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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

An Inkling in Italy

Dino Buzzati, Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio, Milan: Oscar Mondadori, 2010, pages 152, euros 8.40. The title means "The Old-Wood Secrets," but unfortunately it looks like no English edition exists.

Written in 1934, when Buzzati was only 28 years old, it already displays that deep melancholy that would become one of his main literary -- and not only literary -- traits in his later years. And precisely this is one of the features making Buzzati's fantasy books different from Tolkien's and Lewis', which were being worked on by the two Britons in those same years. Admittedly, Tolkien's stories (or episodes, in The Lord of the Rings) also are often gloomy, but in a different mood: the horror of the battlefield or the black mantel of cosmic evil, rather than the partially sweet sadness of autumn sunsets, the feeling of vanishing ideals and joys.

This highlights the main difference between Buzzati, on the one side, and the Inklings, on the other: the former had no Christian faith. Not that he was anti-Christian, but his references to religion are taken from everyday folklore rather than from the Bible, as it especially happens with Lewis. Buzzati's fantasy characters and events are not the vehicles of a renewed revelation, but the phenomena of a world that shows itself as merry and grim, exciting and boring, playful and cruel, but to no final purpose except death. The Divine is only invoked in cries of wrath or desperation: "By God!," "Madonna!"

A consequence on his fantasy imagery is that, instead of re-shaping the traditional themes: wizards, dragons, etc., as the Inklings do, he creates his own mythology, though of course on the basis of ancient lore. For example, in Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio the age-old trees are inhabited by sprites who can appear in human shape, magically heal wounds, and who die if their trees are felled; in practice, something midway the dryads and the elves, but they are called genî, Geniuses (jinns), and simply look like resigned villagers, sharing nothing of the majesty, beauty, light, superiority of Tolkien's elves. Or again, the Five Nightmares remind us of Surrealism or Japanese spectres, rather than Medieval fairy tales.

What remains unconveyable in this English summary is Buzzati's language, style, and atmospheres, that are deeply Italian, and more specifically, they witness that cultural transition in Italy when the Technological -- and "vulgar" -- Era was not yet there but coming soon, ready to 'fell' not simply the old words but a whole world.