Dino Buzzati’s writing career was long and prolific. His first work was the novella Bàrnabo delle montagne (1933; Bàrnabo of the Mountains, 1984), his last, the collection Le notti difficili (1971). In between, he produced hundreds of poems, short stories, and plays, while working indefatigably as a journalist and bringing out many essays and travel pieces. How can this diversity be presented within a single volume? This was clearly the main problem for Lawrence Venuti, when he set about producing a successor to his first volume of Buzzati translations, Restless Nights (1983). He was guided in solving it, he says in the preface to The Siren, by a remark in one of Buzzati’s notebooks, to the effect that every writer or artist has “only one thing” to say, only one scene or landscape to paint. Naturally it may not appear so. Beneath superficial diversity, a true, a sincere artist will display deeper unity and integrity. Venuti says that he decided to use this remark as his criterion for selection and accordingly to offer the fourteen pieces in The Siren as a study in preoccupations and reverberations. From the long novella which opens the collection, through the twelve short stories that follow (some fantastic, some realistic), and on to the concluding autobiographical travel piece, the reader is asked to draw continually a sense of personality and of coherence.
This proves in fact to be a rewarding task. The opening piece, “Barnabo of the Mountains,” appears at first sight to come from an almost vanished world—one of “mountain pastoral,” set in the tiny enclosed communities of the Northern Italian forest, where everyone is known by name and reputation, and where life is (or was) not only innocent but also sparse, uncrowded even with objects. When the title character, Barnabo, is forced to leave the forest service, for example, it takes him only a few minutes to pack, and the list of possessions he leaves—some cards, a bandage, an old pistol barrel—is pathetically small. By contrast, several of the later stories are set in the postwar consumer boom of Milan and Turin, where people drive cars, catch planes, break relationships, and accumulate possessions in a way entirely alien to the world of Barnabo. Nevertheless, there are themes to connect both early and late works: “otherness,” inhibition, the pursuit of happiness, but above all, time.
The passing of time is the leitmotif of “Barnabo of the Mountains,” but Buzzati’s attitude to it is a complex one. In a sense, and by modern standards, his characters are hardly aware of it. When Barnabo, disgraced, is forced to leave the foresters and go to work in the plain, he waits for more than four years before trying to make any contact with his former life, even to find out whether the brigands whom he failed to resist have been caught. Nor does he show any sign of impatience; he seems to live in stasis, without aging or changing. On a larger scale, the mountains themselves appear to represent changelessness, opposing to the dynamic forces of modernity and government, and the plain, a kind of stubborn passive resistance. Almost the first thing the reader is told in the novella is the story of how the authorities tried to build a road through the mountains, with contractors and explosives. The project failed, in the face of local opposition and inertia, but the explosives remained; military officers therefore had a powder magazine built and detailed the foresters to guard it, which they then continue to do in a routine that becomes itself unchanging. The very agent of disruption, the gunpowder, thus becomes itself an emblem of stasis, something not to be used, but to be kept, stored, preserved inviolate.
Still, change creeps in. At the start of the novella, the foresters are moving from their old dilapidated quarters, the Casa dei Marden, to a “new house” (it never acquires a name), more conveniently placed. Their leader, Del Colle, though, typically goes back for a last visit to the old house, surprises brigands investigating it, and is shot dead. The rest of the story then becomes, at one level, a search for vengeance, while there is no doubt that Del Colle is dead, that authority within the foresters must shift, and that some things can never be the same again. How deep does change go, and how should one react to it? These questions are answered within the novella by the story of Barnabo.
This is easy to summarize, because it is once again less a story of events than of nonevents. Barnabo tries to catch the murderers of Del Colle, driven by dreams of fame and status; not only does he fail, however, when the brigands attack the powder magazine, but he also gives way to fear and fails to join in. Typically, no one notices his cowardice, but his absence from the fight is itself enough to get him dismissed. He leaves the mountains, goes to the plain, but after some years returns to try to regain his old position and his old happiness. He forms a plan, too, to ambush the brigands; and his plan is successful. At the moment that he has them under his gun, he hesitates, decides not to act, and lets them go. The story ends with silence, tranquillity, the unmoving...
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