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Instructions for Sinning

By
June 14, 2006

Renato’s wife had died when the twins were born, as if there had been one too many. He was stricken by the unfairness of it, as he would never think of trading his woman for one child, or two or for any other stranger.

He wondered whose fault it was, Annetta’s or Arturo’s. Arturo had been the second to emerge, so perhaps it was he who was the intruder. On the other hand, Annetta was a girl, so perhaps it was for her that the mother had died. Renato, being unaware of the governing principle of mankind’s fate, did not know what to think. Was it following a rule of balance, or did it conform to harmony and proportion? Were the Great Artificers similar to engineers, or rather to architects? Were they wholesale or retail fruit vendors? He gave up looking after the children and a young maid-servant took care of them.

Renato kept several photographs of his wife, all taken at different times, and yet he would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to recollect her face. He began to fear that he might forget himself as well, and took to peering at his face in the mirror. Looking at the fair hair, the ash-blond beard and the dark eyes, he was unable to understand what had happened to him. Not even his books could explain it, and there was not so much as a hint of his story in the pages of all those volumes surrounding him in the house, as though he and his wife had never existed.

He recalled that a friend of his, in times past, at the death of his own son had bought a certain book because he had read a quote from it that would help him to master his pain. The book was left unopened on a table. Quite soon he discovered other copies of the same work scattered in the house, and recalled all the different occasions on which he bought them, and the events that he had sought to remedy. There were really too many copies! After telling Renato the story, he threw himself into a river as if he were finally about to read a book at the right page.

Renato would never think of following such an example. To give up living at that point was unthinkable. Waking up in the morning he felt that life was propelling him from his bed, and he would not resist it. He dressed in haste, put on his jacket, went hunting, followed by a pair of dogs like tandem thoughts. At midday he ate alone in the open, and then he would rest for a while, read some book, get restless again, stroll through the woods till dinnertime. Each day seemed longer than the previous one.

One day he saw Gina in the village. They had a good look at each other before he departed. At home he ate lunch, lay down to rest, then immediately got up, mounted his horse and went back to the village. When he found Gina, he did not have to convince her to follow him, she was already waiting for his arrival. They hardly spoke to each other, even hours later, in the shelter of his bed.

The house itself had to adjust to their frenzy. One could feel the bedroom quake, and cries cascading down the walls. The stairs descended nervously, windows opened ambiguously, tears came for no reason to everybody’s eyes. The floors creaked in derision at anyone who remained alone. Men and women began meeting in corners, in cellars, in attics, in corridors, disappearing behind curtains. It was a fever of some duration; dubious children were born, women left alone fell to kissing each other. When Renato went through the village, people stopped in amazement to look at him. He had grown handsomer in transgression, as if the devil had an angel’s face.

Somebody seemed to be upset at Renato’s behavior. That was Don Latti, the village priest. They had been friends forever. Don Latti, for some reason, called Renato “cousin”, and Renato affectionately called him “priest”. When they were boys they had played together and had begun to quarrel about everything, Almighty God included. When Renato learned that his friend had decided to enter a seminary, he hissed at him: “You are becoming a priest just to spite me!” – whatever that meant. For a while Latti disappeared into his priestly career as into a tunnel from which he would emerge from time to time, garbed in black, tucking up his cassock, racing Renato across the fields. He too spent much time in the open and his skin was the color of bronze. One day he came out of the seminary with a Don attached to his name, and suddenly he was the priest of their village. Surprise started at that very point.

Don Latti had a very special way of celebrating Mass. Basically, he wanted nothing to do with it and seized any excuse for putting it off. Since he had to travel some distance, he decided at the outset to close the church, but the faithful would not hear of it: they were accustomed to the Mass and unwilling to relinquish it. For a while he had himself replaced by the sacristan, who immediately began to put on airs and would no longer do any cleaning. Soon the church resembled a storehouse: Sunday Masses were reduced to one at midday, and people stood in line to get in, the majority remained outside, hoping to see the priest so they could be sure it was Sunday. Don Latti would arrive on his horse, pull his cassock out of his trousers, make his entrance followed by two little boys, while the sacristan was peering out behind a confessional with a look of envy.

The Mass was reduced to a minimum. Don Latti would soon get hungry and had stowed bits of bread and cheese in the tabernacle next to the white wine for the Mass. Before long the missal would be closed and the altar boys sent away; the remainder of the service was devoted to the sermon, the moment everyone looked forward to with dread. He had decided that it was useless to expound the Gospel, which everyone knew and nobody applied; an enormous and wasted effort. Furthermore, he refused to examine one by one every inhabitant of the village, and tried to convert the sermon into a collective confession. In order to convince them he had been obliged to deliver a theological speech based on the assumption that a village possesses one great soul, and its members would sin all together, as it is shown from the Bible in the chapter about Sodom and Gomorrah, or in that other one about the Golden Veal.

None of the faithful really wanted to enter a dispute of that sort; and the villagers, more or less grudgingly, were drawn into a group relationship. On Saturday evenings they met in the town hall and reviewed the week’s transgressions. The mayor was present, ready to intervene if tempers became heated, as sometimes happened, especially toward the end when everyone was tired. The main problem was to establish an acceptable method: how could they choose the collective sin that each time should be confessed?

At first they agreed on the statistical method. The individual sins were totted up, divided into categories, and the one with the greatest number was chosen to represent the week’s sin. But the result was such as to exasperate Don Latti. Through their spokesman the mayor, a consistent part of the community confessed to have filched jam for seven days and to have malingered at least once a week. The citizens themselves were dissatisfied with these results and at the next meeting decided to exclude young people from the calculation of misdeeds. That raised a new problem. If, in fact, one whole section of the population had to be excluded from the final count, it became obvious that the statistical method was to be abandoned. What would have been the correct course?

