The meeting

by Mario Corte

English translation by Anne Milano Appel

 

The large oval table gleamed in the morning light that by now was flooding the room. Silence. Padded footsteps outside the door. The man waited. In that moment his stomach was experiencing that faintness of one who has had a very early breakfast and already at nine... - nine seventeen said the big electric clock at the end of the room as it buzzed faintly - already at nine seventeen was beginning to feel a bit shaky. He wanted something hot and thick to drink, and something light to eat. Maybe there was one of those automatic coffee machines outside in the corridor, the kind he had immediately liked so much when he had first seen them. Where had it been? In America, perhaps. Certainly there were millions of them in America, but it hadn't been in America. He associated the idea of those coffee machines with something like a cappuccino. Had it been in Italy then? He wasn't sure. Then too, they made cappuccino even in America. But it was better in Italy. It seemed to him that everything tasted better in Italy. God, how hungry he was now! He remembered something he had eaten in Bologna and felt a low rumble in his stomach. Tortellini with cream sauce and ragý. With parmesan cheese freshly grated right onto the dish with a small grater that looked like a toy. How wonderful it was to be alive. The scents, the flavors, the colors, the sensations. The feelings. He pitied those who had no feelings. He had come to know a lot of them, people with no feelings, during this journey of his. There were some everywhere, but especially in Rome where he had naively remained for many months in the hope of meeting the best, the most experienced in his own art, those who should have been able to skillfully manipulate the levers of the heart to soothe the ruptured soul, to release the body from the bonds of evil, to make room for the Self that remembers its own divine origin, and chase back into the shadows the filthy creatures that inhabit the rooms of that sacred house, the body of man, gnawing crusts of vital energy. And to snarl like furious beasts against that lady of illusion, the great devourer, Satan's favorite: Death; and breathe against her the name of the Son of Man and stamp her ignoble skull with the fire of the truth that mankind does not belong to her, because it is life that lends man to her, not she who lends man to life.

The sound of footsteps, voices that approach and pause outside the closed door. A laugh. The door opens. The Chairman enters. He looks over the room as though he were looking for someone among a number of people. But there is only the man in the room. The man smiles a little hesitantly and greets the Chairman with a voice that is a little hoarse from his long meditative silence. The Chairman gives him a glance but does not meet the man's eyes; then he leaves, closing the door again. He did not greet him. The man endures the pain of a moment of acute humiliation. He remembers other humiliations, much more acute. But he does not renounce the pain. He remains nailed to it. The Chairman did not feel it was necessary to greet him. The man's heart has only one way out of that pain: to forgive the Chairman. He can't call him rude to himself, or say "Drop dead" between clenched teeth. He forgives him. But his forgiveness is not a moralistic formula, nor is it a chore like washing the dishes. Forgiveness of the heart is an immense responsibility because its power is devastating. His forgiveness follows the Chairman like an intelligent missile. It's right behind him in the corridor, it tracks him while he turns to look at the profile of the small but well-proportioned breasts of the new secretary, it watches him while he pauses for a moment in front of the terminal which displays the figures of the Stock Exchange, and finally it catches up to him in the bathroom where he has gone to writhe without restraint at the spasms that have unexpectedly seized his gut, announcing a torturous diarrhea. When had that pain made its presence known to him? Seconds before, or so it seems to him, but in actuality it was in the meeting room, when he avoided meeting that man's eyes. It feels to him as though life itself were flowing out of his intestine. Now he thinks that he should ask someone for help. He can already see himself in the hospital, the victim of dysentery. "Things" (as he refers to business), memos, meetings, dinner with the minister, his nineteen year old lover who awaits him at the little apartment at eleven thirty and who can only give him an hour because in the morning she has an early class at the university. He feels his blood pressure dropping. He is about to faint, alone there in that endless latrine. He doesn't know who to turn to, neither on earth nor in heaven. He quietly curses Jesus Christ. Tears obscure his sight. Through the tears he sees a great light. He begins to cry. The pain reaches a threshold beyond the point of return, a threshold which becomes visible and beyond which the Chairman sees the man seated at the meeting room table. He would like to get his attention, but the man is looking the other way. So he struggles over to the table, in his under shorts, filthy from his intestinal production, with his lowered pants encumbering him like chains; he trips and falls, and it's as though his knees shattered from the blow; his head, gripped in a vise of acute pain, feels like it's bleeding, but it's his sweat that runs down his temples and into his eyes; he continues to crawl toward the man on all fours, cursing him for his obtuse lack of attention; his breath does not form words, but the Chairman thinks he is speaking, in fact, yelling: "Damn you, why won't you help me? Of course: he's too busy to pay attention to me. Can't you see the state I'm in? Why don't you show some compassion? Damned murderer! The truth is that you don't know what compassion is! Filthy pig! What have I done in this life to deserve this?".
The pain stops, then comes back for a moment, but it is only a shadow of the earlier piercing sword. Then it ceases altogether. The vision disappears. The Chairman revives. His thoughts begin to flow in their usual way. Now he must pull himself together and make a complete recovery. Presently he's standing in front of the bathroom mirror. His color is not very good, but the worst is over. A nice cup of tea, that's what he needs: boiling hot, with a lot of sugar and a lot of lemon in it. The stench of that disaster will remain in the bathroom, it will not follow him and no one will be aware of anything. If he pulls himself together as he should, the day will go well, exactly as he had expected it would. Murmuring a curse which is a little less passionate than usual, he walks out of the bathroom. Even today no one will be able to stand up to him.

