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My Stargate to Oz PDF Stampa E-mail
Venerdì 26 Ottobre 2012 19:13

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I HAVE NEVER BEEN TO Australia. I have known the antipodean continent through the eyes, the words and the stories I heard from Bernard Hickey. Then, through the books he passed me across the table in his living room, in the course of never ending chats, during which the topics seemed to chase each other and overlap like the clouds that, in a documentary about Australia, I had seen running under cobalt skies, projecting long dark shadows on the red sands.

To tell the truth, I had already met a piece of Australia in 1988, one year before meeting Bernard. A farmstead in Salve, near an ancient bronze age Messapian settlement, had become the base of a team of archaeologists from the University of Sydney, who had come “to swing their picks abroad”, to say it with the Australian poet Paul Sherman, who was one of Bernard’s best friends. I could not believe that archaeologists had come from the other end of the world to a place that, I was sure, did not appear on any map available in Australia, to study a people that 3000 years ago built large cities surrounded by powerful megalithic walls when Rome was still a village of shepherds. I was so curious to meet them that the owners of the farmstead, my long time friends, invited me to dinner one night.

The day after I was on the field to help digging, moving tons of soil, sieving, washing huge quantities of potsherds, some with red or black paintings, with geometric decorations, with figures, and animal bones in incredible quantity and variety. I worked in the field for the rest of the digging session, as I would do for the next nine years, one month every year, an amateur archaeologist, unofficial and yet official member of the team. But in that first year, one afternoon, after the daily diary, the expedition director asked me if I wanted to join his and some of his collaborators for the evening. They were going to Lecce, to meet an “Australian Professor” of the local university. That it was possible to meet in Lecce an Australian professor was the second discovery of that summer of sultry sirocco. To me, Australia had always been no more that a pink spot on the world map, a remote place between the fascinating far eastern civilizations and the exoticism of the South Seas that, as a boy I contemplated spellbound on the posters hanging in the windows of travel agencies. Maybe, It was this escapist vein that later led me to write my dissertation thesis on R. L. Stevenson, who lived his last, and happiest, years in Samoa. I still dream to climb Mt Vaea, to read “Under the wide and starry sky …” carved on Tusitala’s tomb. But Australia… To those of my generation, the former boomers, people born after the war and in the late forties or early fifties, who had discovered America reading the books by Hemingway and Steinbeck, Dos Passos and Truman Capote, watching the films by John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock and had learned English singing the songs of Frank Sinatra and, later, Bob Dylan, to us Australia was “terra incognita”, more unknown than the vast wilderness of Africa had been to Latin cartographers: “hinc sunt leones”. My notions of Australia were restricted to kangaroos, the only marsupials to my knowledge, and merino sheep, whose wool had been used to weave the pinstripe blue cloth of my wedding suit. But now, these two signs, the meeting of the Australian archaeologists and the possibility of meeting ”the Australian Professor in Lecce”, if semiotics meant anything, told me that something crucial was going to happen, that going to that party, that night, could fling open a sort of “stargate”, a gate into a new dimension, the gateway into a different world, as when, as a child, I used to put on my mask and dive in the water, and the sea, that until that moment had been a blue expanse, immediately turned into a parallel universe of green and azure light, radiant with the colours of fish, coral, madrepores, starfish, small crabs in shells and the posidonia swarming with life. I accepted the offer.

