A Political Animal

The city was devastated by flood, and everybody was struggling to salvage its treasures. This was Franco's chance to get away from his wife, to be useful again — and to steal a few hours for love.

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Originally published on September 7, 1968

Franco shivered. His study was cold. Through the smear of his window, the Tuscan landscape was pulpy after months of rain. His eye ranged over it; then he turned back to his desk and took a mirror from an inner pocket. He propped it against his telephone and began to consider himself. He had a broad, fine face with predominantly horizontal lines. His teeth were all right. So was his hair, which was a lightish brown. True Tuscan. He put away the mirror and let his eye slide back to its practiced orbit: cabinet, window … Waiting days. Carla was more than a week overdue. And fat as a fool! Tearful and smelling of talc, she sat about, concealing the box of enormous chocolate kisses her mother had sent by the maid who was to stay with them until after the delivery. Meanwhile, here was Franco, stuck in this damn town when he might have been considerably more useful elsewhere.

Carla’s other two pregnancies had thrilled him, for he was an affectionate father, a family man. But this time his enthusiasm had waned. “I’m getting on her nerves. It’ll make the baby crazy or something. I’d do better to stay off the premises.”

He got up, turned on the television, then turned it off, then on again. Gray shapes curdled the screen. A few miles away, the city of Florence — his and Carla’s city until their exile to this mountaintop — was attempting to recover from the ravages of one of the worst floods in history. Incessant rains had swollen the Arno beyond its banks, and now the TV showed the Florentines struggling through tons of muck and mud to salvage their city and themselves. Franco’s throat was dry as he watched women in boots filling jugs from the Fountain of Neptune. There was no typhoid-free drinking water. The next image was of a woman being rescued by boat from the upstairs window of an unsteady building in Piazza Ghiberti. Franco’s mind rushed to friends who lived in that part of the city. Carla’s family was on the fourth floor — an advantage, for once. Anyway, they’d have got out. They had a nice sense of self-protection. As their kind had always done, they would take to the hills, enjoy a house party in someone’s villa.

Franco was concerned about the libraries and museums. He hadn’t revised his last book, and some documents he needed to consult were in the vaults of the State Archives of Florence. Not that he was so self-centered as to care mainly about that, but it did come to mind. Tanks containing fuel oil, the commentator reminded listeners, had exploded, and the black, viscous stuff had contaminated the waters, clung to statues, drawn a black line across frescoes, and sealed the pages of unread documents from the earliest years of the city. Next came shots of people who had taken refuge on the rooftops in areas where the waters had not yet receded. Huddled against the cold, they were yelling jokes from roof to roof, livening themselves with the bitter wit of their kind. No villa invitations for them.

Franco began to cry. This was his city, his old, proud, beautiful, misgoverned city. Another unnecessary calamity had afflicted it. (Only last year Franco had been reading about governmental neglect of soil erosion.) Thirty people, said the reporter, were known to have perished so far. Franco turned him off. No telephone lines. He must get to Florence. Not only for personal reasons — Joan — but . . . and anyway Joan would be all right. Her uncle, Mr. Herman Adelaide, would invite her to stay in his villa. No, it was a need for activity that was tormenting Franco, a need to dispense the energies that had been accumulating while he sat slowing his pace to the broody Carla’s. Waiting. He had an absurd sensation that his presence must make a difference to the city where officials who had bungled everything up to now were surely bungling things again. “Corrupt, inept, time-serving… ”

Disgusted and impatient, he got up and walked down the hall to the apartment he and Carla had rented in the Archives. Carla was sitting in her room, knitting yet another white woolen jacket.

“Everything the same?” he asked her.

“I’m afraid so.” A slack face smiled ashamedly up at him, blurry features dissolving into one another. Franco sat beside her and attempted to caress her. She had put on much too much weight. She’d never get rid of it. The doctor had refused to back up Franco in his efforts to make her diet.

“Franco! No!”

“What? You’re not shy, are you?” Teasing.

“Not now, Franco!”

“Do you know that in France husbands learn to deliver their babies themselves? So they can feel as involved as the mothers!”

