(Here is my translation of a short story –or is it a kind of prose poem?– by the Italian author Dino Buzzati (1906-1972). It is a piece I find very poignant, and not just because I also used to have a black standard poodle.)
The Personal City
by Dino Buzzati
From this city that none of you know, I send out reports, but they are never enough. Each one of you, perhaps, knows or visits other towns; and yet, no one will ever be able to live in this city of which I speak of except me. And therein lies the only indisputable interest of my dispatches: For the fact is that this city exists, and there is only one person who can provide any precise information about it. Nor is it possible for people to honestly say, “Who cares?” The fact that something exists is reason enough for the world to have to take note of it, howsoever small a thing it may be. And in this case we are talking about a whole city, a big city, a huge city, with old neighbourhoods and new ones, an endless labyrinth of streets, monuments and ruins, whose origins are lost in the dawn of history, cathedrals laden with intricate filigree carvings, parks (And at dusk the looming woodpeckers cast their shadows over the squares where the children used to play). A place where every stone, every window, every shop stands for a memory, an emotion, a life-defining moment!
The trick, of course, is to know how to describe things. For there are thousands of cities like mine throughout the world, hundreds of thousands of them; and quite often, I will admit, these urban agglomerations are inhabited by only one person, as is the case for me personally, as I mentioned. Generally speaking, though, it is as if these cities didn’t exist. How many people are there out there who are able to provide us with any satisfactory information about them? Very few. Most have no inkling of the secrets they are party to, nor would it ever occur to them to try to communicate them. Or perhaps they send out long letters packed with adjectives, but when one has finished reading them, for the most part, one is left as much in the dark as before.
But with me it’s different. Forgive me if this comes across as ridiculous boasting. It isn’t much, it’s almost nothing, but every so often, with great effort, I admit, I am able to convey an impression, however uncertain and vague, of the city which fate has assigned to me. Every once in a while, amid the many messages of mine that are not even read through to the end, there is one of them that makes itself heard. And so it happens that, out of curiosity, small groups of tourists will show up at the city gates, and I am called upon to show them around, and to answer their questions.
But how difficult it is to satisfy them. We seem to be speaking different languages. We end up having to communicate through gestures and smiles. What’s more, they are above all interested in the innermost neighbourhoods, where I can’t possibly take them: It’s completely out of the question. I myself don’t have the courage to explore that winding network of buildings, houses and hovels (the abodes of angels, or of demons?).
For this reason, I usually take these kind visitors to see the more conventional sights, the city hall, the cathedral, the Croppi Museum (that’s just what it’s called), etc., which, truth be told, are of no special interest. Hence their disappointment.
Among the members of these eager tour groups there is almost always a bureaucrat, a lawman, a superintendent, an inspector, an economist, a commissioner or something of that sort, at the very least a deputy commissioner. This person will say to me something like this: Continue reading