Hollow victories characterize a lot of what goes on in Catastrophe and Other Stories, a newly rereleased collection of stories by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati. For many of the characters, the search for knowledge takes on a more virtuous quality than its acquisition; in a way, their effort alone is what absolves them. Buzzati, who was born in 1906 and died in 1972, was prolific during his lifetime, though only a handful of his works are currently available in English. But with the republication of Catastrophe, that limited selection provides a good survey of his talents.
The first English version of Catastrophe, published in 1965, was translated by Judith Landry, and the new edition contains four additional stories written in 1961 and 1978. David R. Godine’s Verba Mundi imprint republished Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe in 2005; it’s the author’s best-known novel, from 1940, about a soldier who finds no meaning in his role as the first line of defense against a barbarian invasion. Five years later, Buzzati produced The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, a children’s novel about a group of bears who invade and subsequently take over Sicily before falling prey to the same type of behavior that tears human communities apart; they finally retreat back to their mountains, where they did not resort to vanity, trickery, and theft. The Bears’ Famous Invasion was translated into English in 1947 by Frances Lobb, and a more recent edition was published in 2016. In 2009, New York Review Books Classics published Poem Strip, originally released in 1969, a provocative and explicit graphic-novel retelling of the Orpheus myth that Buzzati wrote and illustrated. In the book, a talented Italian musician sees his lover walk through a mysterious door on the street, which turns out to be a passageway to the afterlife. Through music, he dazzles his way past a series of obstacles, but ultimately fails to extract the woman he loves.
The opening story in Catastrophe, “The Collapse of the Baliverna,” is a perfect example of the absurdity that runs through Buzzati’s work, which, in this collection, often grows from out-of-whack power structures and unaccountable bureaucracies. Accompanied by some family members, the story’s narrator visits the Baliverna, “a huge, grim brick building” that has fallen into decrepitude. When none of the others are around, the narrator decides, for no particular reason, to attempt scaling one of its walls. In the process, he reaches for an iron spike, which breaks under his weight. He falls to the ground, and the spike he’s grabbed falls next to him. From there, well… catastrophe ensues: Pieces of the building shift and drop, and the whole thing comes tumbling down. The narrator is left to ask himself some guilt-ridden questions:
Had I been the cause of that massacre? Had the snapping of that iron spike, by some monstrous pileup of cause and effect, actually precipitated the collapse of that hulk of a fortress? Or perhaps the original builders themselves, with diabolical cunning, had organized a secret play of balance so that one needed only to remove that one insignificant spike in order to send the whole structure hurtling to the ground?
These questions are not without further consequence. The state is moving to prosecute an innocent public official for the disaster. At the beginning of the story, the narrator speculates about how much his coming forward as the catalyst of the disaster would insulate the innocent man from punishment. But he doesn’t reach a conclusion; he’s consumed simultaneously by the fear that he’ll be found out and the guilt he feels for his initial action and his unwillingness to turn himself in.
The narrator’s story challenges readers to consider to what extent a person whose actions were not malicious, even though they resulted in disaster, has an obligation to protect someone who is unambiguously innocent when it might be in their power to do so. This question is complicated further by Buzzati’s refusal to offer an answer as to how much relief the narrator actually could provide by coming forward—the search for moral clarity that is the real subject of the story. Buzzati leads readers to focus on this search through his anxious, thoughtful, and hapless main character. “The Collapse of the Baliverna” exposes a double evil in the bureaucracy: First, regulatory negligence allows a state-owned building to deteriorate to the point of collapse; then the same state recklessly prosecutes innocent people to neatly wrap up the story. An abdication of responsibility is followed by a misuse of power. What is elucidated, then, is the specific ways in which those with power tend to do what is easiest.