The door of the meeting room opened again. Six people came in. A young man and a young woman, both under thirty, went over to the man seated at the table, greeted him cordially and sat down next to him, the young woman to his right and the young man on the left. The others chose places around the large oval table in an apparently unplanned way. There was a faint awkwardness all around. The Managing Director sat at the head of the table, on the opposite side from where the man was sitting. Beside him, on the right, was the Editorial Director. To his left was a thin, very elderly cleric with a coarse, sharp profile that resembled the stone point of a primitive lance. The Chairman was not there. He never participated in meetings which he considered to be of little importance, such as this one. The Managing Director began to speak:
"So. Let's begin with introductions. The gentleman before me is the author of the book which is the subject of today's meeting. The work, which you have probably all read, is The Feeling of God, a kind of curious mix between a novel and an essay, not lacking in originality in any case, whose... publishing fate we must decide. The young lady and the gentleman seated beside him are his... assistants... editors... researchers... what have you... you tell us...".
The young woman stepped in: "Yes... We did the research, coordinated the Italian translations of passages which the author indicated, and also interviews, psychological tests on sample cultural groups, more than anything else to sound out the adaptability of the concepts to current reality; and then all of the revisions and corrections; and the bibliographies, the notes, the indexes...".
"In short, everything...", joked the Managing Director. The young woman blushed a little and assumed the contrite look of a person who, though too modest to boast about her worth, is nevertheless pleased to have been discovered practicing a rare and superior virtue.
"No...", she then answered with timid gentleness. "It's all due to... him...", she added indicating the man to her left with a gesture of her hand. "We only..."
"There now," the Managing Director interrupted her kindly, "all that work was necessary because the book is a learned work, exceptionally well documented and full of citations - taken from literary, philosophical and religious works - translated, if I'm not mistaken, from about ten currently spoken languages and an equal number of non-living languages... Please, continue".
The young woman glanced at the other assistant, hoping that he would speak this time, but when he was at last about to open his mouth she seemed to be struck by a sudden thought and began to speak again:
"There are nineteen translations from modern languages. Twelve from non-living languages. It was extremely interesting work, especially for someone like me with a degree in classical literature. It gave me the opportunity to deepen my historical and linguistic knowledge and my knowledge of the history of religion; I already had a good foundation in these areas but now they are strengthened to the point where it would not be difficult for me to edit, I don't know, a specialized series, I mean, even for different publications... That is...". Having realized that she was making a gaffe with respect to the author, she stopped herself, then concluded with a smile that was a little shy but still radiant: "But now let's talk about this book". And she fell silent, blushing sweetly.
The Managing Director gave her a look which on the one hand showed his distaste for the fact that the young woman was trying to put herself personally in the limelight, and on the other hand revealed his expectation that she would continue to do so, so that he would be better able to establish what kind of person she was. Then he turned to the young man seated next to the author.
"And you, what was your job exactly?"
The young man was silent for a few moments as though putting his thoughts in order, then, to give himself courage, he cracked his knuckles loudly making the room echo with the bone-breaking sound of a torture chamber. "I mainly took care of coordinating the translations from the modern languages and interviewing several important people from the world of culture, theatre, politics, asking their views on the...central theme of the work."
"That is, the so-called 'feeling of God'", the Managing Director suggested with a touch of irony. The young man lowered his gaze, as though that slight ironic tone had directly touched the chords of a secret instinct within him, an instinct that was capable of interpreting even the sighs of someone who was influential; an instinct which had been dormant for the entire time that he had worked for the man who now sat beside him, stifled by his joy over the opportunity the author had given him and by the honor of being able to play the game of culture with that wise and good man.
"Yes, the... feeling of God."
"Fine, is that all?"
The two assistants looked at each other with a shy nervous laugh, deferring to one another in turn. This time the young man was the first to speak.
"As my colleague indicated, she and I, together, managed the entire editing process of revisions, notes..."
"... Bibliographies", the girl continued, "and...indexes. We created the very bones, you might say." She fell silent again, with a satisfied air.
Then they both realized that they had been a bit laconic with regard to the author's role, and they added, almost together: "A wonderful job... Working with him is really... a..."
"... A wonderful job", concluded the Managing Director mischievously. "Well then, here we have Monsignor Licandri, who will act as our consultant in this situation; I believe he will have many things to ask the author. The Monsignor, as we know, is the elder brother of the Chairman and one of the founding members of the firm. We have talked a lot with him - especially at the table, in front of certain island wines that he taught us to appreciate - about the possibility of organizing a series dedicated to original contributions of new Christian thinkers on religious thought at the beginning of the Millennium. Here, then, I'll let him speak."
"The introduction of my friend Alvise relegates me to the role of drunkard." There was general laughter. "Nevertheless, I am also a man of the church, I assure you." The affectionate little slap on the wrist which the prelate gave the Managing Director was enough to generate new warmth in the meeting, and was finally able to relax the atmosphere even for the man's two young assistants. Especially for the young woman, whose eyes shone with genuine trust and sincere confidence; she laughed harder than the others and for a moment she felt quite at home.
Fixing his gaze, which had suddenly become serious, on the eyes of the man, the Monsignor finally spoke: "I would like to hear from the author: how would you define this 'feeling of God' exactly? Man's perception of God through emotion?"
The man raised his brows slightly and then in a firm, calm voice gave his retort that quality which an actor with experience and talent would have given it: "Have you read the book?".
"Uh. No", confessed the prelate without resistance, as though in response to a request by a highway police officer he had suddenly remembered that he had left his driver's license at home.
The man turned to the room, slowly letting his gaze settle on the eyes of each person. The Managing Director, who was an old fox, understood that in order to restore a professional tone to the meeting, it would be necessary to clarify the level to which each of the onlookers was familiar with the book; he said: "I personally have not read it, but the Editorial Director told me that he had gotten the impression that it was an... impressive work".
The Editorial Director nodded his agreement, then he stuck out his lower lip and wrinkled his forehead, first with a somewhat ironic air, then with a look of more serious reflection, and said: "Impressive, yes".
The Managing Director then looked at the other person seated at the table. "Doctor Laura Schwacher will be the editor of the series that we are planning, and in which this work may be included. She is without a doubt the person best able to speak to us about it."
Doctor Schwacher, who wanted to avoid revealing her real knowledge about the contents of the book, smiled excessively, but then her expression turned overly serious and solemn. Finally she said: "I'm not sure. In my opinion it appears that the book is a little too steeped in a New Age atmosphere. Energy, for example. A typical New Age theme. It seems to me that even the Holy Ghost is spoken of in terms of energy. And this, frankly, for a public of Catholic extraction...".
"Is yours a public of Catholic extraction?", asked the man curiously.
"Oh no. Not at all. That is, not only that. I would say that one of the things that characterizes us is the very - how shall I put it - transversal quality of our output, both in essay writing and in literature. Just think, we even have a series that includes young crucifix and quartering writers."
I am not familiar with crucifix literature though I can imagine what it's about, but quartering literature?", the man asked with a smile.
"Quartering. In the sense of 'to cut up into four pieces'", the woman replied laughing. "You know, ideas like pulp, splatter etcetera have been outmoded for some time, and so..."
"... And so, onward, free quartering", the man said with an authority that froze the room. "And what does the public of Catholic extraction have to say about it?", he added.
The woman's expression hardened. "You are probably shocked by certain things, and I by others. The idea of what is disgusting is not the same for everyone. And I don't exclude the fact that even a Catholic public may embrace certain trends, perhaps to keep informed."
"Have you read my book?"
"No, actually read it, no, I scanned it here and there", Doctor Schwacher replied without hiding any longer the distaste that man provoked in her.
The Managing Director saw the earth slip rapidly away. The rash attitude of the author was obviously to blame, but he did not want to share the responsibility for the meeting's failure with him in any way. So he tried to relax the tension by resorting to the evocative power of one of the company maxims:
"Our Chairman is not a Catholic publisher. He is a Catholic who is a publisher."
Despite his good intentions, his listeners were unable to react to the clever remark in any way, and it ended up falling into a complete void. The Editorial Director, at that point, went to the aid of the Managing Director, who had remained slightly shocked by the witticism's unhappy outcome, and took on the responsibility of moving the meeting forward:
"There now, I think we should hear Roberto's opinion. Right, yes, I think that's what we should do. I'll call him". He picked up the telephone that was on the table and dialed a number. "Bruna? Hello, dear. Is Roberto around? No. Oh, okay. Oh, okay. Oh. Okay. No-no-no-no-no. It doesn't matter. Okay." Then, turning toward his audience, he revealed that Roberto was busy in a simultaneous translation with the Chairman, who had a visit from a German publisher.
"Who is Roberto?", asked the author. Doctor Schwacher made an indignant face and shook her head in a way that was quite visible; she threw a look toward the Managing Director, who in turn looked at the man with annoyance, as though at any moment he might ask him to mind his own business. The Editorial Director, on the other hand, reached out a hand toward the Managing Director and the other toward Doctor Schwacher to gently request that they not interfere, and then continued speaking:
"Roberto is our editing assistant. A little genius. We too, here, have our little phenomena; nothing like your wonderful assistants, however", he added avoiding the man's gaze and in a tone that meant to be witty but only managed to sound bitter. The assistants giggled nervously.
"Have you read my book?", the man asked the Editorial Director.
"A very superficial reading. Nevertheless..."
At that moment someone knocked on the door. A young man in jeans and a somewhat shabby sweater entered.
"What are you doing here?", the Editorial Director asked him. "Do you have the gift of being in two places at once? If so, we're right on the subject", he joked. Then, turning to those present: "This is Roberto. Now he'll explain to us the trick that allows him to be here and with the Chairman at the same time".
"Bruna informed the Chairman and he practically pushed me out the door as soon as he learned it was this meeting."
This seemed odd to the Managing Director. The Chairman knew nothing about these matters, and regarded with equal distaste both the prospect of creating a new series on religious culture as well as that of starting a New Age thread.
"Well, come here, sit down", the Editorial Director said. "We were talking about that book that I had asked you to... that I had recommended you read."
"The Feeling of God."
"The Feeling of God. Roberto, even though he is a genius, is a little slow with his exams. He has yet to get his degree. But he knows practically everything about everything. Let's hear what he has to say."
"Excuse me, Roberto," the author interrupted. "You are getting a degree in...?"
"History of religions."
"Oh. History of religions", the author repeated. "And have you read the book?"
"I have read the book. Not all of it, I confess, but what I read I read with care; but I must say that I did not understand the author's intentions very much. The book struck me essentially for the great profusion of documents that were cited and for the profound spirituality of several passages. But to be honest, itís a long way from having impressed me. The idea of Jesus Christ returning in an era of great spiritual crisis such as ours is suggestive, undoubtedly. But Ė if the author will forgive me Ė it is not supported by an inspiration that is equal to the premise. Instead he attempts to support it with a certain amount of exegetical pedantry and through the excessive use of documents which in and of themselves would be interesting (some are really fables within a fable), but which in the context of the narration seem to be put there just to support a theory; they are used a little like some prophecies used to be used: by bending the historic reality or the history of certain events to them. In short, to serve the cause of prophets, messiahs, those Anointed by the Lord, sons of God, etcetera."
"In short, the real problem is that Roberto didnít like my book", the author said turning to the Managing Director.
"I wouldnít put it that way if I were you. Besides, in a meeting like this you should be the one to try to convince us, we shouldn't have to demonstrate that we have assimilated yourÖ ideas. Youíll excuse me, but thatís not the way..."
Doctor Schwacher seemed on the point of applauding, but she confined herself to making a slight gesture with her arm, murmuring to herself: "Oohh! When itís needed, itís needed!".
A long, heavy silence followed. The author turned his gaze to his assistant. She was as upset as if she had failed an exam. She was just about ready to cry. She was looking down at the table and was trying to avoid the manís gaze at all costs. He insisted on meeting her eyes. Finally, with a gesture that seemed to everyone to be overly familiar, he gently lifted her face by the chin, to be able to get a better look at her. She made a tortured grimace and then, beginning to cry, got up and fled, almost running toward the door. When the young woman had closed the door behind her, the manís gaze rested on his other young assistant. The young man looked at him with the eyes of one possessed, his mouth distorted by a grimace that made it look like a small heart. He looked as if he were about to tell him to go to hell at any moment. The author asked him gently: "Do you want to leave as well?". The young man continued to stare at him in silence with a bold expression, as if he were trying to challenge him.
"Where do we go from here. You're the only one with words of truth!", interrupted Roberto, with the intention of making a joke to play down the situation. The Editorial Director and the Managing Director blasted him with a look at the same time. He had gone a little too far, and the Editorial Director dismissed him coldly: "Please leave, Roberto. The last thing we need at a time like this are your jokes".
"Excuse me", he just had time to say while he was getting up from his chair, then he locked his teeth together in an odd way, his face became grayish, he gave a kind of wheeze and fell back heavily into his seat, ending up banging his head against the table. He had collapsed like a puppet that had slipped out of the puppeteer's hand. They all got up to help him. They pulled his head back, they called to him in a loud voice, they tried to drag him to his feet, they slapped him. In the end they laid him down on the floor. He didnít appear to be breathing. At a certain point the Managing Director, who had left the room to call for help, came back and announced in a low, calm voice that the ambulance was arriving. There. Now everything possible had been done. Only then did they realize that the author had not moved from his place. He seemed to be taking notes in a date book. Then he raised his eyes and everyone had the same absurd thought at the same time, namely, that they had been mistaken about the identity of the young man who had fainted: it had surely been the authorís assistant, not Roberto. In fact, a sorrow such as that experienced by someone who is losing a brother was depicted on the authorís face. The thoughts of those who were present wandered in search of the relationship between the author and the young man who had fallen ill: the assistant was actually the manís brother; the girl too was probably his sister: that was the explanation for that overly familiar gesture that they had at first interpreted as proof of an intimate relationship. Their thoughts rolled on freely in that absurd direction, reaching the conclusion that the distaste that the two young people felt for the manís behavior was due to the fact that probably he didnít even pay them: he made them work for nothing because they were his brother and sister. The sly one. They had understood at once that he was cunning. With that look of a prophet in jacket and tie, going after publishing contracts and big ones at that. Good thing they hadnít fallen for it. Any of them. Then too, it remained to be seen if they were really related. If he had had some kind of sordid relationship with both of them it certainly wouldnít be the first time. Look at him, what a hypocritical face. It was too pure to be real, that face. And that impudent authority he uses when he talks to people: who does he think he is? Who knows anything about him!
"Look at him there. Rocco and his brothers", said Doctor Schwacher finally. "Do something you too, canít you!" The comment, absurd if only because it was a little late, had the effect of bringing them all back to reality. It actually was Roberto who had fallen ill. He was lying there, under their eyes. They didnít understand how they could have made such a crazy error of perception. They saw Roberto every day. How could they have mistaken him for the authorís brother? Then too, that young man, his assistant, was he really his brother? Had they all gone mad?
The author still wore that expression of sorrow on his face; he also seemed to be suffering from a slight respiratory problem. He looked at the ceiling for a moment, then he closed his lips and clenched his teeth, assuming all of a sudden the ardent, decisive look of someone who is preparing to do battle. He got up and went toward Roberto, who was still lying stretched out on the floor, abandoned like the body of a soldier fallen in combat. He knelt beside him and took his head in his hands, almost embracing it. He caressed his face like a mother would caress a feverish child. He whispered something in his ear. The embarrassment of those present rose like a tide. What the devil was that man doing to that poor boy who had fainted? His movements appeared to them as somewhat impure. The alarm went up. This was too much: now he was even kissing him on the temple! The Monsignor, Doctor Schwacher and the Editorial Director looked indignantly at the Managing Director, as though the societal task of putting an end to the indecent behavior of the man fell to him.
At that moment the telephone rang. The Managing Director answered: it was the Chairman who was worried about the consequences that the incident might have. Roberto worked there practically for nothing and without a contract. He was the son of a former employee of the company who years ago had even denounced the administration for alleged social security fraud which damaged her; then the matter had resolved itself, no one knew how exactly, and sometime later the Chairman had indicated to the editorial office a capable, intelligent young man who did not have his degree but was eager to work; above all he was willing to work for a couple of books a month, an airline ticket for vacation, and small irregular payments, strictly in cash. The Managing Director and the Chairman agreed upon a version of the story to be given to the medics, and to the police, should the matter unfortunately turn out to be something serious: the young man, son of a family friend of the Chairman, was there by chance, because he wanted to meet the author of a book he had read. It was a matter of suggesting the same version to all employees, although the possibility that they would be interrogated was slim. The Chairman's word and that of the Managing Director would surely be sufficient. Always hoping that things did not turn out too badly for the young man.
When the Managing Director hung up the phone and turned toward the scene he had left a few moments before, he was struck by the sight of Roberto sitting calmly at his place. Down below the siren of the ambulance could be heard before its screech was snuffed out in the courtyard of the building. Agitated voices, distant fragments of sentences: "Third floor... Elevator... Stretcher... Service stairs...".
"What... happened?"
"He's fine", the Editorial Director replied. "As soon as he heard the phone ring he opened his eyes and got to his feet immediately.
The morbus comitialis , Roberto said in a voice that was only a little thicker than usual. One of these days it will kill me. Forgive me. Just to stay on the subject, now you have all discovered that I have an entire Legion inside me."
"But... You're..."
"Epileptic, if you want to put it that way", Roberto replied to the Managing Director who instinctively backed away a few centimeters.
"And your attacks go away just like that?"
"No. It's the first time that an attack went away just like that."

