donal mclaughlin

on & off the page

Supino (1)

Ciao amore, ciao (Rotpunktverlag 2004) was the fourth novel to be published by Franco Supino (born 1965). The son of Italian immigrants to Switzerland, Supino writes in German. Ciao amore, ciao is based on the lives of two real-life singers – the Egyptian-born diva Dalida (1934-1987) and the Italian cantautore Luigi Tenco (1938-1967). It is well known that Dalida and Tenco competed at Sanremo in 1967 with a song composed by the protest singer; and that their exit in the qualifying rounds led to Tenco’s suicide. Supino’s version of this story, with its central characters of Iolanda and Gigi Mai, reflects the failure of the entertainment industry in the late 1960s to respond to the pressing issues of the period; not least the emerging culture of protest. In the chapter presented here, the two musicians first meet.

Chapter 16

The bar stood back from the pavement on the opposite side of the street, the sun slanted down on three old plane trees, beneath which a few small tables and odd chairs stood around, in no particular order. Iolanda and Elli stepped out of the building – right into the dry heat. Rome was eerily quiet, like a ghost town. Those who hadn’t left town were hiding from the afternoon sun in whatever shade they could find.

Inside, at the bar, some of the staff from IMG were standing, sipping at their iced coffees or glasses of white wine. The light made the wine look green. Doriani was sitting with Luigi at a small table. Elli headed towards them, grabbed two chairs, and pushed them towards the table.
‘May I introduce you?’ Doriani said to Iolanda. ‘Luigi Mai, known as Gigi. He, too, is contracted to us. A very promising cantautore who’s already written some wonderful songs.’

Luigi had been sitting with his back to the door. He turned in slow motion and examined her face, her eyes. She had removed her white sunglasses with the huge lenses, meanwhile. Her reddish hair didn’t go well with her brown eyes and eyebrows. The lines of her face were delicately drawn. With each passing second, any nervousness was vanishing. Before him, he saw a grown woman – with only the slightest hint of a girl. He no longer felt agitated, that tension now replaced by self-confident curiosity.
‘What kind of songs do you compose?’

The first thing Iolanda’s mother always wanted to know, if Iolanda told her about a man, was: È bello? – Is he handsome?
Yes, Mamma, he’s handsome. Dark eyes, thick eyebrows, a good head of hair, strong features, nice hands. What else? As for his clothing, he’s one of these young intellectuals, have you heard about them – the Existentialist  philosophers, with their black turtlenecks and jackets? He doesn’t come across as arrogant, though – he can even look at you in a shy kind of way. There’s something simple, down-to-earth, in the way he responds to people. I think he’s a country boy. What age might he be? Younger than me, for sure.
Iolanda looked at him. He was slim. When he stood up to greet someone, his ribs showed through his thin black pullover.

Doriani and Elli were talking. They took turns at speaking to Luigi. The subject was Iolanda, her forthcoming projects, and how IMG saw her future in Italy.
Iolanda wasn’t paying attention, but smoking. She answered if someone asked her something, about some appearance of hers, or other. With Duke Wellington, in Berlin, yes – when was that again?
Luigi didn’t say a word, he wasn’t paying attention either, but smoking, and he was struggling to hide his impatience with what Elli and Doriani were saying.
If you see her sitting here like this, he thought, she comes across as being reticent; insecure, almost. She lets these men speak for her, doesn’t contradict them, nods politely from time to time, looks as bored and embarrassed as a teenager, whose parents are boasting to distant relatives about her good marks at school.

He looked at her. She returned his gaze.

‘Do you live in Rome, signore?’ she asked.
‘I do – and I have to go now …’ To the amazement of Doriani and Elli, Luigi stood up. ‘Would you like a lift, signora? May I drive you to your hotel?’
‘I was planning to hail a taxi …’
‘My Vespa is just outside,’ Luigi said. ‘As you’ve probably noticed: everything here is a set-up, people very much wanted me to meet you … So allow me to take this opportunity to warn you against me.’
That was the reason for Elli’s allusion earlier to the repertoire that needs changing, Iolanda thought. She looked at Elli, took him by the shoulder, and stood up. He winced. He obviously wasn’t accustomed to being touched by women. Iolanda’s mood had improved in an instant for it now looked as if she wouldn’t have to spend the evening in a dull hotel, or in the tiresome company of producers desperate for recognition.

Luigi suggested showing her some of the sights of Rome. She accepted, gratefully. ‘I visit many cities, but only rarely do I manage to look at one.’ She could just as well have said: I am on the road so much, I’m on a different stage every night, I have no private life, I never get to go out with someone. Today is an exception.
‘And then we’ll go for something to eat. What do you say to pizza?’
‘Pizza is always good.’
He asked her to sit on the pillion, then started the engine. He’s not as impenetrable as he seemed in the bar, she thought to herself, relieved.
Luigi took her to her hotel. Iolanda wanted to freshen up and change her clothes. He waited for her at the entrance, checking out the clientele of one of Rome’s best addresses. The world belongs to that lot, he told himself.
Iolanda emerged from the door, opened for her by a pageboy in the way he’d been trained. She was now wearing a simple, bright skirt, made of the that high-quality Egyptian cotton with which her mother had worked in Shubra.
‘What are you looking at me like that for? Don’t you like what I’m wearing, signore?’
‘Why have you dressed like a student, signora? Do you wish to look younger?’
Idiot, Iolanda thought. She looked him in the eye.
Did he want to provoke or insult her? He had really beautiful eyes and they were looking at her calmly and innocently.
‘It suits you very well, signora,’ Luigi said and he turned his engine on. ‘Climb aboard, why don’t you.’
Iolanda climbed on behind him. ‘What you’re planning seems somehow familiar,’ she yelled, laughing, into his ear. ‘Mr Gregory Peck!’
And he replied: ‘You, too, are on a Roman holiday – and I, I intend to use you for my own purposes.’

