Oranges and Angel
A short story
Last weekend, the third Sunday in Advent, I finally unpacked the angel. We spent almost two hours picking it out in Naples last year. That is, actually we hadn’t wanted an angel. We wanted a couple of those figurines you find in a presepe, the manger scene set up at this time of year in almost every Italian church, where they then grow into whole cities and landscapes, like the ones we build for model trains. During a previous visit to Naples, I had bought a figurine of that sort, a market peddler with her fruit stand. Holding the woman in the palm of my hand, I thought she looked lovely and lost, like the sole inhabitant of some star. In the girls’ room, however, first her melons and oranges turned up missing, then her head. Which is also why we abandoned our original plan. But the angel was actually Ralf’s idea. He was not to be deterred from presenting us with a large angel — the good ones cost around 200 euros — as a thank-you for our hospitality, as he put it.
Ralf visited us in Rome twice last year, and both times he vanished again from one moment to the next. In retrospect, the angel seemed like a kind of security deposit. He had hailed a taxi in Naples to take off in pursuit of the car full of women, and his first sign of life since then was the Christmas card I received yesterday, asking if the angel was hovering above us.
By now, I would have been hard-pressed to describe the angel: large, a good 15 inches high, baroqueish. Removed from the soft wrapping paper, it appeared to have shrunk remarkably — until I discovered the two wings packed with it.
Suddenly, I saw before me the wrenched face of the vendor as he strained to remove the angel’s wings, while his wife explained that we needn’t worry about transporting it. They sent entire manger scenes to Canada, Australia and Japan every year. Urging her husband on, she spread her arms wide to demonstrate how easy it was to pull out the invisible angel wings and then reinsert them. “Si fa accussì!” — that’s how it’s done, she cried, “si fa accussì.”
It’s amazing to me now that we ever took the angel once its wings had been ripped off and screwed back in again. But Ralf insisted — just look at those hands, so lifelike, as if they were playing a harp.
Determined to treat the angel better than its vendor had, I first discovered the holes in its red bib apron and long robe of bright, shimmering olive green, then threaded the nail carefully through — and was stymied. Wielding the wing like a hunting knife, I poked around with the nail in search of the hole where it must have once been. I went at it more vigorously, and the fabric tore. I heard it rip, but could see no sign of the tear. I had almost given up when the nail slipped into place. I now held the angel up by the eye screw between its shoulders, and the first wing did a marionette’s flap on one side. The second reddish blue wing was just as much trouble. Maybe Ralf’s card and my difficulties with the angel have nothing whatever to do with this story. But it’s not a story either, more a postponed diary entry from our three-day excursion to Naples. Because time and space are all that connect what happened. I believe, however, that the first experience made me more receptive for the second, so that suddenly everything took on a meaning that, from a more sober perspective, probably isn’t there, at least not for other people. It was purely by chance that Ralf came with us to Naples. Ralf is a friend or acquaintance — depending. In September 1988, as a graduate of the Ernst Busch Acting Academy, he joined the theatre in Altenburg, landed a couple of good-size roles, and stayed aloof from politics. But then, in the spring of ’90-I was already working at the newspaper — he started drinking. He was fired a year later, went into rehab, returned to Altenburg, and supplemented his unemployment by delivering our free paper. His new passion was computers, our paper’s Apples. Ralf made friends with our two typesetters and evidently learned simply by watching. When we decided to add a third typesetter, the two women wanted Ralf to join them. He stayed on until our bankruptcy in 2001, set out on his own designing websites and has muddled through ever since. Although we no longer had much to do with each other — I left the paper shortly after he was hired — he was the only person from those days that I still heard from with any regularity.
I had been awarded a year’s fellowship at the Villa Massimo and Ralf asked if he and his new girlfriend could spend two nights with us. I agreed, although in Berlin we hadn’t seen much of each other except when he happened to drop by.