Roberto was nevertheless entrusted to the medics, if for no other reason than to justify the emergency call. The meeting was suspended for a time, to allow the participants to get over the shock. Since it was now lunch time, the Managing Director, excusing himself, told them he had an appointment with the Chairman at the restaurant where he lunched each day, and where today he had invited his German guest. Doctor Schwacher seemed immediately put out at the prospect of lunching with the author and started to go off to lunch by herself, but she was stopped by the author's assistants, who asked if they might accompany her. The author found himself left with the Monsignor and the Editorial Director, who was forced to invite him along. Together they headed for a restaurant which was very small and quite modest, but where it seemed the food was excellent. Seated before homemade cannelloni served in hot, sizzling casseroles, the Editorial Director began to speak.
"Look... I don't know where to begin... Maybe I should explain to you: the gist of it is that I manage the publishing house, but the more... practical decisions are made by the Managing Director. He's the one who decides on what is to be published, and of course, the budgets for the productions. And mind you, he's not an administrator, he's a man of culture, truly the right man in the right place. The fact is that you... in short, he was very well disposed toward your publishing proposal, but I have the impression that something has disturbed him. Part of it was the attitude of your assistants, that scene with the girl... and even the young man... in short, you three do not give the impression of a team that is really in harmony, there you have it. And a production is a production: if the work was generated in a situation of... discord, one can imagine that there was a certain amount of confusion. And then, you... I don't think the Managing Director was left with a good impression of you. No offense. And yet the first impression, as you know, is the one that counts. He acts somewhat by instinct. And he's right. An author is not only someone who writes books. He is someone who above all must have a good relationship with the publisher. And present himself well to the public. Can you see yourself talking about your book on a television show? Can you see yourself interrupting the host of a talk show to ask him whether or not he has read your book, while comedians, singers and show girls are cavorting all around you? Can you see yourself questioning show hosts and journalists on their level of preparation regarding your book in book spots where the producer has allowed them two minutes, or in the culture slot of the news broadcast where they have given them one minute? And then, last but not least, pardon my frankness - but we're all men here and the Monsignor is no less a man of the world than I - no one really liked that little "treatment" you gave the young man who fainted. I don't understand what you were trying to do, but it had every appearance of a gay performance, somewhat repulsive even. No one is shocked at anything anymore, but frankly it seems to me that you overdid it. The Managing Director was disgusted by it. Given that a writer is someone who must above all have a good relationship with the publisher, as I was saying just before, it seems to me that you played your cards all wrong. Have I been too harsh? Too direct? Tell me honestly if I've offended you." Meanwhile he looked at the Monsignor who continued to be silent; his appearance was solemn and somewhat enigmatic as he slowly chewed each mouthful and took frequent sips of a clear, sparkling red wine.
The man lowered his gaze and he too began eating very slowly in silence. When he had finished, he raised his eyes and let his gaze travel beyond the window that looked out onto the street. It seemed as though he were looking into the depths of enormous distances. It was a sad gaze, reflecting a sorrow that was evidently very profound. The Editorial Director was satisfied. What that man needed was someone who took the trouble to make him bend his will, and he was pleased to have been the one to do it. Maybe now they could also come to an agreement, in a more advantageous way than ever. Assuming the Managing Director had not been too irritated by his attitude. But if he knew him well enough, it was highly unlikely. His superior, in fact, was always boasting about having a "secular" mentality when it came to the subject of moral consistency; in his opinion not believing in anything was an incomparable professional quality. But was there something in the work of that author that warranted a publishing commitment however significant? The Editorial Director's ideas were very nebulous on that score. He had not read the book nor did he have any intention of reading it, but Roberto's reading of it had already given him some valuable insights. The only solution he saw for works like that was a good recasting in a New Age vein, naturally with the substantial support of a shrewd writer, a foreign one perhaps, maybe a little less anonymous than... this one. The material was good, that was understood. Vast. Rigorous. Already selected. And already nicely translated, mostly from languages that would have required very expensive collaborations for the translation alone. And instead it was all there. The biggest obstacle to begin working on it was the very presence, or rather existence, of the author. Then too one would have to clarify whether this concept of the "feeling of God" would really work. The idea of the return of Jesus Christ was a good one, but if the message of this "Christ II: the Revenge" wasn't really original, the idea would become a flop. New publications had to be substantial and spicy with respect to the usual warmed over soup of the Gospels. Perfect for a public that devoured concepts which were accessible and zesty a la Redfield, seasoned with mystery to just the right point and without too many intellectual complications, spiritual intuitions and theological speculations. In short, it was stuff which if handled in the right way would be able to provide raw material for something on the order of six or eight different books or short works. But it would take some work. Who knows what the two assistants are like. The young woman was a cross between a good little sister and one who, enchanted by the mirage of getting ahead in the field of culture, would be capable of selling her younger sister to an Albanian pimp. The young man, on the other hand, seemed a bit of a fool. A Roberto who was less alert and with less fizz in him. But the way in which he had looked at the author clearly indicated that he didn't give a damn about him. Maybe they could be useful if they came back independently of that man. Because now, after the fainting fit, you could forget about Roberto. Imagine the Chairman letting an epileptic back in! Assuming one wanted to do something with that book, those two could really be of use. They seemed less than devoted, in fact they must have had it up to here with that author. Who knows what he was like, really? But strangely enough, this was the thing that interested him least.

