I’d really love to be a translator. Whenever I’ve been given translations to do, right from when I was at school, it’s never really felt like work. I’ve always found them stimulating, absorbing, challenging, educational and – what the hell – fun. I don’t suppose I’ll ever actually manage to be one, since officially I don’t have a foreign languages degree (no doubt a prerequisite for taking a postgraduate qualification in translation) and don’t want to pay £36,000 plus living costs to go back to university with a load of 18-year-olds to get one.
My one-time decent German did mean that I occasionally got to do some translation work as a subtitler, but with the exception of some work on Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) for Film Four International and one ancient Wim Wenders film (Der Scharlachrote Buchstabe) it was mostly porn. Porn with a plot, at least. More often though I was doing reviews of subtitles that had been translated into English by the Germans employed by my company, who typically did an outstanding job. (And I’m not just saying that because some of them are reading this blog.) I kind of wasn’t needed. Besides, translating German film and DVD extras if you aren’t a native speaker and you haven’t been provided with a script (and you hardly ever are) can be quite difficult as the sound quality of a digitally converted video file (possibly a copy of a copy of a copy of the master tape) makes things hard to hear, especially if the film is in dialect.
So really, in my dream world, I’d be translating novels, with a nice written text in front of me. Especially as this way, you get to write a novel without needing to think up a storyline. Now, I am under no illusions that this is in any way a possible dream, even if I were allowed a place on - for example - the University of East Anglia’s MA in Literary Translation. For starters, how many German novels are actually ever translated into English? Possibly only a few every couple of years (Charlotte Roche, Bernhard Schlink, Hans Fallada, Pascal Mercier, Jenny Erpenbeck) and I am sure that publishers already have plenty of translators lined up to work on them. These same translators will no doubt also be given a ridiculously short deadline and be paid peanuts for their work, if my experience in translation subtitling is anything to go by. I am sure that they translate novels for love rather than financial reward and will actually be making their proper living from translating washing machine manuals or teaching or cleaning or prostitution or something. (Probably not prostitution.) And some of them will rely on translation software programmes to get the job done on time and on budget.
But nonetheless I often find English translations of German novels fairly horrible and would like to think that I could do better. (Ha!) They just sound so stilted. Often they have been done by non-native speakers (and clearly not the brilliant people I used to work with), presumably because there just aren’t that many British people who speak German well enough to translate novels. Or maybe because they've been partially translated by computer.
I keep telling me that this gives me a little niche in the market, but frankly, these days my German is shocking and I can barely string a sentence together. Though this means I’d probably fit in quite well with a bunch of 18-year-old undergraduates these days, given the state of German language teaching in most of our schools. Bitch, bitch.
So no doubt the dream must remain a dream, and it’s just another thing to get depressed about as I career towards my mid-life crisis with a total lack of career. But I’m definitely never going to be able to translate novels if I don’t practise, so this is what this challenge was about.
Having initially had fanciful notions of working on something by Hermann Hesse or another of my favourite German authors, I eventually decided I had to go for something mainstream and straightforward. I also needed to pick a novel for which there was no existing English translation otherwise I would have probably been inclined to cheat.
So I chose the first chapter of Die Vipern Von Montesecco by Bernhard Jaumann, which I’d picked up in a bookstore in Mainz back in 2008 and read the following year. It’s a thriller set in Italy and was a very enjoyable read, in easy but well-written German. I can’t remember whodunit now, which may yet spur me to carry on with the translation.
I loved doing the translation, though it did much to highlight my inadequacies in the German language and how absent the subtle nuances are from my knowledge. One of the hardest things was translating conversations and trying to make them sound natural. A translation has to sound so fluent that no one would ever guess that the novel wasn’t written in anything other than the language you’ve translated it into. Getting the pitch of slang wrong sounds excruciating and it’s precisely things like slang that make me realise how out of touch my German is. Though in this book, you also have to think about the sort of things that a group of old men in an Italian village might be saying to each other. “Guten Morgen, Angelo, wir sind beim Wein” was an utterance I really struggled with. “Der Papst kommt nicht. Der ist zu alt und er muß keusch bleiben” another. (The book is, übrigens, written in old spelling.)
