5 agosto 2022
by Mario Sechi

Searching for an island

Gulf of Oristano, 'memories' of the fishermen's village in Torregrande (Picture by Mario Sechi).
Gulf of Oristano, 'memories' of the fishermen's village in Torregrande (Picture by Mario Sechi).

Searching for an island. It’s exploring the boundaries, being born in a place surrounded by the sea reminds you that when you reach the water’s edge, you have three options: swim, stand and watch or turn around and go back. Action. Contemplation. Acceptance. As a child, it’s the first; as an adult, it’s the second; as a man, it’s the third. Virginia Woolf went on a trip to the lighthouse to make peace with the memory of her mother; here, I see the lighthouse shining every evening, at Capo San Marco, the score to be settled in the battle of life is as vast as the water in the gulf and, in any case, I prefer to deal with the affair as John Fante resolved his debt to Arturo Bandini: he welcomed the notice of rental arrears (and eviction) by sleeping on it. In the end, waking up is an ‘eternal return’, the problem of the debt remains. Like searching for an island.

Going in search of myths. In August. Chimerical. An old lesson: this is the most favorable period for going fishing for news, a powerful distraction for someone who is always up to his elbows in ink. Whilst everyone is on holiday, facts dart around like shoals of sardines from early morning, events sizzle like cuttlefish on the grill at lunchtime, ready to be swallowed up by the rotary press, our White Whale. In the evening, a truce is called, a glass of mirto [TN: typical Sardinian digestif], sun going down over the sea, little gems of memories. What an illusion, like love scorned, a harpoon straight to the heart! The scratch of a broken record hits me just as I’m about to go down; the wheedling of politicians reminds that we are stranded in an election campaign, the attempt to escape has already failed. Searching for an island.

The scratch of a broken record hits me just as I’m about to go down; the wheedling of politicians reminds that we are stranded in an election campaign, the attempt to escape has already failed. Searching for an island.

Here it is, the island. Not this one, that one. Far away, to the East, stands Formosa, a long and dangerous stretch of sea, a pirate trap, further north than the tracks beaten by Yanez and Sandokan, but featured by Emilio Salgari in Gli scorridori del mare. We are in another time, there’s nothing more to discover here, perhaps buried ancient civilizations, sure, but our affairs roar furiously like jet aircraft, fighters on the mean line of the Strait of Taiwan, Nancy Pelosi’s airplane isn’t on the Flight Radar…ah, there it is, destination Taipei, landed, the anger of China. Strange days (Strani giorni), Franco Battiato would sing, strange idea that of starting a war with China, just like that, through democratic stubbornness, in that expanse of water that is also the Pacific.

I watched Midway again, to test the screenplay of the spaces, the war at sea, the surprise that today is a chimera, in an infinite quadrant, dotted with islands (Marshall, Hawaii, Guam, Midway, Ivo Jima): crosses in a red ocean. By impolitic dissociation, from the corner of my mind pops up the memory of a Vanity Fair cover, the First Lady dancing with the President, Ronald Reagan. Another Nancy. Above all, another president. Yes, okay, it was also another America, pre-destined for dissipation, but still close to the dream.

Searching for an island. It seems easy, I’m walking on it. What Am I Doing here?, the novel by Bruce Chatwin catapults me to far-off lands, old reportages from the East, fragments of a lover’s discourse (again Roland Barthes, insomnia-based representation, forest of symbols), attempted chapters, hanging fragments, dusty gems, embedded nuggets, a supra-mineral world: The Chinese Geomancer, Heavenly Horses, Rock’s World, Nomad Invasions: what a journey, Bruce!

Searching for an island. It seems easy, I’m walking on it. What Am I Doing here?, the novel by Bruce Chatwin catapults me to far-off lands, old reportages from the East

I’m almost asleep. Searching for an island. I wake up, there’s a notification on my smartphone. The prose is back, in a flash: Ayman Al-Zawahiri has been hit by an American drone. It appears he was developing a taste for getting fresh air on his balcony, which, for someone with his history, in a place called Kabul, is an insane habit. Death from the sky like lightning. If he had read Drone Theory by Gregoire Chamayou, he would have avoided the balcony; one day, swarms of drones guided by artificial intelligence will follow us, war without man against man, they say. For now, it’s a story of a few lines about the end of the Egyptian doctor of Al Qaeda. It arrives like providential gunshot residue one year after the withdrawal from Afghanistan; that photo of Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, leaving Kabul, the last soldier.

