The following two extracts are from the beginning and end of Rosa Cappiello’s book Paese Fortunato, translated by Oenone Serle.
The sky here is a revenge against solitude. Blue cloudy. Cloudy blue. It is not America. In a far off future, maybe, it will be the last America of the world. There are the foundations for the extolled lucky country. Now it is not the dream dreamt of, nor the land of plenty. It is an infinity of dances, jigs, gavottes, minuets, pavanes, masurkas, waltzes, tangos, boogiewoogies, twists, madisons, rumbas, often belches and farts which get you right in the face, in the auditorium of a cinema or at a party.
Superexasperated thoughts. Not completed with the flow of logic, but to the rhythm of personal and impersonal emotions. Sieved on the emigration coach and finished off at the hostel and on the streets. Right from the beginning I felt like sending everything to the devil and mocking. Think a bit. About the public dunnies. The land to be won didn’t itch at the ridiculous or poetic, but only at hope, at the unexpected, the unforeseeable. The unforeseeable hit me. Ah, not to be able to admire a grey stone piss-house corroded by the weather in the corner of the square. What ever kind of people were these? Where did they attend to their needs? In the houses of red brick, asymmetrical, square, dry and impersonal, like the soul of this people. In the substrata of my long expected celebration/initiation, I wanted that monument and only that in the shade of a eucalypt. Certainly it was a negative impact. How could I have been so uncharitable when the city received me with open arms? While I longed for the human touch in the architecture of a dunny, others missed their mum, a perfect love, the national anthem, strolls along the main street, the show of elegance, understanding. Better than me, with more elevated sentiments, my female travelling companions absorbed it all gradually, drawing from it fragmentary verdicts, which later, cursing, they would swallow again. This happened to them when they were awake. Mysteriously, cruelly muddled up, they bent their heads and wept. For years they felt devastated for having confused brotherhood, good manners and ‘mingling’. They had a high price to pay.
Within a few hours so many oddities coalesced that my mind skidded trying to seal them up. The novelty of a summer Christmas enchanted me. We disembarked in Sydney on the 24th of December, on a day of iridescent sun which separated me cleanly from an age, from a culture, from another life, projecting me in a dual conception. Discontinuous eurhythmy, I think it was, because I had adenoids strangled from emotion, from fear and from the residue of a euphoria that had been stuck to me like a tag at embarkation point.
Having arrived at the hostel, we were consigned to some old hags. The hostel immediately offered us an idea of the composition of the internal fauna: lesbians, pregnant women, old women ravers, loafers, junkies, slatterns, female vagabonds, misfits, widows; the stench of charitable institutions for the poor; cockroaches; and then the first, the second, the third and fourth floors, dismal and damned, with cells to sleep in, boxed inside each other. A prison. You go to prison for punishment. We must have been mistaken in something. Maybe in the choice.
The dog’s box assigned to me has no windows. A small bed, a bedside table, a chair, a locker, a chest of drawers with a mirror. The wooden walls are raised from the ground by about twenty centimetres. Climbing on chairs one can spy on the intimacy of the neighbours. Draughts on all sides. I got a cold, indigestion, constipation, difficult respiration in bed, diptheria, dry retching and a stupid manner which I attributed to the food and to delusion. I produced manias in myself. I somehow had to liberate the galloping frenzy that boiled inside me. I asked for courage. I asked it of the walls. I felt so empty and loathsome that I took to having tantrums. I was getting the disease of emigratory rejection. I plugged the openings on the floor and the hole of the lock with pellets of newspaper. I bought fresh fruit and vegetables which I then discovered inevitably nibbled by the cockroaches. I had an awful terror of fossilising in bed and not being cured. Then, gradually, I returned to normality. I began to appreciate the good sides of the situation and to revalue the results. Almost all of the factories were closed for the Christmas holidays. A bit difficult to find work. They told us to be patient. I was patient. I did not have the slightest wish to start any activity until I was subdued. I discovered marvellous beaches. The boys and girls barefoot, dressed carelessly. Men in short trousers and long socks with the grotesque and exhausted walk of drunkards. Nothing seemed funnier to me than this latest fashion next to women in long and gaudy dresses. Or the little Australian woman with the profile of a condor, drained of lymph because of the long sits in the sun, driving the car or doing the shopping with curlers in her hair. I discovered immense parks. Creamy milk. Indifference. The various nationalities of the girls. The same defeated melancholy. I found out that there were different hells. One for single girls. One for lonely youths. One for married women. One for children. Combining them they formed one single pre-fabricated hell. That of the emigrants. And that the wind blew a petrified breath from the ethnic communities. As a new member I was unyielding. I spat on it, as I was not its offspring nor a composite element, signifying race or custom; and I spat on it in the pretence of creating little universes, separate and enemies between themselves. I did not want to, and did not have to sacrifice myself.
