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

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The Independent Online

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.