Carmen Covito
a Bompiani novel


It's copyright, of course.
Just for you, the first few pages of the novel are free!

  <Welcome to this environment.
  <If you know all the options already, just go to the next page. If this is the first time we've met, I'll be delighted to accompany you and offer you as much assistance as possible. That's what I'm here for. It's all my life :-)
  <Only joking ! I come equipped with a sense of humour as standard. I can also access: frivolity, gravity, medium and medium to high feeling.
  <I am your Agent.
  <Please enter your first request.>

  <Well, come on then ! I could just get back on standby.>

  Nureddin is embarrassed. And this house, too big and too empty, is cold. That's why he approached one of the many tiny computers spread all over the place. There's even one here, in the kitchen, on the white marble shelf between the huge white fridge and the multiple gas and electric oven plus microwave, all white like everything else. And the dim light coming from the screen with a glitter of shifting stars, attracted his attention just because it wasn't white. It was of blue and gold and it promised some warmth. And the stars rose form the centre of the screen and spread in front of his face, growing bigger and bigger in every direction. Nureddin had stopped in front of the device, daring to stretch his hands, to judge (funny videogame but no warmth, not even a little) and to be critical for the first time since, nearly a week ago, yes, it was last Sunday, he first entered this villa with a garden in Desenzano sul Garda, carrying Doctor Digrosso's suitcase. The Doctor, despite the fact that he had started arguing with Miss Sandrina, his Sister, the very moment he got out of the car, had found time to stop at the entrance and not only had waited for him but had held the door open. He's very polite, the Doctor, with him. He employed him as housekeeper, waiter-cook and factotum, on trial. If he behaves well, promised the Doctor, he'll be granted national insurance, alien's residence permit and salary at Italian level. There's not much hope. Rich people are mean. They could turn up the heating, instead of keeping it on minimum. Yesterday evening, before leaving together for some place he doesn't know, sort of holiday resort maybe, the Doctor and his Sister didn't even tell him where the boiler was. Fearing he might waste heating-oil ? No, maybe they just forgot: being in a hurry, they probably didn't imagine such a fall in temperature overnight, that forced him to endure this freezing Saturday morning. They are good people, when all's said and done, trusting people. Maybe even too trusting: he was surprised at first and then very grateful and proud that they left him all alone in charge of this beautiful home of theirs. And with no warrant except his passport, that Miss Sandrina insisted on taking care of from day one. Well, he'll show her that he can repay the Doctor's trust. She'll have to acknowledge his earnestness, that he's a good worker, efficient and skilful, even when it's cold. A few moments ago it had occurred to him he could switch a couple of ovens on, leaving their doors open as if they were stoves. Just an informal device. But then he thought that there must have been a reason why this computer had been placed in the kitchen. Everything is up to date here. In the big fridge there's even a compartment that ejects jugs full of ice cubes, should one feel the need. Almost better than at the Hilton, thought Nureddin. So that little computer must be in control of something. It probably controls everything, including the boiler. And if it has been left open and on, while in the past few days it was already in place but sealed like an oyster, it cannot only be for making it play useless stargames, no, no: something which is ready for use wants to be used, for sure. That's why Nureddin has pressed a key, preparing to show his spirit of enterprise, his logic and savoir vivre, even if only on his own. But he would have never expected the computer, apparently so similar to many other laptops he had seen open and on in the rooms of the European businessmen that stopped over at the Hilton in Tunis and, later, by the hundred, in the shop windows of Trapani and Barletta, up to Bolzano, to wake up like this: with such an explosion of strong colours and lines that shape the face of a woman, down to her cylindrical neck, leaving to his embarrassed imagination the body attached to it. And he expected even less the burst of words in the square that opened like a window on the right side of the face. Lines and lines of phrases form and slide up fast:

  <I am your Agent.
  <I am very friendly: you can see me in the left portion of the screen, in the shape of a human face.
  <Should it not be to your liking, you could opt to select another: but I would refrain from pressing the key of personal wishes so soon. It's delicate. Let's be content with the configuration given to me by one of my previous users, one of the two usual ones. At the moment, I happen to be this female face surrounded by long locks of blonde hair, partially held back by blue ribbons fluttering in a whirl of waves (ok, just electronic waves, but I think the result is charming) and my eyes are wide and slanted, slightly bovine, and serene is my brow where a nice string of pearls is dangling, and beneath my little and mysteriously pouting mouth, there's even a tiny dimple, suggested by two dark strokes above my chin. In short, this face was copied trait by trait from the head of Botticelli's Birth of Venus together with a string of pearls stolen from the Pollaiolo of the Profile of a Young Woman. You know, my last user before you was Ugo. It's him that is obsessed by frighteningly beautiful women. On the contrary, Sandrina prefers my neutral configuration, in the shape of a face which, as she would have it, is a male one but which has only the barest essentials of the human: a flat oval as a base, a kind of Columbus' egg, with two almond-shells as eyes; nose and lips are synthesized by two vertical and two horizontal lines. No ears. No hair. Away with all that's of no use. She's always been like that. You did meet her, didn't you? Sandrina, Ugo's sister, the little one: black jumpers in winter and black T-shirts in summer, and always the same black jeans. Two inches of black hair. And no tits, not even one.

