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from the April 2012 issue


I’m thirty-nine. I’m a chemist, graduate of the university of ****. For the last twelve years I’ve been working as a lab technician for a pharmaceutical company. Practically speaking, I’m a hired hand, because the creative part of our work all belongs to our bosses, the illustrious professors and scientists who design our research programs according to the needs of the company. Among the eggheads who work with us there’s even a Nobel Prize winner who personally I’ve never seen. His collaborators, who are chosen from my most career-hungry colleagues, say he directs their research by telephone and e-mail, and that he even calls them at night and on Sundays. Those of us, like me, who only work in this place during regular office hours, know only its monotony. We do tests, experiments on guinea pigs, fill out questionnaires. The only things we get truly passionate about are our plans for the weekend and using some of our office hours to work out our vacation schedule. Occasionally, this depressing atmosphere of frustration and scarce satisfaction actually gives rise to some love stories. There are a lot of women who work in our laboratories, and some of them are young and rather cute. Every year, in the spring, there’s someone who gets married and goes on their honeymoon to one of those places where everybody goes, I mean to America or the usual islands in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific. When we get married the company allows us a special vacation of fifteen days, and it even pays for the honeymoon. Later on, when its future employees (our children) are born, the company offers us some additional benefits which can be accumulated with the incentives provided by the regional and national governments for prolific couples. In this day and age, being prolific is still considered patriotic. Not because our race is thought to be a special race, as in the times of Hitler, but because (I think) we have to respond to the increasing number of foreigners who have arrived from all over the world to share in our affluent society, and who, according to the statistics, are more prolific than we are.

Getting back to my story. I’m a bachelor and think it highly unlikely that I’ll ever marry, or have children. That doesn’t mean I’m not attracted by the opposite sex, like all my male and female colleagues, or that I’m not normal. I am normal in my own way and not in the way that other people are and I wouldn’t trade my normality for the normality of people who get married and bring children into the world, lots of children, so they can pay lower taxes. What a scam! Even my appearance is that of a normal person. I’m a man of average height and slim build, with blue eyes and fair skin. I’m completely bald because the few hairs I have left I shave and, practically speaking, I’ve got no hair left. This aggravation of my baldness started developing even before I was twenty years old, and in the beginning it really bothered me. Every time I saw myself in a mirror I’d ask myself, why do all the other guys have hair while I’m losing mine? Now, I don’t even notice it—on the contrary, I think I look better this way. Another thing that has caused me some discomfort, in more recent years, has been the appearance of a potbelly. I eat too much, walk too little, and don’t play any sports. I smoke a little too much, drink too much whisky. If you live in a big city like I do, and live the way I do, sooner or later you start swelling up above your belt. It’s inevitable. (Or at least that’s what I think.)

My childhood was a happy childhood, and there are entire albums full of photographs to prove it. I went to school, like everybody; I played with the other kids, like everybody. In the summer I went on vacation with my father, who by that time was already separated from my mother and wanted to pass on to me his passion for sailing. We would go to Italy, or Greece. I was his only son, but I managed to disappoint him, because I wasn’t interested in boats and I did the opposite of what he told me to do. In the end he didn’t want me around anymore. At age thirteen, when even the calmest young boys start being sexually aroused, I started spying on my mother and sisters, especially my oldest sister. I liked observing them from behind a half-open door or through the keyhole, while they got undressed to get ready for bed. While they were in the shower. While they were changing clothes. Under her belly and between her thighs, my mother has a lovely triangle covered with red hair. But the most beautiful thing about her sex is an excrescence of pink skin, a sort of lip that you can get a glimpse of just beneath the fuzz. I would have spent entire days gazing at it. Unfortunately, however, I only managed to get a peek at it a few times, for a fraction of a second, and always in some uncomfortable situation. One time, I was probably fifteen or so, I saw my sister masturbating, with her legs spread wide and with total abandon because she was convinced she was alone in the house. She moaned and closed her eyes and then opened them again. She mumbled incomprehensible phrases. Looking at her, I masturbated too, but I came right away and, actually, it really wasn’t as nice as I would have liked. Since that time, I’ve never seen my sister masturbate again. One day, after we’d become adults, we started talking about sex and sharing some of our secrets. When I broached the subject of masturbation, my sister pretended she didn’t understand and she shook her head indignantly. Then she said, in a way that left no room for second thoughts, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never tried it.”

