Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Underworld in the 1960s

Full title: Poem Strip. Including an Explanation of the Afterlife
Author: Dino Buzzati, translated by Marina Harss
Genre: Fiction, Graphic novel
Attributes: 224 pages, paperback
Publisher: New York Review of Books Classics (2009)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

At the height of his career, Dino Buzzati was the kind of writer you'd go for to find the quirky, the unexpected and the twisted. His stories were nothing if not delightful experiments in how to surprise the reader. Read the stories in Restless Nights or his opus magnus, the novel The Tartar Steppe, and you'll see that on full display.
But Dino Buzzati was also a very talented (and for some reason "talented" sounds so ill-equipped to describe him) artist. Take Poem Strip for evidence. A comic-strip venture where Buzzati features in a glorious one-man-show of booming proportions, as writer and illustrator. Not only are the drawings suggestive as hell (pun intended), they also come to support the story in dealing with its big questions.
As usual, Buzzati was not afraid of tackling topics seemingly overworked through centuries of literary practice. Poem Strip is a reworking of an idea dear to literate cultures of the Indo-European descent: the trip to the underworld. Take Ghilgamesh, take the Odyssey, take the Divine Comedy, take, if you wish, Paradise Lost. The topic has been the favourite of the founders of literature. Buzzati came to the feast of the genre in the late 1960s. You can guess the time from the atmosphere that defines it: a time of sexual liberation, where resplendent bodies show up on printed pages without the bashful pretence of puritan arts.
What’s more important, and also in line with the literary developments of the 1960s and ‘70s, is the poem’s alignment to the demands of generic literature. To put it briefly, Poem Strip reads like a good Noir: there's the whiskey bar feature, a general atmosphere of inebriated intelligence falling into the cauldrons of metaphysics. A mysterious lady is in the loop as well. She shows up like Dante's Beatrice to sort out an existential problem caused by loss. Add the artistic spin (a protagonist who's a musician by profession but a poet in the depths of his soul), make that protagonist work his way into the story like a detective, and give the narrative a sad, unavoidable ending. That's how you get the feel of that Noir I mentioned above: Noir as in the etymology: the darkness of a place where shadows reign supreme; Noir as in the way the story delves into human condition – not into its living part but into that part where you need a special vision to see the world of the Below.

Dino Buzzati (). Source: Andrea Pagani
But there’s more to this: the protagonist’s name is Orfi. Sounds familiar? Yes, Orpheus travelling to the Underworld in search for his beloved Eurydice. And in case you wondered what the girl’s name was in Buzzati’s version, well, she’s called… Eura. The reference requires no explication. Now we know why the protagonist is a musician and why the beloved never makes it back into the world of the living.
As in the original myth, Buzzati's vision is one where the Up and the Down are confused. Finding a way through the gates of the Otherworld, the protagonist also finds himself facing a reality he had imagined different. The dead are exactly like the living. No physical difference whatsoever.
“Everything is in working order. Bones veins nerves everything works. They move eat drink etcetera. They live, almost. Yes, they’re practically transparent, it’s true, plus they no longer have hope that most miraculous of torments they suffer no pain no hospitals, funerals, cemetaries, or graves. They’re lucky, wouldn’t you say?”
In this perfection, where further death is not a choice, the departed live a life of eternal repetition. The spleen that made the Europe of the late 1960s explode is apparent in these fragments, where the masses (of the living or of the dead – it matters not) take up the foregrounds and wander about, a proto-Zombie generation, to have their silent say about the most serious issues concerning life and death.
It’s plain from these passages that Buzzati didn’t just put forth a story about the experience of death. He aimed at offering another description of the Otherworld: a place where everything is identical yet entirely different. Time, the most prominent of figures, stands still to comply with this story of paradoxes:
“Here time stands still the clocks go on ticking but time stands still the rivers flow but time stands still it’s always the same day.”
The dead want to hear stories, because it’s stories of the Upperworld that they miss the most. But they’re very specific in their requests: they want to hear stories of dread and terror, stories of things that threaten and scare. In the world of eternity inhabited by them, the dead perceive everything as unchanging. Terribly, awfully, boringly unchanging.
“Oh the dread is gone, the nightmares, the anguish, the injustice here everyone is healthy, equal, content. Oh, sweet unhappiness!”
And so there, where immortality is achieved as a matter of fact, and where nothing spells out anything awful, souls long for depravity, for frights, for inhumanity. They long, in other words, for everything that was forbidden in life. This longing is formulated as a series of implacable no-more’s:
“No more throbbing languors wicked flesh no more exquisite cruel vice mouths that tomorrow… tender nothings as fleeting as flowers. Instead an inconquerable dullness sameness, predictability, boredom.”
And so, when it’s Orfi’s turn to bring his own news about the Earth, what he says doesn’t sound like news at all. What he tells the dead is a series of age-old stories of crimes, of infelicities – interrupted stories, stories without conclusions, stories of the night, of nightmares, of the sublunary watching the moon in dismay. With these stories, Dino Buzzati’s vision of the Underworld grows into a story of a special longing for the Evil, where “the dawn leaks through the blinds” with the same poetical force of a Paradise lost before inception, in the midst of an eternity where the poet’s voice “will climb over Himalayas of souls.”