And then there are things I just don’t know about in German, even if I might have done once. Thankfully these days you are no longer reliant on just your Collins German-English dictionary for words and phrases you’ve forgotten or have never encountered before. There are numerous regularly updated online dictionaries and loads of translator discussion forums. Some things would have been cleared up with just a quick chat with a native speaker. For example, the sunflowers in the fields are described as “halbstark” which actually is a German term for beatnik (which sunflowers can’t be) or rowdy adolescent, but the sunflowers are standing in orderly rows (Reih und Glied), which doesn’t make them seem so rowdy. So should halbstark actually have more of a literal translation (=half-strength) here? I considered “diminished” – the paragraph is describing the eternal heat of that summer and how it was wreaking havoc with the crops, so no doubt the sunflowers would have been struggling too, but “diminished” could also have the other implication of something like “diminished responsibility”, which might bring to mind the other rowdier meaning too. But “diminished sunflowers” sounded stupid so in the end I went for “dishevelled” which is either bang on or utterly far removed from what the author intended. And everything in the village was schräg gegenüber (diagonally opposite) – a precise term which you hardly ever hear in English and which also sounds too organised to be in an Italian village.
As an aside, I wonder how much contact you are allowed with the author if you are commissioned to translate their work? After all, they are the only ones who really know what they mean. I ask this merely because when you translate a film you would be unlikely to have any communication with the director or script writer, at least for DVD release. Maybe you would for original cinema subtitles, but I have never worked for a company which has produced those. I can tell you that if you were translating a British or American film or television series for a DVD being released with subtitles in several foreign languages you would be provided with an English subtitle template to work from (so you would have no hearing issues) and some translation notes on any slang terms. (Think of the need for a glossary in The Wire. Think how hard it is to write such a glossary!).
There’s also things you don’t know because they involve subjects you’ve never had to know about before. As a translator you potentially have to know everything about everything, and not just if you specialise in technical translation. In this book, the subject entirely new to me was olive tree cultivation, and how shoots are grafted on to older trees in order to improve their fruit bearing capacity. Thanks, Wikipedia, for explaining that one.
There’s also clever little linguistic touches in German that are very hard to make work to a similar degree in English. For example, in the section on the television footage of the assassination in Palermo, the following exchange takes place:
..daß das Attentat ein Anschlag auf den demokratischen Rechtstaat gewesen sei.
“Dann ist er jetzt tot” sagte Catia
“Der demokratische Rechtstaat.”
“Er” (he) doesn’t really work in English as our nouns don’t have genders so there can’t be the same confusion or reaction from the listener. But there’s not really any other way of translating it.
This leads on to how creative you are allowed to be – it’s someone else’s words you are translating, so you can’t rewrite the novel as you think it should sound, you have to make it sound as though it was the author himself writing in English. So how good a writer is Bernhard Jaumann really? Just how imaginative are his heat metaphors? Do I personally have the confidence and ability to be the judge of that? How do you make your English writing as good or bad as his German writing? Is it OK to split up crazily long German sentences into shorter English variants and be a bit meaner with the commas? Only years of study and experience could give you the skill to make these fine judgments.
Anyway, I am putting the translation in below, but I am not sure whether I am allowed to do so. It’s entirely my own work, but it’s an unauthorised translation of a published book, so there may be copyright issues here. Please note that I am not intentionally breaking any laws by including it. I wouldn’t say I was happy with all of it. It’s the sort of thing you could keep tweaking forever. But I don’t have any more time to spend on it right now, unfortunately.
The Vipers Of Montesecco by Bernhard Jaumann
Tourists do not stray into the sleepy village of Montesecco. Only a few dozen people live there, in the back-country of the Adriatic. Thunderstorms lie heavy in the hot July air. One from their midst is dead - a poisonous viper has bitten Giorgio Lucarelli. What looks like an accident turns out to have been a meticulously planned act of revenge. The father of the dead man forbids his burial before the perpetrator is caught, and is himself killed in an accident shortly thereafter. All of Montesecco is looking for the murderer and nearly everyone in the village comes under suspicion. While two corpses await their funeral in the heat, the vipers’ poison spreads like wildfire.
Now holding fast the laws,
His country's sacred rights,
That rest upon the oath of Gods on high,
High in the state he stands.
An outlaw and an exile he who loves
The thing that is not good,
In wilful pride of soul.
It couldn’t be Beppone. Beppone hadn’t even been a young dog fifteen years ago. At best, his bones were bleaching in the sun somewhere. And yet the dog by the street fountain in front of the Palazzo Civico looked exactly like Beppone did back then. The watery eyes, the shaggy brown fur, the mutilated tail.
Matteo Vannoni put the suitcase on the lowest of the steps that linked the piazza with the upper part of the village. It was deathly quiet. The dog was the first living creature to greet him in Montesecco. Did they think he’d come back with a shotgun under his arm?
“Hey, Beppone,“ Vannoni said. The dog stretched, yawned and trotted away over the glowing piazza.
“Rule number one: life goes on,” Vannoni murmured.
