HIGH IN THESE MOUNTAINS, THE APENNINES, THE SPINAL CORD of Italy, with its vertebræ of infant stone to which the tendons and the flesh of the old world are attached, there is a small cave high up a precipice. It is very difficult to reach. The narrow path is littered with loose stones and, in the spring when the thaw comes, it is a running stream, an angled gutter two hundred metres long, slicing across the sheer surface of the rock face, collecting melt-water as the scar incised in the bark of a rubber tree channels the sap.
Some years, the local people claim, the water runs crimson with the sacred blood of the saint who lived in the cave as a hermit, dined on lichen or moss, consumed the pine nuts fallen from the firs overhanging the precipice high above, and drank only the stony water seeping through the roof of his abode.
I have been there. It is not an outing for the faint-hearted or sufferers from vertigo. In parts, the path is no wider than a scaffolder’s plank and one is obliged to move upwards crab fashion, one’s back to the rock, facing down into the valley below, across to a purple haze of mountains jagged like the scales of a dragon’s back. This, they say, is a test of one’s faith, a trial to be taken on the route to salvation. They say you can see two hundred kilometres on a fine day.
There are scrubby pines growing at intervals along the path, the off-spring of those far overhead. Each is festooned, as if for a religious festival, with clots of spiders’ webs hanging like the dense gossamer ghosts of Chinese lanterns. They say to touch one is to be burned, to be inculcated with original sin. The poison on the web is reported to restrict respiration, choke one to death as readily as if the spider was vulture-sized, its hairy legs locked about your throat. Lizards green as emeralds dart through the litter of dead needles, mountain succulents and wind-bent herbs. The reptiles have black beads for eyes and might be brooches of precious stones were it not for their lithe, impulsive movements.
The cave is about five metres deep and just high enough for an average man to stand. I do not have to bow my head in there. A ledge cut in the rock on one side served as the saint’s hard bed of contrition. At the cave-mouth, there is usually to be found the remnant of a campfire. Lovers use the place as a rendezvous, a spectacular place to couple, perhaps to ask the saint’s blessing be called upon their fornications. At the rear of the cave the devout, or those greedy for heavenly intervention in the petty disasters of their lives, have erected an altar of concrete blocks clumsily smeared with plaster. Upon this crude sacrarium stands a dusty wooden cross and a candlestick made of cheap metal painted gold. Wax has marked the stone table of the altar: no-one bothers to chip it off.
It is red wax. One day, someone will claim it to be the sacred flesh of the saint. Anything is possible where faith is concerned. The sinner searches forever after a sign to prove it is worth his while to recant. I should know: I have been a sinner, and a Catholic, too.
All men want to make their mark, know upon their deathbed the world has changed because of them, as a result of their actions or philosophies. They are arrogant enough to think, when they are dead, others will see their accomplishments and say, ‘Look. He made that—the man of vision, the man who got things done.’
Years ago, when I was living in an English village, I was surrounded by people trying in vain, tiny ways to stamp their signatures upon the course of time. Old Colonel Cedric—a major in the Pay Corps when he was discharged, without one day’s action in six years of war—paid for the fifth and six bells in a mediocre peal. A local estate agent, well-off from the proceeds of selling the village over and over, planted an avenue of beeches from the lane up to his renovated mansion, a one-time derelict tithe barn; caustic rain, village youths and a main sewer, all in their own way, put paid to the symmetry with which he hoped the fields of history would be bisected and his memory preserved. The local bus driver was the one who topped them all: Brian of the beer gut and greasy hair slicked forward to camouflage a balding pate. Brian was simultaneously a district councillor, Parish Council chairman, churchwarden, vice-chairman of the Village Hall Development Committee and co-president of the Village Association of Change-Ringers. The old Colonel was the other co-president. It stood to reason.
I shall not name the village. It would be unwise. I am not silent from a fear of litigation, you understand. Simply from the concern of wanting to retain my privacy. And my past. Privacy—which some might call secrecy—is of immense value to me.
One could not be private in a village. No matter how one kept to oneself, there were always those who pried, nosed, thrust sticks under my stone, flipped it over to see what lay beneath. These were the people who could not make the tiniest mark on history, could not affect their world—the village, the parish—no matter how they tried. The best they could hope for was to share vicariously in others’ petty achievements. Their ambition was to be able to say, ‘Him? I knew him when he bought The Glebe,’ or ‘Her? I was with her when it happened,’ or ‘I saw the car skid, you know. There’s still a hole in the hedge: a nasty corner: someone should do something about it.’ Yet they never did and if I were a betting man, prone to taking a gamble, I should wager tyres still squeal on the bend, doors dent of a frosty morning.
