Oh my God, she would know. As soon as she’d read the book, she’d know that he had lied to her.
The revelation came to Antonio on the train, exactly at midpoint between Siena and Firenze, as if some part of his brain wanted him to understand how hopeless his situation was, suspended between two cities, not knowing whether to hurry forward to Firenze to make sure that the publisher did not send out any more copies, or backward to Siena to visit every one of his friends and also the local critics scattered across Tuscany, to rescue every last book out there.
Why did he care?
He did. He hadn’t seen her in twenty years, but every morning when he awoke, the first thing he thought of was her awakening at that same time. He imagined Graziela in her nun’s cell, he imagined her imagining him. She nursed the only image of Antonio that he wanted to be kept unbroken somewhere in this world. He derived an inordinate amount of comfort from that idea, that somebody thought well of him, thought he had a brilliant destiny ahead of him. Even if her image of his decency was fraudulent, a falsified memory, one that had persisted only in her head, belied by his drab, gray, lonely life and by what had really been corroding his mind that night long ago.
And now the pure vision of a faultless Antonio that only she kept harboring, that hallucination of hers, was in danger of being shattered. She would devour the book, he knew it, he could not doubt that some harpy would remember that they had once been friends—not that anyone knew what had transpired that first and only night, but some malicious bitch would decide, had already decided, to send Graziela the novel by her old amico Antonio. Oh, he suspected who it might be, who would commit that perfidy, and Graziela would open the novel and start to read, out of loyalty to what they had been through two decades ago, and soon realize that her first love, Antonio, was a liar. Worse than that: that Antonio had not been a virgin when they had made love that night, when he had consoled her for the loss of her mother and sister. Worse still: that Antonio had fucked both the mother and the sister in Bellagio over consecutive weekends before the boat had capsized, before both her relatives had gone to their drowning and death in the generally placid waters of Lago di Como. The worst of all: he had used that tragedy to seduce her the day of the double funeral, used her grief to force her heart open and then her legs and deposit there the image of himself as immaculate and forever benevolent and ordained for great things.
A prediction that was about to be fractured into pieces when Graziela in her cell one week from today, two weeks from today—or maybe it had already happened!—when she received that book written by her old flame, everybody had known he was sweet on her, even if nobody had guessed that the sweetness had been returned for that one night. Yes, the whole illusive construction, so to speak, would be torn down as soon as the faraway nun came to the second chapter, the only part of the novel that was true, that Antonio had not invented for his protagonist.
Why had he taken that incident from his real life, from her life, and grafted it intact and exact onto the fiction of the character he had made up? What authorial demon had possessed him to slip into that entirely fabricated sham the one secret he had never revealed to anyone, that only she would recognize as she read among the cloisters while the Gregorian chants mingled with the songs of swallows outside, those birds fluttering under the sun and over the Abruzzian hills?
He’d done it because he could think of nothing more heinous to implant on the absurd creature he’d invented, because that entirely imaginary Giaccomo led a life as dingy and boring as Antonio’s and that character had to be forced to sin grievously against the innocent so that he might rise and redeem himself, be saved from his lackluster fate, go on to a life of heroism and sacrifice for others, rescue African orphans, save widows left homeless and adrift in a Bangladesh flood, discover a formula to squeeze endless energy out of orange rinds and milk cartons and other rubbish, an idealized version of what Antonio’s long-dead mother had dreamt for her son, that he had inscribed only in those fictitious pages, fictitious, all of it, except for—She’ll never know, anyway, Antonio had said to himself, justifying his sacrilege, it’s more than likely she’s forbidden to read anything as frivolous as a novel in the strict confines of the Monastery of Santa Maria della Annunciazione. The mother superior was said to rule with a harridan’s fist, run a tight ship. Impossible that the novel could reach Graziela.
But that was then, that was what he had thought when he was laboring over the episode, when he was clacking it into his computer, when he was correcting it as he did for a living with so many books by real authors, men and women who did not need to pay a vanity publisher like Montefeltro, that’s how he had depleted his days and many of his nights, rectifying and amending adjectives and cognates and mangled tenses. He was the best in the business, no mistake ever escaped his hawk eyes, but now he had made the only mistake that mattered: he had let his desire to see his name in print, his need to remedy and tweak his own novel, his own proofs and galleys, overcome the only wild and wondrous thing that had ever happened to him, to sully the woman he still revered, yes, he did care, he cared, but only now, on this train, had he realized it, realized that he could make it through the next—what?—thirty years of a lonely masturbating existence without ever seeing his name on the cover of a book or one word he had ever written by himself taking the world by storm (ha! with a vanity press?), he could live without that, but he could not live unless he could think of Graziela every day rising with the sun and the matins and offering a thought and a prayer in his direction.
