“I read Giulio Mozzi’s first book with real enthusiasm. What struck me most was his everyday language. Even when his subjects rely on metaphor, his words are plain, and so turn mysterious.”
Giulio Mozzi’s This Is the Garden is an astonishing debut short story collection that English readers can now enjoy thanks to Open Letter Books. First published in 1993 (and winner of the Premio Mondello) and translated this year by Elizabeth Harris, these short stories all play in some way in the garden of the mind, the sandbox of introspection. Reminiscent of the work of Borges and Kafka, Mozzi’s psychologically acute, trenchant prose explores the self-conscious idiosyncrasies of the troubled mind.
The story below is “Claw,” in which Mozzi imagines the later years of Yanez, the right-hand man of well-known Italian fictional pirate Sandokan. The once-infamous Yanez, known as the Tiger’s white brother, has now for years sat peacefully in his small, square, and white house, relying for subsistence and cigarettes on the daily visit of a woman from the nearby village. He sits in his small, square, and white house, smoking his cigarettes and looking meditative—but we do not believe he is meditating. The villagers react to the arrival of their “first real Englishman,” a threatening missionary who claims to be a saint sent by God. The villagers wonder how their own outsider Yanez will react. You can read my review of This Is the Garden by clicking here.
he house is small, square, and white. The roof is flat. The door, centered on the eastern side, is just a curtain with red and yellow flowers. The other sides have one square window, also centered. There’s no glass in the windows, just yellowing, loosely woven cotton rags nailed to the wood like mosquito netting. The house sits on a slight rise in the middle of the plain, and anyone looking out the windows could see a long way. Down the slope from the door, there’s a water pump. A leather razor strop hangs from a couple of nails in the pump’s wooden handle. A small washboard rests against the pump. The house has just one room. A hundred feet to the west, there’s a small shack for bodily functions. The house has a packed dirt floor. Two feet off the floor, a built-in shelf or bench runs along all four walls, interrupted only by the doorway. At the center of the room, there’s a wooden table, a single chair. A few things sit on the shelf: a bowl with a set of flatware, one fork, one knife, one spoon; a covered metal bucket with a curved handle and inside, a thick soup or mash; a basin with a few soap chips and a brush; a tiny, round mirror in a metal frame, a straight-edge razor resting on the mirror; a small rectangular basket with a lid, probably for linen or clothing; a rolled-up mat. On the table, there’s a white enamel pitcher with a blue rim and next to it, a slightly flared drinking glass, the bottom thick, rounded. The glass is cloudy, tinted pink. On one corner of the table, there’s a canister of cigarettes with a lighter. There’s a white man sitting on the chair. He has on khaki trousers and a light, collarless jacket, also khaki, but faded nearly white. He’s extremely thin: those clothes were meant for someone more muscular. The man’s face has a few deep lines. He doesn’t have a hair on his head. He could be fifty, someone who’s spent his life outdoors, but you can tell he’s extremely old because he’s so unnaturally thin. Another way you can tell his age: he barely moves. The man sits, facing the door, smoking. He’s not looking at anything in particular, or maybe he’s focused on the red and yellow curtain stirring just slightly in the breeze. The man sits rigid on the chair, left hand in his lap, right hand resting on the table, holding the cigarette, bringing it to his lips now and then. This man is Yanez, the Tiger’s white brother, and this ground where his house stands is far, far from any sea, in a part of India that appears on British maps as just a milk spot scratched with a few uncertain paths that could be swallowed up at any time by thriving forests or flooding rivers.
Once a day, in the morning, a woman comes from the village (which is close, just past the line of trees to the south), and she carries the bucket of food, and once a day, in the evening, she takes the empty bucket back again. Yanez has lost his teeth and his sense of taste; the bucket holds a milky broth with small bits of meat, boiled vegetables, rice. When he started eating only from the bowl, he gave the woman his metal plate but kept the fork and knife in case a large piece of meat needed cutting. Over the years, his throat has nearly closed. The woman also brings him soap and cigarettes when he runs out and sometimes a lantern wick or a piece of flint for the lighter. Sometimes the woman brings Yanez a shirt or a pair of pants, used, but still good enough to wear. She’s the only one who goes inside his house. Anyone could, but no one does. Yanez hasn’t asked to see anyone in years. For what the woman gives him, Yanez gives her nothing in return. When he dies, his few belongings will clearly go to her. But no one will live in the house—no one in the village can live outside the village. Yanez only leaves the house to fill the pitcher at the pump, or to wash his few clothes or to wash himself, pouring water over his body with the soup bowl; or else he’ll go to the small outhouse and relieve himself. To work the pump, Yanez must lean on the handle with all his slender might. Once a year, around the time of her wedding anniversary, the woman goes to Yanez’s house with her three sons dressed in their newest, cleanest clothes. She has her sons wait by the door, she pulls back the curtain, and Yanez looks at them a while. Years ago, there were two sons, and before that, one. Yanez looks at the young man, the youth, the child, and after a while, he smiles. Then the woman drops the curtain and sends her sons away. They’re healthy, handsome boys, and she’s a healthy, handsome woman—she hasn’t really changed with age. Yanez has never seen her husband. Years ago, Yanez went to the village by himself sometimes for supplies. The villagers knew who he was, but they never asked him any questions. The woman went to his house for the first time after they all realized no one had seen Yanez in nearly twenty days. She went once a week in the beginning; for years now, she’s gone every day. The two times she was in labor, her mother-in-law took her place, but didn’t go inside the house; the bucket of food she left outside the door in the morning was there by the door in the evening, empty. Yanez has given the woman two gifts: the metal plate, and on another occasion, his one book, a volume the size of his hand, three fingers thick, an English merchant vessel’s log of a voyage along the eastern coast of China.