His visit at the end of June — when he showed up all alone — proved a blessing at first. A few days previously, I had torn an Achilles tendon, and surgery had left me with a cast on my right leg, so that I could walk only on crutches. On his first day with us, Ralf managed to locate a wheelchair and pushed me wherever I wanted to go. He quickly made friends with the kids, including those of other fellows at the Villa. They adored him, even though he did little to court their favour. But Ralf could yodel and draw and do headstands, and he knew magic tricks. He could snatch his self-rolled cigarettes apparently out of thin air, sometimes already lit, and make them disappear just as suddenly, so that the kids assumed he was capable of any miracle. He was also more relaxed around them. With us he thought he had to talk about books or art, which proved fairly strenuous. Since Natalia didn’t like to drive in Italy, ten days later Ralf was our chauffeur for a jaunt to the shore. It turned out to be a beautiful day. Where the actual beach began, he grabbed me around the hips, I threw an arm over his shoulder and made my way across the sand. At first it didn’t bother me to talk about the women standing along a stretch of the road right before it entered a pine forest. Almost all were women of colour, who wore short gaudy dresses or snug-fitting pants and kept their backs turned to the road. Ralf interpreted this as modesty, I guessed it came from a different tradition — the courtesans of antiquity are said to have also enticed their clients with buttocks rather than breasts. But they were all Ralf could talk about the day after as well. Did I know where these women came from, where and how they lived, if they had documentation, how much they charged, how much their pimps deducted, if they could wash themselves somewhere, and did they ever actually get to see the sea, and plenty more along that line.
“How would I know?” I finally groused. That afternoon, Ralf asked me for the car. He didn’t return until early the next morning, slept till noon, clowned around with the girls, wolfed down a couple of jam sandwiches and borrowed the car again early that evening. This went on for several days. I found his behaviour embarrassing and puerile and rude — if only because of the girls. Natalia, however, suggested that the women found Ralf more pleasant than the sort of guys we had spotted moving in packs along the shoulder of the road. “Main thing is, nothing happens to him.”
“I find him disgusting,” I said, putting words to what had only become clear to me at that moment. Just seeing his toothbrush next to mine revolted me and I suddenly had to force myself to use the same toilet he did. Ralf must have sensed this. One morning, there he was sitting on his suitcase. He said goodbye to the girls, expressed his thanks to us, and departed. The car was standing in the parking lot, tanked full and sparkling clean, inside and out.
When I heard from him four months later, in November last year, he sounded embarrassed by his escapades, at least he apologised on the phone, without saying what for. By then I had admitted to myself how cranky and unfair I had been during my crutches-and-wheelchair phase, and didn’t want to refuse him a second visit. It was sort of a mutual making of amends.
When Ralf arrived in Rome on 6 December, the girls were thrilled. He granted us the first two evenings of his company. One of Ralf’s new trademarks was an inordinate consumption of oranges. I was suspicious at first. He had read Seume’s Stroll to Syracuse, and I remarked I found it comforting that Seume could at least eat his fill of oranges for a few weeks. But Ralf’s appetite showed no sign of abating. He would schlep several kilos of oranges from the market every day, doling some out like advertising freebies and stuffing himself with the rest. You ran across orange peels almost any time and anywhere, and he always peeled them in a spiral, leaving shapes you could balance on your fingertip or on top of a bottle, something I hadn’t seen since childhood, when oranges were still a rarity. We called it “making monkeys”. Ralf was constantly photographing orange trees, both on the Villa grounds and in the neighbourhood, for example on the way to Trattoria La Pergola, to which we made regular pilgrimages. Ralf made himself as useful as he knew how, worked on my website, showed Natalia how to edit and cut computer films, and downloaded a lot of children’s cartoons. Our orange man never said a word about his summer excursions.
When we asked him if he wanted to drive us to Naples, he was raring to go.
I had reluctantly agreed to write something about the Tadema exhibition at the National Museum, but was happily anticipating Naples all the same. Even the girls, who had had enough of our excursions and were no longer impressed by our promises, could hardly fall asleep the evening before we left.
On the morning of 12 December, however, it looked as if an escalating truckers’ strike would defeat our lovely plans. I dialled one taxi number after another, to no avail. Petrol stations were running out of fuel, supermarket shelves were emptying fast, fruit and milk had already vanished from many of them. With suitcase, shoulder bags, and two girls we hurried to the Piazza Bologna. The metro, usually crammed full at this hour in any case, was pure hell — or perhaps what people like us call hell. Without Ralf, we would have missed our train with reserved seats. It was all Natalia and I could do to keep the girls from being squashed, so Ralf took charge of our baggage, but didn’t make it on to the carriage. He showed up at Termini just before our train pulled out — with our suitcase balanced atop his head, bags slung over his shoulders, and a blue plastic bag of oranges dangling from his right wrist.
