Sienna Revisited

I must confess that I’m deaf in my left ear. And this causes emotional upheavals that, at their worst, can be confused with silliness and dementia.

Translated by Jennifer Gabrielle Edwards

I must confess that I’m deaf in my left ear. And this causes emotional upheavals that, at their worst, can be confused with silliness and dementia. If at a social gathering, especially a dinner party, the person sitting to my left turns out to be a chatterbox, I’m done for. I respond instinctively or at random; I’m full of vagueness, nonsense, until the disappointed listener gradually begins to pull away, tired of repeating the same questions and hearing answers that have little or nothing to do with them. This makes me terribly self-conscious, and once I’m self-conscious, tense or timid, I am no longer responsible for my behavior.

I spent a brief time in Sienna during the first days of 1962. I had spent the holidays with my mother’s family: Christmas Day in Bologna and New Year’s Eve in the family castle in Bonizzo. Toward the close of the last century, my great-grandfather Domenico Buganza crossed the ocean with his three daughters, Preseide, Agnese and Catarina—the youngest, my grandmother—to have them educated in Italy. Only two returned to Mexico, my grandmother and Agnese. The third, the eldest, married in Italy and has lived ever since in that castle, which she has seldom left over the course of her long life.

When I arrived, my Aunt Preseide stood up and threw herself into my arms with the force of a cyclone, then insisted that I recount the most important events of our family on the other side of the Atlantic during her 60-year absence. She and my grandmother never stopped writing to each other all that time except during the war, but she preferred to hear in person what she had read over the course of such a long time. She asked me about ranches, towns, people I had never heard of. I answered as best I could, which is to say, clumsily. She looked at me full of dismay; she must have thought that I was some sort of imposter who was trying, for some obscure purpose, to pass himself off as the grandson of Catarina Buganza-Buganza. When she got tired, she’d send me out to the garden or to look at her granddaughter’s husband’s collection of Etruscan pieces, displayed in another room in the castle, or she’d ask her son-in-law, Noradino, my Aunt Argia’s husband, a mathematician, to show me around the riverbank where my aunts and my grandmother had strolled so often at the turn of the century. But aside from the snow, there was next to nothing to look at—a thick, milky fog hid everything from view.

Still, I spent those days in an intense state of excitement. I sensed the presence of my grandmother everywhere I went; my grandmother when she was a little girl, when she was a teen-ager, when she was about to return to Mexico. I sent her a letter from Ostiglia to tell her about my visit with the family, the conversations with my Aunt Preseide, in which she had become the protagonist. I assured her that I was behaving well, drinking in moderation, speaking with discretion. I described the condition of the estate. One part was quite dilapidated, but the materials necessary for repairs had been stored for years in large sheds in the garden: tons of antique Saracen bricks, mostly salvaged from old, abandoned construction sites in Calabria and Sicily, that would soon be used to begin renovations.

On the first night of the New Year, after dinner, very late, I said goodbye to my family, to my elderly great-uncles, forever (they died soon thereafter). Early the next morning, my Uncle Noradino took me to Ostiglia; we said our goodbyes in its tiny train station. He gave me a lovely, black leather wallet, full of gigantic, meticulously folded bills. “To begin the year right,” he said. I thanked him profusely for that unexpected gift, which not only helped me begin the year right but also helped with much more. I boarded an adorable toy train, a relic from the early days of rail travel, two small passenger cars with seats upholstered in a thick velvet, frayed but elegant nonetheless. I don’t think that that little, narrow train could ever, even in its heyday, have reached a dizzying speed. By the beginning of 1962, the many decades of use, the wars, the turbulent times had weakened it considerably, and the mounds of snow covering the tracks that particular day almost brought it to a complete standstill.

By the time I arrived in Bologna, the next train had already left, and I had to wait for the night train. I watched a car being unloaded from a freight train. I tried in vain to find a rail employee on the platform who would accept money in exchange for reserving me a couchette or, at least, a seat in first class; the idea of traveling in a chaotic coach-class car with all of that money in my pockets horrified me. Hoards of people were returning from their holidays; the platforms were teeming. The young owner of the car that had been removed from the freight train asked me where I was headed. I told him Rome, and he offered to take me to Sienna, which would advance me a good stretch of the way. He had just returned from London, where he had attended an international theater festival. He had spent New Years Eve in Paris and had taken a train from there to Bologna, where he had to pick up that car, which belonged to a relative.

