Review: Catastrophe & Other Stories by Dino Buzzati

Catastrophe & Other Stories [1965] – ★★★★

This short story collection is from one of the most inventive minds of Italy – writer and poet Dino Buzzati (1906 – 1972). I liked this collection more than the one I read last year – Buzzati’s The Siren: A Selection of Short Stories. In Catastrophe & Other Stories, there are twenty stories overall, but I am reviewing only five below. Though this collection is a bit of a mixed bag, it is definitely worth a read, especially for those into absurdist, existentialist or Kafkaesque fiction.

I. Seven Floors – ★★★★★

This is the best story in the collection, in my opinion. In it, one Giuseppe Corte enters one unusual sanatorium and desperately wants to remain on its top floor – the seventh, but circumstances are not in his favour. Why such a desire? It so happens that this medical establishment is designed in such a way that its top floors are reserved for mild cases, and the further down you go, the more serious cases you encounter until eventually you hit floor one where the hopeless dying “convalesce”. One hero is soon torn by a dilemma: he does not want to be a serious medical case, but the lower floors also have better medical equipment and more knowledgeable doctors and nurses. What does one do? Seven Floors is a fine example of a purely Kafkaesque terror, and the story can also be viewed as a satire on illness, diagnosis, hypochondria, and medical establishment.

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June 2022 Wrap-Up

La Vita Nuova [1294/2021] by Dante Alighieri – ★★★★★

Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me”. Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Vita Nuova is Dante’s early work dedicated to his beloved Beatrice, a noblewoman. Part autobiographical narrative and part poetry, the book is about this Italian poet’s joy and anguish as he worships Beatrice and her image, dedicating poem after poem to her, and his narrative is filled with tenderness, wonder, and visions and premonitions of all kinds. Being purely platonic and much idealised, this is no ordinary love, especially since Dante allegedly met Beatrice only twice in his life (the first time when both of them were children). So, some in his immediate entourage expressed their scepticism about this otherworldly love of his: “To what end lovest thou this lady, seeing that thou canst not support her presence?” However, Dante had an answer. “Love governs [his] Soul”. In this work at least, Dante’s love is obsessive and transformative, but also pure and unselfish, and does not depend on his beloved being near or reciprocating, though the torment of not seeing her and then seeing her pass to the “otherworld” of Angels is too much to bear (“The look she hath when she a little smiles/Cannot be said, nor hidden in the thought; ‘Tis such a new and gracious miracle” [Dante/Rossetti, Pan Macmillan, 1294/2021: 47]). This is Dante’s soul-crying, soul-searching work; a powerful, moving evocation.

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Italian Children’s Literature

This week (on 1 June) is the International Children’s Day (also the Children’s Week in some countries) and I am dedicating this post to the Italian children’s literature.

🤥 The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le avventure di Pinocchio) [1883] by Carlo Collodi

Pinocchio, a wooden boy who wants to be a real boy, has endeared himself into millions of people’s hearts. Collodi’s famous tale follows the adventure of a marionette who finds out early in his life that the world is not always just and that oppression exists alongside goodness and benevolence. Like Lewis Carroll’s original story of Alice in Wonderland [1865], some aspects of the original story of Pinocchio is quite disturbing and violent, but, then, what mid-nineteenth century fairy-tale has aged well? The Adventures of Pinocchio is the third most translated book in the world (after the Bible and The Little Prince) and no wonder – its messages of rising above oppression, trying to do one’s best despite adversary, bad influence and even one’s own trouble-making nature, and becoming the best person one could be, are truly universal. I do not have much hope for the following adaptations of the story, but it is still interesting to note that not just one, but two Pinocchio adaptations are coming out in 2022: Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion animation Pinocchio and Robert Zemeckis’s live-action film Pinocchio.

Pinocchio near the entrance to a souvenir shop, Florence, Italy © Thoughts on Papyrus

🤥 Carlo Collodi (1826 – 1890) was born Carlo Lorenzini in Florence, Tuscany, later changing his name to Collodi to honour his mother’s birthplace. That was not the only instance of name-changing in his career as The Adventures of Pinocchio was first published as a series under the title Storia di un burattino (Adventures of a Marionette), and in fact, I have always known the story under this same title – The Adventures of Burattino (Russian: Приключе́ния Бурати́но). There are now some interesting Pinocchio attractions to explore in Tuscany, such as the Casa di Collodi in Florence and the Pinocchio Park in Collodi, and, of course, the Tuscany region is full of shops selling various Pinocchio souvenirs.

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Mini-Review: The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati

The Tartar Steppe [1940/2018] – ★★★★1/2

First published in 1940 and translated from the Italian by Stuart Hood, this novel is about young and idealistic Giovanni Drogo, a newly appointed Officer to Fort Bastiani, an obscure mountainous place near the country’s frontier. Drogo is excited about his first posting and hurries to his destination eagerly wanting to put to the test his soldiery skills, valour and discipline, as well as begin his new life. However, what awaits him is the unexpected: “the desolate steppe…which had mystery, but no meaning”, where “people [have] no knowledge of time” and where “everything [speaks] of renunciation” [Buzzati/Hood, 1945/1973: 22, 72, 82]. Fort Bastiani is a place in the middle of nowhere where no enemy has been seen since time immemorial. Drogo soon feels rebellious, then depressed and lonely, and is finally completely enchanted by nothingness. The Tartar Steppe is a masterful and subtle work which echoes the best work of Franz Kafka. It is a story about the traps that time lays to a man, about dashed hopes and missed life opportunities, and is a profound meditation on prisons that reside in the recesses of our own minds, in our beloved habits and dear ideals which we can never seem to cast aside no matter how nonsensical they may start to appear.

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