During the day we sunbaked on the terrace. From there I took in the lanes and houses below, the filthy backyards, the clothes hung out on the rotary hoist. Through an open shutter you sensed the tenor of life. The dull battle that seeped on, as though through a mosquito net. In one corner the knitting machine and the sewing machine. Europeans or South-Americans for sure. People who came in remote times and in complete ignorance. Primitives who didn’t ask more than the basics. A wholesome appetite. Good health. Steady money. I asked for more than to stuff my belly. Maybe I expected the impossible. Not to be the hindquarters of a cow, a ram, a sheep, negligently flung on butchers’ hooks. I waited. I waited for a god without wings who would balance me in flight; the solidified ocean so one could cross it on the tip of the tongue; some compensation of no sex or religion, that would glide down from the fog, without sounds and without abstruse words. In the meantime I stored ideas at a run, attentive to catch even an obstructed sigh of grief, the raw ache of a blow on wood . . . There wasn’t time to make notes. Later on the notes would reread indigestable and stale. The change turned giddily like a centrifuge cracking and turning inside out the surfaces of a fresco. Scenes of little turtledoves and delicate little sparrows, whose gentleness only consists of confusion and cries of agony. They grew: the bad mood, the tumult. Who didn’t cry? Who? The majority amused themselves with eyes moist from lamentations. Then, the evening, a dressup contest, a race to become doll-like, to steal away onto the stretch of footpath and the steps of the hostel, where fascinating male buds, in first bloom, satraps. Bedouins, cane cutters, unemployed, put out roots to sieze the tarts out for a breath of air. Christ, who didn’t cry? In the air floated stunted penises, penises like wrecks. Licentious and hungry men. In their faces an exhaustion from weeks and months of sexual abstinence. They were immediately offensive. Anxious not to let slip away the juicy pulp that had been trumpeted in all the newspapers. They flocked. They encircled, plagued and annoyed those women who would expose themselves with glances which feigned acceptance or consideration of the propositions. No, the men did not represent the ideal. Neither did work. Not even hope, to be short. You arrived, and the past dried up entirely, without a reason, without a purpose. Rapidly memories became sucked up by the present and then wilted. They faded on the calendar, on the discarded pages. Days and days, piled up, invisible, one on the other. Thinking back, the 24th of December would never reappear, because in the marching step of emigration we ordered ourselves a fine funeral of identity; to be reincarnated as sewers, factory girls, cog wheels, ribbons, morsels for satraps.
At night, when the group of Greek women came back in, there was always pandemonium. They seemed a mob of unleashed fillies. Very young and ignorant, they kept themselves clustered like relatives and lifelong female friends, laying the basis for the clan. Merciless with those who did not suit them. The discovery of lesbians was the last straw. The lousy cows, with a receptive itch and delirious feelings, didn’t miss an evening when they would perch on the chest of drawers and on the backs of chairs to spy on the Yugoslav women in the middle dog-box, or the French and the Danes. To spy on the Danes, they had to position the chairs in the corridor, grunting and giggling. As long as they were there at the hostel, we had music and dancing in the stairwell and the bathrooms, brawls and squabbles. Then one Saturday they disappeared en masse. They quickly got used to the place and found themselves males with whom to share the new life.
