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Pinocchio in Venice
By Robert Coover
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1991 Robert Coover
All rights reserved.
On a winter evening of the year 19—, after arduous travels across two continents and as many centuries, pursued by harsh weather and threatened with worse, an aging emeritus professor from an American university, burdened with illness, jet lag, great misgivings, and an excess of luggage, eases himself and his encumbrances down from his carriage onto a railway platform in what many hold to be the most magical city in the world, experiencing not so much that hot terror which initiates are said to suffer when their eyes first light on an image of eternal beauty, as rather that cold chill that strikes lonely travelers who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Ah," he groans, staring down the long dreary platform, pallidly lit with fluorescent tubing and garish hotel advertisements and empty now but for a handful of returning skiers disappearing through the glass doors at the far end, if those are indeed glass doors and not merely the swirling fog (he is sharing in his decline the martyrdom of poor Santa Lucia for whom this barbarously functional stazione was named), "whatever was I thinking of!"
He has arrived, as do most Italians, through what foreigners, who prefer always to approach this most remarkable of landing places by sea, think of as the city's back door, but, though Italian-born himself, not by choice or custom but by the simple dictates of the deteriorating weather: the airport was fogged in, he has had to land at Milan, where snow was already beginning to fall, then take the train on from there—and in haste lest he be trapped, speeding eastward ahead of the gathering winter storm as though pursued by assassins in coal sacks. The professor, while struggling despairingly through the congestion of Milan with his impossible baggage, had consoled himself with the observation, expressed aloud unfortunately, an embarrassing habit worsening with age, that such a prolongation of the journey would at least provide him more time to adjust to this precipitous return to his native land after so many years abroad and to prepare his mind for entering what was not only, in itself, a universally acknowledged work of art, but also the setting for what he has hoped will be the culmination (just as it was once the springboard) of his own life seen in just those terms: a work of art.
For it was here one day almost a century ago, here on this island then known popularly as the "Island of the Busy Bees," that he, fallen in abject surrender to his own knees, hugged the knees of Virtue herself, and so, but for a forgettable lapse or two (that is to say, he wishes he might be able to forget them: his brief and abortive career in show business, for example, a misadventure which is still almost too painful to recall, even when, as in his latest writings, he has, through excruciating self-examination, transcended it, or sought to), set into motion a life purified of idleness and fantasy and other malignancies of the spirit, a life worthy, he hopes (and in his heart believes), of those knees he once hugged so passionately, wetting them then with tears of gratitude, his infamous nose running with the high fever of what could only be called redemptive grace.
It is this life, as much hers as his, that he is now attempting to celebrate or at least to illuminate in his newest and perhaps (for he has few illusions) final work, a vast autobiographical tapestry in which are woven all the rich, varied strands of his unique personal destiny under the single predominating theme of virtuous love and the lonely ennobling labor that gives it exemplary substance—Existenz, as a great philosopher has called it. Monographs abstracted from this work have already, to general and by now familiar acclaim, been published, but the book's conclusion, like rectitude itself in an earlier unhappier time, continues to elude him. And thus, following in the footsteps of his great exemplar and precursor Saint Petrarch, he has been drawn back to this city, somewhat impetuously if truth be told, yet explicably too, seized as he was by the sudden vivid conviction that only by returning here—to his, as it were, roots—would he find (within himself to be sure, place merely the catalyst) that synthesizing metaphor that might adequately encapsulate the unified whole his life has been, and so provide him his closing chapter. That, together perhaps with a certain restlessness of the spirit, provoked by the alarming symptoms of his onrushing illness: if not now (to wit), when?
It is this opus magnum of his, in all of its physical manifestations (on the hard disk of his portable computer, on two sets of backup diskettes, and on voluminous printout, printout so edited and re-edited—he is nothing if not a perfectionist—as to resemble a medieval manuscript), that is the principal cause of his present distress. He is able to shift it only a foot or so at a time, carrying a portion of it a few steps ahead, returning for the rest in successive trips, advancing down the windblown platform toward the station proper like a crab, and with the mood of one as well, fatigued and headachy and in something of a stupor still from his unrestful doze aboard the overheated train (in reality, the prolongation of the journey accomplished very little). Where are the porters? Perhaps it is too late. He has no idea what time it is. It is dark, but it has been dark all day. Whichever day it's been: he's not even certain about that, so numbingly interminable has this ill-considered journey become. He is accustomed on his travels to being met everywhere by younger faculty, catered to, treated with the deferential esteem due his age and scholarly distinction (only on the New York-Paris leg of his trip did it occur to him, for example, that he has not reserved a hotel room, something he has almost forgotten how to do by himself), and now, though it has been his express desire to guard his solitude and anonymity on this particular occasion, an occasion he thinks of as reverentially sentimental, a voyage into his secret heart of hearts, as they used to say back at the studio in Hollywood, he nevertheless feels somehow betrayed and quite wrongfully neglected, such that when a porter finally does appear, just as he is wrestling his bags and boxes in through the station doors, the professor, tears smarting at the corners of his eyes, blurts out at him: "Where have you been? I don't need you now, you idiot! Go away!"
