Issue 128, Fall 1993
I saw Margarito Duarte, after twenty-two years, on one of the narrow secret streets in Trastevere, and at first I had trouble recognizing him because he spoke halting Spanish and had the appearance of an old Roman. His hair was white and thin, and there was nothing left of the Andean intellectual’s solemn manner and funereal clothes with which he had first come to Rome, but in the course of our conversation I began, little by little, to recover him from the treachery of his years and see him again as he had been: secretive, unpredictable and as tenacious as a stonecutter. Before the second cup of coffee in one of our bars from the old days, I dared to ask the question that was gnawing inside me.
“What happened with the Saint?”
“The Saint is there,” he answered. “Waiting.”
Only the tenor Rafael Ribero Silva and I could understand the enormous weight of his reply. We knew his drama so well that for years I thought Margarito Duarte was the character in search of an author we novelists wait for all our lives, and if I never allowed him to find me it was because the end of his story seemed unimaginable.
He had come to Rome during that radiant spring when Pius XII suffered from an attack of hiccups that neither the good nor evil ans of physicians and wizards could cure. It was his first time away from Tolima. his village high in the Colombian Andes, a fact that was obvious even in the way he slept. He presented himself one morning at our consulate carrying the polished pine box that was the shape and size of a cello case, and he explained the surprising reason for his trip to the consul, who then telephoned his countryman, the tenor Rafael Ribero Silva, asking that he find him a room at the pensione where we both lived. That is how I met him.
Margarito Duarte had not gone beyond primary school, but his vocation for letters had permitted him a broader education through the impassioned reading of everything in print he could lay his hands on. At the age of eighteen, when he was the village clerk, he married a beautiful girl who died not long afterward when she gave birth to their first child, a daughter. Even more beautiful than her mother, she died of essential fever at the age of seven. But the real story of Margarito Duarte began six months before his arrival in Rome, when the construction of a dam required that the cemetery in his village be moved. Margarito, like all the other residents in the region, disinterred the bones of his dead to carry them to the new cemetery. His wife was dust. But in the grave next to hers, the girl was still intact after eleven years. In fact, when they pried the lid off the coffin, they could smell the scent of the fresh cut roses with which she had been buried. Most astonishing of all, however, was that her body had no weight.
Hundreds of the curious, attracted by the resounding news of the miracle, poured into the village. There was no doubt about it. The incorruptibility of the body was an unequivocal sign of sainthood, and even the bishop of the diocese agreed that such a prodigy should be submitted to the judgment of the Vatican. And therefore they took up a public collection so that Margarito Duarte could travel to Rome to do battle for the cause that was no longer his alone or limited to the narrow confines of his village, but had become a national issue.
As he told us his story in the pensione in the peaceful Parioli district, Margarito Duarte removed the padlock and raised the lid of the beautiful trunk. That was how the tenor Ribero Silva and I participated in the miracle. She did not look like the kind of withered mummy seen in so many museums of the world, but like a little girl dressed as a bride who was still sleeping after a long stay underground. Her skin was smooth and warm, and her open eyes were clear and created the unbearable impression that they were looking at us from death. The satin and artificial orange blossoms of her crown had not withstood the rigors of time as well as her skin, but the roses that had been placed in her hands were still alive. And it was in fact true that the weight of the pine case did not change when we removed the body.
Margarito Duarte began his negotiations the day following his arrival, at first with diplomatic assistance that was more compassionate than efficient, and then with every strategy he could think of to circumvent the countless barriers set up by the Vatican. He was always very reserved about the measures he was taking, but we knew they were numerous and to no avail. He communicated with all the religious congregations and humanitarian foundations he could find, and they listened to him with attention but no surprise and promised immediate steps that were never taken. The truth is that it was not the most propitious time. Everything having to do with the Holy See had been postponed until the Pope overcame the attack of hiccuping that proved resistant not only to the most refined techniques of academic medicine, but to every kind of magic remedy sent to him from all over the world.
At last, in the month of July, Pius XII recovered and left for his summer vacation in Castel Gandolfo. Margarito took the Saint to the first weekly audience, hoping he could show her to the Pope, who appeared in the inner courtyard on a balcony so low that Margarito could see his burnished nails and smell his lavender scent. He did not circulate among the tourists who came from around the world to see him, as Margarito had anticipated, but repeated the same statement in six languages and concluded with a general blessing.
