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16 May 2024

Super-Eliogabalo

Every month newitalianbooks asks a translator to suggest a book he or she would like to translate. This month, Antony Shugaar presents:

 

Alberto Arbasino, Super-Eliogabalo, Milan, Adelphi, 2001

(first edition: Milan, Feltrinelli, 1969)

 

this note is ideally dedicated to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher and poet

 

Alberto Arbasino’s SuperEliogabalo is a book about freedom, oppression, stupidity, and wit. It is a book about dichotomies: between the pleasures of the body and those of the mind, between Paris and Rome, the North and the South, atrocity and beauty, the ancient world and the modern world. It also uses wit (and its corollary, stupidity) to re-graph and map those apparent dichotomies, unexpectedly linking them and marking out truer lines of distinction.

SuperEliogabalo represents a crucial and intriguing point in Arbasino’s career. Some feel that an earlier work of his, Fratelli d’Italia (the name is indicative: it refers to an “Italian brotherhood,” and at the same time, ironically, shares its title with Italy’s undistinguished national anthem), a Dolce Vita-ish account of intellectual and personal life in the frenzied, newly materialistic Italy of the late 1950s and early 1960s, is his most important effort. And that may be true: but SuperEliogabalo is his most interesting and vital creation.

And it is the rocketing energy of SuperEliogabalo that makes it so valuable, its eruptive, writhing rush to burst free of the confining strictures of an intellectual framework that Arbasino, and one of his great mentors, Carlo Emilio Gadda, had so perfectly mastered.

The restrictive intellectual framework is northern Italian, perhaps Austrian (or Austro-Hungarian, in a reference that sweeps from Kafka to Svevo to Joyce). In contrast, the burgeoning and unconfinable imaginative force that bursts that framework is Roman (no accident that SuperEliogabalo, written in 1968, was published in 1969, the year of Fellini’s Satyricon), and taps an ancient Dionysian wellspring, as well as a national Italian myth: a myth of ancient glory and – more important for the generation that grew up under Mussolini – a myth of ancient liberties.

Another, clearly avowed inspiration is French surrealist and visionary art and literature. The specific acknowledgments at the opening of the book are to Antonin Artaud (Theater of the Cruel), and to Luigi Malerba and Jean Gagé (two lesser-known but important literary figures, respectively Italian and French).

If those are the inspirations from which SuperEliogabalo takes its power and the obstacles against which SuperEliogabalo unleashes its frenzy and wit, the other aspect of the book that bears consideration is its amazing popularity and influence in Italy.

The book was originally published in 1969, by Feltrinelli, a publishing house that specialized in daring new work and revolutionary ideas. It was republished in 1978 (in a slightly revised edition) by Einaudi, a venerable postwar bastion of powerful new and foreign work. And in 2001 it was published (in a third, slightly revised edition) by Adelphi, one of the most respected Italian publishers.

SuperEliogabalo has been a touchstone for more than one generation. It was number two on the Italian best-seller list (beating out a Don Camillo book by Guareschi) the same week that the echoes of the murderous terror bombing of Piazza Fontana were rolling across a dazed Italy, inaugurating the decades of terror and blood known in postwar Italian history as the Years of Lead. And SuperEliogabalo – which pits ancient history against 19th-century opera and late-20th-century underground comic art, deconstruction against gay self-indulgence, terror and sadism against clarity and erudition and, above all, mere sluggish stupidity against golden, quicksilver wit – never went out of favor in all those grim and tiresome years. That it has never been translated into English is surprising and unfortunate: it is like Michelangelo’s Prisoners, pure spirit struggling to free itself from the restrictions and weight of the barriers of literature and art.

Antony Shugaar

P.S. A note on the proposed title: My intercap in SuperEliogabalo is meant to render in English what the original, hyphenated Italian title, Super-Eliogabalo, depicted for Italian readers of the time.