"As you wish, sir," replies the porter with an obsequious bow (he is wearing the long-beaked bespectacled Carnival mask of the Plague Doctor under his blue "PORTABAGAGLI" cap, a bit of gratuitous symbolism the professor, in the grip of his strange infirmity and with his bags jammed hopelessly in the intractable station doors, could well do without), and he turns and trudges lugubriously away, pushing his empty trolley ahead of him.
The professor stares out across the desolate station, recalling a monograph he wrote early in his career on "The Tyranny of Perspectivism" and realizing with a sinking heart that he cannot even reach, on his own, the exit doors on the other side, much less some distant but as yet unbooked hotel. "Wait!" he calls out, his voice thin with petulance and self-pity (of course, the hotel will have its own boat, this city is not without its conveniences, even for the solitary traveler). The porter turns and cocks his white snout quizzically from behind his humped back. "To the tourist office, please! Come on, fellow, let's not be all night about it!"
"Can't make the step longer than the leg," mutters the porter sulkily, limping back with agonizing and perhaps mocking deliberation. "So don't fly off the hinges, padrone, he who hurries most arrives last, as they say."
"They also say that life's short, but talk's long," snaps the professor irritably as he watches the porter heave his luggage clumsily onto the trolley. "Be careful now, that's a computer—"
"There is time enough for paying and dying," the porter insists, picking up the computer and dropping it. "Ahi! Bad luck! Now you see where all your hurrying has got us! But let it be, dottore, don't make a big story out of it—we must take things as they come, life is not a path through the orchard, as the old proverb goes! Come along now!"
The professor, too exasperated to reply, follows the porter as he shuffles lamely, bent nearly double with the weight of years and heaped-up luggage (the years seem to have settled chiefly in his hindquarters), through the empty station, now echoing hollowly with recorded pop music and the porter's squeaking trolley wheels, toward the yellow tourist bureau sign at the far end. Where he has every intention of reporting the insolent scoundrel. He dropped that computer on purpose! Certain indignities are not, in a civilized world, to be tolerated, even if committed by the infirm. He is not thinking of himself, of course, a poor wretch like any other man, speaking loosely, but rather of that irreplaceable work of art, literature, and social thought of which he has been merely the medium and transmitter, as it were, the porter its temporary custodian—a work of major significance as has already been widely acknowledged, even before its publication, and one deserving of at least a minimum of care and respect. Moreover, if an insurance claim should be necessary, a report will have to have been filed; he has no choice.
But the tourist office is closed—or closing: the woman at the door is just locking up!
"Stop!" the professor cries out, stumbling foward in alarm. "A room—!"
The tourist bureau clerk, startled, drops her key, which clatters to the floor like a coffee spoon. "A room—?" she gasps huskily, her long auburn curls fluttering in confusion. Then she drops to a squat and fumbles about frantically for the key with one black-gloved hand, blinded by the mask she wears, which seems to have been knocked askew by her sudden movements.
"Allow me, signorina," says the porter, kneeling and poking his long curled snout under her skirts, startling the professor perhaps even more than the squatting clerk, who, when the porter shouts out from beneath her, his voice muffled by the heavy canopy around his ears, "Aha! I have it!" merely echoes wheezily, "You have it?" and lurches clumsily to her feet, stepping on her hem as she does so (there is an audible rip and, as she snatches desperately at the lowering waistband with her left hand, the professor observes that the poor woman is apparently deprived of its companion) and perhaps on the porter as well, who emits a coarse muffled grunt, something about the unclean hinder parts of benighted blockheads, then emerges with his paper nose bent sideways.
There is an awkward moment then with the tourist bureau clerk looking pale and abashed (of course, this is the expression fixed upon her mask, but the professor supposes this to be a true instance of art reflecting the reality beneath the surface) and holding her skirt up with her one hand, thereby having none with which to receive the key that the porter, seemingly unable to straighten up after his long stoop, is painfully holding out to her, and it is a moment, fleetingly rigid as an old photograph (except that all three of them are trembling faintly as though in horror and acknowledgment of that very rigidity), in which the weary voyager suddenly feels, like a cold wind down his back, the terrible vulnerability of his present situation. Perhaps this is, in all its irony, the end, he thinks, perhaps I shall die here, here in this deplorably vulgar hall with its resonant banalities, its aura of meaningless departures. And this thought is not an idle one, not a self-pitying one, but a simple recognition of his failing powers, his overwhelming debilities, among which he must now include, there being no other explanation for the sheer madness of this impulsive journey, the onset of galloping senility. Oh, a fool! A fool! And soon, perhaps even, only steps short of achieving his goal (home, he is thinking, I only wished to come home!), a dead fool ...
