88. The Translator

I MET THE POET Randall Sloane at a bar called The Minotaur in the Spanish Quarter of Naples. At first, what drew us together was that we were both impostors; neither of us felt we had any right to be in Naples at all. Speaking for myself, I felt I was going crazy in Naples, crazy with solitude, yet at that particular time in my life I couldn't imagine myself anywhere else. Sloane had a better excuse for being there: he was in love with a Neapolitan poetry professor he'd met the previous summer at a colloquium on contemporary Mediterranean poetics in Santa Fe. They'd made love once or twice, rather unsatisfactorily, he admitted, and although they hadn't been in contact since then Sloane confessed he could not get the poetry professor out of his mind. He'd come to Naples to track the poetry professor down with nothing more than his name and the university where he worked, the Università di Napoli, which as far as universities go is a leviathan with several heads. Sloane had no email address or phone number, not even the department where the professor worked. Sloane spoke no Italian, and I did, so I offered to help him. I asked him if he was in love with the professor, and Sloane replied he must be, that although he couldn't say his feelings amounted to being in love, on the other hand his actions were the actions of someone in love, so that even if from an interior point of view he wasn't in love, from an exterior point of view he was. In Sloane's opinion, the exterior point of view was more important than the interior point of view. My opinion was precisely the opposite. I tended to fall in love quickly and easily in those days, but I prefered to keep my feelings to myself. Even though he was gay, for example, I knew even then that I was already falling in love with Sloane, but I refused to tell him, out of pride, perhaps, or out of an overdeveloped sense of futility, which may amount to the same thing. Admittedly, falling in love with Sloane was easy, despite the terrible poetry he wrote, execrable stuff which he had difficulty placing even in the most obscure magazines. He showed me his work one evening and I had to scramble to find something to say about it that wouldn't offend him. Luckily I am rather good at this. He was riddled with the self-deprecating vanity common to all poets, but when he allowed himself to stray beyond poetry's sanctified ground he could be wickedly funny, able to string together endless garlands of withering put-downs, at which he was always the one who laughed hardest. It took us almost two weeks to track down the poetry professor. We were slowed down by the fact that the professor was in fact not a professor of poetry but of poetics, which was an entirely different faculty, situated on an entirely different campus. In fact the department of poetry and the department of poetics were locked in a prolonged and bitter rivalry, a quarrel 'to the death', so to speak, and with the benefit of hindsight I can see that the poetry department did not simply passively refuse to help us, but actively sought to hinder us by sending us on wild goose chases to the archeology department, which was located on a third campus, and then, when that suggestion inevitably led us nowhere, to the department of political economy, which was located on yet another campus. When we finally tracked down the professor of poetics, Sloane had me call him because the professor of poetics spoke no English. Thus, when the time came for their reunion, Sloane insisted that I come along to translate. Curiously, the university professor suggested we meet at The Minotaur, where Sloane and I had first met little more than a fortnight earlier. We went to the bar at the agreed hour, where the professor was seated alone at a circular table, waiting for us. Although undeniably a handsome man, he appeared anxious and reserved, and kept looking around him suspiciously. I noticed he was wearing a wedding ring. We ordered drinks. It was a horrible little bar, really, decorated with pictures of topless women and heavy with the smell of camphor. The atmosphere was terse, and at our table even more so. There was a good deal of throat clearing and chair shuffling and intermittent sighing and random smiling before the drinks arrived. Sloane was the first to begin talking. He told the professor the story of how we had tracked him down, and why. I translated all this for the professor, who said nothing, and just nodded. When Sloane finished his monologue, the professor began one of his own, which I translated for Sloane. The professor told us that he almost never came to this part of town as he lived with his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law in one of the city's middle-class neighborhoods. He said he was flattered by Sloane's efforts, in fact he called them a 'grand gesture', and Sloane a 'great romantic, perhaps the last romantic'. But, he said, such a gesture, such romanticism was doomed in a city like Naples, which he said was a rotten city, a vicious city, a city of moral cannibalism. He told us that he had chosen this bar, in this neighborhood, because he was convinced he was being followed by a gang of thugs, one of the city's countless gangs of thugs, whose genealogy was inevitably as ancient and complex as any royal family's. Who would be having him followed?, he asked us rhetorically. After all, he was a cleanskin. His family was clean. His wife's family were from Bologna, and they too were clean. The only possible conclusion, said the professor, was that his enemy, or enemies, were motivated by a professional grudge. They were having him followed. And if one was to analyse the situation objectively, there could only be one such event capable of such sinister action. Why, the answer was obvious, he said, clenching his fists and banging the table bitterly. The department of poetry, of course. Look how shamelessly they wasted your time for two weeks! Yet that is just the tip of the iceberg! At this point, it was hard to know whether to take him seriously or not. The professor seemed to have been infected with the madness of an entire. He must have picked up on our scepticism, because he continued. See those kids outside on the street? Don't both look at the same time, but there are two boys out there playing with a football. I saw those kids earlier today outside my office. I saw the long-haired one on the bus this morning. Who knows? They probably even know where I live. This is my point, he said, suddenly leaning forward. My wife and I, we understand each other. We allow each other certain freedoms. Your grand gesture is probably the most romantic act anyone has ever made for my sake. Normally, I would not be capable of resisting such a gesture. But I am a marked man. The slightest indiscretion and my career could be over, my name sullied forever, my reputation in disgrace. There would be no restitution. In this city, appearances count for everything! He leaned back in his chair. I don't mean to disappoint you, but I trust you will understand the difficulty of my situation. The professor then made his excuses. He said the reason he'd chosen this bar is because it had a secret back exit. He asked us to remain in our seats for another half hour, if possible, to give him time to give the kids the slip. After he'd left, I could sense Sloane sliding into a fog of disappointment. We lingered in the bar another long, gloomy hour. It was dark and the kids were gone by the time we stepped out on the street. We returned to our hotel slowly and, standing outside the door of my room, I asked Sloane if he wanted to spend the night with me. We lay in bed together and talked all night. We talked about everything imaginable - the agonies of love, the futility of poetry, the history of the Mediterranean, the corruption of the world, the evil beauties of this city, and much more besides. Around five in the morning, we made love, unsatisfactorily, but afterwards, finally, we feel asleep. When I woke, Sloane was gone, and he didn't answer when I knocked on his door. The receptionist told me he had checked out earlier, without paying for his room, leaving me to foot the bill. I ran into him again almost twenty years later at a bar in Austin, Texas. He was with a group of friends. He answered to the name of Sloane, but when I reminded him of our time in Naples he insisted he had no recollection of me or of Naples at all. He even went so far as to say he had never been to Italy, let alone Naples. Curiously, I noticed his accent had changed. For some reason, he was not speaking with an Australian accent. I went back to my friends but within a minute I decided I could not possibly stay a minute longer in the bar. I invented an excuse and made a beeline for the door, but not without shooting Sloane sideways glance on the way. He had his eyes closed as he laughed at a joke that had just been made, possibly by himself.