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Ten

TEN

It might have been just after midnight. The rain continued to tap on the glass insistently and with stubborn determination, like the beak of a sparrow breaking down a piece of bread too large to be swallowed in one bite.

Don Fiorentino did not change his clothes. He wanted them to accompany him on the most important viaticum of his life. His. Wet with rain and soaked in resentment. On the desk he left an almost untouched box of Tuscan cigars, the last letters he had written and the bottle of ink that he had forgotten opened, also left there, by coagulating its indelible contents.

Then, he lay down and must have even been asleep for a couple of hours, judging by the fact that the clock read ten to three in the morning. His clothes were drying on him, judging by the disappearing sensation of wetness on his skin.

He was tempted to randomly reopen the book Unamuno had sent him from the past. He gave in to temptation and found himself reading:

In the catechism we were accustomed to believing what we have not seen: this is faith. Believing what we see – and what we do not see – is reason, science; and believing what we will see – or not see – is hope And it is every belief. I affirm, I believe, as a poet, as a creator, looking towards the past, towards the memory; I deny, as I reason, as a citizen, looking at the present; and I doubt, I struggle, I agonize as I am a man, as I am a Christian, looking towards the unachievable future (…)”

He did not even finish the sentence. Everything was clear to him.

Then, he placed the book in one of his pockets and began to quickly write a few lines on a piece of paper that he put in the same place to accompany that murderous book, like the whole truth. He walked through the bedroom door, which he left open behind him, and headed with short but determined steps towards the bell tower. He felt tired climbing the steps, and when he reached the top he once again had a shooting pain in his liver. In his mouth the bitter, disgusting, yellowish taste of his bile. To his God, who had left him without allowing him to be able to ask the reason why, he addressed himself with the words of Simeon:

O Lord, now let your servant go in peace,

according to your word;

because my eyes have seen your salvation

prepared by you before all peoples;

light to enlighten the people

and glory of your people Israel.”

He climbed, with some discomfort due to the wild plants growing around the railing left there to rot, on the parapet, tripping his path and looked down.

The rain had not stopped crying his tears on that day of waiting, but he no longer felt the dizziness that had accompanied him during his robust existence made of bread. He let go. The flight seemed infinitely long and extended to him, but he did not even have the possibility to notice its natural end.

They found him again after two hours, with a hint of a smile now fixed by rigor mortis on his face washed by rainwater. Just a thin trickle of blood ran from his mouth. The medical examiner wrote, bored by the unusual hour and by that stubborn water, that he had died between three o’clock and a quarter past three because of a collapse of the internal organs. Someone searched his pockets and took out a note whose ink had been marked by the rain, but which still clearly read “God, when he does not know what to do with us, he kills us.”

No one ever found any trace of the book.

In the distance a rooster crowed.

Nine

NINE

On the morning of the last day of his life, that of the Passion, where everything is accomplished, Don Fiorentino began it by turning off the radio halfway through the nine o’clock news, when the speaker reported yet another speech by the Supreme Pontiff on relativism, and observed that someone or something had to be blamed for the evils of the world. He had heard that several episodes of sexual violence against minors had occurred within the Church, and that the Vicar of Christ, who had assumed the candid name of Benedict at the time of his election to the Chair of Peter, knew about it. something.

Then, he leafed through, rather absentmindedly, the previous day’s copy of the newspaper “Avvenire” (the next day’s copy would never have reached his hands), by dwelling for quite a long time on the image of a girl with large eyes and long black hair, with a band on the forehead, which had disappeared almost forty years earlier from the Vatican and of which nothing was heard again. The accompanying journalistic article reported the interview with one of her relatives, and Don Fiorentino quickly scanned it with his eyes. He was well aware of who that family member was, a man who had fought like a wounded lion for the truth, but who had only gained gray hair and premature old age.

Benedetto must have known something about that case too. However, he always spoke only of relativism, always keeping his hands clasped and moving like an automaton. Not even the gesture mattered anymore in the Church. That gesture that his predecessor had also made his own even when the illness was getting the better of his movements and the secrets that he would shortly take to his grave.

He took a couple of puffs of his last remaining butt and had to admit that not even his cigars tasted the same anymore. Or, at least, they no longer had any for him.

He began to reread his last letters and concentrated on the final goodbyes. “Yours” he wrote. He determined, not too late, that possessive adjectives can cause harm to those who use them. “Mine,” “yours”… declarations of ownership and belonging too big for anyone to bear. Words that break your shoulders and make you bend to the ground.

Holy Friday is the day of vigil, or rather, vigil, a night spent without sleeping. During that time he had observed it with punctuality and devotion, while for the faithful it was a lean day, if not even a day of fasting. Someone must have quickly cooked a dish based on cod or stockfish, because, distracting him from the appointment he had in store with his traitorous God, the grateful smell that reached him had stunned his senses, making him remember when Donna Angela prepared those delicacies, sometimes generously with tomato sauce and garlic, just enough so that her and her sister’s hungry mouths could dip the bread in them, sometimes with onions and potatoes, to hide the small quantity of desalted or dried fish that was you had to fish it out while it was floating in the sauce. Therefore, bread was needed. And He, who was the Bread of life, had now turned His back on him.

He carefully prepared all the details of the Via Crucis ceremony. He had the colored plaster statue of the dead Christ transported bulk to the altar, so that everyone could worship and kiss it.

This was what they wanted, to be deceived, and he, Don Fiorentino, the man with the big bones, saw no reason to deny them that consolation of deception for which they longed so much. For the procession he had prepared sheets of colored tissue paper with which the catechists would wrap the candles, as a rudimentary torch. And he thought about the children, who would certainly have made them catch fire, by extinguishing the feeble light that was still kept alive on the dark night of his existence.

He did not see the point in celebrating Easter, and he stopped to stifle a muffled smile that came naturally when he realized that he too was doing it out of spite. Then, he sat down in a corner and, taking the scriptures in his hands, he decided to concentrate on the passages of the Gospel according to John which concerned the passion and death of Jesus. Johann Sebastian Bach had set them to music, and he had a good vinyl edition of them which had always remained burdensome to him. Bach was a good man. Excellent father, exemplary husband, ingenious builder, attentive and scrupulous teacher and theorist. However, he really did not know how to do composition, so he was convinced. His music was imbued with fatness like his body, nothing to do with his Lully, who one day, in the heat of conducting, stuck his stick in his foot and died of gangrene. Then, he recovered.

Then, Jesus, knowing everything that was to happen to him, came forward and said to them: «Whom are you looking for?». They answered him: «Jesus, the Nazarene». Jesus said to them: «It is I!». Judas was also with them , the traitor.”

