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Christmas Short Story: Carcassonne

In the summer of 1839, a man puts a telescope to his eye and inspects the Brazilian coastal town of Laguna. He is a foreign guerrilla leader whose recent success has brought the surrender of the imperial fleet.

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

In the summer of 1839, a man puts a telescope to his eye and inspects the Brazilian coastal town of Laguna. He is a foreign guerrilla leader whose recent success has brought the surrender of the imperial fleet. The liberator is on board its captured flagship, a seven-gun topsail schooner called the Itaparica, now at anchor in the lagoon from which the town gets its name. The telescope offers a view of a hilly quarter known as the Barra, containing a few simple but picturesque buildings. Outside one of them sits a woman. At the sight of her, the man, as he later put it, ‘forthwith gave orders for the boat to be got out, as I wished to go ashore’.

Anita Riberas was 18, of mixed Portuguese and Indian descent, with dark hair, large breasts, ‘a virile carriage and determined face’. She would have known the guerrilla’s name, since he had helped free her native town. But his search for both the young woman and her house was in vain, until he chanced upon a shopkeeper of his acquaintance who invited him in for coffee. And there, as if waiting for him, she was. ‘We both remained enraptured and silent, gazing on one another like two people who meet not for the first time, and seek in each other’s faces something which makes it easier to recall the forgotten past.’ That’s how he put it, many years later, in his autobiography, where he mentions an additional reason for their enraptured silence: he had very little Portuguese, and she no Italian. So he spoke his eventual greeting in his own language: ‘Tu devi esser mia.’ You must be mine. His words transcended the problem of immediate understanding: ‘I had formed a tie, pronounced a decree, which death alone can annul.’

Is there a more romantic encounter than this? And since Garibaldi was one of the last romantic heroes of European history, let’s not quibble over circumstantial detail. For instance, he must have been able to speak passable Portuguese, since he’d been fighting in Brazil for years; for instance, Anita, despite her age, was no shy maiden but a woman already married for several years to a local cobbler. Let’s also forget about a husband’s heart and a family’s honour, about whether violence occurred or money was exchanged when, a few nights later, Garibaldi came ashore and carried Anita off. Instead, let’s just agree that it was what both parties deeply and instantly desired, and that in places and times where justice is approximate, possession is usually nine points of the law.

They were married in Montevideo three years later, having heard reports that the cobbler might be dead. According to the historian G.M. Trevelyan, they ‘spent their honeymoon in amphibious warfare along the coast and in the lagoon, fighting at close quarters against desperate odds’. As good on a horse as he, and as brave, she was his companion in war and marriage for ten years; to his troops she was mascot, invigorator, nurse. The birth of four children did not impede her devotion to the republican cause, first in Brazil, then Uruguay, and, finally, Europe. She was with Garibaldi in the defence of the Roman Republic, and, after its defeat, in his retreat across the Papal States to the Adriatic coast. During their flight she fell mortally ill. Garibaldi, though urged to flee by himself, stayed with his wife; together they dodged the Austrian white-coats in the marshes around Ravenna. In her final days, Anita held resolutely to ‘the undogmatic religion of her husband’, a fact which draws from Trevelyan a tremendous romantic flourish: ‘Dying on the breast of Garibaldi, she needed no priest.’

Some years ago, at a booksellers’ conference in Glasgow, I found myself talking to two Australian women, a novelist and a cook. Or rather, listening, since they were discussing the effect of different foods on the taste of a man’s sperm. ‘Cinnamon,’ said the novelist knowingly. ‘No, not just by itself,’ replied the cook. ‘You need strawberries, blackberries and cinnamon, that’s the best.’ She added that she could always tell a meat-eater. ‘Believe me, I know. I did a blind tasting once.’ Hesitant about contributing to the conversation, I mentioned asparagus. ‘Yes,’ replied the cook. ‘It shows in the urine but it also shows in the ejaculate.’ If I hadn’t written the exchange down shortly afterwards, I might think I was remembering part of some hot dream.