She shrugged. He rose and returned to his study. Wearily he flopped into his armchair and began to think of Joan, wondering if she were still in Florence. Headlines had described stink and screams in the unlit city and the outlandish wail of motor horns set off by the rising waters. But it was not Joan’s safety he was worried about. She would land on her feet. Joan was American, nineteen years old and one of the appalling Pop generation. She would not have appealed to him some years ago, but the cinema had made the type familiar: the Hepburn girl, loose of tibia and thighbone, with the free-swinging ease that comes from liquid assets and unhampered mind. For some months now, Franco had been engaged, on the three days a week he spent working for a publisher in Florence, in furnishing the fine vacancy of this mind with notions of his own. She was — when bared of the Pop clothes — surprisingly docile. With sad security, Franco thought of his efforts to dislodge the grids of conventional belief that had been pressed down on poor Carla before he married her. Carla had defended her virginity through a six-year engagement, whereas Joan — hah! — but her pliancy bothered him. Where was the spoor of earlier loves? Would his own one day be as effectively rubbed out?

There was no question of her writing, now that the telephone lines were down. Before the flood it had seemed unwise to give her his address. He had been in the habit of telephoning her frequently from booths and racing up her stairs, suspicion titillating him, her great iron door key ready in his hand.

And now? He picked a typescript off his desk and managed to read two paragraphs.

The telephone rang. It was his brother-in-law.

“Aldo!” Franco was excited. “I thought the lines were down. Where are you?”

“In Florence. They hooked one up for us. A sort of field telephone. How’s Carla? Has she had the baby?”

“Still waiting. But, tell me — ”

“Mamma’s going to stay with you. It’s better for her to be out of Florence. I suppose you read all about the flood?”

“Indeed. I saw you on TV.”

Aldo’s appeal for help to salvage manuscripts from the mud had reminded Franco of another emergency: the Resistance and his childhood misery at being cut off from it. While partisans fought in the Florentine hills, Franco had been obliged to concern himself with soccer. He had since put down his frustration to growing pains, yet songs and stories from that time released a sour, seductive nostalgia in him. The Resistance had now been debased by official piety, but for him, who had experienced it as a void, it retained appeal.

Aldo, a bit older than Franco, had been a partisan. Connections from those days had pushed him ahead at top speed in the civil service.

“I saw you — ” Franco said again to his brother-in-law.

“Listen!” Aldo cut in. “I’m going to send you several truckloads of damaged documents. We’re farming them out to provincial archives for restoration. I don’t know when we’ll get our hands on the trucks, but I’ll let you know. We’re up to our necks here. The army is using what they’ve got to help flood victims, and most local transport is fouled up. We may get some from Bologna, we — ”

“Listen !” Franco crushed his fingers excitedly about the receiver. “I’ll come for the stuff. Right now. I can get trucks here, and I’ll come.”

“Absolutely not!” Aldo’s voice was imperious. “You stand by. We’ll take care of things at this end.”

“But — ”

“Nobody could expect you to leave your wife at a time like this.”

“But if la mamma is coming!” Franco’s voice was shrill. “And the doctor’s here on call. It’s her third child. Carla has babies as easily as a cat.”

“No!” said Carla’s brother. His voice snapped like a lid, and Franco remembered the small rodent teeth and Aldo’s bullying of him when they had been students. “I understand,” said Aldo — and his unctuous Tuscan accent reminded Franco of his table manners and of his provincial obsequiousness with superiors — “your anxiety about the National Patrimony . . .” Franco made a face and pulled the receiver away from his ear. The fluid sounds ceased at the end of his wrist, and he pulled the receiver back.

“Of course,” he told it.

“I wouldn’t wish to butt in,” said Aldo.

“Huh?”

“I just wanted to tip you off. Mr. Adelaide is the American representative of the Fund for Saving Italian Archival Treasures, so she is down here with him every day. People might get a bad impression.”

“What’s that?” Franco screwed the receiver into his ear. “I’m afraid I missed something you said about, ah, Mr. Adelaide and –”

“Your little friend?”

