Claudio Fratta is a garden designer at the height of his career; a naturally solitary man, a tender, playful companion to his nephews, and a considerate colleague. But under his amiable exterior simmers a quiet rage, and a desire to punish the Mafioso who bankrupted his father and ruined his family. And when an enigmatic, alluring woman becomes entangled in Claudio's life after a near-fatal car crash, his desire for her draws him ever closer to satisfying that long-held fantasy of revenge.
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About the Author
Andrea Canobbio was born in Turin, Italy. An editor at the publishing house Einaudi, he is the author of the novels Vasi cinesi, Traslochi, Padri di padri, and Indivisibili. The Natural Disorder of Things is his first book to be published in America.
Read an Excerpt
THE FIRST TIME IT WAS HER VOICE, THAT FAULTY AND UNSTEADY RHYTHM—IT
hypnotized me. If it hadn’t been for that voice I wouldn’t have paid her any attention. She used the formulaic phrases that clients always do: she had heard a lot about me, she’d seen and visited this and that, she was interested, even enthusiastic. They’re always enthusiastic on the phone. Then I see that they’re taken aback when they actually meet me. I guess they’re thinking they have wasted their breath; maybe they ask themselves why I look nothing like my gardens, where I hide all that intelligence and elegance.
I had promised to call her back, to set a date to inspect the site, but I kept putting it off. A week later it was she who called me again, at the same time, apologizing for calling so late; it was as if the ghost of her garden, the naked and abandoned garden, appeared to her in a dream, at the same time of night each week, demanding retribution, and her sense of shame and guilt drove her to seek some remedy.
Again I didn’t have the strength to say no to her; I didn’t want to take on a new assignment, but I couldn’t do without one, and I would have ended up refusing two or three offers at random before being compelled to accept perhaps the least interesting of the lot. I promised her we’d meet that Friday; she shouldn’t worry, I wouldn’t forget her. But in fact that’s just what I intended to do: I was slumped on the sofa in the center of the kitchen, with no energy to clear the table, staring into space, and I lied to her so easily because I’d also finished eating the food on the plate for the guest. Usually I’m lucid as long as I’m at my own place at the table, sitting on the chair: that’s why the guest’s spot is on the sofa, so he can sink into it.
Elisabetta Renal apologized, complaining that she could never reach me when she called my house and didn’t have my cell-phone number—I hadn’t given it to her the first time; I pretended not to notice and didn’t give it to her on the second call either. I stared at a pile of bread crumbs half hidden by the broom that had been propped against the wall several days earlier, and the line of busy ants at work, like a writer’s ellipses heightening the suspense in a sentence . . . but the coup de théâtre never came. I wouldn’t remember this call the next day, even though it was the second in a week; I wouldn’t remember her and her childlike voice, her apologies for ringing so late, the clichés and commonplaces; I wouldn’t remember how much I liked the way she uttered these social banalities, with a child’s pauses and hesitations and sudden bursts of speed.
Her voice was so beautiful and promising: there was no way that voice could lie. There was no need for it to be rhythmic and regular; no need for it to be balanced; it seemed not to know that it could ever go off balance, that people might ever beg or attack. And for just an instant after hanging up, when I went back to staring into space, staring at the crumbs and at the ants, I imagined listening to her voice in the dark and falling asleep inside it; I imagined her leaning over my ear and pouring words—her stories—into my head.
Five days went by, and I was in the car with Witold; we’d had an argument and maybe I’d offended him, and then something distracted me like a wave of melancholy; I almost rear-ended a truck carrying yogurt, and I stopped and got out to take a closer look at an old abandoned factory. Was it abandoned? I don’t know. The sun was shining in a cloudless blue sky, it wasn’t yet very hot, and the block of reinforced concrete gave off an air of cheerful ruination; there was a touching detail in the courtyard of the watchman’s house: a laundry line strung with faded little pajamas and shorts and T-shirts. My mood had changed now, and I turned back to the car (Witold was bolted into his seat, staring straight ahead) and saw the yellow arrow, camouflaged by an explosion of forsythia, with "Villa Renal" written on it, and then I remembered Elisabetta Renal’s voice and decided I wanted to hear it again.
I shift the car into gear, back up, turn into the road that runs alongside the possibly abandoned factory, and drive in silence for three minutes and thirty seconds, up and down the sulky hills, before Witold, without looking at me, asks where we’re going. I tell him about the two phone calls, and I lie and say that I’d asked around and the client seemed promising: maybe it will turn into a job for the springtime and part of the summer. Witold, with his impoverished-noble profile, his eyes locked on a pair of pollarded willows facing each other across a twenty-yard gap, each one as sad as an only child. After a bit he remarks that one doesn’t go to meet a new client wearing dirty work clothes. I feel that I’ve made an effort to make peace with him; it’s fine with me if he wants to be in a huff, so I say that his innate elegance will save face for both of us. He goes gray and smoky like an illegal building being demolished, dynamited and imploding.
I turn left and pass under a brick archway without any gate or caretaker; we’re on the property, but the house isn’t visible, and we run along beneath the elms, lindens, and horse chestnut trees flanking the dirt road that sinks into a shady little valley. I shout above the crackle and crunch of the tires to say that the fat cows who own this place will produce enough milk to get us through the whole winter, and guffaw because Witold doesn’t like cynicism (not even false cynicism)—he’s a guy with no sense of humor, he doesn’t like a pat on the shoulder, an ambiguous wink, an insinuation (he doesn’t understand insinuations), or vulgarity, whether explicit or implicit. He’s really quite a heavy character. And I’m about to push on and provoke him further when a powerful blow strikes my side window; my Renault R4 wobbles from the impact, but I keep it on the road and try to understand what’s happening.
It took me ten or twenty seconds to see it, maybe because of the dust we kicked up, maybe because it was running alongside the car. It was a dog jumping and butting its head against the car, trying to sink its teeth into the side mirror, where it saw flashes of an enemy dog’s ferocious face. It wasn’t barking, just baring its teeth and throwing itself against the door and the side window, certain it would manage to break through. Witold yelled at me to stop, stop, I might run it over, and I obeyed, sort of: I slowed down sharply, and the dog found himself running ahead, followed by the slow-moving car, surprised and excited as if he’d proved he could defeat us, as if he’d already won.
Then he turned his head, leaping from side to side in a dance of death, challenging me to speed up again, to run him over. I don’t know what came over me, because I wasn’t upset or afraid —I was scared, but not scared of the dog (I felt quite calm and lucid about the dog); what I was actually scared about was the garden of perfectly tended hedges and flower beds that stands in the center of my reasoning mind, a garden that allows for nothing anomalous, asymmetrical, excessive, or banal; from the center of that garden came the impulse to push down on the accelerator, and my right foot acted on the impulse: the R4 speeded up suddenly, and the dog didn’t expect it, he dodged out of the way too late.
I’d never felt what it’s like to run over a dog; I’d hit a rabbit and two cats, but you hardly notice such small animals. A dog makes you feel his death beneath the chassis, and especially with an R4, which is built from the same tin they use for canned tuna, you feel the bones breaking and the fur tearing and the innards bursting, or anyway you’re supplied with a full range of sounds from which you can choose the sounds of a dog breaking apart. When we got out, though, he was in one piece, dead but not bleeding: dust and crushed stone had already smothered the wounds. It was a German shepherd, coated with dirt, eyes wide open. When Witold is agitated he talks in the infinitive without conjugating his verbs, and he kept saying: "Why to speed up? Why to speed up? Bad thing to kill their dog. How to explain now? Bad sign, to kill pet. Poor dog. Poor dog to become white ghost." I looked at the dog, and I let Witold vent, jerking his head about and fingering his sideburns. Then I pointed out that the dog had no collar and no tags—he was a stray, and probably rabid. Who said he was a household pet? Witold stopped talking. We spread newspapers in the rear bed of the station wagon, put on gloves, and loaded in the dog; I didn’t want it to be left there in the road. There were no fresh signs of damage on the R4, or if there were they were indistinguishable from the old ones.
But my decision to go looking for Elisabetta Renal wasn’t a sudden decision at all. Six days had passed since her last call, and in that time I’d convinced myself that I knew her voice. I’d convinced myself that I had to hope I knew her voice, and with all my strength I’d decided that I must believe it and make it be the voice of a woman I’d encountered five months earlier, left in the emergency room of a hospital, and never seen again. She never got in touch to thank me (she didn’t know my name), I never got in touch to see how she was doing (I didn’t know hers). Neither of us was particularly in touch that night . . . we’re never particularly in touch and alive (well, I should speak only for myself—I don’t know her: I’d seen her for two hours, five months ago, but it’s like she’s an old friend, as if I’d always known her).
So, five months ago I’m sitting in my car, parked diagonally inside a painted parallelogram at the far end of the parking lot of a mini-mall.
