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Ambiguities in Italian Literature

In the farthest and most resplendent regions of the South, there operates a hidden Ministry for the defense of Nature against Reason: a maternal genius of unlimited power to whose jealous and unremitting care is entrusted the sleep in which those people are sunk. Should such a defense relax for a moment, should the sweet and cold voices of Reason be heard by the sleepers, Nature would be thunderstruck. This incompatibility of two forces which are equally great and, contrary to the optimist’s view, unreconcilable; this frightfully secret defense of the territory of Nature, with its songs, its sorrows, and its dumb innocence; this, not the ruthlessness of History . . . is the cause of the conditions in which this land lies, of the pitiful defeat in which the expeditions sent out here by human reason invariably end. Here, thought can only be the slave of Nature, and its gazer. A critical examination is no sooner attempted, no sooner does a tendency take shape to correct the celestial conformation of these regions, to see water in the sea, chemical compounds in the volcanoes, insides in man, than death swiftly comes to the offender. . . . The immobility of these regions has been attributed to other causes, but they are not the true ones. It is Nature that regulates the life and organizes the sufferings of these people. Here economic disaster has no other cause. The long succession of kings and viceroys, the unconquerable array of priests, the multiplication of churches like amusement parks and of hospitals and prisons as well, stem from this. Here where Nature, once the mother of ecstasies, has taken refuge. Human Reason, everything in reason that is dangerous for Nature’s Empire, is doomed.”

This long quotation is taken from one of the successful and significant books of this year, Il mare non bagna Napoli (The Sea does Not Touch Naples) by Anne Maria Ortese, which has just received a Viareggio Prize. Miss Ortese’s remarks about the struggle between Nature and Reason in the South could well apply to the moral and cultural situation of Italy as a whole. If Nature is taken to include the common denominator of social, religious, and cultural beliefs by which, statistically speaking, the majority of the individuals in a community finally abide, and if by Reason one does not intend only theoretical thought and practical enterprise, but, more generally, the principle of consistency in life and thought, then the war between the two, with Nature winning most of the battles, is certainly not a peculiarity of Southern dereliction and inertia. It dominates the Italian scene, and it is particularly visible in the narrative literature of today, when practically everybody claims to be a “realist,” that is to convey a definite experience rather than a literary mood.

In Italy, literary traditionalism is, of course, part of nature. To the sensibility of most Italian readers and critics, an accomplished literary form still is the most convincing proof that the writer is dealing with reality. Hence, for example, in Miss Ortese’s book, the critics have highly praised the two short stories, while tending to dismiss the straightforward descriptions of Neapolitan life which constitute the real merit of the volume. The joke is that the short stories (one about a poor shortsighted little girl who puts on a pair of glasses for the first time, and sees a world which, as her aunt puts it “one had better not see,” the other about a melancholy spinster who on Christmas day, nurtures for a moment the hope of getting married, but cannot quite get excited about it, and finally dismisses it) are nice pieces of writing, while the descriptions are often-marred by “neorealistic” emphasis. Which does not prevent the short stories from being sentimental anecdotes, while the journalistic accounts are pieces of passionate and forceful writing.

Speaking of the struggle between nature and reason, a case in point is the excellent novel by Giese Rimanelli, Tiro al piccione (Pigeon-shooting, was the term used by the partisans during the war to designate their ambushes against the Fascist Black Brigade, whose insignia was the Roman eagle: the “pigeon”). This is the first good literary account of the Resistance war seen from the Fascist camp. It tells without any fuss the story of a seventeen-year old boy who, in 1943, sees in the German trucks that roll north through his home town going north just a chance to escape from the family, an uneasy love affair, and tedium. In the north, he ends up by enlisting in the Black Brigades; not because he believes in the Fascist cause, but just because there is little else to be done. Ambushes, massacres, cold-blooded killing, terrorism, plus a love affair with an army nurse, are what the young man gets in the way of “sentimental education” and “reason.”

He is in a constant state of disgust, and yet he goes on, simply because he has found a couple of comrades there, and killing (or being killed) on one side seems to him very much the same as killing (or being killed) on the other. What is revolted, in him, is “nature,” not an idea: the inhumanity and senselessness of a fratricidal struggle into whose causes he does not care to inquire. What irritates him about the Fascists is their incapacity to see that they are defeated anyway, so that their cruelty becomes doubly senseless. On the other hand, what makes him suspect that the partisans’ cause makes some sense is the fact that they are obviously on the winning side. This is as far as his reason goes. As for his nature, it tells him that making love is better than killing, friendship more satisfying than enmity, peace more desirable than war; above all, that all men have a mother, hence the mothers’ point of view is the only universal one.

