Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Davai Road

In La strada del davai (Einaudi, 1966) Nuto Revelli takes the testimony of forty veterans of the Italian campaign in the Soviet Union. Giuseppe Castellino, born in 1916, a peasant with a third-grade education, fought in the western Alps, in Italy's Balkan campaign, and on the Don, where, in January 1943, not far from Valuyki, he was taken prisoner. In November 1945, after two years in a prison camp in Central Asia, he is finally nearing his home in Roccadebaldi, a small village in the province of Cuneo.
In Turin, at the garrison mess hall, they refuse us a meal. They want the vouchers. I still have an image of the Madonna the priest gave me in Milan and three apples. I offer the orderly the image, but he’s not all that interested in it; he wants the voucher.
We sit there for a long time. The orderly yawns; he wants to go to bed. We haven't eaten; we're not sleepy. A major pretends not to see us, not to hear us. He goes on reading his paper undisturbed.
“Good grief,” I say, “so many bombs killed so many good people. At least one of them could have landed here.”
The major finally looks at me. “Where are you coming from?” he says to me.
“I know. But where from?”
“Have you eaten?”
“No, we don't have vouchers.”
Then he tells the orderly to bring us something to eat. Vegetable soup, a few noodles with a little rice, beans, stuff of no substance, for rearing, not for fattening.
In the morning the mess hall closes. We wait in the lobby for the first train.
On the trip people ask where we are coming from. But I’m already stuffed, and I say only: “You hardly need to ask. Just look at us.”
A long transfer in Fossano because the bridge over the Stura is destroyed. I get off on my own. But then I can’t get back on the train. Battista Basso, the cowherd who winters in Crava, helps me. He pulls me up, while the train waits for me.
I get off in Magliano. It’s November 4. I set my rucksack down by the tracks, sit down on it. Then I go to wash my face. Finally, I go back to sit down on my rucksack, and I stay there a long time.
Gallo, the railway hand, takes a good look at me. “Ma ses Castlin?” he says to me. “Castlin,” I say to him. “T’lü seti che l’è spusase tua sorela?” [“But are you Castellino?” “Castellino.” “You know your sister got married?”] I keep quiet; I don’t say anything else.
An hour later the stationmaster comes to talk to me. He wants me to call the car rental man Dogliani. But I don’t want to.
My rucksack is empty, but heavy. The stationmaster keeps it in left luggage, gives me a receipt. “Send for it later,” he says to me.
I start walking. First stage, two hundred meters, to the Canetta farmstead. There I stop. Second stage, three hundred meters, to the Carleveri church. I have only one thought in mind: what will I find at home?
I have trouble walking. I run into my uncle who is on his way to Morozzo by bike. I raise a hand, stop him. “Ciao barba,” [Hello, Uncle] I say to him. Then I go quiet, out of breath, so weak I am. He has gotten fat. Then the watchman Giulio comes up and stops to talk.
I set out again, alone. I run into a villager, who goes with me for a while. “They said Candela is dead, then that he’s alive,” he tells me several times. I listen; I know the story; I don’t want to say anything either about the dead or about the living. I say only: “Sarà pru, sarà pru.” [So it is, so it is]
At the Pasquero tavern I go in like a wretch. “I have no money,” I say first thing. “Am I not capable of giving you something?” replies the innkeeper, and he offers me a vermouth.
I drink, and the innkeeper sees my feathers are drooping, the way it is with sick hens. Then he takes out my glass, moves it to one side the way you do with TB patients.
I set out for home again. I go by a young fellow from my village. His back is turned to me; he’s putting an edge on his sickle. “You need a hand?” I say to him. Silence. I ask again, this time louder. But he keeps working. I call him by name: “Lorenzo.” Finally, he recognizes my voice, takes me to his house, gives me a glass of wine, a cigarette. So I start coughing; I vomit. Lorenzo goes to let my family know, my mother, my father, my brother, who was in Russia with the Fourth Baggage Train and who made it through the retreat.
Day after day of confusion follows. People come from everywhere; the courtyard looks like a bicycle depot. Everyone wants to know, but after half an hour I have no more strength. They ask me: “How was it there?” and I say only: “Look at me.” The nights are long; I never sleep. The night of the eighth, the eve of the feast of the Madonna, my father promises me a special dinner, a bell pepper stew and polenta, for the next day.
I go to the garden to pick the peppers; I eat a lot of them raw while I am picking them. That way, my stomach swells like a balloon, just the way it did in the camps in Russia.
Al Ninot,” I say to myself then, “I’m an old hand, I know how to save my skin.” I struggle back in; I stretch out on the table, throw up.
When my mother comes up I’m more dead than alive. But then it’s all over.
I’m idle for days and days, watching everybody else working. I gain a kilo a day. A month later I can’t see the tips of my shoes. But I have no strength. Finally, I deflate.
You can’t be in the country and not do anything. So, little by little, out of necessity, I start working again. But the fever torments me.
The war. I’ll go to the bridge over the Stura, which is high, sooner than go through my war again. If my wife gives birth to a son I’ll strangle him sooner than have him live like me. We have a “government,” an unjust society. I can’t work; I’m more dead than alive. I have a War Cross that doesn’t do me any good. I’m unfit for work for two years. But no war pension.
I don’t want to hear of the Germans; they have little to do with me. I’d like to take our people who want communism to Russia to eat a little of the “quota” bread; they’ll teach them there.
The few of us from Russia are in bad shape. TB or chronic disease. The men who are in fairly good health have another weakness; they’re alcoholics.
Injections keep me on my feet. Chronic nephritis, a contracted kidney, malaria, palpitations that send me running off and my wife who shouts: “Ma cos’eti, cos’eti,” [What’s wrong? What’s wrong?] and I feel myself dying. That’s what war is.

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