Sunday, May 24, 2009

Alberto Savinio | Attila

Alberto Savinio
Translated from the Italian by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

Daddy, Mommy and Attila are seated around the table in the breakfast nook. It’s little Attila’s first birthday. It’s obvious that we are in the house of a northern Italian family because there is a breakfast nook.

Attila is a plumb and rosy little boy: his parents’ pride and joy.

This is the first time little Attila has sat at the table with Daddy and Mommy. Daddy and Mommy are seated on matching chairs; Attila is seated on a high chair that rolls on castors, fitted with a potty underneath, and with a rattle and some colored balls dangling from the arm supports.

“Today Attila has made his entrance into the realm of the slate,” says Attila’s father, when he sees Attila making scribbling motions on the top of his tray.

This witticism is uttered by Attila’s father, a Latin instructor at the secondary school, as if Attila could understand the use of the word “slate.”

Daddy and Mommy are eating some high seasoned vermicelli. They are heaping clumps of it onto their plates; they roll it around the ends of their forks, then twist their forks in the hollows of their spoons, inhaling each thread of pasta with such tremendous suction that it sounds like fishing line snapping back on a reel.

Attila doesn’t eat; he drinks. His little hands are like two lumps of lard, his fingers five tiny sausages almost incapable of grasping, and which, when they come in contact with objects simply drop them, as if his tender flesh hadn’t the support of any bones. Nevertheless, such is little Attila’s precocity, such is his desire to conquer life that, after a few vain attempts, he finally manages to close those lumps of lard around his bottle of milk and fasten his little slobbering lips around its rubber nipple.

The conquest of the bottle is hailed by his parents as if it were a miracle.

-Did you see that?

-Did you see Attila?

-Oh! Look! Looooook!

Attila lifts the bottle, the glass fogs over, bubbles of milk fizz at the corners of his little mouth. As the parents eat vermicelli with their mouths, their little son eats it with his eyes. Not only do they feel no repugnance, on the contrary, they take pride in him. Squeals of admiration gurgle from the oily lips, mixed with onomatopoeic infantilities.

-Little treasure!

-Mamma’s sweetheart!

-Precious darling!

Attila also smiles, with his little mouth and with his little eyes: a better, quieter, calmer, happier infant has never appeared upon the face of the earth.

The pendulum of the clock in the hallway sounds: “Bong!”

Attila, at this signal, hoists the bottle with both hands, cocks his little arms and, with force no one could have suspected in a creature of so tender an age, hurls it directly at the head of his father.

As he performs this feat, never once does the smile waver from his face of a chubby little cherub.

The bottle squarely strikes the parental brow, dribbling milk down Daddy’s face.

Attila’s father opens his eyes wide, to behold such a marvelous sight: then the amazement fades from his eyes and his head collapses in the vermicelli.

At this awe-inspiring act of little Attila only his mother manifests no astonishment. In the first place, because Attila is her son. In the second place, because mothers are incapable of astonishment. Although at times, as in the case of Lot’s wife, they may be transformed into pillars of salt.

Thus was revealed for the first time the cohabitation in the body of Attila by two different souls: the one angelic, the other satanic; the one altogether good, the other completely evil. In order to express with a vivid image this monstrous dualism, a distinguished psychiatrist said:

-A saucer of milk into which a drop of ink has been spilled.

Where did this drop of ink come from?

The most renowned clinics examined Attila in vain. His parents were examined too. Both his paternal and maternal grandparents were examined, all four of them still living at the time. Unavailingly they scoured their memories for the meagerest tidbits of germane information, for similar symptoms in relatives and ancestors, near and remote. Like a squid involuntarily surrounded by oxen, Attila was surrounded by extraordinarily healthy forbearers.

It wasn’t possible to isolate the presence of Attila of the “other” soul. At first, Attila’s parents spoke of “quirks”; later of “peculiarities”; and only many years later did they use the word “psychosis.” Partly because the word “psychosis” had only recently come into common usage.

At thirteen years of age, Attila is in his third year of secondary school, and first in his class. His parents have forgotten all about Attila’s little “caprice” on the occasion of his first birthday, and the only remaining evidence of the launching of the baby bottle is a long, deep scar across his father’s forehead.

Today, in the class where Attila is an example to all the young scholars, Professor Morroidi is conduction the geometry lesson. He has outlined a circumference on the blackboard and the pupils, squirming in their seats, strive to draft a circumference of equal proportions, along with a polygon, a rectangle, and an equilateral triangle.

Attila concludes meanwhile that the other students will be hunched over their desks for the rest of the day. He rises from his stool.

-Very good, says Professor Morriodi. –Once again you have finished sooner then your classmates. Come, come.

Attila, keeping his notebook on the left and his compass on the right, walks to the end of the aisle and lays his open notebook on the teacher’s desk. Then, tranquil and smiling as always, steps behind Professor Morroidi and jabs both points of the compass into the teacher’s right buttock. As if in sympathy with the screech of the teacher and the giggles of the pupils, the circumference traced with chalk on the blackboard begins to spin vertiginously, loops around itself, performs a black flip, plummets in a spiral, and flees the room.

