The Italian Who Was at a Loss for Words


1. Pietro Parlante

Pietro Parlante spent seven months searching for a precious green ore in a little-known region of Tajikistan, digging and blasting around the sites of the famous geologist Paulo Lazuli. By chance, Pietro hit upon an enormous strata of ceramic shards and stone artefacts. These turned out to be remnants of a small town on the Silk Road. The town, translated Monkey Business, began trading around 2800 BC and was destroyed by the Mongols in 1227 AD. The artifacts contained proof of continuous trade between the Middle East and China for 4000 years. This lead to the revelation that everything the Chinese were supposed to have invented had in fact come from the Persians and Mesopotamians. Paper, the compass, the printing press, gunpowder, noodles, the abacus -- the greatest inventions of China were in fact cheap knocks-offs.

The Silk Road (from Wikipedia)

The Silk Road (from Wikipedia)

Chinese historians could barely suppress their anger. Only with great reluctance did they allude to Pietro’s discovery — and even then, only in miscellaneous notes at the bottom of their annotated bibliographies. They were also careful to place his name in the middle of long final entries, under headings such as Xenolithic Obscurities and Four Other Old Ideas.

Two meters below Monkey Business, Pietro rejoined a slim trail of bright green flecks, interspersed with silver and crystal striations. The slim trail widened, plunging deep into the ground. Pietro had discovered the richest vein of mystocryptic ore the world has ever seen: 75,000 metric tonnes of the stuff. One week later Pietro returned to Palermo with a monthly stipend of 50 million euros.

Prior to Pietro’s discovery, only two small deposits of mystocryptic ore were known to exist within the mineral-rich crust of Planet Earth. Both deposits were trapped beneath a petroleum sea in northern Alberta. This subterranean sea was 1.2 kilometres deep and 1.8 thousand kilometres wide. To make matters even more difficult for the Albertans, this petroleum sea was itself trapped beneath a thick belt of tar-like sand which contained about as much oil as Saudi Arabia. Initially, the executives at Black Alberta Gold barely gave the bright green ore a second thought. Upon testing, however, they found that it was composed of a unique multidimensional latticework. Upon further experimentation, they discovered that this latticework could process 256 million algebraic curves simultaneously.

The calculations made possible with silicon and germanium processors started to look more and more like the calculations made on an abacus — which, Pietro pointed out to his Chinese assistant, was invented in Sumer five thousand years ago, and was only manufactured in Chang’an sweatshops for the last two thousand years. He added, And donta talka to mee abouta za pasta! 

The first thing Pietro did with the money was rescue Grillo, his crotchety father, from his meaningless job at Geppetto Corp. According to Grillo, working conditions at the woodworking factory were far worse than in a Wushan sweatshop. Grillo forbade his son to even make a comparison in that direction. Raising his index finger and clenching in the other hand a monthly report, Grillo shouted that managers like him were continually pressured by upper level managers, who knew nothing about the laziness of the Sicilian factory worker. The upper level managers were themselves pressured to increase production by talking corporate heads in downtown Palermo. These, in turn, bobbed and jerked at the behest of mafia dons in Naples and Rome. Somewhere at the very top was Mangiafuoco, the Fire-Eater himself.

The hierarchy of the corporate structure looked something like this: 

Photos taken at Il Museo dei Burattini di Parma (Parma's Museum of Puppets)

Photos taken at Il Museo dei Burattini di Parma (Parma's Museum of Puppets)

Grillo's dull blue eyes bulged from his face (and took slightly different trajectories) every time he looked into the eyes of the cross-eyed lackey named Stupendo, who had the same blue eyes, a mass of frothy orange hair, and a luminescent lime forehead. Stupendo had lost both his arms in two different lathe accidents — both times because he couldn't tell the difference between the on and the off switch. To Grillo's disbelief, not only did the union defend Stupendo; they made him Grillo's co-manager. This meant that Grillo had to explain every decision he made to Stupendo, who couldn't understand basic things like twenty-minute breaks, two-hour lunches, or not looping electrical wires over bandsaws. 

When Grillo left for work Monday morning, he looked calm, almost philosophical. When he came home from work Friday evening, he looked like a bird ready to fly into another dimension, his disordered beak-face right out of a painting by Picasso.