One night, this was before the Greek women had disappeared, I had loitered to watch a film on television, down in the lounge. At about eleven, tired, I was returning to the dog-box. I wanted only to sleep. On opening the door I heard whispers. I looked up. I was literally dumbfounded by what I saw. Lined up, on the top of the Yugoslav woman’s wooden partition, were eight impudent-looking faces almost breaking their jaws in order to maintain their balance. Winking and smiling they signalled me to join them. I hoisted myself onto the chest of drawers. The two women, though harassed by such curiosity, whether from carelessness or because they were used to the perves, pretended they were not aware of it, and continued to caress and to murmur phrases which, from the position I was in, seemed full of aggrieved passion. ‘Look, look’, incited a Greek woman, chewing a lock of hair. I didn’t understand why they should break the balls of those two, who certainly were among the few women who never bothered anyone. I was already beginning to regret hanging there like a monkey, when suddenly the youngest Greek, a little girl, winking, ejected a substantial slag which got Irene on the ribs. All hell broke loose. The pyjamaed Yugoslavs ran out and, unable to enter the Greeks’ room, shinned up the walls throwing punches and threats. The group leapt down and crowded around the bed. They’d really done it this time. They were pale and stupefied. Someone held a chair like a circus tamer. The turmoil left me completely indifferent. Without thinking, I took up the defence of the lesbians, getting whammed on the nose. It was always like this, until they cleared out.
The funny thing was that from then on Elena, Irene and I were inseparable, even if it was only for a while and in an odd way. We used to meet in one of the dog-boxes and while Irene played the mouth organ or whistled in an undertone, Elena nostalgically dug up night-times in Rome. She spoke Italian correctly. She had studied and had managed to get along for three years in Italy. In the end she decided to emigrate to Australia thinking she would find there an Eldorado. She was of small build. A rag doll with dislocated joints. Clumsy, even when she spoke. She hated the Greek and South American women. Uncultured oysters, she called them. They slobbered in search of a husband. Irene, however, was nondescript at first sight. Reserved, placid, and fat in the wrong places. She always wore the same pants, baggy at the knees, and a checked shirt. An indolent voice. Eyes of a gentle ox. The less communicative. I didn’t know whether to pity or envy her. Always silent and aloof, like a goddess observing from a pedestal females floundering in the slime, the failures and scoundrels. She didn’t want to change her ways. She didn’t give a damn. With a kind of relief she took herself off to clean toilets and basins in offices. She wasn’t a woman in the usual sense nor a man in the figurative one. She was neither here no there. She denied every form of comparison, of diplomacy. She saw my friendship as an intrusion. Her evocative and contorted thoughts flipped on a tightrope. They were somersaults of obsessive ecstacy for Elena’s microscopic genitals. Irene identified in Elena divine breath, virility and literature, and transformed herself into man. She got angry hearing herself called Irene. Her name was Remo. An identity change which had nothing to do with the state registry office. She had invented it at the precise moment in which she abandoned a husband and a son. She was so habituated by now to considering herself the male of the trio that when we went out for a walk, little Elena in the middle she proceeded, heavy, arms crossed behind her back, her head upright, a stern and suspicious grimace on her face. She gained great personal satisfaction from walking erect at our side. I thought her a bit touched. Irene of the playful pussy, so I had nicknamed her since the evening clinging to the partition. I’d had the opportunity to observe it undisturbed, when she, with a bare bum, recited verses of pop songs in Elena’s ear. Irene’s fanny had its period for seven days a month. The hindrance did not purify her, nor did it elevate her; it encumbered her, being such an unmanly nuisance, with kidney pains, tummy ache, stomach pains and migraines. A snare in which she struggled and is still struggling to get away from a name and a body. Re-baptised, and with a look around like a migratory bird, she flew up towards the unknown. She trifled with the intestinal baggage, disowning progeny, ovaries and vagina. And yet, she had a vagina. I have seen it, correctly in the centre, where it should be. An enormous Medusa, strangled by a tuft of curly hair. A dark forest. To explore it you’d need to use an electric torch. Look at it and study it. Irene head down wins in generosity. Irene loves.
