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Paolo Giordano

The Human Body a novel

In the years following the mission, each of the boys committed themselves to making their lives unrecognisable, until the memories of that other life, that previous existence, no longer tainted them in a phony, artificial light, and they themselves were no longer sure that anything that had happened had actually happened, or at least not to them. Even Lieutenant Egitto did his best to forget. He changed towns, regiment, the length of his beard and his eating habits. He had also redefined some old private conflicts and learned to overlook others that did not concern him - a difference that he had previously been unable to make. Whether transformation sticks to a plan or is the result of a piecemeal process was not clear, nor did he care. The main thing for him, from the beginning, was to dig a trench between the past and the present: a refuge that not even memory would be able to violate. And yet, what was missing from the list of things that he had managed to get rid of was precisely the one that catapulted him back so emphatically to the days spent in the valley: thirteen months from the epilogue of the mission, Egitto was still wearing his officer’s uniform. The two embroidered stars stood out in the centre of his chest, exactly over his heart. There were many times that the lieutenant toyed with the idea of seeking refuge among the ranks of civilians, but his military uniform had stuck fast to his body, inch 2

by inch, sweat has faded the design of the fabric and dyed the skin beneath. If he were to undress now, he was certain, also the skin would come away and he, who feels uneasy about simple nakedness, would find himself more exposed than he could bear. And to what end? A soldier will never stop being a soldier. At thirtyone the lieutenant had come to see his uniform as an inevitable accident, a fateful chronic disease, evident though not painful. The most significant contradiction of his life had ended up becoming the only element of continuity. It is a bright morning in early April, the leather caps of the boots on the feet of the soldiers on parade shine with every step. Egitto has not yet got used to the great promise suggested by the clarity of the sky over Belluno on days like this. The wind that rolls down from the Alps brings with it the cold of the glaciers, but when eases off and stops mistreating the banners, you realise that the temperature is unusually high for the time of year. In the barracks there was much debate about whether to wear a scarf and in the end it was decided that no, it would not be necessary, and the news was hollered along the corridors and between floors. The civilians, meanwhile, seem undecided on what to do with their jackets, to put them over their shoulders or carry them over their arm. Egitto raised his hat and used his finger to smooth his hair wet with sweat. Colonel Ballesio, standing to his left, turned and said, ‘That’s disgusting, Lieutenant! Shake out your jacket. It is full of that stuff again.’ Then, as if Egitto were not able to do it for himself, the Colonel brushed off his back with his hand. ‘What a disaster,’ he muttered. They were ordered to rest, those with a seat in the stands, like them, were told to sit. Egitto could finally roll down his socks to his ankles. The itching eased off, but only for a few seconds. ‘Listen to what happened to me the other day,’ Ballesio began. ‘My little girl started marching around the living room. She said, ‘Look 3

Dad, look at me! I am a colonel, too.’ She had got dressed up in her school apron and cap. Well, do you know what I did?’ ‘No, sir.’ ‘I gave her a good spanking. Seriously. Then I told her in no uncertain terms that I never wanted to see her mimicking a soldier again. And that, in any case, she would never be able to enrol because of her flat feet. She started to cry, the poor girl. I couldn’t even explain why I had been so angry. But I was furious, believe me, I completely lost it. Tell me the truth, Lieutenant: in your opinion, am I a bit crazy?’ Egitto had learned to be wary of the Colonel’s requests for frankness and replied, ‘Maybe you were just trying to protect her.’ Ballesio grimaced, as if he had said something stupid. ‘Perhaps. So much the better. It is a period in which I’m afraid of losing a screw, if you know what I mean.’ He stretched his legs, then unselfconsciously adjusted the elastic of his underwear through his trousers. ‘One hears all the time of guys who, from one day to the next, find that their minds are fucked. Do you think I should go for one of those neurological check ups, Lieutenant? A scan or something like that?’ ‘I don’t much see the need, sir.’ ‘Maybe you could give me a check. Look at my eyes and so on.’ ‘I am an orthopaedic surgeon, Colonel.’ ‘But they must have taught you something!’ ‘I could suggest the name of a colleague, if you like.’ Ballesio grunted. He has two deep grooves around his lips that delimit his snout, like a fish. When Egitto first met him he wasn’t this consumed. ‘Your fussiness bugs me, Lieutenant. Did I ever tell you that? That must be why you’re in such a state. Relax for once, take things more as they come. Or find a hobby. Have you ever thought about having children?’ ‘Excuse me?’ ‘Children, Lieutenant. Children.’ 4

