Contu: ‘The summer I lived with the greats of the 20th-
says the director of the ANSA, Luigi Contu -. I gladly accepted, thinking it was useful to share this story with readers.”
Here’s the story:
The last time I saw my father, it was the last day of his life, he told me about books. For an entire afternoon, sitting on a bed at the Gemini Polyclinic, he pointed to the secrets and treasures of his library. I was quiet about the surgery he was supposed to do the next morning, but he, who evidently felt he was in danger of life, told me nonstop about the books that were dear to him and where they should end up. Not only that, before he said hello, he wrote me a note to orient myself in his paper ocean. Ten years have passed and, in this time, I have often wondered why he had told me about his books in that way: he had not thought of leaving a will but had wanted to make sure that the library was not lost. Only today I understood why.
“You have to free the house within three weeks.” A sudden phone call sent me urgently between those shelves loaded with double and triple-row volumes. In the last month, together with my brother, also named Rafaele, I spent nights, sunrises, whole days between stairs and boxes to organize a plan, save as much as possible, not to disperse that heritage of knowledge and that family history that looked at me from above, from below, from behind. In a few hours I entered a new dimension, sometimes literally losing my orientation, wandering between rows, between a poem by Quasimodo and a physics manual from the Polytechnic, between an essay by Eco and an adventure in noble airship. It was something overwhelming and all-encompassing: twelve thousand volumes to watch and decide fate. All those accumulated in my grandfather’s life and my father’s life: 30 linear meters of bookshelf. It took six truck trips to move them all. For over twenty years I had gone back and forth along those shelves taking them for granted, taking a volume from time to time but remaining much more attracted to my readings, from my books. Almost snubbing those works, in that difficult relationship between father and son that in the age of intellectual extremism of young people makes you see everything that comes from family and tradition as a burden, sometimes an enemy of your drive to freedom. Now I have rediscovered a world and my roots. This is the story of a family library, of a path of study and knowledge that began at the beginning of the century in Tortoli, a small village in Ogliastra where my grandfather Rafaele was born. My father often spoke to me about him, describing him as an indefatigable reader, a curious devourer of knowledge. Rafaele Contu was an early 20th century intellectual who directed “The Sardinian Union”, translated in Italy Paul Valéry and Albert Einstein, founded with Ulrico Hoepli the first italian scientific journal “Sapere” and postwar “Science and Life”. His journey was marked by his friendship with Giuseppe Ungaretti who shared with him the tragedy of the First World War and the years of fascism, then giving life to the notebooks of “Novissima”, a literature magazine of the 1930s. “How beautiful our friendship was,” Ungaretti wrote shortly after his grandfather’s death. A lifelong friendship, during which there were moments of deep differences over the editorial choices of the series, as Claudio Auria recounts in the beautiful “The Hidden Life of Giuseppe Ungaretti” (Le Monnier)
I compulsed an ancient Sardinian-Italian vocabulary, admired the first issue of “La Voce” by Prezzolini, browsed manuals and Hoepli guides of the early twentieth century. Stories of Sardinian robbers and shepherds, operas in dialect, the chronicle of the inauguration of the first railway built in Sardinia by the Piedmont colonialists, the war register of the grandfather, captain on the Piave, with the list of soldiers killed, actions and licenses. The war, the two wars crossed by the family: meters and meters with the works of D’Annunzio, hermeticism, futurist posters. And from the paternal study all the greats of the post-war period: Moravia, Calvino, Pasolini, Montanelli, Eco, Sartori, Garroni, Lussu, Vittorini. Faces and names of the First Republic accompanied me, making me merciless comparisons with the current political landscape, placed above the desk, ended up in the room blessed granddaughter.
My father also lived immersed in paper: political reporter in the sixties and seventies, then director of “The Weekly”, spokesman of Amintore Fanfani in government and the presidency of the Senate, creator and director of “Telema”, quarterly in-depth in the late 1990s on the development of digital technology and its effects on our lives. But my initiation into reading came not from him but from my grandmother Maria. I learned from her that books need inner acting to live: I was six years old and she read me within a month, forced home by a lymphatic disease, all the novels and tales about the Great North of Jack London. Even today my favorite writer. And that voice remains one of the most poignant memories of my childhood. As the hours and days passed among the dust of thousands of books, the whole story was reconstructed before my eyes: between the pages, behind a row, letters, notes, photographs, characters, even paintings emerged from an ancient Sardinian chest. In three weeks I have seen and smelled all the poetry and literature of the early twentieth century: I read letters that my grandfather and Giuseppe Ungaretti exchanged to plan the work, correct drafts, dedications, autographs, editorial projects of newspapers that have never seen light, as a popular weekly that in 1942 was supposed to be called “Men”.
And then poetry: how much poetry was produced in those years and with what taste and sophistication. All booklets printed on fine paper, numbered, dedicated, autographed and illustrated wonderfully. Preparing the boxes I read a lot of poems, many I read. They have become the playlist of this period: in place of Springsteen and the Smiths is Montale, Quasimodo, Ungaretti, Bontempelli, Saba, De Libero, Sinisgalli, Cardarelli, Pea. All friends and collaborators of the magazines that his grandfather worked on. All linked by the thread of art, literature, love for knowledge and dissemination. A passion that took my father and infected me too, despite having physically perceived its pervasiveness only today, thanks to this forced move. A passion that cannot be lost and I hope to pass on to my children Ludovica, Francesco and Ignatius.
Who knows what Rafaele Contu, born in Tortoli in 1895, would think of the archive that I would like to set up and that my father has never been able to realize. I found that today, thanks to the knowledge, the science and that network that my ancestors began to tell in the last century, it is incredibly simple: with a free app I can insert the Greek operas translated by Salvatore Quasimodo and Grace Deledda with a few simple gestures on a smartphone. I wonder how my grandfather would have told this app about “Science and Life.” I am sure with the same meticulousness and passion with which he translated Paul Valéry and his Eupalino, the architect of Megara in search of perfection.
I grew up among books, between the paper of magazines and newspapers, and yet only in these days I realized that books, or rather, reading are the meaning of my family’s life, are the thread that binds three generations. And only today did I realize, after days of immersion among the shelves of his father’s house that was to be sold, that this was the real message that my father wanted to deliver to me just before he died.