Excerpt from XXI Century

[translated fiction]

Class struggles had been replaced by racial animosity, which was being replaced by an unprecedented form of resentment, primitive, unclassifiable, unstructured, and all-encompassing. People hated people all day, every day. Days of wrath, days of tremendous anger, and every evening he had to convince these embittered adults to buy a contraption they had no idea they needed. His job was now one that required supernatural talents, but he understood their animosity, and didn’t fear it. He offered them love, and in return asked only that they accept his love, because although he was an old-school salesman who knew all the tricks of his trade, he really put his heart into it. There was only one thing he asked of those people: Trust me, because I believe. Think about your health, he would say. About your health when one day you are old, about the health of your children. Chlorine causes colon cancer, even twenty years into the future. All the studies say so. And all the plastic water bottles you are buying may well have been stored in warehouses for eighteen months, in poor hygiene conditions: Did you know that? We not only drink dead water, but pay for it to boot.

He would then take out his pumps, filter the tap water, ask them to prepare tea, and drop reagents into the beakers like some sort of scientist, or a nineteenth-century charlatan. All the while he kept drinking the depurated water that trickled from his portable filter, one glass after the other. Because from the moment he had discovered it, he couldn’t do without it: He, too, used to drink dead water, and he, too, was saved. Where could we put the pump? Above the stove? Under the sink? After some small talk, he’d open drawers, cabinets, like a member of the family. It was a courtship, a siege, an extortion, a threat. In short, it was a marriage proposal.

*     *     *

People hated people all day, every day. Days of wrath, days of tremendous anger, and every evening he had to convince these embittered adults to buy a contraption they had no idea they needed. His job was now one that required supernatural talents, but he understood their animosity, and didn’t fear it.

Twenty-four hours after his wife had been admitted to the hospital, while the prognosis continued to be reserved and the prospect of a nightmarish future had begun to take shape—a vegetable lying in his bedroom, children running wild, adult diapers supplied by national healthcare services—he was one hundred kilometers from home, in the tiny apartment of a family whose only fault was to let him in the door. He had rung their doorbell at eight thirty-five—lax punctuality, to give his clients time to prepare for his visit—and had gone up to the third floor of the sky-blue building, bordering on, but not yet, decrepit. He had arrived like a friend would, a friend who was just passing through, without his contraptions or any contracts to sign, just passing through. At the door, he was greeted by the sunken features of the head of the household. He was invited into the living room where the man’s wife handed him a glass of orange soda. As he drank, he observed them in silence. He studied the white bookcase on the left, too big and full of books; he studied the oriental cover that failed to hide a corner of the sofa where the claws of a cat had assaulted the lining; he studied the forty-inch television screen on the narrow side of the room, and, near it, an old model Wii. Not far, there was a box with five games in it, and on the ground, there were two joy-sticks, both on. It was a cheerless room that evoked memories of a comfortable life on its way to extinction; and the people were well-educated, or at least thought they were, and certainly liked to think they were. He talked to the husband for five minutes, while his wife’s voice sounded from the hall, where she was arguing with the children. They talked about work, and about the crisis (“Totally invented by the media, believe me, an economic revival is just around the corner”); and about the quality of life, and also, in passing, about ground water and pollution, his leading sponsor.

“I saw a smokestack on my way here, along the highway. A lot of smoke was coming out. Do you know what they produce there?”

“It was a tannery. Now some Indonesians own it, and I have no idea what they do in there. When my daughter was little, she thought it was a cloud factory.”

Meanwhile, on TV, they were running another clip of the jockey who had fallen off his horse, taken from another angle: The horse’s legs folding suddenly, the jockey’s back arching, and the horse behind them bolting in the other direction. A toll-free number was scrolling under the image: Anyone withholding information should come forward. A website had been created—saveSheHorse.wordpress.com—to collect money for the horse’s rehabilitation.

“Children have such amazing… imaginations. Did you know that that factory spews tons of fine particles into the air every year? Causes lung cancer, worse than cigarettes. But the people who should be monitoring are all on the company payroll—it’s common knowledge, and yet no one does anything about it.” He was improvising, fishing from his goldmine of trite urban legends, the ones he’d learned while watching hours and hours of films before getting married. “Luckily for you, you live far. So, you have a daughter too. Mine is thirteen. Her name’s Miriam.”

