At the Central Military Hospital Palumbo had recalled the facts, already repeatedly put on record thanks to the local commission: expounding, with the dramatic accent of truth, in absolute narrative coherence, the terrible stages of the bombardment, culminating (for him) in the atrocious explosion that had reduced him to state a complete deafness.
Still, how do you prove that a war-deaf veteran is not deaf? That he can hear perfectly with both ears? If you reflect only a moment, you can see at once-just a minute’s reasoning is enough-that the problem is anything but simple. This character can’t hear. Why not? because a lacerating grenade went off near him, on Hill 131. So he can’t hear. And, if he can’t hear, there’s not much use in your saying,’Yes, he can’t hear’. How can you prove it? He flings Hill 131 in your face. It’s that Hill 131 that screws you. were you there, on Hill 131? Well then?
The weeks were consumed slowly, evilly; Palumbo by now believed he had been forgotten in the Central Hospital by the delays of procedure, and of the military bureaucracy.
And the days ripened, one after the other, like tasteless pears. A few cigarettes, a few tasks assigned by the quartermaster on duty, to shift forty pounds of rubbishy papers from one floor to another, to shine some brass handles, the iron door handles of the verandas, with pumice, leaving them, after rubbing and rubbing, al shiny and scratched. Every second Friday the peacock-colored entrance of the Hospital visitors of San Giovanni bringing two Toscan cigars, and two Umbrian chocolates.
Colonel di Pascuale, one morning, sent for ‘that character’ Palumbo. ‘Which, Colonel?’ ‘Which? That one!Itold you.’ ‘Ah! I know. Freguglia!’ ‘What Freguglia? That other character…131…the one who can’t hear!’ And when he had him before his desk, at attention, he wrote in blue pensil on the first sheet of his pad:’Tomorrow we will be send-/ing you home and you will have-/a month’s leave. Does that make you-/happy?’ And he turned the pad around, so that he could read.
He raised his eyes to look the soldier in the face. the poor deaf man flashed joy and gratitude from his eyes, moved around the table: and, grasping the colonel hand, his left, he fell to his knees, all of a sudden, like a beggar in a plaque by Tintoretto.
The deaf man was profuse with with benedictions, now incorporating several saints, among them San rocco, San Basilio bishop, and San Giovanni as well as the Madonna, and specifically the Madonna of Pompeii.
The dawn of next day broke, and all the bugles of the hospital sounded what there was to sound.
At ten Colonel Di Pascuale heard a knock; he said, ‘Come in,’ in a tone of irritation. But no one came in. Then a clerk got up: and he brought in Palumbo.
In the center of the office, standing, his collar undone as usual, the colonel was speaking and almost arguing with another, rather young, colonel, who began to raise his voice and to cobtradict him, more and more harshly. Now and then he drew his head down between his shoulders, as the turtle does, and raising his wrinkles halfway up his forehead, with his hand open, he said:’Now what am I supposed to do?’ and similar expressions to indicate inability to do anything and a desire to wash one’s hand, or rather one’s hams.
Colonel Di Pascuale, after a while, when he had glimpsed Palumbo, said: ‘Excuse me, excuse me juast a minute,’ to his fellow colonel, and turned. ‘what do you want?’ he asked the deaf man harshly, as if he were seeing him for the first time.
Palumbo didn’t answer, because he hadn’t heard, being deaf. And he questioned, in his turn, amazed, grieved, his superior officer, with those poor disabled-veteran’s eyes, disabled in both tympana! now abstracted from the muddle of acoustical signicances, of speechless world. ‘Ah!You want your pass?’ the colonel said then, all of a sudden, when he remembered the matter. ‘Hey, Quartermaster, where did you put this boy’s leave paper?’
‘Here they are, Colonel!’ the slender quartermaster said, with his facial springtime of pods; and he held out the papers that he had in his hand all ready:’Ah! All right!’ The colonel took them, went to the desk, dipped his pen, bent over, and signed absently: with his spirit still engaged in the argument, obviously, with the fellow officer, who went on talking to him all the time, tormenting him with constant objections: a dog who won’t ease his bite. ‘Now what are you trying to tell me? What they haven’t barred the promotion of Fagioletti Onofrio?’ etc, etc. There was a hail of plan of advancement and promotion merit (special being understood), with constant returns to Fagioletti Onofrio.
That argument had sincerely embittered him, poor Di Pascuale. He handed the paper back to sergeant, ignoring the soldier, and turned again to his colleague.
The quartermaster handed the two papers to Palumbo, pass and train ticket, saying to him (in a low voice, hower, out of deference to the quarrel between his superiors):’Here’s your pass. Fifteen days plus two days’ travel time.’
‘But he promised me a month!’ Palumbo blurted out hastily, in anguish.
Colonel Di Pascuale turned as if an asp had bitten him. He looked at him; he went over him.
‘Ah! a month?’ and he paused for a while, staring at him. ‘A month, I promised you?’ Palumbo’s face was scarlet. And now the other colonel also smiled at him, diabolically. The quartermaster’s face, a bit less yellow than usual under the maroon scum of the pimples, looked at him from the second line, as if apologizing:’Your sins, you know, will find out-but-it’s not my fault.’ The Central Military 051 surely hadn’t been his invention.
‘Well, boy, let’s get it over with once and for all, with this play-acting about being deaf. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! here there’s testimony-two good eyewitnesses, as the law requires’ (the clerks were silent)-‘Colonel Zeppola’-and he gestured as if to intruced him to Gaetano, as one would do in civilian life-‘ nad this little quartermaster of mine… a fine boy… fine. Hey, Quartermaster, did you take your yogurt? I told you… with those buds blooming blooming in your face?’ Then again to Gaetano:’The witnesses that you’re all well… the Madonna of Pompeii this morning has worked a miracle for you. You ought to thank her with your face on the ground! All right, all right. Congratulations. So you can go and leave… unlimited leave… and the pension remains with the government.’ He turned to Zeppola, shaking his head, up and down:’Our poor governement… which pays so many pensions…’ And he waved his hand in mid-air, as if to say, ‘Plenty, and that’s the truth!’
carlo emilio gadda, acquanted with grief, translated from italian by william weaver, 1968 – excerpt edited by rinaldo rasa. photograph by rinaldo rasa taken in venice tuesday december 29, 2020.
love you all
tuesday december 29, 2020