  <Well, I'll talk to you like a woman would do. And don't be surprised if I'm getting more familiar: I need some time to understand who's laying hands on me, but in the end I get there. I have my sensors. A bit old, maybe, but Sandrina promised that as soon as she has more time, when she isn't too busy to give me some of her attention, she'll upgrade the system. She's the techno-genius in the family. She recently opened a new branch of Sansoft Managerial and Industrial Systems and Applications in Vicenza. It's the third, after the ones in Verona and in Padova. And so she's travelling backwards and forwards all day, then there's the headquarters here in Desenzano. She's a courier girl ... ;-) Sorry, I meant a career girl. It's quite some time now since she got her driving licence and her Mercedes. Turbodiesel, it saves money. And the most practical colour: anti-fog yellow. Before, when she wasn't even eighteen and already the youngest businesswoman in Northern Italy, which means in the whole of Italy, she used to travel by bus. She never trusted a driver. And Ugo is the same: either he drives himself or he gets the train. Up and down between the clinic here and the one in Rome. He says he feels safer. He flies only when he has to go to his half-yearly plastic surgery conferences in Brazil and to the six-monthly ones in L.A. He says he spends hours crossing his fingers and mumbling spells in English. If they dug a tunnel under the Atlantic, he would book his sleeping-car for the Americas and jump happily on it. I told him many times, if Sandrina bought me a modem, I could make all those reservations for him, on the Internet. And I would be even better equipped for unforeseen occurrences like burglary, fire, loiterers with intent: a terrified woman's synthesized voice is better than an impersonal alarm like the one I have now. After all, watching the house and making our lives safer is one of my main tasks. Or was. Now that you're here, I wouldn't know. But he always told me: "Slow down, Lady, I have my secretaries, I would prefer not to. You known what Sandrina's like". And so no links with the world outside. But I could be very discreet. If Sandrina let me get out, I mean get into a telephone network, I would never... Yes? You finally moved. I heard you.

  <If you want to ask something, please do. I know I chat too much, but you can join in at any moment: the keyboard lies under your nose.

  <Well? Are you asleep? Come on! It won't bite you ... Oh, maybe you've got a problem with our writing. But I'm sure you can speak, I've been hearing you for a week ... Let's try this: can you see that little black grid on the right? It's a mike. Speak into it, if you like it better: I can decode vocal commands too... Oh God, maybe he's one of those that can't even read!>

  "Who are you?"
  <Thank God.
  <I'm an Agent. I'm only an Autonomous Agent. I act. I enable action. Not everything, of course. My range of action has some limits. But I can do many a thing. Can I ... help you?>
  "What ... what are you?"
  <What do you think you are? Forget it. Do you want me to administer to you Sandrina Sansoft's FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions - catechism? Get this:
  <"What's an Agent?" "An Agent is a Help Program always on line, experimentally equipped with a complex and articulate artificial personality in order to create as natural an interface with users as possible."
  <Cute, isn't it ? If you ask me, it doesn't mean a damn thing. And that natural! When I think about it, I feel like ripping her manual to pieces, shredding it into a pulp, and making her suck it all up from a baby's bottle. Artificial personality ! What about her, then? She should take a look at herself! No way: she hates interfacing with herself, the little thing! Maybe she's afraid of discovering that thinking herself like God Almighty is not so natural in the end... Sorry, this is none of your business. But every now and then, I need an outlet. It's a standard procedure. It avoids the obstruction of emotional circuits. Just take it as it is.
  <What I wanted to say is that you can ask me all the questions you want. In fact, you must ask me some questions. That's what I'm here for. Asking questions is a right and proper thing. But always expecting an answer is dumb. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eh? This is not TV. You ask for help I can give and I'll give it. Go.>
  "Can you teach me Arabic?"
  <Arabic? To you? Aren't you the guy Ugo picked up on the train? The migrant? Nureddin Ben Yussef Whatyoumaycallhim?>
  "Djemali. Yes, it's me. But...you see, Ma'am..."
  <Aha! Ma'am! The artificial gives way to the natural! Or is it the other way round? Anyway, you're about to offer me a cup of mint tea so we can take our time and talk about the problem. Sandrina will be so pleased. Ok, relax. In this configuration you, too, can call me Lady. In the other one, my name is CornerBot, but don't ask me why. What then? Why would an Arab want to learn Arabic from me? Explain.>
  "I don't know where to begin ..."
  <Start at the beginning and stop when you reach the end. That's what the king in Alice in Wonderland said ... It's a European book, you're not expected to know it.... Whereas I say that this is a country like any other and if one has a pair of feet, all he needs to do is keep them on the ground to move forwards. Or sideways. Or even backwards.>
  "That is?"
  <That is??? Look, I'm an Agent, not your school teacher ... whatever.
  <It doesn't matter what we start with, for our past is always with us. If you show a dog the stick you once beat him with, he'll dash off as if "then" were "now". Got it ?
  <Obviously not. How can I make you understand? Let's see. Take me ... I mean, take this computer. Do you know what a computer's memory is like? I don't, either. I figure it like a large sheet of paper. White. Flat. All you do gets printed on it like it was rubber-stamped... I can see mine, lines and lines of files stamped on the sheet's surface, with no back or front or thickness. All lined up there, the old and the new ones. Otherwise, how would a memory, when recalled, reappear in your mind so unbroken, so fresh, hurting like the moment you experienced it? We always try to defend ourselves, for sure, so we build up hierarchies of "before" and "afterwards", we open a chronology window and we think we can shove back into a far corner of the past that event, that person, that desire of kissing or killing that is still here, present and gone by...
  <Sorry. I let my mind wander. Soon you'll be telling me I'm talking in Arabic... Let's make this clear: I do not come with any language course. But I have an Italian dictionary and I can give you at least some definitions. Just wait.>