The vulgarity, my God! What did one expect? Left-wing puritans — worse than the bloody Catholics. No wonder there was not and never would be divorce in this country. “How — ” began Franco.

” — did we know? Gossip. You don’t think that, in a city trained through twenty years of fascism, the doorkeepers don’t know their business? Anyway, it’s another reason why you’d better not come. She was asking about you around the Archives. They told her about Carla’s expecting a baby, Luckily, with all that’s happening, your little scandal will be forgotten if you stay put. Wouldn’t do either of us any good if it weren’t. Listen, I’m running out of time. You can expect la mamma on tonight’s train. I’ll telephone again before sending the documents. Ciao.”

Franco put down the receiver. So it was common knowledge. Aldo was worried about reports to the Ministry. Meanwhile, Franco was stuck here because Aldo had pulled rank. Franco rubbed his cheek. But why should he let himself be dictated to? What right had Aldo to give him orders? And was Franco to be a bloody yes man? Absolute lunacy! Manuscripts were macerating in muck. Mold was threatening, and time — Aldo himself had said so —  was vital. Franco was an Italian, and Italians — he had once written an essay on the subject — had for centuries relied on subversive individuals (Galileo, Giordano Bruno, the partisans, alternatively Mussolini) to keep the national vessel afloat at all. Vested myopia had to be swept periodically aside. Franco picked up the receiver, then set it down. He would see to this in person. Action. He stood up, took his mackintosh from a hook in the hall and raced downstairs. Carla, hearing his Fiat 600 the civil service pays stingily — thunder through the fourteenth-century gullies of the little town, smiled: “Poor Franco! He gets restless!”

He was back in three hours. At eleven o’clock. He had been promised twelve trucks, eleven drivers: eight from one firm, three from another. One was from the local grocer. Franco was to have that back in time for tomorrow morning’s market. An archivist could drive it. Franco would close the Archives and take all the staff with him. No. Perhaps one man had better stay to caretake and keep an eye on Carla. She might need to send him to the pharmacy.

Bounding up the stairs, Franco grinned. He liked himself as the scurrying Franco: vigorous, always on the move.

Then he paused a moment. What, now, would it be best to tell Carla?

“Darling.” He strode with an anxious face into her room. “That brother of yours has been on the telephone. He wants me to go to Florence.”

“Aldo? Now?”

“They’re understaffed,” he explained. “They want me to bring back some of the damaged documents and dry them out here. It is an emergency.”

“Oh,” fluttered Carla. “He always was one for giving orders! The tyrant! I hope you didn’t let him take advantage of you! After all, he’ll get all the credit with the Ministry! You’re such a pushover,” she scolded.

“I told him I couldn’t possibly go until the child was born.”

“And what did he say?”

“Oh, he huffed and puffed a bit. He couldn’t see why you needed me. He’s sending mamma by the rapido tonight. But I insisted.”

“La mamma? Was he annoyed?”

“How do I know?”

“But, Franco, we’ll never hear the end of it if you don’t go! They’ll say that while volunteers were pouring in from all over, you were too busy with your private affairs to even drive into Florence to pick up a load of documents! Can you imagine how it sounds! You might even lose your job! Franco! Aldo knows what he’s talking about! You must go. Anyway, I’ve got Doctor Pietri. I don’t need you. This isn’t France, where you tell me men deliver their own babies! And if la mamma is coming — ”

“But I’ll be worrying about you! I’d be miserable if — ”

“Go!” Carla spoke with the vigor of a Roman matron.

She is playacting too, he thought, but remembered: She is absorbed in me and the children. Poor Carla! And I’m robbing her of her great moment when the baby is produced, the pink or blue ribbon on the door, telephone calls to aunts…. For a moment Franco regretted going. He kissed Carla warmly. “Darling . . .”

“You will go, Franco?”

“Yes.”

He rushed off with shameful alacrity. Well, he’d probably be back before the baby was born, after all. Carla yelled after him, “Don’t forget to take your high boots.”

“I won’t.”

