Giuseppe Berto: War destroys the soul even when it spares the body
From The Sky Is Red (1947)
Translated by Angus Davidson
The biggest of the fires took almost a week to go out, and even after that the smoke continued to rise from the rubble for several more days, but it made no more noise. At last there was silence in the town. Cars could not pass through the streets now, but only along the avenue round the walls. And many people had gone away. All who could go, had gone into the country, or into the hills, or even farther away.
The others remained, in houses, or in public buildings converted into shelters, or in the wretched huts which were springing up here and there all over the town. And they were all alike now, the people who remained. They had cursed the foreigners who occupied the country and made war, or the other foreigners who had flown through the sky dropping destruction and death. Or they had cursed God, which was the most reasonable, because it was a way of cursing themselves and the evil that is in all men.
But now it seemed they had understood the uselessness of cursing and weeping and groaning, and even of praying. All of them, even the desperate, even the indifferent, were stricken with a dumb weariness. Nevertheless they felt more free than before. All that terrible slaughter remained in their consciousness as a deed of injustice. Even without knowing where the blame lay, they were able to say that it a deed of injustice. And the consciousness of this freed them from the bond of the law, both of God’s laws and of men’s laws. It urged them to be what they felt themselves most essentially to be, either better or worse, each one according to his nature. It increased piety and charity, and also perversity and selfishness.
Yet there was still one good thing to wait for – the end of the war.
People came back from the country and from the hills, from the places where they had taken refuge, and started greeting each other again and chattering together, walking backwards and forwards in the part of the main street which had not been completely demolished by the bombs. It was as though the war had ended, and they had reached that point alive, and yet they were not the same as before. However hard they might try, men could no longer be the same as before.
And it was not only on account of misery and hunger, of hatred and revenge and fear, that they could no longer be the same as before. Even they themselves did not know the reason why they felt always tired and always gloomy at heart, and discontented with themselves and with life. Perhaps that part of the universal evil which had touched them had accumulated inside them, and they could not get rid of it. Perhaps it was the certainty of having lost, for ever, things that belong to all humanity, things they had neglected before. They had lost their way in the immensity of the war, and they could not succeed in finding it again.