Probably a lie, that as well, everything in his life a lie except this sudden urgent fixation of his, to find every copy of the book and withdraw it from the planet or at least from Tuscany, as if the book were also a nun, needed to be sequestered away from the eyes and the cities and the whores and the lascivious looks of men who scooted by on their motorbikes with their tight leather pants and carefully coiffured hair styles. Probably a lie that she kept some memory of him alive inside the body that he had unhinged so magnificently that night while the waves lapped on the nearby lakeshore, while he licked her all over, inside out, the way the waves were making love to the pebbles and extracting a hushed cry from them as well. Probably a lie, because the next night they were supposed to meet again and she had left a note—not discourteous, not a hint that she had seen through him, no, just that the last thing her mother and sister had heard from her before going off on that dreadful boat ride on Lago di Como was that she had indeed decided to enter a monastery as had been her intention since childhood, and that she now realized that if her relatives had no rest with God it would be her fault, that she had to fulfill her pledge; but not a word about last night, not a word about what they had discovered together in that bed, not a word about remembering him forever, not a thank you for having given her at least a taste of another sort of heaven. Except for a postscript: I could never have taken this momentous decision if not for you. And I hope, in the convent, to be worthy of such a noble and considerate soul.
So maybe she did collect and recollect each instance and turn of the bedclothes under the moon and sweat of that night, and if so, she would likely be appalled, perhaps more at his insensitivity at publishing that hidden island of their lives than at the original lack of purity in his heart.
And if discovery was possible, then he had to have a plan. What would be best? He was closer to Firenze than to Siena, and the train was heading in that direction anyway, so why not start there, visiting Edizione Montefeltro?
Fortunately, Guido Vanni was in, talking to some other hapless client on the phone, but he motioned Antonio to take a seat, mouthing that he’d be done soon; and, in effect, it did not take long for the soft-spoken and urbane publisher to soothe the feathers of who knows what authoress at the other end of the line, concerned that her story of illicit infatuation among the ruins of Tarquinia had not been reviewed by one paper, not one—Do not worry, Signora, Vanni’s mellow voice had delivered the right message as he winked at Antonio, Do not fret, Samuel Beckett had Waiting for Godot rejected thirty-five times, or was it thirty-six, so all I can counsel is patience and also to pity the poor critics who have not yet seen the light, but they shall, we’ll send out another press release, yes, of course, of course, sì, ciao, ciao.
“And what can I do for you, Antonio?”
Said in a matter-of-fact tone, because he knew that Antonio was aware of how the business operated, had no illusions as to the success of his book, would understand that Montefeltro could not force some overburdened literary editor to assign the novel to even the most distracted of his contributors. Antonio was aware that all was vanitasvanitatis in such enterprises, Guido Vanni knew that all Antonio wanted was the satisfaction of seeing a book penned by him in the hands of friends and one or another illiterate relative and perhaps the bribing of some bookseller to place it in the window so a photograph could be snapped of the display, Antonio Sinone next to Umberto Eco and Stephen King, Nadine Gordimer and Dante. What, Vanni asked pleasantly, could he do for him?
And Vanni was suitably impressed, when he heard what his copy-reading patron was requesting: a list of every store the book had been sent to, that he hunt down every last item, retire them all, all, bring them back, don’t dispatch even one more to anyone anywhere, call up the papers and ask them to return The Heart Thief, even if they had no intention of reviewing it, even if they were just using the novel as a doorstop or ballast, whatever, Antonio did not want even one replica of his book to circulate, not now, not tomorrow, not ever.