I, on the other hand, have never tried, in my whole life, to have a complete sex act with a woman, or with a man, or with another person anyway. It’s too much for me. The idea of touching someone else, or of letting myself be touched, just makes me want to puke. Naturally, I’ve thought long and hard about this and I’ve come to the conclusion that the genital organs are repugnant, and disgusting, for a very simple reason: because everyone has them. (Without having done anything to deserve them.) If only a few of us had them, if only one man and one woman per thousand, or per million, were born with a dick or a pussy, then in that case sex would truly be something special! There would be an intermediate step between God and man. Instead, the genital organs are the basis of human equality, and they are also the basis of human vulgarity. Everybody has sex organs, out there in the world, and everybody fucks. But there is a way to escape from vulgarity: leave it up to other people. Without getting mixed up in their business and without participating in their activities. What difference does it make, in the eternal comedy of life, if I use my sex organs just for myself, and if I arouse myself with other people’s struggles and vulgarity?

I like things that belong to only a few. I’ve already said that. And then I like things that I alone do out of billions of people. For example, raising praying mantises. No other person on the world, that I know of, raises these insects as if they were turtles or canaries or some kind of pet. I live on the top floor of a building that looks over a tree-lined boulevard, and I’ve had my terrace closed in with glass panels. I’ve transformed it into a greenhouse where I keep my mantises in those transparent plastic containers that are used for reptiles and tropical fish. The mantis is a large terrestrial insect, green or brownish yellow depending on its environment, seven or eight centimeters long or longer, and it’s called a “praying” mantis because it keeps the upper part of its body erect, with its front legs together as though it were praying. In reality, that is its hunting posture and prayer has nothing to do with it. I like everything about my mantises. I like their external appearance, and I also like their disposition and their habits. They are carnivorous insects that eat their prey alive and that, in certain circumstances, can even devour one another. The best-known of those circumstances is the act of coupling, when the female prepares to deposit her eggs and the male should have the good sense to go away, because he’s done his part and he’s not needed anymore. Some males, the ones that understand the situation, go away. Others, less clever or maybe just more worn-out from the exertion of the mounting, remain near the female, who kills them after a brief fight and then, as she’s depositing her eggs, makes herself a snack from time to time from the dead body of her companion. After using him to perpetuate the species, she uses him again to restore her strength. (A good example from nature of resource exploitation and efficient organization.)

Keeping mantises at home is not easy, because they are insects that don’t live in our climate, and because there’s nothing available on the market to help with this kind of breeding. I live in a big city, where there are stores that sell everything you need to raise pythons and tarantulas, iguanas and caimans, or any species of tropical fish. But if you ask them about praying mantises, the sales clerks just shake their heads. . . I found my first mantises during a trip to Italy and by chance, because before then I only knew these animals through illustrations in encyclopedias. I had to transport my first specimens in ordinary cardboard boxes, and I had to feed them with whatever I could find. Gnats, small insects. I personally observed their couplings with the successive cannibalization of the male (inevitable, in the beginning, given the meager space in which my mantises were forced to survive. Now they have more room, and a few males escape with their lives.) Like almost all the orthoptera, grasshoppers, for example, mantises couple in a curious position, reminiscent of a motorcyclist during a race. The male, the smaller of the two, literally climbs onto the back of the female and stays there for hours. The female deposits her eggs in numerous little piles that she attaches to blades of grass or twigs on the bushes she lives in. The baby mantises are born from the eggs, similar to adult mantises but incredibly smaller, and you have to transfer them to another aquarium to make sure the mother, after having eaten their father, is not seized by an impulse of love to eat her children too.

My mantises mostly eat the larvae of flesh-flies, which are used as bait in fly fishing and can be bought in sporting goods stores. And then they eat some other insects, naturally live ones, that I manage to procure for them by buying them at high prices from stores that sell exotic animals, and that are used to feed giant spiders and small snakes. When I’m on vacation, or whenever I’m away from home, Frau Inge feeds and takes care of them and keeps the aquaria in order, maybe even better than I do. Frau Inge is my housekeeper. She’s a woman of about fifty, who comes every afternoon to do the cleaning and make dinner for me, and she’s become attached to my little beasts as though they were puppies or kittens. She calls them by names that she’s given them herself; she brings them little spiders to eat, or some little insects that she finds in the public gardens in the summertime. One time she asked me to take a female mantis that she had given the name of a famous film star out of the aquarium so she could play with her a little. But, naturally, I refused and even tried to scare her. I told her the mantises were poisonous. I told her their bite is extremely painful, and that, in countries where they live in the wild, people are terrified of them. (None of this is true, but I hope it worked to dissuade her from taking my insects out of their glass cases when I’m not around, and letting them roam around the house.)

