Enigma Variations

Enigma Variations

A Novel

By André Aciman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2017 André Aciman
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-14843-0 


Title Page, 
Copyright Notice,
Also by André Aciman,
A Note About the Author,




I've come back for him.

These are the words I wrote down in my notebook when I finally spotted San Giustiniano from the deck of the ferryboat. Just for him. Not for our house, or the island, or my father, or for the view of the mainland when I used to sit alone in the abandoned Norman chapel in the last weeks of our last summer here, wondering why I was the unhappiest person on earth.

I was traveling alone that summer and had started my monthlong trip on the coast by going back to a place where I'd spent all my childhood summers. The trip had been a long-standing wish of mine, and now that I had just graduated, there was no better time to pay a short visit to the island. Our house had burned down years earlier, and after we'd moved to the north, no one in the family was ever keen on revisiting the place, or selling the property, or finding out what had really happened. We simply abandoned it, especially on hearing that, after the fire, the locals had pillaged what they could and laid waste to the rest. Some even held that the fire was no accident. But these were mere speculations, my father said, and there was no way of knowing anything but by going there. So the first thing I promised I'd do on stepping off the ferryboat was to make a right turn, walk down the familiar esplanade, past the imposing Grand Hotel and the guesthouses lining the waterfront, and head straight to our house to see the damage myself. This is what I'd promised my father. He himself had no wish to set foot on the island again. I was a man now, and it was up to me to see what needed to be done.

But perhaps I wasn't coming back just for Nanni. I was coming back for the boy of twelve I'd been ten years earlier — though I knew I'd find neither one. The boy now was tall and sported a bushy reddish beard, and as for Nanni, he'd disappeared altogether and was never heard from again.

I still remembered the island. I remembered how it looked the last time I'd seen it on our last day, scarcely a week before school started, when my father had taken us to the ferry station and then stood on the dock waving at us as the anchor chain clamored and the boat screeched its way backward while he stayed there motionless, growing smaller and smaller until we were no longer able to see him. As had been his habit each fall, he would stay behind for a week to ten days to make sure the house was locked down properly, the electricity, water, and gas turned off, the furniture protected, and all the local help on the island paid. I am sure he was not displeased to see his mother-in-law and her sister leave on the ferryboat that would take them back to the mainland.

But what I did as soon as I set foot on the ground after the old traghetto clanged and pulled out of the same exact spot a decade later was to turn left instead of right and head straight up the stone-paved path that led to the ancient hilltop town of San Giustiniano Alta. I loved its narrow alleys, sunken gutters, and old lanes, loved the cooling scent of coffee from the roasting mill that seemed to welcome me no differently now than when I ran errands with my mother, or when, after seeing my Greek and Latin tutor that last summer, I would take the long way home every afternoon. Unlike the more modern San Giustiniano Bassa, San Giustiniano Alta always rested in the shade even when it grew unbearably sunny along the marina. In the evenings oftentimes, when the heat and humidity on the seafront became intolerable, I'd go back up with my father for an ice cream at the Caffè dell'Ulivo, where he sat facing me with a glass of wine and chatted with the townspeople. Everyone knew and liked my father and deemed him un uomo molto colto, a very learned man. His hobbling Italian was laced with Spanish words that sought to sound Italian. But everyone understood, and when they couldn't help but correct and laugh at some of his strangely macaronic words, he was happy to join in the laughter himself. They called him Dottore, and though everyone knew he was not a medical doctor, it was not uncommon for someone to ask him for medical advice, especially since everyone trusted his opinion on health matters more than they did the local pharmacist, who liked to pass for the town physician. Signor Arnaldo, the owner of the caffè, had a chronic cough, the barber suffered from eczema, Professore Sermoneta, my tutor, who frequently ended up in the caffè at night, always feared they'd have to remove his gallbladder one day — everyone confided in my father, including the baker, who liked to show my father the bruises on his arms and shoulders caused by his ill-tempered wife, who, some said, started cheating on him on their very wedding night. Sometimes, my father would even step outside the caffè with someone to dispense an opinion in private, then push aside the beaded curtain and come back in, and return to his seat with both his elbows spread on the table, his emptied glass of wine in the middle, and stare at me, always telling me there was no need to rush with my ice cream, we might still find time to walk up to the abandoned castle if I wished. The castle by night overlooking the faraway lights on the mainland was our favorite spot, and there both of us would sit silent along the ruined ramparts to watch the stars. He called this making memories, for the day when, he'd say. What day? I'd ask, to tease him. For the day you know when. Mother said we were made from the same mold. My thoughts were his thoughts, and his thought my thoughts. Sometimes I feared he might read my mind if he so much as touched me on the shoulder. We were the same person, she said. Gog and Magog, our two Dobermans, loved only my father and me, not my mother or my elder brother, who had stopped spending his summers with us a few years earlier. The dogs turned away from everyone else and growled if you got too close. The townsfolk knew to keep their distance, but the dogs were trained not to bother anyone. We could tie them to the leg of a table outside the Caffè dell'Ulivo, and so long as they could see us, they lay down as meekly as ewes.