Betrayal is always with us, he reflected. It accompanies us, it stays close to us, we considered it a friend of our days. It is our executioner, but we fall in love with it, day by day. We say “It’s me!” affirming our most authentic essence, the one that is imposed on us with the name, and it follows us, ready to seduce us with the last kiss. Yet we continue to fall in love with those who have us in their grip, with our jailer. Stockholm syndrome, he thought he had read en passant somewhere.

«I have spoken to the world openly; I have always taught in the synagogue and in the temple, where all the Jews gather, and I have never said anything in secret. Why are you questioning me? Question those who heard what I said to them; behold, they know what I said».

Here is the blame. The real sin, the indelible one. The disobedience of Adam and Eve was in the origin, but the fault is that of speaking openly and not hiding anything. I love you, Lord, here I am, I am here, it is me. Not only do they know, but you know, and even knowing you deny me. He chased away the thought of God’s wickedness that had occurred to him, but he did not put it aside. Maybe someone, after him, would have found it and made it their own.

«If I have spoken badly, show me where the evil is. However, if I have spoken well, why do you strike me?»

Evil is demonstrated, it is not taken for granted a priori. How many people are beaten because they cannot demonstrate where their evil lies? Or why cannot we admit that there is no evil in how we act, speak, listen or even love?

He should have written it to Carofiglio, but that letter too was finished, like almost everything, by now. The bell tower slowly struck eight, and he still had an hour left before accompanying the procession to the final Calvary, his, that of Don Fiorentino.

However, Peter stopped outside, near the door.”

The door! The door closed. The same one that the guardian of the law closes in Joseph K.’s face, the one that had been opened just for him. The denier stays out. He even calls himself out of it. «Aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples? I’m not – he replied -»

Pilate says to him: What is truth?

The truth is fear. It is everything that man puts aside to pursue his path in lies, hypocrisy and self-denial. Repression, Freud would have called it. All we need to do is put our selfishness before us and the truth no longer exists. How many people had seen and known Don Fiorentino, who continued to substitute with painstaking patience their pride and even their opinions for the truth, for reality, going so far as to deny horrendous crimes like the Holocaust! All for what? In order to deny their own crimes, to refuse the many civilian deaths they have created with their foolish stubbornness. Everyone, in condemning others, protects themselves. And there is no greater crime than abandonment to darkness.

«Eloì, Eloì, lemà sabactàni?», which means: «My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?»

However, the Gospel of John does not report this. The last words of Christ on the cross, for him are “It is performed!” With abandonment everything is accomplished, it ends. Forever. The sense of belonging, the love, the devotion. He had just begun to reflect on the fact that the Nazarene, a Greek-speaking Jew, had ended his earthly life, or just his life, speaking in Aramaic. However, he was distracted from the last of his questions by a song that suddenly came to him:

I beg you,

oh good Jesus,

for your passion

give us forgiveness.”

It’s the right time,” he said simply, because resignation to abandonment had no complicated expressions or philosophical explanations. Moreover, he headed off to lead the procession, under the rain that never stopped beating.

Eight

EIGHT

Holy Friday – Ninth hour

Senator Carofiglio,

I have never been a great lover of escapist literature. It is clear that I had the need and opportunity to devote myself, occasionally, to lighter reading too, and this is why I greatly appreciated your first crime books, which are now called “noir”, with an evident chromatic waste, and not I can only confirm that your “Ad Occhi Chiusi” literally captivated me.

I still have, somewhere, your “L’arte del dubbio”, which is not a novel, but it does not matter.

Doubt is a fundamental element in the life of men, of every man. Because it allows him to look inside himself, to discover that he is fallacious, to look back, to return to the past. Which is not a foreign land, no sir, I do not agree with you on this topic. The past belongs to us, we know it, we have knowledge and awareness of it.

We are the past, it is the integrity that we preserve unharmed in the future, of which, however, we are not masters. However, your essay seems to me more like a manual for defense lawyers. As if you who accuse do not have or do not make use of doubt, sending everything back to a third judge and washing your hands of it, lordly.

Oh, sure, yours is an amazing kind of life! You are not at fault. You do your job. You accuse, you support a thesis that you leave to be examined by others. And in the evening you go home to your children, give them a caress and go to bed peacefully, like someone who says they speak for themselves, but then, actually, decides for others. And if anyone gets involved, amen, it is not your responsibility. Do not you think all this is at least contradictory and grotesque? It is for this reason that I stopped reading it, with the exception of another essay written by you, “La manomissione delle parole” which, however, apart from the title, does not seem to say much.

I know you made a career, and may God preserve it. As a writer, a prosecutor, a politician and a teacher. Even too much grace would be attributed to Saint Anthony. However, tell me, Senator, how does it feel on a bench? And how does one experience the fact of belonging to an inert, complaining, parched and withdrawn political party, up to be pointed out by someone as the bearer of the miasmas of the new fascisms, those of the soul, not the historical ones, which do not have they ever abandoned and have always poisoned the breath of people and the world? How did you manage to be accomplices and government allies of that opportunist right which counted among its ranks exponents convicted of mafia crimes? How can forensic eloquence, of which you are a very skilled bearer, put an end to all this havoc? Of course, you hide, conceal, make it almost invisible. However, the havoc exists, even if no judge will ever condemn anyone for it.

You see, Carofiglio, I have been sentenced to death. My executioner and my defender were the same supreme entity. My creator disdained – dare I say disgusted – to become his creature. He only wrote to me, throughout this life in which I believed that he was the one who left me free. Because, power of contradiction, it was precisely with Him that I felt my being in all his entirety. Instead, it was He who decided, line by line, word by word, my infamous fate. He is the culprit, not me. And, returning to the element of doubt, I am reminded that the Romans, in their own right, used to say in dubio pro reo. That is, if you are not certain whether or not a person has committed a certain act, or even whether or not there is a specific aggravating circumstance, you must choose the solution most favorable to the accused.

A man taught me law as calm and serene as his conscience. He was a convinced Christian Democrat, forced to sit on the benches of a small municipal minority, while at a national level his political party obtained a relative majority. Do you see how human judgment often errs?

I remember that one morning he arrived at class in pain and with a swollen face. They had beaten him up properly. Coincidences, you will say, that in the absence of further clues he is used to not proceeding. However, I have never believed in coincidences. Anyone who believes this is in bad faith. You download onto a coincidence what Jacques Monod instead considers necessity. Never taking anything for granted, but giving yourself, of course, the benefit of the doubt. You were an atheist and could afford it.

I say goodbye definitively, however declaring myself yours.

Seven

SEVEN

Holy Friday – Sixth hour

Dear Kafka,

I was convalescing when I met your Joseph K.

