Wednesday, September 5, 2012

For many are called, by few are chosen

  For many are called, but few are chosen
By Giorgio Torelli (Translated and adapted by Leonardo Pavese)
In the long digressions of memory, which is so thick with solar images, one most lofty morning of many years ago comes to the foreground: The triumphant sun of Africa is proclaiming his lust for reflexes on the windshield of a small airplane, while I’m flying from Cameroon to Gabon with a pilot who’s wearing white silken gloves. He’s a French Army Captain who got mired in the sand of the tropics to fly daredevils along routes of opportunity. I telegraphed him from Milan.
We knew each other from other adventures. I know he gasped for air throughout  the Indochina campaign, and then he invested all his farewell French Francs in the purchase of a small twin-engine aircraft. He always heads for the shortest route: over rivers, forests, villages, and all the while he sings like a baritone, with the headphones over his ears.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer

In my message to him I had specified: “I’d like to go to Libreville and from there to Lambaréné. I need to understand where Dr. Schweitzer ended his life and his service. I don’t have a visa. Could we get there anyway?” We took off, only to find ourselves immediately in the bosom of a sky already worn-out by sultriness. The captain assures me that just getting to the place is enough; the rest is only a matter of getting away with a few fanciful words: Africans are seduced by surprise. Plans are made from one moment to the next. 
We fly cleanly, turning with broad elegance when very winged flocks announce themselves. Voilà, yells the satisfied pilot, who wants to insist on the voice over the engines. I nod a yes, and below us Africa spreads out her colors.
We fly maybe for two hours and the landing is smooth. I’m under orders not to spend a word. The captain seizes the situation with the gendarmes, who rushed us immediately. They are shiny black with sweat. I hear him strike up a singsong of phrases in the most captivating French. He explains that we are just friends passing through; we will just go for a moment beyond the river; we just need to park our wings in the shade; it won’t even be night and we will be back.
The Gabonese placate. The pilot slips off his white gloves and stops a bananas truck: Wouldn’t you give a ride to the pirogues to a couple of very busy friends?
While I’m unraveling the thread of all the things I saw, I find myself on the liquid vastness of the Ogowe. We are going, within the roar of an outboard engine, to the place on Earth I wanted to approach the most: that stretch of equatorial Africa where Albert Schweitzer, in 1913, invented fraternal medicine.

It wasn’t enough for him to serve the reasons of Truth as a theologian and a supreme interpreter of Bach’s organ. He had also demanded his will power to become a physician, to choose a remote stretch of land where men suffered the disgrace of pain, and confined himself there, never to return.

The pirogue cleaved the descent of the river towards the Atlantic; a supremely black young man held the tiller; the pilot breathed in that new immenseness and I thought, with the participation of my heart:
Schweitzer had been dead for only three months, and I would deliver all my admiration to his African grave, because the road the old man insisted in pointing out to us had become a bookmark for the Gospels.

We landed at about noontime in the green dampness of the hospital.

The huts of the sick were wide open onto the sumptuousness of nature: there were azure waters, calicos, white coats, goats, ducks, shacks, surgeons, beards, helmets, priestly figures, candid nurses, languages and dialects.

We understood we were placing our light shoes on the fabric of a story which couldn’t be told. The pilot held a cigarette in his lips; he felt he had to watch without commenting.
That tale of Christian greatness marked our breathing. We touched with wary hands what could have appeared to be only a legend: a man had chosen to offer himself to remote creatures, year after year, so that each one of his insights into the facts would become a signal of God.

He had uprooted himself from foggy Europe to answer the peremptoriness of a duty:

To love, in the field - in its constancy and its becoming - every image of God, imprinted in the story of everyone who loves, grows, suffers, hopes and therefore proves to be unique and non-replicable.

We were not to get back to that aircraft, parked in the shade, for another three days. I comprehended that which even the pilot, a man of war, was pondering over: To stop there forever would have been more right than proper. The grave of the grand docteur was just a mound of tawny dirt with a large hardwood cross, all around which little hens with intense plumage busied themselves. Under the dome of the forest there was such a show of birds, raising spirals of melodies to Schweitzer like not even Johann Sebastian could have.
The Gospels reached me instantly; and I didn’t care a bit that Albert had been a Protestant, and that he had journeyed through the Parables armed with persuasions which were exclusively his. Everything, in the citadel around the hospital, had been inducted to confirm one single conviction: God said it; God has to be taken at his word. Furthermore: If one feels called – and everyone, please, heal his or her listening with a dose of silence, to grasp the supreme accents of the summon – the true strength, the only liberty is to answer compliantly: “I understood once and for all. I’m on my way, in my nuptial clothes.” They had made a place for us in huts with earthen floors, and the magnified shadows of the objects replicated beyond the oil lamps. One voice stirred inside me: Many are called, few are chosen. I felt that life had put me in front of indisputable evidences, and that uphill road became a pledge. The dawn rose from the revived forest. Again the azure waters, and that grave again, pointed at which was the finger of God’s paternity.

Giorgio Torelli is an Italian author and journalist. He was born in Parma, in 1928. After quitting medical school, he devoted himself completely to writing. I'm not sure exactly in what way, but the airplane played an important part in his long career as an author, (as the article you've just read demonstrates); to the the point that the Italian Air Force even awarded him an honorary Aviation Observer Badge. 
I am very grateful to Riccardo Cascioli for having let me translate this article by Torelli, which appeared last year on Mr. Cascioli's daily Italian newspaper La Bussola Quotidiana.

I'd also like to thank J.J.P. for reviewing my English text. Your comments will be greatly appreciated.

L. Pavese.