‘No, sir.’ ‘Well, I don’t know what you’re waiting for. A son would clear your head of certain thoughts. You know? You’re always there brooding. But look how that company is set out, they look like goats!’ Egitto continued to follow Ballesio’s visual trajectory, towards the squad and beyond, where the lawn began. A man standing in the crowd attracted his attention. He had a baby on his shoulders and seemed stiff, in a strangely rigid martial posture. Familiarity always comes to the lieutenant by means of a vague fear and then, suddenly, Egitto feels uneasy. When the man raises a clenched fist in his mouth to cough, he recognises Marshal René. ‘But is that not...’ he stops. ‘Who? What?’ said the colonel. ‘Nothing. I’m sorry.’ Antonio René. On the last day, at the airport, they had said goodbye with a formal handshake and since then Egitto had thought no more about him, at least not specifically. His memories of the mission have a predominantly collective character. His interest in the parade was now lost and he focused on spying on the Marshal from afar. He had not worked enough through the crowd to get to the front, it was likely that he couldn’t see much from where he was. From on top of his shoulders the child pointed to soldiers and flags, men with their instruments, he was holding on to René’s as if it were his reins. The hair, that was it. In the valley the Marshal had shaved his head completely, and now, brown and a little wavy, it almost covered his ears. René was another refugee from his past, he too had changed his face in order to avoid meeting his old self again. Ballesio was saying something about a tachycardia that he certainly did not have. Egitto responded offhandedly, ‘Come round in the afternoon. I can prescribe a tranquilizer. ‘ ‘A tranquilizer? Are you completely nuts? All that stuff does is make it limp!’ 5

Three unarmed fighters zipped low over the square and then rose sharply, leaving coloured streaks in the sky. They flipped over onto their backs and their paths intertwined. The child on René’s shoulders was overcome with wonder. Like him, hundreds of heads leaned back, all except those of the soldiers in formation, who continued to look severely at something standing just in front of them. At the end of the ceremony Egitto went back into the crowd. Families lingered in the square and he had to wend his way through them. To those who tried to stop him he gave a perfunctory handshake. He was keeping an eye on the Marshal. For a moment it looked as if he were about to turn and leave, but he stayed. Egitto moved to join him, and when he was standing in front of him he took off his hat. ‘René’ he said. ‘Hi, Doc.’ The Marshal lowered the child on to the ground. A woman approached and took his hand. Egitto greeted her with a nod, but she gave no acknowledgement, pursed her lips and moved back. René was rummaging nervously though his jacket pocket, and he pulled out a packet of cigarettes and lit one. Here was one thing that had not changed: he was still smoking the same thin white cigarettes, women’s cigarettes. ‘How are you, Marshal?’ ‘Fine,’ René responded quickly. He said it again, but with less enthusiasm: ‘Fine. I try to keep my end up.’ ‘You’re right. What else can we do?’ ‘And you, Doc?’ Egitto smiled. ‘I’m just soldiering on, too.’ ‘So they didn’t bother you too much with that story.’ It was as if that sentence had cost him a great effort. As if he didn’t really care that much, after all. ‘A disciplinary procedure. A one-month suspension from the service and a few inconclusive hearings; they were the real punishment. You know how it works.’ 6

‘Good for you.’ ‘Right, good for me. You decided to give up, then.’ He could have put it differently. He could have chosen an expression other than give up: change, resign. Give up sounded like a surrender. René seemed not to notice, however. ‘I work in a restaurant. Down in Oderzo. I’m the maître d’.’ ‘Still in command, then.’ René let off a sigh. ‘In command. Right.’ ‘And the other guys?’ René caressed a tuft of grass between a crack in the pavement with his foot. ‘I haven’t seen them for a while.’ The woman was now hanging on to his arm, as if she wanted to take him away, drag him to safety from Egitto’s uniform and their shared memories. She shot some rancorous looking glances at the Lieutenant. René, meanwhile, avoided looking at him, and for a moment focused on the flicker of the black feather attached to his hat and Egitto’s thought he caught a hint of nostalgia. A cloud covered the sun and daylight suddenly disappeared. The Lieutenant and the former Marshal were silent. They had shared the most important moment of their lives, the two of them, standing as now, but in the middle of the desert and a circle of armoured vehicles. Was it possible that they had nothing more to say to each other?’ ‘Let’s go home,’ the woman whispered in René’s ear. ‘Of course. I don’t want to keep you. All the best, Marshal.’ The child held out his arms to René to be lifted back onto his shoulders, whining, but it was as if he couldn’t see him. ‘You can come to see me at the restaurant,’ he said. ‘It’s a good place. Good enough.’ ‘Only if I can be sure of special treatment.’ ‘It’s a good place,’ René repeated, absently. ‘Of course I’ll come,’ Egitto assured him. But it was clear to both of them that it was one of those innumerable promises that would never be followed up.


Paolo Giordano, "The Human Body"