After so many delays, Margarito decided to take matters into his own hands, and he delivered a handwritten letter almost sixty pages long to the Secretariat of State but received no reply. He had foreseen this, for the functionary who accepted it with all due formality did not deign to give more than an official glance at the dead girl, and the clerks passing by looked at her with no interest at all. One of them told him that in the previous year they had received more than eight hundred letters requesting sainthood for intact corpses in various places around the world. At last Margarito requested that the weightlessness of the body be verified. The functionary verified it but refused to admit it.
“It must be a case of collective suggestion,” he said.
In his few free hours, and on the dry Sundays of summer, Margarito remained in his room, devouring any book that seemed relevant to his cause. At the end of each month, on his own initiative, he wrote a detailed calculation of his expenses in a composition book, using the exquisite calligraphy of a senior clerk to provide the contributors from his village with strict and up-to-date accounts. Before the year was out he knew the Roman labyrinths as if he had been born there, spoke fluent Italian with as few words as in his Andean Spanish and knew as much as anyone about the process of canonization. But much more time passed before he changed his funereal dress, the vest and magistrate’s hat, which in the Rome of that time were typical of certain secret societies with unconfessable aims. He went out linearly with the case that held the Saint, and sometimes it was late at night when he returned, exhausted and sad but always with a spark of light that filled him with new courage for the next day.
“Saints live in their own time,” he would say.
It was my first visit to Rome, where I was studying at the Experimental Film Center, and I lived his Calvary with unforgettable intensity. Our pensione was in reality a modern apartment a few steps from the Villa Borghese. The owner occupied two rooms and rented the other four to foreign students. We called her Bella Maria, and in the ripeness of her autumn she was good-looking and temperamental and always faithful to the sacred rule that each man is absolute king of his own room. The one who really bore the burden of daily life was her older sister. Aunt Antonietta, an angel without wings who worked for her hour after hour during the day, moving through the apartment with her pail and brush, polishing the marble floor beyond the realm of the possible. It was she who taught us to eat the little songbirds that her husband Bartolino caught — a bad habit left over from the war —and who, in the end, took Margarito to live in her house when he could no longer afford Bella Maria’s prices.
Nothing was less suited to Margarito’s nature than that house without law. Each hour had some surprise in store, even the early hours of the morning, when we were awakened by the fearsome roar of the lion in the zoo at the Villa Borghese. The tenor Ribero Silva had earned this privilege: Romans did not resent his early practicing. He would get up at six, take his medicinal bath of icy water, arrange his Mephistophelian beard and eyebrows, and only when he was ready, wearing his Scotch-plaid bathrobe, Chinese silk scarf and personal cologne, give himself over, body and soul, to his vocal exercises. He would throw open the window in his room, even when the wintry stars were still in the sky, and begin to warm up with progressive phrasings of great love arias until he was singing at full voice. The daily expectation was that when he sang his do at top volume, the Villa Borghese lion would answer him with an earthshaking roar.
“You are the reincarnation of Saint mark,figlio mio’’ Aunt Antonietta would exclaim in true amazement. “Only he could talk to lions.”
One morning it was not the lion who replied. The tenor began the love duet from Otello: ’’Già nelle notte densa s’estingue ogni clamor, ” and from the bottom of the courtyard we heard the answer in a beautiful soprano voice. The tenor continued, and the two voices sang the complete selection to the delight of all the neighbors, who opened the windows to sanctify their houses with the torrent of that irresistible love. The tenor almost fainted when he learned that his invisible Desdemona was no less a personage than the great Maria Caniglia.
I have the impression that this was the episode that gave Margarito Duarte a valid reason for joining in the life of the house. From that time on he sat with the rest of us at the common table and not. as he had done at first, in the kitchen. where Aunt Antonietta indulged him almost every day with her masterful songbird stew. When the meal was over. Bella Maria would read us the daily newspapers to teach us Italian phonetics and comment on the news with an arbitrariness and wit that brought joy to our lives. One day, with regard to the Saint, she told us that in the city of Palermo there was an enormous museum that held the incorruptible corpses of men, women and children, and even several bishops, who had all been disinterred from the same Capuchin cemetery. The news so disturbed Margarito that he did not have a moment s peace until we went to Palermo. But a passing glance at the oppressive galleries of inglorious mummies was all he needed to make a consolatory judgment.
“These are not the same,” he said. “You can tell right away they’re dead.”
