Luisa and the Silence

Luisa and the Silence


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Luisa and the Silence by Claudio Piersanti

Claudio Piersanti's spare novel observes the life of Luisa, an aging accountant for a toy firm. She is active, liked, utterly serene in her solitude and her fixed habits. But a series of changes challenge her. An outside world of noise and unknown callers intrudes, and worse, Luisa must cope with the slow collapse of her body and health. This leads her to a fateful mistake: she retires. Soon she has withdrawn into total seclusion and must confront depression and dementia alone-and the ultimate silence that lies beyond.

Piersanti uses sharp detail and nuance to construct an everyday life. Luisa and the Silence is the portrait of an ordinary person, distinctive neither in appearance nor in the depth of her thoughts. Avoiding any pretension to social criticism, Piersanti instead has created a daring novel where the main character simply is.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810160804
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 12/01/2001
Edition description: 1
Pages: 165
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Claudio Piersanti, born in Canzano in Abruzzi in 1954, is a popular Italian novelist and screenwriter. His works include Gli sguardi cattivi della gente and Casa di nessuno: Romanzo.

George Hochfield was nominated for the PEN West Translation Prize for Giampiero Carocci's Officers Camp. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1:

When the radio alarm sounded, she was dreaming of a long stairway suspended in the void. It was exactly six o'clock. Luisa opened her eyes and for a few seconds continued to see the stairway that she had been climbing for hours. It was the inside stairway of a building without walls or floors, where beds, bathrooms and kitchens swayed over a black abyss. All the apartments were inhabited, and life was going on almost normally. She remembered clearly the annoyed expression of a mother continually calling to her three children, who were happily scampering like monkeys from one beam to another. Keep still, she repeated like a refrain, or you'll fall down, keep still! An absurd dream, full of dizziness and already forgotten complications, but not at all unpleasant. She lived there with someone, in the vertiginous building. But with whom? He wore mirrored sunglasses like Renata's; she remembered nothing else. She turned on the light and hurriedly put on her woolen bathrobe. It was pitch dark outside and the air smelled of frost. The radiators wouldn't come on until six thirty, too late for her on the fourth floor. The tenants in the garret complained that their apartments did not warm up until nine o'clock. The usual inconveniences of old central heating systems. Luckily, it only took the electric heaters five minutes to make the bathroom and kitchen usable. She went to make some coffee and turned on the radio. Then she took the cloth from the canary's cage and waited for the first heat from the bluish flame under the coffeepot, which certainly did not warm her but kept her company. From the small kitchen window she could see a long stretch of the avenue lighted by overhanging lamps, the already open newsstand surrounded by bundles of papers still untied, and part of the entrance to the bar. Great halos of nighttime humidity had formed around the lights, and on the sidewalks large streaks of ice had appeared that the muffled up passersby carefully avoided. There were a great many people who rose earlier than she, so she couldn't complain. Besides, it was Walter's turn this week, and she didn't have to take her car out of the garage. Even if he was driving, she still felt the need to check on the density of the fog. Moving close to the window, she managed to make out clearly enough the bare branches of the chestnut trees rising above the gates of the park. A light fog for the season. The coffee came up with its usual cheerful gurgling, and as she poured it the radio news began. Her mother used to say that the first hour after getting up was the best one of the day, and she was right. She had experimented when she was young; study during that hour was worth a whole afternoon. She ate four biscotti, emptied the cup, and lit her first Multifilter. The pack that was newly opened would last her exactly two days, at least if no one in the office forget to buy some. The news this morning was bad: at least two wars, and the usual terrible road accidents. At the end of the newscast, after a loud musical theme that she liked, they interviewed an Italian actor who had had a success in America and spoke from Los Angeles by telephone. What did it really mean in a man's life to go for a stroll in Los Angeles, ascend to a suite on the hundredth floor, look down on the lighted city at his feet, and think that on all the television sets in all those houses his handsome, cheerful countenance often appeared? Only to a few, and they are very few, does an extraordinary life come; all the others must be satisfied with what they have. Luisa did not suffer from envy; she never had. There were many causes of suffering she had not been spared, but she did not think herself more unfortunate than others. She had her radio, her cigarette, and a pleasant warmth began to spread around her. There was no reason to foresee that today would be different from other days. With her bathrobe finally open over men's pajamas , her radio under her arm, and a cigarette in her mouth, she went humming to the shower. The bathroom was small, and the electric heater warmed it perfectly. She was surprised every morning at how it changed from intense cold when she first got up to the moment of the shower. She got out of bed convinced that she would have to avoid it, and instead she always did it gladly. A brief shower of barely five minutes that nevertheless was her official entry to the day. After the shower, she combed her hair and put on her makeup quickly, with a few automatic gestures. She concentrated only on the line made with her lipstick that had to follow the shape of her lips exactly. She was proud of her well-formed mouth, exactly comparable to her mother's beautiful one. For the rest, she didn't consider herself either beautiful or ugly, and growing old had not changed her much. She was sixty, but when she was looking her best she didn't show it. The only real sign of age was an