Attila was banned from every school in the realm.

This time, Attila’s parents spoke of the caprice only rarely. Later, little by little, time cast its mantle over even this oddity, and the only trace which remained of the incident was this: Professor Morroidi preferred to sit on his left buttock rather than his right. The affable and pleasant-tempered lad now studied privately, having grown into the nicest, kindest, and most virtuous young man ever to have graced the face of the earth.

It’s May and Attila is in love. He and the beloved girl are seated, like a pair of puppets, beneath a beech tree. Attila, in a trembling voice, expresses his feelings to Eliana. And she? Yes, she loves him too. And, less timid than Attila, she fumbles across the lawn for his hand.

Finding Attila’s hand with her right hand, the lovestruck girl delicately slips her left hand into the warm fork formed in Attila’s trousers at the intersection of pantleg and pantleg, inclining her face over the face of her beloved, taking his lips between her own, and insinuating into his mouth a slipper pink tongue.

Did Attila’s tongue respond with equal courage to the tongue of Eliana?


By way of recompense, Attila’s fingers close like hooks around Eliana’s throat; the girl’s eyes, straining on their stalks like a lobster’s, just have time, before everything goes dark, to contemplate with infinite stupor the face of her young lover, to bask in the reflection of his countenance as it radiates happiness.

Trees don’t drop their leaves in May, and beech trees are no exception, but the tree under which the idyll of Attila and Eliana has unfolded in a manner as hopeless as it is tragic, all at once dumps all its leaves and, as if it were a courtesy among colleagues, covers the poor girl’s body.

This time no one spoke of caprice, nor of peculiarity, but of homicidal dementia. Attila was arrested and confined in an asylum for the criminally insane. When the police came for him at his home, Attila regarded them with his kindly eyes, and said:

-Please, gentleman, make yourselves comfortable.

Let is proceed to the next manifestation of the blackness of Attila’s soul, though without tarrying over it, not only for decency’s take, but because this manifestation had no lethal effect.

After the expulsion of Attila from all the schools in the realm, his parents entrusted their son to a Marist clergyman, refined and sincere, Don Leccardi.

The good prelate said:

-Providence has willed that I undertake this mission.

One day, during the translation of a fragment of “De Bello Gallico,” Attila rose from his desk, went to the kitchen, came back brandishing an apparatus fitted at one end with a foam rubber suction cup used for unplugging stopped-up drains, and tried to thrust the handle of the device up good Don Leccardi’s backside, a situation made worse by the fact that not only was young Attila very strong to begin with, but he became all the stronger still when stricken by a crisis of attilism (mallus puer robustus).

How could they keep locked up in a mental institution a man who was not only perfectly sane but, by the sweetness of his soul, the gentleness of his habits, the exquisite delicacy of his emotions and his moral elevation, was a model to the rest of the inmates, commended by the director and the staff of this same establishment? At the end of ten years of seclusion, Attila was set a liberty, and, as his case had been forgotten by everyone, found himself alone and unknown in the world.

Except by me.

Learning of his release, I went to see him. I told him:

-Every name has its meaning, its logic, its “spirit.” Names influence our character, determine our destiny, mold our lives. Many things seem unclear in the life of a man, which can be clarified immediately by examining his name. The Egyptians, much more attentive than we to this mysterious part of ourselves, regarded the name as a part of the soul. They distinguished between the Ka, which is the “double” and the equivalent of the Persian fravasi and the Scandinavian fylgia, and the Khu, which is the soul in the form of a bird. This bird-soul is also called Ba, while the word Sekhem signified that which the Greeks, for their part, called the “shade.” Also needful of mention is the Ran, that is to say, the name, which corresponds to a certain degree with the platonic “idea.” It might be said that the Ran was the preexistent archetype and, as a consequence, could bring a thing into being by invoking its name. A grave folly was committed by your parents when they imposed upon you, their own son, the name of one who, in his wake, left such devastation that, wherever he passed, not even a blade of grass grew back. Being called Attila, you became Attila. It’s the only think that could have happened.

Attila stared at me in stunned disbelief. He didn’t stare at me: he stared beyond me, at the horrible vision revealed by my words.

He babbled:

-It was Papa. Mama didn’t want to do it.

I said.

-Women know more than men. Their maternal intuition is so subtle and sensitively attuned, not only to physical dangers, but also to the metaphysical dangers which hang over their offspring.

-Unquestionably – said Attila. But that wasn’t the reason Mama didn’t want Papa to give me the name Attila.

-Why, then?

-Because Mamma thought that Attila was a woman’s name.

How exceptionally noble a soul was Attila to contain the rancor and resentment he must have felt against his father for having saddled him with this nefarious name which in the first year of his life had made him run the risk of becoming a parricide; which, when he was thirteen, had induced him to perforate the right buttock of his geometry teacher; and, at twenty, had infused him with the impulse to strangle the one he loved more than the light in his own eyes; but, by the time he had found the resolve to offer some sort of reproach or recrimination, it could no longer do any good, because it had been ten years since his father had moved on to a better life, as had his mother, too; he had killed both with the guilt of the knowledge that they had bequeathed to the world an angel, yes, but an angel who, just the same, wounded, violated, and murdered the girl he loved more than the light of his own eyes; he had violate her, as well; had violated her not before he murdered her, but afterwards; thus successfully adding to the qualities of the satyr and assassin, those of the necrophile.

