Giuseppe Berto: Then the war passed over our countryside
From The Brigand (1951)
Translated by Angus Davidson
Then the war passed over our countryside. It happened at the beginning of autumn, when most of the crops were still ungathered. Curious are the thoughts with which the inhabitants of a small village, remote from the world, await the coming of a war. It was not as though the war had broken out the day before; and they knew fairly well what was likely to happen. They had seen squadrons of planes passing across the sky above the valley and had heard the sound of bombs dropped upon the town or upon the distant roads of the coast. They had lived closely packed in their houses in order to make room for hundreds of homeless people who fled to the village after air raids, and they had listened to their stories. They knew from the newspapers or from soldiers on leave of the existence of armored divisions and of divisions of parachutists. They knew that a small village like this one on the side of a mountain may be, for all anyone cares, either left in peace or destroyed without a thought, in a few minutes – if it is unlucky enough to be included within the radius of a battle. They had learned all these new, terrible things. And yet, in their minds, they are still a thousand years behind, still subject to the terror, handed down over centuries, of soldiers who go about looting and raping women. Therefore they do not concern themselves with escaping the death of the moment, from which there is no escape without the help of God, but the death which may come afterwards, through hunger and misery, and the disaster that may befall the woman or the home. They keep ready, within reach, an old dagger or a shotgun, for the defense of their own threshold. And hurriedly they hide in the house or bury in the yard the sack of flour and the jar of oil, they toil to gather in all they can from the land, whether it be potatoes or chestnuts or corn or merely the vegetables they do not dare to leave in the garden; and they are grieved because the olives are not yet ripe and cannot be gathered – as though the soldiers of the armored divisions would go round the farms stealing unripe olives.
We were so out of the world that we should never have imagined that the war would pass right under our eyes. A day came, however, when the armies started coming down the road from the high plateau, for the more important roads along the coast were being heavily bombed. There were interminable columns of guns and cars and trucks laden with soldiers white with dust or dirty with mud who passed through our village with an air of utter indifference and did not even look like living men. They did not stop, for they were in a hurry to escape northwards. And since they did not stop or harm us in any way, we stood looking at them with that feeling of astonished compassion that is so easily aroused in simple people by those who are unfortunate. They too had homes and families somewhere, and perhaps they had been forced to become soldiers, and now they had to escape so as not to be killed or captured. This was the German army in retreat.
And so the war had gone past and we were able to look around us again, as after a thunderstorm…Every week that passed, less could be bought with that money; and wages did not rise. And then there were the poor, who had always lived by odd jobs and small expediencies; and now, with the steadily increasing poverty, they could find neither expedients or jobs to save them from hunger. There were also the homeless, the people who had come out from the towns after the air raids, who stayed in our village because they had no where else to go. They were poorer than our own poor, and with them they lived, crammed into one-room huts, with the pigs and the hens, in the narrow, dirty alleys. And so even this war, though it had passed over us without bloodshed and without destruction, had left misery behind it.