Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 16
Carmo arrived at my flat in a terrible state. He sat down wearily and sounded utterly dejected. It was inevitable: Sandra had given him his marching orders. At first, hoping to comfort him, I thought of telling him that here, too, things had been going badly. But I remained silent, aware that Carmo would find it difficult to bear the contrast between my serenity and his despair. Or, worse still for me, I would have to keep up this pretense of sharing his despondency. This promised to be quite an evening: two grown-up men, one of them well past his prime (forgive me, Carmo, but it happens to be true), weeping to the background music provided by Lalande’s De Profundis, cursing all the daughters of Eve and swearing that never again will he fall into their clutches. I simply gave him to understand that my relationship with Adelina had soured, so that Carmo could have a consoling foretaste of my own imminent separation. We must not despise people because of their weaknesses; no one feels healthier than when comforting the sick, no one stronger than when confronted by a weakling, no one more intelligent than when speaking to an idiot. From this moment onward Carmo began to calm down.
But things got off to a bad start. No sooner did I open the door than he collapsed dramatically into my arms, weeping his heart out. I pushed him toward the divan, poured him a drink and asked him, “Now then, what’s all this?” Bronzed by the sun, Carmo looked as if he were wearing a mask. I have never been one for summers by the seaside, for lolling about on the beach under a blazing sun. I reckoned Sandra must have worn him out: Sandra sunning herself on the beach, Sandra in the nightclub, Sandra in bed, and an exhausted Carmo pleading mercy for his weak heart and tired penis. I was guessing, but my guess proved to be right. “I’ve had enough, old chap.” This was Carmo. “It’s finished between me and Sandra.” Now then, my friend, why so proud, what is this “me and Sandra,” this “It’s finished,” when you’re the one who’s finished, perhaps for a short while, perhaps for longer, perhaps forever. This is what I was thinking as Carmo told me in his own words how he had managed to win over Sandra, her interest (interest? sheer lust). How good Carmo felt as he relived his moments of glory, erotic feats he refrained from describing in detail but hinted at, imploring me with his eyes to believe him, not to doubt him, smile ironically or, worse still, mock him. Nothing could have been further from my thoughts. Any man who has experienced life knows that middle age (and old age even more so) recompenses any loss of sexual vigor with experience in the art of making love. Why should things be different for Carmo? One need only consider the passion young girls in the flower of youth (in shade and sun) show to the point of indecency for older men who could easily be taken for their uncles or fathers. “It doesn’t surprise me,” I told him gravely. “Just think of Chaplin. Oona O’Neill was much, much younger, yet they fell in love. Lots of children, no fewer than nine of them.” Carmo became suspicious, or at least looked suspicious, but my words did him some good. And he delivered a solemn declaration: “No one could have been happier than we were.” He downed half the whisky as if he were drinking water and began brooding, his elbow resting on one knee, his fist to his forehead, his lips moist with drink as he sat there slouching in his usual manner. “But tell me, how did you two come to quarrel?” Carmo awkwardly raised his head: “There was no quarrel—we simply parted. Can’t you understand? It’s all over. Everything is over between us. Everything.” And, as one might have expected, Carmo broke down at this point. I tactfully left him on his own, passed quietly into the kitchen, washed my hands to give him time to pull himself together, then rejoined him in the room. Looking more composed, my aging friend was removing (painful, I concede) one last tear from the corner of his eye. His glass was empty. I poured him another whisky, then sat on the floor, resting my back against the divan. From there I could get a better view of my chaste Saint Antony with his sheepish expression of someone who is at a loss for something to do, once having lost his halo, book and Child Jesus. “Tell me all about it.” “Things couldn’t have been going better. The sea air was doing me good, I loved the dancing and felt as fit as a fiddle. I hadn’t felt so well in years.” Carmo felt what he had not felt in a long time, the resurgence of youth when one no longer expects it. I understand only too well, my friend. “I understand. And then?” “Then? What do you want me to say? Naturally, I began feeling weary, but didn’t let it worry me. The hardest thing of all was that during those last few days she began to sulk, to look at me resentfully. One evening she had clearly made up her mind to pick a quarrel and refused to accompany me to a nightclub. We spent the evening in the hotel. It was all very disagreeable. She sulked in silence. I was at a loss for words. At one point she got to her feet abruptly and, without waiting for a reply, announced she was going out to buy some cigarettes and left. I followed her out into the corridor, but I was wearing my slippers, I did not want to call after her or cause any embarrassing scenes. She returned at three in the morning in a state of great excitement. Of course I was awake and unable to get to sleep. She told me she had been walking on the beach all alone. I believed her. What else could I do? Next morning we were no sooner out of bed than she began packing her bags and told me she was going back to Lisbon. That I could stay if I wanted to. Naturally, I