SIX PIECES BY
Dino Buzzati



A Solicitous Young Man

This morning a young man came to my house. He wore glasses and was well-dressed. “Excuse me if I come to disturb you at home,” he said at once. “But I think I might be helpful to you.”

He seemed educated and discreet. I invited him into the living room. Yet I was suspicious. “Is this,” I asked, “about insurance by any chance?”

He started to laugh. I looked him over. He seemed athletic; he was tanned. “No, no, please,” and he sat down. “I rather think I can be of some use to you, with the regiment. . . . ”

“What regiment? Do you mean my regiment?”

He nodded in agreement. “But don’t be alarmed, please. I’m not carrying any order for you to report for duty.”

“So you’re part of the command? You know where my regiment is? Then you know when it departs, approximately.”

I noticed I was stuttering. I was out of breath. For many, this damned story about the regiment weighs on their minds. And I am one of them, I confess. Everyone, in fact, here in the city but also out in the countryside, in the valleys, on the seacoasts, as far as the world stretches, everyone in a certain way, as we know, belongs to a regiment. The regiments are countless, no one knows how many there are, no one even knows which is his, yet the regiments are billeted here and there, even in the heart of the city, although no one notices them, and no one thinks of them. When a regiment leaves, however, whoever belongs to it must leave as well.

“No, I’m not part of the command,” the young man replied. “I am—how shall we put it?—I am . . . let’s say a friend. I have come purposely to calm you down. For some time now you have been nervous, restless. Or perhaps I’m mistaken?”

“How do you know about it?”

“Certain things are known, come to be known, are guessed. There are countless sources of information. I also live here in the neighborhood. You’ve never noticed me, but I often run into you and, forgive me, I have a great liking for you, apart from your work. . . . I’m one of your keenest fans.”

He was beginning to annoy me.

“Sorry to be so frank, but don’t you realize that these matters are private?”

He had another brief laugh, but this time it was rather congenial, “In a word, I am being indiscreet. You’re calling me indiscreet! And would you be right? You would be right if you were an ordinary person, one of so many ordinary people, whereas you—I’m sorry, sir, but I’m not so sure these matters are private. Don’t they concern both of us? Don’t they concern me too? Don’t look at me like that, please. There’s absolutely no reason to be alarmed; you mustn’t be.”

It was a fairly clear morning. A peculiar sunlight shone on the trees in the garden out front. My anxiety returned.

The young man, however, as he spoke, fixed his gaze on the corner of a magazine that had been slipped inside the rack among several other magazines and newspapers. It was an American men’s magazine. It is extraordinary how a man, regardless of his socioeconomic status, can enter a room that contains thousands of books, immediately sense the presence of pornography, and identify its precise position as if by an act of divination.

Naturally the young man’s interest in the magazine gave me pleasure, calmed me down a bit: a messenger of fate, a forerunner or some similar functionary of the nocturnal regiment would not of course be interested in porno. All the same, my patience was running thin.

“In short,” I said, “one can know?”

“Look,” he said, slightly disconcerted, or pretending to be disconcerted. “I’ll be completely frank. I haven’t been honest, sir. I told you a lie. Yes, it’s true: in a certain sense I have come about the regiment, but not to bring you news or information. For heaven’s sake, I know nothing about it; I certainly know less than you. If I had some reliable information, I wouldn’t be here. I assure you.”

“Then why are you here?” I was definitely irritated.

“Well, I’m with ASTRA, simply an agent with ASTRA. Understand? We’re in a position to offer you extremely advantageous rates and conditions.”

“Insurance?”

He lowered his head to show he was mortified.

Damn, I had guessed.

It was an immense relief. I felt like a new man. I was calm again, self-assured, witty.

“Listen,” I told him, and in a tone that forced him to stand up, “you’re wasting your time—and breath.”

“I’m sorry you’re angry. I swear I didn’t want to upset you.”

