When you least expect it, you discover that you’ve read more by a writer than you previously imagined. Upon finishing Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip I started making a list of all the books I’ve read by this Italian writer, and to my surprise it’s eight already, making him one of the most repeated writers in my library. His books have been too pleasurable for me to even notice the time and effort I’ve devoted to them. Outside Italy, where he is very beloved, he’s not well known and it’s doubtable that he’ll ever gain the worldwide status he and his work deserve, even though he was championed by the likes of Jorge Luis Borges. “We can know the ancients, we can know the classics, we can know the writers of the 19th century and the ones from the beginning of our own, which is ending already,” wrote the Argentinean master. “Far harder is knowing the contemporaries. They’re too many and time hasn’t yet revealed to us its anthology. There are, however, names that future generations will not accept to forget. One of them is, surely, the one of Dino Buzzati.”
Yes and no.
In the English-speaking world Buzzati’s fame rests mainly on his 1940 novel The Tartar Steppe, which Borges included in his list A Personal Library. Here in Portugal, a few years ago, there was a short-lived reawakening of interest in his work that resulted in a series of excellent translations. But apparently the sales weren’t very good. There hasn’t been a new translation since 2010. Although this was the period when I really delved into his work, I had already come across it a few years before at the university, when I was trying to learn Italian. The first book I read was called The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily (1945), a children’s book about a war between men and bears, and a political allegory about the abuse of power, complemented by Buzzati’s wonderfully colourful and cute pictures like this:
|Tremble before the Bear King!|
Next came the haunting war novel The Tartar Steppe. A young lieutenant, Giovanni Drogo, is assigned to the old Bastiani Fortress, built on the edge of the Tartar desert, which spreads for miles into the horizon until disappearing inside a thick mist. Young Drogo is disheartened because he’s full of ambition and years for action, military glory, and the proverbial heroic death on the battlefield, and yet Bastiani has never seen any action and it’s unlikely an enemy should attack from the desert’s side. Old officers, who have lived their careers in the austere fortress, try to cheer him up with: many years ago the desert had Tartar tribes, they tell, and some believe they’re still there, preparing for war. So they advise Drogo to wait, wait, wait. But perhaps the Tartars are just a fable concocted by officers and soldiers who need something to believe in, to believe that their lives, as the years go by, aren’t being pointlessly wasted. Perhaps nothing will happen in Bastiani at all, ever.
I won’t ruin anyone’s enjoyment of this brilliant novel by saying that this is basically the whole plot of the novel. Not a lot seems to happen in the novel, decades in the characters’ lives go by, and everything remains the same. There’s a constant ebbing and flowing of expectations and doubts and disappointments, and the story happens between Drogo’s dreams and disappointments. In spite of that it’s a very fascinating novel. Buzzati used the army to craft a parable about the squandering of one’s life chasing chimeras. Comparisons with Franz Kafka’s The Castle are not out of place. Whereas Kafka writes in the form of a nightmare, Buzzati writes in the tone of an exuberant elegy. What the novel lacks in action it has in intimate character moments and in pertinent observations about life. Drogo is a vivid creation: like other young officers, he wants to be stationed in the capital, to attend parties and flirt with women. Some veterans even advise him to seek transfer as quickly as possible, lest the desert exert its mysterious influence on him like it does on everyone else after a while. Drogo is confident that won’t happen, but as the years go by, he sinks deeper and deeper into an inextricable routine. The ending is as ironic as it is heartbreaking, and the reader won’t know whether to cheer of lament Drogo’s fate.
After this great novel I discovered Dino Buzzati the short-story writer. I Sette Messaggeri (1942) and Paura alla Scala (1949) are a challenge to categorise. Comedy, existential horror, magical realism, allegories, fables, science-fiction, echoes of Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe, all written in a clear, concise and objective prose that almost banalizes the supernatural in the stories, or perhaps enhances the mundane. It works either way.
In one story, a prince travels for years without ever reaching the limits of his kingdom. There are parodies of old myths: a modern-day group of hunters sets out to kill the last dragon, but all they find is a decrepit creature that can barely defend itself anymore. In another story a man finds mysterious apples in an attic and becomes enchanted by them. A little boy lies when he’s confessing his sins before first communion: when he dies he’s made to wait in dreaded anxiety of not knowing whether he’s going to Heaven or Hell. A guest insults a bizarre pet, with horrible consequences. The quality ratio is quite high for a collection of short-stories.
I read other novels. An early one, Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio (1935), by its simplicity better aimed at young readers. The novel includes anthropomorphic creatures like the talking wind and trees and animals making it a sort of allegorical fable. It’s about Benvenuto, a young boy who lives in a magical forest, and his transition from childhood into adulthood. As a work of children’s literature it’s very good.
Reading Il grande ritratto (1960) was the only time Buzzati’s writing disappointed me. It’s a science-fantasy novel about a group of scientists working on a secret experiment for the government in the middle of nowhere, namely the creation of artificial intelligence; but one of them has programmed the gigantic computer, resting atop a mountain, with his dead wife’s personality. I don’t remember a lot more save for the negative impression it left me with. Most of the novel was told in dialogue, and it all felt superficial and pointless.