These, and especially the last one, are classic tenets of Italian “natural” morality. In ordinary times, they might not mean much; but in moments of upheaval and mechanized ferocity, they appear as the most precious heritage of “nature” precisely. When everything else is shattered, they remain, and they are effective, people actually abide by them. It is to this morality that Romanelli’s here finally surrenders when, after the Fascist rout, he goes back into the folds of the family. The prodigal son. Which is as it should be.

The reader, however, feels somewhat frustrated, as if all that had happened in the meantime had been a bad dream rather than a tragic experience. Artistically speaking, the young man who, one night blindly decided to take his life into his own hands, was real, a hero of our time. The prodigal son returned home is just “normal.” What next? There are signs in the book, that the young man is drifting in the direction of the Communist religion. But one knows that, in any case, this is a secondary issue, since the real catharsis of the drama has already occurred the moment the harassed hero has embraced his mother and sat at the family table.

Together with Miss Ortese’s book on Naples, the jury of the Viareggio Prize has brought to the attention of the reading public an account of the retreat from Russia, Il sergente nella neve (The Sergeant in the Snow) by Mario Rigoni Stern. It is the real story, told in the first person, of the endurance, the sufferings, the calm courage, of a sergeant of the Alpine troops and his comrades from the moment of the Russian counter-offensive on the Don, which broke their lines, to their arrival to safety after a month of terrible march through the frozen steppe and several desperate battles to break through encirclement by the Russians. An extremely honest document. Sergeant Rigoni, his soldiers and officers are very attractive individuals, in addition to being sturdy and courageous soldiers.

The book is also a straightforward testimony in favor of Italian “natural” morality and humaneness. Rigoni has great sympathy for the Russian people; he understands that he is waging an unjust war on them, does not like it, but, of course, has no choice but to perform his duty as scrupulously as he can. The march, the suffering, the sticking together as the army disintegrates, the hopeless battles, are all parts of a job that has to be done. Inhumanity isn’t.

What happened to Rigoni in the Russian village of Nikolaievka could have happened in precisely that way only to an Italian. Rigoni and the remnants of his battalion had been fighting the whole day, and it had been a massacre. Only twenty of them were left, with no ammunition. The Russians were all around them. To try to get some food, Rigoni knocked at the door of an izba. The door opened. Inside sitting at a table there were Russian soldiers, eating; women were serving them. The Russians were armed, Rigoni was armed too. He remained on the doorstep, frozen; then he announced in Russian that he was hungry. One of the women gave him a plate of soup. He ate, said “Thanks,” and turned about to leave. The Russians did not budge. The woman who had served him took him to the door. Near the door, Rigoni noticed some beehives: he asked the woman for some honey to take to his comrades. The woman gave it to him and the Italian invader left. “For once,” he comments, “circumstances had led men to act just like men.”

Natural morality, which war, and history in general, violate for their own abstract motives, had asserted itself. To an Italian, such occurrences are the equivalent of a religious revelation, in fact they are even more convincing. However, he knows that while they are both the expression of an eternal truth, they are also exceptional. Real life is absurdly impervious to “natural” morality. For Sergeant Rigoni the unfortunate soldier of the Russian campaign, reality seems to have been limited by two orders of facts: one was his battalion, kept together by the peculiarly strong esprit de corps which characterizes Italian Alpine troops. This meant that particular job of war that had to be done by him and his comrades. The other dominant fact was nostalgia for the native mountain village. The rest, war in general, its causes, the ideological conflicts connected with it, and even the Italian army at large, were just abstractions to be best ignored.

This finally makes of his book, for all his honesty and realism, a piece of regional, if not sectional, literature. In fact, the reactions and the behavior of a Neapolitan infantryman would have been very different from Rigoni’s. The natural morality, however, would have been very much the same although felt and practiced in a different fashion. The Neapolitan, that is, might have been sloppy, hysterical and cowardly, whereas Rigoni was efficient, levelheaded, and courageous. But to him, too, war would have been just a violation of the natural order and inquiry into its causes a matter for highbrows; moral problems would have ended with the distinction between the “humans” and the “inhumans,” and reason would have been either a question of practical expediency and ability, or else a scholastic notion.

