Issue 25 – 2014 – Valerio Magrelli

Valerio Magrelli

translated by Clarissa Botsford


from The Condominium of the Body


     At school in his new glasses […] the young pupil, who could never sit still, was sent out of the classroom. Shut out on the terrace. How long was I out there, on my own, exposed to the heat and the light, held captive in that punishing eerie? There was no more than a pane of glass to separate me from the other kids’ ridicule as they ganged up against me in the cool penumbra of the classroom – a Nymph’s cavern. An hour, perhaps two, must have gone by, but time seemed to dilate unbelievably in the dilated world of a person who, for the first time, found himself behind a lens, like an insect under a microscope. A spasmodic tension deformed the outlines of things, subjecting them to an extenuating topology of vision.

     Stared at from behind the French window, trapped on a tiny stage, and at the same time forced into a painful traction of his sight, the victim of this torture of prying eyes was first and foremost tormented by his own. In his hypertrophic eye the world around him stretched and shrunk, bent and oscillated, while the June afternoon sunlight never let up. I was struck down by sunstroke, which embraced me sweetly as I fainted. I actually saw darkness coming, standing out on the balcony of the sky, casting its shadow slowly over my face like an eyelid, the last thing to separate me from the things that surrounded me.


     Whoever invented six-thirty pm? Who could have conceived of such a lethally boring hour? Where did this blip of time come from, breaking up the day, fracturing it, obliging it to slow down and interrogate itself? It’s Thursday, dinner is still a long way off, an indefinite blur on the horizon. The warmth created by lunch has worn off, leaving a state of hypothermic torpor reflected in the cup of cold coffee left on the shelf. A muddy puddle, a cataplasm. The day the sun died, St Lucy’s day. Darkness. Work languishes. The old cannot draw to a close and the new cannot come to life. The new cannot come to life. This is the still point at which I was born, in the backwash of the world. It was a Thursday at six-thirty pm, while on television it was time for a commercial break. Stasis. I feel I am the child of stagnation and of hypochondria. Born, like an upside-down black Venus, from the muddy backwaters of the afternoon’s “spurious infinity”1.


     I’ve worn glasses ever since. That is, I exhibit that which I lack; I certify the figure that separates me from normal eyesight. Unbidden, I declare the degree of my short-sightedness in a resigned request for transparency. That could be why I still associate the sensation with the day—the only day ever—I was forced to wear bobble socks. Why? What sacred rite did I have to celebrate? What did those hideous dancing testicles signify? What sin did I have to expiate by submitting myself to such an embarrassing spectacle? It takes so little, an embroidered design, a little anchor maybe, and an angel wielding a flaming sword chases us out of Eden, without a stitch on us—except for our bobble socks.


     c) third acoustic study

     My name is Ernesto Calindri—star of the famous Cynar liquor advertisement in which I sit and sip from the bitter cup with traffic whirling noisily all around me. Let me try and describe the Ptolemaic nature of the harsh battle I have fought for years against noise. I am at the centre of infinitely noisy orbits, that poor St. Sebastian of my brain the axis of a revolving hula hoop.

     I once lived in a quiet alley. One summer’s night a low grumble summoned me, sweetly, then exhaustingly, insinuating itself into my consciousness. It was a hidden, feral sound that teased out and exacerbated my insomnia and finally prevented sleep from taking place. I went downstairs only to find it was not an animal at all, but a bewitched entry phone—’bewitched’ not as in ‘magic’ but as in ‘stuck’, like a broken record. To put it simply, there was an electrical contact. It groaned out of nowhere, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Was I supposed to let this noise go on? Was I supposed to listen to it flapping in the air like a fringe, or a flag? No, I was not. I rushed back to fetch bandages, cotton gauze and sticky plasters.

     Now, in the halo of a lamp post, I suture the sonorous wound, pulling together the two folds. I stem the pitiful hemorrhage even as it calls out to me. I dull the sound as much as it can be dulled. The entry phone has turned into a monstrous growth.

     It sticks out from the door jamb, a concave mass of cotton wool and adhesive tape, casting its own little regulation shadow. The moan? Suffocated. But not for long. Have the stitches torn? The mouth of the wound must have re-opened; there’s blood plasma draining out of it. Slowly, of course, slowly to start with. But it’s getting faster. The flow is increasing, and it’s denser than before. Gush, you low-life, gush away, sound outlet, sticky lymph, secretion, stem, plant. Ha! For a plant you need an axe.