So it was a pleasure to read the short-stories of Il Crollo della Baliverna (1954). As great as The Tartar Steppe may be, I believe Buzzati is a better short-story writer than novelist. The humour, the fantasy and irony work better in these small doses. Like in the two other collections, Buzzati slowly peels away the layers of reality from an ordinary object or situation to reveal its irrational and bizarre, or even macabre, side. Other stories give the fantastic an aura of normalcy that convinces the reader of the most unreal of situations. More importantly, Buzzati is such a fine raconteur the reader is inclined to believe anything he narrates.
This collection is one of his best. In the first story, during a family picnic an ordinary man decides to climb the Baliverna, a tower fragilely standing up and harbouring inside the homeless and poor families. Its precarious existence is maintained by a series of iron bolts rammed through its walls, giving it stability. When the man starts climbing the tower and using the bolts for support, he brings down the whole tower, brick by brick, crushing several people inside it. An investigation is started to ascertain responsibilities, and the culprit, hoping that no one saw him climbing but tormented by guilt, starts hallucinating that everyone can see his blame. The other tales equally show how circumstances can swiftly change and doom a man’s life or alter reality. In “The Dog Who Saw God,” a whole corrupt town is coerced to reform its immoral behaviour when a dog, belonging to a dead hermit, is believed to have seen the face of God. In his sad eyes the townspeople constantly see a moral judgment upon them, as if the dog were evaluating their souls. So people slowly change their ways. No one has the courage to kill the mutt, and when it dies no one has the courage to return to their previous vices, for that would akin to admitting that their lives, the entire town, had been changed by a dog.
In the fascinating “Meeting With Einstein,” the famous scientist is visited, still at the beginning of his career, by a mysterious figure that claims to be Death. The scientist, believing that he still has a lot to offer to Mankind, asks Death to delay the sending of his soul to the afterlife, for he’s on the brink of a great discovery. The figure grants him another month, which becomes more months, while it patiently waits for the scientist to finish his discoveries. When the young Einstein finally concludes his grand work, he discovers that the figure isn’t Death after all but a demon sent by the Devil to fool him. Einstein innocently wonders why the Devil would be interested in his scientific breakthroughs. A question for history to answer.
In “Rats,” a husband and wife slowly lose an unequal battle against the thousands of rats living underneath their house’s floorboard, until they become their slaves. The last story in the book uses science-fiction to parody religion: in “The Saucer Has Landed,” a priest receives the unexpected and disconcerting visit of an extraterrestrial saucer, containing – amazing surprise! – the inhabitants of a planet where no one ate from the Tree of Knowledge. The priest, faced with the annoying and smug perfection of these creatures, realizes he much prefers the imperfect humans to them.
Buzzati’s stories tend to converge towards an ambiguous and unsettling ending, not just because of his refusal to pass judgement on the characters but also because of the abrupt interruption of the action when it starts to reach a climax, leaving fates unresolved and inviting the reader to use his imagination to complete them. This is how his stories are, unpredictable and full of ironic humour, founded on a sharp sense of observation and a powerful creativity. I think he is his own category, but in the 20th century there are no doubt affinities with G. K. Chesterton, Jorge Luis Borges, Giovanni Papini and Italo Calvino.
The latest book I read by him, Poem Strip (1969), shows yet another facet of this talented author: comic books. Well, it’s not really a comic book in the sense of the term as I know it. It’s half picture book half comic book. For me in a comic book the art and words are integrated into a whole. In most of the book’s pages, however, the text is separated from the words, making it more of an illustrated story. Once we get past this caveat, it’s one of his most curious books. Buzzati reinterprets the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a pop singer, Orfi, teen idol, chasing his beloved, Eura, into the land of the dead to bring her back. Orfi, who lives in a palace that overlooks a mysterious abandoned house, one night sees a taxi stopping in front of it; Eura walks out and passes through its door:
|The mysterious house is rumored to change shapes.|
Orfi later learns the abandoned house is one of millions that leads into the underworld. Orfi gains access to the underworld and meets an empty coat, the current manager of the underworld:
|The Coat. From the English edition.|
The coat tries to tempt him away from his beloved, but Orfi remains loyal to his Eura:
So the coat promises to help him if he sings a song about all the things the dead miss. He sings the song and is granted twenty-four hours to leave the underworld with Eura. It’s well worth reading if only because of Buzzati’s excellent drawings – he also did the covers for his own books – and because there’s not a lot more available in English. It’s a mystery to me why Buzzati is so badly served by translations. It’s always hard to understand why some writers succeed and others don’t. Why, for instance, Italo Calvino, his contemporary but not his superior, is so well known whereas Buzzati is an oddity. I fear more than talent must be involved in these vicissitudes. Circumstances, timing and no doubt luck play a role, perhaps an even more important role than talent.