“I do believe you. But there’s no point discussing it. At my age I don’t need insurance. Besides, it would cost too much. And then who would benefit from it?”

“Your wife, for instance?”

“My wife? Thank God her family is wealthy. She doesn’t need anything.” His gaze fell again the magazine sticking out of the rack. “So tell me, man to man, you like these nude magazines?”

He feigned surprise. But only slightly.

“Do I like them?”

“The magazines with nude women. I noticed you were staring.”

“What? Me? No, no! I swear.”

I pulled the magazine from the rack and handed it to him.

“It’s from California. Do you know those? Not bad, right?”

I felt confident, relaxed. He smiled as he leafed through it, apparently pleased.

“Take it,” I told him, “if you want.”

He declined.

“No, really, take it, I have so many of them. They prove very useful in my drawing, apart from other purposes.”

He laughed openly again. “Apart from other purposes! That’s good! Other purposes! They turn me on too, you know. But no, no thanks.”

I put four of them in his hands.

“Which do you want? I have such an assortment.”

“You’re being too kind. I don’t know what to say.”

But he wasn’t actually at a loss. He continued to smile. I had completely distracted him.

Yet at the door, when I called for the elevator and the red button lit up, the young man—at this point he was saying goodbye—turned and stared at me, no longer smiling. A sudden concentration, preoccupation, apprehension, anguish even was painted on his face.

The elevator stopped, the metal doors parted, he moved to enter. He raised his right hand slightly, as if to make some gesture. His left hand held the nude magazines.

“Don’t give it any thought,” he said. “There’s no reason to, I swear, the regiment—”



From Dino Buzzati, Il Reggimento Parte all’Alba © 1985 Edizioni Frassinelli, Milano. Translation © 2014 Lawrence Venuti.

 

 

 

 

An Irritating Letter

Dear Elena,

I haven’t the foggiest why I waited so long to write or otherwise contact you. Time passes so quickly, and the winter gave me such a case of the blues. I finally killed him. A good five months had to pass since our last meeting and blessed spring had to knock at the door, so radiant and comforting here in the country, before I could take pen in hand and resume chatting with my dear sweet Elena. I swear I couldn’t wait any longer.

How I wish you were sitting here beside me, you whose sensibility is so close to mine, who know how to listen to the tiny mysterious voices of nature and old houses, who like me know how to enjoy the modest charms of domestic life, for others so dull and trifling. Believe me, getting rid of a husband like him has proved an enormous consolation.

It is dusk. The trees and fields are about to withdraw into sleep. Not even I can tell you how I could stand so many years. A marvelous peace stretches all through my house (fortunately the road is faraway), and a feeling of safety, wholesomeness, contentment—how to put it?—profound intimacy soothes my soul. And then the “professor” no longer torments me, no longer complains, no longer delivers lectures.

At this moment the new buds aren’t visible, because night has already fallen, but during the day, sitting here at my desk, I can see them on the climbing spiridina that juts out from the windowsill. What a tender, amorous, languishing shade of green. It is life itself, or—you musn’t think me mad—hope incarnate. At night, asleep, he would always whistle faintly through his nose; it was frightful. And then he betrayed me. Systematically.

Did you know that spring causes the wood to creak in antique furniture as well as in prehistoric pile-dwellings? He even betrayed me with the signalman’s daughter, below here, just outside the forest, at the railway station. Did you know that spring springs inside of me as well? I can’t quite say in which part of me, must be in the depths of my nerves and senses, releasing a sort of spring that had somehow stayed compressed for a very long time. Zing, zing . . . I feel as if masses of microscopic grasshoppers were suddenly leaping, lodged in the most recondite parts of my body. The faintest sensations, scarcely perceptible, and yet so soft and seductive. Do you too have these feelings? Tell me: do you, dear Elena? It was so simple, you know. He was sleeping, making his usual whistle. I had come across a pin, probably my grandmother’s, the kind they used to fasten hats to their heads. A striking hatpin.