The book was filled with small pictures: strange animals, strange plants, strange buildings, men and women with narrow eyes and strange clothing. The woman’s sons spent hours on boring or rainy days staring at those pictures, imagining all the strange and wonderful things he must have seen in his long, long life—this thin, silent man that people spoke of as a hero, a sea voyager, a great hunter of man and beast, brother in spirit to the Tiger. One day, before the youngest could even walk, the two older boys crept as close as they could to Yanez’s house and hid in the high grass and brush and watched Yanez leave his house with a torn shirt, the basin, the brush and soap. They watched him strain to pump a little water in the basin and wash the shirt, scrubbing it on the small washboard with the soap and brush. Then Yanez pumped a little more water, rinsed the shirt, and hung it over the pump handle to dry. They were quite impressed that he’d done this women’s work so easily, and they decided he could do anything at all. They never told anyone about their expedition and only admitted it to their little brother a few years later, after he swore a thousand oaths of secrecy. Their little brother knew he’d been made part of a great mystery, and he always kept his pledge.
No one knew what went on in Yanez’s mind. Some of the villagers thought he’d grown old and simple. Others thought he passed the time, in the absolute silence of his house, remembering his great adventures, his friends and brothers in spirit killed by accident or men, the thousand places where his name had been pronounced with reverence or rage, friendship or fear, love or loathing. When he first arrived from an unknown place and built his isolated, small white house, even then, Yanez was silent. He only said his name. And apparently, though he’d never been to this or any other nearby village, he knew his name would be enough for whatever he needed. And he needed little. He barely spoke, only if he needed something. When he still went to the village marketplace, he barely spoke a word. For years, the rumor had been that Yanez had died, but then he arrived in the village. The village boys imagined he’d taken refuge in this safe and tranquil place to plan his next great adventure. And they waited for him to tell them that they had to choose: either the safe, boring life of the village or the brief, glorious life of the hero.
But Yanez never told them. After almost a year of talking, meeting, stalling, the most spirited boys finally gathered up their courage and went to his house. They sat by his door and waited. Yanez came out almost at once, and then the boys spoke to him, taking turns, speaking passionately, for a long time. They recalled his great adventures, told him of their own desires to win glory in this life and honor in the next. Any adventure would do—it didn’t matter—it would be a glorious adventure, and they were ready for victory or defeat, because defeat at the hands of an overwhelming enemy would also bring glory on earth and honor in the heavens; they didn’t know their enemy, but they weren’t afraid; they’d fight anyone in his name, on the plains or in the mountains, in the rocky desert or the woods, even on the ocean that no villager had ever seen, but they knew it must be like a river with just one bank, and they weren’t afraid of any river or riverbank. Yanez stood in the doorway and listened, paying close attention to each boy, fixing his eye on the one who spoke, and when they’d all said their piece, and it was clearly his turn, the minutes passed in silence, and then he bowed stiffly and stepped behind the curtain. The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years—time for the village boys to become village men—before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant. The village was isolated, distant, and no one had ever seen an Englishman, but there still wasn’t a home without something made in England that had passed through a thousand peddlers’ hands. One villager, though quite suspicious, bought a sack of seeds from a bragging peddler, and it yielded thirty times the normal crop; from that year on, the children grew stronger. Some of the young men who longed to travel had gone off with peddlers to villages closer to the English, and they came back with stories of English medicines that cured almost anything and tools and machines that helped with every sort of labor. Who could resist the English when they brought such useful things? The village men wanted to consult with Yanez—he’d know everything about the English, everything good and bad—he’d fought them for so long and, really, was almost one of them, and the men wanted to know whether it was right or wrong to let the English take the village, even with fertile seeds, and strong medicines, and useful tools. The men talked a long while, but in the end they never went to Yanez—it was absurd, really—they could never keep something out that made life so much better. And then, around that time, a small caravan of peddlers arrived and brought the village its first real Englishman.
