While the Shark is Sleeping

 

 

 

MILENA AGUS
is a bestselling Italian writer. Born in Genoa in 1959, she now lives in Cagliari, Sardinia, where she teaches Italian and history at a secondary school. The author of nine novels, Agus is the recipient of several literary awards, namely the prestigious Zerilli-Marimò prize in New York. Her work has been translated into over twenty languages.

 

PRAISE FOR MILENA AGUS

From the Land of the Moon

‘Agus sketches her characters lightly, creating an impressionistic and mysterious narrative that probes the tension between imagination and madness and celebrates minor moments of beauty in an absurd and unfair world’
New Yorker

‘Slim but powerful, it conjures up the spirit of Roberto Rossellini’
Time

‘Takes on the feel of Marguerite Duras’ powerful little book,
The Lover
– pure passion in an enclosed (emotional and physical) space’
Los Angeles Times

 

The House in Via Manno

‘Beautiful … For such a little book, the novel covers an extraordinary range of subjects with great depth of understanding’
Sydney Morning Herald

‘Fans of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Márquez will enjoy this heartwarming story of the loyalties and loves of a large Sardinian family set during World War II’
Vogue

Milena Agus

While the Shark is Sleeping

Translated from Italian by Brigid Maher

 

 

 

TELEGRAM

 

 

 

To doctors
Clara Corda and Valter Cicone

 

 

‘So now what?’ Pinocchio asked.

‘Now, my boy, we’re well and truly done for.’

‘What do you mean? Give me your hand, Daddy, and be careful you don’t slip.’

‘Where are you taking me?’

‘We have to try again to escape. Come with me and don’t be afraid.’

From
The Adventures of Pinocchio
by Carlo Collodi

1
The Sevilla Mendoza family

Actually we’re not the Sevilla Mendoza family at all. We’re Sardinian, I’m sure of it, and have been since the Upper Palaeolithic.

My father’s the one who calls us that, with the two surnames like they do down there. He’s travelled masses and America’s the place of his dreams. Not North America, rich and fortunate, but South America, poor and cursed. When he was young he used to say that he’d go back there alone or with the woman he’d marry, who’d share his ideals and the adventure of trying to save the world.

He never asked Mamma to go with him. He’s gone wherever they’ve needed help, but never with her – she’s too afraid of the dangers and always lacking in strength.

At our house everyone’s pursuing something: for Mamma, it’s beauty; for Papà, South America; for my brother, perfection; for Zia – my auntie – a boyfriend.

I write stories because when I don’t like this world here, I move into my own and I feel great.

And there are a lot of things I don’t like about this world. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s ugly and I much prefer my own.

In my world, there’s also him. He already has a wife.

I absolutely must not forget what he said.

‘Swear to me you don’t want to have a romantic relationship with me.’

And me: ‘I swear.’

‘Ours will be an animal connection, not a vegetable one.’

‘An animal connection.’

‘Two dogs that wag their tails and smell each other’s arses when they meet.’

‘Do you think I’m beautiful?’ I ask him.

‘The most beautiful woman here.’

‘But I’m the only one here.’

‘So?’

‘Please, tell me if you think I’m beautiful.’

‘Your arse is the best in the world.’

But my arse is not my idea of love.

‘What about my face, do you like my face?’

‘With an arse like that why would I give a damn about your face? Besides, if there’s one thing that gives me the shits it’s giving compliments on command.’

So then I stop, because I don’t want to behave like Mamma.

Nonna says Mamma has always been a bit of a pain in the neck. When she was little, before going to bed she would give her parents a kiss and say good night. They might be tired and respond in distracted tones: ‘Good night.’

‘Give me a proper good night!’ the child would beg.

‘Good night,’ they’d say, a bit irritated.

‘Not like that, not like that! That was even worse than before!’ And she’d become desperate and cry until my grandparents, exhausted, gave her a good hiding. Only then, when there was nothing else for it, would she fall asleep.

She wakes at dawn and goes out onto the terrace with a bucket of bleach and a broom to clean up the pigeons’ ‘pooeys’. She’s kind even to them. She invites them to leave by building a barrier of spiky red and white plants, perfectly matching the brick paving, all the way around the sides of the terrace. Or she hangs plastic bags from threads, so that the rustling scares them away. And all the other flowers are red and white too: jasmine, roses, tulips, freesias, dahlias.

Colours are important to her even when she’s hanging out the washing. But here I don’t think it’s a question of aesthetics. For washing belonging to us children, for instance, she always uses green pegs, for hope. For her and Papà’s sheets, it’s red pegs, for passion. I’ve noticed that she always avoids the yellow ones – despair – and I’ve realised that when she finds them in the assorted packs, she gets rid of them.

Mamma is not only afraid of yellow pegs but of everything. It’s unusual for her to watch a film through to the end without rushing terrified out of the cinema during the first heavy, or even simply realistic, scene.

She’s also afraid of the stars, because she understands astrology and she anxiously examines their course and position. It’s very rare for the skies not to offer her some cause for concern.

She always says she’ll never forgive herself for not giving birth to my brother a few hours later: the skies would have offered a superb aspect between Venus and a moon, both in exaltation, which would have made him happy in love. She feels guilty about me too, because in my case just an hour earlier would have been enough.

‘I should have asserted myself,’ she always used to say. ‘I had labour pains but I didn’t want to be a nuisance. They were sure I wasn’t ready but it wasn’t true. I gave birth to the girl without any pain, at a moment when the moon was squared by all the planets. My poor daughter!’

