Discovering the alphabet
Luigi Malerba | 1963 | ENG
(Translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano)
In memory of the writer Luigi Malerba – recently deceased – we’d like to offer you an excerpt from his first novel: La scoperta dell’alfabeto (tr. Discovering the alphabet) (1963).

In the evening Ambanelli would stop working and go sit in front of the house with the owner’s son because he wanted to learn to read and write.
“Let’s start with the alphabet”, said the boy who was eleven years old.
“Let’s start with the alphabet”.
“First you have A”.
“A”, said Ambanelli patiently.
“Then B”.
“Why does one come first and then the next one?” asked Ambanelli.
The owner’s son didn’t know why.
“They just put them in that order, but you can use them in whatever order you want”.
“I don’t understand why they put them in that order”, said Ambanelli.
“It’s easier”, replied the boy.
“I’d like to know whose job this was”.
“That’s how the alphabet is”.
“It doesn’t mean, then”, said Ambanelli, “that if I say B comes first and then A, anything changes?”
“No”, said the young lad.
“Right. Keep going, so”.
“Then you have C which you can pronounce in two different ways”.
“Whoever made this up must have had nothing better to do with his time”.
The boy didn’t know what to say to this.
“I want to learn to sign my name”, said Ambanelli, “I don’t want to write a cross whenever I have to sign a letter”.
The boy took the pencil and a piece of paper and wrote “Ambanelli Federico”, then showed the page to the peasant.
“This is your name”.
“Right. Let’s start from the beginning, so, with my name”.
“First you have A”, said the owner’s son, “then M”.
“You see?” said Ambanelli, “now we’re getting somewhere”.
“Then you have B and then A again”.
“Same as the first one?” asked the peasant.
“Exactly the same”.
The boy was writing one letter at a time and then he went over it with the pencil guiding the peasant’s hand with his own.
Ambanelli kept wanting to skip the second A which to his mind served no purpose, but after a month he had learnt to write his name and in the evenings he would write it in the ashes in the hearth so as not to forget it.
When the people came to collect the grain and they asked him to sign the docket, Ambanelli licked the tip of the indelible pencil and wrote his name. The page was too narrow and his signature too long, but the people from the lorry were happy with “Amban” and maybe because of that from then on many took to calling him Amban, even though little by little he learnt to sign his name smaller and could make it fit in full on the collection dockets.
The owners’ son became friends with the old man and after the alphabet they wrote many words together, long and short ones, broad and narrow, fat and skinny, whatever way Ambanelli chose. The old man put so much enthusiasm into it that his dreams at night were filled with words, words written in books, on walls, across the sky, big ones and fragmented ones like stars in the universe. He liked certain words more than others and he tried to teach these to his wife. Then he learnt to read them in sequence and one day he wrote “Farmer’s Consortium of the Province of Parma”.
Ambanelli would count the words he had learnt the way you count the sacks of grain that come out of the threshing machine and when he had learnt one hundred he considered he had done a good job.
“I think that’s enough now, for someone my age”.
On scraps of old newspapers Ambanelli would look for the words he knew and when he’d find one he was as happy as if he’d met a friend.

Luigi Malerba
La scoperta dell’alfabeto
Bompiani, 1963.

Luigi Malerba (pseudonym of Luigi Bonardi) died on 8 May 2008.

The illiteracy rate in Italy is 12%. In the classification of the 30 best educated countries, it comes third last. Functional illiteracy – i.e. the condition where someone can read and write a word but doesn’t know what it means in a broader context – is as high as 37%. One in two Italians doesn’t know more than a thousand words. The Italian language has at least 160,000 words which are commonly used. Of these, 7,000 are used on a daily basis.