The Secret is to Tell All!

Part One: IV

At exactly the scheduled time, the Mar della Plata raised its anchor at the Port of Genoa, but without Salvatore Messana onboard. Your friend had dashed off at the last moment, because he – lazy and fascinated by the new things that were passing before his eyes – had preferred to remain on solid ground with Marcella. Ignoring all half-measures, as was always the case with me, I was immediately convinced that it was impossible for me to live without this little, timid and fragile brunette (a true volcano in private!). I was crazy in love with her and, at the end of three weeks, I found it natural to ask her to marry me. This was a disaster; one could no longer speak to me ironically about the [southern] Mediterranean mentality! Though I found myself in the capital of “Nordic” Liguria, the reactions that my proposal unleashed were easily the equal of those that would have poured out if I had made it in my native town. First of all, it was deemed unacceptable that – to remain in the vicinity of this flower – I had left my navigation pass on the ship, without me caring at all, and that I had failed to stay aboard, that is to say, stay at my job and receive my salary; and then one judged very unfavorably the obvious serenity with which I accommodated myself to a completely precarious situation in which there were no future guarantees.

Yet I had decided to surmount all these obstacles by getting married and by speaking of it with Marcella’s mother, who was the only arbiter since her father had long ago rejoined his Creator. This respectable woman had me sit in a wooden armchair covered in damask velvet, which was in as bad taste as the rest of the room. I felt oppressed, surrounded as I was by stuffed parrots,[1] Venetian mosaics, useless pieces of furniture – all of it a mess without any value, acquired at high prices from skillful merchants. I couldn’t manage to detach my gaze from a voluminous wart that ornamented the greater part of the lady’s lips, and made her smile even more unpleasant. The swollen little growth, scarred and callous, moved to the rhythm of the movements caused by her clucking voice (in fact she was trying, in vain, to hide a strong Ligurian accent) that proposed to me that I have a drink of walnut liquor. Without waiting for my polite refusal, Marcella’s mother poured out for me a big swig in a small silver-painted glass. The sickly sweet and nauseating taste quickly incited me to drink very slowly, in a way to avoid a second portion, which would have probably been fatal to any non-alcoholic person.

“I have esteem for you,” she said, “and I know that you are a good boy. I could even have affection for you, because you are likeable, but you must forget about my daughter, whom you will not marry. I immediately understood that you do not like to work and, on top of that, you are not from around here.”

Concerning my desire to work, I thought that she must have been clairvoyant or a witch, but I didn’t protest by trying to convince her of the contrary with an impassioned speech about the manner in which an idler can be redeemed by love. She was unshakeable and concluded in a touching tone:

“Marcella and I have suffered too much. You must give up seeing her, because I have already found her a good husband: very calm, completely of her character. But, as I want to help you, I have arranged a new navigation pass for you: here it is, it’s yours! If you are agreed, go to this address and, in three days, you will embark on the Sultana. Are you happy, Salvatore?”

She had thought of everything, that battle-axe. With the help of my rival, who was an officer in the merchant marines, she had succeeded in eliminating me. I received a stab in the back, but I wasn’t any less thankful for it! I understood immediately that Marcella would never rebel against such a mother and, without any further ado, I went to the navigation company to sign the embarkation contract for work on the 12,000-ton ship bound for America. While shaving, I looked at myself in the mirror and it didn’t displease me to think that I was a hero for sacrificing myself for the good of others, but I foresaw that there wouldn’t be a happy ending for me, as there is at the end of a comic strip. Marcella was destined to become a neurotic housewife and I to plod like a donkey.

An invitation to melancholy! I went off to realize a long-held dream and I already considered myself to be a real sailor. I reached the ship in Marseille, crossing the border with some emotion. I wanted to laugh when I heard everyone speaking French. As for the ship, it seemed to me to be the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t stop examining and touching the cabin, the shower, the washbasin, the comfortable and proper bunk, the meticulous finishing and the upholstery installed by expert hands. In the common rooms, the partitions were completely covered with photographs of women, along with their names and the dates and places of the meetings with them. During the first few days, they kept me company, with their eternal, kindly smiling faces that were so different from the [faces in the] portraits that dominate peasants’ homes.

I do not want to bore the reader with a narrative that is too detailed. Having spent almost eight years as a sailor, a hundred books wouldn’t be enough to describe all my impressions and my little adventures. I learned my trade, and wandering the world made me forget my fatigue.

