The present manuscript was given to me by the warden of the local jail in a small town in Piedmont. The unreliable information this man furnished us about the mysterious prisoner who left these papers behind in his cell, the obscurity that shrouds the writer’s fate, a widespread, inexplicable reticence in all whose paths crossed that of the author of the following pages oblige us to be content with what we know; as we must be content with what is left of the manuscript—after the voracity of the prison rats—since we feel that even in these circumstances the reader can form a notion of the extraordinary tale of this Umberto Umberto (unless the mysterious prisoner is perhaps Vladimir Nabokov, paradoxically a refugee in the Langhe region, and the manuscript shows the other face of that protean immoralist) and thus finally can draw from these pages the hidden lesson: the libertine garb conceals a higher morality.
Granita. Flower of my adolescence, torment of my nights. Will I ever see you again? Granita. Granita. Gran-i-ta. Three syllables, the second and third forming a diminutive, as if contradicting the first. Granita, may I remember you until your image has become a shadow and your abode the grave.
My name is Umberto Umberto. When the crucial event occurred, I was submitting boldly to the triumph of adolescence. According to those who knew me then, and not those who see me now, Reader, in this cell, haggard, with the first traces of a prophet’s beard stiffening my cheeks . . . According to those who knew me then, I was an ephebe of parts, with that hint of melancholy due, I believe, to the Mediterranean chromosomes of a Calabrian ancestor. The young girls I met desired me with all the violence of their burgeoning wombs, transferring me into the telluric anguish of their lonely nights. I scarcely remember those girls, as I myself was the horrible prey of quite another passion; my eyes barely grazed their cheeks gilded in the slanting sunset light by a silken transparent down.
I loved, dear Reader, dear friend! And with the folly of my eager years, I loved those whom you would call, in your sluggish thoughtlessness, “old women.” From the deepest labyrinth of my beardless being, I desired those creatures already marked by stern, implacable age, bent by the fatal rhythm of their eighty years, horribly undermined by the shadow of senescence. To denote those creatures ignored by many, forgotten in the lubricious indifference of the customary usagers of sturdy Friulan milkmaids of twenty-five, I will employ, dear Reader—oppressed here again by the reflux of an intrusive knowledge that impedes, arrests any innocent act I might venture—a term that I do not despair of having chosen with precision: nornettes.
How can I describe, O you who judge me (toi, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblance, mon frere!), the matutinal prey offered the crafty fancier of nornettes in this swamp of our buried world? How can I convey this to you, who course through the afternoon gardens in banal pursuit of maidens beginning to bud? What can you know of the subdued, shadowy, grinning hunt that the lover of nornettes may conduct on the benches of old parks, in the scented penumbra of basilicas, on the graveled paths of suburban cemeteries, in the Sunday hour at the corner of the nursing home, at the doors of the hospice, in the chanting ranks of parish processions, at charity bazaars: an amorous, intense, and–alas–inexorably chaste ambush, to catch a closer glimpse of those faces furrowed by volcanic wrinkles, those eyes watering with cataract, the twitching movements of those dry lips sunken in the exquisite depression of a toothless mouth, lips enlivened at times by a glistening trickle of salivary ecstasy, those proudly gnarled hands, nervously, lustfully tremulous, provocative, as they tell a very slow rosary!
Can I ever recreate, Reader-friend, the sinking desperation on sighting that elusive prey, the spasmodic shiver at certain fleeting contacts: an elbow’s nudge in a crowded tram—”Excuse me, madam, would you like a seat?” Oh, satanic friend, how dared you accept the moist look of gratitude and the “Thank you, young man, how kind!”, when you would have preferred to enact on the spot a bacchic drama of possession?—the grazing of a venerable knee as your calf slides between two rows of seats in the pomeridian solitude of a neighborhood cinema, or the tender but controlled gasp—sporadic moments of extreme contact!—of the skeletal arm of a crone you helped cross at the light with the prim concern of an eagle scout.
The vicissitudes of my idle youth afforded me other encounters. As I have said, I had a reasonably engaging appearance, with my dark cheeks and the tender countenance of a maiden oppressed by a delicate virility. I was not unaware of adolescent love, but I submitted to it as if paying a tolling, fulfilling the requirements of my age. I recall a May evening, shortly before sunset, when in the garden of a patrician villa—it was in the Varese region, not far from the lake, red in the sinking sun—I lay in the shade of some bushes with a fledgling sixteen-year-old, all freckles and powerless in the grip of a dismaying storm of amorous feelings toward me. And it was at that moment, while I was listlessly granting her the desired wand of my pubescent thaumaturgy, that I saw, Reader, at a window of the upper floor, the form of a decrepit nanny as she bent almost double as she unrolled down her leg the shapeless mass of a cotton stocking. The breathtaking sight of that swollen limb, with its varicose marbling, stroked by the clumsy movement of the old hands unrolling the lumpy article of clothing, seemed to me (to my concupiscent eyes!) a brutal and enviable phallus soothed by a virginal caress: it was at that moment that, seized by an ecstasy redoubled by distance, I exploded, gasping, in an effusion of biological assent that the maiden (foolish tadpole, how I hated you!) welcomed, moaning, as a tribute to her own callow charms.
