Giuseppe Berto: Stop destroying so many good things that existed on earth simply in order to slaughter each other
From The Sky Is Red (1947)
Translated by Angus Davidson
He walked at the side of the street, keeping close to the ruins.
He came into the town. Though he was in one of the main streets, this part of it was unrecognizable, because there were too many ruins in place of houses. At certain points the street was like a trench dug out between the ruins.
As soon as he found a street to the left, the boy turned off in that direction, penetrating into the Sant’Agnese quarter. He was able to go forward only a few hundred yards, because he then found the street blocked by a barricade. He went round by other streets, all dark and deserted. He seemed to be walking in a town where the people had died suddenly, all at the same time. His footsteps made a startling noise, and his heart was choked with anxiety.
There were those who went to look for food, and they were many. Huddled in their rags, they formed long lines as they waited in front of the bakers’ shops. They waited with obstinate resignation. At some time or other the doors would open and someone would give them their bread for that day. Others roamed about the streets and squares in search of something else besides bread…
And there were those who went to work, but they were not many, because work was scarce. They were small tradesmen, or mechanics in a workshop where they repaired machines for the war, or scavengers who had to clean up the town, or clerks who wrote down the misery of the people in files and reference books. They too went joylessly through the grey morning light, and their step was like the step of those who went to look for food and had no great hope of finding it. There was in all of them the same weariness, because each one of them was conscious, in an obscure way, of the uselessness of what he was doing.
…Something was always happening in the outside world and among the people in the town, and they discussed these things for the sake of the little piece of good or ill that might result from them. But they discussed without much conviction, for it was difficult to keep up a great interest in things when everything that happened made so little difference to their wretchedness. Some change might be made in the town council, or the spokesman of a political party might make a speech, or there might even be some important happening in one of the many places where the war was being carried on. But for them there was always the same wretchedness. Perhaps they must just wait for the war to end, for men to stop destroying so many of the good things that existed on earth, simply in order to slaughter each other.
“The evil does not rest altogether with these men who you see going about our streets. It is not they who are chiefly to blame for what happens. They carry on the war because they have been sent here for that purpose, and they look forward with the greatest pleasure to the time when it ends and they can go home. I don’t believe anybody enjoys this job of slaughtering people and destroying cities.”
“If it had depended on the mass of the people, there wouldn’t have been any war,” said Tullio.
“There will always be wars,” said the old man. “So long as one people is unjustly treated, or considers itself unjustly treated, sooner or later there will be war – unless the other peoples are willing to remedy the injustice. But that would be expecting too much from human beings. No one wants to give what he has to others, simply for love of justice. This will never happen in the world.”
“It might happen,” said Tullio.
“It has seldom happened between individuals,” said the old man. “It has never happened between peoples. Perhaps because a number of individuals put together are worse than one individual by himself.”
“No,” said Tullio. “It’s because the men who govern a people are never the best ones. They are the strongest, the most cunning, possibly even the most capable, but they are never the best men.”
“[If] the principle upon which they act is the principle of conquering us, then we shall be slaves. Perhaps we do not deserve a better fate. But they ought to feel the responsibility that they take upon themselves in conquering other peoples. I don’t mean the slaughter and the destruction, which may be necessities of war. But disorder, famine, moral ruin – these are things for which they ought to provide some remedy. Or they should let us try to remedy them ourselves, instead of which they have deprived us of all possibility of acting for ourselves. That is not the way to conquer a people, unless it be that their principle is to destroy as well as conquer.”