“Mine’s eleven, just finishing elementary school. Marta. She’s the one shouting.” Marta was calling her mother—who, he assumed, had a hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming—a stupid bitch.

“These kids are really lively nowadays. Always wanting to rebel, but it passes. It’s part of growing up. We did, too, when we were young. I also have a son, Marco.”

“Me, too. Andrea. He’s five. He’s still a good boy, luckily for us.”

“My son is seven. These kids grow up way too fast.”


They could have gone on for days saying the same stupid things. He would have liked to talk about his wife, Eleonore—he normally did, when he was working, because it curbed the hostility and the suspicion—but as soon as he tried, he felt his chest go tight. So, he stopped.

*     *     *

As soon as the man’s wife dragged herself away from her children (she promised them they could play Wii games for three hours the next day), they moved into the kitchen—a cramped little room, hot but tidy, and clean for the occasion. There were glass jars filled with cookies, nuts, corn flakes, dried laurel leaves, and cinnamon sticks on one shelf, souvenir magnets of Greece on the fridge, cookbooks by Parodi, a TV host, on another shelf, and a shopping list: dish soap, toilet paper, dry bread, Tampax, and honey. The woman looked dead-tired and ready for bed: she looked at him through watery eyes, wrinkles furrowing mercilessly in the kitchen light. He saw so many of them, these shattered women. Consumed by their families, their children, and a job they squeezed in between the babysitting, the laundry, and the cooking. He had made sure Eleonore didn’t have to go through that: He worked for both of them.

Before moving into the kitchen, he had run down to get the equipment he had left in his car. It was raining lightly, sulfuric rain, oily—liquid shit, and the stink was mixed with the vague scent of spring. The trees, which he thought looked resigned to an endless winter, were budding here and there, little grey dejected things, doing the least they could to confirm their status as living organisms. As he made his way back to the building, weighed down with paraphernalia, he passed an old couple—a man and a woman—carrying something that looked like a bag with a cat inside it. They were haggard-looking and, as they walked side by side, seemed to be supporting each other. Love, that terribly bourgeois luxury, had become a vile and moving complicity between survivors. Following his usual script, he asked his clients to prepare some tea with the water he’d filtered. The machine’s steady breathing and its little blue lights made it look like a sort of artificial lung. He showed them two beakers, filled them—one with tap water, and the other with his—and added the same reagent to both, waiting for one of the two to become cloudy. Half an hour later the little girl peeked a beautiful, sleepy face into the kitchen. “I’m thirsty,” she said quietly.

The wife had gone to brush her teeth, and when she came back, she wasn’t wearing makeup—she seemed younger and older, a girl of seventy. She’d changed into her tattered, furry slippers. The spontaneous intimacy they were now ready to extend to him was proof of his success.

“Excellent,” he said, “let’s give her some tea.” And he pointed to the teapot.

Meanwhile, the little boy was calling his sister from the room at the end of the hall. Their mom, indifferent to the effects of the theine, prepared a cup for him too, and placed it on the tray. He watched the little girl leave the room: She walked with her eyes glued to the ground, moving carefully, coming to an almost halt when the tea started rolling in the cup, and then moving again, very slowly, like a mechanical doll. Her hair was long and straight, like Miriam’s, and like his wife Eleonore’s when they first met. Just as she was about to disappear into a side door, a cat ran past her and almost made her fall.

