A book had been going from hand to hand among my classmates. Dip had purloined it from his uncle’s library, on the advice of his cousin, the uncle’s son, who hadn’t read it himself, but had heard his parents’ friends discuss it in whispers as a ‘hot book.’ Our classmates had formed a line for the book, in the order of their ranking in Dip’s esteem, and my turn came toward the very end.
I dared bring it out after my parents had gone to bed. The original cover showed a long-haired busty woman in a skimpy purple dress, a side slit displaying her long leg and left thigh. The title was The Woman of Rome and the author was Alberto Moravia. I had never heard of Moravia and started the book with the sole anticipation of soon encountering the ‘hot’ passages my classmates had been talking about.
Moravia had other things in mind for me. Or so it seemed. He was a master story teller and, in a few moments, he had me fully under his spell. Forgotten was the reason why I had been given the book and, to be honest, why I was reading the book. I felt drawn over the pages by an irresistible force until I had finished the book. It kept its spell over me for hours. At the dinner table, where we had the egalitarian practice of sharing all our experiences of the day, I even told my parents of the book I had read and how it had affected me.
Sure, the book had erotic passages and sexual episodes in the life of the protagonist, Adriana, a hooker’s daughter who is forced to turn tricks also. But these were so embedded in the flow of the story, so integral to the stream of events in the fascist ambience of Mussolini’s Italy, that they went by me with the merest of murmur. Not just Adriana, but Astarita the obsessed cop, Giacomo the disloyal revolutionary and
Sonzogno, the brutal, possessive felon mesmerized me. I felt I was walking the broad stradas and narrow streets of Rome alongside the irresistible Adriana and sensing her tension, thrill and despair.
“Read it?” They asked, hoping to initiate a salacious discussion on the ‘hot’ book.
“Yes,” I said, in absolute honesty, “it is a fascinating book.”
“Fascinating? What are you talking about?” Dip said in confusion.
“It is a remarkable story. I was deeply moved.”
Dip was as deeply disgusted. He nearly spat the words, “Who cares about the story! I give you the hottest book in the world, the book every fellow wants to read, and you give us this crap about being moved. Tell us what else moved.” He made a suggestive gesture with his finger.
I decided to be high-minded and ignore the sign. I said, “I appreciate your lending me the book. I loved reading it. It is an amazing story of a woman who had nothing going for her. She was a prostitute’s unwanted but pretty daughter. But she found –”
Dip stopped me with an impatient gesture. The other three had already made some guttural sounds indicating their disapproval or, at least, bewilderment.
“Did you or did you not read the good stuff in that book? Did you have some excitement –”
It was my turn to stop him with a hand gesture.
“Yes, of course, I read the good stuff. It is very good. I couldn’t take my eyes off the book. I was quite spellbound.”
Now I had their attention. They wanted to hear more.
I resumed, “It is really a fantastic book. It is fantastic because Adriana to me as real as anyone I know. I know nothing of Rome and I have nothing in common with a streetwalker, and yet I felt closer to Adriana than any of you. She can sleep with dozens of men and enjoy it, but to me she is a woman of gold. I adore her.”
Dip looked like he was going to faint. The rest did not say a word, and departed with the book, mystified beyond words. In my entire class, I swiftly gained a reputation for being very abnormal.
I was so moved by Moravia’s story that I wrote a piece on it. The school magazine refused to publish an article on some prostitute’s tale, but an enthusiastic classmate put it up in a wallpaper students ran. By a sheer coincidence, Dip’s uncle, while visiting the school, glimpsed the article and searched for the book back home. Not finding it, he asked his son to look for it. The son had no option but to retrieve the precious book from Dip and return it to his father’s library, pretending to have found it.
Then, most astonishingly, the uncle, a hard-nosed civil engineer, whose friends had referred to the novel as a ‘hot book,’ told his son, “It is a wonderful novel. You should read it.” Clearly, the man we all assumed to be normal, familiar with nuts and bolts, was a wee bit abnormal too.