Attila tried to change his name to Goodman, but quickly came to understand that so superficial an alteration would afford little antidote or countereffect to a name so deeply rooted in him, and which had become second nature to him, instinctive, fateful. He thought also of taking legal steps to formally drop the name of Attila, and of canceling at the Civil Registration Bureau all trace of his birth; but he was told that in such cases, any official action must be justified by very serious reasons and require a special decree from the Ministry of the Interior. Attila reflected. It’s a very serious reason to have a name which has made you enact the very worst sorts of crimes but, how could it be explained in a request written on a two-cent sheet of paper, signed, sealed, and delivered to His Excellency, Minister of the Interior, that he desired to change his name because the name Attila with which he had been endowed, had brought along with it the instincts of the King of the Huns?

Attila applied himself to a study of the history of him whose mysterious and terrible presence he knew to exist in himself. He assembled heaps of books and documents of every type, and greedily devoured them. He was anxious to learn all he could, and then some, about the life of his frightful guest and, at the same time, dreaded that all this drudgery and exertion might fertilize his presence, and initiate a new reawakening. Nevertheless, he red, and read, and read.

He read one day that Attila, at the head of his Huns, came to the left bank of the Piave. Attila paused. The name of this river summoned forth memories of the First World War and the lyrics of a song: “The Piave is murmuring, murmuring….” Attila took pains to separate the Piave from recent memories of war and patriotism and cast his mind back to the barrenness and virginity of the fifth century.

He continued to read.

Attila, at the head of his men, came to the left bank of the Piave, and saw arrayed on the other side of the river an immense army bristling with weapons. Attila had not suspected that Rome could deploy against him so powerful an army, and he drew up short, shocked and bewildered. But when the powerful Roman army made ready to cross the river, Attila realized that that which had seemed an army of warriors was in fact an army of friars, and that the supposed splendor of their arms was in reality the scintillation of the sun among their miters, crosiers, and sacred adornments. Par to the friarean army was mounted on mules, part went on went on foot and, at their head, rode an old man of pale complexion, wearing pale vestments, and seated on a pale horse. Having reached the river’s edge, shallow at this spot and fordable, the friarean army came to a halt, and the old man, going alone, waded his horse into the swirling water. Attila too, from the opposite bank, advance alone into the river and, when he was within earshot he snarled: “Who are you to be so bold as to block my path?” The old man spurred his mount until the horse was chest-deep in water and, in the silence which hung heavily over the swirling river, the bordering banks, and the surrounding hills, and over the two armies, one mighty and the other meek, both motionless with anticipation, cupped his hands to his mouth and, in a voice incredibly powerful for a man of his age and debilitated appearance, roared: “I am Leo!” Attila gave no reply. He remained stationary for some time in the river; then he turned his horse, and retreated to the riverbank, giving a signal to his warriors; the entire army turned their sweating, short-legged ponies and their fully-laden carts, many of them bulging with Hun women and children, and reversed their line of march; they rapidly lit into the distance, until a little later they disappeared behind the hills in a cloud of dust.

Attila quit reading. He rushed out of the house bound on a furious search for an itinerant vendor he had seen in the neighborhood selling Halloween masks from a sidewalk stand.

He returned to his house empty-handed and empty at heart. There was no longer stand selling Halloween masks. Halloween was over.

Attila sat down in front of the dressing-room mirror. For lack of a lion’s head to fit over his own, he tried at least to compose his face in a leonine expression.

No such luck!

Attila didn’t have the expression of a lion: he had the expression of a lamb.

At this precise instant, Attila sense that Attila was awakening.

Attila was alone in his house. He imagined how Attila, finding no others against whom he might vent his ferocity, would direct his murderous passions at him, at Attila. He thought of the maid who came every morning to tidy the house…. If only she were here….

Attila dashed down the stairs. He tumbled onto the sidewalk.

He fled through streets made gigantic by the night.

A shriek resounded through the city: “I am Leo! I am Leo!”

Then, suddenly, all his egotism fell away, like a cloak which is all at once unbuttoned.

He was inflamed by love for his fellow men. Now he screamed:

-Attila has awakened! He is in me!

With one last grand gesture, splendidly, altruistically, he shrilled:

-Kill me! Kill me, before I slaughter all of you!

Was anyone listening?

The street was deserted…. In fact, there was no street…. No city, either…. No night…. No day….

-And you, are you still listening?

Am I?

-Why? …What for?

Writer and artist Alberto Savinio was born in Athens in 1891 and died in Florence in 1952. The brother of artists Giorgio De Chirico, Savino became a noted, if eccentric, painter of surrealism. His numerous works of fiction and poetry include Hermaphrodite, La Casa Inspirta, The Childhood of Nivasio Dolcemare and numerous other works. Green Integer will publish a selection of his tales in 2010.

English language copyright ©2006 by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert and Green Integer.

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