Eugenio Baroncelli’s macabre, erudite vignettes of 271 historical and literary deaths won the 2011 Premio Supermondello, one of Italy’s highest literary awards. He catalogues accidental and premeditated deaths, illness, hypothermia, suicide. Each of his sly, epigrammatic sketches of dying is an object lesson in living.
Sorte, Verona, 17 August 1916. Never end up in a place called Sorte, or Luck. War had thrust him there, only for him to die in a stroke of misfortune. He had enlisted voluntarily, dressed hurriedly in uniform, and now he was dying, aged thirty-four. He had fallen from the horse he was learning to mount, struck his head full of colours, and would never get up again. That was how Maria Malibran died, and she was barely more skillful than he was; Genghis Khan, too, and he was born on a horse. He died with a dream: not of vanquishing his enemy on the battlefield, but of riding with her under the moon that bleached the lake white.
The gods looked down at him from the sky. He had the distinctive hand of a future great artist and the agile body of a seducer. A vexed Margherita Sarfatti, who had been in bed with him, would deplore the sharp escalation of his targets, from seamstresses to the wives of bank managers.
Three weeks beforehand, on the bank of Lake Maggiore, he had met Vittoria Colonna and fallen in love for the last time. Beautiful, married, impulsive, and greedy for life, she fell in love instantly too. They went swimming in a lake filled with water the hue of cobalt blue, the same colour his palette was wandering towards when he painted the master Busoni. Lazy as cats, they sunbathed on the terrace of the villa, that little strip of earth that she had transformed into a Garden of Eden. They dined alone by candlelight. Her last letter was found on him. He had taken it with him from their paradise.
Catherine Benincasa of Siena
Rome, 29 April 1380. She fasted for years. She bled every day from invisible wounds. At night she fought off the sleep that blinds us in order to dream with her eyes open. She would die at the age of thirty-three, exhausted by ecstasy. She would not be dear to the false and lying gods in whom she did not believe. But she was the same age as the god who became man and bled for her.
Zurich, 19 February 1837. He was on the run. He was after truth and the police were after him: “Wanted. Georg Büchner, medical student in Darmstadt. Grey eyes. Prominent forehead. Big nose. Small mouth. Short-sighted.” What had he done? It was said that he was a radical, that he had betrayed his class in organising impoverished peasants. He had myopia, it is true, but he was also far-sighted. He was just in time to invent modern theatre. “If there is one thing the French Revolution has lost, it is its head,” he said. He fled to Switzerland. He escaped the German pigs but not the fever, which ran faster than he did. He died of typhus far from home, like Hephaestion and Irène Némirovsky. He descended into darkness. It was better that way, because in the darkness no one feels like a foreigner. He was twenty-four years old.
Estoril, Sunday 24 March, 1946. At eight in the morning, with a bucket in one hand and clean sheets in the other, Mrs. Izabel climbed to the first floor of her shabby little hotel, The England, entered the last room along the corridor and found him lying on his back on the armchair, like a tailor’s discarded mannequin. He had not gone to bed. Instead of pyjamas he had put on his overcoat: he knew that the last night of one’s life is cold. On the bedside table he left too many glasses of whisky and the chessboard on which he played his final game, the only one he neither won nor lost. It wasn’t until hours later that someone recognized him: he was the world chess champion. His body lay in the Lisbon morgue for three weeks before anyone arrived to claim it. The Portuguese Chess Federation had to see to the funeral. No more than ten people accompanied him to the grave. Samuel Beckett’s ghost could boast of the same number of mourners.
How did he die? Some said acute cirrhosis, others said a heart attack. Some said he suffocated on a mischievous piece of meat that went down the wrong way, some said he died of solitude, which is no less mischievous. No matter. He had not been alive for nineteen years, since he defeated the invincible Capablanca, the “genius of chess,” and obstinately refused a rematch. This proves the old saying that death is a life you prepare for.
Vitus Jonassen Bering
Bering Island, Kamchatka, 19 December 1741. Lying on his injured shoulders, he could hear the cries of seals that his men were beating to death for the nauseating meat that had been his and their dinner for months, on that godforsaken island to which we have now given his name. In those other deaths, he could smell the odour of his own. At seven in the morning, surrounded by his overflowing chests of fashionable wigs and gaudy courtier’s robes, he slipped away. What did he die of? “Hunger, thirst, the cold, parasites and pain,” noted the diligent ship’s doctor. What about scurvy, which had swollen his legs and left him without teeth like Veronique, Bloy’s companion? It had made his face yellower and his breath shorter with each passing day. As for the sand in which they had half buried him to protect him from the lethal cold, couldn’t that have suffocated him? Who knows. Whatever, there are so many ways of dying out there.
He ended up in a hole that they had dug out laboriously from that expanse of snow hard as steel. “He died like a rich man,” his second-in-command would say, “and was buried like a savage.”
Berlin, 4 February 1956. At eleven at night, white as the snow that has been falling for hours, he entered the darkness of Hohenschönhausen, that populous and lethal prison for dissidents, and became a number, 2357: he, the comrade who had spent five years in Nazi prisons, who knew Marx and Engels’ works by heart and used to head the Volkspolizei, the people’s police. One hundred minutes earlier, the Stasi police had dragged him from his house in the West, thrown him into an unmarked car and spirited him away to the East, to that duplicitous homeland that called itself a democracy. There was no Wall yet, but there may as well have been one. He became no one. He would dream privately of waking from that nightmare, but he was never to wake again. Officially, he never left Hohenschönhausen. Here the faultless computer hesitates: which page does he belong on? He didn’t even die. He enters this book by the side door, the way the Portuguese enter a stadium.
Yonville, 24 March, 1846. It is written that she died of despair – abandoned by two deceitful lovers, unable to repay the moneylender knocking at the door, old at twenty-four and hence dear to the gods, she left the world with those unforgettable smudges of poison on her lips. That much is enough. Those who find more in books than in the world know how it went.
There he was the next day, confused by the procession that accompanied her to the grave, keeping a respectful distance from the gigantic blonde Norman who did not want to miss the funeral, whom readers believed in blindly – there he was, her husband, the dull, baffled country doctor, whom we will blame for nothing apart from the fact that he existed. Or perhaps we are mistaken. Wasn’t it he who slyly allowed a shard to fall into a cup of hot chocolate belonging to his first wife, a widow from Dieppe, ugly, thin, pimpled, and more than forty-five years old? Didn’t he make his second wife, the young, beautiful, unfaithful one, swallow a wafer that was more poisonous than the arsenic powder administered by Flaubert’s fantasy? Who knows. Maybe there is more to the world than there is to books.
Translated from the Italian by Chenxin Jiang
© Sellerio Editore Palermo, 2010
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Eugenio Baroncelli was born in Rimini and lives in Ravenna. He was previously an Italian and Latin teacher and is also interested in film theory and criticism. His books include Mosche d’inverno 271 morti in due o tre pose (Flies in Winter: 271 deaths in two or three poses, 2011), which won the Premio Supermondello and Premio Piero Chiara, and Pagine Bianche. 55 libri che non ho scritto (Blank Pages: 55 books I didn’t write, 2013).
Chenxin Jiang is a writer and translator. She most recently translated The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution for New York Review Books.
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