Two or three times a week, after dinner, I watch the traffic jam outside Franco’s bar. What causes it nobody knows, but a perfectly ordinary intersection of two perfectly ordinary country roads is suddenly blocked. Nobody knows why the best watermelon is the one with the smallest spot on the bottom, or how come the tastiest tomatoes are always misshapen, or what it is about myrtle leaves that causes a suckling pig to be so marvelously tender. It’s just one of those things, and anything other than simply accepting it is every bit as foolhardy as wondering why the Northern Line is the one to avoid when traveling on the Underground in London, or why American college professors like cheating on their wives.
Although at most three vehicles, and seldom more than a dozen persons, are involved in the ensuing commotion, in the dilating twilight it is never clear who was behind the wheel of which car. The actors and the spectators are quickly amalgamated, as the passengers and the drivers get out and take up the parts of victims, witnesses, experts, and jurors. Though less contrived than the report of the Warren Commission or a James Fenimore Cooper novel, their mutually inconvenient entanglement is as picturesque as any this side of pure fiction. Since I do not drive, and the impartial truths of motoring are hidden from me—much as the truth of music is hidden from many people who assume that he plays best who plays loudest—I usually think the driver of the car that has the prettiest girl in it is the villain, who ought to be thrown in jail as a matter of public safety. But my own opinion in the matter is beside the point. What I come to the bar to savor is the escalation of hostilities on all sides, which, Italy being Italy, always follows a pattern.
The very first of the many names which one Christian is likely to call another in such situations here would fall, in English, Russian, or any other language or culture of which I have even the scantiest knowledge, under the narrow rubric of grave insult, usually anatomical or scatological in form. There follows what appears to be a ruminative pause, during which the participants evaluate and focus their invective before proceeding to the next level of calumny, still more unprintable and, to any but the Italian ear, still more barbarous. This almost mandatory intermission, like the traditional interval in the theater, allows the machinery of stagecraft to project a new mood, as shirt sleeves are rolled down, trousers pulled up, cigarettes stubbed out, and rear-view mirrors demonstratively tweaked. Now references to sexual practices, gender uncertainties, and genealogical defects of every kind are flung right and left, obscene fulminations rending asunder the gentle, echoless dusk of Tuscan summer until the next mandatory interval once again shrouds the scene in silence.
And there ends the second act. Mind you, we are not at the point when the plush seats empty, and refreshments, champagne and smoked salmon on toast, are taken by the weary in the buffet. We are not at the point when the less plush use lavatories, fan themselves with playbills, or pore over the list of corporate sponsors to kill time. We are, rather, at the point at which any man or woman outside of Italy, no matter how mildly mannered, is already mad as hell, and would be quite prepared for as much physical violence as might be justified in the eyes of his or her culture. A bleeding nose, a cheek lacerated by a manicured fingernail would be the kind of bargain price one would expect to pay, under less velvety skies and on a night not as deep as this indigo, for verbal provocations so extreme.
Instead the curtain rises to reveal a stage emptied of all movement, where only the crickets, in the orchestra pit below the bar’s terrace, keep on grinding out their Buddhist hymn to forbearance. A passing mongrel dog, infected by the excitement of an otherwise supperless evening, barks in the audience like an old man clearing his throat on an old recording. And then it comes. It would be tempting, but I think misleading, to say that it sounds operatic, like something out of La Forza del Destine or that blood-curdling shriek in Rigoletto when the jester discovers that his daughter is the body in the sack. No, it is simply spoken, never shouted, and it always comes perfectly enunciated, like a great line from Racine:
The word is the awful forbidden, and the uttering of it is the third act and the final dénouement of the performance I would happily attend every night of the week if Franco could organize it and charge admission. What can it possibly mean, this most awesome of taboos, this sacred malediction spat in the face of a suspected perpetrator of traffic congestion? What is it, this most potent of curses, used long after all other means of abuse have been exhausted and it is clear to all, including the stray dog, that the malfeasant in question is both an impotent born of a promiscuous mother and a racial aberration sired by a whole gallery of sexual deviants? What is this lethal bite of the Italian imagination’s hydrophobic echidna? The Collins Sansoni Dictionary says “I. a. rude, impolite, ill-mannered, ill-bred. II. s. m. (f. -a) rude person.”
