This passage is from Sleepwalk, an unpublished novel of the Seventies.
Insane, adieu. It's summer; there are letters every week. Soft petitions, loud refusals, the usual prayers and prophecies, weather reports, prose in several styles. Smudgy photographs of languid bubble-gummers in their first bikinis, sketches of heraldic beasts in vulgar postures, things that look like poems, things that look like unpaid bills; page upon thin crumpled page. In the holy city, living solitary, Stefano mourns and frets, reads Nietzsche for his conscience, gobbles aspirin for his toothaches, resigns without explanation from the Cadre. It is time for desperate action. All his friends are out of town; only his enemies remain: numerous, close, watchful, hounds of conscience in sleazy raincoats, whispering slogans. Saying: This is the Real Thing, the Manifest World, and what are you doing about it, huh, huh? Saying: Consume, lest ye be consumed. While Stefano's mind mumbles continually, patiently, saying nothing.
Abandoned, Stefano walks a lot, to pass the days. He prowls the beaches, looking for ideal beauty, not expecting it. The gods are asleep. Pestilence is softly afoot, stalking the unwary, fear breeding like fungus in respectable houses. There are knife-murders in the streets. Voices rage in the clammy air, in apartment towers, in floodlit parking lots at midnight.
He is waiting for content to arrive. It will come down from heaven in a prepaid package, plastered over with labels in the angelic tongue, wrapped around with authentic heartstring. He will know at once what it is, and for whom.
The body of a minor statesman, lately spurned by the electorate, washes ashore nude and bloated at dawn, a great dead sea beast astonishing the wicked who still lie there, illegally entangled on the sand. No one grieves. In the park, bagpipes whine, atavistic drums thump, kilted orphans march listlessly in circles while refugees watch. Stoned, Stefano weeps for the sleeping gods, the awful summer eloquence of things. For himself, he weeps. Night after humid night, in front of the Cathedral, a young man in the uniform of a foreign army stands unsteadily on a bench, shouting: Throw down body and mind. Throw it down, throw it down. Throw down body and mind.
Stefano reads the Gospel according to St. Thomas. What is the sign of the Father in you. It is a movement and a rest.
Belly-up beer days. The world is full of strangeness. Fugitive lusts, ghost stories imperfectly remembered, rhetorical questions in the dark, heat lightning over the sea. Governments crumple like used Kleenex, dirty side out. In Stefano's room, the winter's coffee coagulates in tin cups; cobwebs drape compassionate Lenin, mischievous Mao, the Sacred Heart bleeding penitently above the bed. Outside, everywhere, garbage accumulates, proliferates, begins to decay, goes on implacably stinking. Stefano in dreamland conjures up sacramental bodies, timely consummations, honey and wine of impossible meetings. Sometimes in deep night he wakes violently, hears his own voice, reedy and distraught, speaking gibberish into the dark. He doesn't listen.
He can't help listening.
He populates his room with bad-tempered apparitions, discorporate California surfers, spectral ladies in prurient robes, vendors of soul insurance strutting the glad rags of Apocalypse. He can be observed, sometimes, in public places, discoursing learnedly to himself in a low, weird monotone. What is he saying. The barmaid at the Licensed Premises slithers close, a wholesome soul purely without imagination. Distress, Stefano is saying, Distress and dismay. Things given, things plundered, things broken in transit: WE ACCEPT NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR LOSS OR DAMAGE. O Calumny, chicanery, rancour and ratshit. "Oh Lord," he is saying, "I am not worthy, not worthy."
Insane, adieu. It's summer; all the songs are sentimental, all the girls are shining bright. The price of cigarettes sneaks mightily upward; the price of experience hovers at par, holding its own. The radio waxes moral re drugs, alcohol, tobacco: the Blessed Trinity, the abuse thereof. Stefano abuses them all impartially.
Forgotten, Stefano goes to the zoo, communes furtively with the Lesser Panda, who alone understands him. Whom he, too, understands. Four large, melancholy eyes meet through the wire netting, in silent commiseration. How cruel, how wounding to the Panda ego, to be forever the Lesser!
The Lesser Panda, Ailurus fulgens, also known as the cat bear, resembles the raccoon but has a more rounded head. The fur is rust to deep chestnut with black on the underparts, limbs and ears, and there are dark eye patches on the white face. It spends much of its time in trees. It is found in the Himalayas, and a Chinese subspecies inhabits Yunnan, Szechuan and N. Burma.
The cage is narrow, fortified, rancid with droppings, an inferior kingdom. So much for Ailurus fulgens, once the toast of Europe. So much for the stumbling chase down corridors of bamboo, the ignominy of capture, the long, heat-wracked voyage across unfriendly seas. Royalty loved the Lesser Panda. Ladies of fashion came out to sport with him. Courtesans courted him; poets praised him, pitied him. Little children laughed aloud to see him. But fame was ever fickle: in 18—, the Giant Panda was discovered in the highlands of Szechuan.
"Don't worry," Stefano murmurs consolingly, "for me you'll always be the Greater." Thinking as he speaks: small comfort. Watching nervous city mothers edge their children tactfully, slyly, away from him. Feeling suddenly the lifelong masturbator's secret terror: does it show? Sneaks a guilty eye downward, to his hands: clean enough, but hairy. Monkey paws. The obvious is lurking around the zoo like a vengeful donkey, awaiting its moment; he hears it even before the inevitable heehaw voice can say it:
Looks like they keep some a them animals on the wrong side a the bars.
Stefano tries, fails utterly, to think of something encouraging. Uplift, uplift is what's called for. Uplift for the downcast, succour for the sorrowing. He burrows in his treasury of Meaningful Thoughts. "Strive vigilantly upward." No response. "Error is Created. Truth is Eternal." Nothing. Stefano kneels in front of the cage, bony knees poking raw through his jeans, his voice heavy with obscure pleading. The Lesser Panda turns away, uncaring. "Be good, sweet child, and let who will be clever." No, it's not working. The loftiest sentiments and the lowliest fall alike on captive ears.
Stefano remembers Amiel, who wrote: Pious fiction is still fiction. So be it. Pious Stefano is still Stefano, lonely at the zoo, courting the inscrutable Orient, courting grief, growing lean in love in the heat of the city. The wind is rank with fuel oil, loud with the lamentations of homesick beasts, disillusioned children, weekend traffic stalled at rush hour. Stefano's stomach grumbles. The Lesser Panda slouches off into his lair. "Listen," Stefano calls after him, heedless of the zoo-strollers tactfully ignoring him. "Listen. Good news. The Communists are winning the war." It's too late, his friend has retreated, departed into his privacy. The outer cage is empty. "Meanie, you made him go away," a small grey boy whimpers malevolently at his elbow. "He won't come out again, it's all your fault." In his shameful heart Stefano agrees. Stefano gropes for his notebook, his pen, his expensive education. Urgently scrawls, tears out the page, pushes it tenderly through the netting. Let there be an offering then, an expiation; surely this is the least we can do. The merest gesture, a token of solidarity, comrade unto comrade, brother ass to brother bear. A message for the Panda: HOW SHALL I SING THE LORD'S SONG IN A STRANGE LAND? for it is written I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.