He had that fine education typical of young Italians from wealthy families with a liberal background, in which learning and pleasure seem to go hand in hand. Between Pistoia and Sienna, our conversation revolved largely around two subjects: English literature and Italian art, especially primitive and Renaissance painting. My driver had lived in London for a year to learn English and live apart from his family. At that point in my life, I had been reading English literature almost exclusively. I commented on the Italian influence on English literature, which had not begun with the Romantics, who fled in droves from the philistinism of their country, but long before, during the Renaissance. The debt owed to Bandello, for example, was considerable, and many of his works were set in Italian cities.

I referred in passing to Robert Greene’s observations regarding the raucous university life of Sienna, where behavior that was perfectly normal there was unimaginable in his own country. My traveling companion politely suggested that I was referring to Graham Greene. I explained that I was, in fact, referring to Robert Greene, a contemporary of Shakespeare (to whom some scholars attributed the authorship, or at least collaboration in the writing of, “Titus Andronicus”), who as a young man traveled around Italy and, most likely, Sienna, which he cited as an amalgam of all of the excesses of the pagan world. My young driver was rather baffled by this and returned to small talk.

He suggested that I spend the night at the train station in Sienna. It had begun to snow again, and we were moving along with great caution; we wouldn’t arrive until late that night. He said I should check my bag and rest for a while in the waiting room, that I wouldn’t have any problems since it was not a very busy station. He suggested I tour the city at dawn; the colors of the walls and palaces were illumined at that time in such a way that I could fully appreciate the color known as sienna in its full splendor. He recommended visiting the cathedral and the art museum to see the masters of Sienna painting: Simone Martini, Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti and, above all, Duccio di Buoninsegna, the founder of the Siennese school and its most outstanding exponent. He recommended I jot down the latter’s name so as not to forget it.

I replied, without conceit, that I knew who Duccio di Buoninsegna was, that I had seen his work at the National Gallery in London and that I was familiar with most of his work through reproductions. I casually mentioned some ideas of Berenson’s, whose books, well known and much studied in Mexico, always accompanied me on my travels through Italy. I spoke of the sumptuousness of his greens and golds, of the Byzantine technique that made his work look more like bronze bas-reliefs than paintings. Duccio was extraordinary, I insisted— no one doubted this—but he lacked the genius of Giotto, whose work embodied the importance of tactility that was essential to Berenson.

He was silent.

During the first few months of my stay in Italy, I often got the impression that people expected me, like all young Latin Americans they met, to personify their rugged, tropical fantasies, different ways of thinking, myths, defiance and different political theories that might help to redeem the Old World. The aggiornata representation of the noble savage, complete with reminiscences of Borges and glimmers of Che Guevara. They were flattered by my knowledge of and interest in their culture and at the same time were disappointed by it. Ultimately, exploring the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and vanguard painting was a European pursuit.

I found this presumptuousness absurd, and I sometimes came back with a retort, but my experiences in Europe had taught me that, although I was legitimately interested in the culture, I ran the risk of acquiring knowledge exclusively through books, by rote, indulgently, without the foundation provided by the necessary environment. It’s not that I wanted to follow a particular methodology or that I had academic ambitions—nothing interested me less than to deplete the hedonistic character of my readings, their purely random organization. Nor was I about to give up my almost physical yearning to learn everything I could from the world. This was not the issue. I intuitively understood that I should affirm my own language and culture. I was able to recite a long list of palaces and churches built by Palladio or Brunelleschi, but there were vast gaps in my knowledge of the Mexican baroque tradition, of the truncated evolution of the Olmec and Mayan civilizations. I knew that I had to better understand that past in order to move more freely around the world. It was the backbone that would sustain the human being I aspired to be. If a traveler does not assert his own language, he loses the ability to aspire to translate the Universe; he will become merely an interpreter, no different than a tour guide.

