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Mario Rigoni Stern: "Everything goes so fast that there is no time to meditate anymore”

The famous author of the novel “Il sergente nella neve”(The sergeant in the snow) reckons that our contemporary world is made for consuming and that an immoderate consumption exhausts nature, too

He has been one of the plainer and deeper voices in the panorama of Italian literature. His novels and tales still shed light and hope in such uncertain and dark times. Today, one year after Mario Rigoni Stern passed away – he died on June 16th, 2008, in Asiago, where he was born on November 1st, 1921 – we propose again an interview published by “Teatro Naturale” in November 2004.

Mario Rigoni Stern

In your tale “Old America”, inspired by “Il bosco degli urogalli”, you represented an intense and lucid portrait of the patriarchal family. Nowadays, society has changed. Are traces of that world still out there? Some feeble trace, some signs, to begin with in order to delineate a different future and a more hopeful reality
I would rather say that something should still be out there. Should, because everything is so fast and quick that we do not even have the time to meditate. Look, I happen to read sentences such as “I am a 35 years old boy…”. Well, at that age, you are not a boy anymore, you are a grown man. I well remember one of my neighbors, a farmer, whose son hurt himself while cutting wood, when he was only 13. I went to him, saying “They are boys, what can you do?”. The kid had injured his finger. The father said “What boys, 13 years old, you are a man!”. Today, if you are 35, you refer to you as a “boy”. I compare them to people I knew, children younger than 10, who followed our emigrants to Germany. They went to work in mines, carrying water and food in the deepest of the mines. They worked and they had not even finished primary school. Now you are still a boy at 35! When is the time to become a grown man?

Contemporary society has everything turned upside down. Rhythms, language, relationships. Can there still be room for sincere feelings? Especially now that TV dominates and forces its rule….
Luckily the TV does not represent our world…

But it affects our lives...
Sure, only those who watch it. I always repeat: “Switch TV off, take a book”. If today ten million people watch it, many others do not, or not even own a TV neither want it. People are fed up with it.

In a time where the identity and values of the family have been fading, what solutions do you envision, what recommendations do you suggest, from the standpoint of your experience? What should be the attitude?
I look around and I try to observe, drawing conclusions. I do not mean being the messenger or prophet of anyone; I have no messages whatsoever. I only say that our life style is wrong, that our world is made for consuming, thus consuming nature, as well. And thus the human gender, the mankind. In the past, the people – I mean mountains people, because I come from the mountains and live there – was different; I do not know certain city conditions, but what I can say is that you could hear people singing, fifty years ago. They sang because they did not have machines to sing or listen. Nowadays, the people do not sing anymore. Common people – farmers, carpenters, workers, those who ride a bicycle, bakers – do not sing anymore. Did you notice?

Absolutely true…
Now images sing, radios sing, TV sings, discs sing, but not the people…

You are right, singing brings out one of mankind’s good sides. It is a sign of openness and sharing of the reality. People who do not sing anymore lost the sense of reality, of measure, the hierarchy of values. Back in time, to 1938, now. You volunteered as an Alpine in the military school of Aosta…

...and during WWII you took part to the terrible Campaign of Russia, whose dramatic circumstances were exemplarily described in your “Il sergente nella neve”. The war: a dimension that has always been part of the history of humanity, so that we are forced to live with it; my question now is, why today, in spite of the dramatic and sorrowful witnesses of those who lived war on their skin, we still do not understand the underlying nonsense of it? Why does the spiral of hate does not placate, although several significant steps on the journey towards civilization and progress have been made?
This is an old story, which still has a long way to go. It was started with the Bible, by Cain and Able, then wars occurred between tribes, then between people, then now between religions and continents; when all borders will be canceled, no wars will ever take place anymore. Look at our Europe. Italy never experienced such a long period of peace. Still, the nonsense of conflicts, goes by not understood. Our TVs showed the outburst of wars and the arrival of “pacifist” troops, this is what they say. I say, instead, that people will become aware that life is better without conflicts. Wars destroy, let’s not forget this! “We cannot bring our rule in other monasteries”. This is an old Russian proverb that I learned when I was there. So, what shall we do? Go and impose our democracy where nobody wants it and it never existed as such? We cannot impose our life style to those who do not want it. Let everybody live their life. We have to revise the notion that we “bear the peace”. How? With thanks? Also, media, especially television, report news out of proportion, exaggerating them and showing them in a paradoxical way. A helicopter falls in Iraq, an American pilot dies, his corpse is brought back home, funerals of state follow and the soldier is saluted as a hero. In Russia, eighty thousand Italian soldiers disappeared in 1943, but no newspaper reported it. We, the few survivors, were on the wrong side because we had survived and we were dangerous witnesses. Can you feel the difference, even between two wars?

Sure, and the difference of epochs naturally adds up…
It is a different way of showing things, first of all…

Your dramatic experience coincided with signs of great brotherhood, expressed by humble people who was rich of a great sense of pity and sharing of sorrow. During the terrible retreat from Russia, you and your fellows were welcomed by the enemy population in their houses, during the night. You had a place to sleep, protected from the cold, and food to face the hunger. Does the world go on because of this, no matter how much hate dominates everywhere on Earth?
Yes, and this happens today to emigrants from the third and fourth world, when they come to Italy and find somebody willing to help them.

In your books, other than your memories, another constant element is represented by the mountains. The love for the land is very strong, too. How do you live this dimension of your soul, today? Do you maybe feel like one of the last poets of nature? You have just said that nobody sings anymore, today…
Today, the “salon ecologist” cannot tell a pine from a fir. For them, all trees are pines. Then, we have the “exasperated”, who are not aware that the mankind has populated the Earth for several thousand years. Sure, few, at the beginning, many now, anyway there is much room still available on Earth, without looking for something in other worlds. Our life style surprises me. I wonder that an intensive cultivation is necessary if its abundant production is in the end thrown away…

You raised the alarm about the abandon of mountains some time ago, criticizing the low resources dedicated to them. Actually, the lack of cultivations in the mountains can cause irreparable disasters. So, why this lack of care, although the tutelage of environment is a very popular topic of debate?
Unluckily, we forget an old saying: the mountain regulates the nature. Its work is slow, takes a long time, does not appear normally. The wood needs time to grow, a tree needs at least a hundred years to grow, the forest needs centuries, several centuries. These elements are not striking. The outcome of money invested in the mountains is low but steady. It is not just the forest; it is that the forest produces oxygen and keeps water, it adds up to the landscape, but many more reasons are in its favor, such as purifying air. Abandoning the mountain means abandoning the destiny of the environment.

Why us the concept of rurality getting lost today? Is this something that requires an overhaul?
No, it will still be there, don’t worry. People need good air and green spaces, not just television. Slowly, you will see that the values of rurality will be rediscovered. We are looking for some help now.

In conclusion, what books do you recommend to the readers of “Teatro Naturale”?
There are many authors I would recommend. I go for an old but ever new book: “Georgics” by Virgil.

by Luigi Caricato
06 july 2009, Food Notes > Miscellanea