Read The Nonexistent Knight Online

Authors: Italo Calvino

The Nonexistent Knight

Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents

Copyright

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BOOKS BY ITALO CALVINO

Copyright © 1959 by Giulio Einaudi Editore, S.p.A.
Copyright 1951 by Giulio Einaudi Editore, S.p.A.

 

Copyright © 1962 by William Collins Sons & Company Limited and Random House, Inc.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, please write Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company 215 Park Avenue South, NY, NY 10003.

 

www.hmhbooks.com

 

Harvest edition published by arrangement with Giulio Einaudi Editore, S.p.A.

 

eISBN 978-0-544-13350-1
v1.1112

1

BENEATH the red ramparts of Paris the army of France lay marshaled. Charlemagne was due to review his paladins. They had already been waiting for more than three hours. It was hot, an early summer afternoon, misty, a bit cloudy. Inside their armor, the men were steaming. Perhaps one or two in that motionless row of knights went off in a daze or a doze, but the armor kept them stiff in their saddles. Suddenly there were three trumpet calls. Plumes on charges swayed in the still air as if at a gust of wind, and silence replaced a surflike sound which must have come from the warriors snoring inside the metal throats of their helmets. Finally, from the end of the line, came Charlemagne, on a horse that looked larger than life, beard resting on his chest, and hands on the pommel of his saddle. With all his warring and ruling, ruling and waning, he seemed slightly aged since the last time those warriors had seen him.

At every officer he stopped his horse and turned to look him up and down. “And who are you, paladin of France?”

“Solomon of Brittany, sire!” boomed the knight, raising his visor and showing a flushed face. Then he added a few practical details, such as, “Five thousand mounted knights, three thousand five hundred foot soldiers, a thousand eight hundred service troops, five years’ campaigning.”

“Up with the Bretons, paladin!” said Charlemagne, and toc-toc, toc-toc, he trotted on to another squadron commander.

“Andwhoareyou, paladin of France?” he asked again.

“Oliver of Vienna, sire!” moved the lips as soon as the grill was up. Then, “Three thousand chosen knights, seven thousand troops, twenty siege machines. Conqueror of Proudarm the pagan, by the grace of God and for the glory of Charles King of the Franks.”

“Well done, my fine Viennese,” said Charlemagne. Then to the officers of his suite, “Rather thin, those horses, they need more fodder.” And on he went. “Andwhoareyou, paladin of France?” he repeated, always in the same rhythm: “Tatatata-tatata-tata ...”

“Bernard of Mompolier, sire! Winner of Brunamonte and Galifemo.”

“Beautiful city, Mompolier! City of beautiful women!” And to his suite, “See he’s put up in rank.” All these remarks, said by the king, gave pleasure, but they had been the same for years.

“Andwhoareyou, with that coat of arms I know?”

He knew all armorial bearings on their shields without needing to be told, but it was usage for names to be proffered and faces shown. Otherwise, someone with better things to do than be reviewed might send his armor on parade with another inside.

“Alard of Dordogne, son of Duke Amone ...”

“Good man, Alard, how’s your dad?” And on he went. “Tatatata-tatata-tata ...”

“Godfrey of Mountjoy! Knights, eight thousand, not counting dead!”

Crests waved. “Hugh the Dane!” “Namo of Bavaria!” “Palmerin of England!”

Evening was coming on. In the wind and dusk faces could not be made out clearly. But by now every word, every gesture was foreseeable, as all else in that war which had lasted so many years, its every skirmish and duel conducted according to rules so that it was always known beforehand who would win or lose, be heroic or cowardly, be gutted or merely unhorsed and thumped. Each night by torchlight the blacksmiths hammered out the same dents on cuirasses.

“And you?” The king had reached a knight entirely in white armor; only a thin black line ran round the seams. The rest was light and gleaming, without a scratch, well finished at every joint, with a helmet surmounted by a plume of some oriental cock, changing with every color in the rainbow. On the shield a coat of arms was painted between two draped sides of a wide cloak, within which opened another cloak on a smaller shield, containing yet another even smaller coat of arms. In faint but clear outline were drawn a series of cloaks opening inside each other› with something in the center that could not be made out, so minutely was it drawn. “Well, you there, looking so clean...” said Charlemagne, who the longer war lasted had less respect for cleanliness among his paladins.