 

Below, we offer, with the permission of the Adelphi publishing house, a translation essay by Antony Shugaar of somes page of SuperEliogabalo:

A black cloud of frantic ungainly birds

 

shoots unexpectedly across the dizzyingly empty

                                                                                              sky

 

from left to right

 

another cloud of birds, from right to left

 

unexpectedly

 

with a great

            flapping

            of wings

 

in a modern sky?*

 

*(which is to say, not historic, not “vintage”)

 

and suddenly another flock of birds and another

 

black, unexpected

frantic

from right

to left

 

and a moment later

 

another

 

and another

 

from left

 

to right

 

 

 

with an enormous

of wings

flapping

 

ungainly birds             ungainly birds

 

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds cock! birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

birds birds birds birds birds birds

 

SUPER-HELIOGABALUS

 

SUPER-AQUARIUS

 

SUPER-STAR

 

SUPER-SEX

 

=====

 

astonished, motionless, flattened against the Latin Walls

 

like a frieze in gilt bronze on the topmost drawer

of an Empire dresser

 

the Imperial procession, ready for departure, gazes with bewildered eyes

 

up at these frantic flocks of ungainly birds

 

against the fiery sky

 

increasingly contradictory and sinister

 

and then in opposite directions.

 

 

Are they turning?

 

Are they flying away?

 

Are they wheeling around?

 

Are they heading forward?

 

Or backward?

 

In any case,

 

the omens are not exactly favorable                              no, no

 

certainly not favorable

 

for this Imperial procession

 

ready to depart,

 

everyone waiting,

 

 

carved in semi-precious stone or alabaster — cameos of

carnelian or lava,

 

and then, just without-the-walls, before the Gate of Saint Sebastian

already delabrée just as they are nowadays

 

(this is an era, BY DEFINITION, of

 

DECADENCE)

 

made of cameo

 

— there they stand, all fairly bewildered, their noses

 

in the air, in silhouette,

 

and all wearing the usual white veils, just a bit too fluttery

 

long, long, amazingly long

 

quivering with impatience… while the haruspices and omen readers

 

natter and bicker back and forth…

 

the omens are favorable!…

 

the omens are unfavorable!…

 

well actually, the omens are just so-so…

 

 

The wings of the ungainly birds beat madly in a violent frou-frou

 

back and forth

 

and (just like the week before at the—alas!—ill-omened convention of associations of necromancers, at the Magliana)

 

the open horoscope is about to suck the entire procession into quarrel and disagreement

 

(which had already been forbidden by the probiviri

 

in part at the request of the Internationale)

 

 

 

EVERYBODY

 

From the commanders of the Praetorian Guard to the lowliest drudges

—their heads swiveling back and forth, tic-tac, tic-tac, following the swooping flocks of birds—everyone has an opinion, ranging from the raw to the cooked.

Each according to their personal tastes.

 

 

BUT THEN.

 

Two squeals from a clarinet (from high atop the watchtower);

 

hasty, not very martial really, possibly a little something by Bela Bartòk

or perhaps Kurt Weill. In any case, Mitteleuropean.

 

And the procession sets off, actually at a dead run.

It moves quickly, as though fleeing, toward the countryside.

It hastily moves past a few black clumps of vulcanized trees.

It rapidly passes the tomb of Cecilia Metella, a shepherd with his flock, a dog with six legs, a caravan of gypsies, a rococo sedan-chair made of Perspex, a Fiat 850 special with six wheels, a Flight into Egypt,

an Abraham, an Isaac, a campground full of Germans,

a Susannah with her Elders,

a Rape of the Sabine Women,

a trailer in flames, a rose bush,

a Romance of the Pomegranate,

a row of sarcophagi.

 

By now we are

in a landscape by Poussin

drenched in golden light, serene,

exquisitely

classical.

 