The midday sun blasted in the sky and pounded undiluted heat onto the roofs. The shutters on the windows were closed. Vannoni thought it possible that pairs of eyes were peering out between the slats from the semi-darkness, but he wasn’t sure.
Lucarelli’s house opposite had been painted grey. The windows were possibly new too. The dog crept under a parked car. A VW Golf. Fifteen years ago there had been only Fiats and Ape three-wheelers in the village.
A foreign car, a different-coloured wall and a strange dog who looked like Beppone. Otherwise, everything was just the same as before. The facades, the uneven plaster, the walls of rough stone on the hill, the white plastic chairs next to Lucarelli’s front door. The blue Tabacchi sign still hung above the door of Rapanotti’s shop, which had closed down even before Vannoni’s time. They also hadn’t done anything with the old wash house to the side. It must have been decades ago that the stone basins had last seen any water. Even the hands on the clock on the Palazzo Civico were still stopped at twenty past eight.
Vannoni had grown up in Montesecco. He had suffered long enough from how life was there, and yet he had naturally assumed that everything would have changed. After fifteen years. But they hadn’t even managed to fix the broken clock!
Perhaps life hadn’t gone on at all. Perhaps it had simply stood still and...
Nonsense. Maria was dead, Catia had celebrated her seventeeth birthday a month ago, and he’d had fifteen years to think about things. Suddenly he realised that he’d not been thinking about the right things.
“Rule number two – don’t take yourself too seriously,” Vannoni said to himself. He picked up the suitcase, climbed up the steps, turned left, twenty metres up the steep footpath. The two large terracotta tubs still stood in front of his house. The oleander was covered with red flowers. A note hung on his front door. “We didn’t know if you’d want to be alone. Come over if you feel like it. Catia, Elena, Angelo.”
Vannoni pushed down the handle. The door sprung open. The air that flooded out made him stop for a moment. They hadn’t discussed it during any of his sister’s visits, but he was sure that Elena had regularly aired the place out, dusted, and swept the cobwebs aside. It didn’t smell musty inside the house. It didn’t smell of anything at all. Not a trace of stale smoke, cooking aromas, sweaty armpits. The air in his house was dead.
Get out, get out of here, something inside urged Vannoni. He had to force himself to put his suitcase down. His hand was shaking as he let go of the handle. Then he inhaled deeply. He didn’t have to come back here, yet he had decided to do so. Now he was here, he wouldn’t instantly drop a decision that had been slowly maturing for fifteen years just because a smell was coming out of his house that he didn’t much care for.
How should a house smell that hadn’t been lived in for fifteen years? Vannoni lit a cigarette and blew out the smoke. Now he would go through the house and open the windows. He would examine the rooms. Everything would either be the same as before or different. He wouldn’t care. He’d observe the facts and it’d be all right. However it was. He stubbed the cigarette out on the door frame.
Vannoni went through the house. He began in the kitchen. He’d told Elena to take whatever she wanted, but apparently she hadn’t wanted anything. The bathroom was also unchanged. In the lounge, the calendar of the Cassa di Risparmio from the year 1978 was still hanging on the wall. The photo for July was of a sunset in the Dolomites. Catia’s room was empty apart from a large cupboard. Of course she’d have taken the child’s things. Everything was all right.
Before he went into the bedroom, he hesitated for a moment. Then he opened the door. The shutters of both windows were closed. The room was in semi-darkness, through which fell the pale stripes of the gaps in the shutters. Vannoni turned the light on. Back then, he’d turned the light on too. Back then, Giorgio Lucarelli was already halfway out of the window. His hairy back and naked white buttocks were the last he saw of him. The cupboard in which his lupara had been waiting for the start of the hunting season was still in the corner. Before he’d managed to load the weapon, Lucarelli had vanished into the night.
Vannoni opened the window and the shutters. His hand stroked along the sill. He turned around. A lightweight cover was on the double bed. The mattress underneath it was unmade. Back then, the linen sheet had been rumpled on the right-hand side. Maria hadn’t moved from the bed. She had sat up sideways. She pressed her naked back against the wall and pulled the sheet up to her chin. She looked at him. He’d never forget that look. He hadn’t understood what he was witnessing. It was neither shock nor shame, sympathy, mockery or defiance. He’d seen what was going on but he hadn’t grasped any of it. Not then, not now.
“Why?” he’d asked softly.
“Why?” he’d hissed at her and she’d looked at him like a creature from another planet.
She’d only had to say something.
Just one word that would have given him the possibility of yelling, of bursting into scornful laughter, of shouting her down. But she didn’t say a word.
It was quiet.
It had been quiet then too. Apart from the cracks as he’d cocked the old lupara.
