Catastrophe and Other Stories

Dino Buzzati is most famous, certainly in the English-speaking world, for his novel The Tartar Steppe. Notable also, though less well-known, is his ‘graphic novel’ (it predates the term), Poem Strip, which he both wrote and drew. Other novels and short stories have been translated but have long been unavailable, so credit is due to Alma Classics for this compilation of existing translations, Catastrophe and Other Stories, originally published in the sixties and seventies, mainly translated by Judith Landry, but with contributions from E. R. Low and Cynthia Jolly.

Whether carefully selected or simply typical of Buzzati’s style, most of the stories do, indeed, end in some form of catastrophe. In the opening story, ‘The Collapse of the Baliverna’, the narrator expresses his guilt over the destruction of the building in question, “a huge, grim brick building put up outside the town during the seventeenth century by the monks of San Celso.” It was now “the home of a whole crowd of evacuees, homeless people who had been bombed out, of tramps, deadbeats, even a small group of Gypsies.” (In such documentary detail we see Buzzati the journalist). In attempting to climb the walls, the narrator pulls out a rusty iron spike, which in turn releases another, and then a slab of stone. Within moments the entire building collapses. This brief story might be said to contain a moral lesson, but it largely conveys a feeling; the panic of unintended consequences.

Similarly, ‘The Epidemic’, a political satire, is convincing precisely because of its psychological truth. Its central character, the Colonel, is persuaded that the flu epidemic which is emptying his office is actually a test of loyalty: “if you get influenza you’re against the government.” Naturally he continues to work on no matter how ill he feels:

“The Colonel would appear at the office at the usual time with the regularity of a robot, divide the work up among his juniors and then sit motionless at his desk, racked by burst of hollow coughing.”

In other stories the element of nightmare is at work even more strongly. In ‘Just the Very Thing They Wanted’ a holidaying couple, Antonio and Anna, first face problems when they cannot find a hotel which is not already full (while all appear quite empty). A visit to the public baths to cool off is no more successful as both must first present their identity card and Anna has misplaced hers. Their frustrations continue, eventually turning the village against them, with unexpectedly violent consequences which Buzzati makes all too believable. In ‘Seven Floors’ Giuseppe Corte is admitted to a sanatorium, the mildness of his condition placing him on the seventh floor:

“…the patients were housed on each floor according to the gravity of their state. The seventh – or top – floor was for extremely mild cases… On the first floor were the hopeless cases.”

When he is asked to move to the sixth floor, not for medical reasons but to accommodate anther patient, he reluctantly agrees – and one can see where the story in inevitably heading.

In ‘Catastrophe’ passengers find themselves on a train heading towards an unknown doom. The first warning occurs as the train leaves the station with the narrator watching a woman on the platform:

“But as the train passed her she didn’t even look in our direction… but turned her head to listen to a man who had come rushing up the lane and was shouting something which we, of course, couldn’t hear.”

As they travel on they see “men and women bending over parcels, closing suitcases”;

“A small boy with a bundle of newspapers tried to chase after us, waving one with great black headlines on the front page.”

In this, and other catastrophic stories, it’s difficult not to see the influence of the war, even if metaphorically in a story such as ‘And Yet They Are Knocking at Your Door’ in which a wealthy family refuse to believe their house might be in danger from a storm:

“Just the usual peasant’s panics. The river’s very swollen, they say the house is in danger…”

Buzzati punctuates the story which unexplained noises which the family dismiss as thunder. Characters are also threatened in ‘The Scala Scare’ where those in the opera house fear an armed insurrection has taken place:

“The state of the besieged was becoming grotesque. Outside, the silent, empty streets had at least a semblance of peacefulness. Inside, on the other hand, there was the vision of total defeat: dozens of rich and highly respected, influential people were resignedly putting up with a humiliating situation for a danger that had still to be demonstrated.”

The later stories in the collection (stories are not individually dated so there is not way of knowing if they are, indeed, later stories) are closer to fable, particularly ‘The Egg’ and ‘The Enchanted Coat’, demonstrating Buzzati’s range and skill. This is a wonderful collection, and Buzzati is clearly a writer who deserves exploration beyond a single work.

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4 Responses to “Catastrophe and Other Stories”

  1. Scott W. Says:

    Buzzati is a treasure of Italian literature, and I’m happy to see some of his stories back in print in English. There are two slim volumes translated by Laurence Venuti that you can still find second hand and are really working checking out. And yes, I agree fully – clearly a writer who deserves exploration beyond a single work!

    Somebody ought to write a dissertation on all the Italian literature that takes place in opera houses.

    • 1streading Says:

      Luckily I managed to find a copy of his novel A Love affair at a reasonable price recently so I have that to read next, but I hope more of his work comes back into print.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Funnily enough, I was looking at a copy of The Tartar Steppe in the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones earlier this week. (It was on one of their decades tables along with various other books from the 1940s.) Anyway, if I didn’t already have quite so many short story collections in my TBR (something like 12 out of 60 books), then I’d be sorely tempted to give these Catastrophe stories a whirl. They sound really appealing – and very different from much of the fiction I’ve been reading this year. I can definitely see where Seven Floors is heading, but that doesn’t make me any less intrigued to see how the story gets there!

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