Kevin Brockmeier On the Essential Fiction of Dino Buzzati
In “The Egg,” a private Easter egg hunt becomes one mother’s battle of anarchy
AN INTRODUCTION BY KEVIN BROCKMEIER
My first exposure to Dino Buzzati came during my junior year of college, when I happened upon “The Falling Girl” in an anthology of very short stories. Readers who have encountered nothing else by Buzzati might nevertheless recollect this one title, so frequently is it anthologized and so memorably is it devised. I myself, however, did not become a devotee of his work until more than a decade after I read it, when I discovered his out-and-out masterpiece The Tartar Steppe. Take a Stendhal or Tolstoy novel and then strain and clarify it through a Kafka filter and this is the book that might result: a battlefront epic without the battle, about the ease with which a life can be squandered on nothing more than hopes and routines. It’s among the most flawless novels I know, an airtight work of late existentialism, one that never quite violates the bounds of realism yet slowly, drop by drop, assumes an efflorescent dreamlike quality.
Ecco’s reissue of Catastrophe, along with the five new English-language renditions of his stories they commissioned for the collection, is something to be applauded. It is, to my knowledge, the first previously unavailable writing of Buzzati’s to achieve publication in English since Electric Literature reprinted “The Time Machine” in Recommended Reading in 2012, when, in an accompanying note, I urged publishers to lend his work further attention. I hope that the book is merely the first percolation of what will be a river of further Buzzati volumes, since many of Buzzati’s stories, essays, letters, and poems remain to be translated, along with a stage play, an autobiography, and five librettos, plus at least three of what would seem to be his major works: his second novel, an allegorical fantasy called The Secret of the Old Forest; his meditation on mortality and the mysteries of the grave, written following the death of his dog Diabolik, In That Precise Moment; and The Miracles of Val Morel, a book of illustrations and commentaries about 39 votive offerings honoring the miracles of a fictitious nun. (This one is worth buying in an Italian edition for the artwork alone, even if, like me, you can’t read the text.)”
Catastrophe is not a long collection, but there’s nothing fleeting or abrupt about its effect, which is to say that its brevity speaks to its concentration rather than its ephemerality.
Take “The Egg,” published here, a naturalistic, almost anecdotal story about the injustices of poverty and the disappointments of childhood that hatches in an instant, with the most offhand witchery, into a swift and brutal morality play.
Do you know that sudden inversion near the end of certain disturbing tales — “The Lottery,” “Royal Jelly,” “Sandkings” — when you intuit the terrible thing that is just about to take place? In each of Catastrophe’s stories, it’s as if Buzzati has zeroed in on that moment and asked himself, What if there was nothing else? This singular instant of dreadful predictive clarity: what if I distended it over a lifetime? He has taken the split-second between the misstep and the fall, when your foot has slipped from the ledge but gravity is still deciding what to do with you, and heightened it to a sort of cosmology.
Any writer who is capable of such an achievement is, it seems to me, an essential writer.
Author of The Illumination
Kevin Brockmeier On the Essential Fiction of Dino Buzzati
by Dino Buzzati
The International Violet Cross organized a grand egg hunt in the gardens of the Villa Reale for children under twelve years old — tickets were twenty thousand lira each.
The eggs were hidden under bundles of hay, waiting for the starting signal and the children could keep all the eggs they found. There were eggs of every kind and size — chocolate eggs, metal eggs, cardboard eggs, all containing the most wonderful presents.
Gilda Soso, a cleaner who was paid by the hour, heard of the hunt at the Casa Zernatta where she worked. Signora Zernatta was taking all her four children at a total cost of eighty thousand lira.
Gilda Soso, twenty-five years old, not pretty, yet not plain, short, petite, with a lively face full of kindness, but also of repressed desires, had a four-year-old daughter — a pretty little girl — whom she decided to take to the hunt.
When the day arrived she dressed her Antonella in a new coat and a felt hat that made her look like a child of well-to-do parents. Gilda, however, couldn’t make herself look well-off, her clothes were too threadbare. But she did something better: with the aid of some sort of cap she got herself up to look rather like an English nanny, and if you didn’t look too closely you might easily have taken her for one of those expensive nursemaids who hold diplomas from Geneva or Neuchatel.
They set off in good time for the gates of the Villa Reale, and here Gilda paused, looking about her as if she were a nursemaid awaiting her mistress. Presently cars arrived disgorging children who were going on the egg hunt. Signora Zernatta arrived with her four and Gilda turned aside to avoid being seen.
Was all this going to be a waste of time for Gilda? It wasn’t easy to choose the right moment of disorder and confusion to slip in without paying.