In those days, I was a jobbing silversmith, a pots-and-pans man, not a maker of rings and mounter of diamonds. I repaired teapots, soldered salvers, straightened spoons, polished or copied church plate. I did the rounds of the antique shops and the bazaars put on to snare the tourists. It was not a skilled job and I was not a skilled man. I had no training other than a basic tuition in metalwork picked up by chance in the workshops of my boarding school.
Occasionally, I fenced. The villagers had no idea of this nefarious activity, and the local bobby was a dullard bent more on snaring poachers of pheasants and scrumpers of apples than apprehending criminals. Such activity put him in the good books of the Colonel’s son, an ardent hunter and shooter who owned orchards under licence to the cider makers, raised the pheasants for his own guns or those of his cronies. The constable’s place in local history was thus assured: the Colonel was the repository of local records, being the landowner and, as he thought, the squire. For evermore, the constable would be remembered in anecdotes of petty arrests, for he served his masters well.
It was the fencing which gave me a notion to move away, diversify into other lines of business. The criminality added a certain spice to an otherwise stultifying existence in an utterly boring location. It was not for the money I took to it, I can assure you. I made little profit melting down or re-polishing the minor silver from insignificant country house robberies and the break-ins at provincial antique shops. I did it to fight the mundane. It gave me contacts, too, in the ethereal twilit world of the law-breaker, the milieu I have inhabited ever since.
Yet now I am back on a one-track existence, undiversified, all my eggs in one basket; but they are golden eggs.
I am getting old and have made my marks on history. Vicariously, perhaps. Secretively, certainly. Those who want to snuffle in the parish records of that village will discover who hung those two bells or who perhaps, by now, has put a ‘Slow’ sign at the icy corner. Few know what my contributions to history have been, and no-one shall, save the reader of these words. And that is good enough.
Father Benedetto drinks brandy. He likes cognac, prefers armagnac, yet is not too fussy. As a priest, he can ill afford to be: his small private income is subject to the vagaries of the stock market. Religious observance and church attendance are declining in Italy, less money falling in the offertory. Only old crones in black shawls smelling of mothballs attend his services, and old men in berets and musty jackets. The urchins in the streets catcall bagarozzo after him as he passes in his soutane on his way to Mass.
Today, as is customary for him, he is dressed in his commonplace uniform, the pastoral apparel of a Roman Catholic priest: a black suit of unstylish, outmoded tailoring with a few of his short, white hairs in evidence on his shoulders, a black silk stock and a deep Roman collar wearing at the edge. His priestly uniform has looked faintly shabby and old-fashioned since the moment it left the tailor’s bench, the last thread cut like an ecclesiastical umbilical cord tying it to the secular bolt of cloth. His socks and shoes are black, the latter polished by his soutane on his walk home from Mass.
So long as the quality of his brandy is good, the liquor smooth and the glass warmed by the sun, Father Benedetto is satisfied. He likes to sniff his drink before he sips it, like a bee hovering over a bloom, a butterfly pausing on a petal before taking the nectar.
‘The only thing good to come of the francesi,’ he declares. ‘Everything else …’
He raises one hand dismissively and grimaces. To him, the French are not worth thinking about: they are, he is fond of saying, intellectual vagabonds, usurpers of the True Faith—no good Pope, in his opinion, came of Avignon—and Europe’s troublemakers. He thinks it more than fitting that truancy is termed, in English, French leave and the hated preservativo called a French letter. French wine is too effete (as are Frenchmen) and French cheese too salty. By this, he implies, they are too given to the indulgence of sexual pleasures. This is not a new trait, recently discovered. Italians, Benedetto claims with the authority of having been there, have known this throughout history. When Rome called France the province of Gaul they were just the same. Heathen rabble. Only their brandy is worthy of attention.
The priest’s house is halfway along a twisting alley off the Via dell’ Orologio. It is a modest fifteenth-century edifice, reputed to have once been the home of the best of the clockmakers from whom the nearby street derived its name. The front door is of heavy oak blackened with age and studded with iron bolts. Within there is no courtyard but, at the rear, snuggles a walled garden, overlooked by other buildings yet remaining secluded. Being on the side of a hill, the garden catches more of the sun than one might expect. The buildings down the slope being lower, the sun lingers longer on the little patio.
We are sitting on this patio. It is four o’clock in the afternoon. Two-thirds of the garden is in shade. We are in lazy, soporific sunlight. The brandy bottle—today, we have armagnac—is globulous, made of green glass and bears a plain label in black printing on cream paper. It is called, simply, La Vie.