Vanni did not ask why. His specialty was failure. As an expert in shipwrecked souls who had never lost their aspiration to greatness and stardom, he was not surprised when, once in a while, an author wandered into his offices and confessed that, now that his final fantasy had materialized, he found himself unable to cope with the sheer weight of the book in his life, was overcome by stage fright, would rather live forever secure in what might have been than in the hard realm where his best friend insisted that the book was extraordinary while behind his back all was sniggers and derision. Better not to risk those waters. Were those Antonio’s reasons? Vanni presumed they were different, but the real motive was none of his business. His business was to make money—not an excessive amount, enough to live a comfortable existence in his beloved Firenze—and now there might be still more money to be made, so …
“You realize that such measures are not included in our contract?”
Antonio realized it perfectly well and was prepared to pay whatever fees were customary in this case.
“Well, there are things we can do and things we can’t do. Recall the books, that’s not hard, stop shipping them out if orders come in, take The Heart Thief out of the catalog and out of any advertisements we had planned—though there is one that was to appear in La Stampa that will have to be redesigned, and that’s costly—those measures are relatively easy, but I’m afraid certain things you will have to do by yourself, for yourself, Antonio. We can’t really call up the newspapers and withdraw a book—that might even be a way of guaranteeing that they’ll cover it, or at least read it to try and discover what secrets are concealed in that volume, not a bad tactic if you want to call attention to yourself, but apparently what you want is—”
“Just the opposite,” Antonio said. “I don’t want anyone to know of this book’s existence.”
“So you will have to find a way to retrieve your own book from the literary bureaus of the five papers we have sent it to, according to our files and—”
“Our contract stated that you would provide books to at least thirty-five papers.”
“Surely you’re not complaining that, for starters, we sent them to fewer papers, initially only regional ones—well, with one exception. I thought you’d be thankful that we had been prudent in our campaign, had begun with the local folks who might be interested in an author whom they can find dining in the taverna around the corner, and then go on to the national dailies, I hope we are not going to play a game of reproaches.”
“Not at all. What else do I have to do on my own?”
“You need to get them back from your friends and family, of course. And also …” Vanni looked over his computer records. “There has been one sale, it seems.”
Vanni sighed. “One person is better than none, and you have to remember that we have not yet arranged publicity, author readings, book launches, there’s been no word-of-mouth yet. Given your current requirements, this should be a cause for joy and gratitude and not for recriminations. One sale—in your own hometown of Siena. Ten days ago.”
“The Libreria Senese, or Feltrinelli?”
“Senese,” Vanni said.
Who could it be? Antonio wondered about this, vaguely, though his curiosity did not get the better of him and he left the visit to the Libreria Senese on the Via di Città for the last—after all, anyone who had, on who knows what whim or impulse, bought The Heart Thief was not likely to be in touch with Graziela or even aware of her monastic existence, so it made sense to tackle friends and family first, and then on to the critics.
The next few days were intense, pulsing with a purpose that had been missing from his life, a fervor and excitement, in fact, that he had not felt since that night with Graziela, an outburst of energy and commitment that almost seemed to reincarnate the enthusiasm and zeal of his own character’s crusade in the novel he was now withdrawing from the hands of the twenty or so people he had been foolish enough to send it to, colleagues, childhood acquaintances, the owner of the ristorante that Antonio frequented three days a week and always on Sunday evenings. They were startled by the vehemence with which the author insisted on removing his masterpiece from the premises—but none had even opened it, no one had as much as cracked the first chapter, let alone the second one. Rather than disappointment, Antonio felt a bizarre sense of relief. Because Graziela, her mere existence, was actually doing him a service, once more: she was revealing to him that nobody cared about his work, about his dreams, about his alter ego Giaccomo, that only she remained true to him, only she would have consumed every word, she was his sole reader and it was crucial, therefore, that she never set eyes on that novel, that the one person who Antonio conjectured would have sent the book to Graziela be blocked from doing so.
The only one Antonio was really concerned about. He had sent this Francesca a copy because nineteen years ago she had rejected him quite brusquely, this after leading him on, after having accepted dinner and a film and even a hand slipped into her hand and on her knee, and then at the portal to her house had said, No, this wasn’t right, she couldn’t do this to her friend Graziela. And Antonio pleaded with her, reminded her that Graziela was a nun and “nothing going on between her and me, I just feel sorry for her, that’s all, first she loses her only living relatives and then she checks into a monastery, for Christ’s sake.” But Francesca, damn bitch, had been adamant. She had her rules, loyalty to a friend was more important than a fling with someone she didn’t feel, after all, that attracted to, and she had added, unnecessarily, a series of disparaging remarks about his life, his prospects, his physique. And that’s why he had decided to send her his novel, so she could see that he had accomplished something, that all those years ago she had snubbed a man with a book in him, she would read it and apprehend what she had missed out on by her rebuff. Sheer lunacy on his part, Antonio now realized. She did not give a damn about him, there was the proof—the book was still in its package, still ensconced in the paper wrapper, with her address on the front and his on the back. She hardly recognized him when he came to repossess it, handed it over without a protest. Sure, she said, take it if you have someone else to give it to. And Antonio: “I can’t, I’ve written a dedication inside.” And Francesca: “A dedication? Why?” And Antonio: “Never mind.”
