Luigi Malerba

Discovering the Alphabet


The following piece by Luigi Malerba was published in the July 1978 issue of The London Magazine, edited by Alan Ross. Luigi Malerba was an Italian author and member of Gruppo 63, a literary movement inspired by Marxist and Structuralist theories. Malerba went on to win multiple literary prizes for his work, including the first Médici Prix Étranger prize in 1970 for his short-story Salto mortale.

At sunset, having knocked off for the day, the old peasant Ambanelli made it a habit to sit himself at the feet of his boss’s little boy. He had done this ever since he had got it into his head to learn how to read and write.
….‘Let’s begin with the alphabet,’ suggested the little boy, who was only 11.
….‘Let’s begin with the alphabet.’
….‘First we have A.’
….‘A,’ the old peasant repeated.
….‘Next comes B.’
….‘Why first one then next the other?’ Ambanelli asked.
….The boss’s little boy couldn’t say why first one then next the
….‘That’s just how they have arranged it. But you can say it in any order you like.’
….The old man said. ‘I don’t see why B comes after A.’
….‘For convenience.’
….‘I’d like to know who started this nonsense.’
….‘It’s how the alphabet is.’
….‘It doesn’t mean then,’ asked Ambanelli, ‘that if I say B before A it’ll make any difference?’
….No, the boy told him it wouldn’t make any difference.
….‘Well, let’s go on.’
….‘Then comes C which can be pronounced two different ways.’
….‘All this stuff, you know, is the work of people with more time on their hands than they know what to do with.’
….The little boy was at a loss what to say.
….‘I want to learn my name.’ Ambanelli said. ‘When I have to sign a
paper I have to give my mark and I don’t like doing that.’
….The boy took up the pencil and a piece of paper and wrote
‘Ambanelli Federico’ and showed it to Federico Ambanelli.
….‘This is your signature.’
….‘Good. Let’s begin over again with my signature.’
….‘First,’ said the boss’s little boy, ‘we have A. Next comes M.’
….‘You see!’ said Ambanelli, ‘Now you’re talking.’
….‘Then comes B and then another A.’
….‘Exactly the same as the first A?’
….‘Exactly the same.’
….One after the other the little boy wrote out each letter and then he copied them holding the pencil in the old man’s hands.
….Ambanelli was always inclined to omit the second A on the grounds that it was redundant, but after a month he had mastered the technique of signing his name and he wrote it out each evening in the ashes of his fireplace in order not to forget it.
….When the grain collectors came, and handed him the receipt to sign, Ambanelli licked the tip of his pencil and wrote out his signature. The piece of paper was rather narrow and his signature rather long but the lorry drivers were satisfied with ‘Amban’ and perhaps this was why everyone called him Amban even though he gradually learnt the knack of writing his signature smaller and how to get it all onto the receipt.
….The boss’s boy got to be friends with the old man and after the alphabet they passed on to writing lots of words, long and short words, as Ambanelli pictured them, tall and stumpy ones, fat and skinny ones.
….The old man worked so hard that he began to dream words in his sleep, words written in books, on walls, in the sky, vast flaming letters like the stars at night. Some words were his special favourites and these he tried to teach his wife. Finally he succeeded in joining them together until one day he could read ‘Farmer’s Co-operative of the Province of Parma’.
….Ambanelli kept count of the words he had learnt as carefully as if they had been sacks of grain dropping out of the thresher, and when he had learnt a hundred he was pleased at a job well done.
….‘That’s enough for an old man my age.’
….But in old scraps of newspapers Ambanelli sought out the few words he knew and whenever he came across one he was as happy as if he had bumped into an old friend.

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