*     *     *

Then came the time to talk about money—behind every good intention, there is always a financial transaction. He showed them how they would get their investment back in just a few years, and then start saving money. The starting price was two thousand, five hundred euros (he could hear the husband swallowing hard when he quoted the price), but with the various discounts, deals, and incredible gifts, it dropped to one thousand nine hundred and twenty euros, which could be paid in forty-eight installments of forty euros each. Neither husband nor wife wanted to spend that much money—in the silence of the kitchen you could hear the wheels of their internal calculators turning, adding up mortgage, overdrafts, bills, interest rates, unsecured debts, checks already signed out, and a vast number of small sums that had run out of their control—but he continued to talk about dead water, colon cancer, the risks their children were running, while the beaker of cloudy water just sat there—the water they drank every day—wearing away at them. At that point, it didn’t matter whether they signed willingly or not, all that mattered was that they signed. He had to raise the bar of coercive physiological pressure a notch, because the submissiveness they had shown at the beginning was giving way to forces of Darwinian origin: They resisted desperately. Everything, at this point, was a struggle for survival. And was the predator happy? No, the predator was not at all pleased with himself. And yet, he had to trudge on. His life depended on it. He didn’t want to have to pounce. But the alternative was death.

*     *     *

As soon as they had signed, peace was restored. He took a Wii game, which he always carried with him, out of his suitcase—he had one for every platform—and left it for the kids, as a gift: Tell them it’s from Santa Claus. He reassured the couple that they had just made the right decision: Soon, he said, they would thank him. They wished each other a happy spring, and, in a moment of optimism, happy Easter. The husband offered him a glass of his mother’s homemade Nocino, a terrible brew, which he drank without uttering a word. He asked about the books in the bookcase in the living room, and pretended to be shocked by the number, the selection, and the quality, even though he had noticed a lack of color coordination in the alignment of the book jackets. The wife had gone to brush her teeth, and when she came back, she wasn’t wearing makeup—she seemed younger and older, a girl of seventy. She’d changed into her tattered, furry slippers. The spontaneous intimacy they were now ready to extend to him was proof of his success.

He left them, waving as he descended the steps. As he was getting into the car, he looked up at the third floor, and saw the woman through the bedroom curtains, bathed in the orange light; her husband was also there, and moved close, embracing her. They were the indistinct shadows of human beings absolving each other.




L’odio di classe aveva lasciato il posto all’odio razziale che andava lasciando spazio a una forma inedita di risentimento primitivo, inclassificabile, destrutturato, totalizzante. La gente odiava la gente tutto il giorno, tutti i giorni. Tempi di ira, di tremendo rancore. E lui, ogni sera, doveva convincere questi adulti incattiviti a comprare un aggeggio di cui non avevano mai sentito il bisogno. La sua attività, ormai, richiedeva un talento soprannaturale. Ma lui conosceva il loro odio, e non lo temeva: offriva amore, e in cambio chiedeva solo di lasciarsi amare. Perché lui era un venditore vecchia scuola: conosceva i trucchi, ma alla fine ci metteva il cuore. A quelle persone chiedeva solo una cosa: fidatevi di me, perché io ci credo. Pensate alla salute, diceva. Alla salute di quando sarete vecchi, alla salute dei vostri figli. Il cloro provoca tumori al colon, anche a distanza di vent’anni. Lo dicono le statistiche. E le bottiglie di plastica che comprate possono stare diciotto mesi in un magazzino completamente privo di norme igieniche, prima di arrivare sulla vostra tavola: lo sapevate? Beviamo acqua morta, e la paghiamo pure.

Poi tirava fuori le pompe, filtrava l’acqua di casa, faceva preparare il tè, buttava reagenti in ampolle, come uno scienziato o un truffatore dell’ottocento. E per tutto il tempo continuava a bere quell’acqua depurata che produceva con il filtro portatile, un bicchiere dopo l’altro, perché da quando l’aveva scoperta non poteva più farne a meno: anche lui aveva bevuto per anni acqua morta, anche lui era stato salvato. Dove potremmo piazzare la pompa? Sopra il forno? Sotto il lavandino? Dopo un’ora di chiacchiere, apriva cassetti, credenze, come fosse uno di casa. Era un corteggiamento, un assedio, un ricatto, una minaccia. Una proposta di matrimonio, insomma.

