The following is my translation of a post entitled “Pasolini’s Girlfriend,” by Rome-based blogger and author Carmelo Albanese. It originally appeared on March 4 and was one of the week’s most popular in the Italian blogosphere.
When Paolo Cantele brought it to my attention, I just had to translate it. Enjoy!
Image via GoogleBooks.
Anyone who lives in Rome and is about my age, 45, probably remembers her. She was always dressed in black.
Crumpled and folded over herself, she would spend hours and hours preparing roses to sell in restaurants. Every year, you’d see her seated on the steps of the Pantheon or in the Campo de’ Fiori, working away. She looked like she was a 100 years old or more. But she probably around 75 and the years had not been kind to her.
She was tiny, with a slight hunchback. But more than a physical deformity, it seemed like it was her body posture.
She was always bent over her roses. Never a word. She would just reach out to passersby and offer her roses in exchange for 1,000 lire.
I was always one to wander the streets in search of life’s wonders. I never tired of it and never will. And so, on a summer evening in 1990, in August, when Rome often reveals its deepest truths to those willing to listen, I sat down next to her.
I used to run into her often and I was curious about her. Not long after I sat down, I bought a rose. It was an excuse to strike up a conversation. But nothing doing. She sold me the flower in total silence. Even though I sat with her for quite a while, she didn’t utter or word or even look up at me. Eventually I got fed up and started to leave.
“Men don’t give roses to women anymore,” she said unexpectedly. Her voice was so sweet that it seemed impossible that it lived inside of her.
“Yes, that’s true,” I said. “There’s no more poetry out there anymore.”
I wonder how our conversation would have ended had I never said that.
“I love poetry!” she said.
“You like poetry?” I asked her.
It was hard to believe that she had suddenly started talking.
“Do I like poetry?” she said. “Who do you think I am? Do you think I’ve only ever sold roses in my life? Pier Paolo never published a book without having me read it first!”
Surprised by her answer, I asked her, “Pier Paolo who?”
“Pasolini,” she said without missing a beat. “Pier Paolo Pasolini.”
I was as astonished as I was skeptical.
“He trusted me,” she went on. “Once, at a dinner, he said as much in front of a big group of people. His book of poems La religione del mio tempo [The Religion of My Time] was about to be published. And he said that the book could finally come out because I had given him permission. He came around the table and gave me a rose. O yes! There’s an extraordinary poem in that collection. What a great poem!”
I was speechless. The fact, alone, that she had decided to speak to me was quite a surprise. And now she was talking about Pasolini as if he had been an old friend of hers. And she had even mentioned the collection of poems with the authority of a seasoned literary critic. I started to think that what she was saying was true.
“I don’t know the book,” I told her. “You said it includes a wonderful poem. Do you remember the title?”
She started to laugh.
“The name? Are you kidding? I remember the whole poem.”
“Really?” I said. I didn’t know what to expect if I asked her to recite it but I did anyway.
She still hadn’t even looked up at me. But I could see her stare at one of her roses as she trimmed the stem with a little knife. After a while, she began to recite the poem.
“It’s called ‘A un papa’ [‘To a Pope’],” she said.
She recited it in a single breath and was literally captivated by her words. A beautiful poem that I had never read.
You knew that sin does not mean doing wrong.
Not doing right is the meaning of sin.
What good you could have done! But you did not.
There was no sinner greater than you.
A chill ran done my spine as she read these lines, as if I were in a trance.
“Did you get that? The pope?” she continued. “The pope can’t even buy a rose! And he wouldn’t even buy one if he could!”
Then she burst out laughing again.
I stood up abruptly and told her I would be right back.
I ran as quick as I could to [the book store] Feltrinelli on Largo Argentina [boulevard] that had opened just a few months prior. And I swiftly purchased a copy of La religione del mio tempo by Pier Paolo Pasolini. It was an impulse buy.
“Look,” I said to her, “I bought the book! Here’s the poem ‘A un papa’!”
She didn’t look up as she asked me, “Tell the truth! You didn’t believe me, did you?”
I felt embarrassed and made a lame attempt at an impromptu excuse.
“No, that’s not the reason why,” I told her.
She didn’t buy it and she hid herself once again in the depths of her silence. She didn’t say another word.
After a while, I stood up and started to leave again. And in that moment, for the first time, she looked up at me.
“You want to know something? Pier Paolo and I were boyfriend and girlfriend. But he didn’t want anyone to know. You believe me, don’t you?” she asked me
“Yes, I do,” I answered.