Little by little, I became a sea-worker, always a bit rebellious but never dissatisfied. The salary was nothing extraordinary, contrary to what anyone might believe, but it was good enough. Having no family, I could dispose of the entirety of that small sum; I squandered a good part of it and placed the rest in an account that I opened with La Spezia, with which the ship-owner had an agreement. Knowledge of the system of deposits and credit would be very useful to me, as we well see later on.

Shipping made us dream of other things than hasty sexual relations, but the sirens who waited on solid ground could cost a fortune. I must remark that, to be an authentic lover of women, one must have pockets full of money and a natural propensity to spend it. For those who refuse to exhaust themselves in whorehouses or lock themselves into squalid retirement homes with crumbling plaster, there is no other choice. Dinners, taxis, hotels and dancing are the costs a true Romeo must pay for his happy hours with an available Juliette – not forgetting gifts that leave behind a memory that isn’t fleeting. We were all aware of being vagabonds, and it seemed indispensible to us to at least remain anchored in the memories of the people we knew. It is not by chance that sailors and truckers are proletarians who have open hands and, when they stop over somewhere, do not tolerate the wise parsimony of the metalworkers or the innate prudence of the factory worker.

At the ports of call, the money we spent to entice women would incite us to live the high life and, to live the high life, one must have more and more money. A vicious circle, in sum, like gambling or drugs. Quickly discarding the idea of limiting myself, I realized that I had to do more than one thing to get by. I remember that I, along with two of my buddies, created a veritable clandestine distillery aboard the Sultana. After numerous failed attempts, we succeeded in preparing a recipe that was appreciated by our clients. We assembled all the leftover fruits and vegetables, the peels and the other refuse, and we filled small bottles with it. When the upper half of this mixture began to become moldy, we mixed the whole thing with a diabolical paste that consisted of flour, sugar and everything else our imaginations suggested from among the different ingredients that were available to us. We passed the concoction through the coil a few times (to reduce the methyl alcohol) and the liquor was born. While in Spain, Toto, one of my associates, had purchased a label that bore the inscription “Aguardiente de Torre Vega,” or something like that. This drink was vaguely similar to grappa, with a slightly bitter taste. Whatever it was, in Finland we weren’t able to meet the demand, while in South America all the restaurants we supplied passed off this strange product at high prices. The sums we earned – naturally filled out by the different forms of contraband – were all used, by common agreement, to go on binges, but in such a way that didn’t arouse suspicions about the excessive increase of our revenues. This arrangement, which I personally elaborated and, without too much difficulty, imposed on my comrades, served to keep our consciences clear by justifying our crazy expenditures to ourselves and permitted us to amuse ourselves without superfluous remorse. My formidable ability to find good excuses for all kinds of roguery has always elicited a favorable reception for your Salvatore Messana among all those who love to become scoundrels with no restraint.

One fine day, we were en route to the Black Sea, with many stops along the way for loading and unloading, but the return trip with a shipment of Romanian goods was a direct one. Once we passed through the strait, we came to Constantinople, in Turkey, the last stop before our final destination.

Istanbul. . . . I recently returned there. It has now become a city stripped of personality, with long lines of apartments blocks and many tourists. A few years earlier, it had not yet been subjected to the violent aggression of the progress that makes everything uniform; it still possessed a kind of charm that was difficult to explain, because it induced the impression of fear and beauty at the same time. If the tortuous alleys and many delinquents who circulated within them intimidated even the most hardened travelers, no one could prevent himself from admiring this picture-postcard country made up of mosques, short houses, sky and sea.

The port to the East was also open to the most pleasing vices that the human mind could imagine and, to permit you to pay for them, it was open, even wide open, to all illegal activity. All the currencies of the world were accepted and exchanged by even the poorest of the merchants; any object could only be sold after long negotiations (I remember that, one day, someone wanted to sell me a half-eaten sandwich); there was no commodity that couldn’t be found in that constantly moving human tide, and one could procure drugs with the same ease as a pack of cigarettes. Given that the few students who were there smoked but didn’t think – as they would later – to speculate on this paradise and become dealers, the sailors were the ones to be suspected of drug-trafficking.