Strolling, we spoke of many things, one more incoherent than the next. What need was there to be coherent? Elena allowed herself to be overtaken by hysteria and pedantry. She instructed me on poisonous sea snakes, on sharks, on the Chinese and Japanese. She was terrorised by a yellow invasion which was almost taken for granted. To tell the truth, all the earth’s surface seemed terrified. Terrified by brown skin, liquid eyes, the foreign. And we talked about men, naturally. The first spit on dreams and chimeras really came from the other sex. The fodder exalted by propaganda pamphlets. The prospective husbands. The companions of a lifetime. Paradise for women. The land populated mainly by men. We experienced him first hand. He is of all races. Carrier of culture and different customs. He speaks the international idiom of fucking, except for fluent English. The man of Australian stock, then, was known as a joke. Spineless. A drinker. A tepid interest in females. Between a glass of beer and a woman, he chooses the beer. From what you hear, it seems he gets the same sexual pleasure from it. What did we have to do with it? Oh yes. Irene snorted loudly. We didn’t laugh, nibbling pastries and sipping Turkish coffee in the Roumanian milk bar on Oxford Street. Then Elena would read the future in the dregs of the cups. She didn’t believe in the future, but she liked to delude us. We were tasting nothing other than a desperate illusion. And hers was a desperation different from mine. A repudiation of hope. How difficult it is to have patience and courage; this I have learnt. Why does she turn to me with that pressed smile, after having asked about Italy? Why after so many years, have I still not understood? What was there to note in her hysteria, to preserve me from the bitternesses and horrors of solitude? So Elena seemed mad, neither more nor less than Irene/Remo; and because of the leached doll’s face, like a wornout broom. She wasn’t beautiful. But then what did attractiveness mean to her? Trifles, according to her strange ideas. She didn’t love Irene. She could barely stand herself. Sometimes they beat each other up and you would see them in the morning with black eyes. In that relationship her companion could have pretended to go to the moon and she would never have noticed. She followed her obsessions, giving the unfortunate impression that she was a pain in the arse, a fanatical egoist ready to abuse and exploit the weak. It often happened that she would philosophise with the coffee cup in one hand while the other pulled the little curls on her forehead, slinging off at the city, the population, work and love. ‘The country’s development is connected to us, and to those, with blinkered eyes, who came before us, scum, refuse; there you are — squallor’, she repeated in refrain. She didn’t go for subtleties when she was giving rash judgements. Nothing could shut her up, once she’d got going. One afternoon, we were being hassled by a man sitting at the table next to ours. The guy made out he was tough, the shirt open on the chest, his neck bluish from lovebites which he paraded like a braggart. His better half, an Aboriginal woman, wider than she was high, with peroxided hair, got a whack in the mouth attempting to quieten him. The bar proprietor put us out, unceremoniously. He was sick of Elena’s raves. Not only that, he told us not to show up anymore. After that the evenings were passed tramping the streets, especially on Sundays, in the absolute emptiness, in search of something, maybe a miracle that would make reality bearable.
As a farewell, Beniamina said that she had never seen me crying, and that a woman who doesn’t cry bars herself all wisdom. Maybe so. It was a torrid February, a damned February, when I’d had it and decided to submit; and I cried until I had dulled myself. From time to time I allow myself a soothing little cry, but now, after what she has just said to me, I am no longer sure whether those ignominious drops, which stream hot and salty down my cheeks, should be called tears, or cornea irritation, or a cold, or sinusitus of the sinuses. And, fuck — allow me the impudence; a woman who is pushed to the edge of suicide and seriously plans to dish up her soul, and almost serves it, but then rethinks, and takes a step back, well it seems to me that she has all the sacrosanct rights to sharpen her claws and grind her fangs. I had suppressed the demon that is in everyone and had opened myself to hope and wisdom. I put cynicism, pessimism, shrewdness and dishonesty in the rubbish and in doing this I realised how easy it would be to annihilate, subdue and destroy myself. And why? What would my death straighten out? And no, I did not kill myself. I admitted that it was too early and too convenient to snuff it. It wasn’t yet time to settle accounts. Fuck death, everlasting sleep and oblivion. Death became foreign to me. I saw myself ride the tiger and on the tiger I rose again. To survive, however paradoxical a survival, simultaneously with the funeral of my ideas and of my exaltation of the Eldorado; a wretched mirage in the centre of a desert where even the sunlight and moonlight disavow one another. I was reborn from a hibernation which was not physical or mental lethargy, but sheer coma, a suspension due to the personal desires of the self. Ah, how much this makes me laugh, and how purposeless it is. My passage can only be understood by one who has risen again. Let’s hope they haven’t resurrected in hordes, because the slavering of the Lazaruses annoys me to the point of crushing vitality and imagination. So, I put my roots back on the golden crust and there I sat, on the top of the human wall. Ah, certainly superiority produces order and justice, love, maturity, humility, intelligence, jobs, warm meals, woollen blankets…
For years now I have been pissed on from high and low. Oy, and oy oy again — so as not to mention ‘fucking’ in vain, that fucking potful of endurance. Perhaps I am a slave woman bought in chains and with rings in the nose, to be pissed on? Maybe I am the abominable snowman? For all the devils in hell and demons in your head, for Christ and the Holy Virgin Mary, for all the fake saints of Paradise, I invoke the rights of man and of the whole of humanity. I’ve amassed so much of that piss in these bad years to enable me to piss uninterruptedly from the height of the wall for centuries and centuries to come and let loose a second flood, in truth, my piss is priceless; piss streaked with blood and gangrene, piss which doesn’t ask respite, not to be wasted because, taking flight, it curves like an iridescent coloured rainbow and brushes cities, grasslands, mountains, rivers, lakes and seas. Collect it in specks, in buckets, in cans, in bathtubs, in troughs. Bottle it and take it home. Yes, home. It is offered to you in homage by someone who has suffered too much and to console herself has learnt to piss for lack of anything better.
