In this first of the FrancoFasiolo Novels, we meet the eponymous forensic botanist who lives in a relict greenhouse in Furmentùn, a small village in the Italian Alps. We just catch him as he heads to Davos, Switzerland, to give a speech at the World Economic Forum. Disdainful of automobiles and most other forms of transportation, and a great walker at heart, Franco sets out on foot, planning to clarify his thoughts as he makes his way to the meeting. He has some encounters along the way that help him formulate his talk, and yet others that complicate the task. Eventually he arrives at the forum and makes his presentation, which receives a mix of reactions. Leaving the conference behind him, he finds renewed inspiration and insight on this trip home, especially with a visit to a museum in Bolzano. While Franco is away, the plants he lives with set an intriguing set of circumstances for his return, after which a neighbor fills him in on other happenings.
In which our hero, a forensic botanist, leaves his home in the Valtellina and sets off for Davos, to which he has been invited to give a speech, being forced to leave behind the plants he lives with, traveling as he always does by foot, unless circumstances do not permit it, but which in this case they do.
And with that, Franco closed the door and began to walk.
He reached the road that led up and out of the valley after several minutes of weaving through the landscapes of modern rural life: the clusters of advertisements for real estate agents, dentists and propane suppliers; the emotional pleas for solar energy sprayed on three-hundred-year-old walls; the lengths of enormous black pipe that had never found their purpose; the hokey kitsch that says more about the deterioration of urban hearts than it does about country life; the modern buildings that evoke only embarrassment for not looking like they were made by a fourteen-year-old; the stately homes that communicate the cruel inequality of times past in the richness of their design and construction; the plastic playthings of a group of children inside the security of a prefabricated fence; and the baying dogs who see it as their duty to ferociously protect it all.
Franco walked past all of it, still unable to find reconciliation among it and with it after all of these years. Where were they doing it right? Surely not the cities, where this was all you see, and therefore did not see, and surely not the villages that had little in the way of these things, mostly because they had little in the way of anything, people included. There, high in the mountains, you saw other things: the lonely cow locked in a dark stall, the stolid donkey staring straight ahead at nothing for minutes at a time, the frantic mama goat with her kids, who comes charging at you and, forced to stop by the fence that stands between you, unleashes a gush of urine at your feet, either by accident or in greeting. What does she want? Food? Affection? A chat? Franco would love to stop but what would he do? What would he say? So he would keep walking, hoping that it were true that animals forget the pain of their disappointment within only a few minutes.
A fig tree, ridiculous with fruit, cheered Franco up. It seemed to not know, not mind or not care about the squalor around it, and in fact was doing everything it could to alleviate it. What abundance of energy caused it to push all of those fruits out of the ends of its twigs? What sense of duty and purpose caused it to throw itself with such abandon into such an expensive display? Would anyone eat them? Bursting, big as your palm, and here high in the mountains, alone among the larch and birch and pine, like that African man he saw on the train in his pajamas. Yes, Franco knows he should not call them pajamas, which is an Urdu word, but that was not why. What was it, something about cultural relativity? So if culture is relative, why is it not okay to call them pajamas? Maybe he would not mind if I called them pajamas, maybe even like it, maybe find it funny, Franco thought. If someone called his shirt a blouse, he would not mind. Rigan, in Hausa. He would quite like it. Ihembe in Zulu. Not bad.
What was the fig tree thinking, so far away from the world of shirts and pajamas and molded plastic slides, from somber cows and excited goats? No, not from the goat. There was something of the goat in the fig tree, and vice versa. One time Franco saw a cow lactating on a beach in Hong Kong, wisps of sticky milk whipping in the wind around her udders and hind legs, long white strands of fat and sugar that dripped to the sand, inedible in their contaminated state. What a waste. He should have picked that fig, gravid with its own lurid progeny, scarlet wrapped in green, Christmas time.
The road up out of the valley had an annoying grade, steep enough to make walking hard but not steep enough to make it exciting, just a long slow slog that took the energy out of Franco’s lungs and legs without ever making itself known. The Valley of Tears, someone called it, which was unoriginal but not inaccurate, and therefore a description that Franco accommodated with a resigned complicity. His strides seemed ridiculously tiny, as if he were merely lifting his foot and putting it down in almost the same place, hardly advancing at all against the road’s invisible slope.
The border guard smirked at him with a handsome smile when Franco told him where he was going. Davos? Long way away! Franco just stood and said nothing, like the donkey. What does this guard do? Sit in his silly car, or on his obnoxious motorcycle? How far has he ever walked? No more than a few hundred meters, if that. The guard handed him back his passport and smiled again with perfect facial hair. Funny how it just grew like that, not like Franco’s beard, which was fuller and less angular. The guard looked like a young man from the Renaissance, not from around here, not like Franco, who was born and bred in the valley. Still, the guard was very likable and Franco was sad to go, adding him to his already long list of heartbreaks: the goat, the cow, the pig (remembered from another walk), the donkey, the slide, the smiling realtor, the fig tree.
Finally some curves, just a small cluster of switchbacks, but welcome nonetheless to relieve the monotony of the long slow trudge up the hot metal slide. Franco wished he could see inside of his lungs. He could feel them but he could not see them. He looked out and down to where he had come from and could see the layer of moisture he had passed through. He could feel it, the heavy cloying moisture that coated and soothed his lungs, but also congested them. What would it be like to have lizard lungs, hot and dry, with fine strong veins that soaked up the oxygen without having to extract it from water? How fast and light his body would be, like a balsa wood plane passing through thin summer air. He regretted his jacket already, and it was not even nine o’clock, but this was always the way. There seemed to be no escaping it. When he had stepped outside the door the cold had surprised and delighted him, but already he felt the sweat on the back of his neck, either sweat or moisture from the air. Was there a difference? Who could tell? When did one become the other?