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Amici come prima

My favorite Italian work of fiction is a nine-page short story written by Dino Buzzati in 1971, a year before his death. Buzzati was an Italian journalist from Belluno, near Venice, who studied law only to become a lifelong newspaper correspondent. He also wrote novels, stories, poems, radio plays, librettos, painted successfully, and even drew comics. Despite the fame accorded Italo Calvino, he is arguably the greatest Italian magical realist, a writer who transmuted the spicing contained in daily news into amazing stories. While many authors of his time saw the atomic peril in terms of devastated cities and radioactive monsters, Buzzati saw a slyer contagion. In one of his stories, set in 2007, the atoms of plastics lose their harmony and begin to expand or contract at will. Tables collapse, implanted organs explode, atriums grow suddenly obese and crush shoppers. He fantasized all this in the late 1960s, long before the dampening tyranny of economics.

In the only novel the brought him substantial success, “The Tartar Steppes,” a young military officer named Drago grows old in a fort while waiting for a presaged invasion of alien hordes, waiting takes the place of the invasion itself. It is a novel about the gnawing passage of time, the enthusiasm of youth gradually eaten away by not by monsters but mice.

Buzzati was dubbed an Existentialist because critics need labels. His work had the here-and-how feel of Albert Camus, the hereafter set aside in favor of quest for daily meaning, or the admission of its absence. He in fact belonged to no known school except perhaps to that of Italian journalism, which has long put mood and approximation to ahead of facts, or considered mood as a fact by itself. Buzzati was without peer in navigating this ambiguity.

The story I most like, “The Scandal on Via Sesostri,” is both simple and obscure. I think of it whenever Italy announces momentous change that pledges to break from old manners and ways.

In it, a well-to-do man in a Milan apartment building speaks highly of his tenants. The building’s landlord is an esteemed gynecologist with a young wife. There’s a federation president, a count, a nobleman, a wealthy heiress, a fashion designer, all people of solid if unassuming pedigree. The narrator has lived in the building for years and is proud of the association.

Then, suddenly, the landlord dies. All are shocked. Such a good and decent man, say all in the building; such a fine and noble doctor. Dozens assemble outside his apartment to await the procession to church and the funeral Mass.

But the narrator is made uneasy by what sounds like a commotion near the doctor’s door. His widow is wailing. Police have appeared, including the narrator’s detective inspector friend.

It soon becomes clear that that great doctor was not who he claimed. He had instead stolen the identity of a doctor who had died trying to escape wartime persecution. The impostor, also a doctor, had collaborated with the Fascist regime and served the Nazis as an eviscerating doctor in death camps. The gynecologist all thought was a saint was instead a monster.

The narrator learns these details when the police inspector comes to dine with him. But there’s more, says the inspector, much more, all of it concerning the identity of the esteemed apartment building’s residents.

The woman claiming to be a fashion designer is not a fashion designer but yet another impostor and a jewel thief.

The count claiming to be a lifelong painter is really escaped embezzler.

The wealthy widow is wealthy, yes, but a fugitive murderer.

The federation president is not a respectable businessman but a sex strangler.

Impostors all.

At this point, the scornful inspector points a finger at the narrator and explains the purpose of his visit: You, he tells him, are also not whom you claim to be but in reality yet another impostor, in reality an anarchist and terrorist responsible for a many acts of violence.

Good work, nods the narrator, who acknowledges the inspector is right. His diligent probing has led him to the real truth behind everyone in the pedigreed building. Compliments, the narrator tells the inspector.

The detective then prepares to arrest the narrator, warning him not to flee since the building is surrounding.

Only then does the narrator speak up: I have also done some digging of my own, he tells the inspector, and you, dear sir, are not the inspector you say you are but another man, a gangland gunman, killer of at least three men, who took the identity of a drowned detective. You, too, are an impostor.

The detective is taken aback. He returns the compliment to the narrator, “Good shot, my friend,” he says. There will be no arrest, he agrees, nor will anyone else in the building be exposed. It will be as if the two men, narrator and inspector, had a pleasant dinner to chat about the events of the day, “friends as before,” amici come prima.