They were off! The truck rattled as it rounded bends. Franco opened a window. Freezing cold, but the air was crisp with country smells: decaying leaves, wet undergrowth, churned earth. The rain had stopped, and Franco could see sunlight on the headlamps of the trucks behind. A little convoy, that’s what they were. Hurtling down the ravines! Ambush hour! Boom! Shut up, Franco! You’re a civil servant. Distinguished. He slid an eye toward the driver, but the man’s face was vacant. The truck raced through groves of olive trees. In a cleft, a mountain stream hurtled downhill, curling and corkscrewing like a reddish fleece. Like Joan’s hair. She, Franco was suddenly sure, would not care about his deceptions. They met as free spirits. Careless, she evaded the conventional prejudices of his own people.

Franco was drenched in mud. His arms were sore, his hands numb inside his rubber gloves. He had raced straight to the Florentine State Archives and work, eager to escape the filth and misery of Florence’s streets. Aldo was not to be found. “He’s been on the job for seventy-two hours,” Franco was told. “He’ll surely be back in an hour or two.” Franco, who was well known at the Archives, made a quick survey and chose some of the damaged registers that had already been brought up from the ruined vaults — it was thought that they must be court records from the fourteenth century. He then pressed some volunteers into loading them onto his trucks. He let his drivers go, telling them to be back at seven. They would return home tonight. Meanwhile, he stacked the soggy objects handed him by the volunteers. When he got them home, he would have to see about having them scraped, sponged, dried, perhaps with the help of machines. Tobacco barns, he knew, were being used. Someone had suggested freezing. He kept his mind on salvaging techniques, for the state of the ruined registers — over half a millennium old and intact until last week — made him ready to roar with rage. What good would that do? None. Get on with the job, he told himself. And anyway — he had reached the last truck — look how much we have managed to move in a few hours. The city authorities knew of the flood eight hours in advance and gave no warning! How much of this stuff could have been saved if . . . Forget it. And the petty bickering goes on. Look at bloody Aldo! Hoping to advance his career on the flood tide. What will he say when he comes back? Stop me? No. Fear of scandal. Make it work for me. Shall I see Joan? Too tired to think. Aldo was on the job seventy-two hours. I never denied he cares about the Archives. Wonder will he let me have any funds for this lot? Well, that’s the last of it now.

He was moving off, having committed his trucks to a couple of his own archivists, and thinking of a washup and sandwich when he saw Aldo.

Pink-eyed from lack of sleep, his face pushed forward in a snout of aggression, his shoulders hunched within his tawny mackintosh, Aldo had the look of a charging hamster. As he raced toward Franco across the Loggiato degli Uffizi, his glasses glittered. He was wearing high boots, and his balding, gourd-shaped head was greatly at odds with this fisherman’s outfit.

“Are you out of your mind?” he cried, clutching Franco by the shoulder and pushing him backward into one of the trucks. “What’s all this?” He climbed in after him and began poking at the soggy manuscripts. “Who gave you permission? This is state property. I’m responsible for it. You can’t just hijack this stuff out of the city to suit your own whim! And what about Carla and Mamma? I suppose that little American whore has turned your head. What are you up to, Franco? This is insubordination!” He had closed the truck door to keep the quarrel concealed from all eyes, and now his voice rose shrilly out of the darkness.

Franco opened the door.

“Close it. Close it.” Aldo’s spectacles danced in the streak of light. “I want all this stuff unloaded at once.”

“Back into the mud?” asked Franco.

“It doesn’t leave here without my permission. I’ll call the police.”

“You were going to send this stuff to me anyway.”

“Not this. You’ve taken some of the most valuable sources. Very precious material. It shouldn’t leave Florence. And after the way you’ve come in looting state property behind my back, I don’t think — ”

“I got this in the regular way in broad daylight with the cooperation of your own staff,” Franco said.

“Because they know you’re my brother-in-law! You took advantage of that to associate me with your piracy.”

“Aldo! Can’t you see I’m just here to help? Like all these other people who are trying to save the damaged documents? That I’m just following up your own suggestion to me on the phone?”

“I told you not to come.”

“Because of Carla. And that’s my own business.”

