From the Archives: What makes a character different?

MY MALE CHARACTERS are so far from my psyche that it seems like an almost impossible task to ‘get them right’. The only thing I had in common with the character of Vito Del Bianco (“Fiume – the Lost River”) was – we were both writers. He is a womanizer, a bon vivant, heavy drinker, cynic, and a cunning man. He loved and lived on the wild side taking advantage of people and situations.

Just like Nicholas O’B (“The Mosaic of the Broken Soul”), a selfish, self-destructive wannabe writer, a gambler, liar, cheat and a skilled master of manipulation and deceit.

Otto Visconti is a misfit (“The Lonely Poet and Other Stories”). A poet who interprets the world in a very unique way: he is suspicious, overwhelmingly pessimistic showing poor and degenerate demeanor and lifestyle due to the lack of self-confidence and inner strength. He blames his parents for his misfortunes and lack of stamina, mainly his mother, which makes him create an unreal view of women, unreal expectations and ridiculous, unsuccessful attempts to charm any woman or win any friend.

How do I fit there? Under the skin of such a character or in his milieu?

I let them be. I let them express themselves; I listen to them.

I evoke and explore old memories, the place where I store all the characters I’ve ever met; I study people thoroughly all the time and ask myself constantly, ‘How does he feel right now?’, ‘Why did he say that and how can I see on his face, in his gestures that he really meant it?,’ ‘What is his body language saying about him, his feelings and hidden motives?’

While I write about them I live their lives, I get into their heads and I converse with them asking them to reveal their deepest thoughts, secrets and dreams: pleasant, unpleasant, ordinary, wild, cruel or unselfish, the whole range of emotions. For me it matters more what they feel than how they comb their hair or what type of shirt they are wearing.I endlessly analyse my characters. I sympathise and empathise with them trying to get out of me all those feelings that they might feel or might hide

When I bring out all of their emotions I know that it is going to be convincing … surely for some of my readers; as I can’t claim that my male characters are perfect, I know, at least, that they are – colourful.

In my latest collection of short stories, Otto Visconti is the narrator of his misfortunes, which he creates himself by his wicked interpretation of the reality in which he resides.

His unique ways of interpreting and communicating is presented here, in the story

Branka Cubrilo

Simona: An Excerpt

 We were sitting at the table having breakfast. Father said:

“I have something to tell you … Simona’s pregnant …”

Upon delivering this sentence his face had become as red as if he had said something very shameful.
The very same redness spilt over mother’s face; her neck, even her hands became red and sweaty and her fingers started to tremble heavily, which caused the tinkling of the spoon in the sugar bowl, and mother muttered a red-hot sentence from her flaming throat with a voice tinkling with excitement (everything, everything tinkled during that particular morning):

“You don’t have to say a word, I know it all. You can go, but you have to know one thing—you are not going to take a single thing with you. Go!” Red and trembling she stood up and ran towards the bedroom where her tears had caught up with her after she had tried to keep them on the edge of her eyelashes while she was still at the table. When she slammed the bedroom door, silence was hanging over the table; the tinkling of the cups, the saucers and her own fingers had stopped, the tinkling of her voice had stopped, too, the only thing that could be heard was my father clearing his throat while looking at the cup of now absolutely cold coffee.

Simona. We knew Simona well. Why did mother get so upset? Why did her fingers tinkle in chorus with fine china while the redness spilt all over her face? Why did father’s face get so red that he resembled a little embarrassed boy who had just told a shameful lie to his parents?

We know Simona well; she is my father’s secretary. And what a secretary she’s been; father always used to say thatGod, himself, had sent Simona to his office, he used to say that he would lose his head without Simona … I can’t see why mother got so agitated … so what if she is pregnant, she is not irreplaceable.

I said to my father:

“Are you afraid that now she is going to leave because she is pregnant? Does it worry you to look for another secretary?”

