Article - Spring 2012

The Wine of Life

How as a young soldier in the Trentino, I passed my evenings in a lovely bookshop in a town near camp

By Mario Rigoni Stern | March 1, 2012
Photo by Stewart Butterfield

 

Translated from the Italian by John Penuel

Everything we’ve experienced is linked to other events or experiences that, consciously or unconsciously, with the passing of time, connect and are bound up with people and places. Because of the stories I’ve written, people discovered by chance reappear unexpectedly or show up for the first time in years; and in that way in your memory you relive moments and sensations filtered by the years, as if hunger, fatigue, pain had settled at the bottom of the bottle of life and the experience decanted remains clear and melancholy, with the lightest colors and fragrances.

One summer years ago, when we were camped in a valley of the Trentino, in a great larch wood, my duty as a corporal was to dig the latrines for the company once a week and to take three mules into the woods to get firewood for cooking. They were altogether unwarlike jobs, peaceful in fact, and after the campaign on the western front the days went by between the real and the unreal, partly because I was in love and very young, and partly because from those mountains I could see my mountains.

Every evening off from guard duty, I went down into the town, which was half an hour from our camp. In town there were lots of vacationers going unconcernedly from the tennis courts to the hotels or coming back from strolls or other outings; our officers, in their impeccable uniforms, paid court to the ladies in open-air cafés where small bands played, and you didn’t know whether you should or shouldn’t salute them. Sometimes I’d go into the church, which was all stone, in an alpine-Gothic style; all around, cared for like a garden, was the old cemetery, full of the loveliest gravestones. In the church a blind man played the organ.

But most of my free hours I spent in the lovely and well-stocked bookstore in the center of town, where, after arming myself with courage the first time, I was always warmly greeted by the owner.

Signor Mario let me wander freely among the shelves, from which I occasionally took a book with great care and shyly began turning the pages: poetry, novels, stories, and history fascinated me the way some landscapes and forests fascinated me. Or maybe more. I sank into those pages without noticing the passage of time, and it was almost always Signor Mario who said: “Hey, corporal, it’s closing time!” But he was so kind that he felt sorry for me and would wait for his wife to call him from upstairs: “Dinner’s on the table!”

When the quartermaster distributed our pay, “the 10,” which instead came every 15 days most of the time, I could afford to buy a book. But then the problem was choosing, and I went from one shelf to the next with the money in my hand. The book couldn’t cost much or be too big, so that it would fit in my rucksack, and so that it wouldn’t break my back much more than the 32 kilos my equipment, reserve provisions, ammunition, rope, flashlight, tarp, blanket, and so on added up to. In short, after a lot of wavering and calculations, I found myself with the Divina Commedia, Orlando furioso, and Stoppani’s Il bel paese. All of them in the low-cost Barion editions.

Two of those books got left in the rucksack I had to abandon in the mountains of Greece the following November; the Commedia I kept in the bag of my gas mask, which, once I’d thrown away the mask and the filter, I used as a personal bag. The book and the picture of the girl I kept between its pages ended up on the steppe of the bend in the Don, where I found myself in the summer of 1942. A mortar round that lightly wounded me also severed the cloth strap that kept the bag over my shoulder, and book and picture wound up in the hands of Russian soldiers. (So often have I wondered: What would they have done with them? What would they have thought?)

That was the end of my three war books bought with soldier’s pay in a town in the Dolomites.

Years went by, more than 30, and one day with the mail I saw a registered packet from precisely that town in the Trentino and bearing the return address of that bookstore where I had spent evenings short of money but rich in literary curiosity.

The packet, which provoked a huge overlapping of memories, and which I opened with emotion, had a book that was precious to me and that I had long sought, that I knew existed but had never managed to find. It was printed by the Istituto Italiano d’Arti Grafiche of Bergamo in 1908, and it had pictures and descriptions of the houses and habits of the people of my country before the Great War destroyed it all. It came with a brief letter, in which the bookseller, now more than 80 years old, wrote that he was a devoted reader of mine and that, before giving up the business, during an inventory, he had found in the most hidden nook in his shop the book he was enclosing, thinking it might be dear to me. It was a purchase that had been made by his father, in the time of Franz Joseph.

Signor Mario had no way of knowing that the author of the stories he read with pleasure was the young corporal of the Alpini he had patiently tolerated in his lovely bookstore. With these good memories, I wrote to tell him so, thanking him for everything, more for his kindness then than for the rare and precious book.

He wrote back recalling that summer and when we had left that valley for Greece on a dark and rainy morning; but his memories were clearer and more vivid when he told me about the Great War, which he had experienced on my mountains, fighting on the side of the Austrians. He was assigned to the cable cars that took materiel up and brought the wounded down. He wrote to me about the snowstorms, the Italian artillery that shelled the installations and killed so many of his fellow soldiers. He had spent a winter on top of that mountain where there are still the remains of his dormitory, the dugouts, the cement bases with their iron bars for the cables. For years I would go up there in late fall to hunt ptarmigan.

But the day before yesterday I went back up there to take a thought for my bookseller friend. The wind was blowing from the couloirs, bearing patches of fog, and a pair of eagles was circling on the hunt. The forests, below, stretched as far as the eye could see; the peak from which Robert Musil looked at my country rose from the summer haze. The dormitory where the Austrian soldiers had spent a winter had collapsed; the roof beams and the floorboards were becoming humus, and clumps of bluebells and saxifrage were growing between them. There were remains of shoes, mess tin lids, spoons, nails. In the midst of this was the memory of Signor Mario, Trentino bookseller, who, when the storm raged and the lantern swung, read Dante; as I read him on other distant mountains.

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