My father says she’s a rabbit and poos in little balls. He often goes up to her and whispers the sound she makes when she’s eating carrots – ‘Nyum nyum nyum nyum nyum nyum nyum nyum nyum’ – and Mamma laughs and laughs and looks at him enraptured, because he’s her opposite. He doesn’t give a shit about what other people think and he makes no apologies for anything. And he never feels inferior to anyone, not even for not having a degree. In fact, when someone shows off their qualifications he says that’s not learning, learning is something else and they’re completely ignorant.

‘We need to tread carefully around your mother,’ Papà confided to me once. ‘Anyone who has anything to do with her has to be given an information sheet. Directions for use. If I ever had any problems, if I was ever sad and could no longer manage to make her laugh, I’d really rather be in the worst place on earth rummaging through the garbage.’

That’s why we never share any secrets with her and instead act as a filter between her and the world.

I, on the other hand, have an iron stomach. Like my maternal grandfather, Nonno, who fought in the Navy during the war – three shipwrecks, two years in a German prison, the last few months with the SS, no less, marching day and night in icy conditions as they retreated and killed everyone who couldn’t make it. He fought with dogs for a bit of potato skin out of the garbage while ‘Splinter’ looked on in enjoyment. He walked without stopping and that’s why they didn’t kill him and he made it through.

He came back and started living again. The only thing is he was nervous. You’d drop a fork at dinner and he’d jump a foot in the air.

He stopped telling my mother about the horrors of war almost immediately, because she was having nightmares and dreamt she was with Nonna in a long line of people ready to be interned while he was being tortured.

In reaction to Hitler’s wickedness, Mamma became a communist. But then she read about the crimes of Stalin and Mao and how bad life was in Russia and China. She threw herself into the Church, but there, too, there were bad people, or there had been in the past: for example, the inquisitors, and merciless bigoted women. The only thing left was democracy. Perfect. But Papà always says that Western democracies, through their economic dictatorship, are killing the Third World.

He’s already married, but those phone calls cast a spell on me.

‘It’s me, how are you?’

I can no longer remember how I am. I start looking for ways to fit him in, organising really complicated plans to get him to come to my house when my parents aren’t home. Especially Mamma, who’s always in if she’s not at work. I convince her to go on walks for her painting and I leave her further and further away with her palette: on San Michele hill, which overlooks the whole city, but where Mamma grows sad thinking of how poor Violante Carroz plunged to her death there in 1511, or at the Calamosca lighthouse away on the infinite horizon. Then we make a time and I go and collect her on my red Vespa, because there’s no way Mamma could ever get her bearings and catch a bus.

The wait is a real ceremony: ten-watt lamp in the bedroom, total silence. I wait for him stretched out on the bed as though we’re about to go out. Overcoat, handbag, high heels, hands crossed over my chest. A dead woman ready to be reborn. A plain girl ready to become beautiful.

Since he can’t take me out in public on account of his wife, going out happens in our imagination. Clothes are magic, because they don’t depend on the real seasons, but on what you have in mind for that day.

The bell. The code. He enters, gives me a glance that to me seems to say ‘You’re beautiful’, walks the two hallways of the house to my room, picks up the girl lying on the bed and takes her with him into another world.

My brother is often sad. When we’re sure Mamma can’t hear us, he tells me about his school, which is a very rough place. At morning tea time, the tough kids always eat at least two snacks, while the weak ones don’t even get one, otherwise they get bashed up. The snacks my mother prepares for my brother get snatched by the tough kids. And the same with his calculator and other equipment. We’re always having to buy new things. He says that if it was up to him he wouldn’t go back any more, especially not now that a girl he liked has got together with one of the tough kids. He’d play the piano and that’s it.

Mamma used to tell to me about her office with the same sadness. She had to work in the archives.

With the black key she’d open the door of the first room. There was a small safe there that contained rows of keys in various colours that opened the cabinets. One, however, although it was the same colour as some of the others, had a small mark on it and gave access to the second room. Here, too, there was a small safe, containing the keys to access the more delicate documents. Each document had its classification on the computer, but her colleague looked after that. Mamma just had to go and open the cabinets, take the documents to staff who asked for them and make sure everything was returned to its place. But she was slow and her colleagues would grumble, she often tripped over chairs, or fell off the ladder when the shelf was high up, and the documents would end up strewn across the floor. She felt guilty and with ever more exasperating meekness would never ask for holiday leave in August or for a small pay rise. What’s more, she hid all this from my father, passing off her November holidays as a quirk, a personal preference.

In the mornings, she’d come into the kitchen looking beaten and would only smile when my father greeted her in good spirits – ‘Ah! The freshness! The beauty!’ – and he’d sigh, pretending to reach orgasm. He teased her because he knew how much a good morning or a good night in the wrong tone could throw her into despair.

Then she and my brother would prepare to go to the gallows. They’d walk part of the way together and I, heading in the opposite direction, would often turn around to look at them: he would have an enormous backpack on his shoulders, because the tough kid in his class never brought a single book to school, and she always looked like the coat-hanger for her own dress, she wanted so little to exist as a person in that moment.

Then one day my father said, ‘We don’t give a fucking shit about the peanuts they pay, do we? Lady Sevilla Mendoza is poor, but she’s a painter! And an artist can’t waste time cooped up in an office.’

I have to say we never noticed any economic change after that. Besides, Mamma sells tons of paintings at exhibitions, people like them a lot, and Papà sends the money from the sales to the Third World, because really, what would we do with it?

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