The title story of Dino Buzzati’s Catastrophe is narrated by a passenger on a train. As it leaves the station he watches a man rush up to a woman, apparently with important news. In the next town people seem agitated. As the train travels on, everyone outside seems to be fleeing in the opposite direction. A torn newspaper blows in through the window; it bears an ominous but frustratingly incomplete headline. It’s impossible to deny something is happening, but none of the passengers talk about it. Talking about it, whatever it is, would make it real. Finally the train pulls into a deserted station. The story ends as the narrator hears someone, somewhere, scream.
That’s typical of the stories in Catastrophe which are, indeed, mostly catastrophic. (A few off-theme stories creep in at the end of the book.) A couple of stories cross the line into actual sadism, but the best stories (and most of the stories count as best) feel like ominous dreams. Everything seems surface-normal but something is coming. You can’t tell what it is; everything just feels increasingly off. You wake up just as everything is about to fall apart.
My favorite is “The Alarming Revenge of a Domestic Pet.” A woman visits her aunt, who has a weirdly intelligent pet resembling a bat despite not looking like a bat at all. (It has the drooping face of a dog, and webbed feet.) The woman is repulsed. The pet wants her attention. The two have a battle of wills which ends when the pet tries to serve her liqueur. When she refuses, it angrily flips the switch on a nearby lamp and “there was a violent series of tremendous explosions and the distant crash of bombs echoed through the whole city, shaking the houses: the air was filled with the roar of a thousand planes.” (What’s most striking about this story is the contrast with the first lines, and the tone of the woman’s narration; Buzzati introduces the story like it’s a particularly interesting anecdote this woman told him at a cocktail party.)
“The Collapse of the Baliverna” is about a man who climbs the side of a building and breaks part of an old grating. Moments later, the whole building collapses. Was it his fault? Did anyone see? Is the man who just walked into his shop a blackmailer? It all ends there. Often these stories feel like the beginnings of longer ones, but carrying them on into actual plots would ruin them. They’d be too definite, too conclusive, no longer uncanny. And, anyway, doesn’t it capture how hard it sometimes is to imagine what the world might be like, after the worst has happened?
In “The Slaying of the Dragon” a hunting party rides out to kill a dragon. It turns out to be a feeble, aging mother dragon dependandt on the goats left by nearby villagers. The hunters stubbornly push on to the end of their quest, though it’s clear long before then they won’t come out looking like heroes. In “The Opening of the Road,” a party of civil servants travel into the country to officially open a new road. As they get further from civilization the road is always a bit further ahead, until the remaining officials find themselves grimly pressing on into a desert.
Buzzati’s best insight into catastrophes is his grasp of how, so often, they happen because no one acknowledged what was going on until it was too late. Everything is normal. Everything is always normal. It’s not polite to point out the thing we refuse to speak of; talking about it would make it real. In “The Epidemic” a Colonel comes down with the flu just as a secretary for the Dept. of Intelligence declares the epidemic only infects the disloyal. As his headache and fever get worse, the Colonel keeps coming in to work. He doesn’t want to be an inconvenient fact.