“Apart from an eleventh-century Norman castle, my birthplace, latterly a town of some ten thousand inhabitants, is famous for having once had as many as a hundred churches in its precincts and for the way our people have with mutton. I had somehow lost track of the place, which I had left when still very young, and when I returned for a visit I found myself in the humiliating position of having to ask an old friend of the family for the name of the town’s best butcher. The friend said he could not accompany me, but I was to use his name to make myself known to the proprietor.
“When I entered the shop, it was empty. I introduced myself as bid, and then proceeded to make my order, which was substantial. I had been away for many years, and many an old acquaintance wanted a place at the festive table. While the butcher chopped and diced, we got to chatting: immediate family, distant relations, life in the big city, what I was up to these days, all those subjects were touched upon with a delicacy worthy of a master of the craft. Then the discussion turned in his direction, and again he showed how expert he was at making the kind of small revelations that, in a small town, gradually add up to propinquity.
“Suddenly the little bell by the entrance tinkled, and in walked a customer. His external appearance is irrelevant to this reminiscence. Indeed, I need only recall that he looked inconspicuous.
“‘Hard at work, are you?’ said the new customer. ‘If God be willing,’ responded the butcher, in keeping with the antique tradition of fending off useless questions. A silence fell, and with it a certain chill. The butcher kept on chopping and dicing, but I had the distinct feeling that something was awry.
“At length the butcher spoke. ‘Is there something quick I can do you for,’ he said, addressing the customer, ‘or will that be a large order?’ The man, as it turned out, only wanted some mince. ‘You mind if we let this gentleman through?’ asked the butcher, addressing me. I waved my hand in ready assent.
“A few minutes later the man and his mince were out the door. As the butcher looked at me, his whole body underwent a series of small yet highly expressive contortions, a characteristic pantomime that the common folk use just as a scholar might use a précis to outline the sinuous argument of a dissertation in progress. Then he said: ‘That’s the way it goes, you know. This blessed business of ours. A fine gentleman like yourself comes in, and may I say it’s been a pleasure to serve you, and not for the last time, I hope. Then one of these police snitches shows up, and what can you do? You’ve got to treat him just the same as any other customer.
‘So was it the actual shoulder you were wanting?’”
Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles. The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator. His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.