The only person into whose arms The Writer would have let himself fall backwards, blindfolded or with his eyes closed, was The Publisher.
That was why, when The Publisher had invited him one bright Sunday to lunch in a restaurant not far from the Villa Borghese, even though it was a place they never went, The Writer had been trusting, and had let himself fall backwards into his arms. And when, after octopus in jelly with potatoes and a fillet of monkfish, a bottle of Sauvignon and another of Rhine Riesling, The Publisher had suggested they go for a walk in the zoo to clear their heads of the wine and pointless chatter, The Writer, even though he had found the suggestion unusual, had been as trusting as before. And again he had let himself fall backwards into The Publisher’s arms.
“Poor things,” The Writer said, stopping in front of the aviary where the birds of prey were kept. “Don’t you feel sorry for them?”
The big, dark birds looked like monks sleeping on the roofs of their hermitages.
“Not me,” The Publisher said. “They’re the stupidest and laziest animals in the entire zoo.”
The Writer was surprised by this statement and looked at the aviary with closer attention. A falcon (Falco peregrinus) was cleaning its feathers with its beak, hiding its head beneath its wing. A condor (Vultur gryphus) with an obscene bare neck was scouring the ground in search of leftover food.
“Everyone feels sorry for them because they think they’re intelligent. But what they have in their eyes isn’t sadness or resignation. It’s emptiness. Absence of thought. People say ‘He’s as sharp as an eagle’ when they ought to say exactly the opposite.”
The Writer watched as a majestic eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), sitting dark and motionless on a branch, let out a powerful stream of excrement that fell to the ground like huge drops of rain after a tremendous drought.
“Everyone feels sorry for the birds. Nobody feels sorry for the foxes.”
“Did you know that foxes are tireless walkers? They can cover more than eighty kilometres a day, and they go crazy in that shitty enclosure that’s no more than half a hectare.”
The Writer didn’t know that.
“They grind their teeth, their eyes are bloodshot, they tear out their claws because they’re constantly trying to dig their way out under the fence, can you believe that? Come, I’ll show you the foxes.”
The Publisher took a threatening step towards The Writer, who raised his hand compliantly as if to say, “I believe you.”
“How many votes do we have?” he said, in order to change the subject and chase from his mind the image of those mangy crazed foxes, walking round in circles behind the barbed wire.
“A hundred and thirty for sure.”
“And how many do we need to win?”
“A hundred and fifty to be home and dry. But a hundred and forty, a hundred and forty-five might be enough.”
“Should we beware of The Master?”
“You mean the old man?”
The Writer nodded.
The Publisher shook his head. “The Master’s all washed up. He won’t even get to The Ceremony.”
“But he’s a finalist.”
“He’s sick. He has cancer.”
“Are you sure? How do you know?”
“I have my sources. I’m a friend of The Urologist who’s treating him.”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”
“No. It’s bad. If he gave an interview about his illness, or talked about it on TV, he could gain votes. But he’d never do it, he’s too proud.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I had. Thinking for my authors… of my authors,” he corrected himself, “is my job. Anyway his publisher’s a small one, he doesn’t scare me. They won’t be able to collect many votes, just a few old acquaintances who are so desperate they’d sell their souls for a reprint.”
The Writer laughed, though he wasn’t sure it had been a joke.
“And what about The Beginner?”
“He’s the horse to bet on.”
“But his book’s no great shakes, is it?”
“Have you read it?”
“No, but I’ve been told that—”
“Read it. Now there’s a book.”
“And how many votes do they have?”
“A hundred and twenty, a hundred and thirty. More or less. Like us.”
“How come they’ve got so many?”
“It’s his first book. And when it’s your first book, they forgive you everything. Don’t you remember?”
“And besides, he’s young. Do you remember the ‘brand new’ sticker we put on the cover of your book? He doesn’t need it: his face is the sticker.”
“But he’s a greenhorn, I read his interview, a naïve mishmash of clichés…”
“Listen, I’m going to be frank. We’ve known each other for thirty years. You know how much I respect you as a man, and how much I admire you as an artist. You also know that a powerful press office and the biggest publisher on the market aren’t enough by themselves. You also need the books, and yours—no offence intended—isn’t a good book.”
The Writer did not take offence, but those angry foxes grinding their teeth behind the barbed wire had appeared in his mind again.
“In fact, to be quite honest, your last three books were nothing to write home about.”
Rabid foxes were throwing themselves against the electrified fence of The Writer’s thoughts. The Publisher took him by the arm and started walking, pulling The Writer’s compliant body after him.
“Let’s say a trapeze artist in a circus gets one of his moves wrong on the first night of the show. Luckily, his partner has good reflexes and catches him. The number goes down well, the audience don’t notice a thing and happily applaud. Then, when the show is over, the two of them clear things up in the caravan, and that’s the end of it.”
The two men began circumnavigating the aviary.
“Now let’s say the trapeze artist makes the same mistake on the second night. This time his partner misses him… The audience hold their breath, then applaud in relief. There was a net underneath. When the show’s over the owner of the circus goes to the trapeze artist’s caravan. He comes out after a while…”
The Publisher stopped—they had now walked halfway round the aviary—then resumed walking, again slowly dragging The Writer with him.
“Now, let’s say the trapeze artist gets the same move wrong for a third night running. There’s complete silence under the big top. Everyone’s holding their breath, thinking—”
“As long as there’s a net,” said The Writer, interpreting the audience’s thoughts.
“There had been. The circus owner had had it taken away.”
“And you know why he had it taken away?”
“Because he loved the circus more than he loved the trapeze artist.”
The two men fell silent. They had done a complete circuit of the aviary and had come back to their starting point. Were there foxes in circuses? Trained foxes? Were there even such people as fox-trainers? The Writer wasn’t sure. It might be impossible to train them, but surely they could be tamed. Once, as a child, he had seen a fox come and eat at the back of a restaurant, taking the food from the hands of a kitchen porter who had managed to overcome its mistrust. Word had got around and people talked about the restaurant more because of that tame fox than because of the cooking, and over time the kitchen porter had ended up becoming more famous than the cook. The kitchen porter had continued putting aside leftovers, until one day he had waited a long time but the fox had not appeared, and was never to appear again.
The Publisher resumed his speech, shooing the foxes away from The Writer’s thoughts with a stick.
“On the fourth evening, the circus has a new trapeze artist. You have to win. That Prize is a multiplier.”
“What do you mean?”
“How many copies do you usually sell?”
The Writer said a number that wasn’t too far from the truth.
“Multiply it by ten.”
“Tell me what I have to do.”
“When the time is right, when the time is right… Look.” The Publisher pointed at a sleepy eagle which had broken the enchantment of the aviary by throwing itself on the condor: it was flapping its wings and jabbing with its beak, trying to tear a fragment of rotten flesh from the claws of that lugubrious road-sweeper.
“Don’t you feel sorry for them?”
The Publisher and The Writer headed for the exit.
“And how are you getting on with the next one?” said The Publisher just before stepping into the chauffeur-driven saloon that was waiting for him outside the zoo gate.
“The next what?”
The Writer was distracted: he was thinking again about the birds of prey dozing slothfully on their perches.
“Come on, now, the next book, wake up!” said The Publisher, getting in the car and pulling the heavy door shut before hearing the usual disappointing reply:
“It’s coming along.”
Author Photo © Claudia Petrini
Cover Design by Clare Skeats