I’m always fascinated by the fact that it takes only two hours to get from Rome to Naples, and another two, in the opposite direction, to Florence. For me, it’s always as if Rome lies at the equator, and Florence and Naples are overarched by two different skies.
It may sound like wild enthusiasm or at least an exaggeration when I claim that I had experienced the uniqueness of Naples two years before, when for the first time I climbed out of a taxi on the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. This city has its own peculiar density — I know no other word for it than density. The volume of its squares, streets, alleys, courtyards is so supercharged that Neapolitans seem to me more mature than the inhabitants of other cities. And warmer, and maybe a little nastier too, depending on who you run into. They have neither energy nor time for illusions. Naples is a city that squanders its beauty, and not just in criminality and decay. All of a sudden the most splendid church emerges, but you can barely see the façade, let alone get a sense of it in its entirety. The real splendour is often first visible from a back courtyard. Nowhere is the air so saturated with smells, and the air changes with every step you take.
You are given the once-over, patted, and jostled, silence doesn’t exist. The rattle of motorinos demands a constant glance over the shoulder. But this density would be nothing without the expanse that accompanies it. All it takes is to climb a couple flights of stairs or to change from one side of the street to the other, or simply to turn around, and you’re dizzy from the vista di mare, which I experienced the first time from the windows of the Hotel Britannique, where we were staying on this trip too. With its ’70s décor, it looks pretty run-down. Only the high ceilings hint of its old grandezza. Just calling it to memory gives me goose bumps. I merely have to picture groping my way through the darkened room, pulling open the casements, pushing the wooden shutters out, and closing my eyes as the light crashes in. Despite all the descriptions I’d heard or read, despite all the paintings, photographs, and films, I thought I was prepared for that moment. In those few dazzled seconds of trying to orient yourself, it’s as if you have wandered into a painting or movie — it’s all so familiar, nothing is familiar. It’s never a repeat view, if only because the light and the colour of the water always generate a different space. Each time I’m terrified by how close Vesuvius is, each time it seems unreal that Sorrento and Amalfi are located on that peninsula, that that island out there is called Capri. The expanse is the other side of the coin, the counterpart to the density so surprisingly and intimately related to it. Because the view across the Gulf of Naples embraces all that we are: from Virgil to Nietzsche and Wagner, from Benjamin to Malaparte to Saviano — seemingly random names chosen from so vast a number. That was my lecture once the girls had fallen asleep on the train, while Ralf peeled his oranges and divided them into thirds. I also said that I was well aware of the dubiousness of such generalisations, that they probably revealed more of my own ignorance than any factual knowledge, but were at least my attempt to get a focus on the place.
Of course, other cities are louder, more fragrant, more stinky, narrower, faster, wider, more unpredictable — Calcutta, Sanaa, Cairo, Rio. But those are foreign cities, and whether I love or hate them, they remain foreign to me. Naples, however, is my world — but at the far end of it, in much the same way that a black sheep in the family is more annoying than some crazy at the train station, or a gorgeous aunt or niece more fascinating than any pin-up girl.
Apparently there were no strikes in Naples, or at least no visible signs caught our eye. There was no problem with the taxi. We took our luggage to the hotel, rode back into the city, met up with the rest of the group from the Villa Massimo — who arrived late because truckers had blocked the highway with their rigs — in the Pizzeria del Presidente, and then headed up to the
National Museum. Just to describe our walk through the narrow streets — the rich dark colours of walls and doors, the lights strung for Advent, the mild air, the bright streaks of sky between roof gutters, the clotheslines, the gulls and pigeons you might have taken for handkerchiefs that the wind had ripped free and set spinning in the sunless blue — a real description of that walk would require far more time and space, and still not come close to capturing the happiness I felt with every step I took, a happiness that seemed as unfounded as it was perfectly natural.
Once inside the National Museum, we stood for a long time gazing at the Farnesi Bull. Paula wanted a story to go with each work of art. We puzzled over the Alexander mosaic, wondering who the man behind the mounted Alexander might be and felt sorry for the soldier left to lie in the dust while the fleeing Persian king’s chariots rolled over him. Ralf carried Anna piggyback almost the entire time.