Citrine-yellow, pale-green, ice-blue capes (they are precisely the colors of the fruit candy you can buy at Baratti & Milano: apple, pear, peach, plum, lemon, orange, rhubarb, ratafia, violet…), possibly made of a silk/wool blend, or perhaps a heavy flannel or a light canvas for that touch of wan coloration, herbal/mint, tamarind/barley, with a bit of gray-green braiding with scallops and zigzags and rust-colored palmettes, or Italian airforce blue, but with highlights of malachite, lapis lazuli, tiger’s-eye, tourmaline, all spangling the wigs that have been layered with a razor blade and then sculpted with gum arabic, and streaked with bottled purpurin. There is no historical pedantry, you know—really, no overenthusiastic reconstruction, no contrived exactitude, no overscrupulous documentation à la Carcopino, with authentic costumes and plausible furnishings. Nor do we ever see those exaggerated grimaces and gestures out of a B movie, though, we must say (it is hot as Hades), they have taken the summer litters, the ones made of wicker. These litters are comfortable, so cool, you get a lovely breeze even when the windows are rolled up. And then you can pee without having to stop or get out. Every so often, in fact, one of the litters drips. Especially the imperial litter: bedecked with fluttering lengths of scarlet chenille, beach towels, and a huge gilt triple crown atop a centerpiece of life preservers, and almost three times as many litter bearers as any of the others. And of course, the sperm- and menstrual-colored standards of Artaud’s Heliogabalus, made of terrycloth, perfect for stretching out on the sand…. But it cannot escape notice that this particular procession is unusually rundown and threadbare, we might say seedy, even for a period of outstandingly shabby decadence.

 

Outside the Latin Walls huge twisting columns of brightly colored smoke (green and purple, and the biggest one, shaped like a double banana, with various orange, salmon-pink, and lobster-red nuances) spiral quickly and unevenly into the air, and there is a weird clamor of voices, distinctly angry; probably a revolutionary mob. Is Rome in turmoil? As always, according to the historians of the era of Decadence, but the emperor is not fleeing, as it might, perhaps—even—seem, in the face of a Conciliar Republic, along an Appia Nuova by Ingres, past a Holy Water by Corot, passing underneath a ring road by Hubert Robert. It’s just the usual weekend for the Emperor, with his mammas and his guests and his modest entourage.

The usual, that is, a weekend with a murder.

 

 

And everybody knows it, let’s not kid one another! The Emperor Heliogabalus orders the murders of an endless series of notable citizens: senators, shipbuilders, industrialists, cardinals, publishers, editorialists, high-powered lawyers, and even skilled surgeons. And often for the most frivolous motives. Usually, the emperor has developed a yen for a villa they own, or a garden, a vegetable patch, a vineyard, an orchard, a lemon grove, or else he’s decided he absolutely must have one of their prodigious animals. (This is an exceedingly capricious Emperor, and a very good period for portents and monstrosities). Usually, however, these murders take place during the weekends at the beach, almost never during the week in town.

And so, up and down the procession—as always—there is a frenzy of speculation and gossip.

 

 

 

Too many religions!

Not enough religion!

Too many distractions!

Not enough television!

Too much engagement!

Too much alienation!

Too much authoritarianism!

Too much introspection!

Too much apathy!

Too much extroversion!

Too much absenteeism!

Too much politicization!

Too much bullying!

Too much disobedience!

Too much circulation!

Too much repression!

Too much impatience!

Too much impudence!

Too much impotence!

Too much impertinence!

Too much connivance!

Too much inconsistency!

Too much incontinence!

Too much inconclusiveness!

Too much recklessness!

Too much competition!

Too much concupiscence!

Too much indolence!

Too much indulgence!

 

In short, what are the true causes of this Decadence?

 

Wealth?

Waste?

Frivolity?

Need?

Conformity?

Decentralization?

Lack of discipline?

Depopulation of the countryside?

Class warfare?

Overwork?

Excessive loyalty to tradition?

Too many holidays?

Neo-colonialism at all costs?

Failure to update the legal codes?

The generation gap?

Technological progress?

Patriarchal customs?

Sexual license?

Unrestrained deforestation?

The gap in technology?

Air pollution?

Programmatic chastity?

Technology for its own sake?

The craze for weekends?

The frenzy of the new?

Poverty?

Programming?

Centralizing?

The pyramidal hierarchy?

Radiantly sunny days of the future?

The courses and recourses of history?

The revolt of the young?

The policy of splendid isolation?

The new direction of the Church?

The reaction of the old people?

The discrediting of the current ruling class?

Excessive non-conformity?

Outlandish consumerism?

Ruinously recurring natural calamities?

The Gospel without Faith?

The political alternative between monocolor and bicolor?

Laissez-faire?

The Piper Club?

The nude look?

Polaroid?

The disunity of the Lumpenproletariat?

 

=====

 

And so, who will be the victim this weekend, we want to know?

Up and down the procession, predictions and bets fly from litter to litter: among the passengers, and among the litter-bearers as well.

