes of walking. In the evening, every evening, I do the same thing in reverse. I lock the door to my office, walk back through the station, arrive home, leave my small backpack with my laptop in the entranceway, greet my wife and daughter, and then we sit down to dinner, and each of us reviews our day. I’ve always spoken quite a bit without ever saying what goes on in my office.
Some nights, after dinner, we watch a movie together, chat together on the couch, invite someone over for a drink or for tea, read our books in the same room or in separate rooms. Then we go to bed, and in bed we’ve told each other the most important of things and the most insignificant, recapped the following day. Sometimes we make love, other times not, some evenings with passion, other times not, and we fall asleep holding each other or each of us on our own side.
In the morning, I wake up early, eat breakfast, and leave before my wife is awake. Sometimes I hear my daughter stir, and she comes out in her pajamas, and we say good morning. More often, I leave with both of them still fast asleep. I take the stairs, and just like every other day, head for Porta Nuova station. I walk through the building, and shut myself up in my office. Every day, the entire day, I live—I’ve lived—in a world I never mention to the person I married. Every day, behind that door, I laugh and cry, I love, hate, rejoice, despair, triumph, fail, fight, succumb. Then I turn off the light, walk seven minutes, and sit down at the table as if nothing has happened.
Porta Nuova station, in Turin, topographically divides my life into two mirrored halves. To the left is the area where we live. Middle-class: small shops, gourmet foods, fresh pasta, small butcher shops selling select cuts of organic meat; fruit and vegetable shops with apples, pears, spectacular tomatoes; florists. A few restaurants, some pastry shops, a pizzeria that kneads its pizzas with special flour, where the floors are parquet and the customers, well-dressed. The buildings are Art Nouveau. Usually owned by a couple of interrelated families. With more initials than last names by the doorbells, and often a concierge service provided by a family living on the main floor and speaking deferentially even to the teenagers going by and disappearing into the elevator.
For over a century, no one rented here. Then the buildings started emptying out, the owners dying and their heirs preferring more dynamic areas or a bit of distance from the parental block. So various apartments stood empty for decades. Selling meant giving up portions of the buildings, weakening the original family holdings, exposing themselves to infiltration. That’s why, for a long time, families preferred these empty pockets within the buildings, cubic meters of air, shutters closed, lightbulbs hanging on wires, dusty parquet floors, and the loud echo of thunder during storms. For decades, this abandonment wasn’t addressed, everything just left to the mites.
Mites are stubborn creatures, and day after day they carried out their slow destruction. Millimeter by millimeter they gnawed away at the void and caused a fair amount of damage. Maintenance costs grew and for the first time the owners decided they needed to take some action. It wasn’t worth paying so much for this nothing they were lords over. So they opted to rent out these spaces, and this way they could maintain control of the entire building and basically have someone to wage war on the mites and keep the place clean.
The tenants were exterminators or maintenance workers who got to use one hundred and fifty square meters which they could never afford otherwise. Essentially, the owners needed to find families consisting of petty bourgeois maintenance workers with social-climbing aspirations. That’s how we came into the picture. My wife’s an architect with good taste, and I’m a somewhat known writer. Two requisites that fit nicely for the maintenance workers of a dwelling.
But it’s on the right side of the train station where I spend the majority of my time. I’ll get there around seven a.m. and head out before dinner. Sometimes I’ll stop, and go for lunch with others; mostly I’ll eat on my own in a café a few blocks from my office. Unlike the neighborhood where I spend my official life, what might be called my secret life is spent in an area where only a few years ago, there were shootings in the street.
Gangs mostly, vying for the drug market.
The first time I passed through here I was twenty and the area was in freefall; by age twenty-five I was living here. I rented a room, and for the next three years I holed up in my apartment, scared. Almost every night, beneath my window, bottles would shatter because fists were never enough. I’d stay up late writing on a friend’s old hand-me-down computer. This seemed to be the only way to calm my fears: asking words to tell me stories, comfort me, take me someplace else. Then I’d go to bed. Sometimes I’d be startled awake: screams below, someone thrown into a shutter door. Once, twice. The third time, usually left lying on the ground.
Now this area’s full of restaurants and bars. A slew of them, new ones opening all the time. Drug-dealing’s been left to the African immigrants, not gone completely, limited mainly to the area around the station. A couple of corners, also manned by the police. The rest of the area left in the hands of those running the restaurants and bars, and the nightly invasion of beer drinkers under other people’s windows until all hours.
Gunshots never came close to achieving what happy hour has: the people living around here are furious, and they constantly call the carabinieri to break up the crowds that won’t let them sleep. Which barely helps. So they wind up out on their balconies shrieking their resentment, not sleeping, obsessing instead about moving, just a pipedream. They survived the shootouts, and don’t want to give in to after-hours. They despise the drinkers far more than they ever did the pushers and addicts. That unhappiness can result in violence was taken into account; that happiness can provoke such devastation is a kind of death knell for any hope for the species.
