Translated from Italian by Frederika Randall
What would happen to the planet if the entire human race was to disappear? In this novella, Guido Morselli imagines a world empty of people. The book is narrated by the one man who seems to have been spared.
The unnamed narrator lives near a mountain village in an unnamed country. He is about to turn 40 and has been unwell enough to see several specialists. He doesn’t see the point of living and decides to kill himself. At 12:30 at night, he drives up the mountain to a cave with a deep well, where he plans to drown himself.
“I would be gone, leaving no trace. That point seemed essential to me. People, if they did look into it, must come to the conclusion I was permanently missing. Or better, mysteriously annihilated, dissolved into the nothing.”
In the end, he doesn’t jump into the lake. As he walks out of the cave, he hits his head on a rock. He goes home, takes his gun to bed with him and tries to shoot himself. He wakes up the next morning with the gun beside him and blood on his pillow (he assumes it was from the rock of the night before).
When he goes out, he can’t find anyone. The shepherd and his wife, who help out, are missing. There is no one in the nearby village. As if, instead of him, they had all dissolved into nothingness.
The narrator tends to be solitary, so the lack of people merely intrigues him at first. He feels that there must be an explanation. He makes his way to Chrysopolis—he hated city nearby with as many banks as churches—sure that he would find someone there, but that too is empty. “Chrysopolis reveals no trace of bodies. … Scraps of litter on the streets, stubs of movie tickets, empty cigarette packets; neon signs, still lit, jets of water rising from fountains, cars, rows of them below the apartment buildings and along the avenues in the parks. The Gold City is intact. The escapees (or whatever forces made them leave) took nothing with them.”
The anthropocentric view suggests that humans are necessary to the planet’s survival. But the “world has never been so alive as it was since a certain breed of bipeds disappeared”. Nature is taking back control. Birds are “making an unholy racket” and chamois are coming down from the mountains—a scene reminiscent of 2020, when the lockdown freed the streets of humans. “Their instincts tell them something they certainly never expected: the great enemy has withdrawn. The air is clear of smoke and fumes, the earth no longer stinks or quakes with terrible noises.”
Initially he copes. He has access to food: everything is his for the taking. But he is still convinced that there must be other people who were spared, as he was. He calls friends in different parts of the world, only to get answering machines or no answer at all. It begins to dawn on him that he is the only person left on the planet, “stuck in a gigantic, empty universe”.
What would it be like to be the only human on earth? Would thoughts and ideas mean less when there are no others to enjoy them? “[T]hought has almost always been a solitary process, asocial, its own end”, he thinks. “The idolatry of communication is a recent vice. And society, after all, is a bad habit.”
But even the most solitary person needs to know that there are others out there. Slowly, the man starts to lose his grip on reality.
Morselli wrote Dissipatio in 1973, but it was rejected by the publishers. The fact that this was his seventh novel to be rejected was too much for him to bear, and he committed suicide. (With a gun, echoing the book.) His books were finally published in 1974, the year after his death, and met with critical success. However, Dissipatio wasn’t translated into English until 2020. There is a perceptive introduction by the translator, Frederika Randall, who died a few months after finishing the translation.
I found this intriguing and strange (in a good way). Morselli paints a very convincing picture of what would happen to the last human. But there are hints in the narrative that something is off: the narrator sets out for the cave at 12:30, but he is sitting by the well at 12:15. And there are other signs that made me question the narrative. Had this really happened or did the narrator imagine it? Or did he die and it was his ghost wandering around? We’ll never know.