The egg hunt was to begin at three. At five minutes to three a presidential type of car drew up: it contained the wife of an important Minister with her children who had just arrived in Rome. At once the President, the Directors and Officials of the International Violet Cross pushed toward the Minister’s wife to welcome her, and this gave, in full measure, the desired confusion.
And so Gilda, the daily cleaner disguised as a nursemaid, entered the garden with her little one, to whom she gave last-minute instructions that she should not let herself be put upon by children bigger and more cunning than she.
You could see spaced irregularly on the lawn hundreds of bundles of hay, some large, some small — one was at least three yards high — who knows what was hidden underneath? Perhaps nothing.
The starting signal was given by a blast on a trumpet, the tape marking the starting point was dropped and the children hurled themselves on the hunt with piercing yells.
But the children of the wealthy were too much for little Antonella. She ran here and there unable to make up her mind, while the others rummaged in the hay, some already running back to their mothers carrying huge chocolate eggs or gaily painted cardboard ones containing goodness-knows-what surprises.
At last even Antonella, thrusting her little hand in the hay, encountered something smooth and compact, judging from the contour it must be a monster egg. Beside herself with joy, she cried out, “I’ve found one! I’ve found one!” and tried to grasp the egg, but a boy dived headlong, as they do in rugby scrums, and then Antonella saw him running off clasping something enormous in his arms: he even pulled a face at her to add to her discomfiture.
Children are very smart. At three o’clock they were given the start, at a quarter past it was all over. And Gilda’s little girl, empty-handed, looked around for her nursemaid mother. She was indeed wretchedly unhappy, but at all costs she wouldn’t cry — that would put her to shame in front of all those children who would see her. But each one had his booty, some a lot, some only a little, only Antonella had nothing at all.
There was a fair-haired little girl of about seven who was having difficulty in carrying off all the good things she had collected. Antonella looked at her in astonishment.
“Didn’t you find anything?” asked the fair-haired little girl kindly.
“If you like you may have one of mine.”
“May I? Which one?”
“One of the small ones.”
“Yes. Take it.”
“Thank you,” said Antonella, already quite consoled. “What is your name?”
“Ignazia,” replied the little girl.
Just then an important-looking lady, who must have been Ignazia’s mother, interrupted with: “Why are you giving that little girl one of your eggs?”
“I didn’t give it to her — she took it away from me,” replied Ignazia instantly, with that inexplicable perfidiousness of children.
“It isn’t true!” cried Antonella, “She gave it to me!”
It was a beautiful egg of shiny cardboard that you could open like a box, perhaps there was a toy inside, or a set of dolls’ dishes, or a needlework case.
Attracted by the dispute, one of the white-clad Violet Cross ladies appeared on the scene. She was about fifty years old.
“What is the matter, my dears?” she asked with a smile, but it wasn’t a pleasant one. “Don’t you like what you’ve got?”
“It’s nothing, nothing,” said Ignazia’s mother. “This brat — I don’t know who she belongs to — has taken one of my child’s eggs. But it doesn’t matter to me, let her have it! Come along, Ignazia,” and off she went with her little girl.
But the Violet Cross lady didn’t consider the matter closed.
“Did you take the egg?” she asked Antonella.
“No, she gave it to me.”
“Indeed! What is your name?”
“And your mother — where is your mother?”
Just then Antonella realized that her mother was standing motionless a short distance away, watching all that was going on.
“She’s there,” said the child, pointing. “But isn’t she your nursemaid?” Then Gilda came forward. “I am her mother.”
The lady looked at her puzzled. “Excuse me, madam, you have your ticket? Would you mind showing it to me?”
“I haven’t got a ticket,” said Gilda, placing herself beside Antonella.
“You’ve lost it?”
“No, I haven’t got one.”
“You entered by fraud, then? Well, that alters the situation. Now, little girl, that egg doesn’t belong to you.”
Firmly she took the egg away.
“It’s disgraceful,” she said, “now, will you please go.”
The child stood as if turned to stone, her little face petrified with such grief that the heavens themselves began to darken.
Then as the Violet Cross lady was going off with the egg, Gilda exploded. All the humiliations, the sufferings, the anger, the suppressed desires of years and years were too much for her and she began to howl.
There were many people there, smart people in the best society and their children, laden with stupendous eggs. Some hurried away horrified. Others stopped and protested. “It’s shameful!” “It’s a scandal!” “And in front of children too!” “Arrest her!”
“Get out of here if you don’t want to be arrested,” said the Violet Cross lady.
But Antonella burst into violent sobs that would have moved a heart of stone. Gilda was now beside herself — rage, shame, hatred, all gave her a great and irresistible power.
“You should be ashamed, taking away my little girl’s egg when she has nothing. Do you know what you are? Scum!”
Two policemen came up and seized Gilda by the hands.
