Pre-war

The entry of Italy into the First World War, which took place on May 24, 1915, was a daring and improvised affair. For those who studied it at school, it was not easy to understand how our young Kingdom had managed in just under a year to pass from a thirty-year alliance with Austria and Germany to neutrality, and from there directly to a frenzied war. against former allies. Politically, as we know, it was a mere calculation: our country not having the authority and the means to impose its own foreign policy, its only way to expand was to wedge itself into the conflicts of others by allying itself with the highest bidder.

Certainly more enigmatic is the readiness with which public opinion at the time adhered to these not exactly heroic evolutions, if we consider that until a few months before the declaration of hostilities almost the entire population and almost all the parties were convinced neutral: the socialists because they are opposed to any war; the Catholics because they were faithful to Benedict XV who opposed the "useless massacre" before, during and even after, with the diplomatic commitment so that it would not be repeated; the liberals because they were persuaded by the warnings of the old Giolitti that he had accurately anticipated the duration and costs of the war.

Carlo Linati (1878-1949), journalist, narrator and translator attributable to the large group of authors of the "Lombard Line" who professed to be heirs of the Manzoni magisterium, left a surprising testimony of that period in the autobiographical short story "Antewar" published in the collection Le three parish churches (1922). In the portraits of the two protagonists, the author himself and his youth friend Donato Crivelli, the Gozzanian type of the young man at the beginning of the century is reflected, imbued with late Romantic myths and culture from beyond the Alps, an enemy of the quiet bourgeois industriousness that had supplanted the impetus of the Risorgimento . Both reluctantly lawyers, the two friends cultivate a passion for painting and poetry in a narrow and frenetic Milan, "a city that is the opposite of art … pitiless towards Franciscan spirits" where – Carlo would have bitterly commented in the same years Emilio Gadda – "only those who manufacture water heaters or handles in stamped brass are a person worthy of consideration".

The protagonists of the story feel like fish out of water and repositories of "a legacy of motifs and colors that could not and should not have been lost", but basically they follow the same decadent clichés in vogue among their peers. It is with this disposition of affected impatience and annoyance of an "epoch … squalid and distressed, always with the spirit tense in an unfortunate expectation, in a flattering suspension" that they receive the news of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia: "the tocchesana! ". Donato attends the fiery haunts of the Republican Party, the first to embrace the reasons for interventionism, and he can't wait for Italy to join "the game too, which I hope will not want to deny us this favor". There is a desire for war, but we still don't even know against whom. "What if they send us to fight against France?" the friend asks worriedly, who on the other hand does not even have "particular hatred against Germany … but I had heard about such nail-biting stuff in my father's house".

As the weeks go by, the two abandon more and more literary idleness to wander among taverns and crossroads in search of impressions of the imminent conflict, reconciling in a certain way with the anonymous and teeming city from which they previously felt rejected. Their speeches become exalted and paradoxical. The fratricidal war against other European peoples becomes in their imagination the opportunity to reunite our peripheral country with the "great European organism". The alleged overwhelming power of the people who "in Italy unfortunately … governs, which gives motions to the nation" and the inadequacy of the Italian ruling class, they complain, makes the hope of "extracting European wine from this homegrown barrel" vain, so that "if this is the principle of a Europeanization of Italy, so be it ". Bookish ideals and raison d'etat, xenophilia and patriotism overlap without a plan or logic other than to excite the desire of the front.

At a certain point the narrator takes leave of his friend to reach the shores and mountains of Lake Como dear to many Lombard authors (not excluding the writer, si parva licet ) and to Linati himself, who was a native of it on his mother's side and which he celebrated in the collection of Passeggiate Lariane (1939). There, far from the excitement and even the intellectual noise of the city, the young dandy seems a little reassured and is assailed by the agonizing presentiment of the tragedy that looms over the "grave and melodious" earth he loves. During his outings he collects the resigned pessimism of the peasants and receives from a banker friend already half ruined by the winds of war a detailed list of provisions to be put aside, because "a terrible famine may come upon us". Another acquaintance "semi writer and semi lawyer" invests him raving about "all his Dionysian enthusiasm for the greatness of the historical moment we were going through".

He will be called back to Milan by a telegram from Crivelli announcing the beginning of an attack on the "lurchi", ie drunkards, as Dante had designated the inhabitants of Germany in the seventeenth canto of Hell on the same day. Here begins the second part of the story, where the author reports in detail the violence perpetrated by the Milanese people against the properties and people of the Germans who remained in the city. As soon as he gets off the train he finds himself catapulted into a kind of pogrom: the streets are occupied by torrents of rowdy men intent on plundering and destroying everything that has a connection with the new enemy. German-owned shops are gutted and emptied, goods set on fire. Families thrown into the street by crowds that break into the apartments and destroy everything they find there. A grand piano flies down from the fourth floor to the applause of "people, in clusters, laughing, shouting, cheering". In the alleys and courtyards the hunt for the "spy", that is to say anyone suspected of being a citizen of the empire or of the Reich, is raging. Once he had been caught, "a frenzied work of tongues and clubs began in a great crowd of people."

Although disturbed by that sudden and gratuitous ferocity, the narrator follows the events with condescending curiosity "and if some old scruple of humanity or moral reason made me a little hesitant in the face of such excesses, these voices were soon silenced by the patriotic reason and from the grandiose exaltation of that historical hour ». Nor does that "immense, furious Carnovale" fail to arouse a certain aesthetic pleasure in him, as if "the people … felt that destruction has its beauty, especially when it helps to make the world more beautiful and cleaner". It is dark when he finally finds his friend Donato, who at the head of some hooligans is delivering the last blows to a bookcase reduced to a charred cave ("give them to German science!"). The delicate painter of yore is unrecognizable. His disheveled image and the fury of his speeches frighten his friend who now sees in him "an agitated, obsessed". In this "transfiguration" of the angelic Crivelli the emptiness of man and synecdoche of an entire intellectual class reduced to livening up with clichés seems to reveal itself, which gives itself airs of aristocracy but on balance follows the current as the last of the illiterate: "He too is a people" reflects the narrator to himself, "he too participates in the volcanic nature of these plebs."

When the firefighters arrive, the two go away and stop in piazza Belgioioso. There they are assailed by their ancient reveries and imagine seeing the elderly author of The Betrothed ("our Lissandrino") looking out from his palace and observing the tumult with satisfaction. Later, at the tavern, Donato shows the diners a German booklet stolen from the destroyed library in which the use and effects of various explosives are illustrated. "Oh what a muster! What a muster! " repeats an old man in amazement. Won by such a test (?) Those present can only surrender to the inevitability of the conflict: "Now we are at stake and we should dance."

The long day and his story end with a picture that is at the same time a collection of that surreal animality and witty metaphor of the direction taken. A group of people is now threatening a blonde girl with a German accent, who escapes through a doorway. Her pursuers catch up with her, but shortly afterwards they re-emerge waving a card in triumph: "It's Swiss!" It turns out then that the girl had approached a cavalry sergeant for, say, business reasons. Having escaped the danger, he regains his composure and asks the soldier: "Now you will come with me, won't you?" The man hugs her, kisses her on the mouth "and they both disappeared into the alley, amid the cheers of the people."


This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Il Pedante at the URL http://ilpedante.org/post/anteguerra on Sat, 19 Mar 2022 06:40:40 PDT.