I was in a hurry to get upstairs to see the Tadema exhibition. The few paintings by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema that I was familiar with had always left me more amused than anything else. As a master of his craft he was without parallel. Every detail, every shifting shadow across polished marble, every ornament of a robe draping the knee of a seated figure, was perfection. Tadema’s pomegranates lay there in such physicality that you thought they might fall out of the painting. And yet I found him infinitely boring. And not just because you can hardly tell the difference between one face and the next. I saw his paintings as the epitome of a zeitgeist — the various academies of the late 19th century had fought tooth and nail to win Tadema’s membership — as the work of a man who shunts his glistening processions back and forth along a sidetrack. I find it an interesting phenomenon that in the era of photography someone held fast to a version of veduta painting and populated his canvases with his own salon guests — who had probably arrived by train — clad in classical garb. In the case of a man who was born in 1836 and died in 1912 one might plead mitigating circumstances for his attempt to flee an accelerating world into one of ostensibly eternal classicism. And yet: weren’t such paintings already an anachronism by the date of Tadema’s birth? Or was I on the wrong track? I wanted to find that out from his paintings.
From the second floor, I could see Vesuvius. Gazing at it from the same room where the model of Pompeii is displayed, you realise what others may smile at as a commonplace: without Vesuvius there would be no Pompeii, no Herculaneum, but then also no mosaics, no Alexander mosaic. This museum wouldn’t exist either, and even a Tadema would have painted differently.
No wonder then that we also think of Vesuvius as a museum piece. Distance and a higher elevation might save the museum and us from the lava that had destroyed Pompeii. But death from the air was a possibility, too. Herculaneum had been buried by billowing small chunks of lava and a rain of ash, while toxic gases, which are said to make excavation risky even today, did the rest. Just a wind from the wrong direction, and a new eruption would take far more lives than the one of 2,000 years ago.
“Actually,” Natalia said, “people shouldn’t be let into the city without a
reserved seat on the evacuation train.”
That idea might have served as a good lead into my article: “Tadema — Under the Volcano.” But the exhibition was closed. At first, we didn’t understand and assumed the cord dividing the hall — one-half of which was devoted to various painters of vedute set in antiquity and the other half to Tadema — was a precautionary measure to protect the paintings. Once we realised our mistake, we presented our tickets for the special exhibition. But the uniformed women and men sitting beside the barrier turned away. “Chiuso, chiuso!” cried the one seated closest, and without so much as a glance at our tickets.
“I’ve paid,” I said, “and now I want to see the other side of the hall.” They were silent. “I’m going to write about it, that’s really in your own interest.” No response. Only when I reached out to remove the cord did these ladies and gentlemen awake from their stupor. One signore grabbed me by the arm. He was trying hard to keep his voice down. Natalia translated. Unemployed workers had barricaded themselves on that balcony up ahead, where they had unrolled their banners. No one knew how they would react if anyone got too close, the police had been notified, we would have to wait. “How long?” I asked. “Just a few hours,” came the answer, then he let go of me.
I didn’t know what to do. The uniformed guards realised at once that I had capitulated and returned to their seats. “Then I can’t write about it,” I said. “Then you’re free to go,” Natalia said.
For my reading that evening we entered a side street off the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore and then descended a set of stairs into an artist’s studio. Camilla Miglio, a professor at the L’Orientale, introduced me. The audience consisted almost exclusively of female students, most of them barely over twenty. I kept staring up at the window that looked to the piazza. Last year, we were told, when Terezia Mora had given a reading here, they had come close to having to shut down because of the sirens and shouts and the blue lights of police cars. The son of a Mafia boss had been shot dead very close by.
On our return to the hotel, we were greeted with a shock. The girls were sleeping, Ralf lay stretched diagonally across our bed, an empty bottle of red wine with its cork pressed down inside was on the little table by the window, plus a saucer full of cigarette butts, and beside it a stack of orange peels. It took Ralf a while to come to himself. At first, he didn’t understand why we were whispering.
According to him, he had been drinking again for a good while, but in moderation, only in moderation, he said, no harm in that. That was beside the point, Natalia said, whether in moderation or not, and a whole bottle was not necessarily moderation. Why was he drinking in secret, I asked. But he wasn’t being secretive about it. He hadn’t drunk anything in our company, I replied. “You two don’t drink,” Ralf said. “On your account,” I said.
