Even before he could stand up on both legs and walk, little Mimmo – Mimmo being the diminutive of his given name, Mimischpuppi, which his parents had chosen so as to distinguish him and to free him from fashions, avoiding the epidemic of biblical, medieval and gothic names... – manifested an exceptional taste and talent for imitation. Like all infants, he opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue, frowned or tried to smile to imitate his father, his mother or his grandmother when they leaned over his cradle making these faces, nothing extraordinary. As soon as he was capable of emitting articulated sounds, Mimmo began to reproduce, aside from the facial expressions, the different voices of his family members, with a predilection for that of his older sister Mamapuppa, nicknamed Mapu, which he replicated by pitching the timbre of his voice exaggeratedly high, and for the voice of the old maid Lia, which he counterfeit by drowning snippets of words in a muffled grumbling. It didn’t take Mimmo much time before he began imitating the butcher, the grocer, the newspaper vendor, the cheese seller, the tailor, the tobacconist, the hairdresser, the washerwoman, the violin maker, the librarian, the mercer, the hardware store man, and the other shopkeepers whose stores he had only ever visited while being driven around in his stroller. All of this earned Mimmo an immense popularity in the neighborhood and everybody looked forward to his amusing visits, though their expectations were occasionally accompanied by apprehension, for fear that the imitation might become cruel and painful in its precision, a revelation of an unflattering trait or a hidden shortcoming in one or another of his models.
Mimmo was still being held by both hands, by his mother and grandmother, and he had only just begun to put one foot in front of the other in the particular manner he had seen performed by the sentries during a changing of the guard ceremony at the castle, when he was brought on his first trip to the zoological garden. An old orangutan that had pretty much seen it all was nonetheless struck by Mimmo's gait and started trying to walk in the same way, rendering the ape's morphology distinctly comical. The orangutan attempted to mimic Mimmo while using his long arms as he did so, and upon seeing this Mimmo immediately let of go the hands holding him upright and, with the tips of his fingers supporting him, counterfeited the orangutan's imitation, continuing to move his legs like a soldier but holding himself up with his hands like an ape: the result was irresistibly funny, as it gave a glimpse of both ape as soldier and soldier as ape, the latter of the two seeming most accurate. Soon after, a companion of this man of the forest – that being the meaning of the words orang utan in Malay – who shared the cage, the two of them forming a couple of kindly old bachelors, began to imitate his cellmate with an air of distinguished ennui. And thus two large plantigrade primates began to goose step like soldiers who, for this particular exercise, watch and imitate one another intently, without really knowing how the whole thing started. A zoo employee nicknamed Marshal, who was determined to wear a military uniform even though it lacked stripes and epaulets because he was hunchbacked and so barred admission into the army, and who was often secretly tempted to goose step, which he only ever did in hiding, when none of his colleagues nor any of the zoo visitors could see him, believed himself exposed and parodied upon seeing the two apes parading around their cage at a steady pace, stooped and snickering like hunchbacks. The guard dispersed the small mob of elated spectators that had formed around Mimmo in front of the cage, giving no account for his authoritarian actions.
Innumerable testimonies relate Mimmo’s “historic” feats and daily exploits during his years at school, all of which amount to a sort of Gospel when gathered together, telling of miracles attributed to a saint, or at least a prodigy, who, like all great prophets, elicited an incredible amount of empathy and inspired much imitation. If Mimmo had been the victim of a mortal accident or a devastating illness before coming into adulthood, he would doubtless have left his life open to limitless speculations on the nature of his singular genius.
Do prophets and geniuses begin as inspired imitators? Who could Jesus Christ or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have imitated before themselves becoming inimitable personages, dying too young for time to authenticate the mysterious fabric of their personalities? If Jesus of Nazareth had lived to a venerable old age, would he have become the founder of a religion or would he have remained the leader of a cult – thus the paradox that the magnitude and the impact of a person’s existence and deeds diminishes with the length of time one is alive instead of growing with it… Isn’t a life’s brevity the necessary condition for posthumous fate to remain rich in promises, whereas a greater longevity, lasting into old age, weakens and diminishes its brilliance? If Mozart had become a fat-bellied octogenarian, would his genius have continued with the same creative fecundity up until his old age or would it have exhausted itself much earlier, obliging the prodigious composer to spend over half of his lifetime making ends meet with a mediocre pension accrued from the incomparable masterpieces of his youth?
The problem is that Mimmo’s fate was not to be interrupted prematurely by death, as were Mozart and Jesus Christ; Mimmo outlived himself. The year he was supposed to take his baccalaureate examination, everyone expecting him to receive the highest scores in all subjects, pulverizing the records, obtaining the highest commendations, he failed lamentably, to everyone’s surprise, and immediately disappeared from the records – surprise of surprises… –, he and his exploits were no longer the subject of amazement, nobody attempted to explain his defeat, nobody expected him to pull himself back together, to redeem himself, to regain his former splendor, nobody hoped for it, but rather lost interest in him, hastening to forget him, only too happy to definitively reduce him to a clever cheat, to an imitator of the genius he was not, that is to say, at most, a brilliant imitator – surely a minor form of genius –, up to the moment of his fall, when he was confronted with the most derisory, most deceptive of verifications and validations of talent and knowledge: secondary school final exams… Thus began a period in which Mimmo no longer featured in the gazettes in which he had once been a star, with the large headlined public interest stories for the past years, and as if the world found itself relieved to no longer have to worry about him, having finally unmasked him, after he had amused, fascinated, worried and deluded so strangely. Though the public has a need to marvel at and get worked up about prodigies and geniuses, the same public always ends up suffocating when faced with this supernatural exception and needs to find its own likeness in the exception once admired for its difference, understanding that there is nothing left to share from the collective dream projected onto a single person, nothing to reclaim for the thousands of dreamers.