The first gate that opened that night was the front door of the Patria Hotel where, at the time, Bernard used to receive his most distinguished guests. The other gate, in the guise of a smiling plump gentleman dressed in dark, with a thin white hair and white beard, was waiting for us at the hotel bar. What did we talk about on that night, in the dining room of the old and glorious Leccese hotel where, in my university years, in the late ’60, I used to walk after the lessons with Gianfranco Corsini, my professor of North American History, only to see him disappear behind the revolving door and into the half-light of the hall, with his dark green loden, a matching cap and his leather bag? I remember we exchanged just a few suitable phrases, but that was enough to establish a link that was to become a long lasting friendship, notwithstanding my being twenty years his junior. I always thought that, between us, he was the younger one, always attentive as he was, curious, always looking for a new perspective, a different angle on life, literature, poetry, art. He always had a new project in mind, another book to write, another new article for innovative journals, another conference to convene. On that night, at dinner, Bernard was, as I would always see him afterwards, the uncontested star. He took a deep interest in the digs, he was eager to know the details about the finds, he discussed the origin of the ancient population that had aroused the interest of his fellow countrymen. I was impressed by the depth of his knowledge in archaeology, though it was a subject quite distant from his academic interests. A few years later I was offered the translation of Kahlil Gibran’s biography, by Robin Waterfield. I was proud of this particular work. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet had been a sort of Bible for so many of my age in our twenties and Waterfield’s book was Gibran’s first biography to appear in Italian. We talked about that, as we always did when I was working on a new book, over lunch at the Obelisco, his favourite haunt in later years. When Bernard heard the author’s name, he lighted up, forgot his cutlery and asked me whether by chance I was in contact with him. Of course, whenever it is possible, one always tries to keep in touch with the writer when translating a book.

“Could you ask him whether he is in some way connected to Gordon Waterfield, who described the discovery of Niniveh?”

And he started to tell me the story of the discovery of Niniveh by Austen Henry Layard, described by Gorgon Waterfield in Layard of Niniveh. When I visited him again a couple of weeks later, and I told him that Robin Waterfield was Gordon’s grandson, he smiled, got up and disappeared behind the towering bookshelves of the hall. He returned holding a book and I discovered that Bernard had edited, with Frederick Mario Fales the proceedings of the “Simposium internazionale Austen Henry Layard tra l’Oriente e Venezia,” which was held in Venice in 1983. “You see, great man,” he said in his proverbial jovial tone, “the world is too small. I knew the grandfather, now you talk to the grandson.” The homonymous volume, in which Gordon Waterfield was often quoted, was already a rarity, I think it was the only copy he had, but he gave it to me “You must have it, my great man,” he said, handing me the precious book as if he was offering me a glass of water, though we both knew how valuable a present it was. This was one of his most enchanting gifts: he knew how to give, with spontaneity and simplicity. And with the same simplicity he could talk about the most extraordinary things without giving you the impression of being crushed under the weight of his unique culture and life experience. He could narrate episodes that for every literature lover have the taste of myth, his meeting and association with the great figures of the twentieth century literatures in English: W.B. Yeates, Ezra Pound, his distinguished neighbour in Venice, where Bernard had a flat behind the Chiesa della Salute before moving to Lecce, and then Witi Ihimaera, Sally Morgan, Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal, whom he met on a ferry while the great Aborigine writer was travelling to Sydney to meet Queen Elizabeth), Les Murray, who never failed to send him his latest book of verses, Peter Carey, Vance Palmer, David Malouf, just to quote a few: he had an anecdote on everyone, a story to tell, an illuminating critical observation. This is how my passion for Australian literature germinated, thanks to his stories, his collections of photos, the books written by his many friends, that sometimes he would give me or that I could freely borrow. Between his house and mine there was an incessant traffic of books. I took his and sometimes he would borrow one of mine. From time to time, when I decided to sort out my bookshelves, I filled a cardboard box of his belongings and went to knock at his door. He would lean out of the door, from the top of the stairs leading to his flat in Vico dei Rainò and I heard his infectious laughter “Ah, ah! A walking box”

Bernard invited me to go and see him every time Australian writers or artists were in Lecce, or he would pass them my address, so they could send me their novels, short stories or poems, in secret hope and confidence that, sooner or later, I would translate some of them into Italian. I am glad I managed to repay, at least partly, his faith. I will never forget the light in his eyes, “the unconquered flame”, as his friend Ezra Pound would say, when I brought him the translation of a book of dreamtime stories, an issue of a literary review dedicated to Australian writing that I had edited or a contract to translate the novel of an Australian writer. I am sure he laughs delightedly up there, winking at a passing angel, every time he watches me sweating to find the right word in a novel by Michael Wilding, e story by Frank Moorhouse or a poem by Tom Petsinis. When I find it, I know I was inspired.

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