 

=====

 

The litters move past a gas station, charred and unrecognizable, the bones of a buffalo picked clean by vultures, the twisted sheet metal of a shattered Lambretta, a monument to Ho Chi Minh, a plaque to Professor Valletta, a bust of Francesca Bertini, and the Gronchi obelisk, and the tomb of Paul VII.

A white and light-blue Citroen suddenly overtakes the litters, but it immediately vanishes into the distance, with a Topo Gigio peering out the rear window. On the rear license plate, as it disappears, you can just make out in the last seconds the words: FOLLOW ME.

 

=====

 

The strips of chenille flutter.

 

 

=====

 

Inside the imperial litter, amid flitting ladybugs and hovering butterflies in the purpling shadow, sits Heliogabalus, intently pouring out an array of brightly colored, highly alcoholic medicines, decanting them into tiny measuring cups and then into minute drinking glasses, while an innately immoderate hair dresser combs out his incredibly long blond hair and then teases it into savage, cotton-candy disarray.

The hair dresser is very young, and he is already a visagiste. His muscular bare chest is very masculine, and here and there a fine curly hair sprouts beneath his violet and black crepe shirt, unbuttoned and open wide, with cruelly tapering darts on either side; a belt made of large metallic plates chains his waist, clasping the top of his black exceedingly tight pants, lashed close (with metal straps) atop the elastic-clasped thigh, worn in the style of banana vendors, fish-market roustabouts, male prostitutes: but his face is that of a gorgeous middle-class housewife from Vigna Clara, optimistic and slutty, framed in a horse-shoe shape on either side by daiquiri-colored curls that push, with his two mutton-chop sideburns, right down to the corners of his mouth, damp with his incessant talking and giddy laughter. Cheerful hippy bracelets clank against the scissors and hairdryer, and occasionally against his Lebanese rings when, in the midst of his various professional tasks, he lets himself go with caresses, sometimes quite exuberant caresses, of which the Emperor scarcely takes note, brushing them off distractedly. As soon as Heliogabalus becomes tired, he places two black patches on his eyes, and they are not precisely chic: there are big staring eyes printed upon the patches, in fact—and then he drops off into a nap.

 

The Emperor, in reality, is none other than Monica Vitti, with a psychotic exuberance of ironic affectations and exaggerated frills and flutters, continual winks, oversized angular gestures, hands generally fingering his hair or else wandering into his pants, rarely if ever resting in view, asymmetrical compositions of flailing elbows and crossed knees; a disquieting array of expressive grimaces and expressionistic simpers; a peignoir that belonged to Our Lady of the Gash; and lots and lots of necklaces.

 

=====

 

Meanwhile, in his miserable little single litter, loaded down with sprung traps and dangling daggers, the Emperor’s personal assassin snores peacefully, lulled by the gait of the bearers and the murmuring strains of the Muzak.

 

This procession moves along in a manner that is anything but majestic, much less imperial. It galumphs along hastily, chaotically, with mediocre and grotesque details, and all too clearly on a shoestring budget; but far more decrepit than exotic; clothing so ragged it verges on the obscene, accessories that are eloquently poverty-stricken. This is truly one of those eras of continual and total bankruptcy for the imperial treasury; the coffers are bare, the legions are mutinous, the hopes are scanty, and the salaries of the employees are always late and uncertain.

And so the service is catastrophically bad. What shoddy service! The service is truly anything but satisfactory. First of all, there are very few servants: not the thousands of servants described in the Palatium by Dio Cassius, but just a dozen or so, literally. And yet they have preserved their trade-unionist mentality from the old and prosperous days, irritatingly: if a servant opens a curtain, he will refuse to pull it shut, because that is not in his job description, that is the curtain-shutter’s responsibility, and likewise someone who puts on a shoe will refuse to slip on the sock first, because that is the sock-slipper’s job. No one does a thing that is not specifically part of his or her job description. Absolutely no one is willing to do a minute of overtime. Nobody pays the slightest attention anymore to the Imperial Schedule. And when people stop respecting schedules, the next thing you know they stop respecting… well… who knows… In other words, who knows where we’ll all wind up, at this rate, really. Also because (as if that were not enough) the water clocks, when traveling, work very badly if at all.