*     *     *

Ventiquattro ore dopo il ricovero di Eleonore, mentre la prognosi continuava ad essere riservata, e il presagio di un futuro da incubo iniziava a prendere forma—un vegetale in camera da letto, figli allo sbando, pannoloni passati dalla mutual—lui era a cento chilometri da casa, nel piccolo appartamento di una famiglia che aveva commesso l’unico errore di lasciarlo entrare. Aveva suonato alle otto e trentacinque – una puntualità lasca, che consentiva ai clienti di non essere colti di sorpresa—ed era salito al terzo piano di una palazzina azzurra, non ancora decrepita. Si era presentato come un amico di passaggio, senza strumenti e senza contratti, quasi fosse una cosa informale. Alla porta, l’aveva accolto la faccia ossuta del capo famiglia. L’aveva fatto accomodare in salotto, dove la moglie gli aveva portato un bicchiere di aranciata. Mentre beveva, osservava in silenzio. Guardava la libreria bianca lungo il lato sinistro, sproporzionata e stracolma di libri; guardava il copridivano orientale che lasciava scoperto un pezzo di divano violentato dalle unghie di un gatto; guardava una TV quaranta pollici, sul lato corto del salotto e, lì accanto, un vecchio modello di Wii. Poco distante, una scatola con cinque giochi, e per terra due joystick ancora accesi. Una stanza sobria, con ricordi di un benessere in via d’estinzione; gente colta, o che credeva di esserlo, che di certo amava pensarlo. Chiacchierò col marito per cinque minuti, mentre dal corridoio filtrava la voce della moglie che combatteva coi bambini. Parlarono di lavoro, e della crisi («È un’invenzione della stampa, la ripresa è dietro l’angolo, mi creda»), e della qualità della vita, e, en passant, anche delle falde acquifere, e dell’inquinamento, il suo sponsor principale.

«Ho visto una ciminiera che buttava un sacco di fumo, venendo qui, lungo l’autostrada. Sa cosa ci fanno?»

«Era una conceria. Ora l’hanno comprata gli indonesiani e non so cosa ci facciano. Mia figlia, da piccola, credeva che fosse la fabbrica delle nuvole».

Sullo schermo, intanto, andava un nuovo filmato della caduta del fantino, presa da un’altra angolazione: le zampe di SheHorse che si piegano di colpo, la schiena del fantino che s’inarca, il cavallo dietro che cambia direzione. In sovrimpressione scorreva un numero verde: chi sapeva, doveva parlare. Avevano aperto anche il sito salviamoSheHorse.wordpress.com, per raccogliere i soldi necessari alla riabilitazione.

«La fantasia dei bambini è… sorprendente. Lei sa che quella ciminiera sputa tonnellate di polveri sottili ogni anno? Cancro ai polmoni, peggio delle sigarette. D’altra parte chi dovrebbe controllare è sul libro paga delle aziende—lo sanno tutti e nessuno fa niente». Improvvisava, pescando dalla miniera dei più beceri luoghi comuni, retaggio della cultura cinematografica che si era fatto prima del matrimonio. «Per fortuna voi vivete lontani. Ma quindi ha una bambina anche lei? La mia ha tredici anni, si chiama Miriam».

«La mia undici, sta finendo la quinta elementare. Marta. È quella che sta urlando adesso». Gridava brutta stronza alla madre, che, s’intuiva, stava cercando di tapparle la bocca con la mano.

«Hanno un sacco di vita addosso, questi ragazzini. A un certo punto sembra che vogliano ribellarsi, ma poi passa. Serve anche quello. Quante ne abbiamo fatte noi, da ragazzi? Ho anche un figlio, Marco».

«E noi Andrea, cinque anni. Lui è ancora tranquillo, per fortuna».

«Il mio sette. Crescono sempre troppo in fretta, questi ragazzi».

«Eh sì».

Potevano andare avanti due giorni, con quelle stronzate. E avrebbe voluto parlare anche di Eleonore—lo faceva spesso, quando era in azione: riduceva l’ostilità e il sospetto—ma appena ci provò sentì una stretta al petto. Lasciò stare.

