Image credit: Sufyan Jalal, from Withering Exhibition

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There were mornings when we woke up strangely rested, so rested that we seemed to be tired. Our bodies weighed the same as they do in our dreams. Blood frothed in our lower backs and calves, torpid but alive. Looking each other in the face, each of us appeared to come from far away. We talked about the day, about the good weather we hoped for, when even the sky from the iron gratings was covered in clouds. But no one dared say it was actually that torpor and that weariness of the sky that made us half-close our eyes in satisfaction — a furtive satisfaction that left us irresolute.

 

I don’t know if any of us, as we wandered among the barracks, ever told one of our companions how we had passed the night. One day someone asked me: “What did you dream about?” — and I didn’t know what to say except that I’d slept like a baby, dreamless.

 

We were like children inside those miserable barracks, waiting to queue up for the usual escape; there were those of us who bothered to run and look for something, and those who sat idly on a crate or a step. All of us were idle, but there were some who didn’t want to know about abandoning themselves to torpor. They feared having to be stirred then, by an external call, to re-enter the day. And yet that torpor was inside us, and it knew of an immense struggle, endured for who knows how long, and who knows where. It seemed, in that re-awakening, like we were stumbling, like those who emerge from the sea having swum to exhaustion, letting their tired legs collapse in the water. Something had certainly happened during the night. We had dreamed with so much conviction that now every memory was suppressed and only an incredulous stupor remained in our blood. In this way, the drone of silence sometimes makes you think of a scream, a clamor so deafening that you can no longer hear.

 

I have no shame in confessing that I am afraid of the dark — even I who held out in that camp of desolation, where the break of a beautiful dawn gave us so much pain it was absurd. We were afraid of ourselves and afraid of the dark. And those who are afraid of the dark, it’s not that they believe in wonders not of this world. They are simply the type of person who knows that, when shaken by the contact of the night, marvels can spume from their blood and their thoughts like sweat from a horse. We happened to wake up in the morning little by little, without a tremor, like a boat approaching a riverbank; achy, you alighted and looked around, a little surprised, almost as if those eternal barracks were indeed the same, but your eyes, washed in the black sea of sleep, couldn’t quite recognize them yet. Those of us who sat until first light, gaze lifted to the restless ones who kept themselves occupied in the lanes of the camp under the low sky, had the air of looking around their companions, for those who had roamed with them in the night, and with them had faced their fears, the adventures of their turbid dreams. No one talked about it. It was enough to feel the softening of wonder inside.

 

Instead, we talked about the day and our usual jobs. Since we couldn’t start anything in that camp with the certainty of finishing it, every time we followed the temperament of the sky, and in its serenity we sought to avidly read our own, but every day it was a disappointment because the miserable barracks showed us the futility of it all. Sun and wind exasperated us, like they do the sick. Then with the passing of the fair season we learned to stay melancholic below the terser sky, and that did a lot for our peace, since those who appeared the most carefree among us suffered the most.

 

Maybe at night it occurred to us to truly test what we took great care to keep quiet in the daytime. At night our bodies stole away beyond the furthest barrack, beyond the silent hills; if there even are still barracks and hills in the dream and not a black field instead, where things shine through from their own light and the terrors, the cramps, the anxiety, the discoveries, are a single thing within the tumult of blood that bellows in the dark. The events of sleep were already forgotten  and in here hid perhaps the tremendous struggle of bringing them back to light, to bring back to light at least that blood and that body in which they became reality. Maybe on certain nights those who saw us sleeping wouldn't have recognized us. A distant lamp was dying in our barrack: it appeared to oscillate, itself prey to a dream. Nothing its scarce light touched was real. The agitations and dives of blood in the absurd immobility of the night were real, like a wheel that is whisked away in a whirlwind and appears stationary. Those of us who woke before sunrise kept an eye out for the night, and with it seeming to be gone from the world, waiting anxiously for the gruff voice of the sentry.



Original ↓

C’erano mattine che ci svegliavamo stranamente riposati, tanto riposati che ci pareva d’essere stanchi. Il corpo ci pesava come pesa nel sonno. Nelle reni e nei polpacci si schiumava un sangue torpido ma vivo. Guardandoci in faccia, ciascuno di noi pareva venire da lontano. Parlavamo del giorno, del bel tempo sperato, quando anche il cielo alle inferriate era coperto di nuvole. Ma nessuno osava dire ch’era proprio quel torpore e quella stanchezza del cielo a farci socchiudere gli occhi di compiacenza – una furtiva compiacenza che ci lasciava irresoluti.

 

Non so se piú tardi, aggirandoci tra le baracche, c’era qualcuno che raccontasse al suo compagno come aveva passato la notte. Un giorno mi chiesero: – Tu, che cosa hai sognato? – e non seppi rispondere se non che avevo dormito come un bambino, senza sogni.