 

=====

 

The arrival at the villa is extraordinary for its bustle and confusion. Renovation is in full swing and has just come to the intense and melodramatic crescendo that construction work always attains—it is still impossible to say if the project will turn out badly or well. Work was supposed to be finished some time ago, but everyone is late, terribly late. Even here in the countryside, the workers show up well after nine, they come to work one day and stay home three, they are all elderly and insolently sarcastic, and they absolutely refuse to work overtime, much less put any special touches on anything. The construction is utterly chaotic: all of the mechanical systems are being revamped, all of the decorations are being refinished, and the plan of the building is being radically altered. While the building itself, which looks vaguely Cubist from a distance, resembles nothing so much as a painting by Feininger, deconstructed in appearance and entangled at every floor by huge square panels of burlap, staggering the façade and dangling in all directions. There is not a single straight line. Every room is teeming with bricklayers, plasterers carpenters painters and plumbers: they scuttle into hiding whenever a member of the imperial family or a house guest goes by, as if reluctant to disturb the weekend relaxation. But in fact they disturb it relentlessly. No one can ever find the room they are looking for, in this house that is continually changing shape and style as soon as a houseguest turns his back. You can’t find the doors to save your life: they are constantly being bricked up and then rebuilt somewhere else. And the curtains? And the furniture? Every so often, a wall is moved, making a room longer, or else the ceiling is suddenly lowered, frighteningly. The pantry, without any advance notice, is now the jardin d’hiver, while the greenhouse is converted into a library, with covered legumiera serving dishes being carried out of rooms and potiches being carried in, all amid great hustle and bustle. A corner of the room is in capitonné style, all Louis XV and stitched padding; you go for a walk and when you return it is pure Gropius, but with a convent table in the middle. The elegant little Capodimonte porcelain mademoiselles wander past an enfilade of Fascist-style arcades straight out of the EUR section of Rome, and the radio sheathed in brier-root veneer sits atop a rococo trumeau. But the style that seems to prevail is an eclectic Novecento, with an occasional nook in Roman Futurist, and a couple of immense collages of old newspapers. A person might begin to walk down a lictorian staircase and tumble out into the garden, or walk through a neo-Gothic portal and fall directly into the sea. And worst of all, the fresh paint ruins clothes and costumes everywhere you turn. The upholsterers and wall-paperers haven’t even started work. The immensely important question of wall-to-wall carpeting, moreover, is still being avoided.

But it is the windows that especially frighten the guests. Two middle-aged ladies have just managed, with great effort, to force shut one window—overlooking a sunny olive grove by Cézanne. A little later they open the same window and, to their horror, they find themselves gazing out on a Sacred Grove by Böcklin, gloomy and black, and in the foreground a pair of little dead green-faced girls, amidst rotten hydrangeas and putrid peonies, while in the distance a waning moon illuminates the towers of San Gimignano. The ladies can’t believe what they see. They close their eyes. They open them again. And they scream in blank terror. Here is a Piazza d’Italia by De Chirico with a menacing hoop chasing a nasty little gamine, between a cruel smokestack and a murderous petit-beurre biscuit.

 

=====

 

Even before entering the villa, Heliogabalus summons his trusted gardener. “This is most important, Projectus, everything should be the opposite of a Japanese garden. I want enormous begonias, immense petunias, outsized verbena, gigantic nasturtiums, and colossal fuchsias. And then we’ll trace out an immense Deep Thought in pansies that says: STRONG EMOTIONS ARE THE BEST ANTIDOTE FOR AN OVERABUNDANCE OF DARING METAPHORS, with lots and lots of exclamation points in ivy geranium. Where is Verberatus?”

The keeper of the garage comes at a dead run.

“Is my Heliogabalus-by-Artaud still in the garage?”

“Of course, My Adored One. Beat me! Beat me!”

“Take good care of it. I use it often as a vehicle; I climb on board and ride, as if on a spaceship, through many of the themes and vast expanses of the bullshit of our time.”

“Yes, Salammbô.”

“It is especially useful because it is fragmentary.”

“Yes, Cymbeline.”

“If it were all closed and finished, it would let almost nothing get through. IS IT POSSIBLE TO HAVE A TUB OF HOT WATER SO I CAN TAKE A BATH?”