I found his red-wine breath insufferable. I just wanted him out of the room quickly. The next morning, Ralf joined us at the breakfast table in a sunny mood. If we didn’t mind, he’d like to accompany us to Pompeii. Natalia went on with her story about the dogs there and how they had chased my mother in the summer of 2001. At the exit, she had turned around without a second thought and opened a bottle of water she’d bought from a street vendor, then poured the water into the cup of her hand, so that the dogs could drink. Ralf said that without the eruption, Pompeii would be a totally insignificant town nowadays, having at best an old church with walls decked out in provincial baroque, a phrase taken verbatim from his guidebook.
The girls were bored by Pompeii — except for the corpses in glass display cases. I was overcome with a strange sadness when it occurred to me that well into the first century BCE, in a town colonised by Greeks, Greek was the preferred language. Former Roman legionnaires had donated money to build an amphitheatre. Bit by bit, gladiator games replaced performances of tragedies. Although the Greeks were no less brutal in war than the Romans, you still had an inkling of how everyday life can undergo such brutalisation in just one lifespan. The reconstructed amphitheatre was closed; bars now blocked the entrances through which those doomed to die had been forced inside. It stank. It seemed to me an eternal stench, as if the fear of death had lived on, had seeped into the stones along with the urine and shit.
Vesuvius stood out clearly against the afternoon sky. What would we do if it suddenly erupted? I wondered if Ralf would lend us a hand as he had in the metro the day before. And what about us? Would we leave him behind injured, just so we could save the girls and ourselves? And what was that moment like, when — with the children in our arms — we understood that there was no escape? I thought about the scene in Kill Bill where Uma Thurman is buried alive and still manages to work her way out of the coffin and back to the surface. Even though I knew better, I couldn’t imagine our fate to be any different: we too would dig our way up and out, over and over again.
We had crossed paths with a group of young Japanese women several times, the last time, just as dusk was falling, in the Villa dei Misteri. The mural was painted in perspective, but with the focal point shifted slightly off-centre, lending it a modernity that provoked our speculations. What would have been lost to us if this art had not adorned one of the few intact houses of a provincial backwater? One of the Japanese girls entered the room, cast a glance at the mural, and vanished again. I couldn’t control myself. “There is nothing better than this,” I shouted in English and ran after her a few steps. Whether her vacation was short or long, she would not see art like this. “Look into the eyes of these women,” I wanted to say, “look at these gestures, the raised arms and the little basins in their hands. Doesn’t it seem as if that were only yesterday?”
The Japanese woman turned around in fright, hesitated briefly. I waved for her to come back, but she scampered away like a nymph fleeing Pan.
Natalia proposed that it would be charming to go on a trip that left out all the major sights, as Roussel is said to have done, who let himself be driven everywhere, but never left the car, not even in Egypt, just pulled the window curtain back a bit. I said that I didn’t see anything charming about that, not really. Ralf evidently didn’t know which side to take. But suddenly, for no obvious reason, he spread his arms wide, traced circles with his hands, and began to dance in small steps across the stone floor in front of the barrier. With eyes closed, he slowly raised his arms, his fingers intertwined, his head nestled first against one shoulder, then the other, once even pressed to his bicep. Then he snapped his fingers and did a couple of spins, arms outstretched at his side and making snaky motions.
His dance lasted no longer than 30 seconds. After a final tippety-tap with his feet, he opened his eyes again.
“Where did you learn that?” Natalia asked. “At the beach,” he said, “last summer.”
Not even the girls could talk Ralf into a repeat performance, but he promised to dance with them in our hotel room.
Nothing came of that, however, because after we returned home, he said goodbye and took off to see something of the city.
We planned to have dinner that evening at L’Oca, where we were to meet Valentina and Carmen, who had invited us twice now to visit them in Naples. Valentina said that three men had been shot dead the day before, halfway between the studio and the Cappella Sansevero, not 100 metres from where I had read. The next morning we packed our things and rode with Ralf to Raimondo’s bookstore Dante & Descartes, where we could leave our baggage. I briefly considered trying the museum again for the Tadema show, but this was to be the girls’ day. And they wanted to see manger figurines and visit the aquarium.
The Via S. Gregorio Armeno has row upon row of shops, every single one with nothing but crèche figurines. As I said, it was Ralf who gave us the angel as a gift. What he probably would have liked best was for us to buy another angel too, one for each girl. Paula and Anna were each allowed to pick out a statuette, and both chose a shepherd with a lamb over his shoulders. Ralf bore the big green box before us on the walk back to the bookstore.
Raimondo had made coffee, and for the adults there were baba cocktails, the children got cocoa and biscuits and the inevitable oranges.
