Literature in Quarantine: Men and Not

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Comments on the book by the Italian writer Elio Vittorini

By Jan Cenek*

Men could get lost everywhere and everywhere resist. Couldn't they get lost everywhere and everywhere resist? (Elio Vittorini, men and not)

On the thick cover, two words stand out: “men” and “no”, between them, there is a cut “e”, which looks like an “i” without the dot. The author's name, Elio Vittorini, practically does not appear. It almost reads Men No. but the title is men and not. On the back cover, in gray tones, you can see a bombed-out city. The ears indicate that it is a novel published at the end of the Second World War, which talks about the Italian resistance and broken men, such as the People's Rose, by Carlos Drummond de Andrade. I bought it without hesitation. I was particularly attracted to the “no” stamped on the cover.     

I grew up among Italian immigrants who arrived in Brazil in the mid-XNUMXth century. Thirty years later, a kind of “Brazilian” could be heard in the streets, sidewalks and backyards I frequented. It was a parallel language, gesticulating, virile and difficult to understand for someone who wasn't from there. I believe that, in those years, in early childhood, I began to distrust life, as if there were a fundamental and inescapable ambiguity in existence, which was revealed there and which would later push me to the left and towards literature. Among those men there was a deep distrust of the police and the state, a distrust that was not always explicit but was always present. I heard stories of the “war against Germany”, exactly the opposite of what they taught in school, where you learn that Italians and Germans fought side by side. I remember hearing one of those men tell that, surrounded by the Germans and in order not to be killed, he took refuge in the sewer for two days. I suspect that story caused me a certain panic of police sieges, making me hope for the almost impossible escape. He imagined that man walking through the pipes, squeezed among the rats and dirt of the city, under the enemy soldiers. It was difficult to reconcile what I heard on the streets, sidewalks and backyards with the lessons taught at school. Perhaps that is the reason for a certain tendency not to take things seriously. As Milan Kundera wrote: “Whoever starts doubting details ends up doubting life itself.”1

Later, I came to think that I might have grown up with men and women of the Italian resistance, which would explain the “war against the Germans” and not alongside them. But even if I could, I never questioned any of those people about their political background. It was unnecessary. I felt like one of them. Enough. The question might violate our complicity, it might resurrect ghosts from the past.

Elio Vittorini joined the resistance in real life. In the novel, the action takes place in Milan, at the time occupied by the Nazis, at the end of World War II. The story is told in stark dialogue, supplemented by brief descriptions and author's commentary. The characters are called by codenames. Bicycles criss-cross the streets, like in Italian cinema. The escapes are through alleys and rooftops, not the sewer, like in the story I heard as a child. There is a siege that made me stop reading and take a deep breath, in addition to hoping for the escape. There are loves that are interrupted, rushed, yet to be done. In one of the heaviest passages in the novel, a passage with a hunting dog refers to the chapter to revoltTwo Brothers Karamazov, of Dostoyevsky.

Reflecting on the battle of Stalingrad, Drummond wrote that man is “a creature that does not want to die and fights, against sky, water, metal, the creature fights, against millions of arms and mechanical devices the creature fights, against the cold, hunger, night, against death the creature fights”. Reflecting on the Italian resistance, Vittorini would add: “There was not only struggle and survival. There was also fighting and losing.” It is impressive to note that, both in Drummond's poem and in Vittorini's novel, men fight to live. The struggle is much more for the present life than for the imagined future. In other words: in the cited works (Letter to Stalingrad e men and not) it is not utopia that sustains resistance, it is resistance that sustains utopia. Drummond: “Poetry escaped from the books, now it is in the newspapers. The telegrams from Moscow repeat Homer.”

But to think that men fight and lose at the same time, as in Vittorini's novel, would shock militants and lyric poets, like Pablo Neruda.2 For the Chilean poet, men not only fight, at the same time they build a future life, they are not lost because they resist. Example. There is an image of Drummond that is so stark and bleak that, unconsciously or not, Neruda has reconstructed it. Drummond: “There are no more books to read or functioning theaters or work in factories, everyone is dead, crippled, the last defend black pieces of wall, but life in you is prodigious and swarms like insects in the sun, oh my crazy Stalingrad !” Neruda: “These books, in fresh pine and cedar boxes, are gathered on the tomb of the dead executioners: these theaters made in the ruins cover martyrdom and resistance: books clear as monuments: a book about each hero, about each millimeter of death, upon every petal of this unchanging glory.”  

the main character of men and not: partisan Ene 2, fight and lose at the same time. A kind of Mersault, Camus's foreigner, mixed with Bartleby, Melville's clerk, Ene 2 combines the absurd indifference of the first with the “I'd rather not” of the second. Vittorini gives life to others partisans. Son-of-God, who loved dogs. Coriolano, who took the family to hiding places. Foppa, who liked movies and the Chinese. El Paso, which had fought the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. A worker who joined the resistance, but did not kill an enemy soldier because he considered him sad. They are concrete men, flesh and blood, like the ones I met in a corner of São Paulo. It is the strong point of the novel.

One day I received news about one of those Italians I met. He spent his days in an armchair that he took out onto the sidewalk. He would sweep the floor and even nap sitting up. Buildings loomed over houses in the neighborhood, including his own. He himself had received more than one proposal to exchange the house for an apartment. But he never accepted. Did he fight and lose? That morning, a couple was walking their dog, near the Italian's armchair. When the animal threatened to litter the sidewalk, the man tried to scare it away with a broom. In the confusion, the owners protected the dog and were hit by brooms. They were lawyers. They said they would call the police and sue the Italian. The man was 98 years old. I imagine the police approaching that almost centenary man, in the armchair positioned on the sidewalk. Having problems with the law, one more, at the age of 98, is for few.

I write during the pandemic caused by Covid-19. I took advantage of the period of social distancing to reread men and not. From Italy sad news arrives. At the moment, it is the country that accounts for the highest number of deaths. From Italy also arrive emblematic images, which move. Men, women and children sing beautiful ciao on the balconies of apartments in full quarantine. I see Ene 2, Son-of-God, Coriolano, Foppa, El Paso, the worker partisan and the Italians who raised me singing. I also see them struggling and getting lost in hospitals, among health professionals, without minimum working conditions. 

Italy is one of the fundamental foundations of civilization, just think of the Renaissance. Five hundred years later, Italo Calvino wrote: “Italy is today, in part, a very modern, industrialized country, with a high level of well-being; in part, however, it is an old-fashioned, immobile, extremely poor country [...] We have at hand, at the same time, Detroit and Calcutta.”3 The best of Italy is born precisely from the contradiction between the possibilities outlined by the Renaissance and the limits imposed by capitalism. This helps explain the strength of the Italian labor movement in the 1960s, for example. It is the possibility straining the limit. It is the Italy of men who fight and lose themselves, as in Elio Vittorini's novel. It is the Italy of men and of no. It's the Italy I love.   

*Jan Cenek is a member of the Mané Garrincha Cultural Space


1 Milan Kundera's balcony is in the novel The unbearable lightness of being.

2 An analysis of Neruda's dialogue with Drummond can be read at:

3 Italo Calvino's reflection is in the essay Dialogue between two writers in crisis, which was published in the book Subject closed – discourses on literature and society.

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