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преступление и наказание

Prjestupljenje i nakazanje

(Crime and Punishment)

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His eyesight wasn't so good anymore and he sometimes nabbed the wrong guy. Outside there were slaps and kicks, where it happened it happened; then, all calm and composed, she returned, leaving the punished where he was, as if nothing had happened. She was at ease with her conscience and convinced she had done her duty.

The management knew that the teachers beat us: it was an accepted part of teaching in those days, but the beatings outside the classroom went well beyond the limits of what was allowed. The teacher was a problem for her superiors, a nightmare for us.

Then there was the incident with Micheletti. 

Repeating several times, he was a giant, mentally retarded, but very sweet in character. He didn't speak. He smiled, with everyone and with no one, looking up, who knows towards whom, towards what. He smiled at the world: he was happy to be there. 

That morning the teacher forbade us to have a snack. Micheletti had not understood. Very calmly, without hiding (he was sitting alone in the last row), he took out his nice mortadella sandwich and began to eat. The beast didn't take long to notice. She leapt on his neck like a beast of prey, slammed his sandwich on the floor and began to drag him towards the door. She had miscalculated: Micheletti weighed as much as her, if not more. The sandwich thrown on the ground was an inexplicable cruelty for that giant cake. 

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The master, right from the start, presented himself as the friendliest and most conciliatory person we had ever seen. Of course we distrusted appearances. The teacher had been a lesson never to be forgotten.

But, day after day, Giovanni Rosso proved to be a very different teacher from all the others: he never gave the boys a slap and only in the event of serious, repeated infractions, always speaking in a calm voice, did he address not only the person concerned , but to the entire school group, asking everyone, as an equal, for an opinion.

Gradually he managed to involve even the most discourteous and the most recidivist in this dialogue. He could read our minds and won the tough battle of school discipline with the irresistible art of persuasion. 

And then there was the magic of his drawings. He could draw the circle freehand on the blackboard and immediately trace a second, perfectly concentric circle inside it. With a few pencil strokes he reproduced our faces on large drawing sheets. Not satisfied, he superimposed, very quickly, some retouches, transforming us into funny caricatures. 

He had conquered us. Under his guidance we learned to use pencils and pastels well, looking at the objects around us with new eyes, more attentive to detail. 

Micheletti was no longer left alone in the last row. He was now placed next to the best ones, in turn: he, who had never used pen or pencil, began to make drawings that were as imaginative as they were enigmatic. It was his way of opening up to his companions and to the world. 


After a week I had read and re-read the book. I was ready. I told the master and he, with such simplicity, announced to my companions that I had a story to tell. 

The naturalness and ease with which I gave my first "prolusion" was a big surprise for everyone, me first. I had identified myself so much in the story that the words came spontaneously from my heart, clear and fervent. I was moved more than once, but they too were moved, my companions. The last of the class, the "mutino", had found his voice. 

Without even asking me if I was ready for more tests, the master, seeing the outcome of the first one, announced: "Next week Sergio will tell us another good story". And he placed Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson in my hands. 

It was a wonderful journey to the edge of infinity. I spent hours daydreaming, without even remembering to eat. I read and re-read those pages, until I learned them by heart. This time, after the presentation, the dialogue opened spontaneously on the events of the young cabin boy in the grip of the crew of mutineers. In class the hours passed without us realizing it and the bell at the end of the lesson always rang too early, when we were still in the middle of an adventure on distant islands and seas. 

Together with the teacher we decided to read the whole book in class, aloud. However, I had to continue making my presentations on the books that he gradually procured for me. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, Charles Dickens' Adventures of Oliver Twist, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth followed, Mompracem's Tigers by Emilio Salgari. 

Those books and those presentations transformed me radically. I became a new person. 

Reading my essays and observing with particular attention how I drew and how I appropriated the spelling, Maestro Rosso had come to the conclusion that the past failures and the present isolation had been the result of a huge didactic error. Those books, bought at his expense, and the presentations in class, had confirmed this for him. He hadn't been wrong.  

