There are some events in the life of a person, which have a stronger impact than others. At such times, you tell yourself you have discovered something, you have been profoundly changed, as if those events had broken a wall in the brain that you cannot rebuild anymore – or at least not without knowing that you’re doing it deliberately to hide what’s behind. Those events do not necessarily have to be sensational: they may be the sting of a wasp, a sentence in a book, the quarrel of two people who don’t know they’re being watched. These events do not really shed light on a path that was somehow pre-determined, destined. Nevertheless, sometimes you connect your memories in such a way that those insignificant moments become the cornerstones of some irreversible changes. Like an egg that becomes an omelette. In my life, one of those irreversible events was on a rainy day of November 1892, when I convinced myself that I got cholera in the place of Ilya Metchnikoff.
When I entered the room, Ilya was swallowing the last drops of an opaque liquid from a glass which he then dropped on the table.
“Here you are, finally”, he began “you’re late”.
“Late for what?”
“Never mind malchick, you just saved me your moaning. Sit here and take notes on what happens”. He was spry.
Malchick is the Russian word for ‘boy’. And yet, since Ilya took that liberty only with me, now everyone, from the secretary to the visiting researchers, thought Malchick was my first name. Malchick here, Malchick there, Malchick everywhere.
“Ilya, what did you do?”
“Take off that face, malchick. Nothing special, anyways”.
A bad feeling started to make me worry. “What was in that glass, Ilya?”
“Shut up a second. Do you hear that noise?”
“What noise? Ilya, what was in the glass?”.
He waved me to remain silent as he listened to something I could not understand. Then, pointing to his belly, looking self-satisfied, he announced: “It’s grumbling”.
I had been in Paris for a year, when I first met Ilya. In Paris it was all great, all different. The streets were wider, the people had the most diverse expressions, the smells in the streets were more intense. All that unfamiliarity quite confused me. At times everything seemed good, at others everything disgusted me. Right or left? Entrecote or carrot soup? I was confronted daily with choices that I could not make. The more simple they were, the more complicated they looked. In the laboratory I would be ambushed by anxiety attacks. I could feel them creeping up from the tips of my fingers which became numb, overwhelming me with anguished questions – what am I doing here? Why does everyone seem to know what they are doing? And so on. With the French it was hard. I wanted the people around me to think that I was smart, perhaps because I didn’t feel that anymore. I was sheepishly trying to prove it, but with the only result of sounding arrogant, pretentious – thus unintelligent. I would see it, I would be ashamed, and yet I could not correct myself. Everyone around me had their direction, their purpose. I didn’t. They would lock themselves in their lab in the mornings, and stay there until night. And so did I. But while I was floating around in my thoughts, without being able to focus, they would devote themselves to their work zealously. Indeed, with love. They had smug smiles constantly painted on their faces. The thing I found both fascinating and annoying was that, for them, nothing existed but their bacteria, their fungi, their viruses. Their world wasn’t inhabited. At least, not by the same beings that inhabited mine. My colleagues were even excluding themselves from their world, they were not there. Their abduction was at odds with the constant thought of myself, which filled my life and that, at that point, I began to see in all its narcissism. I wasn’t understanding: had they already found their own way, were they finally in peace with themselves? Or, on the contrary, did they not care at all? Should I consider myself proud or ashamed?
“Write, malchick! Write this: ‘Belly begins to grumble at 9.25 am” “Did you warn Pasteur?” I asked worriedly.
“As if warning changes anything”
“You should’ve asked him if he agreed, first of all”
“He is such a bureaucratic man, I didn’t want him to worry for nothing. Then the blood pressure rises and that’s bad for his heart. Wait, did you hear that?”
“Heard what, Ilya?”
“The stomach. There’s a battle going on here. Write: Reflux 9.30 am”
I just wanted to be seen by other human beings; I needed their looks, their words, I had the urge to watch and be watched. Was it so wrong? All they needed their eyes for, was to be able to look into a microscope. They could watch the cellular structure of Zea mays for a few decades, and be happy. I couldn’t. Perhaps I should’ve sought more tangible successes, I used to tell myself. Maybe become a politician, changing laws! Or maybe a doctor, defeating colds and closing wounds! Or even a teacher, moulding other people as I had been moulded! I could do so many things. Or maybe not. After all, I came from a tiny village in the Dolomites. Specifically, from the tiny ice cream parlour run by my parents. I enrolled at university just because my teacher had confused my frustrated commitment with something big.
“Your son writes fine essays, he should go to university”, she said to my parents.
The aura of prestige that surrounded that mysterious word, ‘university’, pushed everyone in the village to convince me that it was the right choice, that I could do great things. After all, of the world we knew little. When I was eighteen my only interests were Alice – a friend with whom I took long walks in the woods – and animals. There was also writing, which to me was sort of drawing people using words. Unfortunately, one day I showed my notebooks to Alice, who exclaimed, disappointed:
“But there is no story here!”
She was right, there were no stories there. It was nonsense. I felt stupid.
“Yeah, never mind” I replied cocky, throwing the notebook off the woods. She laughed. I quit writing and then I enrolled to the faculty of Zoology.
“I’d like to know how it occurred to your mind. You need to stay hydrated, drink this, come on”.
I handed him a glass of water. Doing so, I realised that the room was very hot. Too hot. My heart was beating fast.
“May I open the window?”
“But it’s already open! Malchick, what’s wrong with you now?”
“I don’t know, I’m too hot. Maybe I just have to stop drinking coffee”
“Bravo malchick, coffee is not good for you. By the way, Mr. Pettenkofer drank cholera a few days ago and nothing has happened to him”
“And with this? Is it a matter of pride? Is that you don’t want to be outdone?”