All of a sudden the screeching of brakes in the street, followed by a great thud, made everyone's blood run cold. After a few seconds of silence, they heard a painful howl of agony and understood that the victim of the crash was a dog. The author got up and went straight to the door. "There was no need to do that, I would have paid the bill in any case", the Editorial Director quipped to the Monsignor, who remained serious and thoughtful as he had been throughout the meal. He stared into the eyes of the person speaking to him, and then, with a strange anxiety on his face, craned his neck a little to see what was happening outside.
The scene was terrible. A car had hit a blind man's dog, and now the poor animal lay in agony on the ground, howling and pivoting painfully around his only remaining good leg. The rest of his body was a disjointed mass of bone which that frightful mechanical movement only made worse, causing further dislocation and breakage, devastating his internal organs and causing him to hemorrhage from the mouth, leaving an odd circle of blood on the pavement. The blind man was sitting on the ground several meters away, probably on the spot where the dog had been hit and hurled away. He seemed only bruised but in shock. He was calling the dog: Trim. Someone was trying to help him while they waited for the ambulance and a police patrol that would probably shoot the dog to put him out of his misery. The author approached the blind man, embraced him gently and asked him:
"What do you want?"
"I want Trim", and he began to cry.
"How much sight do you have?"
"Ten percent. But I don't care. I don't want to be able to see more. I'm all right as I am, in the dark. This darkness is better than the perpetual light of the family tomb, with my wife and children in it, at the cemetery. I want Trim! Trim! Triiiiiim!", he cried in desperation, and a scream came from his throat that seemed to be strangely in harmony with that of the dog.
"Trim! Come", the man said in a loud voice.
Now the dog was there beside the blind man and the author. He was watching his master's new friend with a disconcerted look. He repeatedly swiped his lips with his long tongue to clean off the blood that still covered his muzzle. He decided to extend one of his long licks to the man's face, who in return gave him a pat on the head. The dog took advantage of the man's crouched position to strike an adoring pose, with his front paws on the shoulders of the man's jacket and his hind legs flat as slippers underneath his seated body. He gave him another couple of licks and then he turned to his master, making circles around him while wagging his tail and trying to help him get up by nudging him with his muzzle.
The man walked away while the blind man was still asking a question which he had started to ask as soon as he had smelled the dog's scent and felt the warmth of his breath next to him: "What happened? Hey, what happened? Hey, I'm talking to you, what happened?"