Did you ever realize, my dull-witted instrument of redirected passion, that you had enjoyed the food of another’s repast, or did the dim vanity of your unripe years portray me to you as a fiery, unforgettable accomplice in sin? After leaving the next day with your family, you sent me a postal card signed “Your old friend.” Did you perceive the truth, revealing to me your perspicacity in the careful employment of that adjective, or was yours simply a bravado use of jargon, the mettlesome high-school girl rebelling against correct epistolary style?
Ah, after that, how I stared, trembling, at every window in the hope of glimpsing the flaccid silhouette of an octogenarian in the bath! How many evenings, half hidden by a tree, did I consummate my solitary debauches, my eyes trained on the shadow cast against a curtain, of some grandmother sweetly engaged in gumming a meal! And the horrid disappointment, immediate and destructive (tiens, donc, le salaud!), when the figure, abandoning the falsehood of those ombres chi noises, revealed itself at the sill for what she was, a naked ballerina with swelling breasts and the tanned hips of an Andalusian mare!
So for months and years I coursed, unsated, in the deluded hunt for adorable nornettes, caught up in the pursuit that was born, indestructible, I am sure, at the moment of my birth, when a toothless old midwife—my father’s desperate search at that hour of the night had produced only that hag, with one foot in the grave!—rescued me from the viscous prison of the maternal womb and revealed to me, in the light of life, her immortal countenance: a jeune parque.
I seek no justification from you who read (a la guerre comme a la guerre); I am merely explaining to you how inevitable was the concurrence of events that brought me to my triumph.
The soiree to which I had been invited was a sordid petting party with young models and pimply university students. The sinuous lewdness of those aroused maidens, the negligent offering of their breasts through unbuttoned blouses in the swirl of the dance, disgusted me. I was already thinking to run away from that place of banal traffic among crotches as yet intact, when a shrill, strident sound (will I ever be able to express the dizzying pitch, the hoarse descent of those vocal cords, long exhausted, the allure supreme de cri centenaire?), the tremulous lament of an ancient female, plunged the assembly in silence. And in the frame of the doorway I saw her, the face of the remote Norn of my natal shock, the cascading enthusiasm of her lasciviously white locks, the stiffened body that stretched the stuff of the little, threadbare black dress into acute angles, the legs now thin and bent opposing arcs, the fragile line of her vulnerable femur outlined under the ancient modesty of the venerable skirt.
The insipid maiden who was our hostess made a show of tolerant politeness. She raised her eyes to heaven as she said, “She’s my granny . . .”
At this point the intact part of the manuscript ends. What can be inferred from the scattered lines that follow suggests that the story continued more or less in this fashion: A few days later, Umberto Umberto abducts his hostess’s grandmother, carrying her off on the handlebars of his bicycle, toward Piedmont. At first he takes her to a home for the aged poor, where, the same night, he possesses her, discovering among other things that the woman is not without previous experience. At daybreak, as he is smoking a cigarette in the semidarkness of the garden, he is approached by a dubious-looking youth who asks him slyly if the old woman is really his grandmother. Alarmed, Umberto Umberto leaves the institution with Granita and begins a dizzying race over the roads of Piedmont. He visits the wine fair at Canelli, the annual truffle festival at Alba, participates in the historical pageant at Caglianetto, inspects the livestock market at Nizza Monferrato, and follows the election of Miss Milkmaid in Ivrea and the sack race in honor of the patron saint’s day in Condove. At the end of his mad odyssey through that northern region, he realizes that for some time his bicycle has been slyly followed by an eagle scout on a motor scooter, who eludes every attempt to trap him. One day, at Incisa Scapaccino, when he takes Granita to a chiropodist, leaving her alone for a few minutes while he goes to buy cigarettes, he discovers, on returning, that the old woman has abandoned him, running off with his new kidnapper. For several months he sinks into deep depression, but finally finds the old woman again, fresh from a beauty farm where her seducer has taken her. Her face is without a wrinkle, her hair is a coppery blond, her smile is dazzling. Umberto Umberto is overwhelmed by a profound sense of pity and resigned despair at the sight of this destruction. Without a word, he purchases a shotgun and sets out in search of the villain. He finds the young scout at a campsite rubbing two sticks together to light a fire. He shoots once, twice, three times, repeatedly missing the youth, until finally two priests wearing leather jackets and black berets overpower him. Promptly arrested, he is sentenced to six months for illegal possession of firearms and hunting out of season.
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver
This is an excerpt from Eco’s Misreadings
Harcourt, Inc., 1993