A psychiatrist friend of mine maintains that there is a direct correlation between interest in food and interest in sex. The lustful gourmand is almost a cliché; while aversion to food is often accompanied by erotic indifference. As for the normal, middle part of the spectrum: I can think of people who, because of the circles in which they move, exaggerate their interest in food; often, they are the same sort of people who (again, because of peer pressure) might claim more of an interest in sex than they actually feel. Counter-examples come to mind: couples whose appetite for food, and cooking, and eating out, has come to supplant the appetite for sex, and for whom bed, after a meal, is a place of repose not activity. But on the whole, I’d say there’s something to this theory.

The expectation of an experience governs and distorts the experience itself. I may not know anything about sperm tasting, but I know about wine tasting. If someone puts a glass of wine in front of you, it is impossible to approach it without preconceptions. To begin with, you might not actually like the stuff. But allowing that you do, then many subliminal factors come into play before you’ve even taken a sip. What colour the wine is, what it smells like, what glass it is in, how much it costs, who’s paying for it, where you are, what your mood is, whether or not you’ve had this wine before. It is impossible to factor out such pre-knowledge. The only way to get round it is an extreme one. If you are blindfolded, and someone puts a clothes peg on your nose, and hands you a glass of wine, then, even if you are the greatest expert in the world, you will be unable to tell the most basic things about it. Not even whether it is red or white.

Of all our senses, it is the one with the broadest application, from a brief impression on the tongue to a learned aesthetic response to a painting. It is also the one that most describes us. We may be better or worse people, happy or miserable, successful or failing, but what we are, within these wider categories, how we define ourselves, as opposed to how we are genetically defined, is what we call ‘taste’. Yet the word — perhaps because of its broad catchment area — easily misleads. ‘Taste’ can imply calm reflection; while its derivatives — tasteful, tastefulness, tasteless, tastelessness — lead us into a world of minute differentiations, of snobbery, social values and soft furnishings. True taste, essential taste, is much more instinctual and unreflecting. It says, Me, here, now, this, you. It says, Lower the boat and row me ashore. Dowell, the narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, says of Nancy Rufford: ‘I just wanted to marry her as some people want to go to Carcassonne.’ Falling in love is the most violent expression of taste known to us.

And yet our language doesn’t seem to represent that moment very well. We have no equivalent for ‘coup de foudre’, the lightning strike and thunderclap of love. We talk about there being ‘electricity’ between a couple — but this is a domestic not cosmic image, as if the pair should be practical and wear rubber soles to their shoes. We talk of ‘love at first sight’,
and indeed it happens, even in England, but the phrase makes it sound rather a polite business. We say that their eyes met across a crowded room. Again, how social it sounds. Across a crowded room. Across a crowded harbour.

Anita Riberas didn’t, in fact, die ‘on the breast of Garibaldi’, but rather more mundanely, and less like a lithograph. She died while the liberator and three of his followers, each holding a corner of her mattress, were moving her from a cart into a farmhouse. Still, we should celebrate that moment with the telescope and all it led to. Because this is the moment — the moment of passionate taste — that we are after. Few of us have telescopes and harbours available, and in the rewinding of memory we may discover that even the deepest and longest love relationships rarely start with full recognition, with ‘you must be mine’ pronounced in a foreign tongue. The moment itself may be disguised as something else: admiration, pity, office camaraderie, shared danger, a common sense of justice. Perhaps it is too alarming a moment to be looked in the face at the time; so perhaps the English language is right to avoid Gallic flamboyance. I once asked a man who had been long and happily married where he had met his wife. ‘At an office party,’ he replied. And what had been his first impression of her? ‘I thought she was very nice,’ he replied.