Francesca looked at him with sudden interest. “No, hold on, what does it say?”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Antonio said.
That’s when she had tried to take it back from him, and he had held his ground, stuffed it in the bag that was already full of other copies, and she had tugged at the bag and he had wrenched it from her clutches and the books had come spilling out, right there on the floor of her living room, and she had been nonplussed long enough for him to scramble and snatch up the books and cram them back into the bag.
“I always knew you were crazy,” Francesca said.
And Antonio’s answer confirmed her opinion. “Thank you,” he said, as he rose with all the books safe, including the one still inside the package, the one she was supposed to have at least opened a few weeks ago when it arrived.
“For not reading my novel.”
And with that he was gone. On his way home, he stopped by his aunt’s apartment, but she wasn’t there. He knew that she hadn’t read the book, because she had commented on it in the haziest of terms, claimed she had read it twice in fact, had gushed that it was fabulous, his mother would have been so proud. And went on and on, but the old woman hadn’t read a news item from the local paper in years, was too tired to decipher the labels on her medicine, asked Antonio for help in that task. On the other hand there was no chance Zia Bernarda would get rid of her one copy to send it to anyone. She would hoard it and delude herself into believing that a night would come when she’d read its paragraphs out loud over and over again to the photo of her dead sister.
In his apartment, he carefully piled the salvaged novels of the day in a mound, next to the eighty other copies that would never have gone out anyway, soon to be joined by hundreds more volumes. Within a few days the whole edition would be here, overwhelming every corner of his home, all one thousand copies. He smiled at the thought of an author who squirrels away all his novels and lives and breathes and eats among them, reads the same book each day. What better reader than his own monomaniacal self, what better critic?
And the next day and the day after that were, in fact, dedicated to the critics, to visiting the five papers, starting with Siena’s own Il Corriere Nazionale—Il Citadino Oggi. No problem, the drowsy editor at the cultural desk had been more than happy to return both copies of the book to him, accepted his explanation that he’d found too many typos and that a new edition was forthcoming and these two would be replaced at that point. And no trouble either in Perugia, where a woman who was cleaning up the bathrooms at the Corriere dell’Umbria led him into a depository packed with books and watched him dig away until he had found both copies, and waved him aside when he tried to show her his identification. “Nobody reads them anyway,” she said. He had even less trouble at the two papers in Pisa, the Giornale Il Tirreno and La Nazione, where the editor tried to unload some of his nephew’s poetry on Antonio, wondered if he wouldn’t care to write a review for the Supplemento Culturale, ad honorem, naturally.
The next morning he set out for the station. He was going back to Firenze and to the last journal on his list, the one he had postponed till now. First he stopped by his aunt’s, but again she didn’t answer the door. Maybe she was sick. This afternoon when he returned from Firenze he would have to check up on her. She had even forgotten to leave the answering machine on.
Antonio wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming visit, the only one he had some trepidation about, had decided to leave for the very end of his quest: La Rivista dei Libri, on the Via dei Lamberti. “Why did you send them a copy?” he had asked Guido Vanni, and Vanni had shrugged his shoulders and said that authors were never happy no matter what their publisher did, most of them insisting on their books’ being remitted to the most prestigious magazines. And if Antonio hadn’t been hell-bent on repossessing every last copy of The Heart Thief, he would also have complained that Montefeltro was not doing enough to get the book the attention it deserved. “Go and see them, they won’t mind returning it to you. Ask for Giovanni Bellochio.”
Giovanni Bellochio, the famous essayist?
All right, he’d do it. Anything, even speak to Bellochio, in order to spare Graziela the terror of seeing her story told for all the world to wallow in, anything in order to spare himself the humiliation of receiving a scathing letter from that nun in her monastery.
