Anatomy Of A Failure

A few days ago, just before midnight, I posted a piece entitled An Island Fable. I'd been out to see a film and have a few beers, and when I got home, working under a self-imposed deadline, I went to the well and found it dry. My answer was to rifle through my Work in Progress folder looking for something that would work with a minimum of polish, and toss up the least objectionable thing I could find, which was this:

The island of Dj’u’gudu had no underwater cable, no carrier pigeons, no smoke signals. The islanders, an unusually harmonious melange of Christians, Jews and Muslims, waited each month for the postal boat to bring supplies and news from the outside world.

One autumn, the boat brought word that the islanders had been living in a mistaken state of peace for the preceding month; a three-way holy war had been declared the day after the boat last left.

The inhabitants of the island, being industrious and honorable people, began killing each other as the rules of righteousness required. Christian killed Jew, Jew killed Muslim, Muslim killed Christian, and so on through all the possible combinations of slaughter, concurrent and consecutive.

Some months later the postal boat arrived to find that the last two islanders had killed one another that morning. The captain and his crew dug their graves and read aloud over those graves, as a sort of last rites, the news that a three-way peace had been declared twenty-nine days before.

The next morning I was reminded by a faithful reader that this piece had appeared here sometime last year. I had published it, decided it wasn’t worthy, then pulled it. When I explained my mistake, she asked what it was that led me to remove the piece from publication the first time.

It’s clumsy. The setup is ham-fisted and obvious, and the ending doesn’t carry any emotional punch. It’s vague enough to be a fable, but it lacks the imagery and abstraction required to make one sing.

It’s all message. A piece like this, designed to deliver a message, must weave its message into a compelling narrative. If a generalization stands alone, without specifics of character and situation, it won’t stick. An old friend, speaking of song-writing, once told me that if you can write out the meaning of your lyric on a postcard, you’d be better served writing an instrumental and passing out hand-bills at the concert. He wasn’t wrong.

The message is old news. My hand-bill would read “receiving a directive to kill those who’ve done nothing to us because someone else has labeled them as enemies is bizarre and arbitrary, especially in a culture that otherwise outlaws murder.” It might have been better if I were able to mix in “wars are fought by those with little to gain in service of those with little to lose,” but that’s just something else that everybody knows.

It’s derivative. This sort of thing — the extra-temporal, semi-historical, third-person allegory — has been done before and better. My favorite example along these lines is called Conscience:

Came a war and a guy named Luigi asked if he could go, as a volunteer.

Everyone was full of praise. Luigi went to the place where they were handing out rifles, took one and said: ‘Now I’m going to go and kill a guy called Alberto.’

They asked him who Alberto was.

‘An enemy’ he answered, ‘an enemy of mine.’

They explained to him that he was supposed to be killing enemies of a certain type, not whoever he felt like.

‘So?’ said Luigi. ‘You think I’m dumb? This Alberto is precisely that type, one of them. When I heard you were going to war against that lot, I thought, I’ll go too, that way I can kill Alberto. That’s why I came. I know that Alberto: he’s a crook. He betrayed me, for next to nothing he made me make a fool of myself with a woman. It’s an old story. If you don’t believe me I’ll tell you the whole thing.

They said fine, it was Okay.

‘Right then,’ said Luigi, ‘tell me where Alberto is and I’ll go there and I’ll fight’.

They said they didn’t know.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Luigi said. ‘I’ll find someone to tell me. Sooner or later I’ll catch up to him.’

They said he couldn’t do that, he had to go and fight where they sent him, and kill whoever happened to be there. They didn’t know anything about this Alberto.

‘You see,’ said Luigi, ‘I really will have to tell you the story. Because that guy is a real crook and you’re doing the right thing going to fight against him.’

But the others didn’t want to know.

Luigi couldn’t see reason: ‘Sorry, it may be all the same to you if I kill one enemy or another, but I’d be upset if I killed someone who had nothing to do with Alberto.’

The others lost patience. One of them gave him a good talking to and explained what war was all about and how you couldn’t go and kill the particular enemy you wanted to.

Luigi shrugged. ‘If that’s how it is ‘, he said, ‘you can count me out.’

‘You’re in and you’re staying in,’ they shouted.

‘Forward march, one two, one two!’ And they sent him off to war.

Luigi wasn’t happy. He’d kill people, offhand, just to see if he might get Alberto, or one of his family. They gave him a medal for every enemy he killed, but he wasn’t happy. ‘If I don’t kill Alberto’, he thought, ‘I’ll have killed a load of people for nothing.’ And he felt bad.

Meantime they were giving him one medal after another, silver, gold, everything.

Luigi thought, ‘Kill some today, kill some tomorrow, they’ll be less of them, that crook’s bound to come.’

But the enemy surrendered before Luigi could find Alberto. He felt bad he’d killed so many people for nothing and since they were at peace now he put all his medals in a bag and went around enemy country giving them away to the wives and children of the dead.

Going around like this, he ran into Alberto.

‘Good’, he said, ‘better late than never,’ and he killed him.

That was when they arrested him, tried him for murder and hanged him. At the trial he said over and over that he had done it to settle his conscience, but nobody listened to him.

Italo Calvino, 1943. Translated by Tim Parks.

Calvino wrote this story as part of a letter to a friend while he was serving with the Italian resistance during the Second World War. He was seventeen years old at the time.

This entry is part of my journal, published January 8, 2008, in New York.