“Why?” he’d asked again, and she had pressed her lips together and looked at him in such a way that he’d never understand his whole life long. Then he’d pressed the trigger. Once, twice. He hadn’t killed his wife because she’d cheated on him with Giorgio Lucarelli. He’d wanted to extinguish that strange look in her eye. Forever. He had to be sure. That’s why he’d reloaded. Twice. Because of that, his defence lawyer had allowed him to plea for a crime of passion, while the state’s lawyer would not tire of trying to prove that he had a tendency towards radical, violent behaviour. Vannoni was sentenced to twenty-one years in prison, of which he’d served fifteen.
Six bullets in her body and blood everywhere. He would have gone on if it hadn’t been for all the blood. Vannoni went over to Maria’s side of the bed and pulled the cover back. There were no spots of blood on the mattress. He bent down and ran his fingers over the surface. Not the slightest trace of blood. You’d surely have to see something. At least be able to see where people must have scraped and scrubbed for hours on end. They surely wouldn’t have bought a new mattress. For the bed of a dead woman? That was ridiculous. He didn’t know why this thought made him so livid.
Vannoni felt the blood come to his head. He was hot. He went into the bathroom and ran the tap. The water leapt out in gurgling brown spurts. In prison, Vannoni had told himself a thousand times that the past is the past. He would leave it in peace. He would take flowers to Maria’s grave. He would bid Giorgio Lucarelli a friendly hello when he ran into him on the piazza. He would deal with everything that happened to him out there openly, quietly and in a composed manner.
Intentions are all very well. Vannoni couldn’t fathom why everything suddenly collapsed around him. Just because he hadn’t found traces of blood on the mattress didn’t mean that all he thought he’d understood over the past few years had to shrink to nothing. He had to reconsider. He wondered what Giorgio Lucarelli was thinking at that moment. He wondered if what Giorgio Lucarelli had been thinking for the past fifteen years could also suddenly turn to rubble.
The red sun sank behind the hills on the other side of the Censano valley. Mist clung to the horizon, but an unreal bright light lay over the fields below Montesecco. As if flames were licking out of the cracked earth. As if it was steaming the heat back out that had been scorching it for 14 hours. Burnt grass, barley stubble, wheat fields. Dishevelled armies of sunflowers stood in rows, their heads hanging low. The gorse had mostly finished flowering, but here and there dirty yellow flecks pierced through the tatters of woodland.
On the hilltop, the houses of Montesecco pressed closely together. Many of them were uninhabited or were only used sporadically by those who had left Montesecco in search of employment and had ended up in Milan or Turin, Belgium, Germany or America. The exodus had begun in 1959, when the largest sulphur mine in Europe near Cabernardi had been shut down. The miners emigrated first, but then the crisis hit the craftsmen, hauliers and farmers. Montesecco’s three shops went bust one after the other, the school closed, and the only thing that grew as the years went by was the number of graves in the cemetery. People always wanted to be buried at home, even if they had had to spend their whole lives in foreign parts. But twenty-seven people still lived year-round in Montesecco and they wouldn’t have swapped it for anywhere else in the world.
In the middle of the village a long piazza opened up that was connected by narrow steps and twisty thoroughfares to the few streets and alleyways across which the houses looked at one another. The Torre Civica on the front end of the piazza was lower than the church tower of Santa Maria Assunta further up. In front of the church door, a piazzetta jutted out to the east that was protected from the sheer drop below by a waist-high parapet. On a clear day, you could see all the way to Monte Conero to the south and almost as far as Ravenna to the north.
It wasn’t just the view that made the residents of Montesecco refer to the piazzetta as their balcony. On this airy square you felt at home. Here beat the heart of the village community, here people met each other in front of the only bar in the village, an inconspicuous little house with peeling pink plaster that leaned against the chapel of Holy Sebastian.
Invisible lines divided the balcony in two. The two stone benches at the far end and a few square metres directly in front of the bar belonged to the women. Milena Angiolini was sitting there, a blonde beauty who would have cut a good figure on any catwalk in Rome or Milan. She fanned herself with a plastic plate and whispered with the landlady Maria Garzone. Their children were chasing a small brown dog with loud whoops and had cornered him up against the balcony parapet. In this area, which the men kept for themselves, a few folding chairs stood around a table. On its plastic surface, Ivan Garzone placed a bottle of Bianchello and a tray with a dozen glasses.
“Well? Is he coming?” asked Ivan Garzone.
“Who?” asked Angelo Sgreccia in reply.
“Who do you think? The Pope!”
“The Pope isn’t coming. He’s too old and has to keep himself pure,” said old Marcantoni with a snigger.