     I’m no longer the well-meaning doctor I was a minute before. I am a wood-cutter on a rampage against noise. With sharp heaves of my axe I cut down the hissing tree. A vivid image: a blade penetrating the anodized aluminum and revealing the gills of the microphone (delicate, curled, parallel). In a flash the dark wire is spliced, dark night, Irma’s deep throat.

     Silence. There’s no uvula under the soft palate, no tonsils, nor tongue in the smoking mouth, which gapes wide open once the cover with the buttons and the names has been ripped off. All I need now is a teaspoon to check for a sore throat. Open wide and say ‘Ah …’. There’s a good boy; now let me go back to sleep.


     I was an adult when I broke my arm. After thirty days of immobility I expected the limb to look pale and sickly, diaphanous and ghost-like. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It lay there, practically identical to before. Was everything back to normal? Not at all. This illusionary normalcy concealed a new metamorphosis: a terrible smell. It was when they took off the cast that the Genie appeared. All I had to do was rub my skin, like Aladdin’s lamp, and he was before me, ready to do my will. A light rub of my wrist was enough to summon from that arm, that unassuming arm, a gargantuan stinking ectoplasm. I had expected something of the kind, but not that creature, not the Genie. It wasn’t just the unbearable stench; there was a further ultra-dermal dimension. And I soon understood why.

     In those few weeks the skin had not only rotted. In one spot, between the thumb and the index finger, it had started to decompose. Yes, it was macerated and flaky. But more than that, it felt like perhaps its moment had come. To put it simply, it was putrefying – or preparing to do so. Preparing to go away somewhere.

     I had never smelt anything like it. It belonged to the cheese family, those cheeses ripened in dark caves. No, this was even more extreme, like a high stilton, a stilton from the beyond. (I joked about the expression ‘dead hand’. Mine, half dead, must have courted Death in person. All you needed to do was give it a rub—like someone touching you up on the bus). For days and days, as the newly aerated flesh began to change appearance, I went on avidly sniffing that kind of lethal cocaine. It became a game, a tic. I feared the smell would finally evaporate, I sniffed a little more, and there it was: a sudden flash of flesh beyond flesh, the breeding ground of that spiraling putrefaction, an unnerving hint of fermented milk and curds, an aura of whey. And then the trail disappeared over the horizon of my skin-cell landscape. Linked to this, there is the memory of a coat from the Caucasus.

     Someone had bought it, on some journey in some flea-market in some God-forsaken country on the Central Asian Steppe. Grey, stiff, feral, for a few days it must have looked fine on the streets of Moscow, but it was soon relegated to the back of a wardrobe. Months later, during a move, the owner starts to pack up his house. There’s a terrible smell somewhere, and finally he finds the source. There it is, Lazarus-like, standing stiffly, riddled with worms, born again in a buzz of micro-organisms! The hide, tanned in a hurry, had come back to life (the exact opposite of my experience under the plaster cast). A splendid re-emersion, a powerful return from Hades, an imperious re-claiming of the senses in this coat of flesh. So I could say that, while the coat was not dead enough, I was not alive enough. My wolf was there, crouching in my hands and howling.

     1 Hegel’s Science of Logic, George Allen & Unwin, 1969, Translated by A.V. Miller



Valerio Magrelli (Rome, 1957) is the author of five poetry collections, for which he has won among other prizes the Mondello, the Viareggio, the Montale as well as the Premio Antonio Feltrinelli-Accademia dei Lincei. He is the author of four books of prose, as well as critical studies on Dadaism, Paul Valéry, Charles Baudelaire and notable translations of Molière, Beaumarchais, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Debussy, Koltès and Barthes. A Professor of French literature at the University of Pisa and then Cassino, he is also a frequent contributor to the cultural pages of Italian dailiy “La Repubblica”. His poems have been translated into several languages. In English: Nearsights: Selected Poems (translated by A. Molino, Graywolf Press, 1991), The Contagion of Matter (translated by A. Molino, Holmes & Meyer, 2000), “Instructions on How to Read a Newspaper”, and Other Poems (translated by Anthony Molino, Riccardo Duranti and Annamaria Crowe Serrano, Chelsea Editions, New York, Chelsea Editions, 2008), The Embrace (translated by Jamie McKendrick, Faber & Faber, 2009, which won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize and the John Florio Prize) and Vanishing Points (bilingual edition of The Embrace, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

Clarissa Botsford has worked in the fields of teaching, intercultural education, editing, translating and publishing and is also a singer and violinist. She currently teaches English and Translation Studies at Rome University. In 2014, her translation of the novel Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones was published by And Other Stories.