I learned that he had done nothing wrong, or rather, at least, he believed so, and that despite this, or perhaps precisely because of this, he was arrested in his bed, without even knowing the accusation against him. He was a man who stood firm before the law and waited for it to take its course. However, the guardian of the law reveals to him that that door was open only for him and that in the end he would go and close it.

The palace of law represents the cumbersome justice of humans. You see, dear Kafka, they taught me that justice is not of this world, but of the other. And I, as a modest but dutiful priest, believed it. Now, it is true that justice is not of this world, but of the other? Justice is not based on the principle of truth, but on that of results. Everything that is not clear to the man of law cannot be considered as truth. And it is not possible to access justice and truth except through death.

Do not misunderstand me, dear Kafka, I am not saying that death in itself brings justice, I am just saying that death is not just by definition. Years ago, I met a boy named Nino who was arrested (I do not know if in his own bed or what) after a house search for drugs, the outcome of which was however negative.

The Judge did not confirm the arrest, believing that, since there was no clear evidence, it made no sense to him in detention. He was in his first criminal case and could calmly await judgment as a free man.

Nino was not afraid. He was a young man gifted with altruism and imagination, and he embarked on the multi-year wait without any particular effort.

He felt intimately serene, but not with that ostentatious serenity that guilty people boast of, but rather with that minimal tranquility that distinguishes honest people. He found a job and met a good, God-fearing daughter, whom he married with great pleasure. From their union a healthy and intelligent child was born, who grew up in serenity until the terrible machine of human justice came to definitively stop its pistons fat with neglect and returned to arrest him. The last degree of judgment, the one that should belong only to God and no one else, established that the poor man had to serve four years and three months in prison. Nobody looks at who we are, nobody.

It is true, dear Kafka, Joseph K. had done nothing. Yet he suffered the humiliation of the decision made, for him, by others other than him. And you describe very well the contrast between your protagonist’s sense of bewilderment and the hateful self-assurance of those who inflict on him the anticipated sentence of deprivation of freedom. Joseph’s looking around, dismayed, as he searches with his gaze (because he can no longer do so with his body) for a reason for all of this. However, there is no reason, only a higher will.

I do not know, my good Kafka, if you ever felt free, walking through the gardens of your Prague with Milena or Felice Bauer, on one of the first days of warm spring. If you have ever felt that sense of freedom that comes from belonging to someone or something, not because it is it who chooses us, but because it is we who choose it when, embracing it in the sublime dimension of welcome, we embrace ourselves in the dimension of amazement . God seduced me, and I let myself be seduced. In the tasty vertigo of seduction I found more than myself. A seductress woman can be seen, ultimately, as the eternal child. But no God, he is the Eternal par excellence. He is the guarantee that nothing changes in the world. “The heavens and the earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Yet God has changed. He has acquired (or, perhaps, he has never lost) a haughty attitude and the tone of a punisher.

For you have been saved by grace, through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship.”

This is the written and immutable Word. Love made us and saved us. However, we have no merit in all this. We are just passive and hesitant spectators, while someone else shapes us in their own image and likeness.

I read in his “Metamorphosis” that Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into a repulsive insect. And in one night he is no longer himself. He is something other than himself. He becomes what is repugnant in his own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Gregor Samsa must have cried when he found himself like this, ashamed of his condition which, however, did not come from him. It was an external, alien, unknown, unexpected work. The apple that his sister throws at him sticks in his back and crushes him with her weight, while the woman rediscovers the meaning of her life by arching her back and showing herself proud and proud, in the pride of having given death.

I take my leave, Kafka, writing that whoever loses love loses itself. And that there is no second chance on this earth.

With love. Yours.

Six

SIX

Holy Friday – Third hour

Dearest Pavese,

I am writing to you while a lazy but redeeming rain has been falling for two hours, the kind that wets the soul and dries the conscience. That sweet rain that irrigates the green meadows of eternity, as can be read on some tombstones in American cemeteries.

I have here in front of me a black and white photographic portrait of you, faded by time or, who knows, maybe by oblivion, that right to be forgotten that she also sought, on the evening of August 27th, 1950, retreating to a small hotel room to never leave again. Your face is tired and scared. Your forty-two years do not seem like youth but, rather, a resigned and tired old age, the irreversible kind or, even worse, the kind that has seen irreversibility and has given up on it.

I want to tell you how I met you.

I had read your translations when I was young. Melville, of course, but also Gertrude Stein, which Ella was able to render with rare talent and mastery.

In the summer, one of those torrid summers in which even moving was an obstacle, I found myself in Livorno, a guest of some brothers. I had the opportunity to meet, rather than get to know, a young and thin professor, whose clean-shaven face seemed to nail him to the appearance of an eternal boy, even though he had, by then, certainly passed the halfway point of our life’s journey.

I spoke to him about you, about your translations, a subject in which my interlocutor seemed to be particularly at ease with him.

He had a mixture of scientific humility and extreme presumption of his knowledge.

He told me that he had studied philology and linguistics and that for him philology was almost a political choice. He convinced me that the translation of a novel is itself a novel, and that the novel, as it is translated, is different from the original. He carried with him a square plastic bag, which contained a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Symphony N. 25 by Mozart, conducted by Karl Böhm. I told him that it was an excellent version and that he treasured it, and in response he gave it to me as a gift. He said that access to culture should be for everyone and for everyone.

I have never seen so much generosity and haughtiness at the same time in only one person. In the good sense of the word, he was a young man with a huge heart. Yet, when he spoke, he seemed to take the stage. He told me, without any ill-concealed and hateful satisfaction, that his favorite pupil had lived all her life with the reflection of his youthful translation of an American book of poetry, and then dedicated herself, with much more modest results, to praising groups of drunk men of letters and porn addicts, whom she would have rightly despised. Not that he was wrong, of course, but why did he necessarily have to choose this resounding and haughty way of expressing himself?

The unfortunate man, whose name escapes me, and it is only a good thing, had written only one story about him in his lifetime. He told me that he had written it down, in an almost definitive version, in almost half an hour, but that he had been correcting it, polishing it and emending it for years, before deciding to publish it, to make it go, as he said, “for its way”, bad or good.

The volume, if we want to call it a volume, I found it for a bite of bread the next day at the American Market of that city, teeming with an extensive plurality of religions, but endowed with a single political faith, as well as a provocative and perpetually intrusive language.

However, I remember very well the title of the story, despite my memory, once agile and elastic, failing me on more than one occasion. “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae”. It told the story of a child hospitalized who falls in love – platonically, of course – with a girl older than him, met during the evening prayer of the Ave. And that feeling so clean and clear, which probably not even the protagonist was capable of, one night later he would no longer find it. That much loved little girl was lost, forever.