“Get out at once! Get out!” She freed herself.
“Let me go! Let me go!”
They fell on her, caught hold of her everywhere and dragged her toward the exit. “Now you are coming with us to the police station. Once there you will cool down and learn what happens to people who insult the forces of law and order.”
They had difficulty in holding her, small though she was.
“No! No!” she yelled. “My little girl! My little girl! Let me go, you cowards!” The child, clinging to her skirts and flung to and fro in the tumult, was shouting frantically through her sobs.
There were ten of them, men and women, against her.
“Fetch a straitjacket!”
“Take her to the first-aid post!”
The police van had just drawn up, they opened the door and she was lifted off the ground by the impetus of the crowd. The Violet Cross lady seized the child firmly by the hand. “Now, you come with me. They are going to teach your mummy a lesson.”
No one remembered that sometimes an injustice suffered can unleash terrifying power.
“For the last time, let me go!” shouted Gilda while they were trying to lift her into the van. “Let me go before I kill you!”
“That’s enough! Take her away,” ordered the Violet Cross lady, determined to subdue Antonella.
“Well, then, you shall die first, damn you!” cried Gilda, struggling more than ever.
“Oh, God,” groaned the white-clad one, and fell lifeless to the ground.
“And now you who are holding my hands, you too,” said the cleaner.
There was a confused mass of bodies, then one of the policemen fell down dead, a second one fell down immediately after, as soon as Gilda had spoken.
They all retreated in nameless terror. The mother found herself alone, surrounded by a crowd who dared not do anything.
She took Antonella by the hand and stepped out confidently.
“Make way, make way — let me pass.”
They made way, not daring to touch her. They followed her, though at a distance of twenty yards as she walked away.
Meanwhile, through the milling crowd, armored cars arrived amid the wailing of ambulance and fire-engine sirens. A vice commissioner of police took command of the operations.
A voice was heard: “Hoses! Tear gas!”
Gilda turned around angrily.
“Use them if you dare.”
Here was a mother offended and humiliated, an unleashed force of nature.
A circle of police surrounded her. “Hands up, you wretch!” A warning shot was heard.
“My little girl — you want to kill her too?” cried Gilda. “Let me pass.”
She walked on fearlessly. They hadn’t even touched her and six policemen collapsed in a heap on the ground.
So she reached home. It was a large block of flats standing in the fields on the outskirts of the town. The police surrounded the building.
The Chief of Police advanced with a loud megaphone, and all the tenants were given five minutes to get out, and the mother was ordered to hand over her child lest she should come to harm.
Gilda leaned out of the window on the top floor and shouted words they couldn’t understand. The group of police at once fell back as if some invisible force were pushing them.
“What are you doing? Close ranks!” thundered the officials. But even they stumbled back.
There only remained Gilda and her child in the building. Probably she was cooking supper, for a thin wisp of smoke issued from the chimney.
As evening fell, detachments of the Seventh Armored Regiment formed a wide circle around the house. Gilda leaned out of the window and shouted something or other. A heavy armored car began to wobble, then tipped over sideways — then a second, a third, a fourth. Some mysterious force tossed them about here and there like tin toys until they remained immobile in the most grotesque positions, completely smashed.
A state of siege was declared and U.N.O. forces intervened. A wide zone around the city was evacuated. At dawn the bombardment began.
Standing on a balcony, Gilda and the child quietly watched the spectacle. No one knew why none of the grenades succeeded in hitting the house. They all exploded in midair three hundred yards short. Then Gilda went in because Antonella, frightened by the noise of the explosions, had begun to cry.
They meant to get her through hunger and thirst. The water supply was cut. But every morning and every evening the chimney gave out its plume of smoke — a sign that Gilda was cooking.
The generals decided to attack at “X” hours. At the “Xth” hour the ground for miles around trembled, the war machines advanced concentrically with the boom of the apocalypse.
Once more Gilda showed herself.
“Stop it!” she cried, “Leave me alone!”
The ranks of armored cars heaved as though moved by an invisible wave, the steel pachyderms loaded with death twisted up with horrible grating noises, changing into little heaps of scrap iron.
The Secretary General of the U.N.O. advanced holding a white flag. Gilda invited him to enter.
The Secretary General of the U.N.O. asked the cleaner for her peace terms: the country was exhausted, the nerves of the people and of the armed forces could stand no more.
Gilda offered him a cup of coffee and then said, “I want an egg for my little girl.”
Ten trucks stopped before the house. They were loaded with eggs of all sizes and of fantastic beauty for the little girl to choose. There was even one of solid gold studded with precious stones, fourteen inches in diameter.
Antonella chose a small one of colored cardboard, just like the one that the Violet Cross lady had taken from her.