SLEEPWALKING (1956)
by Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957)
translated from the Italian by W. Murch

 

(Malaparte's original name was Kurt Erich Suckert: his mother was Italian, but his father was a German who had emigrated to Tuscany. 'Malaparte' was the nom-de-plume the author assumed in 1925. In the late 1940's, when his mother lay dying, he returned to Tuscany, a part of Italy he had visited infrequently since he ran away from home in 1914 to fight with the Légion Garibaldienne in France.)

 

So this is my native country,
The land where I was born a foreigner,
The home where I came to know the loneliness
Of the outsider, the solitude
Of Hope, the struggles
Of becoming a man,


And it was here that I died,
That first time, and descended
To the streets of that other country,
The country of the dead,
And lifting my eyes I saw rivers
Flowing through the sky, and the roots of trees
Hanging like brown forests
In the vaulted ground above my head.
 
I saw animals before they were animals:
Whit shadows, already warm, and running,
Eager to become horses, dogs,
Sheep, and cattle.
And I saw the shadows of people
Newly dead:
White shadows, already cold,
And lying still.
 
The landscape above was so delicate
That even a casual glance
Could pry open the tender canvas
Of its hills, trees and walls,
Revealing that mysterious country beneath,
Crowded with the ghosts of trees,
The white ghosts of trees, houses, animals and stones,
Of horses, dogs, and sheep.
Crowded, too, with the ghosts of men and women,
Ghosts from the canvases of Filippino Lippi,
Sandro Botticelli, and Leonardo.
 
After many years, I had returned
To face the world forbidden to me, until now:
The secret country of my childhood,
Traversed so many times with Edo,
Pale and delicate,
With his sad and affectionate voice.
 
To confront that time of my childhood
When I would slip naked from my bed
And sleepwalk through the night
Between Santa Lucia and Le Sacca,
Impelled by some deep fever.
 
My brother Sandro had shown me the way.
I would watch him slide from beneath the covers
And venture out into the yard, asleep,
Open the gate at the bottom of the garden,
And wander through the priestís orchard
And the Mannocci farm, still asleep,
Towards Le Sacca.
But he would always return before dawn,
Slipping back into bed silently,
Perspiring, oblivious.
 
One night he reached for my hand
And we left the house together
To roam through the countryside, asleep
In the warm nights of spring,
Each night for many nights.
 
Then he fell sick.
And when he was cured,
He was also cured of his habit.
I continued, alone,
And he would now follow at a distance
To make sure that nothing befell me,
Afraid that I might wake suddenly
In the middle of a field.
 
But every morning I would find myself back in bed,
Exhausted, fevered, cold and wet,
With only a vague memory of the night,
As of a marvelous voyage,
Indistinct and remote.
 
The families in the neighboring farms
Were told about me,
Warned not to be taken by surprise.
For they went out often to hunt for the dead,
Who wandered through the fields at night,
Sometimes approaching the houses,
Crouching down near the door
And making strange, sweet, piping lamentations.
 
Certainly I must have wandered
With those pallid nocturnal larvae,
With Edo, and with a nephew of the Benelli family,
A tobacconist from Santa Lucia
Who killed himself with a pistol to the heart
On his sixteenth birthday.
 
And it is certain that I learned from them
All the marvelous things that fill my books,
Secrets which are known only to the dead.
Certainly I learned from them
My way of looking at a landscape,
A tree, a house, an animal, a stone.
And certainly I learned from them
Those hidden tongues of nature:
 
The languages of inanimate things
As well as the animate;
The speech of stones, trees, reeds, water:
Speech more poetic than ours,
More serene, pure, and harmonious.
 
I would also wander with the dogs
Who had been my companions while they were alive.
And sometimes with a ghost from Filettole,
A tailor who had been stabbed to death
Behind del Gatti's bakery.
He was small and thin,
Pale, with deep black eyes,
And he walked a little stooped,
Still holding the knife wounds in his stomach.
 
We would amble up towards Le Sacca,
Passing by the villa Fossombroni,
And from there we would walk along the Bardena
As it flowed through the pine forest of Monteferrato,
Down towards Figline and Galceti.
 
Edo would hold my hand,
And every so often he would turn to look at me,
Smiling, and talk in his thin, strained voice
About the sadnesses of his life
Up there, in the world where the word life
Held no meaning for him,
Unless it was one of memory and remorse.
It is from Edo that I learned to face certain facts
About life and death,
And not to fear the dead:
I, who had always had such a profound,
Inexplicable fear of death.
 
But those nightly journeys also left me with a bitter residue
Of suspicion, as well as an affectionate pity
For those who lived above ground,
For their sadnesses, for their cruelty,
For their obstinacy in making others suffer,
As well as themselves.
More than anything I was left with a hatred of all power,
All glory, all vanity.
 
It finally got to the point that my parents
Locked me in my room
And tied me to the bed at night,
Leaving me helpless to follow the voices
Of Edo, and the dogs, and Benelli,
And the neighing of the blind horse from Cecchi's farm,
Suffocated by sulphuric acid.
 
But when I became restless in my sleep
My brother Sandro would understand,
And shake me gently,
Without waking me,
Untie the ropes,
Open the door to our room,
And follow me outside at a distance
Through the moonlit countryside.
 
Then, one night, my fever ended.
Ended as suddenly as it began:
A hunter, some cousin of Cecchi's,
Surprised me walking through the trees
As he was returning home at dawn.
He was afraid,
And because the living are afraid of the dead,
He shot at me.
 
I fell like a stone, hit in the shoulder,
And for two days hovered like Orpheus
At the threshold of that forbidden kingdom. On the third day,
I stepped back into the world of the living,
Marked by a scar which I carry still.
 
Everything I have since become
I owe to those friends from the other side:
To Edo, and Benelli,
To my dead dog, and the tailor from Filletole,
And to the blind horse from Cecchi's farm.
 
And now that I see before me, once again,
Those waves of olive trees
Flashing silver in the surging wind,
And catch the distant glistening of the Arno,
The Bisenzio, and the Ombrone,
The rivers of my youth,
I am filled with love,
With an ancient love for those dear, pale, dead ones
Who wander beneath my feet
And rest entwined among the roots of trees,
Incorrupt,
Incorruptable.





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