The Seven Messengers

A number of years ago I discovered the short stories of the Italian writer Dino Buzzati (most famous for his novel translated as The Desert of the Tartars). They have a unique haunting quality, for which the only equivalent which I can summon is Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn or perhaps the last variation of the Tema Con Variazoni in Mozart’s Gran Partita. I was particularly fascinated by the first one, I Sette Messaggeri (The Seven Messengers) in a collection entitled La Boutique del Mistero (The Mystery Boutique, Mondadori, first published in 1968 although I have a later softcover edition). I resolved to translate it. I completed the translation only now. It starts like this:

Day after day, having set out to explore my father’s realm, I am moving further away from the city, and the dispatches that reach me become ever more infrequent.

I began the journey not long after my thirtieth birthday and more than eight years have since passed; to be exact, eight years, six months and fifteen days of unceasing travel. I believed, when I departed, that within a few weeks I would easily have reached the confines of the kingdom, but instead I have continued to encounter new people and new lands, and, everywhere, men who spoke my own language and claimed to be my subjects.

At times I think that my geographer’s compass has gone awry and that while always believing to be heading south we may in reality have gone into circles, stepping back into our tracks without increasing the distance from the capital city; such might be the reason why we have not yet reached the outer frontier.

More often, though, I am tormented by a suspicion that the frontier may not exist, that the realm spreads out without any limit whatsoever, and that no matter how far I advance I will never arrive at its end. I set off on my journey when I was already past thirty years old, too late perhaps. My friends, and even my family, were mocking my project as a pointless sacrifice of the best years of my life. In truth, few of my faithful followers consented to leave with me. Insouciant as I was – so much more than now! – I was anxious to maintain communication, during the journey, with those dear to me, and among the knights in my escort I chose the seven best ones to serve as my messengers.

I believed, without having given it more thought, that seven would be more than enough. With the passing of time I have realized that this number was, to the contrary, ridiculously low; this even though none among them has fallen ill, or run into bandits, or exhausted his mounts. All seven have served with a tenacity and a devotion that I will find it hard ever to recompense.

To distinguish more easily between them, I assigned them names with initial letters in alphabetical order: Alexander, Bartholomew, Cameron, Dominic, Emilian, Frederic, Gregory.

Not being used to straying so far away from my home, I dispatched the first, Alexander, at the end of the second evening of our journey, when we had already traveled some eighty leagues. The next evening, to ensure the continuity of communications, I sent out the second one, then […]

That is only the beginning. The full text appears here but it is password-protected. Here is why: in 2010 I managed to locate the right holders and wrote to them asking for permission to publish an English translation and put it on the web. I received a polite, negative answer. So I gave up. Browsing around more recently, though, I found two freely available translations on the Web. (I also found the original Italian text here, although with a few differences from the published version.) All for the better, you would say, except that one of the translations is in my opinion awful and the other not that much better. Buzzati is a stylist in the tradition of Flaubert, in whose texts you quickly notice (especially when translating) that every word is exactly the right one, the only possible one, at the only possible place in the only possible sentence. You cannot translate a Buzzati story as you would an article in today’s paper. You have at least to try to respect the music of the text. So I completed my own attempt after all, but I still don’t want to violate anyone’s copyright. (Perhaps I am being silly.) In any case, though, I can certainly publish a fair-use extract as above and use the text for myself and my colleagues and friends. So if you want access just ask me.

One unique feature of the Seven Messengers is that it is a geek’s delight: it is actually based on a mathematical series. I wrote an analysis of the underlying math, but to avoid spoiling your pleasure if you want to look at it by yourself first I put it in a separate entry of this blog. Click here only if you do want the spoiler.

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