As his friend and fellow storyteller, Primo Levi once wrote, "that Mario Rigoni Stern exists has something of the miraculous about it . . . and it is equally miraculous that Rigoni is what he is, that he has succeeded in remaining authentic and modest in an era of suicidal urbanization and confusion of values." Born in 1921, on Italy's Asiago plateau, just then re-emerging from the destruction of World War I, Rigoni himself went off to war in 1940. He then served on the French, Albanian, and Russian fronts and spent over a year in a Nazi concentration camp after Italy signed the armistice with the Allied Powers in September, 1943. As a sergeant on the Russian front, Rigoni led the men of his company to safety during the long and bitter retreat, an experience he memorialized in his first book, Il sergente nella neve (The Sergeant in the Snow, 1953, which he has called the best achievement of his life. The book was presented to Italian readers with a preface by Elio Vittorini which described Rigoni Stern as a "writer without a vocation," an epithet he accepted and shared with Levi, both of them conscripted as (his)storytellers by the force of their own experience.
Rigoni Stern has returned to his wartime experience in later books, Quota Albania (1971) and Ritorno sul Don (1973) and most recently in L'ultima partita a carte (2002) and a collection of stories, Aspettando l'alba ed altri racconti (Waiting for Dawn and Other Stories, 2004).
Underpinning all of Rigoni's work is his vision of a society whose individual "protagonists" are rooted in a network of community, stretching backward and forward in time and outward across class and ethnic boundaries, and where the human community is committed to maintaining its symbiotic relationship with nature. Rigoni's vision necessarily comprises values such as social justice, peaceful co-existence, and freedom of expression, for which he was awarded Italy's PEN prize in 1999 (for his collection of stories, Sentieri sotto la neve (Paths Under the Snow), and for which Primo Levi (once again) dedicated this poem to Rigoni and their mutual friend Nuto Revelli, who also served on the Russian front:
I have two brothers with lots of life behind them,
Born in the shadow of the mountain
They learned their indignation
In the snow of a far away land
And they have written non-useless books.
Like me, they have tolerated the sight
Of Medusa, who hasn't turned them to stone.
Haven't let themselves be petrified
By the slow snowfall of the days.
Gregory Conti teaches English at the University of Perugia and is a regular contributor to Raritan. His most recent translations are "Seven Poems" by Elisa Biagini and The Fault Line by Paolo Rumiz (Rizzoli USA, 2015).