Tuesday, 5 January 2016

rediscovering Lussu

Reading Emilio Lussu’s “A Soldier on the Southern Front” is quite common in Italy. Even if you don’t, there’s a high chance you eventually read passages of it during literature classes in junior or high school.

The original title “Un anno sull’altipiano” translates as “A year on the High Plateau” and it refers to the Asiago Plateau, where World War I was fought. But somehow the new edition in English brought along a new title as well.

As for most of the books I read while growing up, I connect the book strongly to the cover. All black and white but for the title, there is a photo in the middle; 3 men, 3 soldiers in white mimetic uniforms, walking in line in a white landscape: snow on the ground, snow on the mountains, snow all around. Like many of the books I read back then, it gave me chills and feel cold.
First time I read this book, it was in a time of heavy reading of XX century Italian literature: Primo Levi, Mario Rigoni Stern, Fruttero & Lucentini and then Emilio Lussu.

Lussu’s book is the memoir of one of the years he spent fighting on the Italian front during World War I. There’s no boast of patriotic heroism, it’s a plain description of the horror and non sense of war and death in the trenches. It doesn't focus extremely on the carnage in its more visual details, but spends a lot of pages describing the utter lack of logic and moral sense behind it.

I remember the heavy sense of rage and injustice it caused in me. I was amazed and upset by the utter stupidity of war. Of that war.
Kids are not that jaded yet by the world and the people. There’s no resignation or cynicism formed yet, no idea on how to shield your conscience and guts to the blows of witnessing injustice and having no idea how or means to prevent it.
That's why, while reading “A Soldier on the Southern Front”, I got extremely angry because of many things, but above all because of General Leone. He’s one of the main characters: he’s absurd and completely crazy. Devoid of any feelings towards the human fellows that make his army, he has no problem at ordering them to run towards bloody and meaningless massacres, to battle that resoled in no gain and had no purpose in the bigger picture of the war, something that can be actually said of pretty much the whole of WWI.

General Leone is the most fitting example of incompetence, arrogance and lack of humanity of the people that decided and conducted that war. This butcher was inspired by a real person, general Giacinto Ferrero. He won several medals, and died (I presume quite peacefully and full of Catholic grace) at home, not in the massacres he ordered on the Alps and elsewhere.

I was dismayed: how? How can somebody like this man arrived at such a place of power? How could he be responsible for so many killings and yet not being held accountable for them? But at the end, he was just one of the many, not the first, not the last. And the truth is that the one that will eventually replace his is in no aspect any better than Leone, so that the men, Lussu writes, almost regret Leone being replaced.
On Monday I thought of just reading some passages while waiting for the veggies to be roasted and thought “why not? Why limit oneself to some quote from the book when I can re-read the whole of it?

And so I went on and re-read it: I found out I haven’t changed that much in all these years. The utter idiocy of men and war still drives me mad. I still had to fight the impulse of shouting profanities at the people depicted on the pages. Ugh, annoying, stupid military and politician elite.

Yet, I found out something I didn’t remember.
‘Have you ever been wounded?'
‘No, sir, general.’
‘What, you’ve been on the frontline for the entire war and you’ve never been wounded? Never?’
‘Never, general. Unless we want to consider a few flesh wounds that i’ve treated here in the battalion, without going to the hospital’
‘No, No, I’m talking about serious wounds, grave wounds.’
‘Never, general.’
‘That’s very odd. How do you explain that?’
‘Very odd indeed. Are you perhaps timorous?’
[…] The general changed the subject.
‘Do you love war?’

Or rather something I was maybe too immature to perceive back then: Lussu’s sarcasm, irony, his ability to make the reader feel how absurd wars are.
Reading Lussu again made me smile sometimes: it was a very bitter and sad smile, it didn’t make the sadness and heavy feeling go away, but added enjoyment to reading it. Can I smile and laugh of war? Yes, I think I can and I should, as it proves a good defence against desperation and being upset.
What comes out from Lussu's words is a collection of surreal people and situations and complete idiocy: I think a lot of it would fit well in some Monty Python's sketches. 

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