Dino Buzzati lived a varied life, and brought that incredible breadth of experience to his Giro d'Italia coverage in 1949. He had been a journalist for the Corriere della Sera, where he did some reporting but mostly functioned as an editor. By 1940, his literary career had reached its zenith, with the publication of The Tartar Steppe. He spent part of 1942 as a war correspondent in western Sicily. By being so close to the ground, he was able to soar to the stars.
The Tartar Steppe is a wonderful work, in my opinion, capturing the ambiguity of military service as well as demonstrating Buzzati's immense imagination. It concerns a soldier stationed to a lonely outpost, waiting for an opponent to materialize for decades on end, while life moves on without him. There is a long dream sequence that I don't think I could possibly describe in any decent way. It's beautiful, poignant, and immensely abstract.
The polar opposites of his background all come to fruition in his Giro d'Italia compilation in chapter 11, as the race passes through Cassino, an ancient town built on the site of the Roman settlement of Casenum. Lying between Rome and Naples, the modern village saw itself at the outskirts of the Sicilian Kingdom, and was fought over in the middle ages, but that was nothing in comparison to the devastation it saw in the Second World War, when advancing Allied troops squared off with the German army in a vicious series of battles that spanned much of the first five months of 1944. Buzzati tells the devastation in an almost whimsical way:
Why was ancient, noble Cassino not waiting today for the Giro's racers traveling from Naples to Rome? It would have been so nice. On the contrary: there were no lovely girls at the windows, even the windows were missing, even the walls were missing where the windows should have opened; there were no multicolored festoons of shiny paper strung between the little, dilapidated pink houses; even the houses were missing, the streets too; there was nothing but shapeless rocks cooked and bleached white by the sun, and dust, wild grass, brambles, even a few shrubs indicating that now nature was in charge here, to wit rain, wind, sun, lizards, organisms of the vegetable and animal world, but man was no longer here, the patient creature who for many centuries had lived there, worked, loved, procreated in the intimacy of the dwellings he had built for himself stone upon stone, and now, instead, nothing, nothing existed any longer.
Nothing in reality. But Buzzati's imagination pierces the bleak reality to conjure up voices of the most recent human occupants, now "reduced to unrecognizable fragments, bone slivers or ahses" by the brutal bombardment. The dead spirits engage in a conversation with the collective voice of the race, where the race asks them to behold it and the voices demur.
"The Giro?" they replied. "But we here, the people of ancient Cassino, we are not ready, we lack everything necessary to welcome the racers decently. Be patient, we no longer have streets they can ride on, nor eyes to see them, nor voices to cheer them with, and not even hands for applauding them."
The race persists, but the voices steadfastly ask for sleep. A disembodied German voice asks "was ist los?" as does a befuddled American. The dead insist that their presence at the Giro would terrify the living, that it is too late, that it would be better for the Giro to move on. The race acquiesces, realizing that the Giro is about riders pedaling madly for the joy of exertion or finishing first or being cheered by the crowd. "It is life, that's what it is, in its most ingenuous, sensational form, and for you somewhat irritating, I'm afraid. Pardon us."
The chapter is famous for this dreamy exchange, which so brilliantly captures the poignancy of yet another corner of the country healing its war wounds. In the case of Cassino, there really is no healing, just making peace with the death and devastation that happened, and focusing on carrying on with life when and where it is possible to do so. Many of the stories in the book cover places where it was possible to carry on; the story of Cassino is one where it was not.
Today Cassino is a modern town, rebuilt not on its former location but slightly to the southeast. The empty spaces detailed by Buzzati are still quiet, rolling fields outside this village of 35,000 inhabitants, just below the Abbey of Montecassino which overlooks the new and old villages from the hilltop. On Saturday the Giro passed close to Cassino, though just north and west. Montecassino hosted a Giro stage finish in 2014.