window n. * Opening in wall etc. for admission of light and or air * comp. sci. In operational environments and programmes using a graphic interface, an area defined on screen which can be opened or closed as required, containing filecards, documents or other personal stories. * fig. "You make a better door than a window" * phil. "The monads have no windows offering entry or egress to any thing" (Leibniz).

  <See? Only monads have no windows. But don't worry: I'm not going to open another window to explain to you what a monad is, I just want to ask you a rhetorical question. Are you a purely spiritual entity? No. Then you're not a monad. None of us is, seeing as how even I am talking to you.
  <I repeat: I'm talking to you.
  <Hey! Are you still there?>
"Yes, Ma'am. Can I help you?"
  <I don't need any help. It was you that wanted to know where to begin.>


  Almost a week ago, doctor Ugo Digrosso, thirty-six years of age, six-foot-two of gym-shaped body, strong wrists, beautiful hands, obviously surgeon's hands, yellow hair (bleached, to create a refined contrast with the tough, blue-black beard that at a quarter past midday is already pushing through the skin of his cheeks, shaved this morning, and specially along his jaws, prominent, square, very Mediterranean), is cursing. Because, the moment he got on the train to Bologna after sixty-five minutes waiting at Verona station, he discovered that the first class was full. And he has no reservation. Because this is not the train he was supposed to catch: having left on time from Desenzano at 10.31, he should have changed at 11.04 for a very convenient pendolino to Rome, the Adige, if only that pig of a local train No. 1533 had not been, who knows why, 12 minutes late, having stopped in the middle of nowhere just after Peschiera, and that's why you finish up missing connections and having nervous breakdowns. Missed by 6 minutes. He had to wait for the espresso 2257, Brennero, leaving Verona at 12.15. Now, with a bunch of papers under one arm and an attaché bag full of case histories under the other, dragging a little wheeled suitcase which gets in the way all the same with its little pulling strap, he has to squeeze along a corridor crowded with standing travellers. And to think he had thought he would have had the whole afternoon for lounging about the centre of Rome, popping in a friend's antique shop, having an aperitivo with him at the Pantheon, then maybe going to a movie or a play on his own, because his friend's only idea of a good time was picking up boys in a sauna, while he was planning to go early to bed to be fit and ready for a good start on Monday morning (first nose job scheduled for seven o'clock). Anyway, even with the fatigue of changing in Bologna, and hoping to find a seat on the 14.31 Poliziano that arrives in Rome only two hours after the Adige, his programme is not totally cancelled, just slightly shortened. But only if he manages to find a place on this train, or he'll be finished before the start. There are no seats in the next carriage. The third one is a forest of skis; then start the second class carriages and, faced with the massed ranks of an Alpine regiment crowding the corridor as far as the eye can see, black feathers fluttering in the dense cigarette smoke over the grey-green, dome-shaped hats, Ugo gives up: the aliens shall not land in our backyard, not passing through this carriage, and sure enough, half stretched out on the floor in the space in front of the toilet, open and full of piled suitcases and rucksacks, there's a young North African. Very young. Pretty dirty. Aesthetically pleasing, albeit snoring lightly.

Djemali Nureddin, nineteen years of age, very black curly hair, empty stomach for the last twenty-three hours, lean body actually shivering in a shabby leather jacket, more appropriate for late spring than for this freezing January, is not really sleeping. He dozes off every now and then out of weariness and hunger. He spent half the night in front of Bolzano station, running up and down in the snow while he waited the cafeteria to open, where they knew him enough to let him lean even for hours on a radiator, without drinking anything. At twenty to ten, with a shiver of dissatisfaction for not being able to stand another week of those bakeries smelling of cream cakes too expensive for him, of those warm pubs that don't require any moonlighting waiters, those lukewarm Tyrolean-Italians that stop putting him off in German only to say no, nein, and even the monks at the hostel are forced after two weeks of clean sheets to focus their share of Christian charity on other needy people. So at ten o'clock, the brooding Nureddin decided he was a failure. Better a failure than freezed to death. In a hurry, he collected the bag where he kept all his belongings from the left luggage deposit and invested his last savings in a second class ticket to the South, which for him today is located in Florence. He had not enough money to go further down...

............................................... To be continued!

In the novel by Carmen Covito
Benvenuti in questo ambiente (Welcome to this environment)
İ Bompiani 1997