oblong mole that had grown in recent months near her collarbone. She had seen others like it often, and much more disfiguring, on the noses and faces of people of a certain age. At least she could hide hers. She chose something to wear without much thought and began to get dressed. Her clothes were all quite elegant and always well-pressed, even if she hid them under a smock at work. During the early years she hated that blue smock, perhaps because only the clerks and warehouse people had to wear it, the lowest levels of the company. Then she had begun to appreciate it, partly for its ample pockets, and partly because it protected her clothing. Now that she was no longer obliged to wear it, she found it elegant. She had got into the habit of keeping the collar a little raised, and when she walked through the halls, she thrust her hands into the pockets of her smock and toyed with her cigarettes and lighter. She imagined herself walking like that, and she felt the desire to be in her office already, remembering all the tasks she had left unfinished and the list of those that awaited her in the afternoon. None were special, it was a slack time. She ought to hurry if she wanted to drink a cappuccino at the bar. Finished dressing, she took another quick look at herself in the mirror and decided to put on her fur even if she no longer liked how it looked. She put on her wool hat and gloves in the elevator; the folding umbrella had refused to fit completely inside her bag, and she decided not bother with it. As usual, she was the first one to leave her building. The cold immediately froze her face and legs, and a thousand minute drops of icy fog collected on the lenses of her glasses. She crossed the avenue and quickly entered the bar. There were seven or eight people who seemed many more because of their enormous down jackets and sheepskin coats. She wiped her glasses with a paper napkin and drank her warm cappuccino all in one draught. "I'm going to be late," she said to the barman, who answered with the usual cautions about haste. She was not really late; she had a mania about punctuality and knew that Walter would have trouble at the intersection where they were supposed to meet. The police hardly allowed him to stop long enough for her to get in, and if they were in a bad mood, they blew their whistles furiously and, white phosphorescent gloves in the air, waved them on pitilessly, as if that intersection was their own home! For years she had walked the same length of street, but each time she found it less short than she remembered it. She began walking slowly, and then, without noticing it, lengthened her pace and arrived at the traffic light almost at a run, her calves aching and out of breath. At the light, where her avenue crossed a wider one, there was a certain animation: some pedestrians with briefcases and valises stamped their feet and stared at the stop sign as if it were an enemy. Walter had not yet arrived; it was a quarter past seven, and he was in danger of being late. A girl in a fur jacket and black miniskirt was washing the still dark windows of a bank. She wasn't pretty, but the men were giving her long, covetous looks all the same. Two youths even made a risqué remark. Men understand nothing of feminine beauty; when they're young, they see the prettiest ones only accidentally. They have delightful girls in their classes, and they nudge one another like idiots when they see two crooked legs covered with net stockings. Walter was not to be seen. Yet there wasn't much traffic. The buses, dirty with fine bits of mud up to their windows, were crowded with hundreds of people being carried to the industrial suburbs, and just at that point they speeded up in order to get into the center lane. There was only one policeman, the tall one with the stern face, but he was taking it easy on his corner, lazily operating the pushbuttons for the traffic lights. At seven twenty-five Luisa began to be worried. Another minute and they would surely be late. She was cut off here, with her car locked in the garage not more than 200 meters away. She decided to go back, but her legs would not obey her; in fact, her bearing became more calm, not permitting the least anxiety, the least desire for a place other than the one she was in, to show themselves. The same proud temperament as her mother. Walter arrived at seven twenty-eight. They looked at one another across the crosswalk that separated them, and she understood immediately what had happened when Walter indicated the miserable face of Giancarlo, late for the third time in a month. When Annarita still went with them, it was most often she who was the cause of their being late. Luckily, she had decided to go by herself, at least in winter. When they opened the door for her, and Giancarlo, contorting himself, pulled his seat backward to allow her to get in quickly, Luisa thought that this was her family, the people she saw most and knew best: Walter, her colleague for twenty years, Giancarlo, Renata, maybe Annarita. She was not angry about their lateness, at bottom minimal; in fact, she laughed because Giancarlo played the buffoon and confessed to being a shit, and wanted to cut his veins or to retire. Giancarlo was a handsome young fellow of twenty-six. Even though he was blond, he had a bristly, tough beard like a black's, which contrasted with the delicate lineaments of his face. He shaved three times a week, and he had done so this morning. His too strong after-shave aroused the usual protests from Luisa, who pretended to want the windows open a little. They exchanged witticisms about the frivolousness of men and women until they were out of the city. There was already traffic on the by-pass, especially in the direction opposite to theirs, where a long trail of headlights waited, resigned and motionless in total silence, while thin clouds of fog rose from the surrounding country and shrouded the highway lights. "Oh, what a treat!" exclaimed Walter, and without having to ask permission he turned on the radio tuned to a local station that broadcast restful music, excellent for driving or as unobtrusive background to domestic chores. Usually they did not talk during the quarter hour they spent on the by-pass; the driving was more demanding, and rare comments concerned the traffic, which grew heavier as they went on. A stupid collision, or one of those inexplicable jams at their exit, which was the last one before the inter-city freeway, could cost them hours of salary and ill-humor. For that reason, too, they did not talk They scanned anxiously the course of every slowdown and drew a sigh of relief when the car picked up speed. Sometimes Giancarlo took out a stopwatch he had received as a birthday present and amused himself by keeping time. On that day, with little traffic and little fog, they left the by-pass after fourteen minutes and ten seconds. At the bottom of the ramp the light was green, so they could turn at high speed into the narrow street along the canal, a shortcut that made it possible to save at least five minutes. At a certain point they had to go through a little village of few houses, with a tiny square around an ugly cement fountain, and a traffic light that Walter detested. Luisa's eye caught an open window and a bald or completely shaved man with arms crossed and a cigarette in his mouth looking out at the panorama of shrubs and grayish fog. He couldn't have been more than forty, and he appeared extremely handsome to her. Maybe he was a singer with some modern group who had just finished performing in a club near the university and was about to get some sleep. Walter and Giancarlo had started to talk about football and kept it up as far as the factory. They stamped their time cards at seven-fifty. The main entrance for visitors and managers was still locked. The red carpet on the stairway was pretentious and completely out of place. Luisa surveyed it every morning with profound disgust. Theirs had been a factory more than decent, without that stupid red carpet which humiliated her. The old man didn't understand; he enjoyed too much climbing his steps imperially. It hurt her for the old fellow; perhaps he wasn't good-natured, but he could boast of never having fired one of his workers. The oldest were long since retired. What was so terrible about his liking to climb the steps with his chest stuck out like an admiral? He was old, and his life could be called successful. In the dressing room where she put on her smock, she continued to think about her boss. She remembered when he had begun to cry in front of her because his wife was being operated on, and they hadn't given him much hope. He had confided everything to her like a friend, without being ashamed of his tears; he had told her about their coming from the Veneto almost sixty years ago, about his historic decision to settle here, and also about his children and the little one they had lost. She had been unable to say anything to him, standing stiffly before him with her printouts in her arms. For an instant the emotion of that day came back to her, and she called herself stupid. In the end, the old man's wife had recovered, and she, who had lost all her family without mercy and without reprieve, was moved by a fortunate old man loaded with money. Next to the women's dressing room was the sample room. Toys and boxes lay on long shelves, drenched in a repulsive smell of plastic. In the half darkness the toys gave off an air of melancholy, and she had learned not to look at them too much: the box of Virgilio the mouse, the little stunt cars, the endless series of tiny figurines that had to be assembled destined to go with chocolate eggs and biscotti, the dusty metal shelves, the stacks of puzzles, the albums of sketches, the old neon tubes. For her that room was the factory's morgue. The latest novelty was a yellow and red catapult "made in Taiwan." It launched heavy rubber balls that must have been permanently lost under the furniture in thousands of houses. At Intelligent Games, Inc. they cost a thousand lire, but the end price must have come to fifteen thousand, and it seemed a fraud to think of it; if she thought about it and looked at the faces of the managers, it seemed to her she was working for swindlers and therefore was one herself, since in a small way she shared in the company's profits. A hundred adults: seventy workers including drivers, seven managers and twenty-three office workers, who lived and worked with cheap little toys, and in this way took part in the functioning of the city's economy, even that of the whole world. Where is the engine of all this, where the heart that gives energy to all these things? She had asked herself this for many years, and had never found an answer. The world, for Luisa, remained a great mystery. She crossed the showroom with her head down and entered the office area. The sales department secretaries pretended not to see her, but she was not bothered by them, a pair of geese who passed the time doing their nails. The third door from the end of the corridor was hers; if she hurried she could avoid being seen by colleagues having a coffee behind the wooden screen who would have obliged her to drink one with them. She had been saying for years that she liked to have her coffee later, that she had already had two, but in the end she found herself with a plastic glass in hand and a forbidden cigarette in her mouth that weighed on her like a sin. At that hour she didn't want to talk; she preferred to wait until eight o'clock reading the local page of the newspaper seated in her old swivel chair. She liked to stretch her legs under the desk, lean back comfortably, and bury herself for five minutes in the news stories, in harrowing automobile accidents or bloody family quarrels. F. G., a mason, who, pistol in hand, burst into the apartment of E. N. with whom he had formerly lived, and had forced her to call her current friend. . . prognosis uncertain for both. . . robbery at the Federici jewelry store. . . surgical forceps recovered from the stomach of a surveyor. . . poor fellow, how he must have suffered. Sharp forceps in the stomach, those murderers! She felt sorry for the victims; reading united her with them; still, she had to admit that it relaxed her. She did not feel she was to blame. As she grew older she had learned to transform misfortune into a subject of conversation, as when she talked with Walter about his blood tests and the many kidney problems that afflicted him. At exactly eight o'clock the personnel manager went by, a boy of thirty who wasn't brave enough even to look at her. His gray suit too big for him, hands clasped behind his back, an awkward air of someone timid trying to look stern. When he passed, the shipping clerk made an obscene gesture with his finger, but it made nobody laugh.

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