But he had a reason for not wanting to see the famous writer, for putting it off until now. It was true that Bellochio, the acerbic critic, made every writer in Italy and many abroad tremble with his witty demolishment of their sources, their prose, their egos. Antonio, however, did not fear that Bellochio would do something similar to his book, The Heart Thief. No, there wasn’t a chance in heaven that anyone of that caliber would bother with anything issued by a vanity press, even if Montefeltro was just around the corner from La Rivista dei Libri. No, Antonio was concerned because—
“Sinsone? Antonio Sinsone? In person?”
He heard the voice of Bellochio emerging from the cavernous depths of the other room, muffled only by the thousands of books lining every wall and nook and cranny, the gruff voice he had heard on the radio and on television and once on the phone—only once—that very voice now calling, “Send him in, by all means, what a pleasure, what a pleasure,” the words ironic, seasoned with a chortle.
Antonio ventured into the den of the dragon, the greatest critic in all of Italy.
Bellochio gestured to him to take a seat while he finished a sentence on the computer, all the while smiling to himself, perhaps because he was bulldozing the reputation of some wretched author with the droll turn of phrase he had just written. But when the critic swiveled in his chair and looked at Antonio and then spoke, Antonio realized that the smile was one of anticipation, derived from the delight Bellochio was about to experience by flattening Antonio, erasing him like a superfluous adjective.
“So, you’re Sinsone, eh? Antonio Sinsone? And me, I’m ungrammatical, eh? Don’t know the difference between the present and the past tense, eh? Write as if Dante had never breathed the air of the city where I was born and now reside?”
“I was just doing my job.”
“You have guts, I’ll give you that. I told you as much in our one and only phone conversation. And what else did I say?”
“That I could stick my copyediting up my ass.”
“And did you?”
“I’m sure someone so eminent is aware that you can stick a book up your ass and many other objects, but not the copyediting itself. It’s a typical metaphor that doesn’t work. Of which you had several in your text.”
“So you think I was wrong to demand a different copyeditor?”
“It happens to me from time to time. Authors who don’t like my comments. Authors who think they are God. Authors who make up words that don’t exist in the dictionary.”
“Listen, Sinsone. Every word that’s ever been worth its own piss and lots of words that are worth nothing at all, every word in the world in fact, existed in some other mouth before it was ever incorporated into a dictionary by some bureaucrat or paltry scrivener. And the words I invented in my book—that won the national book award for nonfiction, mind you—my award-winning book, translated into thirteen languages, was filled with words—”
“Three words,” said Antonio.
“The words you rejected, man. Words that will be welcomed reverentially into the next edition of each and every dictionary in Italy. And what words of yours will ever have that honor?”
“My life has not ended yet, sir.”
“You do have guts. That’s why, when I got your novel, when Guido Vanni alerted me to the fact that the worm of a copyeditor who had dared to criticize my style was coming out with a novel, no less, and that maybe this was my chance for revenge—oh, he’ll do anything to get a review, Guido is shameless, he’s doing you a favor, he really cares, Sinsone—Well, I murmured to myself, why not read his little book? And … you want to know what I think?”
“No,” said Antonio. “I just want it back.”
“Here’s what I think. The first chapter, shit. The third, the fourth, the fifth chapters, every chapter till the end, including the epilogue and the author’s note and even the acknowledgments, shit. But the second chapter, now, that’s as if somebody else had written it. Did you steal it, Sinsone, come on, you can tell me.”
“No, of course not, I—”
“Well, it’s the only thing that rings true in the whole muddle you have dared to call a novel.”
“I want it back.”
“Good man. Take that second chapter, delve deeper, turn it into a novella, keep up that tone, that sensuality, that remote guilt, that joking tone that does not quite hide the desire to escape from responsibility, and you may be onto something—write it, publish it, not with some quack like Guido Vanni. Publish it with Einaudi or Bompiani, and I’ll review it myself, you can take that promise to the bank. I’ll even write a note of introduction to the editors there.”
“I know the editors there. I work for them.”
“Ha! And they declined to publish it, right? How many publishers refused you before you went to Montefeltro and paid for your own monstrosity to come out?”
“Thirty-five! And why did you stop there? Why not go on to forty, sixty, seventy, one hundred? Why stop at thirty-five?”