At the end of school his last gift to me was a dictionary of the Italian language. 

The children's novels had been given to me, one at a time, by maestro Giovanni Rosso.

At the beginning of November our teacher had fallen ill and so he had come to replace her for a few days. But the teacher never came back. Among us, fifth graders, no one regretted it, on the contrary… 

With her well-combed white hair gathered in a bun behind her neck and her face always serene, she presented herself as the personification of the patient and maternal teacher. In class, however, he was completely transformed. When she found a boy "in chestnut" (perhaps chatting with the neighbor, or passing a note, or giggling underhand, or had lost the mark in reading aloud) the beast in her was unleashed.

He wasn't screaming: he was roaring, like an angry animal. From the platform of the chair, with two leaps, he pounced on the victim, grabbed him by the hair, lifted him and dragged him out of the classroom, dead weight. Where at his age he found the physical strength to act that way was a mystery. 

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He woke abruptly from his Edenic lethargy and fixed his gaze on us, on the class: lucid, dismayed, as if it were the first time he had seen us. The perpetual smile was gone from his face. In a chilling waltz of tugs and shoves they had reached the narrow passage of the door, where they got stuck (one of the two doors was blocked). 

The teacher, red in the face, foaming at the mouth, was muttering, it was not clear what. With a single push Micheletti shook her off and left her there, clinging to the doorpost, exhausted by the effort. She slumped to the floor, her face spasmodic convulsions and sobs shaking her chest. The gentle giant meekly returned to his seat, picked up the sandwich from the ground and resumed eating. The smile had returned to his face. 

We were like crazy. Everyone stood up - some had even climbed onto the pews - we shouted in unison: "Come on, Micheletti, come on, come on", shouting with joy and clapping our hands and feet. Micheletti did the same, holding tightly to the sandwich he regained with so much effort.

He had not understood that the jubilation was everything to him, but he participated in it with naive, innocent exuberance. 

Then, one day, a mother whose son had returned home battered, showed up at school to talk to the teacher, who answered her rudely. A few weeks later a stranger waited for her in the evening in the alley where she lived and beat her heartily. 

She never went back to school, not because of the flu, but because of the beatings she received. There were no complaints. The management closed the case, filing it as a "long-term illness".


On the fifth grade notebooks, with the blue guide lines barely visible, the master showed us what was the correct height of the Ls in relation to the Ts and Ds. I fell in love with that clear and well-balanced handwriting, easy to read, streamlined , which recorded written words as if they were engraved in memory rather than written on paper. 

Gradually the school, from a place of fear and coercion, became a serene, relaxed environment in which everyone tried to do their best, sharing it with the others. Numerous projects were born, which gradually brought out our latent vocations. 

I, who had remained closed in stubborn silence for the last two years (we had in the meantime moved from the countryside to the city), began to open up. 

One day the master took me aside and, to my great surprise, spoke to me in Piedmontese: “It deve pa sagrinete e avèj gen-a a doverté la boca mach përchè ch'it pense da nen essi bon da parlé l'italiana. Ti it peude amprend-lo mej che j'àuti" [You don't have to fret and feel embarrassed because you think you're not able to speak Italian. You can learn it better than others].

The next day he brought me a book and said: "Why don't you read it at home and then, if you like it, tell your classmates about it?". THEThe book was called The Boys from Pál Street by a certain Ferenc Molnár. 

At home there were strong tensions and the book, immediately captivating, with those boys united by the battles against the gang of the botanical gardens, enveloped me as in a protective casing: I closed myself inside it, forgetting the rest of the world. 

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He was not yet twenty, but he used much more judgment than a twenty-year-old. Many fathers, in their forties and fifties, would not have been able to handle so many road accidents with equal shrewdness. Without showing it, in his own way he loved me and, above all, he wanted my good.