He was extremely robust, both muscular and fat, dressed all in black, with strange hair the same color you saw behind your eyelids when you closed your eyes and faced the sun. The Englishman’s hair shone in the sun, seemed almost to course with blood—not the dark blood of the body—a thinner, brighter blood. The Englishman could almost speak their language, but he used strange-sounding words, and once in a while, he’d go on and on when he was really saying something fairly simple, the same way children ramble when they’re first learning to talk. In the village square, the Englishman’s voice thundered that he was a saint of the English god, come for their own good, to save their souls from certain death, a death they’d all soon face, he insisted, if they refused his help. The village elders met for a long time, and finally they went to the square and told the Englishman they truly didn’t understand how a god, even the English god, could want or even allow men to die whom he hadn’t known existed until yesterday. The English saint laughed and said he admired the village elders for their intelligence and thought their answer was especially appropriate, coming from men who had understood the best ways of thinking when considering gods; but, he added, perhaps he hadn’t made himself quite clear, or the elders hadn’t quite understood. He asked permission to stay a while in the village, and they agreed. For a year, all the children, women, men, and elders listened every night while the English saint told stories about his god and the people to whom his god had first appeared. The English god treated his people (who weren’t English yet) like any good, stern father might treat his young son bursting with energy, both good and bad. When his people made mistakes, he punished them severely, and when they behaved, he rewarded them with his moderation. In the end, the English god wanted to teach his people a definitive lesson about the one true path, so he came down to earth as a man, yes, a real man who left his home and family when he was thirty and traveled around teaching the true path and living off the charity of others. Was he a buddha? the village asked. No, he wasn’t a buddha: he was god. An avatar? Something like that. A person could get along with this English saint; his topics were interesting and sparked debate. And he knew so many other useful things: how to cure certain childhood diseases, how to get an even larger yield from English seeds. The village men thought the god of the English saint seemed just and good, though they weren’t sure what to make of this idea of one god only; they might be willing to admit that he was a great god, and maybe—and this was extremely delicate—even a god more dignified and powerful than all the rest; but the English saint just kept insisting, ignoring all the evidence, that his was the one true god, and this, the village elders thought, was virtually insane; this pretense, this boundless pride was so out of character for a god who seemed so just, and kind, and good.
The English saint had been there almost a year, when much to everyone’s surprise, Yanez—who hadn’t left his house in years—showed up one night in the village square. He asked for the Englishman—so this was why he’d come. The English saint was astonished to see him, though Yanez didn’t say his name, at least in public, and somehow no villagers had mentioned it, either, so they’d kept Yanez hidden almost a year by just not saying anything. The English saint and Yanez wanted to be alone; they shut themselves away in the room of a house, and someone spying on them through a crack in the planks said Yanez dropped to his knees before the English saint, and stayed on his knees for over an hour, almost whispering—you couldn’t tell what he was saying—and the English saint listened, face attentive. You couldn’t see Yanez’s face, but his voice, that voice you couldn’t understand, that was the voice of a crying man, a man pleading to a vast superior, even pleading to a god. After a long time, the English saint and Yanez came out from the house, the saint in front, looking as if he could scarcely believe what he’d seen with his own two eyes; behind him came Yanez, his face, as always, revealing nothing. Together they went to Yanez’s house; meanwhile, in the village, people were making up stories; some were furious that Yanez had bowed down to this English saint, who maybe wasn’t so saintly after all; some said if the Tiger’s Claw welcomed the English saint into his home, the English saint must be good; but then others wondered if this applied to him and him alone, or whether all English saints were good (the English saint had said there were many saints like him spread all over the world, commanded by a saint of saints who lived in a very ancient city with a name that rolled beautifully off the tongue . . . Rome); and then what about the rest of the English—saint or otherwise—were they good, too? They discussed this in their homes; later, in the village square; finally, in the council of the adults and elders; and since they couldn’t send a delegation to Yanez and violate his privacy, they went directly to the English saint and questioned him in the square for an entire day, the people crowded all around him. They wanted to know—and the English saint could see the change right away—they wanted to know what his intentions were, not as a saint of his god or a saint in general, but as an Englishman, if he was there on his own or if he’d been sent by other Englishmen, and if anyone else, saint or otherwise, might be coming; quite simply, they wanted to know who he was, this man who’d made Yanez kneel down and cry and plead, this man who could break the Tiger’s Claw with just his presence, or better, who was so powerful, the Tiger’s Claw had come down to the village of his own free will, to be broken. But their questions served no purpose. The English saint still seemed like a good man, English, yes, so different from other men, but a good man all the same.
