If You Kept a Record of Sins | Andrea Bajani | Granta

If You Kept a Record of Sins

Andrea Bajani

Translated by Elizabeth Harris

The first time I saw where you worked was the day of the press conference. The firm had been open a short while, but first things had to be set up, adjusted, perfected, and then and only then, could you bring in the press and show them how good you were at making people lose weight. You’d phoned journalists to let them know about your machine, they’d been talking about it, and everyone had questions for you. The morning of the press conference you brought me to school, and the entire drive you told me what an important day this was because you were about to reveal something, something you’d never told anyone else. I could tell you wanted to bring me along, but you weren’t sure how to handle it with the school. We double-parked and walked up to the gate, you carrying my backpack, me tripping a little over my untied shoe. Then you stopped. You looked at me and said, How ‘bout we get out of here? Soon we were back in the car, me laughing, lying flat on the back seat, and you in your sunglasses, saying, Stay down – if anyone sees you, we have to go back.

Your product was an egg as big as a grown man. The top half opened, like a cardboard Easter egg, and then it would close shut, like it had never opened at all. You put fat people in there, so they would sweat, inside and out, once a day. It took three years to get it up and running. At first it was just a design on a big sheet of paper, spread out on the kitchen table. You showed it to us one night after dinner, after going back and forth from the table to the sink, clearing everything away, loading it all into the dishwasher. Then you unrolled the sheet of paper and inside was this egg, like it had just been made and rolled up in newspaper. Here it is, you said, staring at us, clearly expecting praise. All I asked was, What is it? Dad just nodded, and for a second, you were about to get up and leave. But you really needed our affirmation, and so we spent half the night imagining extremely fat men and women being swallowed up inside the egg and coming out extremely thin. You jotted some numbers down on a notepad beside the drawing, then plugged them into your calculator and told us the result, because losing weight, you said, was a mathematical fact. But this was all at the beginning, the egg was only a drawing spread out on a table in the kitchen, the struggling company focused exclusively on cosmetics, and you and Dad still seemed like a father and a mother.

When you presented the egg to the press that night, three years had gone by. For a time, you even set aside the idea of producing your weight-loss machines. You’d talk on the phone with your partner, late at night, the door to the office half-open and the desk lamp on. I’d roll over in bed to see your shadow flickering in the hall, like you were a flame in the night. But he just couldn’t do it, your partner, he couldn’t convince you to shelve the egg, and by staying on the phone all night, it’s you who won. So when the journalists arrived, it’s you who gathered them together and distributed folders and shook everybody’s hand. He walked beside you, shook hands with them after you, and looked a bit uncomfortable in this role. I was on your other side, and I didn’t know what to do with myself, if I should shake hands, too, or smile, or take off my backpack filled with my schoolbooks and drop it somewhere. In the end I just watched you, followed behind you, went where you went. When you asked for quiet, everyone turned around. They were on one side, you and your partner on the other, and for a moment, I was there alone, in the middle, still wearing my backpack. You said, Thank you for coming. This feels, for us, like we’re about to reveal a secret. Then you waved for everyone to follow. So we left as a group, one after the other walking down the hallways, the employees looking out from their offices and us slipping past like cyclists in a race. After the offices, we walked through the storerooms, after the storerooms, into the courtyard, we were practically running across the courtyard, the last ones not paying attention, bolting to catch up to the group. Are we all here? you asked, standing in front of a white door right off the yard.

Through this door was a lady in a white lab coat, and she greeted everyone with a single wave. You walked over to her, rested your hand on her shoulder, and said, Here it is, pointing to the weight-loss egg the woman stood beside. What you’re about to witness is a comparative demonstration. Two models chosen specifically for the occasion, you explained, will undergo two different treatments. The first will utilize a traditional piece of equipment, the second, the weight-loss egg. And two models came in, two fat girls in robes, one sat down on a bench, the other was told to lie down on a cot. The lady doctor wrapped this second fat model in blue elastic bandages and electric wires. Up until yesterday, you told the journalists, this was considered cutting-edge. She pulled a lever and every muscle in the fat model’s body trembled in violent, nervous jolts. The model lay there, gripped by convulsions, for ten minutes; you stepped away to take a phone call and the journalists remained seated a short distance from the cot. When the treatment ended, the lady in the lab coat freed the model from the electric wires and measured her belly and thighs, as she’d done prior to pulling the lever. Belly, three centimeters less, thighs, two centimeters, she announced with satisfaction, and the model slipped on her robe and went over to sit on the bench.

But that’s nothing, you said, as the other model obediently stepped inside the egg. It’s like a second gestation, like entering the world a second time. Then you pushed a button and the top of the egg lowered and slowly swallowed the body, the perplexed smile of the overweight model. You looked at everyone, smiling yourself, and announced a short smoke break, since the machine had to run through its various stages. You opened the door, and everyone left, me at the back, feeling a part of the group now, and you laid your hand on my head and asked, Do you like it? So we all ended up out in the courtyard, nearly everyone lighting their cigarettes before they were actually outside. I stayed on the step, my face pressed to the window to see in. No one else was there, just the egg and the imprisoned model; we’d left her there like she was inside a bread machine. And the girl shut up in the machine didn’t realize this, either, that we’d abandoned her to go for a smoke. She was in there smoking on her own, sweating and losing weight and hoping, sooner or later, that she’d once more see the light. When the egg stopped its spin cycle and you pushed the button to turn it off, the lid rose. And inside was the fat model, shyer than when she’d gone in, with all those faces, the journalists peering down, like she’d just returned from outer space. You gave her a reassuring smile and waved to the others to step away from the egg so she could get out. And out she came, and she put on her slippers and went and lay down on the cot, like a piece of boiled meat that’s popped out of the pot and onto the cutting board. The lady in the lab coat measured her belly, thighs, and waist, and said the centimeters lost were considerably more than those of the other model. Incomparable, you said, pressing your fingers down on the model’s belly. It’s due to the electric ionization of oxygen. Ionized oxygen, you went on, is a highly reactive gas that affects metabolism. It burns fat and helps redistribute it, you said. The redistribution of fat is fundamental to the process of losing weight. With those words, we all turned to the model, to see where it had been redistributed, what had swelled up, her calves, elbows, knuckles, or toes.


Photograph © Holly Levey



This is an excerpt from Andrea Bajani’s novel If You Kept a Record of Sins, available now from Archipelago Books.

Andrea Bajani

Andrea Bajani is one of the most respected novelists of contemporary Italian literature. His novel, Ogni promessa (Every Promise), won the prestigious Bagutta Prize. Se consideri le colpe (If You Kept a Record of Sins) won the Super Mondello Prize, the Brancati Prize, the Recanati Prize, and the Lo Straniero Prize. His latest novel, Un bene al mondo, is currently being turned into a film. Bajani is also a journalist, and he published his first book of poetry, Promemoria, in 2017. He teaches at Rice University in the Department of Classical and European studies.

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Translated by Elizabeth Harris

Elizabeth Harris’s translations from Italian include works by Mario Rigoni Stern, Giulio Mozzi, Antonio Tabucchi, and Andrea Bajani. For her various translations of Tabucchi, she has received an NEA Translation Fellowship, the Italian Prose in Translation Award, and the National Translation Award for Prose. She lives in Wisconsin.

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