didn’t stay, what was there to stay for? We traveled back in the car, with me trying to make conversation, to force some explanation out of her, but it was hopeless. When she dropped me at the door I invited her in to talk things over, but she refused.” Carmo stopped speaking, took another sip and sighed, then resumed his silence. “And then?” I asked. “Well, I was already on the pavement when I looked back, waiting to see what would happen, and suddenly she leaned out of the car window and told me it would be best to end our affair once and for all. As far as she was concerned we were finished and there was no point in my insisting. I felt stunned. She drove off while I just stood there like a fool, not knowing where I was. You can’t imagine the state I was in when I got indoors. I tried ringing her number several times but there was no answer. Either she was still out or she did not wish to speak to me. That was three days ago. Yesterday I managed to catch her on the telephone and she began joking, telling me to put everything behind me, that we had had some good times together, but these things happen and there was no reason why we should not still be friends, and so on and so forth. You know what she’s like. The same old humbug.” The situation was clear and had been clear from the very beginning: another of Sandra’s little whims, another of Carmo’s little dreams fulfilled. Doomed from the outset, the dream would only last the duration of Sandra’s whim. Why was Carmo complaining? “And now? What do you want me to do?” “I don’t know, old chap. I can’t bear it. I feel like doing away with myself.” “Don’t talk nonsense, you’ll do no such thing. You know very well what Sandra is like.” Flying into a rage, Carmo interrupted: “I won’t allow you to say anything against her. You probably fancied her yourself and got nowhere.” “I’ve already told you to stop being an ass. I’ve never fancied her or shown the slightest interest. I was only trying to help you.” Carmo suddenly felt ashamed. “Forgive me, I’m afraid I lost my head and one thing leads to another.” He rattled the ice in his glass, took two quick gulps and, averting his eyes, said, “You could do something for me. Ring her, say you’re concerned, tell her you found me a bit low, that I took you into my confidence. You could telephone her right away, while I’m still here.” “But Carmo, it won’t do any good. I know Sandra and so do you. Once she has made up her mind there’s nothing to be done.” “I’m asking you a favor. Please help me.”
Carmo made this request with awesome simplicity, his tearful eyes staring at me with the expression of someone who is about to drown and knows it. At that moment I felt our friendship was worthwhile and sincere and I wanted it to continue. I got up, went to the telephone in the bedroom, looked up the number in my diary and dialed. I had heard Carmo follow me and I was aware he was lingering there in the doorway, clutching his glass with both hands, looking nervous and miserable. Poor Carmo! My heart went out to him, an
Carmo had drawn nearer without my noticing. He looked disheartened. “Did I hear the word ‘bore’?” All of a sudden I felt my patience running out. A man with the perfect desert, so effectively depopulated, so well and truly deserted, and now this. I nodded affirmatively and walked through the studio. Carmo came after me like a bull (God help me). I turned on him: “Will you never learn? I did warn you. There’s nothing to be done.” Carmo emptied his glass with a gulp, whisky dribbling from the corners of his mouth, and, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he grunted: “Slut, whore.” I drew away and told him, “Your behavior is disgraceful. A few minutes ago you were weeping your heart out. And tell me, was Sandra already a slut and whore when you went to bed with her? Or only after you slept together?”
The attack was brutal but produced results. Carmo sat down slowly, lit a cigarette (he usually smokes a cigar; cigarettes are reserved for moments of crisis, in private and at work) and said nothing more about Sandra. I went around the studio giving the impression that I was trying to tidy up the place and put my paints in order, wondering whether I should put these things in writing or pretend they had never happened. Carmo got up, excused himself and went into the other room. He returned, peeved but tranquil. I observed that he had washed his face and combed down the little hair he had left. The worst had passed.
“Would you care for another whisky? Help yourself.” Carmo’s hands were trembling somewhat, but on the whole he was putting on a brave face. He tried to conceal the trembling by constantly shaking the ice in his glass. And, suddenly becoming very formal: “To come back to what we were discussing the other day in the restaurant. Those travel notes describing your Italian tour. I spoke about publishing them.” “I treated it as a joke. Don’t imagine . . .” “This type of book really isn’t much in demand these days.” “No need to explain. It was Adelina’s idea.” “Of course. How is she, by the way? Forgive me for not asking sooner.” “As far as I know, she’s fine. She must be back by now. Things have not been too good between us.” Carmo: “You don’t say? Anything serious?” “Difficult to tell.” Carmo, the man of experience, rather bloated and sounding pompous: “What do you expect? You know what women are.” “I know. At least I think I know.” No more was said about affairs of the heart. No further mention of my trip to Italy. We spoke vaguely about politics, we called Marcelo Caetano a few choice names. Carmo told me Tomás’s latest joke and then took himself off, much more composed, Sandra having been well and truly categorized and me prepared for the next separation.
