Mario Rigoni Stern: Author of 'The Sergeant in the Snow'

Mario Rigoni Stern, one of the most underrated of contemporary Italian authors, was fortunate to see the end of the Second World War.

As a sergeant in the Italian army, he survived not only the French, Albanian and Russian fronts, but also deportation in 1943 to a PoW camp in west Prussia run by the Hungarian SS. On 9 May 1945, spirit broken, and haunted by his comrades dead on the Russian Steppe, Rigoni Stern finally returned to his native Italy. His ordeal as an Italian soldier in wartime Russia became the subject of his first book, Il sergente nella neve (1953, translated the following year as The Sergeant in the Snow), a memoir which Italo Calvino compared to the military histories of Xenophon. The book's mesmeric story-telling and difference in kind from all other post-Fascist accounts of the Second World War instantly made it an Italian classic.

In spite of his early success, Rigoni Stern remained a maverick who kept his distance from Italy's literary salons and coteries. He felt happiest in his hometown of Asiago, in a chilly upland region between the Alps and the Adriatic, where he liked to chop wood and tend to his beehives. For three centuries his ancestors had lived amid Asiago's alpine pastures, crossing and recrossing the mountain ranges as far as Padua to sell butter and cheese. Asiago was (and still is) a north Italian peasant society without noblemen, castles or grand villas; prim window-boxes and green-tiled churches suggest an Italian Bavaria. The film director Ermanno Olmi, who made The Tree of Wooden Clogs, lived next door to Rigoni Stern; both he and the ex-army sergeant kept wild goats in their gardens.

Rigoni Stern's second book, Il bosco degli urogalli ("The Grouse Forest", 1962), was a collection of short stories set mostly in Asiago. Its terse, Jack London-like accounts of hunters and wild dogs deeply impressed the Auschwitz survivor and fellow writer Primo Levi, who saw in Rigoni Stern a kindred spirit. Levi wrote an admiring letter to Rigoni Stern, asking if they could meet. This was to become Rigoni Stern's most important literary friendship; it took root immediately and continued for a quarter of a century until Levi's suicide in 1987.

In 1964, the writers eventually met in Turin, where Primo Levi lived. To Levi, the 42-year-old Rigoni Stern resembled the sea captain on the Player's cigarette packets; a grizzled, whiskery man. The unaffected Roman Catholic and the cultivated Jew nevertheless found they had much in common, not least a mistrust of writers who were "all author". (Levi worked as a chemist, Rigoni Stern as a civil servant in a land registry office). By his own admission, Rigoni Stern admired Levi's capacity to make comic drama out of his own wartime ordeal; Levi, for his part, was awed by Rigoni Stern's practical resourcefulness; here was a resilient, reassuringly rock-like man who wrote beautifully yet was able to survive in the wilds.

After this first meeting, Levi often visited Rigoni Stern in Asiago, where they liked to wash down quantities of pungent Asiago cheese with grappa brandy, and afterwards go for walks in the Val di Nos forest with its Great War cemetery reserved for unknown British soldiers. Asiago had been settled in ancient times by Germanic tribes and Rigoni Stern was fascinated by the German aspects of his native culture – in particular the local Cimbro dialect inflected with Germanic words. His best-loved book, Storia di Tönle (1978; The Story of Tönle, 1998), a novella, was fraught with Cimbro dialogue (Tönle means "Little Tony" in Cimbro). The book, which concerned an Asiago-born Jack-of-all-trades in Central Europe, won the 1979 Campiello literary prize for fiction. (Typically, Rigoni Stern escaped the prize-giving in Venice to drink champagne with Primo Levi in the Café Florian, where the orchestra struck up a sentimental ballad in his honour.)

Though Mario Rigoni Stern will be remembered as a war documentarist, he wrote numerous articles for the Turin daily La Stampa on the wildlife and landscape of his adored Asiago. These were subsequently collected in the volumes Amore di confine ("Love of Frontiers", 1986) and Il libro degli animali ("The Book of Animals", 1990). He wrote very little else in his final years.

In 2006, however, he appeared in Davide Ferrario's documentary film about Primo Levi, La strada di Levi (Primo Levi's Journey), where he movingly recounted the story of his historic friendship.

Ian Thomson

Mario Rigoni Stern, writer: born Asiago, Italy 1 November 1921; married (three children); died Asiago 16 June 2008.

Sport
formula oneLive lap-by-lap coverage of championship decider
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Arts and Entertainment
tvStrictly presenter returns to screens after Halloween accident
News
video
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin