The Wandering Chilean
In our Bazaar in the port, Harry and I have seventeen typewriters that belonged to famous writers from all five continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Oceania; all the port residents, as well as passing sailors, are invited to come here, choose whichever one they prefer and write about the happiest day of their lives. We then take the sheets of paper and place them into one of the 3,600 drawers of a six-metre-by-six cherrywood chest of drawers and store them there with care.
Harry thinks that, put together, all these different ways of being happy are a kind of energy-charged battery, a talisman against unhappiness. In the winter, I sleep curled up on top of them because this strange archive gives off a warmth you can’t measure with a thermometer but which warms you all the same. At night, when I open one eye in between dreams, I get the impression that it also emits a faint light, like a firefly on a June evening, during a long summer dusk, but I couldn’t swear to it. In any case, one day, a long time ago, a human came to knock at our door, who was tall and broad, with a beard, a moustache and black hair. He bore an extraordinary resemblance to Zorba, an old friend of mine, the way humans always bear a resemblance to their cats or dogs. He didn’t have claws as long as matchsticks but his invisible smile was the same. I was then thrilled to realise that he was the famous Luis Sepúlveda, the fearless sailor who, on board tiny rainbow rubber dinghies, would halt oil tankers that were trying to pour the black plague into the sea, the brave journalist who would expose the guilty in newspapers, the writer who gave voice to creatures who had no voice, in other words, the human best loved among seagulls and cats in the port of Hamburg and all the ports where cats mew and seagulls fly.
Luis was passing through Hamburg and, in between interviews, wanted to use Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter, not only because he was the writer he admired the most in the world but because he’d been a friend of his beloved Uncle Pepe. During the Spanish civil war, Ernest Hemingway and Pepe Sepúlveda had fought side by side as volunteers in the International Brigades against the Fascists of the dictator Franco. At home, Luis has a photo of them he cherishes, his most precious family heirloom. In other words, as he explained to Harry, he was very excited at the prospect of placing his fingers on the keys of that Underwood.
My human, my dear sea dog, kindly invited him to sit at the desk, then tactfully left him there alone. I, on the other hand, being a nosey cat, settled on top of the archive to peep at the newcomer.
Contented, Luis looked around, not the least bothered by the collection of 10,000 shark teeth Harry always said he wanted to use to make a denture so he could finally chew properly, nor by the giant embalmed polar bear whose belly contained the – equally embalmed – right hand of a Norwegian explorer. He made himself comfortable on the chair, inserted a blank sheet of paper in the roller, ran his hands through his jet-black hair, placed his fingers on the keys and, after a moment of hesitation, began to type fast, talking loudly as if he was reading something written in his head.
I was born to the world at the end of the world, at the bottom of Latin America, where the mountain chain of the Andes runs along the Pacific Ocean then dives into its troubled waters and turns into a constellation of islands. This slender strip of earth is called Chile, which, in the language of its earliest inhabitants, the language of my grandfather’s grandfather, means “where the land ends” or “the limit of the world”. I was born there on 4th October 1949, on a beautiful spring day.
Fascinated, I was about to look up his great-great-grandfather’s language in the encyclopaedia, because I am a librarian cat, when that mention of spring made my fur stand on my back; how could Luis Sepúlveda, the great journalist, get so muddled? With a leap, I landed next to the Underwood and mewed in indignation. “You’re wrong – October is in the autumn!”
Luis smiled. “At the other end of the world, where I was born, the seasons are the other way round. Our southern hemisphere summer shines during your winter. But all you have to do is turn the map upside down, capsize the globe, and now it’s this hemisphere that’s upside down. That’s if the world can be the right way up or upside down, which, frankly, I doubt.”
“My head’s spinning,” I mewed, dropping my ears, “but I believe you, Luis. I, too, have my doubts that the world can be upside down or the right way up.”
“Call me Lucho, it’s what my friends call me. I think you were a friend of Zorba’s, so I hope you’ll be my friend, too.”
“Of course! I am Diderot, the librarian cat of the encyclopaedia.”
By Ilide Carmignani
Translated by Katherine Gregor
STORIA DI LUIS SEPÚLVEDA E DEL SUO GATTO ZORBA (The Story of Luis Sepúlveda and his Cat Zorba)
by Ilide Carmignani
Publishd by Salani (April 2021)
Born in Lucca, Ilide Carmignani is one of Italy’s most highly-respected literary translators from Spanish into Italian. A graduate of the University of Pisa, she specialised in literary translation and Spanish and Latin American Literature at Brown University, Rhode Island, and the University of Siena. She has worked for some of the most prestigious publishers in Italy and has translated, among others, works by Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda, Roberto Bolaño and Luis Sepúlveda. Moreover, she holds translation seminars and classes in universities, both in Italy and abroad. Ilide is the beneficiary of several awards, including from Spain’s Cervantes Institute. Storia di Luis Sepúlveda e del suo gatto Zorba is her debut novel.
Katherine Gregor grew up in Italy and France before going to university in England. She has been a theatrical agent, press agent, teacher and one or two other things before becoming a literary translator from Italian, French and, on occasion, Russian. She also writes original material and is currently working on a non-fiction book.
Read previous posts in The Italianist series:
THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. CON I PIEDI NEL FANGO: CONVERSAZIONI SU POLITICA E VERITÀ (With Your Feet in The Mud: Conversations About Politics and Truth) by Gianrico Carofiglio (with Jacopo Rosatelli)