"Don't tell me, cara mia," exclaims the porter suddenly, rearing up and stuffing the key, if it is a key, fiercely down the tourist clerk's frock, "that the office is closed!"
"Ah, yes, that's it!" cries the startled clerk, her curls bouncing off her shoulders as the key plummets into her bosom. "The office is closed! Closed!"
"But surely," insists the porter, "is there nothing available in all of Venice? Not a room to spare? It's the middle of winter and—"
"It's wintertime, you see, and there's nothing available," responds the clerk gruffly, clutching her skirts still, but recovering somewhat her composure. She pauses. She clears her throat, turns her head one way, then the other. "In all of Venice. Not a room to—"
"Yes, yes, I see. Which is no doubt why you were just closing up, you stupid creature," sighs the porter, bobbing his head dolefully, as though the dreadful foreboding that has overtaken the professor might just have gripped him as well.
"Er, I was just closing up," the clerk concludes as though inking in the final period, and for the exhausted traveler it is as if the entire world were closing its doors around him. In his thickening gloom, he finds himself leaning toward his luggage, as though his life were there and he wished once more to embrace it before being separated from it forever. "Because ..."
"Ah, well!" exclaims the porter, suddenly perking up and lifting the professor to his feet again. "Un po' di cuore, professore, the devil is not always as ugly as he is painted! Volere è potere, as they say, what you wish shall be yours, for as fortune would have it, I heard only today of one of the great palazzi of our city being converted into a splendid new hotel, especially appointed for gentlemen of culture like yourself."
"Yes! Appointed! Culture!" echoes the tourist bureau clerk, then hobbles back a step or two as though the porter might have kicked her.
"Well, it's not perfect, of course, the renovations are still in progress," the porter says soothingly in his gravelly old voice, peering down at the ancient traveler over his bent nose, "but, given the circumstances, it seems to be a matter of eat the soup or out the window, if you know what I mean, unless you're wanting wet stones tonight for a pillow. And, as the proprietor is a friend of mine, I am certain I can, eh, pull a few strings, if you'll pardon the expression. Tomorrow something better may be found, but for tonight, professore: better an egg ..."
"Yes ..." Yet the old scholar seems rooted to the spot. This is not hesitation, not doubt— what choice does he have, after all?—but a simple loss of that willed power the porter, in his obliging way, has wished upon him. He feels hollowed out—unstrung, as he might have said in a former time (he shudders to think of it), his limbs loosened by fatigue and deep foreboding. He fears now that that metaphor he has come all this distance to find is to be one not of encapsulation but of erasure, not of summation but of irony and absence. He has envisioned a circle, traveling its circumference as though enacting an oracle, but he now finds himself falling helplessly through the hole in its middle. I have failed her, he thinks. I have failed her after all!
The porter takes his elbow. "All right, signore, don't stand there with your hands in your belt! Let's put the road between our legs. Or a bridge or two, as the case may be! A little need makes the old woman trot, as they say!" They bid arrivederci to the tourist bureau clerk, who for no apparent reason turns and, with great haste, walks straight into a wall. Then, together, they step out, the professor and the porter, into the bitter night. "Courage, dottore! It's just two steps away! Soon you'll be sleeping like the Pope!"
Excerpted from Pinocchio in Venice by Robert Coover. Copyright © 1991 Robert Coover. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsA SNOWY NIGHT,
2. Masked Companions,
3. The Gambero Rosso,
4. Night of the Assassins,
5. Alidoro's Rescue,
6. The Philosophical Watchdog,
7. A Strange Birth,
8. The Movie of His Life,
A BITTER DAY,
9. The Devil's Flour,
10. The Three Kingdoms,
11. Art and the Spirit,
12. In the House of the Dead,
13. The Talking Cricket,
14. Gran Teatro dei Burattini,
15. A Gondola Ride,
16. The Little Man,
PALAZZO DEI BALOCCHI,
17. View from the Clock Tower,
18. The Miracle of the Mis-struck Hour,
19. At L'Omino's Tomb,
20. The Original Wet Dream,
21. Plato's Prank,
22. The Procession in Honor of Count Agnello Ziani-Ziani Orseolo and the Madonna of the Organs (New Acquisition),
23. The Last Chapter,
24. La Bella Bambina,
25. Cooked in Love,
26. The Star of the Dance,
27. The Fatal Math Book,
28. The Field of Miracles,