Elio Vittorini: Dialogue between a dead soldier and his brother
From In Sicily (1937)
Translated by Wildred David
“Ah, I’m in a cemetery,” I said.
“Hm,” the voice replied.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Are you the gravedigger?”
“No, no,” answered the voice. “I’m a soldier.”
The voice sounded near, and my eyes peered hard to make out its owner. But the lights of the dead cast no gleams.
“Strange,” said I.
The soldier laughed. “Strange?”
“Perhaps you’re on guard here?” I asked him.
“No,” said the soldier. “I’m resting.”
“Here among the tombstones?” I exclaimed.
“They’re most comfortable,” said the soldier.
“Perhaps you’ve come here to remember the dead,” said I.
“No,” said the soldier. “If anything, to remember the living.”
“Ah,” said I. “Your sweetheart, I expect.”
“A little bit of everybody. My mother and my brothers, my friends, my friends’ friends, and my father in Macbeth.”
“Your father in Macbeth?” I exclaimed.
“Certainly, sir,” answered the soldier. “The poor man always like to play the role of a king.”
“How’s it possible?” I cried.
“Oh, yes!” said the soldier. “They think that the gods tolerate in kings what they abhor in common people.”
The soldier sighed, and said in a reproachful tone: “I think I’ve suffered enough getting as far as this.”
“This?” said I. “To become a soldier?”
“No,” he replied. “To be seven years old. To play with my brother.”
“Are you playing with your brother?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” he replied. “By your leave, I’m also at play.”
“Also?” I observed. “What else are you doing?”
“A lot of other things,” he replied. “I’m talking to a girl. I’m pruning a vine. I’m watering a garden. I’m running…”
“Ah, you forget you’re in the middle of these tombstones,” said I.
“Not at all,” he replied. “I know quite well that I’m here as well and that nothing can harm me…Yes, as to that, I’m quite at ease.”
“So you’re happy,” I observed.
“He sighed again. “How can I be happy? I’ve been lying on a field covered with snow and blood for the past thirty days.”
My mother looked at the things of our childhood that were scattered about the kitchen, and her gaze traveled far, then it drew nearer and nearer, and she replied: “It was Liborio.”
“Ah, the third of us,” said I.
“He hadn’t seen anything of the world, and he was happy when he was called up,” she said. “He sent me postcards from the places he went to. Three last year, two this year. Lovely cities, he must have liked them.”
“Were they cities mixed up in the war?” I asked.
“I think so,” she replied.
“And was he happy?” I shouted.
I was really shouting. Then I added: “That’s a grand idea, for a boy!”
“Don’t think ill of him now,” my mother said.
“Ill?” I shouted. “What put that into your head? He must have been a hero.”
My mother looked at me as if I had spoken with bitterness.
“No!” she said. “He was a poor boy. He wanted to see the world. He loved the world…”
“No, my dear,” I shouted louder. “You’ll see, they’ll send for you, and they’ll give you a medal.”
“A medal?” my mother cried.
“Yes, to pin on your bosom,” I yelled.
Then I lowered my voice, and continued in a calm tone: “For what he has done for the world. For those cities. For Sicily.”
“A medal to reward his deeds,” I concluded.
But at this point my mother began to break down. “How’s it possible?” she said. “He was just a poor boy.”