Barnabo of the Mountains follows the experience of one man, in his relationship with the forbidding but fascinating mountains, through a crisis of honor and cowardice in the course of carrying out his duties as a forest-guard, and his subsequent deeply felt need to prove and redeem himself. Dino Buzzati openly acknowledged the influence of other writers, among them Joseph Conrad, especially Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900). This influence is particularly strong in Barnabo of the Mountains, in the theme of redemption and in the relationship of the characters with the elements and with their environment.
Buzzati’s novella opens with a fantasy map of the area and a precise description of the setting in which the forest-guards live. They are moving their headquarters into the “New House,” built because their previous base, the “Old Mardens’ House,” is falling into disrepair. One of their duties is to guard the “Polveriera,” or “Powder-Magazine,” a hut nestled in the rocks. It was built during a road-building project through the mountains as a place to store explosives. The project abandoned, the explosives remained, and more ammunition was added as the authorities recognized its safe location conveniently close to the border. In the course of the move to the New House, the head forest-guard, an old man full of stories about the inaccessibility and threat of the mountains and the people who died in them, is killed by mountain bandits. Thus, from the beginning, human temporality is emphasized in opposition to the timelessness of the mountains. Del Colle, the old forest-guard, is buried in the mountains, and his grave, with his plumed cap nailed to the rock, remains as a symbol of man’s affinity with this environment.
Buzzati places the reader in a world that combines myth and reality. The towering mountain peaks of the map owe more to Grimm’s fairy tales than to any map of northern Italy, although the setting described is recognizable as the mountains of the Alpine region around Belluno, where Buzzati was born. The “bandits” belong as much to the world of opera as to that of reality. The forest-guards (guardiaboschi, a semimilitary organization responsible for the maintenance of order in the mountains and forest regions) reflect a code of honor as reminiscent of the Old French chansons de geste as of twentieth century militarism.
A hunt for the bandits fails to unearth any trace of them, but the foresters’ interest does not abate. One day Berton, on guard duty, sees a column of smoke. He tells Barnabo and the two reconnoiter on their own. They do not find the bandits, but Barnabo rescues a wounded crow. On their return, Barnabo and Berton become separated. Back at the base, the bandits are discovered raiding the Polveriera. Barnabo, instinctively about to join his colleagues, is halted by another bandit armed with a rifle and stops. He is afraid. Berton, coming from another direction, joins in the fight and is wounded in one leg. The bandits escape safely, taking powder and ammunition. Barnabo, ashamed of his cowardice, wanders back into the woods, then returns, hours later, feigning ignorance at what has happened.
He is not shamed publicly for cowardice, but he is dismissed for abandoning his post. Berton covers for him by insisting that he was not there at all, but there is a certain ambiguity as to whether Berton knows or guesses what really happened and whether the Inspector knows. It may be only Barnabo’s guilty conscience which makes him wonder, and the feeling of guilt which oppresses him.
Followed by the crow he rescued, Barnabo leaves the mountains and settles on his cousin’s farm in the distant plains. Time passes. The crow becomes ill. Weakened, it flies off into the clouds toward the invisible mountains. Barnabo is ashamed at the sense of desolation he feels at its loss: the breaking of the final, tenuous link with the rocks, woods, and peaks he left behind in a past which he cannot recapture.
As the result of an unexpected visit from Berton, who has left the service of his own choice, Barnabo, five years after being dismissed, returns to San Nicola. Misunderstanding Berton’s casual invitation, Barnabo takes out his forest-guard’s uniform, now dusty, worn, and covered with moth holes, which he carefully mends before anyone has the chance to see them.
Things have changed in San Nicola. Following more raids by the bandits, the explosives and ammunition have been removed from the Polveriera to the nearest military post, thus relieving the forest-guards of this duty. The New House has been abandoned, the forest-guards billeted in the village and incorporated into the guardiani communali. Barnabo, by devious hints, elicits the offer of the position of a sort of caretaker of the empty New House. The other forest-guards emphasize the loneliness of the post, while promising frequent visits to him, and especially one visit on a specific date on which the brigands had defiantly promised to return.
In the New House, Barnabo finds things the same and yet different. He is painfully conscious of not being a forest-guard as before but one of their employees. He finds a certain tranquillity in the familiar woods but remains continually haunted by the idea of redeeming himself, of canceling out his past cowardice.
On the promised date, Barnabo makes extensive preparations for the expected forest-guards, who do not appear. He understands then that they have fooled him, that they never intended to visit him. Unlike Barnabo, they seem to be able to break away from the mountains casually and completely. On the following day, Barnabo goes to the Polveriera, and beyond it. Four bandits keep their appointment, and at first Barnabo is delighted at the victory within his grasp. He can shoot them and absolve himself of his earlier cowardice. When he observes them more closely, however, he sees that they are old men, thin, worn, and he does nothing—not out of fear or cowardice this time but because the need to kill them belongs to the past, like so many other events. To the present belongs a sense of joy and tranquillity, here in the mountains bathed in sunlight. Those men, he is certain, will never return: This is their last visit.
He returns to the deserted New House, empties his rifle, throws open the windows. Time, he knows, will flow evenly over him as over the mountains. While the night passes slowly, he stands in the doorway with his rifle, thinking he can hear, as in the past, the sentinel pacing near the Polveriera. Yet he knows the mountains are still and silent.
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