*     *     *

Quando la moglie si liberò dai figli (aveva promesso loro tre ore di Wii per il giorno dopo) si spostarono in cucina—uno stanzino angusto e caldo, tirato a lucido per l’occasione. Su una mensola, alcuni barattoli di vetro con dentro dei biscotti, delle noci, corn flakes, foglie secche di alloro, stecchi di cannella. Sul frigo, calamite di una vacanza in Grecia. Due libri di cucina della Parodi, su un’altra mensola. La lista delle cose da comprare: detersivo piatti, carta igienica, fette biscottate, Tampax, miele. La donna era già cotta, pronta per andare a dormire: lo guardava attraverso occhi annacquati, con i solchi delle rughe sotto la luce implacabile del lampadario. Ne vedeva tante, di donne finite. Mangiate dalle famiglie, dai figli, da un lavoro infilato tra bambini da accudire, lavatrici, cene da preparare. A Eleonore l’aveva risparmiato: lavorava lui per entrambi.

Prima di spostarsi in cucina era sceso a prendere l’attrezzatura che aveva lasciato in macchina. Cadeva una pioggerellina solforica, oleosa—merda liquida, il cui tanfo si mescolava al vago profumo di un principio di primavera. Gli alberi, che ormai credeva rassegnati a un inverno perpetuo, avevano concesso qualche foglia qua e là, straccetti grigi e mesti, il minimo sindacale per riaffermare lo status di esseri viventi. Mentre tornava alla palazzina, sotto il peso delle borse, aveva incrociato due vecchi—un uomo e una donna—con un sacchetto in mano, e dentro qualcosa che assomigliava a un gatto. Avevano facce smunte e, camminando l’uno accanto all’altra, si sostenevano con il reciproco peso. L’amore, quel lusso così borghese, era diventato una complicità turpe e commovente tra sopravvissuti. Seguendo il copione collaudato, chiese di preparare un tè con l’acqua filtrata dalle sue pompe. Con il suo respiro regolare e le lucette blu intermittenti, quell’attrezzo sembrava un polmone artificiale. Mostrò due ampolle, le riempì—una con l’acqua del rubinetto, una con la sua—, aggiunse a ciascuna lo stesso reagente e aspettò che una delle due diventasse torbida. Dopo mezz’ora, la bambina si affacciò in cucina, con un bellissimo viso assonnato. «Ho sete» disse sottovoce.

«Ottimo» rispose lui, «diamole il tè» e indicò il pentolino.

Il bambino, intanto, chiamava la sorella da una stanza in fondo al corridoio. La mamma, fregandosene degli effetti della teina, preparò una tazza anche per lui e la appoggiò su un vassoio. Seguì la bambina con lo sguardo mentre camminava: avanzava a occhi bassi, muovendo i piedini con precauzione, rallentando fin quasi a fermarsi quando il tè oscillava, e riprendendo poi ad avanzare con un passo lento, da bambola meccanica. Aveva i capelli lunghi, lisci, come Miriam, e come Eleonore quando l’aveva conosciuta. Poco prima che entrasse in una porta laterale, un gatto minacciò di farla cadere passando sotto le sue gambe.

*     *     *

Poi venne il momento di parlare di soldi—dietro le buone intenzioni c’era sempre una transazione finanziaria. Lui dimostrò che nel giro di qualche anno avrebbero recuperato l’investimento, e poi sarebbe iniziato il risparmio. Partirono da duemilacinquecento euro (sentì il marito deglutire, quando pronunciò la cifra) e arrivarono, tra sconti, occasioni e incredibili omaggi, a millenovecentoventi, in quarantotto rate da quaranta euro. Né lui né lei volevano spendere tanto—nel silenzio della cucina si percepivano gli ingranaggi delle loro calcolatrici mentali che sommavano mutui, fidi, bollette, interessi, scoperti, assegni emessi, e una quantità enorme di piccole cifre sfuggite al controllo quotidiano—ma lui continuava a parlare di acqua morta, tumori al colon, dei pericoli ai quali i bambini erano esposti, lasciando che l’ampolla con l’acqua torbida—quella che bevevano ogni giorno—li lavorasse ai fianchi. A quel punto, non era necessario che fossero felici di firmare: contava solo che firmassero. Dovette alzare di una tacca il livello coercitivo della pressione psicologica perché la mansuetudine che avevano mostrato all’inizio stava lasciando il posto a forze di origine darwiniana: resistevano disperatamente. Ogni cosa, ormai, era una lotta per la sopravvivenza. E il predatore era felice? No, il predatore non si divertiva affatto. Eppure, doveva andare fino in fondo. Ne andava della sua vita. A nessuno piaceva azzannare. Ma l’alternativa era morire.