If I think of you, of your life, of the image of you that I have in front of me, I see you as a defenseless child.

You too, dear Pavese, have known human, earthly love, the same that I have sublimated by dedicating myself to theological studies. Yet you still waited for that person who deluded yourself into thinking corresponded to you, even when you knew, in your heart, that you would never return.

You see, Pavese, we should never choose who we love, we must choose who loves us. Who we love betrays us, it is Judas Iscariot who runs away with the bag of thirty pieces of silver, maybe to go and spend it who knows where and who knows with who else, maybe to give us a kiss and then hang himself from a sycamore tree. I loved God more than anything else, with that same infantile and crystalline love of the child in the story I am telling you about, and I was betrayed by it.

It is said that if God gives a burden he also gives help to carry it, but these are things that are commonly said. Love, especially divine love, is not made to unite, but to separate. How can God, whom I have loved above all, do this to me? Should not it be the one to choose us, rather than us falling madly in love with it, with the certainty of inevitably being rejected? And how can those who ask us to forgive arbitrarily remove us from forgiveness and deprive us of any return to life?

You wrote that “You don’t kill yourself for the love of a woman. You kill yourself because a love, any love, reveals us in our nakedness, misery, defenselessness”. And this is how it feels when faced with the irreversible, with what can never again be as it was before: naked, miserable, helpless. Betrayal strips us and we, naked like Adam, feel ashamed but cannot escape, even in the grip of the most atrocious among the torments.

Then, and is not this the hour of our death and our desolation? Physical death, do you say? Oh, dear Pavese, it is very little if it reminds you of “Madame Bovary”.

It is civil death that is unbearable for us. The same civil death that has been imposed on us and that we must accept, welcome, make our own and even cultivate and love, as the most precious legacy that the object of our love, be it human or divine in nature, has left us dooming us to abandonment and our own absence.

And then it takes time and love, the same ones that neither you nor I know how to find within ourselves. Helpless and humiliated. Love denies us as people, even before scratching us inside with its hooked nails to make our insides bleed. And we die slowly, bled out of amazement.

And so, what we are left with, as we leave, is to ask not to gossip too much.

I ask you to accept the pain of a man who dies together with his God and who here declares himself very devoted to him.

Five

FIVE

Donna Angela’s funeral was not even a funeral.

It was a Ravel Bolero without the same variety of instrumentation. The same phrase repeated endlessly, with very few and inconsistent variations. Ad libitum, as they write in the scores.

He had concelebrated the liturgy reluctantly and almost with a sense of bewildered and childish amazement. Of course, he respected the solemnity of his measured but firm gestures, he accompanied the thurible that incensed the remains of the deceased without taking his gaze away from its hypnotic swinging, and he had a moment of brief surrender and emotion at the

Whoever believes in me will never die”

proclaimed from the pulpit.

And then again hands, hands to hold, now white as a bride, now worn out from work, now deformed by rheumatoid arthritis and offering only their bones to the uncomfortable rite of farewell to those who remained.

He led the funeral procession towards the cemetery and sealed the tomb, blessing it again, and cementing it with a “Requiem Aeternam”, from which no resurrection of soul and body could ever make him emerge again.

He felt the God decomposition with an inexplicable but persistent sense of dizziness. And when had he ever suffered from dizziness, Don Fiorentino? Even to change a burnt out lamp he had to call the electrician, such was the sense of loss of balance that afflicted him every time he had to stand on a table or chair. Vertigo was, for him, much more than a sign of what he himself called “static counting of nothingness.”

He came back on the morning of Holy Thursday. He did not even show up and, to return to the church, he went through the side door of the building, taking care not to make too much noise when handling the old iron gate covered in rust. He had it oiled very well but his, stubborn, persisted in making his lament of decadence heard.

The church seemed bare to him. Yet it was as he had left it. The time had come for him to do like Christ.

Now, before the feast of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.”

And he almost did not even realize that another bundle of thick brown paper had been placed with delicacy and knowledge on the balustrade, in the same place where he had found the telegram announcing the death of God, of his God, the one who was a mother.

He noticed that he was well tied with a white string, thin but strong and that the lead seal that held him had opened. A sign that it had to come from afar. Or that he had been on a tortuous journey.

However, he was not immediately curious about it, on the contrary, he took it to the desk and left it there until he had lunch. He remembered it after he had drunk the last sip of Chianti that was left in the flask. “That this is how Chianti should be served”, he mused aloud, “not in bottles, that Chianti is something for poor people, of those who pay more attention to quantity than to quality.”

And he even agreed with himself for the clarity and detachment from human events with which he had concluded this viaticum of simple things, by placing the fiasco upside down in the empty basket.

Only then he remembered that anomalous package, which continued to maintain all the aura of the mystery of its contents lying inert on the desk, and waiting for thin and expert fingers to free first the knots, then the package, the packing carton. And finally discovered its contents. Don Fiorentino did not have thin fingers, much less wise ones.

He looked at her blackened and neglected nails for a few moments and opted for the pruning shears that he kept hanging on a kitchen wall, considering that it was good for his yellow roses, which grew in every season, despite the weather and lack of his care, it would have been even better to cut a double-passed tie. However, after a brief fumbling, which seemed eternal to him, he extracted a book with a cream-coloured cover and a letter, written in a rapid and incomprehensible handwriting. He sat down and, throwing away the cigar which had been reduced to a stub, read:

Salamanca, December 31st, 1936.

Reverend Father,

I am happy that my Don Manuel – poor Don Manuel, dead of deception! – has come into your hands.

You will want to give me credit if I tell you that your writing has alleviated the suffering I feel at having to stay in this Salamantian home of mine, sad, tired, thoughtful and old, as I head towards the daily and tiring sunset.

I do not know who this Fogazzaro is, but many of my critics, not to mention detractors, have compared me – be ashamed of the pages they have written! – to the Pirandello who quotes me, who seems to be very popular with you.

However, my sick heart and the ailments of age prevent me from dedicating myself to reading everything new. Life is too short to read bad books, believe me.

As for your anxieties, I heard that there is a doctor in Vienna who works miracles by making your patients lie down on the bed, letting them relax and taking notes.

If the act were mortal, not acting would be life, and I, who am an expert in paradoxes, am happy to underline his point.

You ask me about my writings and I am happy to send you a copy of the enlarged second edition of my “The Agony of Christianity”, which I hope you will welcome. Why die while dreaming, yes, but if you dream of dying, death is a dream.

I greet you

Unamuno.

