Posts Tagged ‘Dino Buzzati’

Catastrophe and Other Stories

October 15, 2018

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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Poem Strip

February 27, 2011

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).