Piera Mattei, THE GIBBON

I may as well admit it. The thing that gives me most pleasure in the world most people find grossly indecent. What I like to do is to stand and look, unbothered by anyone. Though never at nature in its stillness. Oh no. What I want are individuals who rejoice in their vitality. I let my eyes rest upon them for as long as I care to. No other objective in mind. The pleasure lies in looking at an object that has no way of removing itself.

One thing I must insist on. My looking is unmotivated. It is entirely innocent of any kind of penetration. I stop at skin - that pure membrane of the senses. Nor am I ever tempted to indulge in weighted interpretations. They’d only get in my way.
And yet, in spite of this liquid shallowness human beings simply wouldn’t be able to stand for it, probably because of the time my watching takes. People – whoever or whatever they are - seem to think that an overlong gaze, intense or no, blemishes beauty, blunts the intelligence, reduces the soul, indeed life itself, to shreds. Faced with suspicions like these I am absolutely helpless. It offends me to the point where I am forced to keep my eyes off the entire species of man, withdrawing them, moistening, like the tiny horns of a lumbering snail.

As satisfying such pleasure is vital for me, it means that I have to track down individuals (not humans of course) who possess the proper qualifications. They have to fit in with the right time and place. I mean my free time and what I feel like doing with it until I can settle on a correspondence. Now I’ve finally found it.
Ever since my discovery, and provided I can allow myself enough time and no appointments, I would treat myself to this pleasure every day. Although this rather limits me to the special days when I pay a modest entrance fee at the gates of the zoo.
Any zoo is created to institutionalize looking at living individuals. And this gives my quest for pleasure the rubber stamp. Otherwise it would be impossible. At the same time it frees me from ties of opinion and guesswork which only humans seem capable of imposing.

Today, like every day I pick, the zoo is literally all in all for me. Only a few green overalled keepers feeding huge polar bears with wretched little Williams pears (I wonder how many pears it takes). They are also feeding the lions with quarters of ready butchered animals, depriving them of the flavour of prey, much more to their taste. I watch them for a moment then walk on. They are certainly not what I’ve come for. I’m there for my gibbon. Because I know that on this crisp, warmish winter morning he’ll be only too happy to be looked at. I can stay there as long as I like, never shifting my gaze and without a twinge of misdemeanour or shame. The cage is a short distance from the others beside an enclosure for a collection of rust-coloured fowl. That’s all there is. The other primates live near the entrance to the zoo, where the main attractions are located. Another reason for my exclusionary mania because it means that the scant visitors are more likely to give the gibbon a miss.

There he is! He looks just like a spry little old man. Not an ounce of fat, no untidy creases in his skin. Just the gibbon for me. But he isn’t the sort that have a tuft of different colours on their heads, that they call the ‘hood’. My gibbon looks innocent and naked. The way a real athlete should. There is a stone bench the right distance in front of the cage. I sit down facing the trapeze. It’s up there amongst the tall trees and greenery where the gibbon has already marked me out. Because now he starts off performing two or three silent turns on the trapeze for my benefit, then squats on the bar, his long arms looped in the side ropes.

Seeing him like that, eager to give me my pleasure, I decide to play a harmless trick on him, just to tease him a bit. I fish out of my bag a tape upon which I recorded his voice the last time I visited. Very quietly, barely moving, eyes lowered, I switch on the recorder. What he hears is a throbbing repetition of ape cries, his own cries. But as they seem to be coming from my direction, he is convinced the voice is mine. The voice is his plus mine, and it absolutely thrills him. And he responds. He responds! The gibbon’s voice sounds like singing. It starts off huskily then, like an swelling drum beat, gets louder and louder until it explodes, showering triumphant trills.

The power of that call gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. And a lump in my throat. Today as never before I somehow have an inkling of that response, the togetherness I have so guilelessly aroused. But there is more to it than the cry. If I hadn’t kept my eyes fastened on him as he leaped and swung that cry wouldn’t have shot through me sending a flood of joy coursing my veins. With a ringing shout the gibbon lunged into his acrobatics, enchanting me with their skill, their spontaneity and ease. His performance on the trapeze ends in a gesture of pride, right arm held high on the rope, his left casually at his side.

What I really want is one last turn. But he just stands there eyeing me, as I eye him. I know perfectly well he expects me to give voice to enthusiasm, offer my praise. But the fact that I remain silent, as indeed I wish to, doesn’t appear to leave him crestfallen.

I look at him. He looks back at me.

[Il testo italiano è apparso in UMORI REGALI, Lecce, Manni, 2001. La traduzione è di Adrian Cook e Piera Mattei]