*     *     *

Appena firmarono, tornò la serenità. Dalla borsa tirò fuori un gioco della Wii che portava sempre con sé—ne aveva uno per ogni piattaforma—e lo lasciò ai bambini, come regalo: dite loro che è passato Babbo Natale. Rassicurò i genitori sulla scelta appena fatta: presto, disse, lo avrebbero ringraziato. Si augurarono buona primavera, e, in un impeto ottimistico, anche buona Pasqua. Il marito gli offrì un bicchiere di un nocino che faceva la madre, una sbobba fetida che lui ingollò senza fiatare. Chiese qualcosa sui libri della libreria nel salotto, e fece finta di essere meravigliato per il numero, e la scelta di qualità, anche se aveva notato soprattutto la mancanza di gusto cromatico nell’accostamento dei dorsi delle copertine. La moglie intanto era andata a lavarsi i denti, e quando era tornata non aveva più il trucco—sembrava più giovane e più vecchia, una ragazza di settant’anni. Al posto delle scarpe, che si era ostinata a portare tutta la sera, indossava un paio di ciabatte di pelo tutte conciate. Quell’intimità tanto spontanea che ora erano disposti a concedergli era la prova del suo successo.

Scese, continuando a salutare dalle scale. Montando in macchina si girò a guardare verso il terzo piano e vide la donna attraverso le tende della camera da letto, immersa in una luce arancione, e accanto a lei il marito che si avvicinava e l’abbracciava, ombre soffuse di esseri umani che, infine, si assolvevano a vicenda.


Translator’s statement:

I have had the pleasure of translating Paolo Zardi’s work before. This, however, does not make the job of translation easier. Each character in each of Paolo’s books has his or her own voice, and it is only after finding that voice that I can translate the piece.

I chose the 4th chapter from the book XXI secolo because it so represents today’s life, and because it reads like a short story.

As always when I translate, I translated the text in parallel: two columns, the original on the left and the translation on the right. The first draft follows the original rather closely. It’s hard to stop hearing the original voice, and that, somehow, conditions the target language at first, because, like most translators, I live within those two languages, passing from one to the other every day and somewhat seamlessly. But, as we well know, even seamless clothing can hang sloppily. So, after translating the text, reviewing it in parallel again and again, I copy and paste it to a new file, an English file.

What happens at that point is quite surprising, and sometimes disappointing, because without the original to guide me along, I find numerous mistakes, numerous slightly-off sounding things, words and sentences, of course, but sometimes entire paragraphs. It’s hard to separate yourself from the author’s voice when he’s looking over your shoulder (as he does when working in parallel), but in the end, you have to do it for the sake of the story. I believe that translation should read like an original English text. I don’t believe that, although I am certainly present, I should be seen. As a translator, I don’t want to be an obstacle to the story: I want to carry it over to another language as if it were written directly in that language. I would like to be the actor playing a part, speaking words that are not mine, but doing it so well that no one would ever doubt that my character, invented by someone else, possibly many years before, is absolutely real.


Matilda Colarossi is a freelance translator and teacher. Her translations, of both poetry and prose, can be found on Ilanot Review, Sakura Review, Asymptote, Lunch Ticket, Poetry International, Un posto di vacanza, and on her blog paralleltexts.blog.


Paolo Zardi is an engineer, a writer, a traveller, and a keen observer of the human race. He is the author of numerous short stories and novels. Among these we find: La Passione secondo Matteo (The Passion According to Matthew, Neo Edizioni, 2017); XXI secolo, from which the current excerpt is taken, and which was a finalist in the prestigious Strega Award (Neo Edizioni, 2015); Il giorno che diventammo umani (The Day We Became Human, Neo Edizioni, 2013); La felicità esiste (Happiness Exists, Alet Edizioni, 2012); and Antropometria (Anthropometry, Neo Edizioni, 2010). His short stories, “The Last Cigarette” and “Six Minutes,” were both published on Lunch Ticket. Zardi shares some of his work on his blog: grafemi.wordpress.