The two assistants' lunch with Doctor Schwacher was soothing and productive. She had taken them to a little place that was a bit expensive but deliciously different, where they served only creative light salads, purely symbolic portions of variegated soufflť and thin slices of tart, mostly fruit. There were unusual beverages such as cider and rosolio and it was rumored that they allowed tasting of absinthe upon request, although this was kept quiet. The two young people, initially very shy, had been quickly made to feel at ease by Doctor Schwacher, who within about twenty minutes had managed to gain their confidence, thereby laying the foundation for one of those particular friendships that begin with complicity and proceed by sharing some deception.
The young woman was quickly ecstatic over the horizon that was opened up by her acquaintance with that woman: a person of culture (associate editorial director and editor of a series!) who nonetheless had a practical and pragmatic view of her profession and of life. A person, in short, who knew what she wanted. The young woman's relations with the author were by now definitely shattered. The disastrous way in which he had handled the meeting had been an intolerable blow for the girl. She had based everything on the possibility of finally publishing that work which had cost her a great investment not only in terms of effort and commitment, but also in terms of love. She had loved that work and in some way she had also loved that man who had offered it to her and taught her so many things. But it had not taken long for her to realize that that man would never love her, nor her colleague, nor perhaps the work itself because that man only had eyes for his strange spiritual ideas. He was someone with crazy ambition and ridiculous naivetť, diabolical astuteness and fanatical generosity, an unreachable abstract intelligence and distressing practical inconclusiveness. A living contradiction. Loving him meant finding oneself falling into the abyss of a bottomless paradox with a stone around one's neck. She needed peace now. It was soothing to be here beside that woman who reacted to her words without passion or hidden thoughts, who talked about things of this world with style and simplicity, without being carried away or repulsed, who knew how to get ahead in life by allocating to life feelings that were prudent and reasonable, who moved through space with movements that were gentle and a bit restrained, satisfied only by their perfect moderation. An intellectual who knew how to get along in the world. It had taken the author's absurdities to make that woman lose her patience during the meeting. And even then she hadn't really lost her patience, she had only shown an understandable exasperation, and in a way that was very civil besides. Yes: a person who knew just what she wanted. A model from whom she could finally draw inspiration.
The young man, on the other hand, was not looking for models from whom to draw inspiration. He was not looking for anything anymore. He had been even more profoundly disappointed than the girl by that man's behavior, his irresoluteness, his renunciatory approach to success, his passive acceptance of events, his excessive moralizing. All defects which were counterbalanced by his impassioned spiritual arguments that got all tangled up in themselves, his exaggerated zeal in defending viewpoints that had no practical result, his sudden explosions of disdain toward behavior that he defined as hypocritical, but that often were merely marked by a vision of reality a little less based on air - and a little more utilitarian - than his. Then too, that continuous exaltation of humility and the equally persistent denigration of power! A real lynching, never mind denigration, of anyone who had the "flaw" of wielding some power, great or slight as it might be. As though he could do without it. Wasn't he courting those in power right now, in order to have his book published? Wasn't the Chairman of that company the crŤme de la crŤme of the powerful? Yet there he was, in jacket and tie, scrounging a bit of attention for his book. The trouble was that he did it badly, using arrogance when humility was called for, and humility when he should have been daring. Those in power never drop their pants before arrogance. They drop them instead when someone knows how to act, when he knows how to strike at the right moment, being silent when they are speaking and answering when asked a question, and explaining very clearly what he hopes to obtain. And above all, how much he wants. The author didn't know a thing about how to handle that meeting, an opportunity which meant everything to him and his colleague and that had now turned against them, condemning them to further years of anonymity and waiting. Neither he nor his colleague could take anymore of the usual repertoire that the author insisted on presenting: the silences pregnant with meaning, the moralistic comments, the intense looks, the eyes turned toward heaven and the kisses dispensed to the first fool who fell ill (strangely enough there was always one of them wherever he went, so that they began to think that he even brought bad luck). It wasn't that he thought about changing his repertoire: no, heaven forbid. He insisted, insisted and insisted, without ever achieving a single concrete result, like making some money for example. Enough. It was time to do things differently, to think about themselves. And about the future.

