The Assistant


“It was Morris Bober and he couldn’t have been a better sort.”


It’s just that you read a lot of books. The further we go, the more the pages accumulate and the shadow of the stacked tomes casts itself over the days to come, gracefully indicating the readings we would like to face next. Slowly, imperceptibly, the analogies add up, the echoes reverberate, the amazement becomes numb. Of course, we always love reading but we adjust our aim, we look for original, strong styles, thick contents, we tirelessly pursue that satisfaction that the books of adolescence gave us, the ones in which the days disappeared, which also possessed us in the space and time between one read and the other. They informed our lives, the stories became our stories, you run to your friend and say “You absolutely need to read this.” The possibilities, the promise of all those books yet to be read. It’s not that one “cures” from this abstract fury, but then, life…

One day we fish out from the pile of books to read that title that they had recommended to us years ago, in passing, but with a light in our eyes that had convinced us. That book is Malamud’s “The Salesman” and on page 3 we are once again greedy fifteen-year-olds with our noses stuck in the words and our list of priorities all…in the air. We asked ourselves why. Morris Bober is a poor Jew, at the bottom of his honestly disastrous – or disastrously honest – existence there are: a small shop in bankruptcy, a wife as heavy as the crime news, a splendid daughter who is starting to understand what she wants from life and what she doesn’t wants from men. Since it always rains when it’s wet, two petty thieves in the last hour (the one before closing time) think it best to bludgeon him on the head and steal his paltry takings of the day. At this point Frank Alpine makes his appearance, a somewhat reckless young Italian who offers to work without compensation to help out and learn the trade. Frank Alpine and Morris Bober. It is the enlightenment of an instant to know that we will not forget these names; that their stories will be ours and that we will take them with us on the journey.

“What’s this?”

“A novel”

“I prefer to read the truth”

“It’s the truth,” Helen said.

And we sense that there is a lot of truth in this novel too: it is all in the gaze, humbly turned to the human soul, ready to reveal its smallness and grandeur. We move among the thoughts of the characters who are both common and extraordinary and with immediate ease we grasp the reflection of what eternally surrounds us. It is not the circumstances, it is not the times, but the multiplicity, the ambiguity, the contradiction, the perpetual motion of every heart that is always true.

The story that Malamud gives us is a clear body of water that our gaze crosses to glimpse the teeming life beneath the surface. As if to say that we may not like what we see but what moves us is not the goodness but rather the evidence: the man who cannot choose to be anything other than honest and who carries his honesty like a ball and chain is not good. ; the man who spends his life trying to say something important for which he can’t find the words and so he steals, cheats, gets everything wrong, just to find those words, is not evil; the woman who is afraid is not ruthless nor is the girl virtuous because she dreams of greatness: they are all real and human and such is the mastery with which these hearts are revealed to us that suddenly we understand that we will read and read all the stories again that we can, seeking these same truths that console us and make us cry and make us desire, make us long for life and curious about all the Elsewhere that a book can illuminate. This Elsewhere: dignity, misery and redemption, the cold March air that moves, the lilacs that protect a love. Make mistakes, make mistakes
again, look for a path among mistakes, a light in failures.

If reading is a very strange way of being in the world, a way that only apparently has to do with escape, writers and readers learn that the force with which a story can strike is the force of life itself, a direct tension in face, which makes us fearful and courageous in the same movement, open to the unknown, ready to respond.

Written by Delis 


Bernard Malamud, Il commesso, Minimum Fax, Roma, 2013

Original edition: The Assistant, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1957

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