 

Eravamo come bambini, fra quelle tristi baracche, e in attesa d’incolonnarci per l’uscita consueta chi si affannava a correre cercando qualcosa, chi sedeva scioperato su una cassetta o uno scalino. Scioperati eravamo tutti, ma alcuni non volevano saperne di abbandonarsi al torpore. Temevano di doversi poi riscuotere, a un richiamo esterno, per rientrare nel giorno. Eppure quel torpore era in noi, e sapeva di un’immensa fatica, durata chi sa quanto, e chi sa dove. Ci pareva, in quel risveglio, d’incespicare come chi esce da un mare dove ha nuotato fino all’ultimo lasciando cadere a piombo nell’acqua le gambe stremate. Qualcosa era certo accaduto, durante la notte. Avevamo sognato con tanta convinzione che adesso ogni ricordo era abolito e ci restava nel sangue soltanto uno stupore incredulo. Cosí il ronzío del silenzio fa pensare talvolta a un urlo, a un clamore tanto assordante che non si oda piú nulla.

 

Non ho vergogna di confessare che ho paura del buio – io che pure tenni duro in quel campo della desolazione, dove lo spuntare di una bella giornata ci faceva pena tant’era assurdo. Avevamo paura di noi stessi e del buio. E chi ha paura del buio non è che creda a prodigi esistenti. Semplicemente è uno che sa che il suo sangue e il suo pensiero possono scuotersi al contatto della notte e schiumare meraviglie come un cavallo il sudore. Accadeva di risvegliarci la mattina a poco a poco, senza una scossa, come una barca s’accosta alla riva; e si scendeva indolenziti guardandoci intorno, un po’ sorpresi, quasi che quelle eterne baracche fossero bensí le stesse ma i nostri occhi, lavati nel mare nero del sonno, non le riconoscessero subito. Chi di noi si sedeva fin di primo mattino, levando lo sguardo agli inquieti che s’affaccendavano sotto il cielo basso per le viuzze del campo, aveva l’aria di cercare tra i compagni quelli che nella notte si erano aggirati con lui e con lui avevano affrontato gli spaventi, le peripezie dei torbidi sogni. Nessuno ne parlava. Ci bastava di sentire affievolirsi in noi la meraviglia.

 

Parlavamo del giorno invece, e delle nostre occupazioni consuete. Siccome nulla in quel campo potevamo cominciare con la certezza di finire, seguivamo ogni volta gli umori del cielo, e nella sua serenità cercavamo di leggere avidamente la nostra, ma era ogni giorno una delusione perché le tristi baracche ce ne mostravano l’inutilità. Sole e vento ci esasperavano, come fanno ai malati. Poi col trascorrere della bella stagione imparammo a serbarci malinconici sotto il cielo piú terso, e ciò volle dir molto per la nostra pace, giacché tra noi soffrivano di piú quelli che parevano piú spensierati.

 

Forse di notte ci accadeva veramente di sperimentare ciò che di giorno tacevamo con tanta cura. Di notte il nostro corpo s’involava di là dall’ultima baracca, di là dalle colline silenziose, se pure nel sogno ci sono ancora baracche e colline e non invece un campo nero dove le cose traspaiono per luce propria e i terrori le fitte le ansie i ritrovamenti sono una cosa sola col tumulto del sangue che mugge nel buio. Gli eventi del sonno erano già dimenticati prima ancora che accadessero, e di qui nasceva forse la tremenda fatica per riportarli in luce, per riportare alla luce almeno quel sangue e quel corpo in cui s’erano avverati. Forse in certe notti chi ci avesse visto dormire non ci avrebbe riconosciuti. Una lampada assente moriva nella baracca: pareva oscillare, essa stessa preda del sogno. Nulla di ciò che la sua scarsa luce toccava, era vero. Erano veri i tumulti e i tuffi del sangue nell’assurda immobilità della notte, come di una ruota che rapita in un turbine appare ferma. Chi di noi si svegliava prima dell’alba, tendeva l’orecchio alla notte e, parendogli di esser fuori del mondo, attendeva con ansia la voce rauca delle sentinelle.

Translator's Note

Cesare Pavese’s “Camp Dreams,” taken from his collection of short stories Feria d’agosto, is an intriguing reflection on dreams and confinement, told from the perspective of a nameless character in a nameless setting, likely a military or prison camp. Sparse descriptive identifiers point clearly to this setting, but remain vague enough to recreate the strong sense of endlessness that defines such a state of suspense. Pavese moved in antifascist circles and spent time in prison and internal exile for his involvement with a political prisoner, Tina Pizzardo, whom he fell in love with and wrote letters to that ultimately resulted in his incarceration. Such experiences will have likely influenced this story that instantly immerse the reader in the deep introspection and solitude that often characterizes Pavese’s work, along with the bitter and melancholic quality that lingers like the fleeting memory of a dream.

 

Pavese captures so much emotion in densely concentrated text that conveys the oppressive closeness of captivity while subtly revealing the human yearning for liberty that simmers under the surface. The main challenge of this translation was to successfully render such intricate text into English, drawing the reader into this remote and difficult setting and the inherent conflict between the suppressed feelings of the waking hours and the suppressed memories of escape in the night. To try and achieve this, I endeavored to refine the text as much as possible, recreating the text as something that was compressed, but equally rich with language that could easily let the imagination fly. Immersing myself in other short stories by Pavese was also a great help, along with wider reading of the historical context, and through this I sought to reproduce the somber and stirring mood that I found to be so prevalent and unique in his writing.


Sean McDonagh

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