Ralf had stepped outside to smoke. I told Raimondo about our failed attempt to see the Tadema exhibition and said that it was in fact true what the guidebook said: that in Naples everything is put to immediate use, it all happens in the now. Not even the museum, I said, is a place for the past, because there too the present triumphed in the form of a protest by the unemployed, just as Vesuvius would likewise triumph again someday. My final words were mixed in with a shout in the street. I heard it but paid no attention. In Naples, someone is always shouting, and no one was to be seen at the door that opened on to the Via Mezzocannone, either.
Later, we tried to reconstruct what we had actually heard. We had all definitely heard “Stop!” but we couldn’t even agree on the name. “Felice,” is what I thought I’d made out, but neither Natalia nor Raimondo could recall that.
Natalia was the first to react. “That’s Ralf shouting,” she said, “it’s Ralf.” She said it very calmly, as if she didn’t want to upset anyone. We got up and went outside.
Ralf came running up the street towards us, waving and shouting that name, Felice, at least that’s what I think. He had seen her in a car with three other women, he had recognised her. “And they didn’t have any clothes on,” he cried. A car was heading down the street, its brake lights flashed, a silver-coloured car, I couldn’t tell what make. Ralf hailed a taxi, which drove on to the taxi stand at the upper end of the street, manoeuvred back and forth to turn around, and came back down the street. “Call the police,” Ralf said, leapt into the taxi and slammed the door. We could see him leaning over the front seat, gesticulating. The silver car turned left.
“We have to call the police,” Natalia said.
“And what are you going to tell them?”
“That there was a car with naked women sitting inside.”
I called Ralf’s cellphone number. I got his voice mail. I tried again, until we realised that there was a ring coming from his shoulder bag, which he had stored behind the counter. In it were — in addition to two oranges — his wallet and his guidebook. We waited for the carabinieri above the shop in a room painted green. All we could do was provide them with Ralf’s description — that, and what he had shouted. N. said that it was evidently one or several of the prostitutes he had made friends with last summer, at the beach south of Ostia. Had he been a client, the carabinieri asked? “Probably,” she said.
The short carabiniere was poker-faced, the tall one stared at me as if I were the offender. They took down Ralf’s cellphone number. Natalia reviewed Ralf’s recent calls, but it looked as if he had made none since 6 December, the date he arrived in Italy. He had received only a few SMS messages from Vodafone, promising “low-rate travel calls”. I didn’t find any Italian area codes in his stored numbers — except for ours. Towards the end, I gave the police our
address at the Villa Massimo and was given a number to call as soon as Ralf got in touch with us again.
When Raimondo offered to cancel our visit to the aquarium, we both rejected the idea simultaneously. Nothing in the world seemed more worth the effort than to head off to the aquarium with Natalia and the girls. At that moment, I probably would have welcomed most any other suggestion. I just wanted to get away from the spot where Ralf had shouted, “Stop!” and “Felice!”
During the short taxi ride, I caught myself constantly staring into other cars. But why would pimps want to smuggle naked women through the city in broad daylight? The carabinieri had asked no questions along those lines, whatever that meant. We had to drive back through the long tunnel, since the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn — its official name — lies on the far side of the mountain, in a little park.
There was an unpleasant fishy odour at the ticket counter. But that didn’t bother me. On the contrary, anything that put distance between Ralf and us made me happy.
Christiane Groeben, the Stazione’s archivist, who has lived in Naples for more than 30 years, led us upstairs to the hall with the frescos by Hans von Marées. For the girls, the attraction was the fish, but we wanted to give the frescos a look. I tried as best I could to concentrate on her comments.
The building had been erected over the course of 18 months in 1872-73, right on the coast at the time. Today, a wide coastal highway separates the Stazione from the sea. The frescos were painted in the summer and autumn of 1873. They have been restored several times since then, most recently in the 1990s.
Although the girls began romping about almost immediately and could barely be kept under control, eliciting the immediate and repeated apologies to our guide we felt were her due, for me the frescos were both a discovery and a gift.
