The Story of VajontMarco Paolini, Gabriele Vacis

The Story of Vajont

Thomas Simpson, ed. & tr. Boca Raton, Florida.
Bordighera, 2000. ix + 116 pages, ill., $13.

I REMEMBER THAT many years ago I reviewed here a book about the very Italian tragedy of the collapse of the Vajont dam (Stramalora, by G. A. Cibotto). Now Thomas Simpson, a lecturer in Italian at Northwestern University, has translated Marco Paolini's work that retells the awesome event in topical-historical terms (the two descriptors are not contradictory when referring to this tragedy).

The Story of Vajont represents the written version - i.e., a compendium - of a «one-man show» that Paolini has given all over Italy since 1993 in various piazzas, cultural centers, schools, and factories, ending up on television (9 october, 1997, live TV broadcasting, in front of the dam) with a very large audience, over 3,5 millions astonished people. In the theatrical version, Paolini was directed by Gabriele Vacis. However, even when Paolini faces an audience, he presents himself as a cultural operator rather than an actor, in the sense that he leaves the scenic dimension in order to merge with his audience through the reevocation. The spectators, like the readers, are constantly called on to question and seek out the reasons for what happened in 1963. In this, Paolini shows he has absorbed his friend and mentor, Nobel prizewinner, Dario Fo's lesson on retelling.
On bare boards where the only prop is a school blackboard, Paolini asks for, and then explains the weight of a cubic meter of water ... because on that Wednesday, 9 October 1963, at 10:39 P.M., a gigantic wave (an artificial, provoked megatsunami!) containing twenty five million cubic meters of water shot out of the Vajont dam because two thousands sixty million cubic meters of rock had just crumbled from Mount Toc into the artificial lake formed by the dam.

Five entire small towns were swept away, about two thousand were dead, and at the time it was said that with that landslide came the beginning of the end of the Italian postwar 'economic miracle'.
Thirty years later, the wounds caused by the tragedy are still unhealed, thanks to the slowness of an Italian bureaucracy that thrives in the shadow of the political inefficiency of the successive governments since that time.
corpoDigaThis truth emerges from the parliamentary reports: the neverending history of compensation to the families of the survivors, of opposition's parliamentary questions that elicit only vague replies, of houses rebuilt but not registered, rendering uncertain property taxes and inheritances.
In other words, it is a damnatio memoriae that makes every day another black October 9th for the inhabitants of Longarone, Erto, and Casso.

The polemical account by Paolini and Vacis is presented with rhythmic brio, and Thomas Simpson's translation renders the highlights of the story faithfully and expressively. In my opinion, some unfounded pseudohistorical details detract from the value of the account: for instance, the fact that it was the new Fascist regime that planned the dam as a source of energy to strengthen its program of economic self-sufficiency, forgetting that in 1929 any liberal-democratic government of any European country would have acted in the same way, because that was the accepted economic policy trend in Europe then.

Finally, there is an excellent third chapter wherein Franco Nasi of the University of Chicago offers an interesting contribution on the language and ritual of the storyteller.
According to Nasi (here, in italian, Franco Nasi's biography on «a true storyteller like Paolini must possess the ability to transform an extraordinary event into a social and intellectual experience, making it flow outward from the usual channels of information to become part of a lasting collective memory».

by Giovanni d'Angelo,
Piancastagnaio (Siena), Italy, 2000

This page edited from: Tiziano Dal Farra

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