The Monsignor's face had changed a little. They were all aware of it. He seemed to have aged. "Is everything all right?", the Managing Director asked him as they were sitting down again at the large oval table in the meeting room. The Monsignor looked at him a bit stunned and did not reply. Then, when he had mistakenly sat down at the place which that morning had been occupied by the Managing Director himself, he seemed to come to and said, with a delay which made his response seem meaningless: "Everything's fine".
Following the Monsignor's example, they all set about changing places. To the right of the cleric sat Doctor Schwacher and the author's two assistants, first the girl and then the young man; on his left were the Managing Director and the Editorial Director. Only the author remained in exactly the same place. The Managing Director took advantage of the unhoped for opportunity to temporarily turn over the chairing of the meeting to the Monsignor, making a broad gesture of delegation toward the man who was now seated at his place.
The room fell silent. The Monsignor, in an attempt to regain his concentration which evidently kept slipping away, half closed his eyes until they became two thin slits. Then finally he spoke:
"This morning I asked the author a question. He answered me with another question. Perhaps justifiably so because I had not read his book. I'm sorry if I... irritated him by this. It was not my intention. But he, on the other hand, answered me with a question, as a politician would do. We are not dealing with politics here, we are dealing with culture. In addition, I am here as a consultant, not as a publisher, and this may explain why I did not try to evaluate his work but attempted instead to initiate a dialogue; also to understand the man before me. But he resented it and contentiously rejected my question, adopting an affronted attitude which he then maintained when speaking with the others. What I find incomprehensible in this meeting is the confrontational attitude of the author. No one here is his enemy. He was welcomed with readiness, with pleasantness, with curiosity. But he has behaved as though he already thought he would not be understood, that he would not be able to be understood in any way. And this is a prejudice in our regard. Therefore, the impression drawn is that the author erroneously considers himself to be the victim of prejudice on the part of this assembly, while the truth is perhaps that it is he himself who is prejudiced against us".
The Monsignor fell silent, watching the man. The man lowered his eyes and did not speak. The silence was total, and as thick as if it were a solid substance. When the man's voice broke through it, for a moment everyone seemed to hear the far-off sound of shattered glass.
"I asked all of you if you had read my book only to know if you had read it, not to reproach you for not having read it, nor to make you read it".
"What what what?", the Editorial Director interrupted with the easy-going tone of one who enjoys making fun of foreign tourists because of the funny language they speak. "Excuse me, but I didn't understand a thing. Can you start over again?", he asked cheerfully.
Everyone but the Monsignor smiled at his wisecrack. The assistants even turned to look at the author to await his response. The young woman had a hand over her mouth to stifle the small laugh that was escaping, while the Managing Director and Doctor Schwacher confined themselves to a satisfied glance at one another to acknowledge the quickness and liveliness of the question.
"Do you see that you are continuing to create a vacuum around you?", the Monsignor began again. "How can one converse with someone as prejudiced as you? I would like to help you. Everyone here would like to help you", he looked around but without seeing any gesture of consent or dissent. "But how can one help somebody who behaves like a wounded animal?"
"Well", the Managing Director intervened, "it seems to me that nothing more will come of this. I really think it would be best that we close on this note and all go back to work".
"Just one more minute, Alvise, forgive me", the Monsignor said. And I ask the forgiveness of everyone present if I keep them away from their work for a little bit longer. But before concluding I would really like to hear from the author what he expected from this meeting, assuming that he expected something.
The author waited a few moments in silence, then he tightened his lips slightly in a kind of faint smile and said:
"Father, you reproach me with being arrogant and taking offense, but I think it is the opposite. It is this assembly which gets angry, and takes offense at my behavior, which I believe has always been far from rude and offensive. But if I have not been rude and the assembly has taken offense nonetheless, then it means that each individual has not felt resentment for himself but for the power that he represents. Since I do not represent any power, the Editorial Director is able to be ironical about my arguments, reducing them to incomprehensible nursery rhymes, but I am not permitted to be ironical with Doctor Schwacher about the reactions a public of Catholic extraction would have to the quartering proposed in your series. That's power. And since I do not represent any power, you can all take offense because I ask too many direct questions and take liberties which I should not take, while I can't even ask about your level of familiarity with my book without committing a grave insult. This is power. In this meeting, however, I have merely tried to base my conversation with you on one of two facts: your familiarity or lack of familiarity with the text I had proposed and which we were supposed to discuss. The trouble is that you are all used to seeing a confrontational intent in even the simple attempt to arrive at a fact, and to mistake the desire to construct a dialog based on reality for an act of accusation. But that's not the way it is. Reality is reality and there are no guilty parties, at least not until someone confesses his own guilt by taking offense because one resorted to a real fact. To point out that crossing an intersection with a red light represents a mortal danger for all those innocent people who - in a vehicle or on foot - are crossing with the green, is not in itself an act of accusation against an administration or a government or a country or an entire society. It's a fact. Anyone can point it out. If someone takes offense at it, it means that he could have done something about it and didn't do it. Similarly, to point out that none of the participants at this meeting had read my book was not an act of accusation, but a fact. A feeling to use as a starting point".
"A feeling of humiliation?", the Monsignor asked.
"No. A feeling of communion."
"Some communion that is", Doctor Schwacher said gently but firmly. "When I spoke about our series you treated me as though I were crazy."
"And you, Doctor Schwacher, didn't you treat reality as though it was crazy? According to you the Catholic public would have been offended by reading something that you had intuited here and there while leafing through my text, but would not be at all offended when twenty year old writers present fantasies of quartering as creations of their spirit..."
"Excuse me", the Monsignor interrupted, "you speak of a possible communion with us, but on what basis, given that no one has read your book?"
"A communion based on humility, on that very fact. It would have been enough to tune our feelings into that and we would have been in communion. And we would have conversed peaceably. Facts, whether they are good or bad, generate feelings. And every feeling is in turn a fact. And if it is a good feeling, it can change the reality for the better, erasing the negatives facts from the book of life as though they had never existed. Whoever has the strength to accept reality, as painful as it may be, can transform it with a feeling. Because feelings are reality and reality is a feeling. Illusion is not."
Ah! Finally we have the explanation of the secret of the feeling of God!", the Managing Director interrupted brusquely with the tone of one who wants to bring things to a close.
The Monsignor, who on the other hand wanted to continue on, gestured to him with his hand to make him be quiet, then asked the man:
"Is it true? Is this what you mean by the 'feeling of God'?".
"More or less."
"I call it faith."
"Thatís true, faith is a feeling. You, Monsignor, are a man of faith. But as you know, faith is a gift, not an assumption. Itís a gift that the Lord gives to those who are just. And a just man is one who acts according to a feeling: the feeling of justice to be exact. And because the gift of faith is not granted once and for all, but must be requested and pursued on a daily basis, only the constant exercise of justice can create the suppositions necessary for the gift to be renewed. He who is not just will not receive the gift of faith, and will grope in the darkness. And in the darkness he will encounter the illusory light of power, and he will mistake that light for the light of a new justice. And from that false light he will draw his commandments, he will regulate his actions based on it, and although those actions will be controlled by laws no less rigid than those of Moses, they will seem much less demanding and more rewarding to him. He will have to conform to those laws at all times, and if he breaks them he will lose everything: honor, friends, means of support, perhaps his very life in some cases. The laws of power are manís prison, but men think that they are the key to freedom: freedom from alienation, from inferiority, from hardship. And from the cumbersome burden of feelings."
The man paused for a moment to ask Doctor Schwacher for something to drink; she had the bottle right in front of her, and before passing it over to him she hesitated a moment as though she felt the request was a little out of place.
"You have all gotten the impression that I am dark and moody, but I am only reacting to the sorrow of seeing you as you are. I donít care about myself: it's you I feel sorry for. But you canít understand that: in fact, you feel that being the way you are is your business, not mine. And the way you are is all right with you. Rather, you think that things are much better for you than they are for me, since you know how to push all the right buttons and I donít."
Here he paused and turned to looked at his assistants, without contempt or resentment or severity or malice, but also without any shadow of assent.
"But if you could see what I see, you would see looming over you a shadow so horrendous that it would make you fall on your knees at the foot of the cross and ask pity for your existence. Great or limited as it may be, in fact, there is only one power. And it has only one name. And that name was given to it by the enemy of all justice. Do not confuse power with authority. A family, like a business or a church or a nation cannot be founded and cannot exist without authority. But authority is the exact opposite of power, because authority exists and power is an illusion, and because authority evolves from something that power cannot comprehend: humility. Humility is a feeling. The most powerful of all. Humility generates dignity. Dignity generates will. Will generates strength of mind. Strength of mind generates authority. If one masters authority one has power over oneself, because authority generates justice. And justice generates faith. And faith pierces through evil with its light and casts it down into the abyss. There are no alternatives to this way. This is the way of the cross, and it is always uphill. The way proposed by the enemy of all justice, on the other hand, is the reversal of this and evolves in the opposite direction. And it is always downhill, because its starting point is not humility but power, which is up above. Power generates a system of justice based on itself, and that system generates the illusion of having the authority necessary to judge - often with contempt and disgust - the poor souls who are taking the other way, the uphill path, and do not know the rules of power. The latter will be condemned to exclusion without possibility of appeal, unless they learn the rules and submit to them."
He stopped once again. He felt the brittleness of the ice that surrounded him. He seemed to hear the creaking of the bones of those who were present, locked in the icy grip that they were trying to apply to him. He looked within his sorrow and saw in it the life that was lacking in them.
"Do you know who is behind all this?", he continued. "Do you know who it is who dictates to you that system of seemingly simple rules which will make your lives easier by making you receptive to power? Your instinct sniffs its odor pleasurably, but when you are able to smell it up close vomit will rise to your throat and you will scream with terror. Donít delude yourself that his odor is that of sulfur. How this odor has been desired throughout the centuries, how men have gotten drunk on its promises of orgies, of initiation rites, of easy ways of acquiring magical power, of witchesí sabbaths in which to throw off all restraint and give themselves up to all kinds of excesses, rolling around in the enjoyment of the most vile self-sacrifice you can conceive of. But thatís nothing compared to the final degradation that will be required of those who kneel before power. The enemy of all justice is not free. This is why he never keeps his promises. He has a Mistress. And he turns over the unfortunate ones to her, so that she may cause them to decompose within her, nourishing herself with the humours of their decay and becoming drunk on the stench of their miasmas. That stench is the perfume of eternal illusion, and it is the real odor of power, which you do not smell because you mistake it for the fragrance of violets."
"The Mistress, as you call her, is part of life", the Monsignor suggested with some uncertainty.
"Sheís part of the Fall, not part of life."
"But Jesus Christ has already raised us up from the Fall."
"He overcame death."
"Of course. Exactly."
"But death is here. More triumphant than ever."
"My friend: He was God. We are not. Even evil is still with us, for that matter. The gates of Paradise have been opened, but itís still up to man to choose. Man is free."
"So is God."
"What does that mean?"
"That if man doesnít want to hear from one ear, He will speak to him in the other."