He remained petrified, while he observed himself, as if placed outside his own body, by descending into the whirlpool, silent, as Cesare Pavese wrote in the most devastating of his poems. He had always felt an almost filial affection and tenderness for him. He cared little for songs, but he liked those ramshackle verses that a modern minstrel had dedicated to the Piedmontese poet. He certainly would not have been able to repeat them from memory, but Pavese’s image, who waited for six hours in the rain for a dancer with whom he was uselessly in love remained imprinted on his mind. And he thought that love, all love, as an absolutely free gift of self had the shuddering characteristic of not being democratic at all.

Indeed, he was a fascist to the core. He was merciless, he plunged the blade of his knife into living flesh and tore it into shreds.

He rose from his chair and rushed towards the 1969 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica which he kept evenly distributed on two painted wooden shelves.

The date of December 31st, 1936 was the same as the death of his Unamuno, who wrote to him from the past making fun of him.

Assailed by a sense of nausea and disorientation, Don Fiorentino groped for the volume he had received and, opening it to a random page (he also did the same with the Holy Scriptures), read there, with stentorian and blurred vision:

We talk about the struggle for existence, but this struggle for life is life itself and is at the same time the struggle itself.”

And, a little further on:

Life is a struggle and solidarity for life is a struggle, and it manifests itself through struggle. I will never tire of repeating that what unites men most among themselves are their discord.”

He felt his fever rising. So, was this the agony of Christianity, the same agony as him? A struggle that rises to Golgotha of men’s discord and their love?

Charity is magnanimous, charity is benevolent; it is not envious, it does not boast, it does not swell with pride, it does not lack respect, it does not seek its own interest, it does not get angry, it does not take into account the evil received, it does not enjoy of injustice but rejoices in the truth. He excuses everything, believes everything, hopes everything, tolerates everything.”

He no longer found in those words any correspondence with all the love that had sustained him and, feeling his forehead burning, he went to bed, falling asleep and letting his chest be crushed by useless dreams.

Four

FOUR

The Palm celebrations left a bitter aftertaste in his mouth, like the one Father Fulgenzio described to him when the peach stones, the ones he found before one of them sent him to the other world, when he split the body to extract the soul toxic and almondy, the same flavor he felt as a child, when his mother prepared him orgeat syrup diluted with water and hydrolytin, when on Sundays he went to buy the “presa” from the grocer.

It was not so much that waving of twigs that annoyed him, as it had annoyed Don Antonio, his predecessor, the one who blessed the green while cursing the faithful

Come ahead, you sheep! The church is so big. Where are you in the evening when I say the rosary?”

Rather the thought that the blessed olive tree was transformed into the impalpable powder, after burning, with which to sprinkle the head of the parishioners on Ash Wednesday.

He consoled himself with the fact that the days were getting longer and that he would have more light available to read in the improvised garden in front of the gate.

He had taken up some chapters of Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, those where female figures were mostly present, including the Nun of Monza. He had even found a poorly printed and poorly bound booklet, which contained the passages removed from the definitive edition of 1840 and which concerned the Unfortunate.

The following day, Easter Monday, Don Fiorentino went down to the church early in order to arrange the confessional that would welcome the whispering of the pious women, intent on shelling out sins like rosary beads and which consisted of unlikely fornications, exchanges of dreams with reality and, more generally, non-existent things.

However, they were very present and alive in the mind of those who whispered them in his ear, through the old sanded grating of the kneeler. After all, the Confession was the first form of psychoanalysis known to man.

Don Fiorentino did not despise the psychoanalytic approach, far from it, but he was skeptical of its actual effectiveness. People could not go to analysis twice a week for decades to get better.

The suffering was at that precise moment and the thought that it could last even ten years troubled him. And then, what did it mean to interpret dreams? If there was something that bothered those nights when he slept it was dreaming. He was convinced that dreams were of no use except to give some sleep apnea to the restless and some occasional pollution to young children. However, he was determined to go back to bed, if not to sleep again, at least to stretch out his legs and get relief from that pain in his liver, which was becoming more acute every day.

So, when after dinner he went back to the church to bless the host and the wine for the Easter celebrations, he almost did not notice the short, elongated envelope that someone must have left, somehow, on the balustrade.

He opened it without paying attention, convinced as he was that he would find alms for the poor or an anonymous letter, of the kind he received every now and then and which carried, in uncertain handwriting but with unequivocal content, sentences like “Robbering priests. The masses for the deceased are not paid!”

He, Don Fiorentino, agreed with the unknown writers of those words. However, he preferred to accept the generous remuneration for the office, just to leave the faithful with the illusion of having bought Paradise. After all, it was not the soul of their deceased that needed to be saved, but their own. And so they did penance. And so the pink banknotes had the flavor of Hail Marys and Glory Bes to be recited and imposed as sanctions for less serious sins.

Once he had taken out the old, pale yellow paper from the anonymously greyish wrapping, Don Fiorentino was overcome by a sort of ancestral anxiety. He unfolded the paper, which had come to him upside down and read:

Mom died today. Angela.”

He rushed into his room, lit the cigar which vanished in large clouds of thick smoke, turned the desk upside down, saving only the ink bottle, and prepared to write.

Dear Manzoni,

Sciùr Lisander,

I am not proud of my spiritual laziness, but I am not proud of yours either. So, tell me why, except in rare cases, the women you describe in your wonderful novel are all so dull and self-absorbed that they all appear the same. Oh, yes, good housewives, of course, those good matrons who give birth to children to be sent to the fields or at most to bring capons to the Azzeccagarbugli on duty to curry favor.

Blondel, who you married in the odor of conversion, from the portraits that have come down to us, must not have been that great, either as a woman or as a mother. Tell me, in addition to ironing your dirty and smelly urine-smelling panties and underwear, is it possible that you have never cooked anything appetizing, ironed with love, a handkerchief cleaned and washed from the remnants of your humours but, above all, educated and corrected your children, by showing the non-existence of a passage in the shadow that you seem to have every intention of encouraging?

Ah, certainly not, dear Sciùr Lisander, you are a devotee of God, because God is above all a father, as you are. However no, dear Manzoni, God is a mother, and the death of the mother is the death of God, of every faith, hope or charity you want to talk about. And her mother denied her. Free-spirited? Of course. Ask that poor frustrated guy from Pindemonte.

However by denying Your mother you have denied God. The Lord is with prostitutes. And prostitutes have their many sins forgiven because they loved so much. However, you do not love at all. You embraced a burden of rules and impositions and, believing yourself to be the Cyrenean, yopu carried it with you throughout the journey of your life, which certainly did not have to be a Calvary, up to the comfortable cross of your advanced age.

Today my mother died. God died today. Lacrymosa dies illa!

With deep diregard.

Three

THREE

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.