Luigi drove in the dusk from one Roman sight to the next, Iolanda’s dress flapped against her ankles, the wind blew through her hair, her arms hugged Luigi, holding her tight against his body. It had been a long time since she had hugged a man like this, simply to hold on. The Vespa stuttered across the cobbles. Luigi tooted the horn. Everywhere, now, were people and vehicles: suddenly, with the cooler time of day, everyone had crawled out of their catacombs and caves and was now flooding every alleyway and street, be it on foot, by bike or by car, suddenly the fountains were flowing again, soon the streetlights would be turned on, people were calling out, sitting, discussing, gesticulating, kissing each other and walking hand-in-hand, were playing football, sitting halfway up or down staircases and in the cafes.

Finally, Luigi rolled across Piazza Navona and came to a stop before the fountain. ‘Shall we sit here for a while?’
Iolanda climbed off the Vespa.
She was dizzy, perhaps from being shaken around, perhaps because she’d eaten nothing all day, perhaps because she was exhausted. Together, they sat down on the wall at the edge of the fountain. Blinking into the evening sun, Iolanda said: ‘That was exactly the way I always imagined Italy to be when I was young.’
‘Are you here for the first time, signora?’
No. This Spring she had also stood here, at this fountain, when her brother had got married. ‘No, no. He lives – as the whole family does – in Paris. But nothing else would do: they wanted to get married in Rome. My sister-in-law is Italian.’ She’d been assured even then that Piazza Navona was one of the most atmospheric in Rome. ‘Fair enough,’ she said, looking into Luigi’s eyes, ‘but it’s not all down to the Square.’
The water splashing down filled the air with spray which glistened in the dusk before the facade of Sant’Agnese.
Luigi was now explaining: one of the figures on the fountain, as a precaution, is raising a hand towards the church, as if to prevent it from collapsing. The other figure has its head covered – so as not to have to see the mistakes the builders made. Jibes made by Bernini, who built the fountain, against his rival, the church architect, Borromini.
‘I know that story.’
‘But, of course. Rome has only anecdotes which everyone already knows.’
Iolanda laughed cheekily.
‘You are not laughing at my joke, signora. You are laughing at me. – Do I have to throw you into the fountain?’ Luigi grabbed her beneath the arms. She screamed but didn’t jump away. ‘Where would you like to land, signora? Which is your favourite river god: the Ganges, the Plate, the Danube or the Nile?’
‘The Nile, of course.’
‘The Nile is the one with his eyes covered.’ He laid his hands across her eyes. And she allowed him to.

When Luigi removed his hands, he saw the tears in her eyes. He was astonished. Asked her what was wrong.
‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘It’s not because of you, signore.’

After the meal they strolled along the Tiber, hand-in-hand. Luigi asked Iolanda how come she spoke Italian so well.
For a while they walked together in silence.
‘Tell me about your childhood, Iolanda,’ Luigi suddenly said. ‘That interests me. Did you do all your schooling in Italian?’
He stopped. ‘Come on – let’s sit down.’  A staircase led to a jetty at which boats were moored. They sat on the top step. Iolanda crossed one leg over the other, supporting herself to the side with her left hand. Luigi was holding her right. He closed her fingers in against her palm, before then taking her thumb with his other hand.
‘What kind of game’s this?’ Iolanda asked, laughing. ‘This little piggy?’
‘Something like that. Tell me, which smells from Shubra do you remember?’
Iolanda laughed again and shook her hair gently. He leaned closer, looking firmly into her eyes.
‘Curry?’
Without looking, he opened out her index finger. ‘What colour do you think of when you think of Shubra?’
‘White. No, wait – ochre is better.’
‘What were you most afraid of as a child?’
‘The dark.’
‘If you could be a child again, what would you like to have that you didn’t have before?’
‘A father.’
‘What is your mother’s greatest desire?’
‘To be a grandmother.’
By now, her whole hand was open. He looked away from her eyes and down at her palm. Then, with his index finger, he traced the lines he found there. Iolanda looked across his black mop of hair towards the water. She was amazed at the piety with which he could perform these actions. A shiver went through her and she shuddered.
‘Now it’s your turn, Luigi,’ she said as he sat up again. Iolanda had taken his hand and placed her palm on his.
‘Smell?’
‘That of wine fermenting.’
‘Colour?’
‘Ochre is good.’
‘What were you afraid of as a child?’
‘Even nowadays, I still can’t sleep without a light on. – And I would also have liked to have a father. – And my mother would also like to be a grandmother.’
Iolanda sat up again and raised her hands, he did the same and their palms pressed together, lightly. ‘One perfect match after another,’ Iolanda said.
They kissed. Until a boat passed by. Some wild teenagers aboard it tried to spray them with water.
Iolanda waved to them.
‘I grew up on a remote farm,’ Luigi told her. ‘Imagine a hilly landscape, hot in the summer, foggy in winter. And suddenly I had to leave there and live in a house above a severe drop to the sea.’

Published as part of: D McLaughlin, ‘Mitbringsel’ in: J Charnley & M J Pender (ed.), Exercises in Translation. Swiss-British Cultural Interchange, Peter Lang, Berne 2006

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