The meeting had come to an end. The Managing Director took the floor in order to bring it formally to a close.
"I believe I speak for everyone when I say that the authorís proposal for publication is not approved."
He got up, shook hands with the Monsignor and Doctor Schwacher, then took the Editorial Director aside, pushing him gently by the elbow and moving off with him. The latter, before leaving the room, turned his head and gave a funny wink, which was evidently intended to be a gesture of goodbye. With a little wave of her hand, Doctor Schwacher set off behind them as though she had been invited to follow along. The two assistants, feeling awkward once again after the exit of the three individuals who had excited all their hidden energies, remained stock still for a moment, looking toward the Monsignor. But they soon realized that he could not be a source of warmth for them that would be comparable to those which had just disappeared. So they turned to the author, and the young man, with a tone that was meant to stress the sense of duty behind his offer, asked him if he would like a ride.
"No", the Monsignor said. "I would like to have the pleasure of accompanying the author to his hotel."
The two young people were taken aback, as if they had suddenly discovered that they had been fooled by someone in whom they had placed their childlike trust. The girl, with a taut half-smile, went up to the Monsignor and genuflecting slightly brought to her lips the hand that he had offered her. The young man, ever more ill at ease, started to do the same, but as he was about to kiss the prelate's hand he remembered - though he didn't recall when or why - that he had made a secular choice that was fundamental to his self-image; so, for consistency, he took the hand that the Monsignor had offered him palm down and instead of kissing it, shook it horizontally two or three times before releasing it. Red as a beet as a result of the comical role he had just played, he went toward the door where the young woman was waiting for him. The latter, addressing the author, said only: "Oh, goodbye". The young man, on the other hand, to recover the energy he had lost in his embarrassment, gave his mentor only a gesture of the hand that was meant to say: "Goodbye. Take care".