Such a human and yet subtly disappointing (as if we were denied the whole truth), limitation of the intellectual and moral horizon, and of “reality” itself can be noticed even in a sophisticated writer like Mario Tobino. He is the author of several books, among them a long story on life under Fascism, Bandiera Nera (Black Flag). He has also written an excellent volume of memoirs about the war in Lybia, in which he participated as a Medical Corps officer. There Lieutenant Tobino had some bitter experiences of the weaknesses of the Italian character, and he does not mince his words in denouncing them.

As a civilian, he is a psychiatrist, in charge of the women’s section of an important insane asylum near Lucca. In Le libere donne di Magliano (The Free Women of Magliano), his latest book, Tobino recounts in the form of a loose journal his experiences with his patients, or rather he describes a number of them one by one, not as diseased individuals, but as strange, and sometimes quite touching, characters. Particularly successful is the portrait of one of these women, Leila, who had waited on him with passionate care for ten years, in relative freedom, and one day was sent back to her cell because it was discovered that she was hoarding in a crazy way all sorts of things, including money. Questioning the justice of the decision. Doctor Tobino gives his own interpretation of Leila’s character, as motivated by an unbounded need for devotion. As long as she could show one of the doctors her exclusive love by serving him, she behaved quite sanely. Her troubles, the mania for hoarding and even stealing, started with the arrival to the asylum of a woman doctor in whom she saw a rival. At that moment, Tobino maintains, she was left without a God to serve, and she started stealing, and giving the money she stole to her brother. Human sympathy is what we all need, and humility in the face of what we do not understand; then, even madness can appear “natural.” Could there be a nicer attitude for the harassed director of an insane asylum? Certainly not. Yet, in some way, for a writer and an intellectual who contemplates the monsters of madness, the appeal to sympathy, and the ability to describe the insane as “character,” do not seem to be adequate answers to the problem.

If realism is the ability to render things as they are, without any literary embellishment, morality, or catharsis, then the most realistic piece of writing that has appeared this year in Italy is a non-literary document published by the magazine Nuovi Argomenti, edited by Alberto Moravia and Albert Carocci: the Memoriale dal carcere (Memoirs from Jail) by Saverio Montalto. It is the story of a man who killed his sister and wounded his wife and his brother-in-law, written by the man himself not for a literary magazine but for the judge of instruction. The man was a Sicilian town clerk, whose sister was seduced and then unwillingly married by a local small-time Don Juan. From that moment the nightmare that will lead to crime begins for Montalto. The acquired family starts torturing him as the inferior creature who succeeded in insinuating himself in a sphere where he does not belong. Not content with moral torture, they extort money from him, force him into debt and fearful subjection.

This is not enough: they coerce him to marry into the family, so that he can be more completely at their mercy. At the same time, his sister is continually beaten up by her husband, and treated as a servant by the rest of the family. Until, with an anguishing fatality that the reader senses from the beginning, crime comes, an outburst. The merciless narrowness of Italian provincial life has never been rendered with such raw power as in this attempt by a murderer to reconstruct the atmosphere, rather than the motives, of his crime.

Neither realist nor a surrealist, Tommaso Landolfi occupies a place by himself in contemporary Italian literature. He is a self-conscious, extremely literary writer, yet there is simplicity as well as truth in his pages, since he is motivated not by literature but by an authentic mood. The mood is a despondency so complete that it takes up a romantic tinge. Despondency, the total inability to see any purpose in life, is, of course, contradicted by the very fact that one goes on living. It is the consciousness of this fact that is the source of Landolfi’s special kind of irony. His latest book, La biere du pecheur (the French title, and the fact that it can mean “The beer of the fisherman” or “The bier of the sinner,” at will, are typical of Landolfi’s deliberate unseriousness) is a kind of aimless rambling from descriptions of weary love affairs to a couple of first rate accounts of the author’s only real passion, gambling.

Gambling is to Landolfi the most senseless, devilish, sinful passion of all. That is why it is also the most irresistible and significant. Yet, if it were made to seem serious, it would lose its true meaning, which is aimless automatism and conscious self-deception. In this gambling is the symbol of all other passions, including love, and life itself; dreary and comical at the same time.

Other narrative books have appeared this year in Italy that would deserve some attention. Those that have been chosen here should, however, give the reader a sufficient idea of the complexities, and the limitations, of the “realistic” trend that dominates contemporary Italian narration.