from Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo, or the Seasons in the City


No. 4

The city lost in the snow

That morning the silence woke him. Marcovaldo pulled himself out of bed with the sensation there was something strange in the air. He couldn’t figure out what time it was, the light between the slats of the blinds was different from all other hours of day and night. He opened the window: the city was gone; it had been replaced by a white sheet of paper. Narrowing his eyes, he could make out, in the whiteness, some almost-erased lines, which corresponded to those of the familiar view: the windows and the roofs and the lamp-posts all around, but they were lost under all the snow that had settled over them during the night.

“Snow!” Marcovaldo cried to his wife; that is, he meant to cry, but his voice came out muffled. As it had fallen on lines and colors and views, the snow had fallen on noises, or rather on the very possibility of making noise; sounds, in a padded space, did not vibrate.

He went to work on foot; the trams were blocked by the snow. Along the street, making his own path, he felt free as he had never felt before. In the city all differences between sidewalk and street had vanished; vehicles could not pass, and Marcovaldo, even if he sank up to his thighs at every step and felt the snow get inside his socks, had become master, free to walk in the middle of the street, to trample on flower-beds, to cross outside the prescribed lines, to proceed in a zig-zag.

Streets and avenues stretched out, endless and deserted, like blanched chasms between mountainous cliffs. There was no telling whether the city hidden under that mantle was still the same or whether, in the night, another had taken its place. Who could say if under those white mounds there were still gasoline pumps, news-stands, tram stops, or if there were only sack upon sack of snow? As he walked along, Marcovaldo dreamed of getting lost in a different city: instead, his footsteps were taking him straight to his everyday place of work, the usual shipping department, and, once he had crossed the threshold, the worker was amazed at finding himself among those walls, the same as ever, as if the change that had canceled the outside world had spared only his firm.

There, waiting for him, was a shovel, taller than he was. The department foreman, Signor Viligelmo, handing it to him, said: “Shoveling the snow off the sidewalk in front of the building is up to us. To you, that is.” Marcovaldo took the shovel and went outside again.

Shoveling snow is no game, especially on an empty stomach; but Marcovaldo felt the snow was a friend, an element that erased the cage of walls which imprisoned his life. And he set to work with a will, sending great shovelfuls of snow flying from the sidewalk to the center of the street.

The jobless Sigismondo was also filled with gratitude for the snow, because having enrolled in the ranks of the municipal snow-shovelers that morning, he now had before him a few days of guaranteed employment. But this feeling, instead of inspiring in him vague fantasies like Marcovaldo’s, led him to quite specific calculations, to determine how many cubic feet of snow had to be shoveled to clear so many square feet. In other words, he aimed at impressing the captain of his team; and thus — his secret ambition — at getting ahead in the world.

Now Sigismondo turned, and what did he see? The stretch of road he had just cleared was being covered again with snow, by the helter-skelter shoveling of a character panting there on the sidewalk. Sigismondo almost had a fit. He ran and confronted the other man, thrusting at the stranger’s chest his shovel piled high with snow. “Hey, you! Are you the one who’s been throwing that snow there?”

“Eh? What?” Marcovaldo started, but admitted, “Ah, maybe I am.”

“Well, either you take it right back with your shovel, or I’ll make you eat it, down to the last flake.”

“But I have to clear the sidewalk.”

“And I have to clear the street. So?”

“Where’ll I put it?”

“Do you work for the City?”

“No. For Sbav and Co.”

Sigismondo taught him how to pile up the snow along the edge of the sidewalk, and Marcovaldo cleared his whole stretch. Content, sticking their shovels into the snow, the two men stood and contemplated their achievement.

“Got a butt?” Sigismondo asked.

They were lighting half a cigarette apiece, when a snowplow came along the street, raising two big white waves that fell at either side. Every sound that morning was a mere rustle: by the time the men raised their heads, the whole section they had shoveled was again covered with snow. “What happened? Has it started snowing again?” And they looked up at the sky. The machine, spinning its huge brushes, was already turning at the corner.

Marcovaldo learned to pile the snow into a compact little wall. If he went on making little walls like that, he could build some streets for himself alone; only he would know where those streets led, and everybody else would be lost there. He could remake the city, pile up mountains high as houses, which no one would be able to tell from real houses. But perhaps by now all the houses had turned to snow, inside and out; a whole city of snow with monuments and spires and trees, a city that could be unmade by shovel and remade in a different way.

On the edge of the sidewalk at a certain point there was a considerable heap of snow. Marcovaldo was about to level it to the height of his little walls when he realized it was an automobile: the deluxe car of Commendatore Alboino, chairman of the board, all covered with snow. Since the difference between an automobile and a pile of snow was so slight, Marcovaldo began creating the form of an automobile with his shovel. It came out well: you really couldn’t tell which of the two was real. To put the final touches on his work Marcovaldo used some rubbish that had turned up in his shovel: a rusted tin served to model the shape of a headlight; an old tap gave the door its handle.

A great bowing and scraping of doormen, attendants and flunkies, and the chairman, Commendatore Alboino, came out of the main entrance. Short-sighted and efficient, he strode straight to his car, grasped the protruding tap, pulled it down, bowed his head, and stepped into the pile of snow up to his neck.

Marcovaldo had already turned the corner and was shoveling in the courtyard.

The boys in the yard had made a snow man. “He needs a nose!” one of them said. “What’ll we use? A carrot!” And they ran to their various kitchens to hunt among the vegetables.

Marcovaldo contemplated the snow man. “There, under the snow you can’t tell what is snow and what is only covered. Except in one case: man; because it’s obvious I am I and not this man here.”

Absorbed in his meditations, he didn’t hear two men shouting from the rooftop: “Hey, mister, get out of the way!” They were the men responsible for pushing the snow off the roof-tiles. And all of a sudden, about three hundredweight of snow fell right on top of him.

The children returned with their looted carrots. “Oh, they’ve made another snow man!” In the courtyard there were two identical dummies, side by side.

“We’ll give them each a nose!” And they thrust carrots into the heads of the two snow men.

More dead than alive, Marcovaldo, through the sheath in which he was buried and frozen, felt some nourishment reach him. And he chewed on it.

“Hey, look! The carrot’s gone!” The children were very frightened.

The bravest of the boys didn’t lose heart. He had a spare nose: a pepper, and he stuck it into the snow man. The snow man ate that, too.

Then they tried giving him a nose made out of coal, a big lump. Marcovaldo spat it out with all his might. “Help! He’s alive! He’s alive!” The children ran away.

In a corner of the courtyard there was a grille from which a cloud of warmth emerged. With the heavy tread of a snow man, Marcovaldo went and stood there. The snow melted over him, trickled in rivulets down his clothes: a Marcovaldo reappeared, all swollen and stuffed up with a cold.

He took the shovel, mostly to warm himself, and began to work in the courtyard. There was a sneeze blocked at the top of his nose, all ready and waiting, but refusing to make up its mind and burst forth. Marcovaldo shoveled, his eyes half-closed, and the sneeze remained nested in the top of his nose. All of a sudden: the “Aaaaaah...” was almost a roar, and the “choo!” was louder than the explosion of a mine. The blast flung Marcovaldo against the wall.

Blast, indeed: that sneeze had caused a genuine tornado. All the snow in the courtyard rose and whirled in a blizzard, drawn upwards, pulverized in the sky.

When Marcovaldo reopened his eyes, after being stunned, the courtyard was completely cleared, with not even one flake of snow. And to his gaze there appeared the familiar courtyard, the gray walls, the boxes from the warehouse, the things of every day, sharp and hostile.