Poem Strip

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Dino Buzzati

The Italian writer Dino Buzzati is almost entirely known for his brooding masterpiece The Tartar Steppe (well worth seeking out if you haven’t done so already); so much so that I assumed he was one of those writers who live on in a single achievement – the novel seems to have been in print from various publishers since it was first translated into English in 1952. A couple of years ago, however, the New York Review of Books published Poem Strip under their classics imprint, translated by Marina Harss. Interestingly, the books are separated by over twenty years: The Tartar Steppe was published in 1945, Poem Strip in 1969, when Buzzati was, like the century, in his sixties. What is surprising about this is that Poem Strip is what would now be termed a graphic novel.

Buzzati’s intention to marry literature with illustration is obvious from his choice of classical myth as the basis of his story. Poem Strip retells the Orpheus myth in a contemporary Italian setting. It begins when Orfy, a singer songwriter of typical sixties vintage, sees his ‘girl’, Eura, walk through a door one night, and discovers the next morning she is dead. Taking his guitar, he is able to sing his way through the same door into an underworld that seems just the same as the Milan he has left behind. The underworld’s master, an empty jacket (one of a number of surreal touches), explains that the only difference is the absence of death:

“DEATH, OH DEATH
GIFT OF A WISE GOD.
ALL THE CHARMS OF THIS WORLD
COME FROM YOU
EVEN LOVE.
AND HERE, NOW, IN THIS PLACE
TO WHICH YOU’LL NEVER RETURN
WITH EMPTY EYES WE GAZE
AT THE CLOUDS, THE SEA, THE FOREST
THEY HOLD NO MYSTERY.”

Further singing ensues and Orfy is given permission to search for Eura and take her back to the surface. Although he finds her, he returns alone, Eura seemingly reluctant to leave the underworld, or to believe that it is possible: “No, your songs are not enough. Here the great law decides. Don’t believe those old myths.”

The illustrations can be striking. Sometimes they rely on surrealism (the melting buildings which show the city’s tiredness); at other times they adopt a photo-realism. Illustrations that would fit comfortably into a children’s book sit side by side with naked women in poses derived from pornography (no genitals feature, however – Buzzati focuses instead on covering a wide range of breast shapes). Throughout Buzzati adopts a limited palette of colours to provide unity. Buzzati was a painter and there are frequent allusions to other paintings, and films. He is not among his country’s great comic artists, though. Largely this is an illustrated text, with most pages featuring only a single picture. The graphics are not generally used to tell the story by demonstrating action.

The story itself has dated rather more quickly than The Tartar Steppe. His central message is clear –life without death is empty:

“…IT WOULD BE NOTHING
WITHOUT THE KNOWLEDGE DEEP DOWN
THAT ONE DAY ALL THIS WOULD END.”

But ultimately this message is both rather trite (not many of us face the danger of immortality) and rather over-stated. Strip away the strip and the poem has little to recommend it. The characters remain two dimensional and the retelling of the myth lacks the bite of originality that would continue to resonate today. As a curiosity, a precursor to the graphic novels of today, its publication is deserved, and it is largely for that reason that it retains some fascination.

Danger rating: The preponderance of naked woman may make this dangerous to read in public, but otherwise the only danger is a sixties flashback (whether you were there or not).

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