“So?” Ivan asked Sgreggia. “What’s Vannoni got to say for himself?”
“At least let him talk to his daughter first,” said Angelo Sgreccia.
“What about when he’s spoken to Catia? Will he come then?” asked Ivan Garzone.
“No, he won’t,” said Sgreccia. He would know. He and Vannoni had been inseparable when they were children. There hadn’t been a single day when they didn’t hang out together and get up to all sorts of mischief. The teacher in Pergola had given them the nicknames Castor and Pollux, and soon that’s how they were known by the whole village. Even though the young Vannoni had become distant and expressed opinions that Sgreccia could relate to as little as everyone else, their joint childhood was something he couldn’t make himself forget. Vannoni going on to shut himself out of the village community by an act of violence was another story. But looking back, he and Sgreccia were still seen by the whole village as twins who happened to come from different families. It seemed natural to everyone that Sgreccia went on to marry Vannoni’s sister Elena, and was as a result at least his brother-in-law.
“Do you want a drink?” asked Ivan’s cousin Paolo Garzone. He reached for the wine bottle. It seemed fragile in his paw.
Ivan shoved a glass towards him. Sgreccia shook his head.
“I’ll have it mixed with Sprite,” mumbled Franco Marcantoni with his toothless mouth. He swallowed the T and pronounced the vowel so that the word came out as “spray”.
“Hey, Marta, a Sprite for Franco,” Ivan called to his wife.
“Not even a small glass, Angelo?” Paolo asked.
Sgreccia shook his head. It was well-known to all that he never drank. As a van driver, he couldn’t do without his driving licence and for that reason didn’t want to start boozing, he once explained. Nobody believed that was the real reason for his abstinence, but nothing more could be got out of him, not even after persistent prodding.
“He isn’t drinking today,” said Paolo and poured out two glasses.
“Did your wife ban it?” asked Marcantoni.
“He’s just too lazy to go for a piss,” said Ivan.
Nobody laughed. They remained silent while little Paty brought out the can of Sprite. Gigino toddled behind and watched Marcantoni make his special blend. The evening gradually began to breathe a sigh of relief. The first gentle breeze rose over the parapet and made the leaves on the two ash trees rustle softly. The two Lucarelli girls appeared and tapped their fingers around on the ice cream board next to the entrance to the bar. Marta waited until they had decided on the Crocchino, as they always did, and went inside with them. The fly curtain swung out a little behind them.
“It would be appropriate if he stopped by for a moment,” Franco Marcantoni began again eventually.
“Stopped by for a moment?” Ivan leaned his elbows on the table. “On his first night of freedom? If I’d spent fifteen years behind bars I wouldn’t go confidently into my local pub, sit down at a table and say, ‘Barman, I am a free man, it’s a beautiful evening, so bring me and my friends the finest wine from your cellar so that we can all...’”
“You don’t know Vannoni,” said Paolo Garzone.
“What of it?”
“And you don’t have a wine cellar,” muttered Marcantoni.
“Not yet. But just you wait! As soon as there’s some money in the bank, I’ll make something of this place.” Ivan gulped down the contents of his glass. “But first-class wine I do have. Will you not have a glass after all, Angelo?”
“He knows that Giorgio Lucarelli will be here,” said Sgreccia.
“Well, of course, Angelo, we’re drinking wine!” said Ivan.
“You won’t die from just one glass,” said Marcantoni, but Sgreccia did not respond to the dig. Nobody wanted to start the second round of the squabble that normally followed. If you’d lived in the same place for decades and spent every evening together it was only natural that topics of conversation repeated themselves and roles became reinforced. Everyone knew everyone else. Everyone knew his neighbour’s weaknesses and wasn’t afraid to make jokes about them. But on this particular evening, nobody wanted to, because this evening wasn’t like any other. Matteo Vannoni had returned. Nobody knew what that meant. Something was in the air, and for once the usual rituals seemed insipid.
There were no secrets but there were things that were never spoken about. Vannoni murdering his wife didn’t belong to those things initially. He had completely shattered the village and had been the main topic of conversation for months. Factions for and against Vannoni had formed. When the trial was over, people had continued to debate the verdict heavily, but at some point they had all had enough. Hailstorms came, bad harvests and lottery wins, deaths, births, village festivals. Life went on, but Vannoni, sitting in a cell somewhere far away, no longer belonged there.
Now and then, but increasingly less often, Elena and Angelo were still asked how he was, but nobody really wanted to know. His existence for the village had ended in a bloody deed that slipped ever further away and seemed ever more unreal. He had become a shadow. Grey, distant. And unpleasant. Like someone who was terminally ill refusing to die. So people tried to forget about him. Nobody talked about him. Were people now supposed to be ashamed of themselves for it? Should people hold it against Vannoni that he had risen from the dead? Was this old story not done with after all?
