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Corrado Alvaro: L’uomo è forte (Man Is Strong; later: Fear in the World)

When Alvaro wrote this book he intended to publish it under the title Paura sul mondo, i.e. Fear in the World. The censors did not approve and changed the title to L’uomo è forte (Man Is Strong). When it was first published in English in 1948, it was published as Man Is Strong. When it was published in 2020 in a new translation by Allan Cameron, the original title was restored. The text I read was the Cameron translation.

Alvaro had visited the Soviet Union before writing this book. However,though it is clear to us that the book is set in the Soviet Union, the country is never named nor are any of the cities. The names of individuals are fairly unRussian. Our hero is called Dale. It turns out that that is his surname though we only learn that well into the book and then in passing. His first name – Robert- is used only once. Barbara always calls him Dale. The heroine is called Barbara, not a usual Russian name. An Olga does appear but she is the one of only two other named persons in the book. Though the other characters are not named there are two others we can identify. The first is a man who is clearly Stalin. The second appears on posters calling for Death to Our Enemies and is clearly Trotsky. There are not too many verbal clues that the setting is the Soviet Union.

Dale is living in an unspecified Western country at the beginning of the novel. There is evidence that it could be Italy or the United States. He is originally from the unnamed country that I shall call the Soviet Union henceforth, even though it is not quite the Soviet Union. There had been a civil war and the Partisans, (i.e. the Bolsheviks) had more or less beaten the Combatants (i.e. the Whites), though outbreaks continue to occur, as we shall see. Fifteen years later he had visited an international exhibition and had seen the Soviet stand and had been impressed. Dale increasingly felt that the ways of his foreign city were those of an enfeebled, spent and flabby society, whose fragile and listless women on high heels seemed only concerned with attaining pleasures and maintaining appearances.

He remembered Barbara who was also from the Soviet Union but she had returned for the same reasons Dale now evokes. She was now a technician in a radio factory. They had kept in touch so when he decides to return, he contacts her and she meets him when he arrives. How long are you staying? she asked him. “I’ve come to work in my native land, and to change my life.

It is clear that he wants to be with her and she wants to be with him but she is particularly wary. It seems that courting couples are not approved of. Indeed, she tells him that they should not meet.

The city – Moscow? Leningrad? (it is not clear but probably the former) is described. The people looked like survivors of so many difficult years, wandered around the built environment that didn’t hide its apparently uninhabited ruins.

Dale is contacted by the State Industrial Technical Office and offered a job as an industrial engineer. The director gives his view on art. Today civilisation and progress offer so many forms of teaching that art could be dispensed with. Art is the artist himself.

Austerity is inevitably the key word. Dale has smuggled in various decadent Western items such as food and clothing. Barbara eagerly eats an orange while Olga and her friend wonder why he does not use the leather of his case to make shoes.

We also get the paranoia that we see in most Western novels about the Soviet Union. People are continually watched. People disappear suddenly for no apparent reason. People are arrested for crimes that no-one knew existed or, if a crime has to be invented, it is called collusion with the enemy. It is pointed out that we all have criminal thoughts at times, therefore we are all guilty.

We see several examples of this. Dale goes to watch a Gypsy choir. Next day three of the people there are arrested and, inevitably, shot. Why? Because they are guilty. Dale himself is followed by a man known only as the Inquisitor, i.e. a KGB agent and is always worried about what the man wants. Barbara is so paranoid about the people where she lives that not only is she hesitant about inviting Dale back, she does not even want him to know where she lives.

However, the main issue is the fraught relationship between Barbara and Dale. In a Western society, while there might be the usual bickering and argument, here it is the third party that plays the major role in the relationship and the third party is the State. Are they allowed to? Who is watching? Who is listening? Who is going to tell the authorities? Do the authorities even care? Barbara, having been there longest, is the most paranoid. Initially Dale is far less so but reality catches up with him.

And the State? It is the Inquisitor who is the voice of the State. We want our citizens to be happy, and they must be happy come what may.” He clenched his fists and his teeth. “Whatever it takes. Anything that upsets them is criminal. To them shall be given truth, justice and happiness. They shall have no mysteries. They can live publicly in each other’s company without hiding anything. They mustn’t hide anything. And that last sentence is key. If you are hiding something, whatever it is, you are guilty.

Dale and Barbara want to have a love affair and yet, surprisingly, this does not seem to be acceptable in this country, at least not one with an open relationship or any form of premarital sex. Part of the problem as far as they are concerned, is that they have come from abroad and anyone coming from abroad is highly suspect. Barbara, in particular, feels that this is a major impediment and both feel that they have done something wrong though neither they nor we are clear what it is they have done wrong. Indeed, the point is that crimes are whatever the State decides is a crime, regardless if the offence is written in statutes. There are ony two possible solutions – to turn themselves in (for what Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four called thought crimes) or to end the relationship.

As mentioned, the obvious comparison with this book is Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nineteen Eighty-Four was published eleven years after this novel but did Orwell read it? The first English translation of this book was published in 1948 in the United States so it seems unlikely that Orwell read it.

We know that Orwell was influenced by Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s Мы (We), which appeared in English in 1924 (before the Russian version was published). Did Alvaro read it? The Italian version was not published till 1955. Did he read it in English or even Russian (he had visited Russia so may have spoken some Russian). If he did read it, it was perhaps more likely he read it in French. We know he worked in France so presumably spoke French, as many educated Europeans of that period did. The novel was published in French in 1929 so it is possible that he read it. In both books the two protagonists have an illicit love affair. In my review of the Zamyatin I said it takes a less realist and more personalised approach [than Nineteen Eighty-Four] and I think the same could be said of this novel.

There is no doubt that this belongs to the genre we could call the dystopian Soviet novel, showing the horrors of the Soviet Union. This has many of the tropes we find in other similar novels: the secret police, thought crimes, invented conspiracies to enable the authorities to arrest anyone they do not like, people suddenly finding themselves enemies of the pople without knowing why, lack of individual freedoms, the police coming around at night or in the early hours of the morning, foreigners deemed to be inherently wrong, sacrifice to the greater good. Room No 3 (equivalent of Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four) and so on. Where Alvaro differs from Orwell is the more personalised approach. Dale and Barbara are human beings caught up in a system which they feel they should support but, deep in their hearts, do not as they value their own freedoms and, in particular, their own feelings. Winston Smith seems to be just a cipher. Though he has an illicit affair with Julia, he seems far less human and real than Dale and Barbara. It is, to me, surprising that it is not better known. It has been available in English for many years. Perhaps like Karin Boye‘s Kallocain, because it is foreign, it has been unfairly neglected and did not have some key feature like the Orwell’s Big Brother. Frankly, I prefer this one and Kallocain to the Orwell.

Publishing history

First published in 1938 by Bompiani
First English translation in 1948 (as (Man Is Strong) by Knopf; in 2020 (as Fear in the World) by Vagabond Voices
Translated by Frances Frenaye ((Man Is Strong); Allan Cameron (Fear in the World)