 

=====

 

The villa, when all is said and done, is hardly enormous: it’s roughly the size of any seaside villa owned by a modern successful Roman professional, say a criminal lawyer or a dentist. The cooks, the masseurs, the sauciers, the orgy-managers, as well as the food-taster, the poisoner, the jailer, and the hired killer all have to work cheek-by-jowl, on a small scale, two or three in a room, because the ongoing construction has dislodged them all from their usual workspaces. Nor, for that matter, can they always do their work as a team. And so, each on his own, they are obliged to spend hours searching for a fish glue that can’t be located, or even have to lend each other erasers or bottles of tincture of sable. Sometimes there are even unpleasant little turf wars: if the hired killer asks for a cup of hot consommé, perhaps in order to make himself a Bullshot, the cooks and the poisoners turn him away rudely. His jurisdiction is stabbing and cutting; he’d better not think of dabbling in poisons, sorbets, or soups. He stalks off, deeply offended.

 

In the few apparently bucolic moments, a wall will come thundering down and a bewildered team of construction workers will appear, with an architect begging everyone’s pardon for tearing down the wrong wall, and disturbing the general relaxation. Often, a new wall complete with embedded piping and electrical conduits is hastily thrown up, and a guest, or several guests, will remain trapped inside, either because they were too sleepy, careless, or merely decontractés.

In other words: not much works, in this villa. Not even the water clocks, which were supposedly made by an excellent manufacturer. Every one of them runs at its own damned pace, and Heliogabalus himself flies into a rage when he compares his little pocket clepsydra with the big wall clepsydra in the front hall.

The maintenance man is summoned. He sets right to work with his various tools, and continues to work all weekend long, maneuvering behind the boiseries and beneath the wrought iron in a vain effort to get all the water clocks in the villa to agree, at least approximately, with one another, as well as with the various sundials.

 

=====

 

A trumpet blows a fanfare. Dinner is served!

 

A cornet toots sharply. A messenger runs up the front drive, panting with exhaustion, to report that the barbarians have taken Macedonia. The Emperor bursts into laughter immediately, and shrieks out: “They can have Macedonia!”

A flute sounds, followed by a clarinet. Everyone wash their hands! Here comes the antipasto…

 

=====

 

When the first aperitif is served, a wine-taster drops dead. Does the death of the First Victim undercut the general suspense? Not a bit. Victim follows upon victim, in a chaotic and humorless succession, as if the death of the wine-taster had been the signal for a deathly hubbub, rather than a hecatomb.

 

=====

 

The Emperor is blithely indifferent. Set on the table before him are the busts of Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus, as well as others (Mucius Scaevola, Cornelia mother of the Gracchi) with whom Heliogabalus chats affably during the meal, completely ignoring his fellow-diners and the sudden deaths that cast a pall (though he himself seems perfectly cheerful) over the meal. Guests leap, retching, to their feet. Elderly diners drop in small disheveled piles. Matrons slump back in their seats, dead. And every so often, a trap door swings open, right under the triclinium of diners who are—still—chatting on about “who the next victim will be.”

When Heliogabalus loses his temper, he begins slapping a bust of Antoninus Pius.

 

=====

 

Dawn comes, and sure enough there’s been a murder. In a puddle of blood, chicken broth, melted butter, mulled wine, and tabasco sauce, run through from side to side with the gnomon of the villa’s biggest sundial, which still reads 4:40 a.m., lies the Emperor’s hired killer, still warm, almost.

 

Nothing so scandalous has ever happened, on any other weekend, and the Emperor is absolutely black with irritation, the Mammas are all ranting and raving, the staff is grumbling, and nobody will make a cup of coffee—nobody!

 

A messenger is dispatched to Rome for another hired killer: another half-hour wasted! (and in human life, our Saturdays are numbered and all too few… Lampadius murmurs sorrowfully, helping himself to another soft-boiled egg).

 

But that’s life!—all the guests cry joyously.—Saturday is still Saturday!

 

=====

 

“Ah, just one moment.”

He rapidly issues another edict on emblems.