So how do we know to trust that moment of passionate taste, however camouflaged? We don’t, even if we feel we must, that this is all we have to go on. A woman friend once told me, ‘If you took me into a crowded room and there was one man with “Nutter” tattooed on his forehead, I’d walk straight across to him.’ Another, twice-married friend confided, ‘I’ve thought of leaving my marriage, but I’m so bad at choosing that I wouldn’t have any confidence I’d do better next time, and that would be a depressing thing to learn.’ Who or what can help us in the moment that sets the wild echoes flying? What do we trust: the sight of a woman’s feet in walking boots, the novelty of a foreign accent, a loss of blood to the fingertips followed by exasperated self-criticism? I once went to visit a young married couple whose new house was astonishingly empty of furniture. ‘The problem,’ the wife explained, ‘is that he’s got no taste at all and I’ve only got bad taste.’ I suppose that to accuse yourself of bad taste implies the latent presence of some sort of good taste. But in our love choices, few of us know whether or not we are going to end up in that house without furniture.

When I first became part of a couple, I began to examine with more self-interest the progress and fate of other couples. By now I was in my early thirties, and some of my contemporaries who had met a decade earlier were already beginning to break up. I realised that the two couples whose relationships seemed to resist time, whose partners continued to show joyful interest in one another, were both — all four — gay men in their sixties. This may have been just a statistical oddity; but I used to wonder if there was a reason. Was it because they had avoided the long travail of parenthood, which often grinds down heterosexual relationships? Possibly. Was it something essential to their gayness? Probably not, judging from gay couples of my own generation. One thing separating these two couples from the rest was that for many years and in many countries their relationship would have been illegal. A bond made in such circumstances may well run deeper: I am committing my safety into your hands, every day of our lives together. Perhaps there is a literary comparison: books written under oppressive regimes are often more highly valued than books written in societies where everything is permitted. Not that a writer should therefore pray for oppression, or a lover for illegality.

‘I just wanted to marry her as some people want to go to Carcassonne.’ The first couple, T and H, met during the 1930s. T was from the English upper-middle classes, handsome, talented and modest. H came from a Jewish family in Vienna, who were so hard up that when he was a small boy (and his father at the first world war), his mother gave him away to the poorhouse for several years. Later, as a young man, he met the daughter of an English textile magnate, who helped get him out of Austria before the second world war.

In England, H worked for the family firm, and became engaged to the daughter. Then H met T under circumstances which T, rather coyly, refused to specify, but which were life-changing from the start. ‘Of course,’ T told me after H’s death, ‘all this was very new to me — I hadn’t been to bed with anybody at all.’

What, you might ask, about H’s deserted fiancée? But this is a happy story: T told me that she had ‘a very good instinct’ for what was going on; that in due course she fell in love with someone else; and that the four of them became close and lifelong friends. H went on to become a successful clothes designer for a high-street chain, and on his death — given the liberal nature of this employer — T, who for decades had committed many illegal acts with his ‘Austrian friend’, found himself in receipt of a widow’s pension. When he told me all this, not long before his own death, two things struck me. The first was how dispassionately he narrated his own story; all his strongest emotions were aroused by the misfortunes and injustices of H’s life before the two of them had met. And the second was a phrase he used when describing the arrival of H into his life. T said he was very bewildered, ‘But sure of one thing: I was determined to marry H.’

The other couple, D and D, were South American. Dl was formal, shy, highly cultured; D2 more flamboyant, more obviously gay, full of teasing and double entendres. They lived in Cape Town, had a house on Santorini, and travelled widely. They had worked out how to live together down to the smallest detail: I remember them in Paris, explaining that as soon as they got to Europe they would always buy a large panettone, on which to breakfast in their hotel room. (A couple’s first task, it has always seemed to me, is to solve the problem of breakfast; if this can be worked out amicably, most other difficulties can too.) On one occasion D2 came to London by himself. Late in the evening, after drink had been taken, and we were talking about provincial France, he suddenly confessed, ‘I had the best fucky-fuck of my life in Carcassonne.’ It was not a line you would easily forget, particularly since he described how there had been a storm brewing, and at what the French call le moment suprême, there was an enormous roll of thunder overhead — a coup de foudre indeed.