Those who hold the power in “And Yet They Are Knocking at Your Door” are not bureaucrats—they’re aristocrats. A gaggle of rich people is hanging out at one of their houses during a storm. There are frequent loud noises, which they brush off as thunder—harmless—despite the mounting fear among members of the house’s staff and some guests at the party. They talk about nothing of importance. The house is situated near a river that is overflowing. When a little water creeps in, instead of recognizing that perhaps the structure of the house is under immense pressure from its surroundings, they assume that a window was left open and blame their servants. Eventually, water starts to pulse through the whole house—and yet the denial persists. The omniscient narrator asks the reader to wonder about Fedri, a member of the aristocratic family hosting the party who, after having momentarily left the group, sees the impending disaster for himself:
Did he still need to explain that the river had burst its banks and was right here, below the house and was pouring past, implacable and uncaring? That the walls on that side of the house were about to collapse? That the servants had all vanished into the night and that soon no doubt there would be no light at all?
Despite the repeated pleas of others, the party has ended up in a dangerous situation, and Fedri struggles to bear the weight of what he has witnessed. Confronted with the situation’s severity, though, he is unable to move himself or the group to timely action.
In the obvious sense, the story is about cloistered elites who refuse to treat the relevant evidence with appropriate weight because they believe its messengers to be lower than them. But Buzzati is playing a trick with perspective. At the story’s start, his roving point of view is mostly settled with the wealthy folks having a nice chat. As things get more perilous, his narrative perspective drifts toward those aware of the peril. For readers, this simulates the exiting of an echo chamber. But by the time the lie that produces their calm becomes untenable, it may be too late.
As the story draws to a close, the destruction of the family’s home seems imminent, and their options have become severely limited. Yet even after their complacency is punctured, there are still holdouts who resist the idea that they have to leave. For the converts, the denial turns to whining and then to resignation. A friend of the family has convinced a majority of those around him, but these people are creatures of unanimity. In the face of overwhelming evidence, Buzzati shows, some will find a way to believe what they want to believe, to protect their minds at the expense of their bodies.
Much of Catastrophe is ultimately about the construction of paranoia and fear. Very rarely in Buzzati’s stories does the event itself—getting caught in a lie, suffering a flood—take place. His disinterest in whether or not the impending event comes, or how bad it is, allows him to highlight the turmoil brought on by fearful anticipation. Importantly, the fear that Buzzati writes about does not lead his characters to produce better outcomes for themselves. At best, it provokes wasted energy; at worst, it paralyzes. There are, however, a few stories in which the worst-case scenario actually does unfold, and the characters pay a heavy price.
In “The Alarming Revenge of a Domestic Pet,” a young girl refuses the offer of a drink from her terrified-looking aunt, which leads a wingless bat-like creature that had been hanging around to push a lever, resulting in “a violent series of tremendous explosions.” The story is brief and told by a secondhand source, which is a peculiar formulation for Buzzati; the tension comes more from the title and the framing. The story begins: “Of the many horrible things that I’ve heard in recent years, the one that made the deepest impression on me was the following story, told to me by a young girl.” Once the event becomes inherent to the story’s fabric, Buzzati delays it as long as possible. This infuses the seemingly innocuous conversations with tension. In the end, the reader is still surprised because the horrible thing that takes place is so much worse than the title or opening suggest.
Another story that subverts Buzzati’s open endings is “Just the Very Thing They Wanted.” While traveling, a couple finds that all the rooms in their vicinity are booked up, and the public showers require an identification card that one of them does not have. As their desperation grows, they happen upon a public pool. Though it’s only for children, the woman wades in to bathe. Behind her, people get increasingly angry at her for breaking the rule. At the story’s end, the couple is beaten and jailed.
Catastrophe is a collection of minds under duress. Buzzati searches for all the ways that stress and anxiety can force otherwise well-meaning people into discomfort and disarray. They suffer not because they’ve done something wrong, but because they’re human—their mistakes or their bad luck put them in the crosshairs of forces out of their control. At the end of his harrowing tales, more than anything else, Buzzati earns forgiveness for his characters: Their worlds may seek to confine or condemn them, but the readers do not—we’ve been guilty, absentminded, and desperate, too.