I loosened my tie, took off my jacket, switched the position of my legs.
“Nonsense, malchick. I do it because it’s necessary. Would you get me my yogurt, please?” “It’s not necessary at all. You could DIE, Ilya!” at the thought of it, a sigh seized me. A belly cramp, too.
“And if so? My life is not such a big deal, malchick. Give me my yogurt!”
I gave him one of the glass jars that he had placed very orderly on the desk where I was sitting. He looked at it delighted, exclaiming something like “Here you are, my allies!”
“Sorry?” I asked, puzzled, wiping the cold sweat from my temples.
“Nothing, malchick, I wasn’t talking to you. Write this down: ‘Yogurt 9.35 am’”.
After about a year at the Pasteur Institute, I was immersed in the uttermost frustration. Maybe I’d be happier feeding people with fruity ice-cream, I used to repeat myself those days. I was in this self-affliction mode when I got introduced to Ilya.
“You have common research interests”, said my current supervisor, clearly to get rid of me.
I mean, I wasn’t really engaged with anything, back then, and he knew that. Still, Ilya showed some sort of sympathy towards me, and we started to work on the same program. We would have lunch together every day. He was not really interested in my personal life, nor in telling about his own. He seemed worried about things such as how the way I ate would make me ill, or how the way I dressed would make me discordant with the rest of nature. He was a harsh man, but also a good one. He became a mentor and a friend. I knew nothing of his life, and yet I started look through his eyes, to look at the details on which they focused, to use the network of concepts by which he gave meaning to everything. Our long discussions used to arise from topics as insignificant as the colour of my tie.
“Its colour is too bright”, he said once, for instance. “It jars with the outside”.
He would build rigorous theories even about the tiniest details, constantly making parallels to his favourite topics: bacteria and women. Through our discussions we gave voice to the silent details of life, we did them justice. That eccentric man was the shelter of a balcony under the incessant rain. I knew that this could not last forever, that sooner or later I would have to move, face the rain, find my own eyes. I did not expect, though, that the tear would come so sharply. It happened that on that 12th November 1892: Paris was infested with cholera, and Ilya had just drunk a glass of it.
“After all, what’s so special about my life, about yours?” he turned his chin to the window to direct my focus.
“Look at that pigeon! That pigeon counts as much as you and me. Yes, it doesn’t know history, nor math, but it knows what it’s like to fly. If you slip some air under your armpits, you don’t fly. The bird does.”
Just the thought of armpits gave me a retch.
“What do you mean with this now…” my voice was broken.
“I mean that you don’t know what it means to have some cuts in your neck that make you breathe underwater, you don’t know how to change the colour of your skin to camouflage yourself against a tree, you don’t know how to give an electric shock, nor what it’s like to have a tail…”
I stayed silent. I knew I couldn’t stop him during these monologues without making him very nervous.
“…and yet, how many wonderful things you think you can do with your mind!” He looked at me. He wanted an answer. And he wanted it to be an objection.
“Yes, but we know how animals behave, and it’s thanks to our minds that we can act accordingly. With our rationality we can know and manage…”
“Wait wait, who tells you that it’s a virtue and not a burden? Little fish don’t care so much if some big fish eat them. Or at least not enough to build walls to avoid it and then die anyways because of something else. It looks like fish accept that this is how life goes…”
“Ilya, enough” I snapped.
He looked annoyed. “Enough? Careful how you talk to me, malchick!”
A bad taste came up from my stomach. The room was so hot.
“Sorry, I feel sick” I replied “every noise bothers me. Everything bothers me right now”
“You’re so weird. But I’m much better now!” he said refocusing on his stomach “how’s this possible, malchick?”
“Everything’s blurry!” I exclaimed wobbling in front of the table. I could feel Ilya’s puzzled and judgmental look on me. He remained motionless behind his desk.
“I can’t see!” I yelled.
“Stop this immediately, malchick. It’s important that you write this down: ‘Improvement 9.50 am’”. It was his indifference that finally made me lose my temper. I was sucked into the panic and, from here on, I only remember that I shouted a desperate “IT’S CHOLERA, DAMN IT!”, and after that I must have brutally fainted crumbling on the table, the one covered with well organised yogurts that I dragged down on the floor with me. When I opened my eyes, Ilya was standing next to me, compoundly slobbering his yogurt, elegantly scraping the spoon against the rim of the jar to prepare the next bit. “You’re such a character, malchick”, he laughed from above.
As I said, there is nothing that suddenly sheds light to some sort of foreordination. Nothing is destined. However, sometimes we decide to find some sort of sense, we decide to make some events special. It was there, lying on the ground, arms and legs uncoordinated, leaking yogurt on the face, a sharp pain in the back, trembling, dizzy, mocked, basically an idiot, exactly there, that I decided: this ultimate humiliation was the milestone of an irreversible change. It was the epiphany of my value. I’m not sure how conscious my chain of revelations was at that time. However, I’m sure that from that exact moment on, a new connection between my memories has changed my behaviour and my choices. This is, more or less, the train of thoughts I’m talking about: Ilya was a hero. Because he was different from all the others at the Institute. He constantly removed himself, yes, but in such an exaggerated and powerful way that all of himself would bounce back into his research. His studies were made of his own flesh, his own stomach, his own blood – poisoned in every possible way. And yet, what I discovered there, was that I knew how to remove myself too, but in order to put some other people inside me and make them live. That day, Ilya drank cholera and I myself experienced the symptoms. That’s because the mere sight – nay, the mere imagination of pain, melancholy, excitement, produced real physical conditions in me. My problem wasn’t narcissism, but imagination. Oh dear, this made so much sense. I needed to get out of that Institute. Fast, and to never come back.