“I knew that one has to take short cuts as they are, not argue with them.” – Ennio Flaiano, The Short Cut
Of the many surprises that Italian literature has offered during my explorations, Ennio Flaiano’s The Short Cut (Tempo di uccidere, 1947) is among the most unexpected, addressing an unusual area of Italian experience: Mussolini's military incursion into Abyssinia in 1935-36. Winner of the inaugural Strega Prize, Italy’s highest literary award, The Short Cut stands out not only as an accomplished mid-20th century Italian novel, but also as one of the finest novels about imperialism I’ve read from any country.
Essentially The Short Cut recounts a transgression during the “fog of war” and the attempts of the narrator, an unnamed lieutenant in the Italian army, to wrestle with what he has done. AWOL from his battalion in a valley where the East African jungle gives rise to stark tableland, the lieutenant, seeking a break as well as treatment for a toothache, takes a short cut to the nearest sizable town. Losing his way, he encounters a young tribal girl bathing in a pool and watches her until she becomes aware of him and quietly exits the pool:
The operation was very simple; first she had to slip on a tunic and then wrap herself in a wide cotton toga. She still dressed like Roman ladies who had reached here or the borders of the Sudan, following the lion hunters and the proconsuls. “A pity,” I said, “to live in such different ages.” She perhaps knew all the secrets which I had rejected without even examining them, like a paltry legacy, in order to content myself with boring trite truths. I looked for knowledge in books and she had it in her eyes, which looked at me from 2,000 years ago like the light of certain stars which take that time to be picked out by us. It was this thought, I think, that made me stay. And then I could not distrust an image.
Lost, exhausted, in pain and aware of the powerlessness of the native population before the “signori” who’ve invaded their land, he forces himself on the girl in a drawn out scene in which he validates his actions by what he interprets as the girl’s own desire. The two remain together until a few nights later, shooting at a wild animal, the lieutenant finds that a shot has ricocheted and wounded the girl. To ease her suffering as well as to escape culpability - in essence burning a village in order to save it - he kills her and hides the body.
It may seem that I’ve already given away most of the plot, but all of the above occurs in the first chapter. Flaiano’s interest lies in the lieutenant’s Raskolnikov-like rationalizations in the wake of his crime. Since this is a novel of imperial exploits, the lieutenant’s struggle also involves his ability – or inability – to comprehend the people whose land he occupies. A dance ensues between himself, his fellow Italians, and the native population, including an elderly man and young boy connected to the woman the lieutenant has killed. As he becomes increasing paranoid and more inclined to further his escape through additional crimes, the novel becomes a nearly picaresque set of adventures of a man lost within his reverberating thoughts, attempting to make his way back to Italy and to a wife rapidly becoming little more than a picture in a frame. Flaiano enhances the lieutenant’s moral miasma by leaving him suspended in time (his watch breaks), in place (his perambulations go in circles), and even in language, his connection with others underscored by the few words he and the natives can share and by the letters from his wife that gradually lose their legibility from being carried through the harsh African landscape.
Africa, for the lieutenant, is a place of contradiction. At best it represents openness, adventure, power, freedom from the confines of life back home:
Here…there was the advantage of feeling oneself in virgin country – an idea which does have a certain fascination for men who in their own country have to use the tram four times a day. Here you are a man, you find out what it means to be a man, an heir of the dinosaur’s conqueror. You think, you move, you kill, you eat the animal you surprised alive an hour before, you make a brief gesture and you are obeyed. You pass by unarmed, and nature itself fears you. Everything is clear and you have no spectator other than yourself. Your vanity emerges flattered.
Yet Africa is also “the sink of inequities…one goes there to stir up one’s conscience.” Alternately enraptured by the land and oppressed by its dangers – the enemy, crocodiles and other wild animals, heat, jungle, desert, disease – the lieutenant comes to know it as “the Infectious Empire.” Occasionally his perceptions of colonialism’s problems are more direct and cynical. Coming across an old man burying the dead in the remains of a destroyed village, he observes:
The Zouaves…had come on horseback to do this quick job; they were passing that way and it didn’t take long to burn two or three straw huts. And on the other hand the Zouaves remembered what the Asaris had done in Libya, they too paid by the same master, because this is one of the elementary secrets of a good imperial policy.
The Short Cut proved an excellent follow-up to Alberto Moravia’s Contempt. It employs a similar unreliable distance between the narrator’s view of himself and the reality he inhabits, and an overarching structure of a man questing to return to the wife from whom he is estranged. Like Contempt’s Riccardo Molteni, the lieutenant scours his conscience for a way out while grasping for any moral wiggle room and attempting to justify himself in terms of an almost institutional love for his wife: “…all that I have done, did I do it for her or did I do it for myself. That is all I want to know.” With regard to the other woman whose life he has taken through accident and intention, he revisits his actions, each time creating more morally abject nuances that might disentangle him from his mess:
I had stooped to this woman more in error, I felt, than sin. She did not give to existence the value I gave it; for her everything would have come down to obeying me, always, without asking anything. Something more than a tree and something less than a woman. But these were foolish fantasies which I hazarded to pass the time; other hands were stretched out to me from the radiant distance, other smiles invited me to return; and I would be wise to forget that night.
Through the lieutenant - hardly the worst of the Italian characters in the novel - the entire enterprise of Italy’s empire-building ambitions in East Africa is laid bare as sham, as a callous and doomed attempt to impose an uncomprehending system on a people the Italians can’t and won’t understand, even when the attempt rebounds in deadly ways. Like the lieutenant’s failed effort to find an expedient return to civilization, his interactions with natives, marked by fractured communications at the edge of language, serve to increase distance rather than shorten it.
I found the The Short Cut to be a superb novel, reminiscent of the best of Graham Greene and, in its thriller-like portrayal of a man on the run, of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. Had it been the only thing Flaiano wrote, it would have assured his fame. But Ennio Flaiano’s reputation has already been guaranteed. Though his name may not be immediately familiar, one surely knows the titles of the films he wrote for directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and especially Federico Fellini: Rome: Open City, La Notte, I Vitteloni, La Strada, Juliet of the Spirits, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, and 8 & ½, among others. That Flaiano’s only novel is such an impressive work hardly comes as a surprise.
Perhaps the cover artist thought it was Green Mansions?...