“You’re unreliable. What are you after? Publicity? Promotion? I’ll put a stop to your caper! I’ll telephone Rome.”

“I’ll telephone Rome myself. I’ll write to the papers.”

“Do.”

Franco jumped out of the truck and strode away from the Loggiato. He was halfway across the Piazza della Signoria before it occurred to him that, even if he could find a telephone — only a few had been hooked up for official use — all the ministries in Rome would be closed at this hour. Besides, the idea was absurd: “Please, Mr. Secretary, my brother-in-law’s picking on me!” Absurd. His rage snapped like a bubble. Stopping to light a cigarette, it struck him as funny that the load he was trying to save should consist of court records: the work of the Florentine bureaucrats, the Aldos of five hundred years ago. Aldo must be sick with fatigue. Give him time to pull himself together.

Franco waded up mud-befouled streets to Piazza San Giovanni, where Joan had her apartment. He had a key and he climbed the stairs, tracking mud and sawdust after him. He had little expectation of finding her, and he was too tired to care.

As he had guessed, the apartment was deserted. He flopped down on Joan’s divan. Then the cold began to nip him. He got up and traced the cold currents to their source in the bathroom, where a window had come unlatched. Its glass had shattered and the frame swung loose. He used a towel to patch it up. Joan had probably not been here since the morning of the flood. He squatted on his hunkers and closed his eyes. Seeking. Joan was gone. Not just from her apartment but from him. Her memory had left him. Gone. He tried to summon her: Joan, elastic skin, bloomy, pinkish, young, the taste of her ear — it all fell apart. Nothing. She was gone from his nerve ends. He groped for her image, as a mud creature in a well might ponder about the brief blur of a butterfly on the surface.

He was depressed by his failure of imagination. It was weariness, worry. Yes, but a dimension was being withdrawn from him. Before long, he knew — it had happened before — his passion would seem spurious; his senses would dull; the grasping clarity of the man in love would leave him, and it would be with an indulgent amusement that he would remember “the little American girl” he had run around with one autumn.

Buttoning his coat, Franco paused at Joan’s dressing table, a slab of heavy glass under which she had stuck a hodgepodge of snapshots: all of herself except when some other face, male or female, had been caught by the camera click in a chance proximity too close for later discarding. None but Joan under the two yards of defensive glass, as though, traveling light, she carried no memories but of her different selves in the ski clothes, Mary Quant clothes, slicker coats of fashion. Franco fetched his wallet out of an inner pocket and, tearing a photograph of himself from an outdated identity card, slipped it beneath the plate glass. He laid the key on top of it and walked out of the apartment, pulling the door behind him.

Heavy in his boots, he clumped downstairs as quickly as he could. Outside, he waved his arms in an effort to warm himself. “Goddam and goddamn!” He cursed some medium-weight curses to himself as he squelched back toward the Archives. The cold had reached his marrow. The mission was a failure on all fronts. Another brief folly consummated. Aldo smirks. Carla hides her head. Manuscripts will have to be unloaded because Aldo will not permit me to remove them. I’ll be a laughingstock. What’ll I tell the truck owners? No noble exploit to report to Rome in the hope of being commended by the Minister for services rendered in time of crisis! No, no! Merely opprobrium. A provincial oaf. Butting in. Leaving his wife on her bed of pain. abandoning their unborn child. What will be said? A lot. Count on that. No guts. Home with tail between legs. What time is it? Seven? Oh God, the drivers! I will have to tell them!

They were standing in a group under the arcades, their coat collars up, smoking. They saluted him.

“All set, Dottore?”

“Better be hitting the road.”

So Aldo had said nothing! Where was he now? Franco waved a limp salute to the drivers. “Be with you in a second.” He sidled down toward the door of the Archives. A television van was stationed outside it. No sign of Aldo. A man was fixing a spotlight. Another had a portable camera and a microphone. He spoke to Franco.

“These your trucks, sir?”

“Yes.”

“Taking stuff out of town to some recovery point?”

“Um, yes.”

“We’d like to get a few shots. Do you mind telling us where you’re going? Our listeners would be interested to hear about the work that’s being done. May I ask your name?” He handed Franco the microphone.