It’s an old place, originally built as a supermarket surrounded by boutiques but later raised in status out of provincial ignorance, so it’s now a hybrid that has expanded around a rickety nucleus. I wouldn’t go in there even if I were fresh out of milk or razor blades, and I’m not going in there tonight either, I’m staying outside and waiting. Also waiting, like me, is the man I’m observing from about twenty yards away, silhouetted against the lights and the reflections on the wet asphalt; he’s gotten out of his car to smoke a cigarette, and he pays no mind to the mantle of wetness that falls on his shoulders. I pay no mind to the moist cold that’s penetrating all the way to my bones: I don’t want to turn my engine on, so I pull my down jacket tighter around me and slide down in my seat, the steering wheel caressing my inner thighs.
Suffocating fog, exhaust steaming from a car moving through the herringbone pattern of the parking lot; the faint illumination from the only two lampposts nearby, one hundred feet high, which give a dull saffron glow. And then the smoke from the cigarette of the man I’m watching: it escapes from under the brim of his hat and rises straight up from the crown as if the hat were a chimney. It’s November fifth, a Tuesday like any other, and the mini-mall isn’t doing very well: the parking lot is half empty. It’s 7:30; the man is waiting for someone who, at this point, is probably late. I’m late too. I can’t tell whether he’s noticed me: he keeps his eyes down, the hat tilted to cover his face, standing immobile with his legs apart, beneath a hostile sky.
He raised his eyes when he was lit up by the high beams of the Ford Ka that appeared at the entrance of the driveway, and finally I saw the pallor of his face, the expression both tense and smug, the stout body that moved forward to the center of the roadway. I waited without anxiety for the car to pull up in front of him, to stop and let him get in, and then to move off again or stop and park. The car trotted along at about fifteen miles per hour, sending up inoffensive sprays of water on either side. Those insistent high beams, the false aggressivity, the camouflaged desire, and the tranquil, impassive man in the middle of the lane were complicit smiles that mirrored one another—maybe the smiles of a pair of lovers not necessarily in love with one another.
When it was about twenty yards away from him, the Ka stopped and its wheels turned to the right and then to the left—all the parking spots were free, there were too many to choose from; then it decided, it slid in crooked across two parallelograms, outside the lines. The lights went off, no one got out. The man didn’t move. I was looking at him from behind, but I could see his surprise and uncertainty in the face of this new provocation. I thought, Now he’s going to go to her. But instead he just stood there; for a moment he turned his head toward me, toward his Alfa Romeo 166, and I thought, It’s not possible, he can’t decide to leave.
Meanwhile, from the end of the parking lot comes the retching sound of an engine revving up fast; it’s a white van, it shoots down the driveway as if it’s on the highway, as if it’s late with its delivery schedule—we’ve all gotten used to the daredevil vans, the dispatch trucks cutting you off in traffic, the pizza delivery cars running red lights. I barely see it, and the man doesn’t even turn around; he just steps sideways, maybe to avoid a surprise shower of water from a puddle.
The van hits him squarely at full speed, tosses him ten yards ahead, skids sideways, wobbles across the white lines, and, instead of turning toward the exit, disappears into the other half of the parking lot, behind the supermarket.
But the image of the collision doesn’t disappear, it’s imprinted on the night, has created a vacuum around the crumpled body. I move only my eyes: they dart back along the trajectory of the van, and I can’t get them to stop going back and forth, back and forth —there’s no mouse or cursor to bring the man back up into a vertical position.
I think, What’s he waiting for, with his naked head resting on the asphalt? Why doesn’t he get up? I think, A living man would never be able to leap so far from a standing start, not even if he had spring-loaded shoes.
When the lights of the Ka go on, the world begins to spin normally again. The car backs angrily into the driving lane and rushes the downed body, running it over so fast that the car’s tail flies up in the air as if it had raced over a speed bump. It becomes just a trail of red light exiting the parking lot, and turns onto the road outside.
Silence, and not a single eye looks out on the deserted lot from behind the luminous lids of the mini-mall. Probably there was also total silence during the accident—the first, the second, I don’t remember which. I have no recollection of the sound a head makes as it’s crushed beneath the wheel of a car, and anyway I was cocooned in my muffling Mercedes E270.
Here are my hands gripping the wheel, my nails sunk into the rubber, my eyes glued to the broken body on the ground. Then there’s nothing here at all.
I fasten my seat belt, turn on the engine and the windshield wipers, put the car in gear, and leave the parking lot with my headlights off.