When we arrived in Sienna, my traveling companion called some friends, who hosted us for dinner that night, and it was quite late when he deposited me at the station. I spent several hours in the waiting room, unable to sleep. Our family rituals in Bonizzo seem like an illusion: the complicated, medieval maneuverings to heat up the beds so they were warm by nighttime, the beauty of the spaces, the marvelous dinners cooked under my Aunt Argia’s supervision, the good manners, the fires in the fireplaces, the Etruscan pieces. In contrast, I now found myself enveloped in the smoke of vile cigarettes, coarse accents, endless cackles. I was on unfamiliar ground. Very few people slept. Most killed time by talking about their lives, intimate family problems, jobs and the search for jobs. The youngest among them spoke of unfeasible schemes, told them with such joy and naiveté they managed to transform even the most risqué elements into discussions of pastoral purity.

I left the station at dawn and saw the ancient walls and the sienna red infused in them. I ate breakfast and then went to the museum, looking forward to the Byzantine splendor of the great Duccio. But it was a holiday, and all of the museums were closed. I thought I would return to Sienna very soon, so I decided to walk around the city for a little while and then take the bus to Rome.

More than 30 years passed before I again saw the walls of that exceptional city. I returned to give a talk on my most recent novels at the Sienna University literature department on a day dedicated to Latin American culture. The event was supposed to start at around 5 or 6 in the evening. I would speak, followed by a concert organized by the students, perhaps a discussion afterward, concluding with a dinner at a nearby house.

I arrived in Florence the day before the event and called Antonio Melis to plan our trip together to Sienna. Then I called the author Antonio Tabucci to invite him to my talk. I had admired Tabucci since reading “The Woman of Porto Pim” and “Indian Nocturne.” I anxiously awaited each new book published in Italy—I had each one of his sent to me as soon as it was released. I had even written about them. I would have loved to speak with him about one of his novels, “The Edge of the Horizon,” which reminded me of the best of Conrad, as elusive and multi-layered as “The Secret Sharer.” “The Edge of the Horizon,” like Tabucci’s best short stories, is a very intimate book, nourished by the extraordinary in everyday life. The reader is witness and accomplice to a secret battle that is continually played out between allusion and elusion. The more precise the details, the more mysterious the story becomes.

He told me that, unfortunately, he would not be able to attend. He had to deal with some tax matters that had overwhelmed him and wasn’t sure when he would finish. He invited me to visit Vecchiano to stay for a few days in his house, assuring me that I would like the region and that there were very interesting things to see in Pisa. Unfortunately my schedule was full. I was leaving Sienna the morning after the lecture to attend the Latin American Literature Award ceremony in Rome. Then I had to return to Barcelona. We would have to get together another time.

I spent the rest of the day at the Uffizi Gallery. The long stroll through the visual splendor of the Renaissance alone would have been worth the trip. I remained in the 14th-century Siennese painting room for some time, anticipating what I would see the following day. Two of the paintings there, the Maestá Madonna, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, and the Annunciation, by Simone Martini, touched me so deeply that whenever I remember Sienna, it’s not the lecture that comes to mind but my visit to the art gallery. After the Uffizi Gallery, I walked around the city for another couple of hours. When I arrived at the hotel, I fell into bed.

I left for Sienna with Antonio Melis early the next morning. When he told me the news, I wondered if I had not yet woken up and was trapped in a nightmare. It was May 27, 1993. Antonio turned on his car radio, and we heard the confirmation of the incident. There had been an enormous explosion the previous night at the Uffizi Gallery. Six people were killed, many were wounded, and part of the building was destroyed. I was very upset when I got to Sienna. I had spent so many hours in those rooms so soon before the explosion. Perhaps I had been there at the same time as the criminals while they worked out the final details. If this were a nightmare, I would feel I was being watched, investigated, intimidated; I would feel guilty, yes; I would doubt myself, wrack my brain trying to prove my innocence without being convinced of it myself. Someone would testify that I had been seen in the car disguised as a taxi or ambulance. Such is the nature of nightmares.

I had the rest of the day free, so we walked through the medieval section of the city, down marvelous, narrow streets, through plazas whose preservation seemed miraculous. We parted in the great Palio Plaza. I quickened my pace and headed for the museum. I felt the need to take refuge there. But the front door was covered with an enormous black banner; the museums and art centers in Italy had closed for two days in mourning and protest.