A story that, after twenty years, went very wrong and is not continuing much better. We are at the center of the ‘Great Game’, home of Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book I knew as a child, the adventure of Kim and the fabulously stoic lesson of If: learning to fall down and get back up. Here is the home of the pages by Peter Hopkirk translated by Adelphi: wonderful, packed full, a saga of spies. But again, it is Chatwin who exercises the power of attraction, A Lament for Afghanistan, another inner search, On Yeti Tracks, up high.

There would also be the opportunity for an incursion into forgotten Russia, obscured by the war, a sled race amidst the paintings of romanticism by Viktor Vasnetsov and the revolutionary prose of Aleksandr Blok, a report from Moscow in which they have just said that “America wants to destabilize the world,” voilà, whilst from the notebook of our traveler peers Chatwin’s portrait of George Costakis: the Story of an Art Collector in the Soviet Union, a tour of the wonderful pictures of an exhibition (that was an entirely domestic discovery) with the immanence of the notes of Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky. Searching for an island. And travelling the border far away, where it always snows.

Searching for an island. We are in the all-inclusive summer of the non-resort, everyone flying, in line at the boarding gate, looking for priority, never seen the airports so packed, a ‘post-everything’ scene with the premonition of a bad winter with no check-in. The ‘summer season’, memories. The memories of Ricky Tognazzi a few days ago in Specchio, I read a passage on ‘Prima Pagina’ and was bombarded with calls and messages from listeners; the nostalgia effect, sure, but with something more: the feeling, the premonition, the desire to escape, to flee, the misplacement of a lost golden thread, the Boom years, dad Ugo who was films and cooking, women and gold pasta strainer, a villa in Torvaianica, tennis as the forehand and backhand of life (read the book by John McPhee, Levels of the Game, literature, between an ace and a run up to the net, the confirmation of an underhand joke by Adriano Panatta, an unusually beautiful player: “Tennis was invented by the devil”), a couple of families (de)formed (ah, the structuralism of love!), what a fiery piece, what legs, what a wave, and the Italy of the chorus of Fred Buscaglione (“eri piccola, piccola, piccola, così”, [TN: you were young, young, so young]) that was a country that had not yet lost its way. Buscaglione, the revolution of song (“Teresa, ti prego,/ Non scherzare col fucile. / Per la rabbia, la tua bile / Può scoppiar” [Teresa, please / Don’t play with the gun. / The anger, your rage / Can make it explode]).

You could say anything back then. What remains is Natalia Aspesi, who marches joyfully in the opposite direction, and the soothing re-reading of one Alberto Arbasino piece after another (posthumously, Ritratti e Immagini, Adelphi). So, let’s play some Fred [Buscaglione] in the background and one-two-three, Truman Capote:

“Trummy often came to Italy, right from his earliest poverrimi years when he would tell us above all about the guesthouses and trattorias in Ischia or Venice, greatly exaggerating those folkloristic places so loved by American and British readers: rocks by the sea, fish, shellfish, tomatoes, old women, little stoves, local color. But while his literary and worldly career progressed, he became increasingly tireless and infallible in his search for and encounters with the celebrities of the cafè society of the ‘cosmopolitan jet set’, as they were called back then. No longer “divine bruschette.”

Capote didn’t (re)discover the island. The end came, the betrayal par defaut of high society, the bend in the road where it happens not to be seen (Fernando Pessoa) and a lesson to remember for those who write: leave the salons and if there’s a heart-tugging affair, a grande dame (or grand monsieur) involved, you’ll see that she will leave you. “It’s all about bucks…The rest is conversation,” said Gordon Gekko. Or a yachting requirement. So, have a solitary "ombra di vin bianco" [TN: term for a glass of white wine in Veneto] (the wisdom of great seafarers!) on board a dinghy.

With the message out of the bottle, the problem remains of the map of the soul: searching for an island. Where? In the end, this was a (semi-)final that was already written, “dedicated to all those who are running away” with the surprise à la Salvatores of the epiphany of Diego Abatantuono (“minchia, signore tenente...!”; [shit, mister lieutenant...!]) who slices the eggplant at the end of Mediterraneo, with that phrase that is a post-political program, a historical summary (“they didn’t let us change anything, so… so I told them ‘you’ve won but at least you won’t be able to consider me your accomplice’), never a surrender, no tears, we may as well laugh about it. An island re(found), where nothing ends and everything begins, in Greece.

With the message out of the bottle, the problem remains of the map of the soul: searching for an island.

Searching for an island. And let’s drink to that. To the news that the Negroni has been dressed up (or down) as a sorbet, I have an ancestral meltdown to 42 degrees [TN: alcohol %]; we are in the area of totem and taboo. The Count (Negroni) would not be too thrilled: that sweet mixture was the subject of the alcoholic character, the travels, a sulfurous nobility that in the Florence version was shaken behind the bar in Caffè Casoni: one part gin, one part vermouth and one part bitter, with the final touch of a slice of orange. A spurt of genius. The debate begins with my double (and even triple): Negroni or Gin Martini? James Bond would be without a doubt (shaken, not stirred), but here, above all, there’s no Vesper, and cocktails (those who know everything drop the term ‘mixology’, show their true colors on the second drink, end up under the table) are a subject that divides the field and families of drinking age, an eternal Rome vs Lazio.

If we were in Santa Marinella, the discussion on the basics would take off mid-field with a Dybala-Negroni and on the left wing with an Immobile-Gin Martini. But here, where the legend (here’s a giant one) is called ‘Rombo di Tuono’ [Rumble of Thunder], the giallorossi vs bianocelesti story ends in passes between cannoniere [bomber] and cannonau; it doesn’t impose itself like a plot orchestrated by Pep Guardiola (and here we are more bewitched by the full-blooded fùtbol—à la Helenio Herrera—played by ‘Cholo’, Simeone from Atletico Madrid; we are all 'colchoneros', decidedly ready for battle). And Cagliari is in Serie B. And we nonetheless won an unrepeatable championship and Piero Marras remembers “Quando Gigi Riva tornerà / Non ci troveranno ancora qua / Con la vita in fallo laterale / E il sorriso fermo un po' a metà / Tornerà la voglia di sognare / Quando Gigi Riva tornerà” [When Gigi Riva comes back / We will no longer be here / With life kicked into touch / And only half smiles / The desire to dream will return / When Gigi Riva comes back*. Gigi Riva, referred to by Massimo Crivelli, when I was editor of the Unione Sarda, my companion of mockups and poker, with the tone you would normally reserve for a Roi Thaumaturge: il Cavaliere. For Gigi Proietti, the cavaliere (knight) was black and we all know the moral of the story [TN: don’t break the black knight’s balls!]; so, todos caballeros, forewarned and forearmed. The championship? O dear Lord, topics for continentali [continental Italians] over a plate of spaghetti alle vongole that dribbles onto the gold pendant hanging around their necks like a creeper, interesting perhaps in Costa Smeralda…But Sardinia in August is not the real Sardinia: it’s a geographical and tourist misinterpretation, a pit stop for expensive watch wearers for whom the time (to leave) is now.

Whilst the discussion surfs the subject of Panini football cards (and la maggica [TN: Roma] has already won the title in August), the evening takes an unexpected turn with a question with full-option answer by the ladies: “Did you see how elegant Kate’s shorts were?” I’m in very basic, on-the-road version; at this time of night, I don’t even have power steering. Who? “How déraciné you are! All you think about is writing! Kate Middleton!” She looks good; I accept the uprooting (though I would have preferred délabré, in short Kodak-style snapshot, a vintage development closer to my non-being) and it would appear the Royal Navy style calls for reflection. I get to it immediately: Bermuda, Kate…nothing to say. I’m already shipwrecked, ready to be fished out again. And this too is a yachting matter.

“Did you see how elegant Kate’s shorts were?”. It would appear the Royal Navy style calls for reflection. I get to it immediately.

Searching for an island. Not those boats with a hull that separates the lives of others. The Titanic of Francesco De Gregori, where “la prima classe / costa mille lire, / la seconda cento, la terza dolore e spavento” [first class / costs a thousand lire, / second one hundred, third pain and fear]. Here, we are aboard other craft: arks that sail across ancient seas populated by monsters from the deep. Other harbors, seabeds, meadows of sea grass and fortifications of red coral. Seahorses advance at a gallop (rare underwater sighting, like the sea stars of my childhood, in the 1970s; Is Arutas beach if you need directions on the GPS).

An epic, for sure, what else? The land over and under (water) by Elsa Morante, who won the Strega Prize in 1957 with L’Isola di Arturo, with the eternity of the rocky shore, the lapping of existence, the amazement that never ends, without the in- and outboard noise of the boat people: “Those elegant sport or cruise boats that still fill the other harbors around the archipelago hardly ever moor in our harbor; you’ll see barges or big merchant boats, as well as the fishing boats of the islanders.”

Searching for an island. The imagery, the memory, my childhood, the weave of the loom between earth and sky, the fragrance of wood and a fresh layer of paint on the hull, boats suspended on the water. It was a fishing village: simple houses, huts, a muddle of unfired bricks made of sedge, shelters for fishing nets, anchors waiting for unknown landings, hoists of hope, longlines for bread, bits of rock and shells with waves inside: “listen, the sea”. I pulled the rope from the beach; I was a sailor so small that I could touch the stars from in my grandma’s arms. Searching for an island. And finding it.

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