Four years ago, I spent a few months working on a novel whose centre of gravity was a small pharmacy in Rome. A family-run shop in the Monteverde Vecchio neighbourhood, it was little more than a wooden door and a sign on the ground floor of a solid early 20th-century building.
The story was about galenicals and families, a young pharmacist from a village in Apulia who realised his dream in the capital, his two daughters who continued the business after his death, and the remedies they made using precision balances and the wisdom of a dying tradition. It was a story about the notion of community built on mutual assistance, the idea of a pharmacist as being midway between a first-aider, a relative and a GP, examining kids’ tonsils behind the counter, offering quick advice for coughs, checking blood pressure and so on, for generations.
I’m not exactly sure why I insisted on writing about that pharmacy. I think it had something to do with its proximity to the house where I lived as a child, hence the statistical possibility that they may have taken care of me too in my early years. Another factor was probably my hypochondria, which has always made me see a pharmacy as a place where, essentially, anything can be fixed, a sort of hardware store for complex beings. The fact is I conducted hours of interviews and filled entire exercise books with notes. The story didn’t end well in reality or in my outline. Yet it was brimming with beauty, even though the pharmacy yielded to the present era, to the monopoly of big pharma and indifference.
Stories are like creatures that are both fragile and very strong. Some are age- and weatherproof, while others fade away with the first storm, never to be found again
I later loaded the story onto a plane for the United States when we were coming here to live. Before leaving, I wondered how I’d be able to help it survive the journey, and whether I’d find a suitable habitat in which to nurture it and turn it into a book. Stories are like creatures that are both fragile and very strong. Some are age and weatherproof, while others fade away with the first storm, never to be found again. This is why I spent the whole journey transcribing my myriad notes onto my computer. Crossing the Atlantic at an altitude of 10,000 metres, I attempted to construct an incubator of words for the pharmacy, to preserve it at least in fiction. The three-floor house in Arlington, Virginia, where we spent the rest of the summer was full of rooms and writing tables.
A few minutes from Washington, it was the typical house of the American dream. A driveway, a porch and neighbours flying the American flag. Inside, everything was wood. There were four bedrooms on the upper floor, and on the ground floor there was a living room with a piano and a fireplace, a study and a kitchen. In the basement there was a washing machine, a dryer, a fifth bedroom and another room halfway between a storeroom and a studio. Seen from the outside, it was one of many, different yet all the same – ours red-brick, others just timber. All around, an elegant suburban labyrinth of basketball hoops, squirrels in gardens, two or three cars per household, and no one to be seen night or day. The only difference – in the evening – was the parked cars and lit-up windows. And, on Sunday mornings, fathers and sons tussling for the ball and shooting hoops.
In that house, it wouldn’t have been hard to find the right place to let the story of the small Roman pharmacy germinate and thrive. There was silence, I had no other deadlines, and I was happy, looked after and fed by the people who were hosting us. Nor was it hard to find the right table on the porch, which was protected by a fly screen. First thing in the morning, I’d take a cup of coffee, sit at the marble table and sort out stuff that I’d been putting off for weeks, mostly idle correspondence. I had everything I needed to clear the field of obstacles that separated me from the pharmacy. I would spend the rest of the day discovering the world that was offering itself to me as a future, although Washington was only a stepping stone to Texas. But I was drawn to everything in motion, fascinated by things in transit as opposed to those that stayed put. The freeways, cars and that sense of fleetingness I saw everywhere.
...I was drawn to everything in motion, fascinated by things in transit as opposed to those that stayed put. The freeways, cars and that sense of fleetingness I saw everywhere.
Sitting on the porch with my hands hovering over my computer, I focused mainly on the details of houses. The appearance of a durable building, but then the fragility of its stairs and structure, all ready to be knocked down and built anew. I never wrote the story of that small Roman pharmacy. I did all I could to take care of it, to rescue it from the world to which it had been condemned, but to no avail. Maybe my mistake was in deluding myself that America could be a fertile terrain to cultivate that minor story from 1950s Italy. An Italy that no longer exists, that was unable to survive itself and was swept away by that piece of America we learnt to become, and that we call globalisation.
Every so often I reopen the file. It began with a village pharmacist and a family of dukes who owned acres of land between Avellino and Bari. Then came the coup de foudre between the pharmacist and his future wife, thanks to a painkiller passed over the counter. Perhaps it was one of those stories that vanish from one day to the next because they refuse to be squeezed into words. Or maybe it’s waiting for the right moment to return. I’m here and there’s no need to knock, these words are the handle that will let it in.