He did not look into my eyes but rather somewhere around my chest, and with a still dull, quiet voice said:

“Otto, are you really that stupid or are you just pretending to be that way?”

I did not understand what he was asking. He stood up and walked out without a coat into a cold Milan morning.

We knew Simona. She came into his office some five years ago, that’s exactly how much older she was than I – five years. She was eighteen when she started to work for him. When I had laid my eyes on her, I thought, “This is exactly how my future wife is going to look.”

Oh merciful Lord, she had the most beautiful smile, I had never seen a smile like hers. It adorned her face so beautifully that I was not able to notice anything else: the coulour or the shape of her eyes, the shape of her nose or chin … bah, what shape? No other shape was there to distinguish, nothing, there was only Simona’s smile on that face. Simona’s smile was always there like the sun in a cloudless sky.

Whenever I came to father’s office Simona would treat me with chocolates, which she kept in the first drawer on the left hand side of her desk. I would always take one, but Simona would not take any, for she would say she had already had one in the morning, which was exactly what she would allow herself to have (I marvelled at her discipline!)

My first cup of coffee ever! Simona had prepared it for me. I came to father’s office carrying some papers which mother had sent on father’s request. He was not there; Simona said:

“Sit down, Otto. Have a cup of coffee with me.”

There I had enjoyed my first coffee, the sweetest, and I had never ever experienced that sweetness again but I had promised myself once again that the woman I was going to love would carry on her face the ever-pre- sent Simona’s smile (was it good or bad luck, the devil knows; later I met Her with that smile which overshadowed even Simona’s seemingly perfect smile.)

Whenever I would meet Simona my hands would tremble just as my mother’s hands had trembled today. I never knew the real reason for the trembling of my hands … was it because of her smile or was it because of her pitch-black hair, combed and sleek looking as if it was made of tar … or was it because of the fireflies in her eyes which flew towards you as she talked to you or they flew towards the window to reach the wide sky? … Live fireflies in Simona’s eyes.

When father had walked out without a coat (was it really too hot for him, or was he in such a hurry that he had forgotten his coat, who would really know now?) I had entered mother’s room. I found her lying on the bed crying, I sat down on the edge of the bed without a word. After a short time she got up, wiped off her tears and said:

“Don’t just sit there. I want to be left alone. Get out!”

“Mother, why did you get so upset about it? He is going to find another secretary.” She gave me one of her dumbfounded looks and asked:

“How old are you, Otto?”


“Are you really brainless or are you pretending to be?”

“I don’t get you …”

“Your father is going to leave us.”

“But why? It’s not like he and …” I left the room without ending my sentence for my mother needed solitude. Only in solitude could she find peace and comfort.

In the dining room, everything was still the same as it was in the moment when we left it. Like some sort of theatre scene … without protagonists … it looked as if they had left in search of new roles.

No, this is not possible!
This is what she thinks. That’s why she said to him, “You don’t have to say a word, I know it all.”

This is not possible!

Simona! With her smile, with fireflies in her eyes, with her white teeth and dimples in her cheeks.

My father – the man whose face never showed a smile, whose teeth are brownish from smoking and age, and gum disease has left them rickety regardless of his daily hygienic routine and efforts.

Simona—one head taller than him, slim with a tiny waist and long, long legs and a little bottom like an Easter bun, with elegant hands and slim, long fingers adorned with numerous yellow rings.

My father … stocky, short. He is already belting his pants underneath his sagging breasts. Short-legged, shortsighted, sullen, unapproachable and a know-it-all.

Simona … with her pitch-black hair, dark but shiny, she looks like a perfectly crafted doll from some exotic place … with her big almond- shaped eyes, the eyes of a child where fireflies are shining a light with their little brilliant torches wooing observers to drown in it.

My father … half-bald but convinced that, yet, nobody can really no- tice it (nor can Simona), since he is combing his hair across his head, over the bald patch, from left to right avoiding the wind at any cost …

No, it can’t be true. Can it be true?

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