“You know why. It was a secret homage to Dante. That was his age, thirty-five, when he was midway through life, when he starts his journey into Hell that eventually ends up in Heaven.”
“Yes, the allusions to The Divine Comedy are strewn throughout your text—they make it even more pathetic and, dare I say, purgatorial. Here, take it.”
And Bellochio’s beefy, hairy hand passed Antonio a copy of The Heart Thief. Antonio put in his bag, then waited.
“What is it now?”
“The other one. Where’s the other one?”
“What other one?”
“Vanni must have sent you two copies.”
“Oh, that one. I gave it to Maria Pietrangelli. A budding journalist friend at Il Firenze. The sweet girl came by the other day, asked me what I was reading and I showed it to her and offered her our extra copy.”
“You can’t do that.”
“We do it all the time. If I didn’t give away most of the books that we’re sent, I wouldn’t be able to step into my own office. It’s better than throwing them in the garbage.”
Antonio stood up and, without further hesitation, reached across the desk and grabbed Bellochio’s enormous Rolodex, started to rifle through it.
“What are you doing?”
Antonio didn’t answer. He had found Maria Pietrangelli’s address, memorized it quickly, shoved the Rolodex into Bellochio’s empty hands that were trembling with rage.
“Now this,” he said to the great man, “this is something that you can stick up your ass.”
Maria Pietrangelli had been warned that Antonio was on his way and refused to open the door.
“All I want is the book Bellochio gave you. Just hand it over to me and I’ll leave, you’ll never see me again.”
The voice on the other side of the door sounded timid.
“I’m reading it now.”
“Now? Right now?”
“Right now. Until you interrupted me.”
“How far have you gone?”
“I’m starting the second chapter. It’s quite interesting, the second chapter.”
“I need you to return the book to me. It’s full of typos, errors, nobody ever showed me the proofs or the galleys. I can’t have anyone reading it in those conditions. I’m a perfectionist. I’m a copyeditor myself. It would reflect badly on me.”
“Well, you should have exercised more control.”
Maria was right, of course. He wished she would open the door so he could explain how right she was, though not probably in the way she had meant it. Maybe he needed to pour his soul out to somebody, confess everything, receive some hint of absolution, and she sounded strangely full of empathy. Her voice had a lovely timbre. But no, no, no, he couldn’t tell her his sad story, not to a journalist and certainly not through a closed door.
Suddenly, Antonio felt tired. How many days had he been at this task? Three? Was this really the end of the third day, and he still hadn’t received back all the books? Could it be possible? He realized that he had hardly eaten over this period, felt somehow purged and weary and soiled, all at the same time.
“Are you going to write something about the novel?”
“I think so. You should be pleased.”
“Why bother? You’re not going to like it.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I never write a bad review, not of anything. If I don’t like a book, I won’t publish a word about it. I only write about the books I like. I figure the world has enough pain already, without my having to add to it. I model myself on Bellochio, try to be his opposite.”
“You can’t stand pain, the pain of others?”
Antonio took a deep breath and then banged his head against the door. Hard.
“What was that?”
His ears were ringing, a big bruise must be forming on his forehead, tears came to his eyes.
“That was me. I banged my head against your door.”
“You banged your head against my door?”
“Yes, and I’m going to do it again unless you give me back my book. I’m going to do it again and again until I get my book back.”
There was a pause. Antonio could imagine Maria inside, weighing her options. He decided to hurry her along. He banged with his hand on the door, trying to make it sound as much like a head as possible. He let out a little groan.
“I’m going to call the police.”
“By the time they get here I’ll be all blood and bruises. And you’ll be responsible.”
“All right, all right.”
Antonio heard her secure the latch and then the door was slipped open slightly, just sufficient for a ray of light to come flooding out of the room so she would be able to see him, realize that he had indeed hurt himself, a big ugly bump forming on his forehead.
He heard her footsteps on the wooden floor, tried to imagine what her face might be like, whether she was Bellochio’s lover, whether she would be able to finagle another copy of the novel somewhere else. He hoped that Vanni had managed to have them all withdrawn, all of them returned from the bookstores, he thought that this Maria sounded like a determined woman, so obstinate that she might make the rounds until she found his novel and finished it. He knew that’s what he would do if someone had come along and stolen the book he was reading, he’d have definitely not rested until a new copy was in his hands.
