Attilio Pescacci, a gentle and good-natured man in his seventies, owner of a shop selling used books and junk, put on the shelves to attract some naive buyer, came to visit him the day before Palm Sunday.

For Don Fiorentino it was always a joy to see him.

The poor man had recently lost his beloved wife, after having cured her of the evil that takes away everyone, her pain. However, he had accepted and made his own the death of the person who had been by his side for an entire life and who had said goodbye to him, turning his head supported by a sweaty pillow towards him, pronouncing in a faint voice “Goodbye… goodbye.

Therefore, poor Nerina had gone like this, with her hands stained by the scratches that had come from cleaning vegetables and killing chickens, rabbits and turkeys for meals but, above all, without having ever opened a book in her life. She had maybe put up with her husband’s oddities too much and those valuable copies that occasionally fell into his hands and which she called, with everything about her and with an ancient air of her, “miracles”.

She never came empty-handed, Pescacci, and since she could not, she could bring with her as gifts the bags of already cleaned chard or, when it was time, those porcini mushrooms that Nerina peeled, more with resignation than with patience. So, having rejected the first fruits of the fields, as she found some book in the shop that he found interesting for Don Fiorentino, she brought it to him.

As a matter of fact, the priest thanked him with a broken smile. After all, blessed is the house where you knock with your feet, he had heard. However then, usually, he would take the book, leaf through it, shaking the dust that used volumes give off from his fingers, remove that usual musty and stale smell from his nostrils and forget about it.

He had given her some nice titles, the good man. Even a first edition of “L’amant”, by Marguerite Duras, in French, with a dedication from the buyer to the previous owner.

Not that he did not like reading second-hand books, it is just that every now and then he felt embarrassed by the notes and underlinings of those who had them before him. Not to mention ex-libris, bookmarks, postcards with views of Capri and loving dedications, destined to who knows what emotional failure. All this troubled him. Of course, he kept some copies signed by the respective authors, but he did not care too much about them.

Pescacci began:

You’ll definitely like this. It’s by a Spaniard. A certain Gianni or Giovanni Ferracuti translated it, someone from Trieste, someone a bit like that… it’s out of print. Nobody bought it.”

Don Fulgenzio, putting on his usual distracted air and his formal thanks, observed the tiny size of the paperback book, the yellow and brown cover, and the name of the author: Miguel de Unamuno.

He is someone who died under house arrest under Francoism”,

Mr. Attilio added (that is what everyone called him, because of his Tuscan ancestry).

The title, in itself, meant nothing to him, and at first, Don Fiorentino ideally added it to the other gifts from the second-hand dealer. “San Manuel Bueno, martyr”, it was written. Except that, when turning the first pages, he came across the perigraph, and it seemed surprising to him that it was a quote from Paul of Tarsus, from the First Letter to the Corinthians:

If we have hoped in Christ for this life only, we are the most miserable of all men.”

This man, Unamuno, or whatever his name was, must have known a lot about the Gospel and faith.

His anxiety became stronger and more overbearing when he discovered the author’s huge bibliography, of which that short novel or long story must have been only an isolated expression. Very happy, it seemed, but still isolated. It was not divided into chapters.

At first glance, they seemed to be sequences, fragments written in the form of a diary, a first-person narrative written by a member of the faithful of a small Spanish parish, who who knows if he existed or not. The first periods seemed like the dawn breaking on a new day and the duty to go to mass cost him more effort than usual.

However, he managed to put together some reflections, and they must have taken hold, to the point that the widow Bigazzi, who never missed evening masses, especially those in which some deceased was remembered, the same ones she paid with absolute punctuality to free him from Purgatory, her husband’s sin-stained soul told him that he had brought her to tears. “Tears are a precious gift, they washed the feet of Our Lord”, he tried to dismiss her, within the limits of courtesy, in order not to continue to hear her devotional pleasantries.

Ah, of course… I always wash my feet, every evening. I don’t go to bed without having removed the slime from the snake that threatens the heel of the Blessed Virgin!”

