When we talk about modern authors who excelled in myth-crafting and world-building, Dino Buzzati rarely comes to mind. This may partly be because, unlike his illustrious English-speaking colleagues, the fantastic universes built by the Italian novelist and journalist (born in 1906 and died of cancer in 1972, author of the famous novel The Tartars’ Steppe and winner of the prestigious Premio Strega in 1958) do not require dwarves, knights, or dragons. Actually, they fit in a much more modern setting, as modern as the early 20th century, and the themes they explore are closely linked to existentialism and magical realism. And yet, few authors in modern Italian literature have benefitted from an imagination as swirling as the one of Dino Buzzati.
What better way to demonstrate this imagination, than by citing one of the most iconic creatures created by Buzzati, the Colomber? A veritable co-protagonist in the short-story with the same name, the Colomber shows itself as a mythical, shark-like sea-creature. Rumored to be a merciless predator, it is common knowledge among seafarers that once the Colomber chooses its prey, it will not rest until it has devoured its designated victim. The bond between hunter and game is so strong that only the chased one and his kin can see the menacing shark. Just imagine how a merchant ship captain reacts when he discovers that his young son Stefano, accompanying him on his ship for the first time, has seen the Colomber itself while gazing overboard! Fearing for his son’s life, the captain hastily returns to the nearest port, returns Stefano to land and makes him promise never to travel on the sea again. Surely, Stefano can still have a nice life in the countryside, miles away from the nearest shore, where the Colomber would not be able to reach him. But knowing that a mysterious and potentially lethal creature is lurking somewhere out there, patiently waiting for him, charms Stefano profoundly. Drawn to the sea and to the Colomber by an obscure magnetism, and yet unable or unwilling to fight the creature head-on, Stefano will eventually find, after a lifetime of running and hiding, the courage to confront the shark and his own fears. But when finally standing before the Colomber, Stefano’s fate will take a highly unexpected turn.
Published in 1966 alongside 50 other short stories, and translated into English as Restless Nights: Selected Stories of Dino Buzzati roughly twenty years later, the Colomber has become one of Buzzati’s most recognizable characters, even if the maritime setting of this story somehow contrasts with the true leitmotiv in all of Dino’s fiction: the mountains. Mountains like the Dolomites, which the author literally faced every day during his younger years in Belluno. Mountains like the ones where retired colonel Sebastiano Procolo moves to in one of the first works ever published by Buzzati: The Secret of The Old Woods, a short fantastic novel set in an alpine forest inhabited by talking animals. But if you are preparing yourself for a Disney’s Bambi-like story, just forget it.
For the mountains are as unforgiving as they are beautiful, and the dwellers of the Old Woods constantly strive for survival. And when death strikes, Buzzati doesn’t spare the reader from gory details. Sebastiano Procolo actually spends much of this novel planning how to kill his underage nephew, as the child is the rightful owner of the woods the old colonel wants to take ownership of. So, while not Stephen King, The Secret of The Old Woods is still pretty graphic for what was originally intended to be literature for children. In The Secret of The Old Woods, Buzzati also shows his interest for magic by portraying a myriad of spirits protecting and embodying the very essence of the Old Woods. For this reason, if you loved Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, you’ll probably like this novel too. Majestic peaks also serve as a stage for the greatest achievement of Buzzati’s fantasy fiction: The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily. Reshaping the Mediterranean island’s orography, Dino Buzzati imagines imposing Alp-like mountains where anthropomorphic bears roam free. But after a particularly hard winter has left them with nothing to eat, the bears have no other choice than descending among humans to seek help. The bear king, Leander, also has a very personal reason to do so: His only son, Tony, has been kidnapped by hunters and forcibly brought to the human world. Yet the bears’ great migration won’t be easy, for Sicily is ruled with an iron fist belonging to the Grand Duke: A vain, vicious, and trigger-happy tyrant who sees the bears as potential usurpers and wants them exterminated. Leander’s kin soon find themselves fighting for survival against the grand-ducal armies, but while the battle rages, old and disgraced astrologer Professor Ambrose lurks in the shadows, ready to gift the winning side the last spells of his fading wand…
Featuring both Gothic spook and lavish settings reminiscent of Bourbonic Southern Italy, a devilish sea serpent, omniscient specters and a fair share of intrigue, The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily appeared in 1945 and has since enchanted readers from 9 to 99. It is also a stylistically interesting novel, since Buzzati mixes prose, poems, and his own illustrations to create a small Gesamtkunstwerk effect. Perhaps most importantly, in this novel, beyond the furry, fantastic elements that may appeal specifically to younger readers, lies the allegory of migrants forced into displacement by dire necessity, who must fight against the cruelty of uncompassionate leaders to carve out a new home for themselves, and who are then confronted with a striking question: if assimilation into the majority’s culture is possible, is it really desirable? As this is The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily and not An American Tail, don’t expect a heart-warming, uplifting finale to cheer you up: The first things you learn by reading Buzzati is that in his novels – spells, apparitions, and fantastic creatures notwithstanding – life remains bittersweet.
Skribent: Simone Santini