Now Maria was back. She edged The Heart Thief through the opening as if he, Antonio, was carrying the plague and she wanted to make sure that not a microbe could reach her.
“You’re crazy, do you know that?”
“Somebody else, a woman totally different from you, said exactly the same thing to me yesterday, so you’re probably right. But the other person wasn’t as nice as you are, didn’t say it the way you said it.”
“How did I say it?”
“I don’t know. A mix of pity and admiration, I guess.”
“I’ll never see another copy of this book, right? No second printing? All that talk about typos and lost galleys, all that was a lie.”
“A lie,” Antonio said. “So here’s the truth: I’m afraid you’ll never be able to read the rest of it, write your review.”
“I doubt that I’d have written anything. The first chapter was not very good, if you don’t mind my frankness. But the second chapter, it showed promise, I sensed real passion and regret there.”
Real passion and regret.
Antonio kept repeating those words to himself on the train back home, almost like a mantra, the claptrap of the rails and the wheels of the train and the creaking of the wagons mixing in his mind, real passion and regret, regret, regret, not a bad way of summarizing what that night with Graziela had been, how it had led to these three days. Who would have thought he had it in him, to attempt this sort of journey way past the midway of his own life? Would the years ahead ever bring him anything this exhilarating? Or, when he got back the last two copies—only two more were out there, that’s all he needed to complete the thousand—would his existence return to its incessant Sisyphus rock, would the rest of his days be one manuscript after another, all by other writers, correcting their little foibles and lapses, pointing out anachronisms, flagging the words that people like Bellochio were creating for the men and women and children of tomorrow? Was that what awaited him once this odyssey of his was over, no sun anymore, no other stars in his sky? If millions of copies of The Heart Thief were out there, wouldn’t it be thrilling to spend every day till he died hunting them down, one by one, meeting people he would never have dared to approach otherwise, the cleaning woman with her mop and her generosity, Bellochio full of self-importance and yet strangely tender, and Maria, of course, that angel of mercy, who had looked at him through that gap in the door and felt compassion as the light streamed through. But no, if there were that many copies of his book in the world, one of them might fall, was sure to fall, into the hands of Graziela, would perturb her peace and destroy her feelings for him. No, better to bring an end to the task today.
So he headed for Il Campo as soon as he arrived in Siena and then turned right and there it was, Libreria Senese, and there he was, old Albero, the same bookseller as always, about to close shop, but stopping to greet Antonio with severity.
“Yesterday,” Albero said, “we returned all your books, all four copies of them. I said the request had to be a mistake. Why was Montefeltro withdrawing the novel? Guido Vanni said it was you, the author, that you’d decided you weren’t happy with the edition after all. And do you know what I said? I said: That book’s not a best seller, but it’s doing well. For a first novel, it’s not doing badly at all. Why, we sold a copy just the other day, last week.”
“Yes, that’s why I—”
“All I can say is that I hope your action is not some sort of plague of false modesty, that other authors don’t get it into their heads to do something similar. And talking about heads, that’s a nasty bump you’ve got there.”
“Who was it?”
“Who was what?”
“Who bought my book?”
Old Albero had never seen the woman before. She wasn’t a regular customer. He’d noticed her walking along the street from time to time; everybody in Siena had at some point crossed the path of everybody else, but this woman, she was most categorically not your typical reader of books. She could hardly see, in fact, and yet she had only wanted that book. Antonio’s book.
Antonio asked for a description, though he didn’t need one, he hardly waited for the bookseller to conclude his observations when he was off. Zia Bernarda! Of course. Who else would want to acquire a copy of the novel? But why a second one? Had something happened to the first one?
This time, she was at home, welcomed him effusively, sat him down to the table, said, “You look terrible, how did you get that horrible lump up there? How long has it been since you ate anything, you look famished.”
Antonio tried to get to the point, the novel, why had she—? but his aunt would not discuss anything but the ravioli she was cooking and the secret ingredients of the ragù, bequeathed to her by none other than Antonio’s saintly mother, may she rest in peace. His aunt would not accept any other topic of discussion than family and food until her nephew had cleaned his plate, sopped up the last remnants of the sauce with nice fresh bread. She took the plates into the kitchen and shuffled back and then plopped herself in front of him and waited for his questions.