If one could rely on dictionaries, of course there would be no reason to sit in the bar and watch a lot of people who are mad as hell, in other words, in an emotionally and hence culturally revealing predicament. What I find so remarkable, and what the Collins Sansoni cannot convey, is the extent to which the Italians have learned to make a spectacle, as well as a virtue, of being cartoon character predictable. This is a trait which their common spoken language, artificially disseminated at the expense of the local dialects since the unification of Italy (but most ruthlessly since the advent of national television), at once belies and encourages, with what I make out to be rather unique consequences.
It would be wrong to claim that in order to understand the English, one must master the literature their ancestors created centuries ago; far more instructive, perhaps, to absorb their journalism of the last 40 years. To understand the modern Russians, one need not learn their verse; their Soviet political heritage is far more relevant. But the plain fact is that, whatever the cultural antecedents, an analogous brawl in Birmingham or Chelyabinsk would not run along plot lines that were known long in advance, rehearsed many times over, and perfectly familiar to all the native participants since childhood. Similarly, if you happened upon an English or a Russian girl standing in front of a shop window, looking at blouses or shoes the way women do, you would not be able to guess her innermost thoughts if your life depended on it. Only a Shakespeare or a Chekhov could put them in words, now as centuries ago, with any plausibility or veracity:
Medvedenko: Why do you always wear black?
Masha: Because I am in mourning for my life. I am unhappy.
“Che belle scarpe!” is the Roy Lichtenstein thought bubble above the young Italian’s gracefully inclined head. She is not permitted to have any other text in the caption by her culture, her upbringing, and her manners, any more than she is permitted to call a driver impolite within the first three-quarters of an hour’s argument in the street. Of course I cannot swear that the text is one hundred percent invariable, since she may well be thinking “Che carine!” or “Che meraviglia!” when she looks at the shoes, much as in the dramatic dénouement at Franco’s bar one may sometimes hear a variant “Disgraziato!” or “Ignorante!” But a thought bubble is what it is, not much room for thought there to begin with, and hardly a suitable place for anything really unexpected.
The Shakespeare and Chekhov of the synthetic language spoken by modern educated Italians throughout Italy is not Dante or Pirandello but Dottoressa Paola Rosa-Clot, professor of foreign languages at the University of Turin and author of the Linguaphone Corso d’italiano. Here is something from a lesson entitled “The Fashionable Friend,” which I take to be the rough equivalent of the opening lines from Chekhov’s Seagull quoted above. Two women are discussing a pair of shoes one of them bought on sale, and the irony is that the other thinks the heels might be too high:
Raffaella: Che belle scarpe! Dove le hai comprate?
Luciana: Le ho prese hi una svendita. . . . Tipiacciono?
Raffaella: Sì, ma come fai a camminare con dei tachhi così alti?
Luciana: È un po’ difficile, ma sai, sono di moda.”*
I cannot restrain myself from dipping into “Sightseeing in Rome,” where a woman asks her companion whether the Colosseum was built with the sole aim of putting Christians to death:
Graziella: Era usato solo per far morire i cristiani?
Giovanna: No, per ogni sorta di spettacoli sanguinosi.
Do people really talk like this? Here they do. I think I have heard this very exchange on more than one occasion among the Italian tourists now thronging to Rome, as if it were a finishing school for Italianness, to round off their conversational skills before all the maleducati arrive from abroad, all those funny, unpredictable strangers with highly unfashionable knapsacks and improperly modulated curses.
And if I haven’t, I’m sure to hear something very much like it before the millennium.
*R: What lovely shoes! Where did you buy them?
L: I got them on sale . . . Do you like them?
R: Yes, hut how are you going to walk with such high heels?
L: It’s a little hard, hut you know, they’re in style.