If he had waited to give me that gift - he explained to me much later, during one of my brief returns from Canada - it was to make sure that what he wanted to encourage was really my vocation, chosen by me.

He didn't mean to push me or influence me in any way. On that occasion he put a book from the popular B.U.R. 'beginning of many good readings”. The book was a novel by Fiodor Dostoyevsky, “Crime and Punishment”. 

At first I didn't understand much. I was looking for adventures and south seas. I was disappointed and bewildered, but Angelo's dedication forced me to try again, resuming reading from the first pages until, suddenly, I found the key to the problem. I did not put down the book again until I had turned the last page. 

It was as if a drawbridge had lowered and the great gates of the forbidden city had swung open. I had entered a whole new world that I had never suspected existed. Now I understood the power of the word and the function of the literary artwork. In the wake of that reading, I discovered Russian novelists, then the French, and finally the Americans. Just like Maestro Rosso's books – which, among other things, had initiated me into the difficult art of public speaking – so too Angelo's gift transformed me from top to bottom and marked my definitive conversion to literary studies. 


Then came a few years of sluggishness. 

At that time there weren't yet many books for intermediate age: I was left without dialogue, without references. I had read and reread the master's novels until they were worn out, but by now I was too old for the books of the little ones and too small for those of the grown-ups. 

It was at this point that Angelo intervened. 

It was September 21, 1960, my fifteenth birthday. 

He too, without being noticed, had kept an eye on me. His was a vigilant but unperceivable presence, operative without being overbearing. He had never let me weigh his authority, in any way. I didn't need reminders for my studies: I liked learning and my grades at school proved it.

However, there were - as is normal in adolescence - small "slips". When necessary, just like maestro Rosso, he too used the art of dialogue to get me back on track, which he applied with mastery. 

From time to time, when mum wasn't within earshot, she would ask me how things were going and then, at the right moment, slip in one of her sly phrases: "... but don't you think that in that case maybe it would be better … ?”, or “… if I were you, I would do differently, what do you think? …”. Sooner or later I too ended up seeing things under the light of reason.

In the end I came to my senses and, without saying anything, I let him understand that he had persuaded me. 

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From that moment on he, who had always been reluctant to talk about literature, shared his opinions with me: he had already read most of the novels that I was now reading for the first time and his interpretations opened up vast, unexplored horizons for me. . He possessed an astonishing intuition and was able to connect characters from the most disparate literatures in a single interpretative framework. His prodigious memory served him well.

In literature Angelo was my guide, my true teacher. He, who had interrupted his studies, had read and understood dozens and dozens of works of poetry and prose, with a sure intuition of the aesthetic values at stake. 

According to Angelo, literature, like music, was composed and interpreted by intuition. The form could be infinitely smoothed, but the intuition had to be limpid, clear, substantial from its first conception. 

He had composed several of his music on the state of mind aroused in him by literary works, transferring the suggestions of reading directly onto the stave. 

I ended up becoming a professor of comparative literature, but he had always been the real comparatist, even though he dealt with sounds and not with words by profession. Seldom later, in the classrooms of the most prestigious North American universities, would I meet minds so distinctly suited to grasping the glory and misery of the human condition. 

Angelo gave me that book and everything he knew: even today, after more than half a century, I continue to put his teachings to good use. I really don't think I equaled him, but I put his lessons to good use. 

However, my greatest debt to Angelo was, and will remain, that book offered to me for my fifteenth birthday: he understood that I could become part of the small circle of those who dedicated and, if necessary, sacrificed their entire life to pursue a ideal.

On the back of the page about Dostoyevsky's novel was the transliteration of the original title of the work: Prjestupljenje i nakazanje.

I liked the book so much that I decided to learn that language which was still completely mysterious to me at the time. I will then tell the daring series of adventures for which I then went to learn it. 

I don't think my brother, farsighted as he was, foresaw how far I would go to follow his advice, but he certainly provided me with the vision, guidance, and tools to do so.

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