For me, these may be the best days of the year. I gauged the point carefully. He continued whistling. I shoved with all my might. It penetrated as if into butter. This morning, when I went into the garden, I had a wonderful surprise: the tropical gwadinna, you know the one that Dr. Genck brought me from Zanzibar. I thought it was dead, and in the space of a night it sent forth a flower. But why do I say a flower? It was like a flame, a torch, an incandescent eruption. He only opened his eyes. He didn’t move. He murmured, “You have to—,” perhaps wanting to say, “You have to call the doctor.” He didn’t realize it was me. With that “to—” he burst like a balloon with a hiss of air. The gwadinna is a small plant. Do you remember it? A trinket, a freak of nature, and yet it kept hidden within itself, within its secret fibers, so swollen with life. What a marvelous thing nature is. I never cease to be astonished. Inexhaustible mine of beauty, generosity, wisdom, artistic genius.

And the most extraordinary thing happened. The Valkyrie butterflies, the ones with the blue and lilac streaks, that masterwork of the creation, the most beautiful, most delicate, most redolent of the Liberty style, most feminine of insects, which fly in that peculiar manner—do you remember them?—as if they were waddling, well, you would never have believed it, but all of them, I say all, had lit on the bursting, richly scented flower of the gwadinna, which seemed pleased with this attention. What a thud when I pulled him off the bed. He was so heavy and fat, I couldn’t even lift him. And then more thuds when I dragged him down the stairs. Every step a thud. I did a beautiful job. He, however, with his droopy moustache, was more ugly than usual.

Ah, another delightful bit of news. Mirandola, my Siamese cat, brought six kittens into the world, more beautiful than you can imagine. The encounter with the Soffiatis’ beefcake has borne fruit. They are utterly perfect, I tell you. The veterinarian who assisted in the birth, that congenial fellow Scorlesi—you know him, no?—he was shocked. Newborns, he said, and already their ears are prepositioned! Even now, he said, they could win competitions. I lugged him as far as the trapdoor that empties into the sewer. “Plop” I heard when he hit the bottom.

In the tedium of winter, which we in the country feel more intensely than you in the city where you have so many lights, so much movement, so many lovely sales, so many (dear me) phone calls, do you know I’ve read a spate of books? You’ll laugh. And then you’ll conclude that I’ve become senile, fanatical, devout. Laugh, laugh. I am fond of the Gospels. On many occasions he explained to me how our sewer communicates with an underground stream that vanishes somewhere, since the house is built on a karst formation, limestone perforated through and through by shafts and caves. When I was a girl, naturally, I was required to read the Gospels as a textbook; for that very reason I loathed them. Now it’s just the opposite: every night, and I truly mean every, before closing my eyes I open the little volume at random. What divine pages! I informed the police of his disappearance the next morning. I said I hadn’t seen him at all since the previous afternoon. Every turn of the page is an injection of faith, serenity, light. So much so I’m thinking of renovating the family chapel here: it has grown rather delabrée. Who knows whether it won’t be taken into account one day, when I am led by the angels (or devils?) before the throne of God!

Incidentally, before I sign off—perhaps I’ve been a bit irritating, yes?—I must give you the instructions for that Peruvian poncho you liked so much. He had returned about one o’clock at night; I could swear he was coming from the signalman’s daughter. The police are searching for him in the vicinity; I left some details up to their intuition. So pay attention: you’ll need about two balls of grey (or beige) shetland wool, another ball of the same wool in black (or tobacco), just over half a ball of the same wool in white (or cream), and number 3 knitting needles. You work in two parts, decreasing one stitch per row for every plain-stitched row. All the same, they’ll never find him underneath here. The late professor gave me a very clear explanation of the resources of karst formations. For the first part: with the grey wool cast on 262 stitches and knit for ten rows in plain stitch; then, still with the grey wool, knit 16 rows in purl stitch. Novels maintain that remorse exists, but I have rather known peace, tranquillity, silence. The twenty-seventh row: ◉ one stitch in white wool, three stitches in grey wool ◉; repeat from ◉ to ◉ until the end of the row, finishing with one stitch in white wool. The twenty-eighth row: ◉ three stitches in white wool, one stitch in grey wool ◉, repeat from ◉ to ◉ until the end of the row, finishing with three stitches in white wool. It is absolutely impossible for them to find him. The twenty-ninth to the thirty-second rows, in white wool. The thirty-third and thirty-fourth, in grey wool. The thirty-fifth to the thirty-eighth, in black wool. The thirty-ninth and fortieth, in grey wool. The forty-first and forty-second, in white wool. And I hope you won’t give the slightest thought to telling anyone about it, even if you are the daughter of a magistrate. Thus you’ll have 226 stitches to a row. The forty-third and forty-fourth rows, in black wool. The forty-fifth . . .



