I saw Lila for the last time five years ago, in the winter of 2005. We were walking along the stradone, early in the morning and, as had been true for years now, were unable to feel at ease. I was the only one talking, I remember: she was humming, she greeted people who didn’t respond, the rare times she interrupted me she uttered only exclamations, without any evident relation to what I was saying. Too many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years, and to regain our old intimacy we would have had to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn’t have the strength to find the words and she, who perhaps had the strength, didn’t have the desire, didn’t see the use.
Yet I loved her, and when I came to Naples I always tried to see her, even though, I have to say, I was a little afraid of her. She had changed a great deal. Age had had the better of us both, by then, but while I fought a tendency to gain weight she was permanently skin and bones. She had short hair that she cut herself; it was completely white, not by choice but from neglect. Her face was deeply lined, and increasingly recalled her father’s. She laughed nervously, almost a shriek, and spoke too loudly. She was constantly gesturing, giving to each gesture such a fierce determination that she seemed to want to slice in half the houses, the street, the passersby, me. We had gone as far as the elementary school when a young man I didn’t know overtook us, out of breath, and shouted to her that the body of a woman had been found in a flowerbed next to the church. We hurried to the gardens, and Lila dragged me into the knot of curious bystanders, rudely opening a path. The woman was lying on one side; she was extraordinarily fat, and was wearing an unfashionable dark green raincoat. Lila recognized her immediately, but I did not: it was our childhood friend Gigliola Spagnuolo, the ex-wife of Michele Solara.
I hadn’t seen her for several decades. Her beautiful face was ruined, and her ankles had become enormous. Her hair, once brown, was now fiery red, and long, the way she’d had it as a girl, but thin, and spread out on the loose dirt. One foot was shod in a worn, low-heeled shoe; the other was encased in a gray wool stocking, with a hole at the big toe, and the shoe was a few feet beyond, as if she had lost it kicking against some pain or fear. I burst into tears; Lila looked at me in annoyance. Sitting on a bench nearby, we waited in silence until Gigliola was taken away. What had happened to her, how she had died, for the moment no one knew. We went to Lila’s house, her parents’ old, small apartment, where she now lived with her son Rino. We talked about our friend; Lila criticized her, the life she had led, her pretensions, her betrayals. But now it was I who couldn’t listen. I thought of that face in profile on the dirt, of how thin the long hair was, of the whitish patches of skull. How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled. For a while we sat in the kitchen listlessly, neither of us decisive enough to clear the table. Then we went out again.
The sun of the fine winter day gave things a serene aspect. The old neighborhood, unlike us, had remained the same. The low gray houses endured, the courtyard of our games, the dark mouths of the tunnel, and the violence. But the landscape around it had changed. The greenish stretch of the ponds was no longer there, the old canning factory had vanished. In their place was the gleam of glass skyscrapers, once signs of a radiant future that no one had ever believed in. I had registered the changes, all of them, over the years, at times with curiosity, more often carelessly. As a child I had imagined that, beyond the neighborhood, Naples was full of marvels. The skyscraper at the central station, for example, had made a great impression, decades earlier, as it rose, story by story, the skeleton of a building that seemed to us extremely tall, beside the ambitious railroad station. How surprised I was when I passed through Piazza Garibaldi: look how high it is, I said to Lila, to Carmen, to Pasquale, to Ada, to Antonio, to all the companions of those days, as we made our way to the sea, to the edges of the wealthy neighborhoods. At the top, I thought, live the angels, and surely they delight in the whole city. To climb up there, to ascend—how I would have liked that. It was our skyscraper, even if it was outside the neighborhood, a thing that we saw growing day by day. But the work had stopped. When I came home from Pisa, the station skyscraper no longer seemed the symbol of a community that was reviving but, rather, another nest of inefficiency.
During that period I was convinced that there was no great difference between the neighborhood and Naples, the malaise slid from one to the other without interruption. Whenever I returned I found a city that was spineless, that couldn’t stand up to changes of season, heat, cold, and, especially, storms. Look how the station on Piazza Garibaldi was flooded, look how the Galleria opposite the museum had collapsed; there had been a landslide, and the electricity didn’t come back on. Lodged in my memory were dark streets full of dangers, unregulated traffic, broken pavements, giant puddles. The clogged sewers splattered, dribbled over. Lavas of water and sewage and garbage and bacteria spilled into the sea from the hills that were burdened with new, fragile structures, or eroded the world from below. People died of carelessness, of corruption, of abuse, and yet, in every round of voting, gave their enthusiastic approval to the politicians who made their life unbearable. As soon as I got off the train, I moved cautiously in the places where I had grown up, always careful to speak in dialect, as if to indicate I am one of yours, don’t hurt me.