Two

TWO

The following Sunday, the fifth of Lent, Don Fiorentino woke up in a very bad mood and with an annoying torticollis. He had dreamed of trees. Only trees and nothing but trees, and that seemed a bad omen, he declared.

Easter was approaching and he was not convinced.

He did not understand why the masses on the day of the Resurrection had to be so long. He preferred the first morning mass of ordinary time, gathered together and with a few faithful (always the same, most of the time) to that indistinct crowding of people who attended the solemn rite out of duty, out of boredom or because that is what everyone does.

He sat down at the kitchen table and began spreading a thin layer of apricot jam on a slice of stale bread, by scratching it insistently with the serrated blade of a plastic knife.

He wondered, for a moment, why in the Church one had to eat so badly and always eat the same things. Apples, for example. Everything in the Church tasted like apple to him. From the smell of the Scouts’ backpacks to the taste of the sandwiches eaten after the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, which had taken on their nauseating fragrance by being in contact with them. The apple, the symbol of evil. From the Latin malum. Which means “evil”, but also “apple”. And everything suited him perfectly.

As a child, his mother prepared him fruit salads in the summer that she had never forgotten. The strong, full-bodied flavor of the sweet, ripe melon clashed with the cool, watery texture of the watermelon. That was enough for him to be happy. If a few medlars were found, the symphony was complete.

It had been a long time since he had visited his mother. So much so that he had not even noticed the passage of time that separated him from his last visit.

Donna Angela, as everyone called her with a certain reverence for the sole fact of being the priest’s mother and having passed on his baptismal name to her eldest daughter, was a strong woman, more accustomed to stacking wood than discussing theology.

In this way, when Fiorentino, just a teenager, expressed his intention to become a priest, she replied hastily and definitively:

All right, but study, study hard, there are far too many ignorant priests around, and I don’t want my family to be carried around.”

He turned on the radio and made himself a weak tea, squeezing half a lemon into it, the seeds of which mixed with the yellowish liquid, announcing their imminent fate as residues to be spit out, due to the sense of slimy bitterness they left on the tongue.

The fourth channel broadcast the first notes of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Don Fiorentino knew it by heart. Although he could not read music, he perfectly understood the key: D minor. The same as the composition he preferred, Mozart’s Requiem, of which he caught himself, from time to time, humming some short parts, reproducing the timpani of the “Introitus” with his mouth.

He enjoyed the first few moments. It was the 1929 version, with Rachmaninov himself on the piano and Eugène Ormandy on the podium. Fast, nervous and disturbing. Nothing to do with the reading of Rubinstein who, not having the deformation of the Maestro’s right hand, was forced to slow it down.

Don Fiorentino loved classical music. He owed this passion which cost him no effort to his laziness and proverbial indolence. Whatever song he listened to, he understood its meaning and even predicted its evolution, anticipating the notes.

Classical music evoked order, study and discipline in him. for this reason, he could not stand jazz, not that he despised the great orchestras of the 40s. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller tolerated them in small doses. However, he could not tolerate the glissades of cold jazz, of saxophonists surrounded by cigarette smoke improvising meaningless notes in front of the enraptured gaze of ladies in uncritical adoration.

In truth, he did not have much time to dedicate to semibisquavers. He was immediately taken by the thought of the homily he would deliver on the day’s Gospel reading. Generally he improvised the homilies. He spoke off the cuff, rattling off some hackneyed concept. However, above all, he said what people wanted to hear. So, as not to deceive them.

However, the episode of the resurrection of Lazarus gave him many difficulties.

It was long, complex and hard. In order to review it, he consulted the Vulgate of Saint Jerome. Not that people needed any Latinorum, it was they who needed the rigid inflected text.

It seemed to him that the Saint’s syntax was of great help to put his confused thoughts and conscience in order.

Infirmitas haec non est ad mortem, sed pro Gloria Dei.”

That is what he could not accept. That infirmity, human suffering, pain and everything that is irreversible they went to the glory of God. On the contrary, he was intimately convinced that suffering did not lead to any redemption, and that on earth every lament and cry of misery was exclusively an end in itself, that no one gained any advantage from it. Hunger, war, poverty itself, who benefited them? Certainly not to God who, as he had been taught, accompanied the derelict, holding them in his merciful hands. So, to whom?

Months earlier he had taken Giovanni the Fool to the cemetery. The one who laughed at everyone with his toothless mouth, walking from morning to night with his radio nailed to his ear and only asking for a few pennies to buy the batteries to make it work.

The funeral poster had been merciless. Since he was known in the village by that name, the wording “the Fool” had been deliberately placed under the name and surname of the unfortunate deceased.

Because this was an established habit in the country, that of giving everyone a nickname that everyone would carry with them throughout their lives and even after death. He had never been able to accept and despised it with all his strength. Why on earth did people’s stigma and disapproval have to accompany an individual throughout his tormented existence? He was reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of “The Scarlet Letter”, where the protagonist is branded with the letter A of “adulteress” in order to carry throughout his life.

He did not ask himself why there was evil in the world. He did not care much about knowing his origins, it was enough for him to know that he was there. He rather wanted to know what purpose he had, where it flowed, what river, sea or ocean was that could contain everything that had no use.

It was a boring and useless mass. He only managed to mumble a few formulas and forget the verse of the Creed that says “for us men and for our salvation”, and then recover and accompany himself until “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”. This, for him, was the true, authentic mystery of faith: salvation that turns into judgement.

Dear Dostoevsky,

You, who are a devout and pious man, will certainly be able to comfort me if I write to you that while reading your “Crime and Punishment”, I have asked myself questions that you, as a precise and methodical man of letters, will certainly have the pleasure of knowing how to listen to, by dissolving the embarrassing knot.

I am a priest of few prayers and many doubts, so I will disturb you only for the title, which seems very poorly translated in Italian to me.

Did you really write “punishment”? I do not believe. You wanted to write “penalty”, from the Russian “nakazanie”. You say it yourself when you say that “there is also an allusion to the idea that the legal punishment imposed for the crime scares the criminal much less than legislators think, partly because he himself, morally, requires it.”

The Christian should free himself from affliction. Mary herself, for me, for you, for us who tread the uncertain light of day in this life is the consolation of the afflicted par excellence. And how can affliction be useful to the condemned man, to the extreme point of being the one who requests it? And, furthermore, is not salvation, in your opinion, the remedy for all suffering? And, if so, who deserves it?

Blessed are those persecuted by justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, Matthew writes.