From Dino Buzzati, Le Notti Difficili © 1971 Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, S. P. A., Milano. Translation © 2014 Lawrence Venuti.

 

 

 

 

Duilio Ronconi, Landowner

Like every evening the invalid was brought out in a wheelchair on the terrace of the country house which dominated an undulating stretch of fields, hedges, forests. And left alone. Just as the sun was sinking behind the outline of turreted mountains, so he felt life slowly draining from him.

Everything was deserted, silent and very beautiful. Suddenly, in a vast, smooth meadow that sloped down to a tall hedge blocking the view from the other side, a round hump started to form, like a small bundle of hay, increasing visibly and reaching an approximate height of at least two and a half meters. As it grew, it moved in his direction, as if the field were an elastic wool blanket under which a living being crawled, a monster, a gigantic mole. The hump in fact no longer seemed round, but rather elongated, as if it corresponded to the growth of a back, and it was followed not too far off by a protuberance which moved with it and could be attributed to a tail. Was it a gigantic mole? A subterranean snake? A creature from the abyss or a divine prodigy?

The man was tempted to call out, if only to share the miracle with others. But he restrained himself, preferring to savor the unheard-of sight himself.

For a few moments he expected the frightening excrescence to split, allowing the monster to issue forth. But the meadow, like the toughest leather, did not yield. It’s better this way—he persuaded himself—since the mystery can be kept more intense.

But the light of that privileged day was fading. The old man knew very well that it was a fatal announcement, enacted exclusively for him. He had to leave, perhaps that very evening. All the same, he felt pervaded by a happiness which he had never felt in his long life.



From Dino Buzzati, Il Reggimento Parte all’Alba © 1985 Edizioni Frassinelli, Milano. Translation © 2014 Lawrence Venuti.

 

 

 

 

The Philanthropist

He is a noble creature. He loves his oppressed neighbor, in whose struggles he participates. He himself has actually never been oppressed. Fortune has been good to him: he has social position, money, prestige. Everything that increases his merit.

He has loved his oppressed neighbor ever since he noticed there is everything to gain from preaching revolution in a country of appalling cowards like his. And this magnanimous position automatically transforms into a virtue something that is usually considered vile but gives extraordinary pleasure: hatred.

How strange that the first result of so much love for one’s neighbor is hatred. Hatred of whom? Those who do well and therefore are themselves exploiters and oppressors. It is so satisfying to hate them because they belong to the same world, he knows them all quite well, personally, and so there is more pleasure in hating them, they are parents friends acquaintances colleagues, and he would gladly cut them to pieces after subjecting them to lengthy regimens of torture.

Since then life has become most pleasant.

Champion of philanthropy and social justice and enthusiastic enemy of bourgeois pigs like him but he is different because he sides with those who want to cause a revolution and if—Heaven forfend—the revolution happens one day, he will be ready, they will immediately assign him some important responsibilities, guaranteed, they will have some terrible need for educated men like him, those peasants. God, how sweet original sin is.



From Dino Buzzati, Il Reggimento Parte all’Alba © 1985 Edizioni Frassinelli, Milano. Translation © 2014 Lawrence Venuti.

