When you want to avoid gruesome images, you resort to euphemism. To say that an army has suffered great losses is more acceptable than describing the horror of an appalling hecatomb. Liberating oneself of someone’s presence generally means leaving him at the door, or avoiding spending time with him, but in a deeper sense it can mean wiping him off the face of the earth forever. So, when I say that the thought of freeing myself from the devil became increasingly obsessive, I mean that the desire to ‘do him in’, literally, in the most sanguinary way, became ever stronger. I had already spotted a suitable weapon in the umbrella stand at the rectory, which held a nice bunch of sticks that the pastor would use for his sporadic walks. I had already chosen one that was good and sturdy, an Alpenstock with a solid brass handgrip. My adversary was a mortal being, after all, and even if he had the diabolical ability to be able to read other people’s consciences, he was otherwise as vulnerable as we all are. Furthermore, the situation was changing. Now I could also count on a number of residents of Dichtersruhe who silently harbored a grudge against that stranger who had treacherously entered their midst. In my most reckless fantasies I saw myself enter the café Oetker gripping my hiking stick as I headed directly to his table, striking him on the head with the full weight of the brass handle; I could even hear the sound of his skull bone shattering under my blows. But would I really go as far as that? Would I be able to face all the consequences of a murder? How would my parishioners react? Would they take my side? Would my act finally release them from the spell? All these questions gave me no respite. Yet I could see no other way out. If I let him live, it would not be long before he resumed his hold over the souls of Dichtersruhe.

Meanwhile, from the pulpit, I continued to accuse him of being an impostor whose sole intention was to con the villagers out of their money, leading them by the nose with the promise of a prize that would never be awarded. I even went so far as to declare with conviction that the man was the devil himself. And while earlier such a statement would have been met with an indulgent smile, now I saw their eyes widen in awareness. Many began to give credence to my statements. What I was saying had to be true, because never in the past had Dichtersruhe been torn apart by such profound hatred.

During my Sunday sermon, in which I once again discredited him, a rabid fox entered the church, arousing panic among the faithful… It was certainly the devil’s witchcraft.”

Meanwhile the devil acted like nothing was happening, and went on conducting his life as usual. He would arrive at café Oetker around ten in the morning to read the daily papers still fresh from the printer, then, around noon, he got ready to have a nice little lunch at someone else’s expense. But things were changing. He no longer went to the Müllers’ inn, ever since the owner had presented him with a bill that included arrears. Over time he’d run out of the Maria Mancini cigars, and the affectation of always carrying a manuscript in his pocket – which he would set beside him when he sat down at the table so he could read between mouthfuls, giving the appearance of a man totally dedicated to his work – no longer enthralled anyone. People kept their distance around him and no one was anxious to pay for his drinks at the bar anymore. My Sunday sermons were starting to bear fruit. By then few believed in the figure of the legendary publisher from Lucerne.

Then something happened that I interpreted as divine intervention. It was Marta Bauer, in fact, the unsuspecting rightful winner of the Goethe award, who gave him the coup de grâce, though knowing nothing about either him or his editorial chicanery.

During one of her rare strolls with her mother, the girl ran into the publisher as he was leaving the café Oetker. Usually she walked with her head down, avoiding any contact with strangers. But this time, as soon as young Marta saw him, she jerked her hand out of her mother’s and ran toward him, barring his way.

“You’re the devil, you’re the devil…” the girl began to chant, preventing him from continuing on. The scene was witnessed by several of the café’s patrons who at that moment were sitting outdoors. At first Dr Fuchs seemed to want to play along, awkwardly pretending to dodge young Marta, but she would not give up and stood before him with her arms outstretched, keeping him in his place. The scene indeed aroused the laughter of those present, but the game went on too long, and Dr Fuchs lost his patience. “Get this stupid little monkey out of my way!” he shouted to the mother, who tried unsuccessfully to call her daughter back.

