Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mario Rigoni Stern

I appall myself when I admit to never having previously read the author Mario Rigoni Stern, who died last year in June. This is inexplicable due to the fact that I am a) a voracious reader and b) lived in the Veneto a hell of a long time. It can only be explained as a manifestation of the phenomenon whereby people living in a place neglect the local attractions, like Parisians never having seen the Eiffel Tower or New Yorkers never having heard of the Statue of Liberty.

So I finally read his Il Sergente nella neve (The Sergeant in the Snow), an autobiographical account of his experience as an Alpino (Italian mountain troop) in the disastrous retreat of 1943 during the Axis Russian campaign of World War II.

Now. The book is striking for its concision and is even praised for this reason- concision not being something one usually associates with Italians. It comes to about a hundred pages. But. After having (rapidly) finished it I was left with the feeling that something was wrong, something was lacking. Thinking it over I realized that the book does not really put forth the essential, that is, that this was a military failure, a retreat. In fact, I don't remember seeing the word ritirata (or variant forms thereof). I went back to the first part of the book and found the word ripiegamento, a synonym which seems to me to be euphemistic. The work also begins and ends abruptly and is thus relieved of a context.

An explanation may be that Rigoni Stern wanted to convey the immediacy of combat among soldiers, who certainly do not dwell on overall military strategy, much less on the political implications of what they're doing at the moment. And he certainly succeeds in conveying this. But along the way he also hides the enormity of Italy's role in the Second War. The book has been a staple of Italian schools for some time and I wonder what the effect of this has been on a generation or two of Italians. Undoubtedly the conditions under which the Alpini were fighting off the Russians, who sought to prevent their escape, were unspeakable. But it is one thing to fight for your own survival, as in a retreat. That is self-preservation, not heroism. It is another thing entirely to fight to win.

The author stated that his motivation in setting the horrific experience down in words was to avoid madness. Perhaps the thought of the enormous suffering that occurred, not only in vain but for a hideous cause, was too much. In this sense, I was reminded of Senator Kerry's famous words at the end of our Vietnam war: "how do you tell someone he's the last to die for a mistake?"

At any rate, I advise you to read up on Mario Rigoni Stern. After being made a prisoner of the Austrians and Germans, he returned to Italy, where he became a civil servant in the Registry of Deeds in his beloved native Asiago (yes, where the yummy cheese comes from), continuing to write about his marvelous mountain surroundings. He also eventually became friends with Primo Levi, who of course had a very different experience of the war. His neighbor in Asiago was the fine director Ermanno Olmi.

An interesting, unique man.