 

 

 

 

Wladimiro Ferraris,
Chief Customs Inspector

Ferraris (opening the door of his townhouse on via Bonifacio VII in the old quarter which is still called “The Artists’ Village.” Blinded by the violent sunlight, he rubs his eyes.): “What is it? What’s happening?”

The Neighboring Houses: “It’s a new day, a very beautiful new day, sir. It looks like spring has arrived.”

Ferraris (looking around, hesitant): “For me too?”

The Houses: “We don’t see anything contrary for you, Inspector sir, you who always say you are so young, even at fifty-two. Unless—”

Ferraris: “Unless . . . (imitating the intonation), unless . . . how stupid of me to stand here listening (He looks at his watch.). I don’t understand it; this is the first time Massimo’s been late.”

(At that moment a dark grey Mercedes stops in front of the house. A driver gets out and rushes to open the door.)

Driver: “Forgive the delay, Commendatore. The transit strike has caused a terrible traffic jam.”

Ferraris: “Where’d you get this ocean liner?”

Driver: “This is the new car for the Customs Office, Commendatore. I thought you were informed.”

Ferraris: “Ah, yes, you’re right. Today, today (he passes a hand over his forehead as the car sets out), today I feel dizzy.”

Driver: “Perhaps you’re catching the flu, Commendatore. You ought to look after yourself.”

Ferraris: “Careful, Massimo, you nearly drove into those people! Please, I’m really not right today. What’s this fence doing here? What’s all the confusion?”

Driver: “They’re constructing a new skyscraper, for Gulf and Western, I believe.”

Ferraris (suddenly starting, as if alarmed): “Massimo, d’you see that? Are those women crazy? Those things are simply insane.”

Driver: “The latest fashion. They say it’s all the rage.”

The Car: “The latest fashion for you, you pig, always with a hard-on.”

Driver: “Here we are, Commendatore.”

(Ferraris gets out of the car. With uncertain steps he approaches the staircase to the Customs Building. A crackle at his side makes him swerve.)

The Customs Building: “Don’t worry, Inspector sir, it’s a new game. The children are amusing themselves.”

(Ferraris enters the lobby, where under festoons of banners a dense group of people are gathered in animated conversation, as if they were awaiting an event.)

Ferraris (calling the doorman who is standing behind his chair): “Fabrizio, do you know what’s happening?”

The Doorman: “They’re awaiting the arrival of the new minister, Inspector. You, sir, should’ve been the first to know.”

(Ferraris approaches the group of dignitaries, one of whom greets him cordially.)

Dignitary X: “Welcome back, welcome back, Commendatore.”

Ferraris (confused): “Forgive me, but my memory . . . ”

Dignitary X: “Infantino, Salvatore Infantino, the new Customs Inspector.”

Ferraris: “What . . . (he leans on a table) did you say?”

Dignitary X (confused): “Pardon. The new Vice Inspector.”

Ferraris (with relief): “Ah.”

Dignitary No. 2 (cordially slapping him on the back): “Dear Ferraris, what a pleasure to see you again after so many years. How time flies! Speaking of which—Happy New Year! A new year, a new beginning!”

(It is snowing. Looking above, the dignitaries applaud, as he too does.)

A Voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, the new mechanical roof of the Customs Building has been inaugurated.”

(More applause. The roof slowly closes again.)

Ferraris (taking refuge in his office): “It’s so damn cold.”

(A very attractive girl enters.)

Jolie: “Inspector sir, I’m the new secretary.”

Ferraris (leaping to his feet): “Whose secretary? I’ve never had a secretary. The current job description doesn’t allow for one.”

Jolie: “I’m your personal secretary, Inspector sir, for your exclusive orders. And I’m ready now, if you wish.” (She locks the door and begins to disrobe quickly.)

Ferraris: “This is absurd, Miss.”

