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The Buzzati Dispatches: Talking Goats, Volcanos and Trees

Chapter 6 of Dino Buzzati's Giro d'Italia gives Sicily a voice. Or rather a lot of voices.

As Jen correctly stated, Dino Buzzati's Giro d'Italia is an extended meditation on Italy, and in its sixth chapter the author takes the time to devote some special appreciation to the mystical land of the 1949 Giro's birth: Sicily. Sadly, Sicily is not featured in this year's Corsa Rosa, and has not seen the Giro pass by since 2011, but it's good for an appearance every 3-4 years, and was the focal point of the first week as recently as 2008. Considering its distance from the indispensable mountain stages, that's not a bad record.

Sicily of 1949 was a chaotic place. Following the war, the Mafia figures who had been imprisoned by Mussolini were set free and moved quickly into the power vacuum created by the demise of the Fascists. Palermo had sustained heavy damage in the Allied invasion. The agrarian economy was in turmoil, and there was little industry to stabilize matters. But this was hardly unique in 1949 Italy. The entire country had been through a lot. And the Giro, like so many national cycling events, was to play a role in bringing things back together. Cycling has so often been about national identity, whether it's the expansive version offered by the Giro or the Tour de France, or the more narrowly drawn version known as the Tour of Flanders. As such, the Giro was coming to town, and Sicilians would have the first chance to imprint their culture on the race.

Meditating on the nature of Sicily was undoubtedly a welcomed assignment to Buzzati, as the results show. In chapter 6, Buzzati says almost nothing about the race, besides its ability to capture the attention of so many diverse elements of Sicilian society. There's an elderly "don" of sorts, wondering why Catania is in such a fuss for a morning. There's an excited young boy looking for the race start. There's a young woman, apparently love-struck, looking for signs of hope in the race's progress...

Rosi Capuana, eighteen years old, appearing at a window on the main street of Paterno (talking to herself): "So let's do this: If the first one to pass is wearing a blue jersey, it means that Carlo will show up tonight; If not, it means he has already left."

blue jersey

Humans are far from the only voices represented in the Sicilian landscape of Buzzati's mind.

A goat, grazing among the laval flows near Misterbianco, addresses another goat: "You make me laugh, go on with you Coppi. You'll see if Bartali does not put him in his place on the climb up Mount Etna."

A very ancient arthritic olive tree, bent out of shape, to a much younger companion: "Vanitus vanitatum, you say? You claim these Giro participants are fools because they're happy to hurt themselves for nothing, to race as if possessed by the devil, for no reason at all? And the others? Aren't they worse, the others, who say they must struggle for serious things? I prefer these guys, believe me, at least they have the courage not to promise their fellow men too complicated a paradise. They race for nothing, it's true, they are not putting anything together. However, how do you explain that the people, even the locals who are gloomy by nature, look so happy upon seeing them?"

olive trees

Mount Etna: "Still the same rotten luck! It's nineteen years since the Giro came through Sicily. This year, it has finally come. In fact, it's even been kind enough to circle around me, today it's actually going to climb on my back. Wouldn't you know I'd catch a cold. For two days I have been trying to chase away these stinking clouds that are covering my head and blocking my view. Not even one of these brave boys I have been able to see. But I feel them passing over my body. They race over me: they are like a lot of swiftly moving ants, But did I see them? Not at all."

Sad Volcano

I know what you're thinking. That is one sad volcano. And it is.

The Etna story is probably just Buzzati having fun with an iconic image of eastern Sicily, but the rest of the chapter is a somewhat more profound snapshot of the eerie landscape of Italy's southernmost island (a description some older Sicilians might still dispute). The old olive tree gives its younger counterpart a lesson on the Sicilian view of existence. Young Rosi demonstrates the local tendency toward superstition. There is a sickly child, standing for the desperate times in which Sicilians then lived; a brutish policeman lashing out in the name of order near the finish line. There's lava, land, some notable place names like Taormina. And the last word is given to a statue of the Madonna, lovingly watching over the race's conclusion.

No mention is made of the Mafia, which was astute enough considering the race took place in eastern Sicily. Had Buzzati wanted to dredge that up, the start in Palermo would have been his chance. But a more captivating image is in there, as the girl watching from Taormina hears the car horns and thinks "they've captured Giuliano," an event she instantly laments because "he's so cute!" In 1949 Salvatore Giuliano was a Sicilian Robin Hood -- not a mafioso (though they worked together) -- on the run from police, stealing from the fortunate and killing the unjust (including carabinieri). Giuliano was flamboyant, handsome and wildly successful by any rational standard of banditry. His later career saw him focus more on political action as he waged a campaign (from his hiding places) for Sicilian independence. A year after Buzzati's article appeared with this mention, Giuliano was murdered by an ally who turned against him, but he lives in literature and film, like Mario Puzo's The Sicilian. Buzzati's mention of him isn't historically profound, but it is a pretty charged little vignette from 1949 Sicilian life.