Once again I was prevented from seeing the masters of Sienna painting. Two of the things that had drawn me to Sienna had vanished. I wouldn’t see the “Kiss of Judas” by Duccio di Buoninsegna, nor would I meet Antonio Tabucci. Conversing with him, hearing his point of view, listening to an exegesis of some of his texts had become essential to me—as much of a compulsion as it had been for the American editor in the Henry James novel to get his hands on the letters Jeffrey Aspern had written to Juliana Bordereau.

This essay is, in a way, a summation of regrets and sorrows, an attempt to sooth anxieties and heal wounds. I did ultimately have the opportunity to meet Tabucci. I shudder to think about that incident. Recalling my behavior still oppresses me.

That afternoon I gave the lecture to the students and teachers. I spoke about my career as a writer, my ties with Italy, my most conspicuous influences, some filias and phobias, all before a warm audience. Well into my speech, I saw Tabucci enter through the door at the back of the room. I recognized him immediately—I had seen photos of him in his books and in newspapers. He had come with his wife, Maria Jose, a beautiful woman with marvelously intense gestures. We introduced ourselves to each other after the lecture, our point of reference the invisible presence of Jorge Herralde, our mutual friend and editor in Barcelona.

After having finished the lecture, I was very thirsty and rather tired. I asked if we could have coffee together somewhere, as I urgently needed at least two cups. He suggested a nice café near the university. I don’t know if it was because of all of the days excitement or the fear of not being able to hear him (due to the deafness in my left ear) and responding nonsensically to his questions, but as soon as we sat down, after briefly commenting on the terrible news of that morning, I began to talk about his latest book.

A short, intelligent and lovely text about the imagined dreams of people about whom he was very passionate, “Dreams of Dreams” was the work of a curious, intellectual mind—sharp, refined, yet at the same time, not cloistered in an ivory tower. Tabucci is attuned to life. The 20 characters represent diverse inclinations, which the author, upon grouping them, manages to harmonize: Apuleyo, Rabelais, Goya, Leopardi, Stevenson, Rimbaud, Chekhov, Pessoa, Maiakovski, Garcia Lorca and Freud, among others. I spoke nonstop, not giving him a chance to say anything. I began to cite authors whose dreams would be worth imagining: Henry James, for example, who must have had very complex ones, a tangle of labyrinthian and elliptical syntax that would have driven even the most skilled psychoanalyst crazy. It would be an arduous task not only to decipher one of his dreams but also to understand his language and not get lost in the folds of the one, interminable and no doubt obscure sentence in which it was interpreted. And the dreams of Borges, Lezama Lima, Góngora and who knows how many more! I talked until we realized how late it had gotten, and we decided to return to the university to be present for the end of the concert.

Once the concert ended, preparations were made for the trip to the country house where we had been invited for dinner. The Tabuccis offered to take me in their car. Naturally I sat in the front seat, which meant that my healthy ear faced the window and my deaf one, Tabucci and, partially, Maria Jose, who sat in the back.

They asked me the usual questions polite people ask, the necessary preamble that relaxes the listener, creates an atmosphere of trust, and at the same time the conditions necessary for what will become the real substance of the conversation. How had I traveled to Italy? Where had I traveled from? How did I like Italy? I replied to all of their questions. That’s where I should have stopped. Or perhaps I could have described my astonishment that morning upon hearing about the destruction of a place where I had been only several hours before the catastrophe, a place that had seemed invulnerable, having survived five centuries of war, invasions, floods and plunder. That’s what I should have done, right? But that is not how it happened.