My mantises are my only pastime. I have no friends. Every once in a while some colleague at work asks me what I’m doing that evening; why don’t I come to dinner at his house? (His wife, he’ll say, to persuade me, makes great horsemeat rolls, or scrumptious lamb stew with polenta that would bring a dead man back to life.) Why don’t I come to his club some evening or on the weekend? (Doctor X and Doctor Y, two managers from our company, are members of the club and whoever plays tennis with them has to lose, but then career advantages are assured.) Sometimes it happens that a female colleague makes eyes at me, forcing me to beat a hasty retreat. Fortunately, however, that kind of situation happens less and less often. By now, I’ve built a solid reputation as a misanthrope, at work and everywhere else, and people leave me in peace. A lot of women, and a lot of men too, think I’m homosexual. Human beings have such little imagination when it comes to these things! I don’t watch much television either. The news from the world doesn’t interest me any more than it does the mantises inside their aquaria; and I got so tired of the so-called “hard” porn programs on the pay-per-view channels that I canceled all my subscriptions. The way I see it, sex on television or on the computer monitor is like instant coffee, that stuff you make with hot water and powder. If that’s all you’ve got, you drink it once, twice, ten times. Then you’re sick of it and you never drink it again.

I’m a man at peace. I’m doing fine. I’ve got my vacations, which I spend as I’ll explain later. I’ve got my job. I’ve got my little animals inside their aquaria. Living alone doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, it would bother me, and bother me a lot, to have another person in the house butting into my life to tell me what I have to do and not do. A human mantis to take care of and mount, who would cannibalize me and fill up my apartment with baby mantises. The idea of going to bed at night like I go to the office in the morning, with tasks to perform, gives me goose bumps. I go to bed in order to sleep, and I think I’ve arrived at a good equilibrium, but, alas, my life hasn’t always been like this. There was a time when I had to prove to myself, and especially to my mother, that I was a “normal” person. A real man! In those tragic years I had two girlfriends. The first, Bertha, was the worst thing that could have happened to me: a university classmate looking for a husband. We saw each other every day in class, we studied together. At first, Bertha thought I was shy and tried to make things easier for me. She invited me to her house when her parents weren’t home, she asked me to help her take her clothes off. Then she started having doubts. After the Hotel Zodiac scandal she dropped me. I thought the whole world was going to come crashing down on me. I thought about running away to a country where nobody knew me, and I thought about committing suicide, but fortunately I didn’t do anything. The Hotel Zodiac was a cheap hotel near the central station, where prostitutes took their customers. Its only special feature was that it had rooms outfitted for people like me, who like watching other people go at it. All you had to do was ask for a “single with a view,” and for a couple of hours you could watch (and listen to) everything that happened in the room next to yours. All kinds of people went to that hotel, even criminals, and drug dealers. So, one day, I got caught in a police raid, and my mother found out about me.

My second girlfriend, Margaretha, was forced on me by my mother and my relatives after the Hotel Zodiac incident. When it became clear that, the way they see things, I wasn’t “normal.” They forced me to get a girlfriend and to go into treatment with a psychiatrist, who stuffed me with psychotropic drugs like he was fattening a goose. Since I don’t want to talk about the psychiatrist, I’ll talk about the girlfriend. Margaretha worked (works) in the bakery run by her father and his brothers. She’s five feet eleven, weighs a hundred and seventy-five pounds, and has tits as big as melons. For a couple of years she was my girlfriend and my nurse. She tried to get me to fall in love with her and she even tried to rape me, on the instructions of the psychiatrist. (Afterwards, I found out that, every once in a while, the two of them talked on the phone.) She managed to disgust me and move me at the same time. In a way, she loved me and, in a way, I loved her too. She’s the only human being with whom I’ve reached a certain level of complicity. When she finally decided to leave me because she had found another companion, a “real man” willing to fuck her, I asked her if I could watch while she and her friend mated; but on that point Margaretha wouldn’t budge. And everything came apart. I was left on my own with my mother and the psychiatrist, and I finally realized what I had to do. I realized, first: that I had to go live on my own, because if I kept living with my mother, my problems, instead of getting resolved, would continue to get worse, and I’d never get to the bottom of things. Second: that I had to stop taking psychotropic drugs, and seeing that imbecile doctor who would have done better to treat himself instead of treating other people! Third, and most important of all, I realized that normality the way my mother understands it doesn’t exist, and that everyone has to make their own. I’ve become normal in my own way and not in someone else’s way. I’ve discovered mantises and treasure island (my island, which I’ll talk about shortly). I’ve learned to love myself the way I am, and to live in peace with myself. How many so-called normal human beings can claim, as I can, that they’ve reached an equilibrium in their lives?