When I graduated from college, when, in a single burst, I wrote a story that in the space of a few months became, surprisingly, a book, the things of the world I came from seemed to me to deteriorate even further. In Pisa, in Milan, I felt good, at times even happy; upon every return to my own city I feared that some unexpected event would keep me from escaping, that the things I had gained would be taken away from me. I would be unable to reach Pietro, whom I was soon to marry; the tidy space of the publishing house would be barred to me;
I would no longer enjoy the refinements of Adele, my future mother-in-law, a mother as mine had never been. Already in the past the city had seemed to me crowded, a crush from Piazza Garibaldi to Forcella, to Duchesca, to Laviniao, to the Rettifilo. In the late sixties the crush seemed to intensify, while impatience, aggressiveness spread without restraint. One morning I ventured out to Via Mezzocannone, where some years earlier I had worked as a clerk in a bookstore. I went because I was curious to see the place where I had toiled, and also to see the university, where I had never been. I wanted to compare it with the university in Pisa, the Normale, I was even hoping I might run into the children of Professor Galiani— Armando, Nadia—and boast of what I had accomplished. But the street, the university buildings had distressed me. They were teeming with students from Naples and the province and the whole South, well-dressed, noisy, self-confident youths, and others, rough yet inferior. They thronged the entrances, the classrooms, stood in long, often quarrelsome lines in front of the secretaries. Without warning, three or four started hitting each other a few steps from me, as if the mere sight of one another were sufficient for an explosion of insults and blows, a fury of boys shouting their craving for blood in a dialect that I myself had difficulty understanding. I left in a hurry, as if something threatening had touched me in a place that I had imagined safe, inhabited only by good reasons. Every year, in other words, it seemed to me worse. In that season of rains, the city had cracked yet again, an entire building had buckled onto one side, like a person who, sitting in an old chair, leans on the worm-eaten arm and it gives way. Dead, wounded. And shouts, blows, cherry bombs. The city seemed to harbor in its guts a fury that couldn’t get out and therefore eroded it from the inside, or erupted in pustules on the surface, swollen with venom against everyone, children, adults, old people, visitors from other cities, Americans from NATO, tourists of every nationality, the Neapolitans themselves. How could one endure in that place of disorder and danger, on the outskirts, in the center, on the hills, at the foot of Vesuvius? What a brutal impression San Giovanni a Teduccio had left on me, and the journey to get there. How brutal the factory where Lila was working, and Lila herself—Lila with her small child, Lila who lived in a rundown building with Enzo, although they didn’t sleep together. She had said that he wanted to study computers, and that she was trying to help him. I still remember her voice, as it tried to erase San Giovanni, the salami, the odor of the factory, her situation, by citing with false expertise abbreviations like: Cybernetics Center of the State University of Milan, Soviet Center for the Application of Computer Science to the Social Sciences. She wanted to make me believe that a center of that type would soon be established even in Naples. I had thought: in Milan maybe, certainly in the Soviet Union, but here no, here it is the folly of your uncontrollable mind, into which you are dragging even poor, devoted Enzo. Leave, instead. Get away for good, far from the life we’ve lived since birth. Settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible. I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.
I talked about it with Lila that afternoon, in the winter of 2005, emphatically and as if to make amends. I wanted to acknowledge openly that she had understood everything since she was a girl, without ever leaving Naples. But I was almost immediately ashamed, I heard in my words the irritable pessimism of someone who is getting old, a tone I knew she detested.
In fact, in a nervous grimace of a smile that showed her old teeth, she said: “Are you playing the know-it-all, the moralizer? What do you intend to do? You want to write about us? You want to write about me?”
“Tell the truth.”
“It would be too complicated.”
“You’ve thought about it, though, you’re thinking about it.”
“A little, yes.”
“You should let me be, Lenù. You should let us all be. We ought to disappear, we deserve nothing, neither Gigliola nor me, no one.”
“That’s not true.”
She had an ugly expression of discontent, and she scrutinized me, her pupils hardly visible, her lips half parted. “All right,” she said, “write, if you want, write about Gigliola, about whoever you want. But about me no, don’t you dare, promise.”
“I won’t write about anyone, not even you.”
“Careful, I’ve got my eye on you.”
“I’ll come look in your computer, I’ll read your files, I’ll erase them.”
“You think I’m not capable of it?”
“I know you’re capable. But I can protect myself.”
She laughed in her old mean way.
“Not from me.”