The Siren

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2141

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.

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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 mountains.

For an English-speaking reader, it is hard not to draw the obvious comparison to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900). There, too, a would-be hero failed to spend the rest of his life trying to expiate failure. Conrad’s character, however, in the end meets death and reaches at least a kind of heroic status. Buzzati’s Barnabo not only repeats his inaction but also escapes its consequences. The reader is meant to think, furthermore, that his inaction the second time is right, that his years of exile have brought him a kind of wisdom which shows itself in forfeiting the urge to “be somebody,” even at the expense of others’ lives. Barnabo moreover is presented to the reader not merely as a man who has learned reverence for life but also as one who has learned a more evasive truth, about the way time passes.

This is expressed most clearly within the novella by a group of visually precise but morally ambiguous images, all in some way to do with change and permanence. Del Colle, for example, is dead. His men bury him in a mountain cave. As soon as they have done so, one of them climbs an inaccessible spire. Why? To plant on it, driven in with a nail, Del Colle’s old beret with the bright feather in it. After that, Del Colle is quickly forgotten, his famous gun is passed on to other hands, his murderers remain uncaught. The beret and the feather remain, summer and winter, as a witness of his existence, though they, too, like his bones, wear, fray, and decompose. There is a sense, however, that the mountaineers as a whole have a power over time, expressed in symbolic gestures, and that they are therefore unaffected by it. When another of them dies in a spot so inaccessible that no one can reach his body, Del Colle and the others are content merely to mark the spot; it is the dead man’s father who comes up from the plain and insists on being taken to the body, on having something done. It is accordingly he who suffers a sense of failure (for the body still cannot be reached), which is not shared by Del Colle and the others.

Barnabo’s sense of failure, over the brigands’ raid, associates him with the grieving father; one may extend the parallel to say that when he returns from the plain, puts on his old uniform, returns to the old house, and prepares his plan to reestablish himself, he is once more striving for the inaccessible. Like the bones of Darrio, the past is in a place that no man can reach. It is realizing that which makes Barnabo in the end content to leave things as they are. His decision, though, is deepened by a further sense, throughout the story, that leaving things as they are never quite works. Time may appear, in the mountains, to have stopped; but, in fact, change comes in as powerfully as imperceptibly, like dust settling, rust spreading, brightness fading. Perhaps all one can say in the end is that time remains beyond one’s control; what can be controlled is human reaction to it, with as a model, a kind of passive, watching, aware acceptance.

The connection with some of Buzzati’s later stories is then easy to establish. One of the more fantastic pieces translated in The Siren is “The Time Machine.” In this, an inventor discovers a way of slowing time within the field of a generator, so that rich people can come and live in a special city until they are two hundred. As one might expect, though, the generator breaks, the field reverses itself, and all the potential double centenarians accelerate to death and dust within seconds. Barnabo, one sees, would have resisted the time machine’s temptations. In the same way, he would not have fallen into the trap of “The Five Brothers,” in which also lives are wasted by a futile, preoccupied search for security. What connection is there, though, between “Barnabo of the Mountains” and the other stories of this collection? What else do the latter reveal of the single “landscape” which, according to Buzzati’s notebook, should be at the core of the artist’s vision?

Briefly, one may say that many of the later stories move physically down into the plain; and they become, accordingly, the generic obverse of “mountain pastoral,” which is “urban satirical.” “The Plague” speculates comically on how tragic all the city dwellers would think it if their cherished automobiles were to catch contagious diseases; but the tragedy is a false one, viewed wryly. Rather grimmer is the last story here, “A Difficult Evening,” in which the close relationships of the Italian family have given way to an international bourgeois nightmare, of children coming to kill the parents for their accumulated wealth. In “The Prohibited Word,” a point is further made about how, in cities, people can be conditioned. Once a word has been abolished, no one will say it, or hear it, or write it, or read it even if it has been written. To make the point, words are blanked out of the story; you, too, (Buzzati tells his readers) are as conditioned as the characters.

This story brings forward another theme, which is that of literature’s “self-reference” (to use the modern term). Buzzati sports with this in “An Interrupted Story,” “Confidential,” and “Duelling Stories”: In each of these, the boundary between life and literature is shifted, so that stories come true, or become autobiographical, or, if interrupted, wither away. Is this fantasy? It is. As with “Barnabo of the Mountains,” however, there is a feeling that fantasy can be acted out and become reality; or, as in the satires, that real life in the cities is by nature dull, if frenetic—no competitor for the insidious truths and images that steal in from folk wisdom and folktale.

Buzzati’s last clearly identifiable theme in The Siren is that of haunting. Several of his characters, such as those in “The Bewitched Bourgeois,” find themselves transported from mundane surroundings to a strange world or visited within their mundane surroundings by an ominous, gnawing, blackmailing outsider. In his concluding travel piece, “Kafka’s Houses,” Buzzati himself confesses to have been haunted all of his life by comparisons with the Czech writer Franz Kafka. Buzzati’s trip to Prague becomes an attempted exorcism.

Like Barnabo’s exile in the plain, however, it proves a failure. Memory, in the work of Buzzati, is not so easy to assuage. It is appropriate that his own stories should be so memorable, aiming, as they do, not at complex narration or heavy analysis of character but at striking images varied and repeated within a simple frame. Simplicity makes especially heavy demands on a translator, however, and it should be recorded that a great part of the growing reputation of Buzzati within English-speaking countries is a result of the unobtrusive skill of his translator, Lawrence Venuti. Ars est celare artem, as the maxim says; but if Venuti has concealed his own art, he has displayed that of his subject to a wider world. Appropriately, the title of this collection refers not to the sirens who strove to trap Odysseus but to the siren a ship sounds to indicate its departure. Buzzati’s aim is to transport his readers across boundaries and frontiers, whether of language or genre or literary expectation.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33

Book World. XIV, September 23, 1984, p. 12.

Choice. XXII, January, 1985, p. 688.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, August 1, 1984, p. 692.

Library Journal. CIX, October 1, 1984, p. 1859.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, October 28, 1984, p. 32.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, August 10, 1984, p. 75.

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