These frescos have been described many times, and I’m not about to compete with a Meier-Graefe or argue whether or not Marées was, as I believe, the most painterly German of his time. I admired the tension he created merely by the placement of figures and how his faces are a blend of the individual and the abstract. Nothing is more alien to his work than the theatrical gesture, the narrative episode, or the snapshot effect of a Tadema, who was only one year his senior. The individual frescos stand on their own and enhance each other. They emerge in relationships, each to each, but without telling a story. And of course I was also amazed by the concept behind the enterprise. The interplay of art and science — the room balances the large laboratory on the opposite side of the building and was originally conceived as a concert hall, which soon became a library — was augmented to a triad by the addition of the aquarium. It was intended both as a way to offset costs and popularise scientific knowledge. The exceptional part was that here in this space I felt the mood of panic enveloping me since Ralf’s latest escapade ebbing away. I cannot say why this was so, but it wasn’t that my mind was distracted. On the contrary, I saw Ralf everywhere. Not in any sense of similarity, even though the arbor trellis at the head of the room to the east, which Marées painted together with friends, reveals both their comity and antagonisms — which was also a pretty fair description of my, or our, relationship to Ralf. But that analogy wouldn’t have been necessary. The seascape with oarsmen on the north wall, the fishermen with their nets at the rear of the room, or both frescos of orange groves between the high doors of the balcony opening onto the sea — each individual fresco would have done the job. Yes, I would be content even with a detail of the gull gliding just above the water behind the boat, or of the hand reaching for an orange. Marées could transform the everyday into art. That was my simple discovery. In his work a gull was both a gull and a messenger sent out over the waters. His oranges were oranges and at the same time the apples of the Hesperides and the forbidden fruit of Paradise. Each minute I stood among the frescos seemed to lend me strength. My eye moved between the groves of orange trees and out into the Gulf. I couldn’t say whether what Ralf had done made any sense, maybe it was the wrong thing to do. I didn’t even know if I ought to hope that he caught up with the silver car or lost it from view. My only wish was to see Ralf again as soon as possible. The rest would work itself out. Finally, we descended to the aquarium, where the odour wasn’t nearly as penetrating as on our arrival, and came to a halt at the first basin, where a large octopus lay stretched inert across the stones.
The claim that his pose was that of someone in a chaise longue is not some after-the-fact invention of mine. Yes, in some way he reminded me of Tischbein’s portrait of Goethe, because the massive head and trunk — it’s difficult to exactly tell the two apart — was draped a little to the left, whereas it had extended all its arms to the right. I found it odd to see its suckers, more familiar to me from insalata di polpo or frutti di mare. Anna asked whether the octopus was alive. It did indeed look more like a splotch of algae. We would probably have soon moved on had it not been for Frau Groeben’s commentary. She told us it had three hearts, plus blue blood. It was a creature of nobility, since if you compared its brain mass to its body weight, it was more highly developed than homo sapiens. “And in terms of elegance,” she added with a twitch of one corner of her mouth, “it was in any case an evolutionary mistake for life ever to have left the water.”
The tips of its tentacles began to display some movement, although I did wonder whether the animal itself or water currents were the origin of those gentle curlicues. But then there was no mistaking a wavelike motion that passed along the arms, growing stronger and stronger, like a motor slowly revving up. Although its tentacles were all wriggling in much the same way, they were anything but in synch. Didn’t it seem incredible that the motions of this configuration should all belong to the same creature, were all an act of its will? Some of the tips were curling up, others unrolling, some lifted, others sank, some thrashed about a little, others hardly at all. The effect of this polymorphic and yet unified animation was hypnotic.
The girls had already had enough and moved on to the next tank. Natalia followed them. Frau Groeben said that, given their intelligence, octopi are of great significance in research. And then she told an almost unbelievable story. A fore-forerunner of this current specimen had been teased in the
research lab by one of the employees. The man had kept splashing the water, something that these creatures evidently do not like. He startled the octopus over and over. The next morning, as the man stepped into the room, a surge of water hit him in the face. Before he realised what had happened, another volley landed square on the bib of his overalls. His colleagues didn’t believe him. But they later discovered that the door was also wet and that the puddle before it could not have come from just those two shots. The octopus, they concluded — and our guide shared their opinion — had been taking practice shots at the entrance the night before.
I was paying such close attention to her story that at first what I was seeing didn’t even register. The entire octopus was now caught up in the motions of its arms. It had raised itself from the stones, and now swam headfirst to the right, dived, swam back, tugging its arms like a bundle of garlands along with it, rose up again, and repeated the process. “It’s doing somersaults!” I said.