The first was easy to answer. His book was by her bedside and, yes, well, if he insisted, he could take it back, as long as he promised to bring her a new copy once it had been printed all over again. Such an extraordinary novel, such talent.
The other one? The one she had purchased some ten days ago at the Libreria Senese? Oh, she had remembered that girl. “Remember that girl, Graziela, who seemed to be in love with you? Remember her, the one who decided to become a nun, bless her soul, though it would have been better, such a beauty, if she had married you and made you a happy man.” Well, Zia Bernarda had thought about that girl and that maybe she’d like to know of this triumph of the man she once had loved—well, not loved, “not sure that you two had ever really been sweet on each other, or you’d be together right now, right? But you could tell that something was there, some alchemy, so I sent it to her, didn’t pester you to inscribe anything for her, just sent it along.”
Antonio didn’t remonstrate with her, brushed a gentle kiss on her hair, accepted some balm for the wound on his forehead, left her there, singing to herself, but as soon as the song faded and he was down in the street, his heart filled with dread, which increased absurdly as he traced his steps back to his apartment. The closer he got to it the more he felt that something terrible was about to happen, even if he now had in his bag the last copies of the novel, the last but one of the thousand, the last of his books but one.
She was holding it in her hands.
She was there, sitting on top of the pile of his books, in the black robes of her order, she was there waiting for him.
She didn’t seem to have aged.
He did not ask her how she had managed to get in, how she had convinced the porter to open the apartment, a nun can get anybody to do anything in Italy. He didn’t say a word, didn’t apologize, didn’t refer to the Heart Thief that was open in front of her. He had interrupted her reading of it, he could see that it was a worn-out book by now, that she had probably read it many times over, it looked like one of those books in a library, that has gone through a multiplication of hands and eyes and houses. But in this case, the only reader was Graziela. He could imagine her in that cell, perusing the story that neither she nor he had ever told to anyone, their secret, his secret, his vile behavior.
“What happened to your head?” Graziela finally asked. “No, don’t answer that. Don’t breathe a word, in fact. I have something to say to you. I would like you to listen and not to interrupt me. Do you think that’s possible?”
He nodded. Yes, that was possible.
“I read your book. As you can see, I have read it several times over. And then I did something that perhaps I shouldn’t have done. I trusted someone. My best friend at the monastery. Sister Venedica. I told her that one of the chapters was about me. I told her about you and me and that night … And she … well, she told our mother superior, went and betrayed me. Sold me, her sister, sold me to gratify her vanity. I never thought it would be that easy to betray, to indulge our vanity. But this book has taught me, this book … Mother Superior called me in, asked me if it was true.
“If what is true? I asked.
“Is it true that you were not a virgin when you came to this convent, is it true that you lied when you came to this convent, is it true that you enjoyed that night of carnal love with a man?
“And I said yes, it was all true.
“And she said I must recant, I must repent. Repent having spent that night with a man.
“And … No, I said. No I don’t repent, I won’t, I can’t.
“That’s what I answered. I’m not sure where I got the strength to answer her like that. Maybe from the book.
“Mother Superior insisted. And the lie? Keeping this from me, your confessor, all these years? You don’t repent of that?
“And no, again, no, I can’t and I won’t and I shouldn’t. Because I understood that I could not live with myself if I got rid of that memory, of that night inside me, of you inside me. It was the first thing I thought about in the morning when I awoke and the last thing that visited me when my eyes closed to sleep. Not God, not Jesus or the Resurrection or the Mother of God or the sins of Eve, but your warm hand on my cold breast until my breast was warmer than your hand. So I left the convent. I took the few things I possess in the world and this book, I also took the book with me, and came to see you, came to thank you for having written this. I don’t know if what you say about yourself is true or is not true, what is or is not invented. And I really don’t care. I came to say this and only this: I’m ready. Now, finally, I’m ready. How about you? Are you ready, Antonio? Are you?”
Antonio looked at her, sitting on top of the books as if on a tombstone or an altar, sitting in that room strewn with their story, Antonio looked at her, perched on that heap, holding in her hand the only book he would ever publish in this world, copy number one thousand, the last book, and he knew what to answer, what he had been whispering to her over the last twenty years and over the last three days and over the last hours that he had spent collecting every last copy so she would not suffer.
“Yes,” Antonio said, “now I’m ready.”
We want to hear what you think. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.