On special occasions, rather than head down to the marina after stopping at the castle, my father and I would go back into town, and because we thought alike, we'd stop for another ice cream. "She'll say I'm spoiling you." "Another ice cream, another glass of wine," I'd say. He'd nod, knowing there was no point denying it.

Our nightwalks, as we called them, were our only times alone together. Entire days would go by without him. He was in the habit of going for a swim very early in the morning, then heading for the mainland after breakfast, and coming back in the evening, sometimes late at night on the very last ferry. Even when I was asleep, I loved hearing his footsteps crunching the gravel leading to our house. It meant he was back, and the world was whole again.

My poor final grade in Latin and Greek that spring had put a cruel wedge between my mother and me. My report card had arrived in late May just days before we boarded the ferry to San Giustiniano. The whole boat ride was one loud, unending rant, the reprimands came in buffets, while my father leaned quietly against the railing as though waiting to intervene at the right moment. But there was no stopping her, and the more she yelled, the more she found fault with everything else about me, from the way I sat down to read a book, to my penmanship, to my total inability to give a straight answer whenever anyone asked what I thought about this or that — shifty, always shifty — and, come to think of it, why didn't I have a single friend in the world, not at school, not at the beach, not anywhere, not interested in anything, or anyone, for the love of God — what was wrong with me, she said as she kept trying to scratch off a drop of dried chocolate ice cream that had dripped on my shirt when I'd gone with my father to buy a cone before boarding the boat. I was convinced that her disapproval had been waiting for who knows how long and needed my botched Latin and Greek exam to burst into the open.

To soothe her, I promised I'd work harder during the summer. Work? Everything about me needed work, she said. There was so much wrath in her voice that day that it verged on palpable contempt, especially when she laced her fury with snarks of irony, finally exploding at my father, "And you wanted to buy him a Pelikan pen!"

My grandmother and her sister, who were with us on the ferry that day, sided with my mother, of course. My father didn't say a word. He hated both women — the shrew and the übershrew, he called them. He knew that the moment he asked my mother to lower her voice or to temper her reprimands, they'd immediately chime in as well, which would easily push him over the edge and make him blow up at the two, if not all three, of them, at which point they'd quietly let him know they'd rather head straight back to the mainland on the ferry than spend the summer in our house. I'd seen him explode once or twice over the years and could tell he was trying to keep a lid on things and not ruin the trip. He'd simply nod a few times in token agreement when she criticized me for wasting so much time on my stupid stamp collection. But when he finally said something to change the subject and cheer me up a bit, she turned to him and yelled that she wasn't quite done with me yet. "Some of the passengers are beginning to stare," he finally said. "Let them stare all they want, I'll stop when I'm good and ready." I don't know why, but it suddenly occurred to me that, while yelling at me so vehemently, she was really venting her pent-up rage against him, though without drawing him into her line of fire. Like the Greek gods who were constantly feuding with one another using mortals as their pawns, she was haranguing me to beat up on him. He must have realized what she was doing, which is why he smiled at me when she wasn't looking, meaning, Put up with it for now. Tonight, you and I will head out for ice cream and make memories by the castle.

That day, after we landed, my mother desperately tried to make it up to me, speaking to me so sweetly and so amicably that we made peace soon enough. Yet the real damage was not in the cutting words she wished she hadn't spoken and that I would never forget. The damage was to our love: it had lost its warmth, its spontaneity, and become a willed, conscious, rueful love. She was pleased to see I still loved her; I was pleased to see how readily both she and I were fooled. The two of us were aware of being pleased, which intensified our truce. But we must have sensed that being so easily reassured was nothing more than a dilution of our love. She hugged me more often, and I wanted to be hugged. But I didn't trust my love, and I could tell, from the way she looked at me when she thought I wasn't looking, that she didn't trust it either.