I cannot see myself as an author. Now Sandra will no longer serve as an involuntary means of pressure, unconscious rather than involuntary. I am of the firm opinion that people should be judged by what they do, which explains why I have such a poor opinion of myself. But there are certain circumstances in which people are also what they say or have said. Once they speak, they compromise themselves more than they would care to in their own eyes as well as in the eyes of others. To speak is also to do, or at least to make a public declaration. Without Sandra as witness and judge, and also without Adelina, as I now realize, my book will not be written. Which is obviously not an excuse for not finishing the task. Now I am about to write the fifth and final chapter.
Fifth and final exercise in autobiography in the form of a travel book. Title: Lights and Shadows.
That one should go to Rome just to see the pope is a gesture I have come to respect. After all, I went to Arezzo just to see Piero della Francesca. And I could kick myself for having yielded to the pressure of time, which dissuaded me from making the detour through Borgo San Sepolcro, the artist’s birthplace, where some of his other paintings were seeking my attention. I seek and find resignation in the frescoes of The History of the True Cross in Arezzo’s Church of Saint Francis, which signal one of the happiest moments in the entire evolution of painting. Anyone who is only familiar with Piero della Francesca’s Saint Augustine in Lisbon’s Museum of Ancient Art will find it difficult to imagine the monumental splendor of the figures of the True Cross. Although extensively damaged, what remains of the frescoes dominates the bare patches where the color and design have disappeared, and they linger in one’s memory like a musical note which continues to send out echoes and infinite modulations.
But Arezzo is also the city itself, luminous and tranquil, built around a hill with the Duomo on top, which has two ceramic altarpieces, one by Andrea, the other by Giovanni della Robbia. And there I discovered a painter whom I had not come across before: Margaritone di Magnano, born in Arezzo in the thirteenth century, and whose paintings include an admirable Saint Francis in the Byzantine style. Arezzo remains one of my favorite Italian cities.
What can I say about Perugia, where I always arrive full of hope only to come away disenchanted, not because the city disappoints me in any way but because that essential spark of enthusiasm always fails to strike up between us? Yet here one finds the Fontana Maggiore in the center of the old Piazza dei Priori, with its delicate thirteenth-century sculptures still intact as well as all the surrounding buildings: the cathedral, the hall of the Palazzo Communale with its vaulted ceiling supported by massive columns, the Logge di Braccio Fortebraccio, the first example of Renaissance art to be executed in Perugia. No doubt the day will come (I owe it to myself) when this city becomes my second home. The rooms of the museum give me a sense of peace. There I reencounter the great Piero, a magnificent altarpiece portraying The Virgin with the Holy Infant and Saints. Above the altar hangs a painting of The Annunciation which is unspoiled by the artificial surround added at a later date. On the predella I observe an almost nocturnal scene: Saint Francis receiving the stigmata while another friar looks up with an expression of dismay and skepticism.
I visit Rocca Paolina, shiver with cold and feel sorry for the watchman, who is anxious to have a chat. The Rocca is an underground street with vaulted roof and houses on either side. There are shops which no longer function and ovens where bread is no longer baked. A gloomy place despite the lighting, and one emerges with a sigh of relief. Outside, in broad daylight, is the Corso Vanucci, swarming with boys and girls from the International University. Here you can hear all the languages of the world being spoken, and perhaps it is these noisy hordes of foreign students who come between me and Perugia.
Heading south, I arrive at Todi. There I lunch in full view of the astonishing landscape of Umbria, which surpasses even that to be seen from Assisi, incredible as that may seem. It was in Todi that I spotted an enormous electoral poster with the bold headline “CORAGGIO FASCISTI.” I felt as if a sudden shadow had clouded my face. I looked around me and the tiny square of Todi was transformed into the whole of Italy. I feared for Ita
Now it is time for Rome, the gigantic, the city whose doors and windows were made for men some ten feet tall, the city no visitor can hope to cover on foot, a city which tires one’s limbs and bones and (if you will pardon the heresy) leaves one weary in spirit. I must confess in all humility, I do not understand Rome. Yet I shall never tire of visiting the Museum of the Villa Giulia, where the archeological remains of southern Etruria are ingeniously set out and offer a salutary lesson in art and history. I submissively return to the Museo delle Terme, although Roman sculpture nearly always leaves me feeling somewhat melancholy; and I use every hour at my disposal to tour the Vatican museums, a challenge which defeats me from the outset because an entire lifetime would not be enough to satisfy my curiosity.
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