A poem by Cesare Pavese (from Lavorare Stanca)
South Seas (I Mari del Sud)
One evening we're walking up the hill,
silently. In the shade of the late dusk
my cousin is a giant dressed in white
who moves calmly, his face tanned,
taciturn. Keeping quiet is our virtue.
Some of our ancestors must have been so alone
- great men among idiots or poor fools -
to teach their people so much silence.
My cousin spoke tonight. He asked me
to go up the hill with him: from the top, on a clear night,
you can see the reflection of the distant lights
of Torino. “You live in Torino...”
he said “.. you are right. Life must be lived
away from the village: you profit, you enjoy
and then, when you return, like me, at forty,
you find everything anew. The Langhe are never lost.”
He said all this to me, and he said it not in Italian
but slowly in dialect; a dialect that, like the rocks
of this very same hill, is so tough that
twenty years of different languages and oceans
were not able to affect. He went up the hill
with the same absorbed look I saw, as a child,
on the farmers' faces when feeling a little fatigued.
For twenty years he travelled the world.
When he left I was still a child carried by women
and they thought him dead. I then heard the women
talk about him now and again, as in fairy tales;
but the men, more austere, forgot about him.
One winter my father, already dead, received a card
with a large greenish stamp showing ships in a port
and good wishes for the harvest. It was a great surprise,
but the grown-up boy explained avidly
that the card came from an island called Tasmania
surrounded by a light blue ocean, ferocious with sharks,
in the Pacific, south of Australia. And he added that surely
the cousin hunted for pearls. He took the stamp off.
Everyone had different opinions, but they all concluded
he would die, if he were not dead yet.
Then everyone forgot, and the time passed.
Oh how much time has passed since I played
Malay pirates. And since the last time
I swam in dangerous waters
and chased a playmate on a tree,
breaking its nice branches, and gave
him a black eye and got hit,
how much life has passed. Other days, other games,
other violent shocks in front of more elusive
opponents: thoughts and dreams.
The city taught me endless fears:
a crowd, a street made me tremble,
a thought, at times, spied on a face.
The mocking lights of the street lamps
are still before my eyes, thousands of them, on the shuffling noise.
My cousin returned, the war was over,
a giant among few. And he had money.
His family said: “In a year or less,
he will be broke and he'll leave again.
That's how the desperate die.”
My cousin has a resolute face. He bought an apartment
in town and turned it into a shop made of cement
and put a brand new gas station in it
and on the bridge by the curve a large advertising sign.
Then he hired a mechanic to run it
and roamed the Langhe, smoking.
Meanwhile he married, in town. He took
a thin blonde girl like the foreign women
he surely had met one day somewhere in the world.
But he still went out alone. Dressed in white,
his hands behind his back and a tanned face,
in the morning he hit the fairs and with a cunning air
haggled over horses. Later, when his plan failed,
he explained to me that he wanted to
get rid of all the animals in the valley
and force people to buy motors.
“But I am the real beast” he said “I who thought
something like that. I should have known
that here cows and people are all the same”.
We've been walking more than a half hour. We are close to the hilltop,
the whistle and murmur of the wind gets stronger and stronger.
My cousin stops suddenly and turns: “This year
I'll make billboards saying: - Santo Stefano
has always been the first to celebrate the festivals
of the Belbo Valley – whatever the people of Canelli
say.” Then back to climbing the steep slope.
A fragrance of earth and wind envelopes us in the dark,
some distant lights: farms, cars
you can barely hear. And I think of the power
that brought this man back to me, driving him away from the sea,
from the distant lands, from the silence that lasts.
My cousin doesn't talk about his travelling.
He says briefly he has been to this and that place
and thinks about his motors.
There is only one dream
left in his heart: as fireman
on a Dutch fishing boat he once saw the Cetacean,
and he saw the harpoons fly heavy in the sun,
the whales being chased and escape amidst a foam of blood
and lift their tails and fight against the spears.
He mentions it sometimes.
But when I tell him
how lucky he is to have seen the break
of dawn over the most beautiful islands on earth,
he smiles at the memory, and says that when
the sun rose, the day was no longer young for them.
- The end -