The King of the Wood (First Chapter)

I

You may not have expected to open this book entitled The King of the Wood and have your curiosity piqued so that you were unable to take your eyes off the words running over the page, pulling you into who knows what tragic and moving events, or things that are so absurd and funny that you burst out laughing, dear reader; so you continue to fearlessly follow the unstoppable flow of words in this initial part that I am about to conclude (I will soon come to a stop), but not before presenting the following consideration at least for a moment: the greatest luck for a human being with a restless soul is to find a chance to dream, in other words to love.

I will show you this great, undeniable truth by starting to tell what happened on that fateful winter morning – several months have already passed since then – when I had the great idea of going for a nice walk instead of lazing and running aground in my usual torpor and melancholy. I got out of bed and went to meet my destiny, finding myself under a drizzle with just the right amount of piercing cold, under attack by really terrible weather, but this did not make me desist, since if you have to prove courage, such as by getting up at noon, taking a shower, getting dressed and going out under a steady drizzle with just the right amount of piercing cold, well, nobody will be able to stop me.

In the streets there was the usual heavy traffic with cars, trucks and tourist buses like every morning in Rome: exhaust fumes, tyres screaming on the pavement, metal colliding, shouting, cursing… a dense, unstoppable magma enveloping the ancient ruins, the seats of bureaucratic power, the mostly empty Baroque churches and also spreading to the outlying neighbourhoods almost completely estranged from the city considered eternal and by some even sacred; nevertheless, inside that mess, black whole or gigantic whirlpool, however you want to define it, there I was, walking towards the downtown area with my umbrella, singing to myself and jumping along like Gene Kelly in the movie Singing in the Rain, though much less carefree.

After I long stretch of Via Salaria I came to Piazza Fiume, turning right on Via Sicilia going to Via Veneto, and downhill to Piazza Barberini and then along Via del Tritone to finally reach Via del Corso (undoubtedly quite a long walk). I really did need to stretch my legs and relax, even if I did not manage to relax at all. Because of the visit by some foreign head of State (I don’t remember who, maybe Obama or Putin), the usual mess was even worse, as if it were a vital necessity for the city, laid down by the law, by some imperial decree or law of parliament. With all the escort vehicles and security measures while Rome’s citizens, trapped in their four-wheeled boxes, could only blow their horns and curse the government, fate, the perfidious and vindictive gods, I came along by chance – though maybe nothing happens by chance – at a used book market in Piazza Borghese, a square a few minutes away from the Chamber of Deputies.

Curiously, like in an oasis or the eye of a tornado, you couldn’t see a soul there, since the thoughtful municipal authorities had blocked off the place with barriers. After checking that nobody was watching, under that annoying ongoing drizzle, I easily and casually climbed over the barriers to get to the stands full of old stuff, mostly useless at least from a practical and economic point of view, to start enjoying it. I leafed through the musty pages of rare and valuable 18th century books, and through little piles of books from the 1960s and 70s; not from a thousand years ago, but they were already worn, forgotten and left to float over immeasurable time to slowly become rare and valuable. This ageing that often makes certain things more beautiful and interesting, such as old buildings, oil paintings or books (and, though less often, some people’s faces), enveloping in an aura of delicate surprise those small hidden and useless objects in that square under the continuing rainfall.

On top of a messy, teetering pile of books I noticed a couple of unmistakable and dusty volumes issued by Boringhieri, the top quality publishers for at least a decade from the mid-70s, and I will personally always be grateful to them. As a kid I discovered the series of works by Freud, Jung and other scientific works, spending whole days with those books that seemed to exude knowledge starting from the elegance of the characters, the originality and sobriety of the graphic layout, so the very fact of holding and paging through them was such a contrast to the trash that you found then and even more so now, with a type of printing that makes them instantly banal and repugnant.

My eyes fell onto the cover of the first book of the two volumes. Under the title, The Golden Bough, there was a fantastic rural landscape where the objects and human figures seemed to be inaccurate and blurred; at about the middle of the picture there was a lake, like a cloud placed in the middle of the hills, and in the foreground on the right, under a big maritime pine, two small female figures, one semi-naked, laying down and facing away from the viewer, and the other one looking at a nearby scene where youths (but in the painting they all looked young and immortal) were dancing in a circle. Finally, a woman on the left of the picture, held up a branch as if giving a sign, a secret message.

After a quick glance at the preface, I started to read the first lines written by James George Frazer: «Who does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi - “Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. The two characteristic Italian villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally Italian palace whose terraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardly break the stillness and even the solitariness of the scene. Diana herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild».

I stood there entranced. I don’t know if the rain stopped or kept falling, but I certainly did not notice and shortly after I found myself on a bus to get back home and watch the world through the bus window (the crowded pavement, the traffic). Not only the sounds came to me as muffled and distant, but everything and everybody seemed to be in the background, fade away and almost disappear. I was not eager to resume reading the book on the bus, crowded with passengers, and so I turned the volumes around in my hands, thinking about Nemi where, strangely, I had never been in my life. Though living in Rome for fifty years and having travelled all around the city and in the whole of Lazio, I had only once been to Lake Albano and the town of Castelgandolfo, famout as the summer residence of the popes. But I had always ignored the other small lake nearly, and the two towns on the edge of the ancient volcano, with Genzano to the south-west and Nemi to the north-east, and I had never seen Turner’s painting, and if I had seen it I didn’t remember it, whereas now, taking my eyes off the bus window, I pored over the book laid on my knees and sank in that dream, feeling more and more distant from the scene surrounding me. I wouldn’t have been surprised if my bus had started flying through the air, leaving its route and leaving the eternal and in many aspects ignoble city of Rome, to head for Nemi; and I would like to have been in the company of the young dancers and the divine maiden holding a branch. Reality and imagination became confused, and it was absurd, I admit it. Nothing miraculous actually happened, but dear reader, I ask you, doesn't this happen continuously? Don’t we actually spend our whole life sleepwalking, pursuing fatuous desires and unreachable rewards? Isn’t it often hard or nearly impossible to reconcile the legitimate aspiration to happiness with the daily frustration of so-called reality that weighs on us now and closes us in on all sides like the walls of a prison?

Unfortunately the 92 bus went on its route without taking off to fly over the Victor Emanuel Monument and the Colosseum, flying through the clouds over Piazza San Giovanni and the entire Appio-Tuscolano neighbourhood to Piazza Re di Roma, following the straight line of Via Appia Nuova to the Quarto Miglio neighbourhood, going beyond the Ring Road towards the town of Albano, like a plane, a helicopter or a chariot pulled by winged horses…. But no, alas no, the municipal bus stayed stolidly with its wheels on the road in the heavy omnipresent traffic, crawling towards Piazza Fiume and beyond, a little faster on Via Po and Via Tagliamento, turning left towards Piazza Vescovio to finally reach Nuovo Salario hill beyond the Prati Fiscali district.