The Monsignor sent the driver away and decided to drive himself. He seemed to have the intention of continuing the interrupted discussion one on one, and maybe going deeper into it, but instead he did not open his mouth during the entire trip. The author asked him to leave him at the corner of a narrow, uphill street which vehicles were not permitted to enter. The Monsignor did not remember ever being in that part of the city. The buildings were old like in the center, but he had the impression that the trip had taken them to the extreme outskirts. It was all little hills, and the narrow street that the author had to ascend climbed up one of them. The Monsignor became aware that it was extremely steep.
"But... is your hotel up there?"
"Yes", the man replied indicating the bare summit of the hill where there were no buildings.
"And you can't get there by car. Not even with a taxi?"
The author shook his head. For the first time his eyes were shining with a cheerful little tight-lipped smile that was a little mischievous.
The Monsignor responded weakly to the smile and felt something melt inside him, like an enormous block of ice that had by chance fallen into hot water. He had not had that feeling since he was very young. He first associated it with his childhood love for a little Jewish girl named Ruth who died, and then with the vocation which had shaken his soul and set his family against him; he had returned to his family as a priest, committed to restoring to it all of the honor and power that his thoughtless spiritual choice had placed at risk.
"And the poor guests have to load themselves up with their bags and carry them up there?", he asked grasping at the last hope.
"Father. Give it up", the man said. Then he got out of the car, closed the door and set off up the narrow street.
The Monsignor also got out. "May I go with you?", he offered.
"Then you have to come back?"
He didn't know how to respond. The man turned and began to climb again. The Monsignor's cry stopped him. "Wait. Come down a minute: I want to embrace you".
"Come up a minute. I want to embrace you".
The Monsignor struggled up the incline until he reached the man. When he got to him he threw himself toward him in an embrace for which he had waited an eternity. The man returned the embrace, and he was moved.
"What will I tell them, down there?", the Monsignor asked with anguish.
"The truth."
"But is it the truth?"
"You decide."
"I mean: is it you?"
"I'm me. And you're you."
"Don't talk to me as you would talk to John. I'm one of Peter's tribe, and I don't understand everything that John would understand. Please, tell me: are you Him?
"I am Him. And you are Him. And you are all Him. Only, I remember it, and you don't."

 

 

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