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The Story of Tönle (1978)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 081016034X, Hardcover)Mario Rigoni Stern is best known in the English-speaking world for The Sergeant in the Snow, an account of combat--and brutal retreat--along the Russian front in 1944. But his novel The Story of Tönle is a miracle of narrative concision. In little more than a hundred pages, the author recounts a half-century in the life of Tönle Bintarn, a jack-of-all-trades living in the mountains of northern Italy. On one level, the book functions as a snapshot of a peculiar peasant culture, one whose very dialect is a mysterious stew of Italian and German syllables. Yet Stern is particularly good at capturing the steady incursion of modern life into these alpine reaches. By around 1900, for example, partisan politics finally reaches Tönle's neighborhood: "While the moderate side founded the Savings and Loan Association, the progressives founded the Workers' Association. While one side had a brass band with red caps, the other had one with green caps and pheasant feathers." (So much for the two-party system, which would get a lot more rancorous before Tönle's death in 1917.)
It's hard to describe the magic of this novel. Stern's prose, which has been very capably translated by John Shepley, is so artfully understated as to make Raymond Carver resemble William Faulkner. Yet Tönle's wanderings through Italy and Central Europe never lose their fascination. Nor do his emotions. When his mother dies, for example, his grief is almost wholly instinctual, almost unconscious: "He had been overcome by a strange feeling of apprehension, a sort of melancholy uneasiness, wanting to be by himself in the castle park among the tall trees, which were beginning to turn red, and with no desire to eat or drink: like that mild anxiety that sometimes overtakes animals, too." To convey such inarticulate feeling without a grain of condescension is a real feat. To telescope 50 years of such feelings into such a diminutive volume is an even greater one, which makes The Story of Tönle a necessary work of art. --James Marcus
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:46 -0400)
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