He cursed the curse that would not come

Language is a recurring theme in The Reawakening, Primo Levi’s account of his life in the months immediately after liberation from Auschwitz. In particular, the book describes many encounters with people of different tongues and how he and they find ways to communicate based on second, third, or no languages in common.

Other features of language emerge in the book’s frequently wonderful characterisations. A description of the foul-mouthed “Moor from Verona”, for instance, begins with physical detail:

There were about twenty others in my dormitory, including Leonardo and Cesare; but the most outstanding personality, of more than human stature, was the oldest among them, the Moor from Verona. . . . He was over seventy, and showed all his years; he was a great gnarled old man with huge bones like a dinosaur, tall and upright on his haunches, still as strong as a horse, although age and fatigue had deprived his bony joints of their suppleness. His bald cranium, nobly convex, was encircled at its base with a crown of white hair; but his lean, wrinkled face was of a jaundice-like colour, while his eyes, beneath enormous brows like ferocious dogs lurking at the back of a den, flashed yellow and bloodshot.

And from there builds a picture of a man at once enigmatic and larger than life yet who is accommodated comfortably in the expansive pages of Levi’s memoir.

In the Moor’s chest, skeletal yet powerful, a gigantic but indeterminate anger raged ceaselessly; a senseless anger against everybody and everything, against the Russians and the Germans, against Italy and the Italians, against God and mankind, against himself and us, against day when it was day, and against night when it was night, against his destiny and all destinies, against his trade, even though it was a trade that ran in his blood. He was a bricklayer; for fifty years, in Italy, America, France, then again in Italy, and finally in Germany, he had laid bricks, and every brick had been cemented with curses. He cursed continuously, but not mechanically; he cursed with method and care, acrimoniously, pausing to find the right word, frequently correcting himself and losing his temper when unable to find the word he wanted; then he cursed the curse that would not come.

While it’s admirable to take such care over swearing practices, it may be better to just unleash any expletive at all than to compound the frustration in a vain search for the perfect curse. But to each their own.

12 Responses to He cursed the curse that would not come

  1. Roger says:

    In W.O. Mitchell`s “Who has seen the Wind”, Brian O’Connal’s Uncle Sean “cursed intransitively” at one point (after exhausting identifiable targets (?)).

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @Roger… that was a fond blast-from-the-past… Canadian prairie-based author W.O. Mitchell’s “Who Has Seen the Wind?” that is… a poignant coming-of-age tale set in the heart of my home-and-native-land during a much simpler, bygone days of Canada’s pastoral, prairie settlement.

      Way back when I was in grade-school (late ’50s) this little book was part of our curriculum. I think I still have my original copy parked somewhere on a bookshelf at my mum’s humble abode north of Toronto.

      I recall how Mitchell treated death as such a matter-of-fact thing, since prairie beasties of all sorts, including humans, would be engaged in a daily struggle for survival, ofttimes against formidable odds… and yet life went on for those who managed to beat those tough odds.

      Roger, I’m sure you’ve read a few Farley Mowat books in your day?

    • Doré Bak says:

      Roger, thanks for the W.O. Mitchell reference. His novel “Who Has Seen the Wind” is close to my heart too. Although W.O. was born in Saskatchewan, he actually spent most of his formative youth in the U.S. That he could write such a great novel evocative of life in the Canadian prairies is a testament to the artist in him, and I believe, to his time living in High River, Alberta where he taught English.

  2. Doré Bak says:

    Your comment about being in a camp speaking many different tongues reminds me of a scene from the movie The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day Lewis. The conversation between the Iroquois chief Magua with Hawkeye and Chingachgook has a ripple, wave-like feel to it as translation after translation echo their way through the forest from Iroquois to French to Mohican to English and back again.

  3. The sentence is interestingly ambiguous, isn’t it?

    May you be eaten by a horde of giant cockroaches … I said, may you be eaten by a horde of giant cockroaches … oh, sh!t, where is that bl8dy horde of giant cockroaches?

  4. Gerry says:

    I recall, in the 1960s, visiting a camp for workers on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme in southern New South Wales, which contained many colourful characters from different parts of the world. The camp’s Czech butcher was a giant of a man, while one of the carpenters was a diminutive Croat. The carpenter’s quasi-affectionate greeting used to be “Hey boocher, you-beeg-a-bast@rd-fu#k-a-me-dead!” He’d clearly picked up some rich Australianisms.

  5. Stan says:

    Roger: I wasn’t aware of the book, but that discreet description of intransitive cursing is an effective imagination-spinner.

    Doré: I relied on rusty German when I was in rural parts of middle and eastern Europe – but I’d have been entirely lost without gesture. It must be twenty years since I saw Last of the Mohicans: worth a revisit, I think.

    Adrian: Because it suggests the speaker planned to unleash the cockroaches upon delivering the curse, rather than hoping they would eat the cursee in some undirected future event? Or am I missing something.

    Gerry: That’s a good one. I like how people refashion insults as unabashed terms of affection.

    • Not quite sure if you’re missing something or not … I was just drawing attention to how the sentence “he cursed the curse that would not come” can be applied to a different sense of the word “curse” (as in “these cockroaches are a curse”).

      Both meanings occured more-or-less simultaneously when I read the title.

      • Stan says:

        Ah. I thought there was a subtle ambiguity in the quotation you supplied, not in the line I named the post after. The double meaning of curse didn’t occur to me, but I see it now.

  6. SlideSF says:

    His curses: foiled again.

  7. Sean J. says:

    As for the la(te)st of your sentences [“… to each their own”]: George Tabori, who postulated “There are taboos that need to be destroyed” in a way was the obstetrician to a serious reflection of the holocaust and other atrocities ‘made in Germany’, and none of his plays impressed me more than this ‘joke’ (German: Witz):

    “Wie lautet der kürzeste deutsche Witz? – Auschwitz.”
    “What’s the shortest German Witz? – Auschwitz.”

    As said: Jedem das Seine. To each his own. Or, as Cato the Elder reportedly put it: Suum cuique.

  8. Stan says:

    SlideSF: Like water, they find a way.

    Sean: Thanks for that – I’m not familiar with Tabori’s work. The phrase is more usually “To each his own”, but I like to include the other half of the species even if it bothers a few grammatical purists. :-)

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