After lunch Rome would succumb to its August stupor. The afternoon sun remained immobile in the middle of the sky, and in the two o’clock silence one heard nothing but water, which is the natural voice of Rome. But at about seven the windows were thrown open to summon the cool air that began to circulate, and a jubilant crowd took to the streets with no other purpose than to live, in the midst of backfiring motorcycles, the shouts of melon sellers, and love songs among the flowers on the terraces.
The tenor and I did not take a siesta. We would ride on his vespa, he driving and I sitting behind, and bring ices and chocolates to the little summer whores who fluttered under the centenaries-old laurels in the Villa Borghese and watched for sleepless tourists in the bright sun. They were beautiful, poor and affectionate, like most Italian women in those days. and they dressed in blue organdy, pink poplin, green linen, and protected themselves from the sun with parasols damaged by storms of bullets during the recent war. It was a human pleasure to be with them, because they ignored the rules of their trade and allowed themselves the luxury of losing a good client in order to have coffee and conversation with us in the bar on the corner, or ride in the carriages for hire along the paths in the park, or fill us with pity for the deposed monarchs and their tragic mistresses who went horseback riding at dusk along the galoppatoio. More than once we served as their interpreters with some foreigner gone astray.
They were not the reason we took Margarito Duarte to the Villa Borghese: we wanted him to see the lion. He lived uncaged on a small desert island in the middle of a deep moat, and as soon as he caught sight of us on the far shore he began to roar with an agitation that astonished his keeper. The visitors to the park gathered round in surprise. The tenor tried to identify himself with his full-voiced morning do, but the lion paid him no attention. He seemed to roar at all of us without distinction, but the keeper knew right away that he roared only for Margarito. It was true: wherever he moved the lion moved, and as soon as he was out of sight, the lion stopped roaring. The keeper, who held a doctorate in classical literature from the University of Siena, thought that Margarito had been with other lions that day and was carrying their scent. Aside from that reasoning, which was invalid, he could think of no other explanation.
“In any event,” he said, “they’re roars of compassion, not battle.”
And yet, what most affected the tenor Ribero Silva was not that supernatural episode, but Margarito’s confusion when they stopped to talk with the girls in the park. He remarked on it at the table, and we all agreed —some in order to make mischief, and others because they were sympathetic — that it would be a good idea to help Margarito resolve his loneliness. Moved by our tender hearts, Bella Maria pressed her hands, covered by rings with imitation stones, against her bosom worthy of a doting biblical matriarch.
“I would do it for charity’s sake,” she said, “except that I never could abide men who wear vests.”
That was how the tenor rode his vespa to the Villa Borghese at two o’clock in the afternoon and returned with the little butterfly he thought best able to give Margarito Duarte an hour of good company. He had her undress in his bedroom, bathed her with scented soap, dried her, perfumed her with his personal cologne, and dusted her entire body with his camphorated after-shave talc. And then he paid her for the time they had already spent plus another hour and told her step by step what she had to do.
The naked beauty tiptoed through the shadowy house like a siesta dream and gave two gentle little taps at the rear bedroom. Margarito Duarte, barefoot and shirtless, opened the door.
“Buona seragiovanotto,’’ she said, with the voice and manners of a schoolgirl. ’’Mi manda il tenorey’’
Margarito absorbed the shock with great dignity. He opened the door wide to let her in, and she lay down on the bed while he rushed to put on his shirt and shoes to receive her with all due respect. Then he sat beside her on a chair and began the conversation. The bewildered girl told him to hurry because they only had an hour. He did not seem to understand.
The girl said later that in any event she would have spent all the time he wanted and not charged him a cent because there could not be a better behaved man in the world. Not knowing what to do in the meantime, she glanced around the room and saw the wooden case on the mantle. She asked if it was a saxophone. Margarito did not answer, but opened the blind to let in a little light, carried the case to the bed and raised the lid. The girl tried to say something, but her jaw was hanging open. Or as she told us later: ”Mi se gelo il culo’’ She fled in utter terror but lost her way in the hall and ran into Aunt Antonietta who was going to put a new bulb in the lamp in my room. They were both so frightened that the girl did not dare leave the tenor’s room until very late that night.
Aunt Antonietta never learned what happened. She came into my room in such fear that she could not turn the light bulb in the lamp because her hands were shaking. I asked her what was wrong. “There are ghosts in this house,” she said. “And now in broad daylight.” She told me with great conviction that during the war a German officer had cut the throat of his mistress in the room occupied by the tenor. As she had gone about her work. Aunt Antonietta often saw the ghost of the beautiful victim making her way along the corridors.
“I’ve just seen her walking naked down the hall,” she said. “She was identical.”
The city returned to its autumn routine. The flowering terraces of summer closed down with the first winds, and the tenor and I returned to our old haunts in Trastevere where we ate supper with the vocal students of Count Carlo Calcagni and with some of my classmates from film school, among whom the most faithful was Lakis, an intelligent, amiable Greek whose soporific discourses on social injustice were his only fault. It was our good fortune that the tenors and sopranos almost always drowned him out with opera selections that they sang at full volume, but which did not bother anyone even after midnight. On the contrary, some late night passersby would join in the chorus, and the neighbors opened their windows to applaud.
One night, while we were singing, Margarito walked in on tiptoe in order not to interrupt us. He was carrying the pine case that he had not had time to leave at the pensione after showing the Saint to the parish priest at San Giovanni di Laterano, whose influence with the Holy Congregation of the Rite was common knowledge. From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of him putting it under the isolated table where he sat until we finished singing. As always, just after midnight, when the trattoria began to empty, we would push several tables together and sit in one group —those who sang, those of us who talked about movies, and all our friends. And among them Margarito Duarte, who was already known there as the silent, melancholy Colombian no one knew anything about. Lakis, intrigued, asked him if he played the cello. I was caught off guard by what seemed to me an indiscretion that was difficult to handle. The tenor, as uncomfortable as I, could not saye the situation. Margarito was the only one who responded to the question with absolute naturalness.
“It’s not a cello,” he said. “It s the Saint.”
He placed the case on the table, opened the padlock and raised the lid. A gust of stupefaction shook the restaurant. The other customers, the waiters, even the people in the kitchen with their blood-stained aprons, gathered in astonishment to see the miracle. Some crossed themselves. One of the cooks, overcome by a feverish trembling, fell to her knees with clasped hands and prayed in silence.
And yet, when the initial commotion was over, we became involved in a shouting argument about the lack of saintliness in our day. Lakis, of course, was the most radical. All that was clear at the end of it was his idea of making a critical movie about the Saint.
“I’m sure.” he said, “that old Cesare would never let this subject get away.”
He was referring to Cesare Zavattini who taught us plotting and screenwriting. He was one of the great figures in the history of film and the only one who maintained a personal relationship with us outside class. He tried not only to teach us the craft but a different way of looking at life. He was a machine for inventing plots. They poured out of him, almost against his will, and with so much speed that he always needed someone to help him catch them in midflight as he thought them up aloud. His enthusiasm would flag only when he had completed them. ’Too bad they have to be filmed,” he would say. For he thought that on the screen they would lose much of their original magic. He kept his ideas on cards arranged by subject and pinned to the walls, and he had so many they filled an entire room in his house.
The following Saturday we went to see him with Margarito Duarte. He was so greedy for life that we found him at the door of his house on Angela Merici Street, burning with interest in the idea we had described to him on the telephone. He did not even greet us with his customary amiability but led Margarito to a table he had prepared and opened the case himself. Then something happened that we never could have imagined. Instead of going wild, as we expected, he suffered a kind of mental paralysis.
’’Ammazza!” he whispered in fear.
He looked at the Saint in silence for two or three minutes, closed the case himself and, without saying a word, led Margarito to the door as if he were a child taking his first steps. He said good-bye with a few pats on his shoulder. “Thank you, my son, thank you very much,” he said. “And may God be with you in your struggle.” When he closed the door he turned toward us and gave his verdict.
“It’s no good for the movies,” he said. “Nobody would believe it.”
That surprising lesson rode with us in the streetcar we took home. If he said it, it had to be true: the story was no good. Yet Bella Maria met us with the urgent message that Zavattini was expecting us that same night, but without Margarito.
We found him in one of his stellar moments. Lakis had brought along two or three classmates, but he did not even seem to see them when he opened the door.
“I have it,” he shouted. “The picture will be a sensation if Margarito performs a miracle and resurrects the girl.”
“In the picture or in life?” I asked.
He suppressed his annoyance. “Don’t be stupid,’ he said. But then we saw in his eyes the flash of an irresistible idea. “What if he could resurrect her in real life?” he mused, and added in all seriousness:
“He ought to try.”
It was no more than a passing temptation, and then he took up the thread again. He began to pace every room, like a happy madman, waving his hands and reciting the film in great shouts. We listened to him, dazzled, and it seemed we could see the images, like flocks of phosphorescent birds that he set loose in a mad flight through the house.