“I,” came a metallic voice from inside the closed helmet, with a slight echo as if it were not a throat but the very armor itself vibrating, “am Agilulf Emo Bertrandin of the Guildivern and of the Others of Corbentraz and Sura, Knight of Selimpia Citeriore and Fez!”

“Aha ...!” exclaimed Charlemagne, and from his lower lip, pushed forward, came a faint whistle, as if to say, “You don’t expect me to remember all those names, do you?” Then he frowned at once. “And why don’t you raise your visor and show your face?”

The knight made no gesture. His right hand, gloved in close-webbed chain mail, gripped the crupper more firmly, while a quiver seemed to shake the other arm holding the shield.

“I’m talking to you, paladin!” insisted Charlemagne. “Why don’t you show your face to your king?”

A voice came clearly through die gorge piece. "Sire, because I do not exist!”

“This is too much!” exclaimed the emperor. “We’ve even got a knight who doesn’t exist! Let’s just have a look now.”

Agilulf seemed to hesitate a moment, then raised his visor with a slow but firm hand. The helmet was empty. No one was inside the white armor with its iridescent crest.

“Well, well! Who’d have thought it!” exclaimed Charlemagne. “And how do you do your job, then, if you don’t exist?”

“By will power,” said Agilulf, “and faith in our holy cause!”

“Oh yes, yes, well said, that is how one does one’s duty. Well, for someone who doesn’t exist, you seem in fine form!”

Agilulf was last in the rank. The emperor had now passed everyone in review. He turned his horse and moved away toward the royal tents. He was old and tended to put complicated questions from his mind.

A bugle sounded “Fall out.” Amid the usual confusion of horses, the forest of lances rippled into waves like a com field moved by the passing wind. The knights dismounted, moved their legs, stretched, while squires led off their horses by bridles. Then the paladins drew apart from the rabble and dust, gathering in clumps of colored crests, and easing themselves after all those hours of forced immobility, jesting, boasting, gossiping of women and honor.

Agilulf moved a few steps to mingle in one of these groups, then without any particular reason moved on to another, but did not press inside, and no one took notice of him. He stood uncertainly behind this or that knight without taking part in their talk, then moved aside. Night was felling. The iridescent plumes on his crest now seemed all merged into a single indeterminate color, but the white armor stood out, isolated on the field. Agilulf, as if feeling suddenly naked, made a gesture of crossing his arms and hugging his shoulders.

Then he shook himself and moved off with long strides toward the stabling area. Once there he found that the horses were not being groomed properly. He shouted at grooms, meted out punishments to stableboys, went his rounds of inspection, redistributed duties, explaining in detail to each man what he was to do and making him repeat the instructions to see if they were properly understood. And as more and more signs of negligence by his paladin brother officers showed up, he called them over one by one, dragging them from their sweet languid evening chatter, pointing out discreetly but firmly when they were at fault, making one go out on picket, one on sentry duty or one on patrol. He was always right, the paladins had to admit, but they did not hide their discontent. Agilulf Emo Bertrandin of the Guildivern and of the Others of Corbentraz and Sura, Knight of Selimpia Citeriore and Fez was certainly a model soldier, but disliked by all.

2

NIGHT, for armies in the field, is as well ordered as the starry sky: guard duty, sentry go, patrols. All the rest—the constant confusion of an army in war, the daily bustle in which the unexpected can suddenly start up like a restive horse—was now quiet, for sleep had conquered all the warriors and quadrupeds of the Christian array, the latter standing in rows, at times pawing a hoof or letting out a brief whinny or bray, the former finally loosed from helmets and cuirasses, snoring away, content at being distinct and differentiated human beings once again.