“Fifteen years is a long time,” said Angelo Sgreccia. Fifteen years had gone by for him too. Elena and Sgreccia, who had no children of their own, had taken in Vannoni’s daughter Catia after the event. They had raised her as well as they could. They had watched her grow up. For fifteen years. Catia had become their child. They loved her, and the fact that she was difficult and always withdrawn didn’t change anything for them.
“For killing his wife, fifteen years is nothing,” said Ivan. Nowadays in prison you live like a king. Three square meals a day, peace and quiet, sporting activities. You can go to mass on Sundays, do courses and even have your own telly.”
“I’m curious to see what he’ll do now,” said Franco Marcantoni.
“He won’t find work easily,” said Paolo Garzone.
“I didn’t mean that,” said Marcantoni. With his bony hand he poured himself half a glass of wine with Sprite.
“If I were him...” Ivan broke off mid-sentence. Giorgio Lucarelli had appeared round the corner of the chapel. He nodded to the women at the entrance to the bar and pinched Paty’s cheek affectionately. Then he sloped slowly over to the table, pulled up a chair and collapsed into it. He didn’t behave in any way differently to normal but this time it seemed to the others as though an actor had walked on stage.
“Boy, am I thirsty,” he said. Sun and years of working in the fields had drawn deep furrows across his face. He was still good-looking – tough, wiry – but he was beginning to show his forty years.
Paolo Garzone poured out a glass and pushed it over the table.
“So what’s new?” asked Lucarelli.
What was new was that Vannoni had returned. That could not have escaped Lucarelli. And hadn’t Vannoni readily admitted at the trial that he would have shot him too, given the opportunity? Now he had that opportunity.
“We were just talking about...” Paolo Garzone said hesitatingly.
“About vipers,” Ivan interrupted. “Down near Madonna del Piano, one of Luigi the shepherd’s dogs got hit. The dog stuck his nose into the bushes and pow! A jet-black viper, not even a big one.”
“That’s the sweltering heat,” said Marcantoni, “It makes them aggressive.”
“And more poisonous”, said Sgreccia. “It’s as if they’ve been charged up. Pure poison from head to tail, pure poison.”
If he’d been expecting a different topic of conversation, Lucarelli didn’t show it. And yet he must have sensed that the others were avoiding him, either out of consideration or through uncertainty. Lucarelli gulped the wine down and reached for the bottle. It was empty.
“Luigi got the dog into his car straightaway. It wasn’t even quarter of an hour before he got the injection, but there was nothing anyone could do,” said Ivan.
“I am now in my seventies” said Marcantoni, “But it’s never been as bad as this year. They are everywhere. There’s a viper under every stone. You’d almost think the earth was spewing out poison.”
Lucarelli stood up and said, “I’m off. I’ve got better things to do than listen to you lot prattling on about snakes. As if you think the world is coming to an end just because some dog’s gone and died.”
He threw a thousand-lire note on the table and disappeared.
Ivan pocketed the money and said, “Giorgio isn’t doing too well today.”
“Not well at all,” said Paolo Garzone.
“Mm,” said old Marcantoni.
“Four months gone?” asked Matteo Vannoni, dumbstruck. “Why didn’t you write and tell me?”
“I’m telling you now,” said Catia. She was wearing jeans and a white T shirt. She wasn’t showing yet.
“For heaven’s sake, you’re seventeen!” said Vannoni.
Catia didn’t reply. She stared at the television. Telegiornale was on. They were showing footage of a burnt-out limousine behind a police cordon. The umpteenth bomb attack on a judge in Palermo. The pictures were in colour, but otherwise could easily have been mistaken for the ones that had been running over and over in Vannoni’s mind for the past fifteen years. A battlefield that the police had descended on like vultures.
“Well?” asked Vannoni. Perhaps she was showing a little bit. Catia hadn’t visited him in the past two years. He didn’t know if his daughter would have been thinner four months ago.
Vannoni hadn’t been to visit Catia for fifteen years. He had no right to hit the roof like this.
“Well, how did this come about?”
“You mean you don’t know where babies come from?” asked Catia.
She was watching the flickering images. Her face was soft, her eyebrows thick, her nose perhaps a little too large. She also had blonde hair, otherwise she didn’t resemble Maria at all.
“Who is the father?” asked Vannoni.
