Photograph by Michael Howarth (2023)
It was in the days before internet, before word documents, before screens.
They asked him to come to a town on a hill to translate a history of philosophy into English. He would stay in an empty house for two months and be fed three meals a day until he finished it.
He never met the person who asked him to translate it. All transactions took place through a third party—a young, anecdote-filled priest with a stutter.
He accepted the job because he was hungry. He knew nothing about philosophy. The town had a population of 3,100 people. By the time he left, he was on talking terms with approximately 500 of them. People asked him whether he knew the Queen; whether he liked the Beatles; why he was so fat.
In the afternoons, while everyone was sleeping, he went for brisk walks around the old town.
Every evening he drank exactly half a bottle of red wine, laid out upon the sofa and dreamt a recurring dream about a dark figure on a hill that beckoned to him.
Two weeks after he arrived, the town began showing a strange religious film in the local cinema which converted everyone who saw it to a form of Pentecostal Christianity. When half the town had seen it, a fight broke out with the other half of the town. He found himself in the middle, confused because he had never been particularly religious. A communist butcher he had befriended, who regularly fed him obscene jokes about the local girls, told him not to get involved.
Halfway through the translation, he discovered that the history of philosophy he was translating was written backwards—Nietzsche and Schopenhauer at the start, Augustine and Plotinus at the end. He had no idea why.
The film caused so many problems that the local police gave the reels to him and told him to leave the town with them on the next bus and drop them in the sea. They paid him in full for his efforts, even though he had only done half of the translation. He never understood exactly what had happened, and whether there was any connection between the film he disposed of and the book he translated. As time went on, the entire episode contracted from two months into a week, a weekend, becoming something more surreal, more fantastic in his memory.
A decade later, back in his home country, he heard a Southern Italian dialect on a train and thought briefly of the town he had visited.
The following year, on an airplane, he thought he saw the town on a travel documentary.
Thirty-five years later, as a grey-haired tourist, he finally visited the town again. He hobbled around the streets he had walked up and down so quickly along. He talked to locals, quizzed the elderly, stood in front of the house he lived in. No-one remembered him, nor did he recognise a single face.