He didn’t say he had been with D1 at the time, and because he didn’t, I assumed he hadn’t. After he died, I put his words into a novel, though with some hesitation about the accompanying weather, which raised the frequent literary problem of the vrai versus the vraisemblable. Life’s astonishments are frequently literature’s clichés. A couple of years later, I was on the phone to D1 when he alluded to this line and asked where I had got it from. Worrying at my possible betrayal, I admitted that D2 had been my source. ‘Ach,’ said D1 with sudden warmth, ‘we had such a wonderful time in Carcassonne.’ I felt relief; also a kind of surrogate nostalgia about the fact that they had been together.

For some, the sunlight catches on the telescope out there in the lagoon; for others, not. We choose, we are chosen, we are unchosen. I said to my friend who always picked nutters that maybe she should look for a nice nutter. She replied, ‘But how could I tell one?’ Like most people, she believed what lovers to
ld her until there was a good reason not to. For several years she went out with a nutter who always left promptly for the office; only towards the end of the relationship did she discover that his first appointment of the day was always with his shrink. I said, ‘You’ve just had bad luck.’ She said, ‘I don’t want it to be luck. If it’s luck, there’s nothing I can do about it.’ People say that in the end you get what you deserve, but that phrase cuts both ways. People say that in modern cities there are too many terrific women and too many terrible men. The city of Carcassonne looks solid and enduring, but what we admire is mostly 19th-century reconstruction. Forget the hazard of ‘whether it will last’, and whether longevity is in any case a virtue, a reward, an accommodation or another piece of luck. How much do we act, and how much are we acted upon, in that moment of passionate taste?

And we shouldn’t forget that Garibaldi had a second wife (also a third — though we may ignore her). His ten years of marriage to Anita Riberas were followed by ten years of widowhood. Then, in the summer of 1859, during his Alpine campaign, he was fighting near Varese when a message was brought to him through the Austrian lines by a 17-year-old girl driving alone in a gig. She was Giuseppina Raimondi, the illegitimate daughter of Count Raimondi. Garibaldi was immediately smitten, wrote her a passionate letter, declared his love on bended knee. He admitted the difficulties to any union between them: he was nearly three times her age, already had another child by a peasant woman, and feared that Giuseppina’s aristocratic background might not play well with his political image. But he convinced himself (and her), to the extent that on 3rd December 1859, as a later historian than Trevelyan worded it, ‘She put aside her doubts and entered his room. The deed was done!’ Like Anita, she was evidently dashing and brave; on 24th January 1860, they were married — in this instance, with the full dogma of the Catholic Church.

Tennyson met Garibaldi on the Isle of Wight four years later. The poet greatly admired the liberator, but also noted that he had ‘the divine stupidity of a hero’. This second marriage — or rather, Garibaldi’s illusions about it — lasted (according to which authority you believe) either a few hours or a few days, the time it took for the bridegroom to receive a letter detailing his new wife’s past. Giuseppina, it turned out, had begun taking lovers at the age of 11; she had married Garibaldi only at the insistence of her father; she had spent the night before her wedding with her most recent lover, by whom she was pregnant; and she had precipitated sexual events with her husband-to-be so that she could write to him on 1st January and claim to be carrying his child.

Garibaldi demanded not just an immediate separation but an annulment. The romantic hero’s deeply unromantic reasoning was that since he had slept with Giuseppina only before the wedding and not after, the marriage had technically not been consummated. The law was unimpressed by such sophistry, and Garibaldi’s appeal to higher influences, including the king, also failed. The liberator found himself shackled to Giuseppina for the next 20 years.

In the end, the law is only ever defeated by lawyers; in place of the romantic telescope, the legal microscope. The freeing argument, when it was eventually found, ran like this: since Garibaldi’s marriage had been solemnised in territory nominally under Austrian control, the law governing it might therefore be construed as the Austrian civil code, under which an annulment was (and perhaps always had been) possible. So the hero-lover was saved by the very nation against whose rule he had been fighting at the time. The distinguished lawyer who proposed this ingenious solution had, back in 1860, prepared the legislative unification of Italy; now, he achieved the marital disunification of the nation’s unifier. Let us salute the name of Pasquale Stanislao Mancini.

This story is taken from Julian Barnes’s forthcoming collection, Pulse, which is to be published by Cape on 6 January at £16.99.

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