Years ago, I thought I wanted to breed a new insect, the mole-cricket, and I went crazy trying to get myself some. But the experiment was so disappointing that I lost all desire to try again. The mole-cricket is about as big as the praying mantis, which, however, has some rather pronounced feminine characteristics, particularly its elegance and its way of moving. The mole-cricket, on the other hand, is squat, heavyset, and a concentrate of male characteristics, which make it hard to take and very hard to breed. To start with, it’s an animal that’s almost uncontrollable. You can’t build it a habitat because it’ll destroy it. It’s clever but at the same time it’s obtuse, exactly like most male members of the human race. It’s vulgar in the way that only a “real man” can be. It doesn’t let you get to sleep at night because it keeps banging against the walls of the aquarium, making an incessant and annoying noise, a tapping of castanets that sometimes starts to fade and then gets louder again without ever really stopping. After a couple of weeks of having these animals in the house I couldn’t bear them anymore and I got rid of them by dumping them into the street, on the boulevard under my terrace. It was three in the morning and there was nobody passing by, just a few cars. Mole-crickets are really sturdy animals and I think, no, I’m sure of it, that my specimens survived the fall, and that they’re reproducing in the neighborhood basements and sewer pipes, even in this same building. I wouldn’t be surprised if I found one in the garage some day, or in the elevator that takes me right into my apartment . . .

I like looking at my fellow humans on the other side of a glass, as though they were insects in an aquarium. I like seeing them without clothes and all the other things they use for armor: careers, families, business deals. Social relationships. I like seeing them naked while they’re mating, and not only when they’re mating but also while they’re doing certain other things that don’t belong to the normality of the instincts, but are products of the human imagination. I am a thief of strong emotions. I listen to the moans and shouts of others; sometimes, I even see others’ blood flowing and I don’t do anything to participate in their pleasure (or their pain). I don’t do anything to give myself pleasure. I’m a disincarnate being; a pure spirit. My sex is the sex of others. My vulgarity, which certainly exists, also belongs to others.

I’m thirty-nine years old and I’m at peace. (I’ve already said that). I’ve got my house, my job, my mantises, my secret life that takes place far away from here in another part of the world. Whenever I can, I get on a plane and go to an island in the Mediterranean where several thousand of my countrymen live on a regular basis, and many others go for vacation or long weekends. Most of these people, both women and men, are filthy pigs who have to mate with each other in every possible manner, but there are also some disincarnate beings like me who detest promiscuity and contact between bodies. There are men (and women) of all races. That island is our promised land, our paradise on earth where the really normal people are us, and the other normal people are out of place. It has hotels like the Zodiac, it has red-light districts and all kinds of other colors too; it has private clubs for every brand of perversion. It has everything I need to be happy and, when I’m finally in a position to leave my job, I think I’m going to go down there to live. I’ll buy a house on the island of my dreams and take my mantises down there. And then I think I’ll breed some other kinds of insects too, in addition to the mantises, which I really like a lot but which, as I’ve already had occasion to point out, are predominantly female. I think I’ll breed some scorpions. The scorpion, in my view, is not as beautiful as the mantis, but it’s equally elegant and interesting. It has six eyes instead of just two; it moves faster and mates in a way that’s quicker and more spectacular, with a battle of the sexes that’s half combat and half dance. Even the females have male characteristics, and not just because of the stinger. It’s the part of me that I still don’t know, and that I want to develop by breeding it. When I move to my treasure island I’ll finally have everything I desire: my mantises, my scorpions, my strong sensations; and I’ll be a happy man. What else can I ask of life? What normality is more normal than that?

© Sebastiano Vassalli. By arrangement with Giulio Einaudi Editore. Translation © 2012 by Gregory Conti. All rights reserved.

Read more from the April 2012 issue
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