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?