Jolie: “Call me Jolie. You’ll see, Inspector, you’ll be pleased with me.”

Ferraris: “Get dressed immediately, you shameless girl.”

Jolie: “Then you really haven’t understood anything?”

Ferraris: “Understood what? (There are some sharp knocks at the windows.) What’s happening now?”

Jolie (in bra and panties opening the window): “It’s the spring doves for the new investiture.”

(Six birds enter, positioning themselves on the furniture. The telephone rings. Jolie reaches it before the inspector and lifts the receiver, from which a deep voice speaks, “Congratulations, congratulations.” There is a knock at the door. Jolie, abandoning the chattering receiver on the desk, goes to open it. Ferraris leaps on her to restrain her, grabbing her by the shoulders.)

Jolie (laughing): “What warm hands you have. What are you afraid of? (She opens the door and two very attractive girls enter.) Now you have three new secretaries. Martina . . . Maddalena . . . Hurry, off with your clothes.” (She locks the door again.).

Ferraris: “This is madness. Besides, it’s cold as hell.”

Jolie: “But it’s spring!”

[1985]



From Dino Buzzati, Il Reggimento Parte all’Alba © 1985 Edizioni Frassinelli, Milano. Translation © 2014 Lawrence Venuti.

 

 

 

 

The Room The House

Mamma tells Marco that he will have to leave the little room under the attic.

He is being moved to another part of the huge house, till then unused.

The conditions are improved.

He can live better.

Marco will have a beautiful room that looks out onto the garden.

Not this hole with the narrow window that faces the squalid Valletta del Foss enclosed between rock-strewn ridges prone to landslides.

He: “But I built my castle here, and there’s the mountain, and the prison, and the sentinel’s post, there’s the king’s jail, and the embrasures, the courtyard, and all the rest.”

From floor to ceiling, in fact, the small room has been turned into an inextricable labyrinth of little stairs, scaffolds, shafts, cells, boxes, where the boy must curl up, miniscule redoubts, look-out towers, confessionals, bridges, doors and narrow doorways, all made of wood and wicker with the help of Gilberto the carpenter.

Mamma: “You’ll build another castle in your new room.”

Marco: “That’s impossible. It’d be something different.”

Mamma: “Yes, because Mirko can’t come to play with you anymore now that he’s at school in America.”

Marco: “He isn’t in America. He’s dead.”

Mamma: “Who told you this nonsense?”

Marco: “You were talking about it the other night with Papa, and I heard you.”

Mamma: “You didn’t hear it right.”

Marco: “Mirko won’t ever come back. But even if we move, can’t I keep this room the same?”

Mamma: “No, because we rent this apartment.”

(But the boy doesn’t want to move, and the room doesn’t want him to move either, it calls him and begs him, and so forth.)



From Dino Buzzati, Il Reggimento Parte all’Alba © 1985 Edizioni Frassinelli, Milano. Translation © 2014 Lawrence Venuti.

Contributors

Dino Buzzati

Dino Buzzati was born in Belluno in Northern Italy in 1906 and spent most of his life in Milan. He was an editor and a correspondent for the Corriere della Sera; in addition he was a novelist, playwright, short-story writer, and painter. His work translated into English includes the short story collections Restless Nights, The Siren the novels A Love Affair, The Tartar Steppe and the graphic novel Poem Strip.

Lawrence Venuti

Lawrence Venuti translates from Italian, French, and Catalan. His translations include Dino Buzzatti’s short-story collections Restless Nights and The Siren. I.U. Tarchetti’s Gothic romance, Fosca, Antonia Pozzi’s Breath: Poems and Letters, the anthology, Italy: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, Massimo Carlotto’s crime novel, The Goodbye Kiss, and Ernest Farrés’s Edward Hopper: Poems, which won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. His writing about translation has appeared in such periodicals as Asymptote, the Times Literary Supplement, Words without Borders, and World Literature Today. He is the author, most recently, of Translation Changes Everything: Theory and Practice.

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