Catia stared at the television screen, across which a stretcher was being wheeled. The body on it was covered by a tarpaulin. The last time Vannoni had watched television as a free man it had been five. Five bodies, five stretchers, five tarpaulins.
“Who is it? Who is the father?” asked Vannoni.
A politician’s face in close-up said the attack was an attack on a democratic, lawful state.
“Then he’s dead,” said Catia.
“The democratic, lawful state.”
A good fifty metres down the slope stood a cluster of olive trees. They had knobbly trunks out of which sprouted a few twigs of pathetic green. Giorgio Lucarelli trudged over the barley stubble towards them. At eleven o’clock in the morning, the ground was already glowing under his work shoes. The air was shimmering and the houses of San Pietro seemed to sway over the crest of the hill to the south like a Fata Morgana.
Corriere Adriatico had forecast a new heat record. And there wasn’t a drop of rain in sight. In any case, the barley had been got in. The wheat still needed a few more days but he’d manage it. Then they’d see. Somehow it was always all right. Lucarelli had never been able to stand the continual whining of the others. If it didn’t rain for a few days, they would see the harvest shrivelling. And if it did rain, they would see the fields swimming in it.
Lucarelli reached the first olive tree. The recently grafted shoot had taken well. It would be three years before the tree bore fruit again, but they would be big, fleshy eating olives, rather than the little ones which consisted of barely anything more than the stone. Lucarelli flicked his knife and began to remove the shoots at the bottom of the trunk.
The locals were exaggerating this whole thing with Lucarelli too. They had avoided the subject on the previous evening while he’d been around, but Lucarelli had sensed that they were absolutely convinced a catastrophe was on its way. As if one had to kill the other in order to survive. Would they challenge each other to a duel on the piazza like in an American western? Him, Giorgio Lucarelli, standing stock still in front of the Palazzo Civico, waiting. Heavy footsteps resounding from the alley leading to the church. Matteo Vannoni stepping out of the shadows on the other side of the piazza and stopping at a distance of 20 paces. Their faces not flinching. A child being dragged by his mother into a house, the window shutters slamming to...
It was ridiculous. Lucarelli went to the next tree and checked the shoot with his gentle hands. Vannoni and he would never be the best of friends, but they didn’t need to be either. They would do their best to avoid one another, but if they did run into each other, they would be able to exchange a few polite words. Vannoni had had enough time to think about things. Back then he’d simply cracked, Lucarelli could understand that. Perhaps he’d have done the same, if he’d found Antonietta in bed with another man. But to get out of prison after fifteen years, only to commit another murder and have to return – this time for good – Vannoni wouldn’t be that stupid.
All the shoots had taken magnificently. Lucarelli would water the trees if the drought continued. Who cared if the parish council had forbidden it? He put his knife away. He wiped the sweat from his brow and set off back. Up the slope.
He stopped at the ruined rustico where old Godi used to live. He must also have been dead for twenty years. He’d died in winter, alone, and had never wanted anything to do with anyone. The body had lain around for a few days and would have perhaps remained undiscovered for longer if Giorgio’s father hadn’t heard the animals howling. One horse, two cows and a few sheep that had been shut up in their pens for days without food or water. The noise had been terrifying, his father had told him, and then he’d gone in and discovered Godi dead in front of the wash basin. He’d taken care of the animals, harnessed the horse and carried Godi’s body to the priest. No, it must have been at least twenty-five years ago now. Giorgio had been a server at the burial.
The walls of the house that were still standing were overgrown with six-foot high thorny bushes. Godi’s heirs lived somewhere up north and had let everything go to rack and ruin. They hadn’t been here once in all that time. The Lucarellis had kept the fruit trees accessible and pruned them - first Carlo and now, for the past few years, Giorgio. Almonds, peaches and the wide overhanging mulberry bush, in the shade of which Giorgio Lucarelli had placed his water bottle. He sat down on the old chopping block in front of the trunk and leaned back. The water bottle was to his left, on a piece of rubble. Lucarelli reached for it, grasped the neck of the bottle, and could feel through the plastic that the water had got too warm despite having been in the shade. He thought to himself a cool beer would now be just... and heard the hiss.
A soft, short hiss incredibly close by. A threatening, monosyllabic hiss that sounded like a “Stop!”. Lucarelli’s fingers froze around the neck of the bottle. Without moving his head, he let his gaze fall down to the side. The viper’s head wasn’t even ten centimetres from his wrist. It was a triangular black head, as immobile as its black torso. Only the end of its tail twitched nervously.
Lucarelli didn’t move. He concentrated on breathing quietly and rhythmically. If he didn’t lose his nerve, nothing would happen. Vipers only attacked if they were surprised or felt threatened. If, for example, a hand came straight at them. Lucarelli had already survived the most dangerous moment. Now he only had to wait until the snake felt safe enough to move away. No sudden movements.