By the time I get to my office, early in the morning, though, everything’s stopped. Someone will pick up the bottles and plastic cups strewn over the ground. I open the rolling shutter, turn on my computer, and get to work. Sometimes, for whole days, nothing happens. I stare at the screen as if it’s a desolate piazza no one will ever cross. The blinking cursor reminds me that all of this slowly eats away at time. If it goes on long enough, exposure to a blinking cursor is a form of torture. And the ticking on white is evidence of the void that dwells within.
For hours a day, I sit fishing on the bank of this void, staring into it, hoping for a ripple, waiting for the line to grow taut, for a word to take the bait, and if it’s a sentence, even better, or an entire story—then we have a meal. Sometimes there’s a tug on the line, but I’ll wait a while before reeling in, before pulling my eventual prey from the nothing where it swam. Meaning, I wait for the hook to sink deep into the flesh, and then I’ll pull on the line, tugging, teeth clenched. But what I’ll find waving before me, after that tug, is only a hook. I’ll stare at it, lean forward, and toss everything back into the void, and I’ll just stay there until nightfall.I can write anywhere. Except with my wife looking over my shoulder. That’s intolerable: the lie, or my double truth, is too apparent.
Then I close my laptop, not a single word added, and leave for home. When I step outside, the cocktail carousel has just begun, is barely spinning. I head for the station knowing that soon—even in a matter of seconds—the world will explode behind me. As I leave out the other side of the station, seven minutes later, it’s already dark, the shops are almost closed, lights going on in the apartments and the streetlamps revealing no one left beneath them.
Seven minutes to divide two worlds isn’t much. Less than a kilometer, according to the maps, with the station at the center. Every morning, walking through the station, I look at the timetables, at the various times and destinations. On the arrival board, there’s the piece of Italy about to spill into Turin, swelling—who knows for how long—the daily flow of the population. Every day I wade through that space, in the opposite direction from everyone else. Any pushing is only to enter or exit, while I stay in the middle, cutting through the flow of people, at the risk of being swept away.
I’m often asked why I don’t write at home. It’s not like our apartment doesn’t have the space: a suitable room with a view of the hill, a desk, and my most important books. But there’s just no way—I’ve never even considered sitting down at that desk to write. I tell people I need absolute solitude. But that’s not it: I can write in bars, on trains, on benches. I can write anywhere. Except with my wife looking over my shoulder. That’s intolerable: the lie, or my double truth, is too apparent. And she instinctively knows this. And so she never calls me during the day, and the few times she has, our exchanges are brief. But she’ll avoid this if she can, send an email or a text that I’ll respond to right away.
All my wife knows is that I get up every day and go to the other side, and she knows that just as I went over there, every night I’ll come back. She knows I go to the other side of the station, and on that other side, I feel better. She knows this because she sees my face when I sit down to dinner. She avoids asking herself if one day I’ll stop taking these seven minutes to return home, meaning, if I might decide to move to the other side of the station, to that side, where words flow over the pages.
And I avoid asking myself this as well, if I’ll do it one day, and I know everything would be easier, yet at the same time, much more difficult. My wife avoids asking me what happens when she doesn’t see me. I avoid telling her that for months, or years, I’ve been viscerally in love with women composed of the alphabet, whom I’ve fished up while sitting on the bank of the void, and that despite this, I hold her all night long in bed. That for months, or years, I’ve spent the day with those women, making love, fighting, trying any way I can to find some peace. I avoid telling her how much it hurts if an alphabet woman abandons me, if I’ve killed someone a kilometer from home, if I’m living an ideal during the day that makes me forget everything else. I avoid saying it, but this is what happens; and we watch TV together, help our daughter with her homework, have dinner with friends, promise each other the future every day.
Then at night, I always have trouble sleeping; she feels me shifting about, lays her hand on mine, asks me if I want to talk but knows I can’t. She knows there’s a station between us, trains passing by at the center of the mattress, that I’m seated on the bank of the void. And that she’ll have to wait, before she finds out what I’ve caught on my hook, before she sees what my expression will hold in the meantime. I’ll lock the door to my office, return home, and hand her these pages as well. Like always, I’ll ask her to read them when I’m not around. Which she’ll do, not saying anything until she’s finished. Once again, each page will tell her what I haven’t told her over the years. It’s the only way I know to ask for her forgiveness.
Elizabeth Harris translates contemporary Italian fiction, including novels and story collections by Mario Rigoni Stern, Giulio Mozzi, Antonio Tabucchi, Andrea Bajani, and Claudia Durastanti. For her various translations of Tabucchi, she has received the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, an NEA Translation Fellowship, The Italian Prose in Translation Award, and the National Translation Award for Prose.