Now I have this deserted road ahead of me: the drizzle has transformed the asphalt into the viscous trail left by an enormous snail, there’s scarcely any visibility, but nothing would prevent me from speeding up and zooming along the curves and the straightaways that lead toward the nearest town, leaving the supermarket lot behind me. I’m slowed down, though, by a shell that I suddenly find on my back, a guilty feeling that’s like an invisible mobile home. This isn’t fog, this isn’t fog, if it’s raining it’s not fog. I keep saying the words out loud; it was my father’s old litany, If it’s raining then it’s not fog, it’s just low clouds: why "just"? Why should low clouds be any less dangerous than fog? It’s important for me to figure this out, but not to show that he was wrong, if indeed he was wrong. My father is always sitting next to me—I’m accustomed to driving with him, I was accustomed to our four eyes looking at the world together, accustomed to the reaction that was a synthesis of our individual reactions (a synthesis achieved not without friction, not without pain). But at this moment I have nothing else in my head, no particular feeling, neither joy nor disappointment: just the wish, more or less, to catch up with the Ka that disappeared into the night.
So I change gears and accelerate.
I crossed paths with oncoming cars that blinded me; I passed a truck in an unnecessarily risky way, perhaps; I went through a subdivision of Mexican-Mission-style houses at sixty miles per hour; and finally, far ahead, I saw the red taillights I was after. I caught up to make sure it was she: she never went over thirty-five miles per hour, she was in no hurry, she wasn’t escaping, and she went so slowly I had trouble not letting her feel I was breathing down her neck and keeping an eye on her from a distance, following her. She could have taken me to the ends of the earth; suddenly I wasn’t tired anymore, I wasn’t hungry; all I needed was the old protected feeling of the trees wrapped and half hidden by the spiderweb fog, while I was forced to drive with my left wheel on the center strip, but I was generally calm, curious without impatience, maybe resigned—waiting for the spider.
We go on like this for half an hour. I’m not surprised when I lose sight of her around two or three curves, but then on a downslope—where she should appear again—she’s not there, not even if I push on the accelerator, and yet she should have been no more than three hundred yards ahead of me. I stop short, turn around, and with my heart in my throat start driving again in the opposite direction, and find her immediately: she has ended up in a field—she went off the road at thirty-five miles per hour, if such a thing is possible—her front wheels sunk in an irrigation ditch, the nose of the car pointed down like that of an animal drinking.
I pull over, get out, sink into the wet grass as I reach the Ka, walk around it, and glimpse the body inside lying on its side across the passenger seat, and in the windshield I find a blossom of shattered crystals. When I open the door she startles, as if I’ve woken her, but she doesn’t get up, she groans weakly; the interior light is still working, and it illuminates her bloody face, the dirty seats, the sticky black blood everywhere. "You must always wear a seat belt," I tell her, paternally, absurdly. I drag her out unceremoniously, disregarding her protests, and when I have her in my arms, perhaps overwhelmed by the feeling of a woman against me, I lose my strength, and I let her slide through my hands and fall into the mud. Seen from above, so fragile and defenseless, she looks to me as if she couldn’t hurt a fly.
I searched for a jacket or a coat in her car, but there was nothing, not even a purse; she wore only a fitted blue zip-up sweater, and it was unseasonably cold. I helped her to my car, I made her sit in it, I brushed against her breast once as I fastened her belt, and before I could think twice I pretended to make an adjustment and brushed against it again. As I drove I looked at her legs: her stockings were torn at the knees, and the unraveling runs glowed in the half-light and pointed straight up like arrows aiming under her skirt of lightweight wool. I couldn’t shake an image of my head sunk between her thighs.
I took her to the emergency room, where they put her on a gurney, and in the icy fluorescent light she suddenly became a patient, the victim of an accident, with bloody scratches visible through her tattered stockings. The nurse asked me to stay, saying he would be right back to talk to me, and I nodded; I squeezed the hand of the woman, who had been whimpering and moaning all the way there, incoherent rambling that offered no clue to her identity. I told her, "You’ll see—everything will be all right." The nurse agreed. As soon as they disappeared into the warren of the clinic, I walked to the exit, looking neither right nor left, and took a few indecisive steps outside. No one came running after to stop me, so I got into the E270 and took off.
Excerpted from The Natural Disorder of Things by Andrea Canobbio.
Copyright 2004 by Giulio Einaudi.
Published in First American edition, 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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.