“Doctor Soperchio,” Franco told him. “I’m Director of Archives at U — ”

“At U– ! That’s quite a drive with the state of the roads. Did you come in this morning, Dottore?”

“Yes,” Franco told him. He hesitated, but the man was giving him encouraging nods. Franco grasped the microphone tightly. “We, ah, brought in twelve empty trucks. I’m afraid the Florentines who saw us were disappointed when they saw our trucks were empty, but — ”

“But you’re not taking them back empty?”

Franco took a deep breath. “No!” he said. “No. We have filled them with damaged court records from the fourteenth century. We” — and here he had a feeling of abandon — “we have excellent facilities at U —  . We may even return for a second consignment.”

His voice, thinned and bouncy from nerves and weariness, leaped like a pea in the whistle of his throat. “A second,” he repeated more firmly. He would, too. And a third and a fourth. Suddenly he knew it and was determined. If he had to, he’d fight. Write to the papers. Telephone Mr. Adelaide. He might even enlist the microphone that was rearing before him this minute. Denounce Aldo. Why not? And the hordes of bureaucrats whose swaddling, strangling red tape did more damage than the flood. To hell with caution! A pox on them all. Tell! Show them all up! If there was one thing Franco knew and cared about, it was archives; and the city of Florence held the richest archives in the world. Careful, clerkly and cautious, the old Florentines had been remarkable recorders. Neither the French nor English nor anyone else in their heyday had kept records as they had, and, as a result, the “Athens of the fifteenth century,” intact among the fossils of its bones, could still be reconstructed as the fifth-century Athens never could. There might never be another. Scarcely scratched by modern scholarship, the voluminous image of the society that had elaborated the moral and aesthetic norms to which the West still held had escaped destruction by wars, tax riots, and earlier floods to succumb perhaps now to mold and the delays of an idiotic bureaucracy. Franco seized the microphone and waved it angrily. Tell, he reminded himself, but in his agitation was not sure how to begin. Tell! He jerked his chin toward the Uffizi Gallery next door. “The paintings in there,” he said, “whose possible loss has agitated the world of women’s clubs, are the product of a certain society. They are, of course, priceless but cannot be compared in value to the chart and image of that society’s living organism.” He was shouting. “Here modern man,” he roared, “evolved into a political animal, and here, if history means anything at all, he can be assessed and understood.”

The television man asked, “Are you taking the documents back to U — tonight?” “Definitely,” said Franco more gently, but he had lost his thread. “The parchment,” he accused, “is waterlogged. Mold is the great danger. I would have been here sooner, but it happens that my wife is having a baby right now. As a matter of fact, I left just before the delivery. Time is vital.”

“So you actually left your wife in labor?”

“Yes.”

The glare of the spotlight was blinding Franco. It was only when the television man turned away from him to talk into his microphone of “just another of the thousands whose unstinting zeal and selflessness have come to be accepted as a matter of course in these days of …” that Franco stepped out of the glare and saw Aldo. He was in the doorway, just behind the television spot and only a few feet away from Franco, whom he was observing with an air of alarm. Beside him was a little man in a hat who, Franco made sure from Aldo’s little bobs and grins, must be from the Ministry. He too was looking at Franco. Aldo now beckoned him over.

“My brother-in-law, Doctor Soperchio, Director of Archives at U — ,” said Aldo, with intense anxiety. He mentioned the name of the other man, who was indeed from the Ministry and important.

“My dear Doctor Soperchio!” The important man embraced Franco. “I am delighted to make your acquaintance. We just overheard you speak for the television. Most moving, I must say! Your feeling was contagious. I nearly broke down myself. Be assured that your outstanding devotion to the National Patrimony will not go unrecognized.”

Over his shoulder, Franco perceived in Aldo’s face, beneath the layers of relief, a faint oscillation of the flesh tantamount to a collusive wink.

“You are too good,” Franco muttered to the important man. “I was merely doing my duty as a public servant.” Then he rubbed a handkerchief over his eyelid, which was beginning to twitch uncontrollably.

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