His left eye twirled into places so demented that only the tight red scarf around his neck could rescue him by cutting off the blood. 

To give his father some place where he could let off steam Friday nights, somewhere he could express his outrage among like-minded old men, Pietro set him up with an open tab at the local backstreet café, Il Doloroso Burattino. His mother knew the café doubled as a whorehouse, with dancing girls from Amsterdam, Córdoba, and Kiev, but merely hoped the "slutty dancing puppets" would keep Grillo off her back. "Let the old geezer talk their heads off!"

As a precaution, Pietro removed all blunt instruments from his parent’s suite, just in case his mother was tempted to nail the old man’s head to the wall once he got home.

Pinocchio about to hammer Grillo Parlante (Talking Cricket) to the wall. By Carlo Chiostri, 1901.

Pinocchio about to hammer Grillo Parlante (Talking Cricket) to the wall. By Carlo Chiostri, 1901.

Pietro’s quest for mystocryptic ore was part of a larger obsession with finding things that other people couldn’t find. This obsession was in turn part of an even larger obsession: he had to know more than anyone else. Especially more than his father, who professed to know everything.

Pietro was certain that he knew more than anyone in Palermo. He also felt that he knew more than anyone in the entire Mezzogiorno, from the dimwitted professors at the University of Naples to the lazy philosophers in the Greek cafés of Syracuse. Beyond the Mezzogiorno were idiots who couldn’t speak Italian properly. What they did or didn’t know was of little consequence. In any case, he knew more about what they pretended to know than they would ever know. Donald Rumsfeld once argued that in addition to known unknowns there were also unknown unknowns. Pietro didn’t believe that for an instant. He was smarter than Donald Rumsfeld any day.

His sister Francesca complained that Italians think they know everything, and that they always manage to find the words to say what they think. She said, They can't shut up, even for one minute! Especially her boyfriend, who couldn’t stop talking about his new motorcycle. She yelled, Why doesn’t he just shut up about it? You think you can find anything, Pietrino? Well, try to find even one Sicilian in this hellhole of a town who can't find the words to say exactly what he wants. I dare you!

At first he thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. So he decided to prove her wrong. He knew more than she would ever know.

Francesca had one condition: he couldn't count Italians who couldn't find the words they needed on grounds of political ideology. In this category she included train ticket sellers, bus drivers, government workers, and everyone else associated with a union. Pietro was undaunted. He was sure that out of sixty million Italians, he could find at least one (outside the service industries) who couldn’t find the words to say what was on his mind.

Francesca told him that it was ridiculous to even try. She then started talking, again, about how her boyfriend refused to listen to her. She said he never stopped talking about his big yellow Ducati, the one with the enormous engine and smooth clutch. He keeps telling me that I’d love it, if I just let him put it between my legs. I tried to tell him that I’d — but at this point Pietro saw the magnitude of his task. He abruptly excused himself, and, while Francesca added a further complication -- He said he was even willing to stick a muffler on his exhaust pipe -- Pietro slipped out the door. He said good day to the doorman and stepped out onto Via della Libertà.

It wasn’t as easy as he imagined. Everywhere he looked, people were talking, articulating exactly what was on their mind. Try as he might, he was unable to find a single Italian who was at a loss for words. So he decided to attack the problem with the methodological rigour he reserved for geological exploration. He first canvassed the neighbourhood, accumulating facts and figures. To ensure accuracy, he conducted induced polarization surveys: he hammered iron stakes into the corners of cafés and measured the ratio of electrical charge to resistance in each room.

After making numerous calculations, he was despondent. It was a near statistical certainty that any given Italian would be capable of saying exactly what was on his mind. He once heard a goatish, grey-bearded tourist complain to a pretty waitress, They just blab on and on, and it all sounds like gibberish! Pietro resented the charge of gibberish, yet the old goat was right about the on and on.

Yet it was only a near statistical certainty, not an absolute statistical certainty. He was damned if he couldn't find that one crucial exception. He could see it now: Francesca and the old goat commiserating arm in arm, tears dripping down their faces.

Somewhere among the high volume of Palermo he was determined to find something even more rare than a vein of mystocryptic ore beneath the rugged hills of Tajikistan.



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