The viper didn’t move. It was as if it was nailed down.
“Get lost!” thought Lucarelli. “Shove off!” He felt the plastic bottle grow slippery from the sweat on his hand.
The viper’s head swayed a little bit to the side. As if it was looking for the best angle to sink its poisonous fangs into Lucarelli’s wrist. The viper hissed three times. Short, strained. It sounded like a mocking peal of laughter. Then its head was still again. Lucarelli could see its eyes now. They were looking at him coldly.
Lucarelli felt a drop of sweat trickle off his forehead. It stopped on the bridge of his nose. The trail it had left behind seemed to burn into his skin. Lucarelli felt an almost overwhelming urge to wipe the back of his hand over it.
What would happen if the viper bit him? He’d make a makeshift tourniquet. In 20 minutes he’d be up in the village, then a quarter of an hour in the car to Terracini’s practice in San Lorenzo, or straight to hospital in Pergola. They’d definitely have the antidote. He’d be sorted within a good half hour. By evening he’d be laughing over the story in the bar. It wasn’t half so bad.
The viper didn’t move.
Giorgio Lucarelli didn’t move.
“What do you want from me?” he thought.
The viper’s eyes stared fixedly at him. The viper was as black as death.
“Tell me!” thought Lucarelli. “Go on, talk to me, you wretched animal! Tell me what you want!”
The viper flicked its tongue. Its mouth seemed to barely open, but Lucarelli could clearly see its forked tongue as it shot out and in again. As if it had spat out a curse.
“What?” thought Lucarelli. “What did you say?”
The viper didn’t move a muscle. It was waiting. It had said something to Lucarelli and now it was waiting for an answer. Suddenly he was certain that he had to speak. Only when he talked to it would it go away.
“Right," thought Lucarelli.
“What do you want to hear?” he thought. He would say something. The viper and he would never be the best of friends, but they didn’t need to be either. Lucarelli could exchange a few words with anyone. Why not with a snake?
“Good,” he murmured. “I’m now going to take my hand off the bottle.”
“I’m going to remove it slowly,” he said softly, ”And you aren’t going to move.”
The viper didn’t move.
Good. Lucarelli lifted his index finger first. The finger was shaking a little. The viper watched. Middle finger, ring finger, little finger. The surface of his hand came away from the plastic with a soft squelch. The viper growled. Lucarelli’s hand froze mid-movement.
“Keep calm,” he thought. “It’s nothing,” he thought. He saw the imprint of his hand melting away from the edges of the plastic bottle.
The viper growled.
It growled and rattled like an old car that was jolting over the track across the fields to the ruins of Godi’s house.
Lucarelli made no jerky movement. He didn’t move his head an inch. It was his gaze that swept involuntarily to the side towards the noise of the approaching car. A short panning of the eyes that leapt back again when a hot stinging sensation shot through Lucarelli. More from disbelief than shock, his pupils dilated when he saw the viper with its teeth sunk into his lower arm, its jaw wide open and its triangular head so deeply buried in his skin that it looked like a tattoo, its body stiff and taut like a stick, like a strange black syringe that was pressing its black poison relentlessly into Lucarelli’s bloodstream.
It was only a split second before the viper let go, but Lucarelli caught it with his left hand. He didn’t cry out, didn’t fly into a panic. He looked at the viper, he looked at his arm and felt betrayed. He thought they had bonded, the viper and him, but he had been foolish. It had made a fool of him. Lucarelli calmly bent the upper body downwards, put his right foot directly behind the viper’s head and put all his strength into the studs of his heel. The viper’s tail pounded two more times, then it was over. It was dead.
“Vicious beast,” said Lucarelli. He examined his lower arm. The marks of the poisonous fangs were clearly visible. A drop of blood oozed slowly out of one of them. The bite was no more painful than a wasp sting, but Lucarelli could feel the poison flowing through his veins.
He pulled his shirt over his head, bored his knife into the material, yanked and ripped a strip out of it. He wound it round his arm above the bite. With his left hand and his teeth he pulled it as tight as he could.
Behind Godi’s house, someone switched off the engine of the dratted car that had distracted him. Lucarelli heard the car door open and shut again. At least he’d be spared the footpath into the village. He’d get them to take him to hospital and within 20 minutes at the most he’d have been given the antidote. With his left hand Lucarelli unscrewed the cap off his water bottle. He took a large gulp.
Lucarelli heard plodding footsteps. He turned round and saw a figure coming towards him through the thistles and blackberry bushes.