While I was eagerly reading your wonderful pages, it occurred to me to pick up an old volume I read as a boy, “The Last Day of a Man Condemned to Death” by Victor Hugo. The condemned man curses, blasphemes, shouts, even foams at the mouth. He does not want to die and ends his unfortunate life while he curses the jailers who take him to the gallows. Did he ask to die? And if life is a gift, who has the right to end it? And why is not putting an end to one’s own or someone else’s life a crime?

Help me, please. Yours.

He neatly put away the fountain pen which was still dripping with bluish-black ink, then took a Swedish match, lit it, not without a movement of satisfaction at that dry and distinct cracking of the fire, and burned the letter, feeling that sensation of liver pain again.

One

Don Fiorentino, a tall and robust man, with large bones and granitic muscles, closed the indolent wooden door of the church that creaked on the hinges of its rusty and historic past.

He had just dismissed the funeral of an estimated parishioner, to whom he had administered the holy oil three days earlier. He remembered the sick room perfectly. The totally white sheets of the deathbed, the circumstantial smiles of those who accompanied the last gasps of an old farmer devoured by a merciless disease nestled in the only male organ of which it was compassionate and Christian in order to avoid even mentioning the name and, above all, the insistent and sugary scent of someone who is already drenched, even before she takes him with her, in the mantle of the great consoler.

On the other hand, Don Fiorentino’s hydraulic system – and he knew it very well – still worked, even though fifty-five years had now passed for him which did not seem like youth. And, after all, – he thought – it had not been much of a funeral either. The church, now that the thurible had been put away, still retained the fumes of the incense with which it had been at the same time impregnated, pungent and definitive.

He had to hold, in his calloused hands, those with the wrinkled skin of the widow and children of the deceased, sublimating with the smile of the viaticum the painful and embarrassed suffering of those who remained.

And then the words. Always the same of a life of priesthood achieved by consuming modest meals of little nutritional value, to which he had become accustomed, albeit reluctantly, since his seminary days, when hunger could often do much more than as much as they did not study Latin, the saints’ lives and his own worn and pancake-like tunic. The same words that he repeated to everyone at every exit of the coffin carried on the shoulders of the funeral employees. “God calls us to himself”, “Courage… it is the will of the Lord”, “It takes dignity to carry the cross”, “Pray, pray a lot”, “Thank you Bob, thank you Charlie”, “His will, not ours.”

He watched with tears, contemplated lips swollen from constantly kissing the air and applied a script bordering on theatrical representation.

And what were, after all, the ritual, the mass, the Eucharistic sacrifice, if not the living representations of man’s fear of leaving for the other world, from which, except mistakes and omissions, no mortal was ever came back to tell us what it was like?

However, Don Fiorentino paid little attention to it.

Instead, he began to think about the theme of the resurrection of the dead in body and soul, just as he had read it in a novel by Tabucchi, in which the protagonist, a journalist from Lisbon, by complaining about his fatness, commented on the inappropriateness that his fat and flaccid flesh came back to Earth in order to make him suffer and become extremely tired. And why on earth, in addition to the pious soul of the old farmer who had accompanied him to the hearse, should his nauseating smell have also resurrected, which he had given up on in the name of that pietas that supports everything and that reduces everything to the secondary appearance of a mystery that he had never managed to penetrate?

Once he had closed the door, following his skepticism, and left it to the woodworms that devoured it every day, Don Florentino lit a cigar stub, which he had hastily placed among his clothes, which had now imbued with the smell of traditional Tuscan which still retained at the end the blackish mark of the brazier from the first lighting of the morning, the one that he so liked to complete, with two pleased puffs and with the support of the Swedish matches, the ones that made a cheerful and prolonged blaze that he enjoyed extinguishing with the first smoke exhaled from his lungs.

And when he placed the burned wooden remains, now on the ancient and worn piece of furniture in the sacristy, in any improvised ashtray, including the stoup, he looked at them with compassion, tight as they were in the embrace between the life of the still unburned wood and death of the head twisting around itself, as if in a final spasm.

Don Fiorentino liked two things more than anything: his Tuscan cigars (for nothing in the world would he have given up the pleasant scent that came from that incident of semi-rotten American tobacco, wet and left to dry by the expert hands of the cigar makers) and the books that kept in the sleeping room. They were certainly not books of particular antiquarian value, that much must be said. He was not interested in the object itself, he was not willing to commit crimes to get hold of a very rare first edition of some novel from the past, whether distant or near, as a corrupt mobster close to the Government had done, as he had heard the radio – Because Don Fiorentino did not even want to hear about television. He was a devil tool. However, while for all the other tools of the devil, whether he was called Beelzebul or Satan, he felt an irresistible attraction of knowledge, not considering them harmful to anyone and not seeing anything in them that was not good in and of itself, that convex glass thing bored him to death.

That is what books were like for Don Fiorentino. He could not wait to join them, especially in the evening, when the darkness fell restlessly and humidly over that parish of a village whose name he would have liked not to remember. He distractedly crushed a rosary, satisfied himself with some leftovers from the day before, took a couple more puffs of blond Kentucky tobacco (how could a cigar made in those parts with a name like a mechanical code be called “Tuscan”, Don Fiorentino not had still understood it), he turned on the radio which was broadcasting the Notturno Italiano, tuning it very well to the medium waves and, after having provided for a not embarrassing stripping of his clothes which were unwiedly with fabric and dirt, he finally got into bed and began to read in the long but comforting and productive hours of the night.

Not the breviary, or the office of the liturgical hours of ordinary time, but rather the volumes that piled up on his bedside table falling, sometimes, now one way and now the other, onto the floor, getting dipped in the ash that fell where deposited in turn, by surrendering to the weight accumulated because of the slow but inexorable combustion of the cigar, now devoid of its periodic puffing and inhalation.

And just as he turned his enormous and slightly curved back to the providential closing of the enormous door (it was written Domus Dei et porta coeli), he remembered Father Fulgenzio, a good Jesuit who knew Latin and Greek, and who night surprised him in the dormitory when, instead of sleeping, he was reading “Dangerous Liaisons” by Chlordelos de Laclos.

Don Fiorentino had to reconstruct carnal love, that between a man and a woman, starting from that reading, trying to understand, with his limits as a beardless young man from the Church, what were the dark dynamics that made Adam meet Eve. Father Fulgentius was strict but understanding and tolerant. He limited himself to confiscating the obscene publication and, sparing him the ritual lectures, he limited himself to replacing it with a yellowed copy of the “Spiritual Exercises” by Ignatius of Loyola which even the junk dealer would have rejected, who certainly would not have known who to resell it to. For his part, he had purchased a copy in the original French language in a bookshop of Lourdes, during a pilgrimage. An unseemly act, yes, but not a sin. Or, at least, that is not how it appeared to him.