On the other side, in the Infidels’ camp, everything was the same: the same march of sentinels to and fro, the guard commander watching a last grain of sand pass through an hourglass before waking a new turn, the duty officer writing to his wife in the night watch. And both Christian and Infidel patrols went out half a mile, nearly reached the wood, then turned, each in opposite directions, without ever meeting, returning to camp to report all calm and going to bed. Over both enemy camps stars and moon flowed silently on. Nowhere is sleep so deep as in the army.

Only Agilulf found no relief. In his white armor, still clamped up, he tried to stretch out in his tent, one of the most ordered and comfortable in the Christian camp. He continued to think, not the lazy meandering thoughts of one about to fall asleep, but exact and definite thoughts. He raised himself on an elbow, and felt the need to apply himself to some manual job, like shining his sword, which was already resplendent^ or smearing the joints of his armor with grease. This impulse did not last long. Soon he was on his feet, moving out of the tent, taking up his lance and shield, and his whitish shadow moved over the camp. From cone-shaped tents rose a concert of heavy breathing. What it was like to shut one's eyes, lose consciousness, plunge into emptiness for a few hours and then wake up and find oneself the same as before, linked with the threads of one’s life again, Agilulf could not know, and his envy for the faculty of sleep possessed by people who existed, was vague, like something he could not even conceive of. What bothered him more was the sight of bare feet sticking up here and there from under tents, with toes upturned. The camp in sleep was a realm of bodies, a stretch of Adam’s old flesh, reeking from the wine and the sweat of the warriors' day, while on the threshold of pavilions lay messy heaps of empty armor which squires and retainers would shine and order in the moming. Agilulf passed by, attentive, nervous and proud; people's bodies gave him a disagreeable feeling resembling envy, but also a stab of pride, of contemptuous superiority. Here were his famous colleagues, the glorious paladins, but what were they? Here was their armor, proof of rank and name, of feats of power and worth, all reduced to a shell, to empty iron, and there lay the men themselves, snoring away, faces thrust into pillows with a thread of spittle dribbling from open lips. But he could not be taken into pieces or dismembered; he was, and remained, every moment of the day and night, Agilulf Bertrandin of the Guildivern and of the Others of Corbentraz and Sura, armed Knight of Selimpia Citeriore and Fez, on such-and-such a day, having carried out such-and-such actions to the glory of the Christian arms, and assumed in the Emperor Charlemagne’s army the command of such-and-such troops. He possessed the finest, whitest armor, inseparable from him, in the whole camp. He was a better officer than many who vaunted themselves illustrious, the best of all officers, in fact Yet there he was, walking unhappily in the night.

He heard a voice. “Sir officer, excuse me, but when does the guard change? They’ve left me here for three hours already!” It was a sentry, leaning on a lance as if he had a stomach ache.

Agilulf did not even turn. He said, “You’re mistaken, I’m not the guard officer,” and passed on.

“I’m sorry, sir officer. Seeing you walking around here I thought ...”

The slightest failure on duty gave Agilulf a mania to inspect everything and search out other errors and negligences, a sharp reaction to things ill done, out of place ... But having no authority to carry out such an inspection at that hour, even this attitude of his could seem improper, ill disciplined. Agilulf tried to control himself, to limit his interest to particular matters which would fall to him the next day, such as ordering arms’ racks for pikes, or arranging for hay to be kept dry. But his white shadow was continually getting entangled with the guard commander, the duty officer, a patrol wandering into a cellar looking for a demijohn of wine from the night before. Every time Agilulf had a moment’s uncertainty whether to behave like someone who could impose a respect for authority by his presence alone, or like one who is not where he is supposed to be, he would step back discreetly, pretending not to be there at all. In his uncertainty he stopped, thought, but did not succeed in taking up either attitude. He just felt himself a nuisance all round and longed for any contact with his neighbor, even if it meant shouting orders or curses, or grunting swear words like comrades in a tavern. But instead he mumbled a few incomprehensible words of greeting, and moved on. Still hoping they might say a word to him he would turn round slightly with a “Yes?,” then would realise at once that no one was talking to him, and would run off, like someone trying to escape.

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