As if I had spurred it on, it increased the tempo and at the same time reduced the radius of rotation. It was now executing one continuous forward roll, making it impossible for me to say to which cycle its rotating arms belonged, this one or the one previous, because several of them seemed to have taken on a life of their own, twisting and turning through the water according to self-imposed laws.
“It’s doing this for you,” Frau Groeben said as she turned away. “These are the calamari.” She was now standing in front of the tank opposite, a few steps behind me. “You mean it’s really doing it for me?” “Squids,” she said, “don’t live long in captivity, they barely last two days. We keep them alive for two weeks at any rate.” “So in two weeks, all these will be dead?” I asked, turning to look at the tubular squids skittering through the water. Their lurching movements reminded me of bats, but in slow motion. I may be mistaken about this too, because I didn’t want to risk taking my eyes off my octopus for more than a few seconds.
“Look at that,” I said, “now he’s doing backward somersaults !”
I applauded, I called out to the girls, who shouted back. Natalia sounded excited as well. Frau Groeben walked on ahead to join them. Left alone now, I pretended to go on clapping. “Bravo, you’re great,” I whispered, as if this were a dog or a horse before me.
The forward and backward rolls must have tired it somewhat, because it now took brief time-outs, during which I thought it would sink back on to the stones and I would finally have a chance to move on. But maybe it just needed to reorganise its tentacles, for after each short interruption it rolled into action again.
I used its next time-out to take my departure, after first applauding one last time and whispering something stupid. I slunk away, passing by other tanks without paying them much attention — or I’ve just forgotten in the meantime. All I remember is a stuffed turtle by the name of Marlene, because it had died on the same day as Marlene Dietrich. Other visitors had entered now and were lingering in front of the octopus tank. I admitted to myself a twinge of jealousy. It was now displaying its talents for them. When I checked back in their direction they still hadn’t moved on. I waited another minute. Then I walked back towards them, well aware that I wanted to catch my octopus in flagrante. But it was sprawled out on its chaise longue, and didn’t budge. I kept my distance. Once the others had moved off, I stepped forward as if to apologise for my behaviour and at least say my goodbyes. “You were great,” I said, “grazie mille.”
In that same moment the octopus raised its head from the stones — and what it now did shocked me. Within a few seconds it had mobilised all its arms and flung them out. It was a veritable explosion of tentacles, the head of Medusa awakened to life — for what is more apt than a comparison of tentacles and snakes? It took only a moment and they were extended from one end of the tank to the other, while at the same time the white underbelly was turned towards me. I gazed into its mouth, stared at every single sucker. It was no longer a Medusa head, it was beautiful, magnificent. The simultaneity and randomness of its motions were an inconceivable miracle. Yes, a miracle, and somehow obscene. A dog will suddenly thrust its muzzle into your crotch or clamp on to your legs and whimper with arousal — even at its worst that’s merely unpleasant. This was different. It unnerved me and I sensed I was on the verge of losing my self-control and bursting into tears. Of course, under normal circumstances nothing would have happened, but in this moment I, too, stretched my arms wide and pressed my hands against the glass, the way I sometimes do against a train window when Natalia and the girls are leaving for to visit her parents. That was our farewell.
By the time we got back to Raimondo’s, Ralf had picked up his things. I called him. He was at the railway station. He thanked me for our having notified the police. He sounded tired and just kept saying that everything was okay and we needn’t worry. I thought he would wait for us on the platform and bought two kilos of oranges at the station. I called his number several times from the train, only to be told over and over by the same woman’s voice that unfortunately my call could not be answered at present. I walked the length of the train twice, from the last car to the first. Even when we got off at Termini we kept an eye out, but there was no sign of him. We walked with our luggage to the taxi stand and joined the long line. There was still just enough daylight to see the starlings, hundreds maybe even thousands of starlings above Rome. Swarms of them in flight are beautiful, but eerie too, as if they’re tracing some message of doom in the sky. One theory says that, instead of flying south, these birds perform dances, metamorphosing into indescribable shapes, now a dance of seven veils, now spirals and banners of smoke, comparable in elegance only to the movements of tentacles.
I asked myself whether the octopus shared my mood, whether it perhaps thought of us, its visitors, and what shape its image of us might take — a question I still ask myself today, with the angel hovering at last in the girls’ room, the angel of Ralf the orange man, who had danced the women’s dance for us, in the middle of the Villa Misteri in Pompeii.