Because of an unwritten but still functional international agreement, all the ships in the area were thoroughly searched. And so, when the Sultana arrived in the Romanian port of Constanta (if I am not mistaken), the crew was assailed by murderous bureaucrats. We were all accustomed to the ambience of the whorehouses (for only twenty Turkish dollars, young women were available for the whole night and they were not passive), and so the encounter was disastrous. Nothing came of our immediate offers of dollars, clothing and liquor. The soldiers immediately looked upon us with fanatical eyes, and I believe I have never encountered servants of the State (as one calls them today) who were so meticulous and surly. They behaved very harshly with us, as if they had nabbed the strategic leadership of an anti-socialist conspiracy; they nervously searched all the cabins and the baggage compartments, grumbling to each other, without any human sympathy. They did not succeed in finding any accursed drugs, although the officer who commanded them had declared several times that he was convinced that he would, inviting us to confess and promising clemency to those who “collaborated.” I believe that they were mistaken and that there really weren’t any drugs onboard, because, if there had been any, snitches would not have been lacking (solidarity is a myth, at least when it comes to sailors). On the other hand, they were hardly mistaken when they considered us to be outlaws and brigands. In the course of the search, they confiscated everything that was subject to seizure: from liquor to pornographic magazines, from packs of cigarettes to prayer rugs. They also found (and this is what caused the scandal) forty-five automatic Remington pistols, with scopes, destined (according to reliable information) for a North African merchant who was ready to pay an astronomical price for them. They confiscated all the objects that had not been properly declared, even pepper and coffee, which were commodities towards which the customs officials of the entire world turned a blind eye. The captain explained to us that this was a settling of accounts due to political schemes. Whatever the cause, they ended up arresting everyone, and then started secret negotiations with the [shipping] company that ended with our release and a very steep fine.

There followed twenty days of rest: the head of the shipping company plotted from afar to not pay anything and get away without too much damage. We didn’t care at all, because we had regained our freedom and were assured of being paid our salaries. We hunted for pretty girls [di fate slave] and discovered that the population was more receptive to our enticements than the government was. The young women of the country were not used to the presence of Westerners, and they almost jumped on us. Involved in various little affairs, I ended up spending all my money, selling my spare clothes and even my ballpoint pens, which, for some mysterious reason, were particularly sought there.

The consulate of Italy (the homeland of the crew) and that of Liberia (the origin of the ship) got together and found a solution that put an end to a presence that bothered the Socialist authorities and caused the decay of healthy [local] customs. We left with a full hold and a new name, the Kirta. That son-of-a-whore owner had been able to find a way to use legal means to cheat the tough Romanians! In fact, I never knew if the fine was ever paid, but I doubt it.

If the shareholders could breathe a sigh of relief and start counting their profits again, Salvatore Messana, on the other hand, was in the midst of an economic crisis. My salary wasn’t enough for me (due to the many vices that I had picked up), and I no longer had the clandestine distillery or other illegal resources to draw upon. In desperation, I decided to sell parts of the ship itself. To begin, I contented myself with hanging rubber washers from my neck and then, once on land, I sought out potential buyers. Then, without restraint, as usual, I brought onboard shady characters, pretending that they were neighbors or relatives who had emigrated: I showed them the merchandise and took their orders. The business moved as if it was on wheels, and I had a small commercial network at each port of call. Not being able to transport the objects on my own (they were either too numerous or too big), I organized nocturnal withdrawals with an external helper. Although it was a complicated and risky system, no one ever saw anything. This could have gone on a long time, either because one life wouldn’t be enough to dismantle a ship of that size or because the insurance paid more than the real value of the material that had gone missing and there was never enough time – the duration of a stopover – to conduct a serious investigation.

Because of my fear of loose lips and because I didn’t want to share the profits with anyone, I did all this by myself. I had always taken care to not reveal anything to my fellow workers, even simulating a real astonishment when informed of these mysterious disappearances. But if I had fooled my colleagues, I hadn’t managed to escape the attentive, wily and porcine eyes of our commander, who received a large cut of all the illegal activities that took place on his ship and who intended to keep this privilege. One evening, after dinner, before heading to Buenos Aires, he called me to his cabin and had me sit facing him, with a sly air that promised nothing good. He opened his little cabinet, set two glasses on his desk and filled them with apple brandy, my favorite drink.

[1] An allusion to “La Signora Felicita,” a famous poem by Guido Gozzano (1883-1916), published in La via del rifugio (“The Way of the Refugee”).

Thanks to David Ames Curtis for helping to correct a small error in this chapter.

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