He’d lived in the village nearly a year and told wonderful stories. He’d taught the children new ways of doing figures. He’d taught the boys and men how to make English seeds yield more. He’d taught the women how to lower a child’s fever. He’d talked with the men and elders about the gods, about suffering and death. He’d laughed at births and cried at deaths, always in good measure. But he’d humiliated Yanez, they all said or thought. That isn’t true, someone stood up and said: Yanez humiliated himself. Following this day of questions came a night of talk, and in the morning they all said: Yanez humiliated himself. It was a surrender, not a defeat. The English saint could stay.
After his confession, Yanez barely slept. When it grew dark, he would unroll his reed mat and lie down, but he barely slept. He’d always been a light sleeper, but he slept often. Now he lay stretched out on the mat with his eyes closed, not sleeping, and this was like sitting and staring at the curtain moving slightly in the doorway, and really, if staring at the curtain was doing nothing, staying awake with his eyes closed was doing even less. He had only a short time to live, and he wanted to live every second of it, awake. He’d made himself a bet: if the priest absolved him and kept his confession, then god existed and was good and great, because only a true, and good, and great god could do great deeds with small men; and Yanez knew that he’d committed many large sins and pardoning them was a great deed, but above all, Yanez knew that even the smallest sin was enough for damnation, so even pardoning the smallest sin, and saving a soul from damnation, was a very great deed. If the priest refused to absolve him, then he had every reason to doubt the priest’s god. Yanez always knew the only one he could really count on was himself. He’d sailed a hundred seas, built and destroyed cities, been king and beggar, Portuguese and Oriental, loather and lover, friend and foe, only to find in the end that salvation comes not from what you take or lose, but from the gifts you’re given and keep forever. Yanez had been given three gifts: the friendship of the pirate Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia; the friendship of the woman who brought him food; and, maybe, the friendship of god. Sandokan had been dead for many years now, but their friendship wasn’t dead. They were friends together and friends apart, and now the great distance between them didn’t matter at all. Sandokan died young and handsome, as he should—a life like that couldn’t end with a frail body, a toothless mouth, a nearly closed throat, and soup trickling down your chin. This was Sandokan’s gift: the lesson that all lives are different, and each ends as it should. The woman was alive and gave Yanez almost everything, asking almost nothing in return; she fed him, honored him, named her sons for him. Yanez didn’t mind the woman’s devotion; he knew the woman considered this to be right because of what he was: an old man who needed her. Yanez knew the woman honored him for his age and for the wisdom gained with age. That’s why Yanez wanted to gain some wisdom, after so many years of life, because it was all he could give the woman in return for all her silent care. His desire for wisdom was the woman’s greatest gift. The English priest came just when Yanez realized that, for all his effort, wisdom was slipping away, because, quite simply, he wasn’t worthy: he’d wanted to live a thousand lives instead of one, the right life, his life. Perhaps the priest had the power to free him from all those superfluous lives, to strip him down to the least, the poorest. This power, perhaps the priest had it, and Yanez went to the village the day he felt strong enough and weak enough to find out. Now Yanez lies stretched out on the reed mat, awake, eyes closed, and he feels like a newborn child in a basket of rags who doesn’t know yet that he has arms, legs, a belly, and a back, who sees those limbs waving all around him without knowing that they’re his. Yanez grabs his left hand with his right; he clasps his hands, knits his fingers; he touches his face, his neck, his chest, his belly, and his thighs; he squats, hugs his knees, caresses himself, lightly kneads his lower back; he counts his toes, touches his hard soles, the backs of his knees; he hugs his shoulders, touches his throat, the back of his neck. He struggles to his knees, as he’s done only a few times by choice and as he was forced to do as a child. On his knees, almost without thinking, he prays, he gives himself.
Now he can die. When god’s claw decides to strike him.
—Giulio Mozzi, Translated by Elizabeth Harris
Giulio Mozzi was born in 1960 in the small town of Camira Vicentino in Northern Italy. He is the author of over two dozen books of fiction, poetry, and writing craft, and is credited with helping to launch the careers of numerous young writers in Italy. “The Apprentice,” a story from This Is the Garden, appeared in the anthology Racconti italiani del Novecento, edited by Enzo Siciliano for Mondadori Press. Mozzi lives in Padua.
Elizabeth Harris‘s translations include Mario Rigoni Stern’s novel Giacomo’s Seasons (Autumn Hill Books), Giulio Mozzi’s story collection This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books), and Antonio Tabucchi’s novel Tristano Dies (forthcoming with Archipelago Books). Her prizes include a 2013 Translation Prize from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Culture (Rome), a Banff Centre Translation Residency, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant from the PEN American Center.