“One night,” he said, “after something like twenty Popes who refused to receive him have died, Margarito goes into his house, tired and old, and he opens the case, caresses the face of the little dead girl and says with all the tenderness in the world: Tor love of your father, my child, arise and walk.”
He looked at all of us and finished with a triumphant gesture:
“And she does!”
He was waiting for something from us. But we were so befuddled we could not think of a thing to say. Except Lakis the Greek, who raised his hand, as if he were in school, to ask permission to speak.
“My problem is that I don’t believe it,” he said, and to our surprise he was speaking to Zavattini: “Excuse me. Maestro, but I don’t believe it.”
Then it was Zavattini’s turn to be astonished.
“And why not?”
“How do I know?’ said Lakis in anguish. “But it’s impossible.”
’’Ammazza!” the maestro thundered in a voice that must have been heard throughout the entire neighborhood. “That’s what I can’t stand about Stalinists: they don’t believe in reality.”
For the next fifteen years, as he himself told me, Margarito carried the Saint to Castel Gandolfo in the event an occastion arose for displaying her. At an audience for some two hundred pilgrims from Latin America, he managed to tell his story, amid shoves and pokes, to the benevolent John XXIII. But he could not show him the girl because, as a precaution against assassination attempts, he had been obliged to leave her at the entrance along with the knapsacks of the other pilgrims. The Pope listened with as much attention as he could in the crowd and gave him an encouraging pat on the cheek.
“Bravo, figlio mio,” he said. “God will reward your perseverance.”
But it was during the fleeting reign of the smiling Albino Luciani that he really felt on the verge of fulfilling his dream. One of the Pope’s relatives, impressed by Margarito’s story, promised to intervene. No one paid him much attention. But two days later, as they were having lunch, someone telephoned the pensione with a rapid, simple message for Margarito: he should not leave Rome, because some time before Thursday he would be summoned to the Vatican for a private audience.
No one ever found out if it was a joke. Margarito did not think so, and he stayed on the alert. He did not leave the house. If he had to go to the bathroom he announced it: “I’m going to the bathroom.” Bella Maria, still witty in the dawn of her old age, laughed her free woman’s laugh.
“We know, Margarito,” she shouted, “just in case the Pope calls.”
The following week, two days before the date specified in the message, Margarito almost collapsed when he saw the headline in the newspaper slipped under the door: Morto il Papa. For a moment he was sustained by the illusion that it was an old paper delivered by mistake, for it was not easy to believe that a Pope would die every month. But it was true: the smiling Albino Luciani, elected thirty-three days earlier, had died in his sleep.
I returned to Rome twenty-two years after I met Margarito Duarte, and perhaps I would not have thought about him if we had not met by accident. I was too depressed by the ruinous weather to think about anybody. An imbecilic drizzle like warm soup never stopped falling, the diamond light of another time had turned muddy, and the places that had once been mine and sustained my memories were strange to me now. The house where the pensione was located was still the same, but nobody knew anything about Bella Maria. No one answered at the six different telephone numbers that the tenor Ribero Silva had sent me over the years. At lunch with the new movie people, I evoked the memory of my teacher, and a sudden silence fluttered over the table for a moment until someone dared to say:
“Zavattini? Mai sentito”
That was true: no one had heard of him. The trees in the Villa Borghese were disheveled in the rain, the galoppatoio of the sorrowful princesses had been devoured by weeds with no flowers, and the beautiful girls of long ago had been replaced by athletic androgynes cross-dressed in flashy clothes. The only survivor among all the extinct fauna was the old lion, who suffered from mange and a head cold on his island surrounded by dried waters. No one sang or died of love in the plastic trattorias on the Piazza di Spagna. For the Rome of our memory was by now another ancient Rome within the ancient Rome of the Caesars. Then, a voice that might have come from the beyond stopped me cold on a narrow street in Trastevere:
It was he, old and tired. Four popes had died, eternal Rome was showing the first signs of decrepitude, and still he waited. “I’ve waited so long it can’t be much longer now,” he told me as he said good-bye after almost four hours of nostalgia. “It may be a matter of months.” He shuffled down the middle of the street wearing the combat boots and faded cap of an old Roman, ignoring the puddles of rain where the light was beginning to decay. Then I had no doubt, if I ever had any at all, that the Saint was Margarito. Without realizing it, by means of his daughter’s incorruptible body, and while he was still alive, he had spent twenty-two years fighting for the legitimate cause of his own canonization.
— translated from the Spanish
by Edith Grossman