After relating my itinerary, I began to talk about my experience in the taxi that had taken me from the hotel in London to the airport. I told them how the driver had struck up a conversation with me, perhaps to be polite or to keep me entertained during the long trip, and how this had made me rather uncomfortable because it was so difficult to hear and make myself heard inside that gigantic car and because English cab drivers have extremely difficult accents—increasingly exotic varieties of cockney from which one misses words and even entire sentences. The driver was more or less my age, chubby, with a face similar to those classic illustrations of Mr. Pickwick. He spoke about his experiences as a tourist. He remembered with disconcerting precision, like an English incarnation of Borges’ Funes, the names of all the hotels where he had stayed, all the restaurants where he had eaten, all the local dishes he had ingested, as well as the various countries’ condiments, cigarette brands, soaps and toilet papers—and the prices in local currency of each of these products, which he converted into pounds sterling. He had once been to Mexico and remembered everything that I had never paid any attention to. He did not demonstrate any interest in the art or history of the countries he had visited, nor did he seem moved by their landscapes. He had no human interest in the inhabitants of those places or curiosity about their problems. He amused himself everywhere he went by searching for English products in the supermarkets, finding out how much they cost and comparing their prices to those in London—determining the profit made by the merchants.

I just couldn’t take it anymore. I responded with one-word answers. I wanted to read the morning paper, but I thought it would be rude to allow him to rattle on to himself. I resigned myself to passively discouraging him from continuing. He told me that he walked as often as possible in London, as well as when he was traveling. He felt that society had fallen apart because people had stopped walking. I don’t recall if it was in response to a question or by motu propio, but I told him that I went for a walk twice a day, that I walked my dog for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. He asked my dog’s name and breed. “His name is Sacho, and he’s a marvelous bearded collie,” I replied. And there fell Troy! He told me the story of his dog, a female bearded collie with whom he had lived for 15 years. When the dog died years ago, he fell into a terrible depression. He stopped working; at one point he stopped leaving his house. He thought that the end was near. He managed to go to church on the occasional Sunday, as he was Catholic. On one of these occasions, soon before mass ended, he heard a voice that said to him, “She is fine where she is, and she’s taking care of you from there.” His depression lifted; he was able to live a normal life again and go back to work. His enthusiasm seemed sincere, even so many years later. All at once I adored him. I could have traveled with him to the ends of the earth so that he could tell me in detail about his daily life with his dog. At that point we arrived at the country house.

“It almost sounds like a Chekhov story,” was Tabucci’s comment.

We dined outdoors on a terrace. I sat amidst a small group of professors and next to Maria Jose and Antonio Tabucci. I don’t know where the topic came from or what precipitated it—perhaps the devil put it into my head—but I suddenly found myself telling the story of Carranzas escape and death and Venustianos departure from Mexico City and his tragic last hours. I told of the arrival of the president and his entourage to the Buenavista station, the turmoil and prevailing chaos, the hundreds of train cars (one of which contained the national treasury, another the national archives), the first defections and then, during the course of its journey, the various attacks on the presidential train, the lack of water and coal for the engine, the telegram from the governor of Veracruz repudiating him as head of state, the impossibility of moving forward or turning back, the escape on horseback to the town of Tlaxcalantongo and the bullet that ultimately took his life.

Where had all of this come from? To talk for two hours on the terrace of a country house outside Sienna, in great detail, about the escape and death of a Mexican president of the revolutionary period whom no one there had ever heard of! I suddenly realized that the only voice in the group was mine. We were already having our coffee; the guests were starting to leave.

I would have liked for Tabucci to have clarified some sections of “The Edge of the Horizon,” to have talked about one of my favorite stories of his, “Saturday Afternoon,” about his interest in Portugal and Pessoa, about what he was writing. I emerged from a kind of trance and was horrified, embarrassed as never before in my life. I excused myself as best I could, adding that I was usually fairly quiet, which is true, that that chatterbox I had become was a part of my personality that I myself had been unaware of. Maria Jose, with a smile for which I will be indebted for the rest of my life, said that she thought the story of that old president was tragic and beautiful. Before leaving, Tabucci gave me a little book, the text of a conference he had given not long before in Tenerife. I read it cover to cover in my hotel room, and I was once again impressed by the quality of his intelligence. I felt even more ashamed.

In short, it was one of those nights when you’d just as soon have shot yourself in the head.

About the Author

Sergio Pitol

Sergio Pitol is the author of El tanido de una flauta [A Flute's Jingle] (1972), Nocturno en Bujara (1981), Juegos florales (1982), El desfile del amor [Parade of Love] (1989), Vals de Mefisto [Mephisto's Valleys] (1989), Cuerpo presente [Present Body] (1990) and El arte de la fuga [The Art of Fugue] (1996).

View Essays