He would have liked to say, as an adult, to Father Fulgentius, who Solomon also spoke of that carnal love in the Song of Songs: “My beloved slips his hand into my lap, my insides tremble for him. Myrrh flows from my hands, myrrh flows from my fingers onto the latch I hold.”

However, Father Fulgenzio ended up at the age of eighty-six on a torrid day in the middle of August, suffocated by a fragment of peach stone, the fruit of which he was fond of. They buried him dressed in the cassock, with his face pitifully covered by a white linen cloth embroidered for the occasion, in order to obscure the purple blackness of those dying from lack of air. And he never spoke about it again.

Taken a few steps and came back to the altar, Don Fiorentino stopped to contemplate the wooden crucifix, a work by an unknown person from who knows where, who ended up there by chance or necessity, probably as atonement for the great and many sins committed by the sculptor during his lifetime, a republican of the worst kind. It seemed to Don Fiorentino that the Christ inlaid in the olive tree was looking in different directions depending on the shadow cast on his face. Guareschi’s Don Camillo with the crucifix spoke to us, and the latter also responded to him, except when it was the voice of his pride that spoke.

The absence of words like divine punishment was the most excruciating thing Don Fiorentino could imagine. Without words, how would St. John the Evangelist have written “In the beginning was the Word?” He even thought that the translation of John’s text for use by the faithful was wrong. It was not the Word, it was precisely the logos, the speech, the sentence, the Word in its incessant flow. God speaks to Man continuously, if his Son was silent, where were the consolation and forgiveness?

He was distracted by the muffled voices of children’s games coming from outside. They were overlapping and indistinguishable cries, greatly charged by the shrill calls of their mothers who invited them, not without a certain insistent and annoying petulance, in order to stop playing football. However, they did not give up and continued to sweat like madmen, chasing those strips of leather sewn together and inflated like a sphere. Moreover, while any of his other brothers would have underlined that scene of playful disobedience with the smile on their lips that priests have as they delight in the world (or rather, in themselves),

Don Fiorentino found that the boys were growing up increasingly uneducated and arrogant. The little time he could dedicate to playing and grazing his knees on the dirt while chasing an uncertain pile of rags, as a child, seemed to him never to have been filled with such imprudent presumption.

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to them.”

Don Fiorentino faltered a little. Was it possible that to access the kingdom of God one had to be reduced to behaving like those suburban thugs? Was that all the salvation, the promise of Eden, that of living forever in a paradise earth? It could not be. The Gospel must have been wrong about something. However no, on the contrary, he insisted, obstinately:

If you do not convert and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever makes himself small like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one child like this in my name, welcomes me.”

Well, even welcoming one of those rascals in the odor of habitual delinquency seemed exaggerated to Don Fiorentino.

The evening before, he had begun a book that proved to be far superior to his wildest expectations. It was an unpretentious edition of “Illustrissimi”, written by Albino Luciani, later Supreme Pontiff with the name of John Paul I, when he was still Patriarch of Venice, regent of the Chair of Saint Mark.

They had called him “the Pope of the smile”, and Don Fiorentino had to agree that it was a definition that corresponded to the truth.

However, the smile, in the Church, unless it is a reaction of mere circumstance and prone compliance, is not a good that can be enjoyed and spent so easily. So, when Luciani pronounced the words “God is mother” someone noticed and, as it were, as it was not, on the thirty-third day of his pontificate his private secretary found him lifeless in his bed at 5.30 in the morning. The same time in which Santiago Nasar, the protagonist of “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” left his house on the day he was killed, in order to wait for the boat on which the Bishop would arrive. And, ultimately, Pirandello said, life is either lived or written. Or so he remembered.

And it occurred to him that he too would have liked to die like this, with a book in his hand. But not the “Imitation of Christ”, as had happened with the holy man. Rather Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Or, if it were really that inconvenient, Bernanos’s “Diary of a Country Priest”.

Luciani had fallen into the habit of writing very long letters to the greats of the past, exposing the issues of the present to their imaginary attention.

Among the recipients was Saint Luke, the author of the only Gospel that tells of Jesus’ childhood. However, even Dickens, whose “Oliver Twist” Don Fulgentius had devoured with voracious avidity. They were letters of extraordinary depth, permeated by a rare erudition, complicated to find in those who quoted Trilussa to the Roman faithful with a strong Venetian accent.

He published them, the poor guy, on a monthly basis in the “Messaggero di Sant’Antonio”, and someone had the happy idea of collecting them in a volume. And so it was that the determination to do the same dawned on him, quickly and clearly.

He took off the rough and heavy white sheets, relit the cigar that had gone out, by avoiding a premature death (another sign of the fact that God sees and provides) and walked confidently the three steps that separated him from the large desk in front, starting to write:

Dear Professor Antonio Tabucchi,

a village priest is writing to you with a passion for books. I read your “The last three days of Fernando Pessoa”, published by the estimated Sellerio publishing house of Palermo, on that paper so soft that it is almost a mortal sin to leaf through it with fingers moistened with saliva.

Please take my word for it if I tell you that I am sorry to bother you, now that you will be conversing amiably with some Portuguese writer, one of those he loved so much, sitting at the outdoor tables of the “A Brasileira” café in Lisbon, sipping with thoughtful ease a ginginha, the kind produced by the noble house of Espinheira and which tastes like almonds. Have you ever tried the pastéis they make in Belém? Oh, they are delicious, you know? The crunchy pastry, the warm and delicate egg cream, and the streams of freshly dissolved cinnamon powder. You will remember me when you taste them, I assure you.

I have read some Portuguese literature too. At least the essentials. The Lusiads of Camoes, for example. The Inés de Castro episode moved me to tears. Poor Donna Inés, who was harvesting the sweet fruit of her years, dead of love and politics. And then “I Maia” by Queiroz.

I am writing to you because your short but intense book raises some questions for me. You describe the pilgrimage of the heteronyms to the bedside of the dying poet for the last farewell greeting. However, can only poets afford heteronyms or even ordinary mortals like me and you? Are we not ourselves, maybe, someone else? And it cannot happen that this is precisely someone else who visits us one day. And maybe the people we invent are nothing more than ghosts to whom we delegate our restlessness, that “desassossego” whose book You and Your Lady you have so admirably translated? Worry is such a heavy burden to carry! This may be why people prefer truths revealed or solutions pre-packaged by others.

Regarding this, I read something by the Brazilian Paulo Coelho, finding it absolutely detestable. Is not it any wonder that it has such undeserved success? What do you think?

Your servant takes leave of you.

He re-read it and thought it came out well. He carefully folded and placed it in the desk drawer. It was dawn outside, it was almost time for morning praise and he felt a sudden pang reach his liver.