“Let’s move up the deadline concerning crosses. First of all, decide if they are melancholy, like the chrysanthemum or festive, like the panettone. Decree that they actually be tolerated in two specific circumstances: baroque triumphalisms (but in that case with pomp, space, fountains, palms, fins, plumes, scrolls, arabesques, processions, incense, ostrich fans, and polyphonies); or else in summer nightclubs, near the beach, where they may dangle on hairy suntanned chests, under macramé shirts, along with coral horns, dollars with holes drilled in them, third-world Indian-made bric a brac, Marie Therese thalers. Modern crosses, on the other hand (made of aluminum, cement, reinforced concrete, anodized alloys, plastic laminates, bakelite, or naugahyde) to be permitted only in the provinces.

 

There is one more item on the agenda, one last—final—tiny matter, already postponed more than once: the appointment of the Metropolitan of New Christopolis. “Who do you take me for? Constantine can see to that, if it occurs to him!” replies the Emperor, almost offended.

 

 

“A plate of spaghetti?”
          “A demitasse of espresso?”

“A lemon ice?”

“Thank you kindly.”

“My pleasure.”

“No, the pleasure is all mine. After you.”

“Oh, thanks. My ass.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon! The tonnarelli!”

“Allow me. The vermicelli…”

“Don’t mention it. Neapolitan style.”

 

Heliogabalus interrupts the countrified exchange of pleasantries.

He commands: “By my unfathomable and inscrutable edict, beginning tomorrow morning at nine, my esoteric attributes of Super-Heliogabalus, Super-Aquarius, Super-Star, and Super-Sex, will become definitive for the Praetorian Record, for all news broadcasters, and for emcees and impresarios!”

 

Right, right, the Orient…. mutter the senators.

And they summon the waiter, and resume ordering dinner. Pasta al cartoccio, alla chitarra, al telefono….

And now they want a little sambuca with a coffee bean.

 

Hold it! the emperor breaks in: “From this day forward, add to my office and my person the following appellations—Fallible, Violable, Available, Questionable, and even Incomparable!”

 

Sure, sure, why not? — your ass, your ass… the senators mutter in vulgar tones of voice.

They tap their saucers with their espresso spoons.

They demand gelato, ice-cream cake, Sicilian cassata, frozen gateau, a lemon-slice in seltzer water, a glass of Gingerino, and a mozzarella rice-cake.

 

But the Emperor overheard.

He orders the immediate decapitation of Avidius Calvus, the sodomization of Maculatus Negrinus. Then the recalibration of Otacilla, a gallant and defroquée Vestal Virgin; the regearing of Tabellinus, the majority leader; the refocusing of the File Cabinet of Future Projects; the recurling of all the male Pisones; the placement in geosynchronous orbit of a gilt Dionysus, accompanied by an opaline Orpheus and a Narcissus in silver-plate.

 

 

“How nice, that didn’t take long,” say the other senators.

They put away their pencils.

“Well, well, we’ll get home at a decent hour tonight at least, we’re out for dinner this evening with my mother, and my wife, and the boys, and the girls, and da cousin of my brudder-in-lawr, and da sistah-in-lawr of da cousin of my aunt, with grandma and with all her sisters, and with the kids too poor little things.

“Sincere regards.”

“Cordial salutations.”

“Your obedient servant.”

“Obsequious greetings.”

“Farewell, farewell, farewell.”

 

“Move up the date of the symposium,” Heliogabalus orders in a low voice to his intendant Jumbo Dildo.

And he dictates a note: if things go on like this, beginning next week, the lapdog poppers, which already enjoys the unique privilege of a plural name with a lower-case first letter, will also receive the previously designated appellations of Pantocrator, Cosmocrator, Heliopemptos, and Sun-King.

 

=====

 

Lunch still isn’t ready.

 

An elephant arrives from Rome.

Who asked for an elephant?

 

The Emperor says he certainly didn’t. He asked for a hired killer, not an elephant.

Who asked for the elephant? No one? No one.

The elephant driver says he’s trained and knows all the dances.

 

The guests gather, curious, and stare at him, in a clearing.

The elephant only makes messes in the flower beds.

 

The Emperor proclaims: he dances badly. And sends the elephant back to Rome.

Above all, it costs too much to feed him.

 

 

 

Title: Super-Eliogabalo

Author: Arbasino Alberto

Year: 2001 (1969)

Publisher Adelphi

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