I like this man. Certainly, he is holy but I do not hold that against him. He is pious but acceptably so, a raconteur when he wants to be, an erudite conversationalist who is never dogmatic in his arguments or pedantic in the presentation of them. He is about my age, with short grey-white hair and quick, laughing eyes.
It was only a few days after I arrived in the town when we first met. I was wandering about with apparent nonchalance, taking in the sights, it would seem. In fact, I was studying the town, memorising the streets and the escape routes I should use should the necessity arise. He came up to me and addressed me in English: I must have looked more English than I hoped.
‘Can I help you?’ he offered.
‘I am just looking about,’ I said.
‘You are a tourist?’
‘I am newly resident here.’
‘Where are your lodgings?’
I avoided this inquisition and obliquely replied, ‘Not for long, I suspect. Until my work is done.’
This was the truth.
‘If you are to live here,’ he declared, ‘then you should share a glass of wine with me. As a welcome.’
It was then I visited, for the first time, the quiet house down the alley off the Via dell’ Orologio. I am almost certain, in retrospect, he saw me as a soul for potential redemption, a reclamation for Christ, even after but a few words.
Ever since the whole garden was in sunlight, we have been sipping, talking, sipping, eating peaches. We have been talking of history. It is a favoured argument we have. Father Benedetto believes history, by which he means the past, is the single most important influence upon a man’s life. This opinion has to be his standpoint. He is a priest who lives in the house of a long-deceased watchmaker. Without history, a priest can have no job, for religion feeds upon the past for its veracity. Besides, he lives in the house of a long-deceased watchmaker.
I disagree. History has no such grand influence. It is merely an occurrence which may or may not affect a man’s activities and attitudes. Foremost, I proclaim, the past is an irrelevancy, a jumble of dates and facts and heroes many of whom were impostors, sciolists, blagueurs, get-rich-quick merchants or men fortuitously present at the right moment in the timetable of fate. Father Benedetto, of course, cannot accept fate. Fate is a concept invented by men. God controls us all.
‘People are trapped in history, and history resides within them like the blood of Christ in the chalice,’ he says.
‘What is history? Certainly not a trap,’ I reply. ‘History does not affect me save, perhaps, materially. I wear polyester because of an historical event—the invention of nylon. I drive a car because of the invention of the internal combustion engine. But to say I behave as I do because history is in me and influencing me is wrong.’
‘History, Nietzsche states, is the enunciator of new truths. Every fact, every new event exercises an influence upon every age and every new generation of Man.’
‘Then Man is an idiot!’
I cut into a peach, the juice running like plasma onto the wooden boards of the table. I prise the stone out and flick it with the knife point into the flower bed. The pebble-like stones of our afternoon feasting litter the ground between the golden-headed marigolds.
Father Benedetto balks at my facetiousness. For him, to insult Mankind is to reproach God in whose image men were forged.
‘If man is so imbued with history, then he seems not to have taken much of it to heart,’ I continue. ‘All that history has taught us is that we are too stupid to learn anything from it. At the end of the day, what is history but the truth of reality twisted into convenient lies by those whom it suits to see a different record made? History is but the tool of man’s self-worship.’ I suck at the peach. ‘You, Father, should be ashamed!’
I grin, so he is assured I do not seek to slight him. He shrugs and reaches for a peach. There are five left in the wooden bowl.
He peels his peach. I eat mine in silence.
‘How can you live here in Italy,’ he asks as his peach stone hits the wall and drops to the marigolds, ‘with history around you, crowding in on you, and treat it with such disdain?’
I look around his private garden. The shutters on the building beyond the peach tree are like eyelids shut demurely in case they should see something embarrassing in the windows of Father Benedetto’s house—like the priest in his bathtub.
‘History? All around me? There are ruins and ancient buildings, yes. But history? With a capital H? History, I maintain, is a falsehood. Real history is the commonplace, unrecorded. We speak of the history of Rome with the eloquence of grandeur but most Romans did not know of it or want to know it. What did the slave or the shopkeeper know of Cicero, or Virgil, the Sabines or the magics of Sirmio? Nothing. History was for them half-registered fragments about geese saving a city or Caligula eating his unborn child. History was an old man mumbling in his cups. They had no time for history when a clipped coin was worth less by the week, their taxes rose by the month, the price of their flour rocketed and hot weather frayed their tempers.’
Excerpted from The American by Martin Booth.
Copyright © 2004 by Martin Booth.
Published in February 2005 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.