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il bosco degli animali

16 october 2011

I first read Italo Calvino's short story "Il bosco degli animali" many years ago, in a collection of Italian literature designed for learners of the language. The memory of the story stuck with me for many years. Sometimes there's a learner's "bonus" of appreciation that attaches itself to one of the first stories one reads in a new language. The text makes sense in such new and fascinating ways that you imagine it must be a masterpiece. On re-reading, it isn't always as good as it seemed. But unless my Italian has faded to novice levels again and I'm re-experiencing the bonus, "Il bosco degli animali" is the real thing.

"Il bosco degli animali" walks a fine line between fable, magic, and realism. One probably wouldn't call it magical realism; there's nothing beyond possibility in the story, though it's well beyond belief. It's a tall tale, but is firmly rooted in the realities of war and military occupation.

During the German occupation of their village, the contadini of Calvino's story take all their animals out to the woods when the German troops arrive to forage. (Hence the title, which means "the forest of the animals.") Giuà Dei Fichi, less providential than others, sees a young German soldier steal his cow. Giuà follows the soldier and cow, shotgun in hand.

Ora bisogna sapere che Giuà era il cacciatore più schiappino del paese. Non era mai riuscito a centrare, manco per sbaglio, non dico una lepre ma nemmeno uno scoiattolo. [Now you have to understand that Giuà was the most useless hunter in the whole area. He had never managed to hit anything, not even by accident. Never mind a hare; he'd never even hit a squirrel.] (164)
Calvino's phrase "Ora bisogna sapere che" [Now you have to understand that] has stayed in my mind for more than 20 years. In one sense it's a gross violation of the rules of good creative writing. If there is something that the reader needs to know, lay it out deftly in the initial exposition. Don't send the protagonist out, gun in hand, on the track of the bad guy, and then several paragraphs later stop to tell us that he can't hit the broad side of a barn.

Calvino uses "Ora bisogna sapere che" only twice in the story (I won't reveal the second situation). I had remembered it as more, so striking is the narrative device. It puts us in the realm of the often-retold tale, the folk story, the legend. The hunter goes out into a wood that might as well be enchanted. He sees things that are incredibly out of place, and encounters people who make entrances too precisely timed to be plausible. And the narrator plays false all along: things happen, and then he backtracks to set them up.

But the result is a classic short story. It's akin to The Secret of Santa Vittoria and other Second-World-War fictions that portray a community able to outwit their oppressors. The theme is highly comic but deeply troubling; the underlying potential for violence makes us apprehensive throughout. At the end, that violence is redoubled on its abusers. But in "Il bosco degli animali" the theme is given another twist by making the villain a hapless, callow, and completely misled young recruit. The soldier who steals the cow is "un tedesco dall'aria contadina" with "un fucilaccio lungo quanto lui" [a German of rural type, (with) a rifle as long as himself] (163-64). In other words, he's virtually Giuà's double: full of a gauche insistence that is as affecting as it's comic. Such touches distinguish great fiction from ordinary storytelling.

Calvino, Italo. "Il bosco degli animali." In Ultimo viene il corvo. 1949. Milano: Mondadori, 2010. 161-169.