With my father it was different. On our long nightwalks we spoke of everything. Of the great poets, of parents and children and why friction between them was unavoidable, of his father, who had died in a car accident weeks before my birth and whose name I bore, of love, which happens only once in life, and thereafter is never quite spontaneous or impulsive, and finally, as if by miracle, because it didn't bear on Latin and Greek or on my mother or on the shrew and übershrew, of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, which he'd just discovered that spring and shared with no one but me. My father played Schnabel's recording every evening, so that Schnabel's piano resonated throughout the house and became the sound track of that year. I liked the sixth variation, he the nineteenth, but the twentieth was all about mind, and the twenty-third, well, the twenty-third was probably the liveliest, funniest thing Beethoven ever composed, he said. We replayed the twenty-third so often that my mother begged us to stop. So I'd tease her and hum it to her instead, which made my father and me laugh, but not her. On our way into the caffè on those summer nights, we'd simply throw out a number between one and thirty-four, and each would have to say what he thought of that variation, including Diabelli's theme. Sometimes on our way up to the castle we would sing the words to the twenty-second variation on a theme from Don Giovanni, the words of which he'd taught me long before. But when we reached the top and watched the stars, we'd stand quietly and always agree that the thirty-first variation was the most beautiful of them all.

I was thinking of Beethoven on my way up the alley and of the yelling on the boat. None of it had gone away. I immediately recognized the old pharmacy, the cobbler's, the locksmith's, and the barbershop with its two tattered reclining chairs still patched with leather strips that had been stitched in place who knows how long before I came into the world. As I kept climbing uphill that morning and could already spot a slice of the abandoned castle, I began to have a strong presage of the scent of resin wafting toward me before I'd even reached the cabinetmaker's shop around the bend of vicolo Sant'Eusebio. That feeling hadn't changed, would never change. His shop, with his home right above it, stood two steps past the lumpish curbstone jutting out of the corner building. The memory of the scent stirred a trace of fear and discomfort that I found as thrilling now as I did then, though I was still unable to name that unsettling inflection of fear, shame, and excitement any better a decade later. Nothing had changed. Perhaps I hadn't changed. I didn't know whether I was disappointed or pleased that I hadn't outgrown any of this. The rolling shutter of the cabinetmaker's shop was locked down, and though I stood there trying to gather how much was lost since I'd last been there, I found myself unable to string together a single thought. All I could focus on were the rumors we'd been hearing since the burning of the house.

I walked back to the barbershop, and sticking half my body through the beaded curtain, asked one of the two barbers whether he knew what had happened to the ebanista next door.

The bald barber, who was seated on one of the two large chairs in his shop, lowered his newspaper and spoke one word before returning to his reading: "Sparito, vanished." That said it all.

Did he know where? Or how? Or why? I asked.

The answer was a summary shrug of the shoulders suggesting he didn't know, couldn't care less, wasn't about to tell some twentysomething kid who wandered into his shop asking too many questions.

I thanked the barber, turned around, and proceeded uphill. What surprised me was that Signor Alessi had not greeted or recognized me, though God knows the number of times he'd cut my hair all through my summers here. Perhaps there was no point in saying anything.

It took me a while to realize that no one seemed to recognize me on the island. Obviously I must have changed a great deal since I was twelve, or perhaps my long raincoat, my beard, and the dark-green knapsack fastened to my back gave me an entirely different look from that of the clean-cut boy they all remembered. The grocer, the owners of the two caffès on the tiny piazza by the church, the butcher, and above all the baker, whose scent of freshly baked bread hovered like a benison on the side alley when I left my Latin and Greek tutor in the afternoons and couldn't have been more famished — no one knew me or gave me a second glance. Even the old one-legged beggar who had lost his limb in a boating accident during the war and was back to his usual spot by the main fountain in the square failed to know who I was when I gave him something. Hadn't even thanked me, which was truly unlike him. Part of me felt rising contempt for San Giustiniano and its people, while another was not entirely saddened to see I no longer cared for it. Perhaps I had put it behind me and not realized it. Perhaps I was like my parents and my brother in this. No point going back.

On my way downhill, I resolved to reach what I assumed was going to be the hollowed-out base of our house, assess what I could, speak to neighbors who had watched me grow up, and then head out on the evening ferry. I had a mind to drop in on my old tutor but kept putting off the meeting. I still remembered him as a soured, prickly fellow who seldom had a kind word for anyone, least of all his pupils. My father had suggested I book a room in a pension by the harbor in case I wished to stay the night. But I already sensed, just by my hasty amble up and down the old town, that my visit wouldn't last longer than a couple of hours. The question was where to spend the rest of the day until boarding the ferry back.

And yet I had always loved it here, from the soundless mornings when you woke up to face a clear and quiet sky that hadn't changed since the Greeks had settled here, to the sound of my father's footsteps when, contrary to his usual practice on weekdays, he would suddenly come back from the mainland unannounced in the afternoon and something of a feast erupted in our hearts. Not a ruffle, in those days. From my bed, you saw the hills, from the living room the sea, and when the dining room shutters were flung open on cooler days, you could step out on the terrace and take in the valley and beyond the valley the hazy outline of the hills on the mainland across the sea.


Excerpted from Enigma Variations by André Aciman. Copyright © 2017 André Aciman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 
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