You’re doing right, you’re doing right…”, he managed to move her away.

Pray for me, please, I need it so much.”

And who doesn’t need it, Don Fiorentino, tell me, who? Whenever I can, if the Lord gives me life and health, I will recite a painful mystery for you too.”

He did not want, Don Fiorentino, to think about why the boring little woman had chosen something painful to pray for him which, joy he had almost never contemplated.

He climbed the steps that took him to his book possessions and got ready, without even having a bite of dinner, remaining thus, walled in, with only a glass of Chianti, quaffed, rather than sipped, in order to deal with the anemia.

Now that the bishop of the Renada’s diocese, to which my beloved town of Valverde di Lucerna belongs, is, it is said, promoting the beatification process of our Don Manuel, or rather San Manuel Bueno, who was parish priest there, I want leave written as a confession, and God only knows, not me, with what destiny, everything I know and remember of that matriarchal man, who filled the entire most intimate life of my soul, who was my true father spiritual, the father of my spirit, mine, that of Angela Carballino.”

A matriarchal man. He resumed the train of thought interrupted by that sentence from Luciani and, seeing as it was five in the morning, he turned on the radio for the dawn news.

The journalists had announced a day of strike so, instead of the planning that followed the national anthem, a musical program was broadcast. It was Beethoven’s opus 109, a piano sonata performed by Pollini, whose rigor he had always admired, in which the German had heralded jazz even before all its useless flattery, which he detested like the plague.

He listened to the three movements in an almost deafening silence, then went towards the sink, opened the cold water tap, filled his large hands, stretched out as if to receive the Eucharist, and spread it on his face, feeling relieved and not at all tired from that night spent reading the life of a saint Angela. As his mother. As his sister.

Angela narrated and everything seemed in order to him: the lake, the town, the village idiot who shouted “My God, my God, why have you left me?” Don Manuel, who helped the people of the town to persevere in the consolation of deceit. Angela had written down all her anxieties, her skepticism, her love for paradoxes. And it was there that she felt, clearly, the usual pang in his liver, which meant to him (at least he thought so) that his reading of his would be eternal.

Rereading was, for Don Fiorentino, the remaking and reopening of an uninterrupted thread with the passing of the eyes over the last page of the book.

He knew something about it, having read “Around the World in Eighty Days” by Jules Verne for the first time as a twelve-year-old.

He found, in that narrative, something honest, moral, something that smelled of perfection and human dignity.

Rereading it over and over again was an opportunity to find the thread of his uneasiness.

A French scholar, whose name was almost the same as the writer himself, came to his aid, cheating on a single letter. Phileas Fogg, the protagonist, had spent exactly the same amount to travel around the world that he had bet. It was one of the few intimate satisfactions that happened to him, after which he never read that book again.

Mr. Unamuno,

I came across an old, slightly creased copy of your “San Manuel Bueno Martire”, of which I appreciated the texture and precious content. You often repeat the word “deception”, whether in relation to God and in reference to Don Manuel’s apostolic and evangelizing action.

As a Church man, this bothered me, but the intimate, visceral joy I gained from it repaid me for all my anxiety.

Does not it seem like a deadly act to you that in his story it is the parishioner Angela who gives absolution to the parish priest? We Roman Catholic Apostolic Christians see it this way, and it is a vision that has spanned the centuries and resisted heresy.

Maybe you have not read Fogazzaro. And maybe not even our Pirandello. However, since I saw that you were rector of the University of Salamanca, that you wrote books of poetry throughout your life, exiled with infamy and recalled to your homeland with all honors, as well as professor of Greek and God knows what else. Do you have any other books to recommend for me to continue reading? I do not know, a philosophical essay, another novel or a book of verses, see, do as you please, which will also be mine. And do not forget some of your paradoxes, if you do well.

With devotion, from her.

The letter, although short, seemed well composed to him. He decided that he would send it to an imaginary Miguel de Unamuno, Salamanca, and that the postal service would send it to the shredder.