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Gesualdo Bufalino: Diceria dell’Untore (UK: Plague-Spreader’s Tale; US: The Plague-Sower)

This book has been compared to Thomas Mann‘s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) and quite understandably. Like the Mann novel it tells the story of the narrator in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis (though, unlike the Mann character, he does recover) and, like the Mann novel, the feeling of death and being trapped are everywhere. More particularly, like the Mann novel, Bufalino tells the tale of a community that is cut off from the rest of the world and has to try and function according to its own values and rules. The narrator’s love for the ballerina, Marta, is a case in point, as this is a love that is not only adolescent but one that, in the real world, would be doomed to failure but functions here. It is based, in some respect, as Bufalino points outs, on the film One Way Passage, also about a doomed love, with a man condemned to die in the electric chair in love with a woman with a fatal illness. The film is typical Hollywood mawkishness but, in the book, Bufalino’s skill is to make it work.

This love is the keystone of the book and is used by Bufalino for other purposes. The director of the sanatorium is jealous, even though he is more enamoured of the bottle than Marta. She, in her turn, has already suffered, most recently by having had her hair shaved for having had an affair with a German officer (when we first meet her, she is nicknamed Petacci.) Bufalino worked on this novel for a long time (he was sixty when it was first published) and the skill in which he develops his story clearly shows.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Sellerio
First Englidh trans;ation in 1988 by Rizzoli
Translated by Patrick Creagh