“This is utterly rude!” he exclaimed aloud, so that everyone could hear him, and thereupon he had no qualms about shoving the poor young girl aside; Marta, losing her balance, fell to the ground, hitting her head. Without making a move to help her, the elephant climbed over the monkey and proceeded on his way as if nothing had happened.

The local residents asked me to do it. That’s what I would tell the judge in my defense. I would also add that I should receive a commendation, not a sentence, for having eliminated the devil in person from the face of the earth.”

It turned out badly for him, however. Although the girl hadn’t been hurt much, aside from a lump on her forehead, that show of irritation caused the devil to make enemies of half the village. Up till then he had lived by sponging off of others, but after that episode the creditors began knocking at his door, and the line kept growing longer: not only tradesmen and shopkeepers, but also simple craftsmen, painters, masons, and carpenters from whom he had commissioned a number of jobs to be done around the house. Now there was always someone waiting for him when he went out the door. And every so often a troop of rowdy kids crowded under his windows chanting hymns in praise of Beelzebub. Dr Fuchs remained a prisoner – so to speak – in his apartments. He could only go out at night, because during the day a patrol of relentless creditors stood watch outside his door. Soon the small local bank denied him credit, demanding immediate repayment, and the Lions Club slammed the door in his face. Despite the fact that he was now on the ropes, the devil did not spare me a last menacing sign of his power: during my Sunday sermon, in which I once again discredited him, a rabid fox entered the church, arousing panic among the faithful. The animal passed through the central nave and vanished under the altar; even after the parishioners had left the church, the search turned out to be futile. No one was able to explain how the fox had entered and how he had gone out. It was certainly the devil’s witchcraft. And this marked his end. People saw me as a kind of avenger, the only one who could liberate them.

“Father Cornelius, deliver us from evil,” they would say when they met me on the street. “Father, drive the devil out of our village. Make everything go back to the way it was before.”

It was the local residents who asked me to do it. That’s what I would tell the judge in my defense. I would also add that I should receive a commendation, not a sentence, for having eliminated the devil in person from the face of the earth. By now the requests from parishioners were becoming more persistent, until one day, as I was crossing the square, a young boy handed me a weapon, wrapped in an oilcloth, that would serve my purpose. The delivery of that macabre gift was so abrupt that I did not have time to find out who had sent it to me. Only later in the rectory did I unwrap it: it was a Swiss army regulation revolver. For me, having never touched a firearm in my life, that object had great allure. I spent hours gazing at the weapon, handling it with extreme caution, always fearful that it might explode in my hand. Only after having studied it meticulously did I dare open it. I took all the bullets out of the chamber and tried pulling the trigger. Even unloaded, the revolver filled me with uncontrollable fear; each time the hammer struck the firing pin, I felt my heart stop. I had to smile at the thought that the role of avenger had been assigned to me, of all people.

Days of hesitation passed. Finally I made up my mind. It’s difficult to say why I chose to do it just that Sunday, just at that time of dusk, just when the shadow of the mountain was already darkening the square.

From A Devil Comes to Town, translated by Anne Milano Appel (World Editions, £9.99)

 

Paolo Maurensig was born in Gorizo, Italy and lives in Udine. He debuted in 1993 with The Lüneburg Variation, which has been translated into over twenty languages. His other novels include Canone Inverso, The Guardian of Dreams, The Archangel of Chess and Theory of Shadows, winner of the 2016 Bagutta Prize. A Devil Comes to Town is published in paperback by World Editions.
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Author portrait © Graziano Arici/agefotostock.com

Anne Milano Appel has translated works by Claudio Magris, Paolo Giordano, Giuseppe Catozzella, Primo Levi, Roberto Saviano, and many others. Her awards include the Italian Prose in Translation Award (2015), the John Florio Prize for Italian Translation (2013), and the Northern California Book Award for Translation (2014 and 2013).
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@AnneMilanoAppel

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