(Curiosity) The high-literary surrealism of Dino Buzzati

“It seems to me, fantasy should be as close as possible to journalism. The right word is not ‘banalizing,’ although in fact a little of this is involved. Rather, I mean that the effectiveness of a fantastic story will depend on its being told in the most simple and practical terms.”

Dino Buzzati (1906-1972) was an Italian novelist, composer, playwright, poet, children’s author, illustrator, and surrealist artist. The privileged son of a veterinarian and professor of law, Buzzati studied law himself before finding work as a journalist, where he worked the rest of his life.

Buzzati covered WWII in Africa, attached to the Royal Navy. In the lead-up to the conflict, he wrote his most famous work, Il deserto dei tartare (The Tartar Steppe, 1940), which Le Monde ranked 29th on its list of the 100 books of the century. The story follows military officer Giovanni Drogo, who spends his life spent guarding the Bastiani Fortress, an old, unmaintained border outpost, in anticipation of an attack that never seems to come. “Without noticing, Drogo finds that in his watch over the fort he has let years and decades pass and that, while his old friends in the city have had children, married, and lived full lives, he has come away with nothing except solidarity with his fellow soldiers in their long, patient vigil. When the attack by the Tartars finally arrives, Drogo gets ill and the new chieftain of the fortress dismisses him. Drogo, on his way back home, dies lonely in an inn.” (Wikipedia)

Across his life, Buzzati was also an artist, chiefly of symbolist/surrealist images, and an illustrator of his own stories. In 1945, based on his experiences in the war, he published a children’s book, La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia (translated as The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily), in which a group of bears descend from their mountain home after a particular brutal winter. Desperate and with nothing to eat, the bears assault the capital. Although first beaten back by human technology, the bears learn to make ladders and catapults and are eventually successful. After adopting human vices, including gambling, deceit, theft, and an attempted coup, the King of Sicily orders the bears to return to their mountain home.

Although he is highly regarded in Europe, France in particular, Buzzati is almost unknown in English. His work tends toward magical realism, more in vogue now than in his own time, and his major themes — social alienation, environmental decay, and the fantastical elements of new technology — remain vigorous. His short story collections, one of which won the Stega Prize in 1958, often feature fantastic creatures, including one he invented himself, colomber, as well as elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

In 1969, Buzzati released Poema a fumetti (Comic Poem), a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in words and pictures, a kind of proto-graphic novel. The first English translation wasn’t released until 2009. I am reading it now, and although it seems to have lost some of the lyricism of the original Italian, the images, some of which are reproduced below, are striking and expertly paired with the text. Sadly, I can’t find where Buzzati’s work has influenced many people in the English-speaking world, although Lemony Snicket did write the introduction and reader’s guide to The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily.

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