A cloudy day of leaded greyness, the day on which Beniamina went with the wedding dress over her arm. She was going to marry the following day and I had threatened to stab her in the guts as a wedding present. Everything finished there, the friendship I mean, without shock and without trauma. We came to terms, like two stuffed fish. The last insults fell like stones; wedges. Without doubt we would not meet anymore. Because I thought it an inadmissable miracle to have made it over her, I caught myself humming spiritual hymns and trilling like I had never trilled in my life before; and because the big room suddenly seemed to be a cage all of my own, at least for the next two weeks already paid by the bond, so that I had no worries of any kind, I decided to go to the cinema and while walking, to glance at the agency windows and the signboards on the fronts of the houses offering rooms to let. Euphoric, I believed it my duty to wind the crank of the little piano which played in my ribs so that the music engulfed me while I danced in front of the mirror endeavouring to attach a pair of false eyelashes, found in a drawer, and to paint two vermilion spots on my cheeks. I was annoyed with myself for not having at hand a wig or a hat to put on to cover my dirty hair and so I drew it back and put a carnation behind my ear. Ah yes, with glass eyes it almost seemed that I wasn’t me but a phantom stretched towards the cosmos. Hurray! Cosmos, boil because I am going on an adventure, to the cinema and to eat pizza. I am still able to smile and interpret the music which is choking Falcon Street. Which is the more promising road, the one which goes straight, or that one on the right?
The sky has darkened. The street-lights are out. And just around the corner is the shrieking world; there are musicians, clowns, the town’s show. If only I could get there they would welcome me in a kind and fraternal way; but I don’t believe it. I cannot believe it. I don’t want to believe it. I don’t give a damn. And suddenly I turned and, as I found myself snookered, I ran as fast as a rabbit, to shelter in my burrow-niche and to bury myself alive for two weeks, so that I wouldn’t see the sun go down or the dawn break and so that nothing would upset me and no-one would shit me. Got it? And don’t change your mind, you daughter of a bitch, because you change like a weathercock and you overthrow the contours of ideas, because your head runs like a spinning top. Stupid head, it has driven you into so many scrapes that if it helped anything I would unscrew it and chuck it in a sewer. Now, listen to me: trot as long as you like, but once home, plonk your bum on the steps under the bower and gently gently breathe this sweet spring air; not spring because it’s autumn; anyway, it’s all the same. Rest your head on the creeper, and sleep if you want the dawn to rouse you. You love dawns and sunsets, it’s true, I know. It’s only that you create tangled and contrasting thoughts and you believe you have stumbled into a never-ending tunnel of woe. But it will finish, it will end, I know, and all this will not have happened, because that which has happened and continues to happen belongs to too many, and to identify with it is impossible.
Rosa Cappiello (1942 – 2008) was an Italian poet. She migrated to Australia in 1971 with no knowledge of English and no skills and worked in various manual occupations. She published her first novel, I semi negri (The Black Seeds) in 1977 in Italy. In 1982, she was writer-in-residence at the University of Wollongong.