The mayor opted for alphabetical order. Each week a citizen had to confess a sin that would become representative of a common guilt. The suggestion was accepted with enthusiasm: but the person selected the first time, a woman named Amalia Abati, promptly wrecked the plan. She came before the meeting and revealed that some years earlier she had murdered her husband, whereas everyone had believed he had accidentally fallen into a well. She also declared that her lover and accomplice in the crime had been a certain Emilio Giannini, whose turn in confessing was a long way to come. Amalia could not believe she was getting off so lightly, but it didn’t turn out the way she hoped. Her lover fainted away, the hall went into an uproar, the chief of the police had the two lovers arrested, and that was the end of the alphabetical experiment. It had shown, at least, that one could not count on individual samplings.

The faithful could no longer trust the mayor and went back to Don Latti to get directions. The priest realized that all this could turn to his advantage, and assumed full spiritual powers over the village. He held forth accordingly: I know you well by now, your sins are all predictable, there is no need to confess them spontaneously. Actually, it’s boring! Each week I’ll decide for a sin, and it will be announced to you a week in advance, during our Mass. The following Sunday you will all confess it and receive your penance. I want no discussions on this. You know that the Mother Church is always inclined to pardon but she does not like opposition. If I assign a sin, that’s the one.

Thus the faithful flock began to receive weekly directives. “You are blasphemers!” thundered Don Latti from the pulpit, and an epidemic of profanity erupted. Shriven, ashen-faced old women were heard to utter horrifying insinuations on the moral of the Virgin Mary; accomplished blasphemers gave free courses in advanced sacrilege; lengthy discussions were held on which animal could be coupled with the name of God, and it was discovered that in every case they were most useful to man, which revealed one of the paradoxes of blasphemy.

“You are thieves!” railed Don Latti, after forcing them to sing purging hymns during the week. The penance always applied to the last sin, so while everyone was purloining and pilfering and scared of his own shadow, only the mildest expletives crossed the lips of a thief caught in the action. Some man managed to rob the poor box from the church in the time it took to say the rosary, even calculating the trip to and from his house.

“You are gluttons!” – and they would come out of church reeling with hunger and gnawing their fingernails.

“Lazy!” – and, while fasting in penance, they would not go to work for the entire week, yawning in front of each other in a deliberate display of sluggishness and sloth.

“Envious!” – and they turned green to show the true color of that sin, and even going so far as to envy those who were most punished among them.

“Adulterers!” – and they slipped into one another’s beds, singing the praises of betrayed friends to purge themselves of envy.

“Liars!” – and in the long, chaste nights married couples stayed awake until late, telling lies so elaborate that often they lost the thread and had to begin all over again.

Sins were finally produced and administered at the same time, creating a veritable city of God. The priest would appear in front of his people as a weekly Prophet, soon disappearing into the fields and making himself invisible until next Sunday. For six days the sacristan presided as a powerless pope, watching the village that changed nature, getting occasional bits of corruption, often repenting of something he had not done. Repentance would keep him busy.

In this perfect order Renato was a disturbing element. First of all, he was the only one who never went to church, but on this Don Latti was inclined to pardon since he himself went reluctantly. There was something more troubling than that: when he took Gina into the house and the epidemic of love spread through the village, the whole mechanism threatened to break down. The people started sinning in advance of the week assigned to carnal acts! Once again the disorder of life! Quivers of rebellion coursed through the town, and when one day it was heard in the square that everyone had the right to choose his own sins (it was never known who said it) Don Latti thought that it was time to take action.

He went to Renato and said to him: Cousin, this cannot go on, the village is getting out of hand. To which Renato replied: What can I do about it? Send her away, said the priest, or go away with her, cease this scandal. And Renato said: I want to show you something. He took him upstairs where Gina was sleeping almost naked in the heat of the summer day. Don Latti took a good look and gave up his request. Renato had made his point, some other way should be found.

He sought to persuade him by means of philosophy and ethics. They would go hunting together in order to discuss the existence of God, Don Latti contending that God did not exist and for that very reason the Church was needed; and Renato holding the opposite view, that God in all likelihood did exist and wanted things to be different from what people generally thought, so there was nothing for it but to follow one’s own instincts, as one would err in any case. Our only instructions lie in the things we desire, and that’s what we should aim for.

He invoked the testimony of Nature. Beasts exist for the hunter, fruits to be eaten, and the earth to be cultivated: how is it possible to doubt the hand of the Great Artificer? By the same token, how is it possible to explain to the beasts that they are in the world for the hunter and to the fruits that they are destined to end as our excrements? Try also to explain to a man that he serves a purpose of which he knows nothing. Believe in God and forget about him, that’s best.

The priest would be infuriated and could be heard from afar shouting: “It’s the contrary, cousin! Can’t you understand? If He really were there, He would tell us what to do! The fact that He does not exist makes Him so precious! Instead we are left to ourselves, and we have to schedule our sins and repentances, there is no other way. We have to follow some rules, we can’t live the way you do”.

They returned to Renato’s home, divided the booty, ate supper in the pergola, and afterward sang arias from operas. Livio sang tenor, raising his voice to the limit of his strength. Don Latti was a baritone and proceeded softly, darkly, with no apparent effort. The evenings were long-drawn, interminable. Everyone came out to listen, even the twins, who often fell asleep during the concerts.

Franco Ferrucci is an Italian novelist and essayist. Among his works in English: The Life of God as told by Himself, University of Chicago Press, 1997.

The above is translated from one of his novels, The Panama Hat.

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