Reenacting the walk that led to Nietzsche’s breakdown.
On the morning of January 3, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche is known to have left his Turin residence on Via Carlo Alberto with the intention of walking into the center of the city. He’d gone barely two hundred meters when, coming onto the Piazza Carignano, he pulled up at the sight of a recalcitrant horse being flogged by its driver. Nietzsche approached and, throwing his arms around the beast’s neck, whispered something in its ear that to this day remains a conundrum: “Mother, I am stupid.” He immediately went back home, where he fell dumb and lost consciousness, not coming round until a few days before his death, a decade later, in 1900.
In May 2012, I travelled to Turin with the intention of repeating, step by step, that walk of Nietzsche’s, which—between A and B below—I had no difficulty finding on the map.
Though I hadn’t intended to turn the trip into a tour of significant literary places, of which Turin has more than its fair share, it so happened that I took a room in the Roma e Rocca di Cavour Hotel, whose name is (plainly) composed of two names; I stopped outside and read and reread the sign to assure myself I wasn’t mistaken. It was probably after asking what line of work I was in that the receptionist felt compelled to tell me that Cesare Pavese had spent his last night in one of these rooms. In fact, she said, if I wished, she could put me in the very one where, on the night of August 7, 1950, the author of The Burning Brand had taken his life. I refused, naturally. First, out of modesty; how pretentious to want to stay in the space where such a well-loved personage had died. Second, because in general I’ve never had much time for suicides—I’ve often thought about the subject, and I think my attitude must be down to a kind of atavistic resentfulness for anyone who decides to renounce membership of the species I myself belong to. Clearly, to be dead means not belonging to the human race, but to another we know nothing about.
My room, Number 49—on the third floor, confusingly—was quite small, with a single bed. I half opened the blinds. The window gave onto a piazza, simultaneously guaranteeing good light and a good deal of noise. I unpacked only partially; my plan was to do Nietzsche’s walk that same evening and then return to my hometown of Majorca the next day. I took some photos of the room, a habit of mine. On the piece of paper I’d been given in reception bearing the wi-fi password, I saw “Hotel Roma e Rocca di Cavour,” but on other objects, like the coat hangers, only one of the names figured (“Rocca di Cavour”) and on others, like the bar of soap, only the other (“Roma”). This confused me: depending on which object you have in your hand you find yourself in one hotel or the other.
Going to check my e-mails, I entered the wi-fi password—“ypif”—and I ended up Googling it by accident, too. I learned that ypif is the name of a chromosome belonging to Bacillus subtilis, a “bacteria commonly found on the ground,” according to a technical manual. It’s normal for a traveler, roaming around, to come across things, abandoned objects, but it seemed that biology also had its own objets trouvés.
After a shower, I went down to a restaurant on the piazza, where I ate a steak and vegetables. The coffee, soupy and horribly bitter, I drank on the terrace, beneath the colonnades. Palatial buildings alternated with real palaces. Above them in the distance I could make out the tall chimneystacks belonging, I imagined, to Turin’s famous car factories, Fiat, Alfa Romeo. There was a shadowless midday sun. The paving in the piazza seemed fossilized.
Going back inside, as I came past reception I exchanged a few words with the man working there—the late shift was already underway. “Which room are you in?” he asked.
“Forty-nine,” I replied.
“Ah, the Pavese room.”
“No,” I said, “I expressly asked not to be put in that one.”
“There must be some mistake, Signor, that’s the Pavese room. Would you like to change? We aren’t full.” The ypif chromosome came to mind, and for some reason I felt unutterably dejected.
“No, don’t worry,” I said, starting up the stairs, “thank you.” Back in the room, I drank water from the tap and lay down on the bed, eyes open. I could talk for days, whole days, about the ceiling in that room. But I won’t.
Two hours later I was coming along Via Cesare Battisti, approaching what was once Nietzsche’s apartment. It’s on a corner and very easy to pick out.
I stopped for a moment at the edge of the café that nowadays occupies the ground floor. Looking up, I saw the window of Nietzsche’s room.
The window had the proportions of a golden rectangle. In the nineteenth century, this ratio, this privileged geometry, was a mark of a fine home, the thinking being that the people in charge of society ought to be in balance at all moments—ought, that is, to be golden. I felt certain then that Nietzsche, before setting out on his final stroll, looked out from this window at the men and women responsible for the construction of civilizations, with their perfect countries and their perfect cities, their colossal encyclopedias and their highly detailed maps, and that upon his return, when he looked out all he saw were dead people, piazzas covered in corpses: the future of the twentieth century, in which golden ratios would have no part whatsoever. And that it was that contradiction that forced the voice from his throat indefinitely.
I went over to the door and took a photo from the pavement.
There was a confusing piece of graffiti on the wall: it looked like three number nines topped by a crown. I went closer. A piece of paper had been stuck up inside the glass, advertising a room to rent. On the second floor, to be precise—Nietzsche’s floor. “For more information, call the porter’s office.” I went back to the corner with the café on it and started along Via Cesare Battisti.
It was a relief to be walking in the shade. The paving was set out in a rhomboid pattern—intended to give the walker a sense of rhythm, that way one doesn’t get as tired, and that way one spends more money. It’s the same principal as in the colonnades of old, which were designed expressly to prevent fatigue in those traversing the altered landscape. I counted the bicycles, I counted shopping bags, I counted estate agents’ posters. Here, everything was for sale. I passed few people. At the end of the street was a bookshop. It pleases me, in foreign cities, to look at bookshop window displays. A woman was coming toward me on my left, talking to her friend about something, and she was so angry about the matter that she threw her hands about manically and didn’t notice we were about to pass; she hit me with her bag, said sorry.
I went up to the show window. The display was organized by theme. I hoped to find a book by Nietzsche or Pavese, but in vain. And they’d made a mistake: the Bible was in the tourism section.
I turned to the left. Ahead of me the street opened out into the piazza, which was far larger than I had imagined. Here the paving was genuinely baking, the heat passed through my thin summer shoes into the soles of my feet, which felt like they had melted into one single sole. I began walking faster.
I came to the exact spot where the philosopher embraced the horse. There was a group of workmen. I was unsure what to do. Finally I went over to them.
I asked what they were doing. One, wearing a checked shirt, said they weren’t doing anything, they were eating, taking a twenty-minute break, after that they’d be going back to work; they were carrying out some renovations on the car park beneath the piazza. From their accents they were clearly Romanian, possibly illegal immigrants. I told them they were sitting in the exact spot where a philosopher had spoken his last words, a whisper in the ear of an ill-treated horse: “Mother, I am stupid.” The men looked at the ground, as if looking for something. I looked, too.
I asked what their names were, how they’d come to be there—what was it that had brought them to Turin and not Madrid or Rome—but none of them answered. In their faces I surmised the gloom of a people who, throughout history, have been charged with the building of roads, cities, cathedrals, abbeys, ports, and prisons. And now there they were, undoubtedly sitting on top of many millions of ypif chromosomes. They laughed. I asked what they were laughing at. The one in the checked shirt said not to take it the wrong way, they were just laughing, he said, my questions seemed funny to them—they’re something like an earthing element, another said, pointing at the floor. And they laughed even more. Then they asked if I had any cigarettes and I gave them one and left. It was around eight o’clock in the evening when, back in my room again, I lay down on the bed and went back to looking, long and hard, at the ceiling.
Agustín Fernández Mallo was born in La Coruña in 1967. He is a qualified physicist and since 2000 has been collaborating with various cultural publications in order to highlight the connection between art and science. His novel Nocilla Dream is out in English translation this month.
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead.