The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 2, No. 3

Partisans, 1944

by Curzio Malaparte


Around midnight,
  We went to buy cigarettes from the partisans.
  And where the forest became thicker,
  About a mile upriver,
  Where big blocks of red granite
  Thrust upward through the grass,
  We stopped, and waited.
  It was raining.
  The rain fell from a high, luminous midnight sky:
  One of those transparent Arctic midnights of polished aluminum.
  Muffled birdsong filtered through branches
  Of red pine and white birch,
  And the voice of the river rose and fell
  Like the light from a kerosene lantern.
  Suddenly the partisans appeared:
  Young, blond, tall, thin,
  With red cheeks and blue eyes,
  Impeccably dressed in Allied uniforms:
  Jackets, overcoats, boots, and gloves
  All parachuted in from British planes.
  We had brought bread, brandy,
  Reindeer milk, and meat,
  In exchange for cigarettes, soap, and toothpaste.
  They would hail us in English: Good morning.
  And we would answer in Finnish: Hyvää päivää.
  And then we would all sit on the grass,
  Around a fire of twigs,
  Roast a piece of reindeer meat and drink brandy
  In silence, without the usual toasts.
  We talked little,
  And never of the war.
  There was a tacit understanding:
  Never talk of war.
  No one wished to be reminded that we were enemies.
  After a couple of hours we would get up,
  Shake hands in silence,
  And each would return to his hideout, cabin, or tent.


One night, when we arrived at the usual place, we found the partisans already there, standing among the trees, pale and silent. One of them, whom they had left back at camp, needed a doctor.
  "What is the matter with him?" said our captain, Svarstrom.
  "He is sick," said the Norwegians.
  "Don't you know what the matter is?" said Svarstrom.
  "No," said the Norwegians.
  Svarstrom turned and conferred with his sissit in a low voice, then turned back to the partisans.
  "It would be better if I knew what was wrong with him," said Svarstrom.
  "We don't know," said the Norwegians.
  "I don't want to insist," said Svarstrom. "Is he wounded?"
  "No," said the Norwegians. "He is just sick."
  "All right," said Svarstrom. "I think we can trust each other. I will send for a doctor."
  "Not a German," said the Norwegians.
  "We don't have German doctors in the Finnish army," said Svarstrom.
  After a couple of hours, we returned with the doctor, a young medical student from the University of Turku, and found the Norwegians already waiting for us at the usual place. We followed them for a bit, but then they stopped.
  "The doctor should come alone from here on," one of them said. "And we need to blindfold him."
  "No," said Svarstrom. "We are all coming together, and without blindfolds. We are not enemies."
  "All right," said the Norwegians, moving on reluctantly.
  After an hour more, we arrived at a Lapp encampment. Hundreds of reindeer browsed in the fields around the shores of a small lake. The Norwegians took us over to a rough shed, and we entered.
  A few partisans were seated around a table, smoking and reading. Over against the wall was an older man, around forty, lying on a cot. He sat up a little as we entered: he was graying, with a short, hard beard. He had staring, clouded eyes, and his hands trembled.
  "Good morning," he said, in English.
  "Good morning," I answered.
  Everyone else was now standing, looking at us. The doctor came over and sat on the edge of the cot, feeling the man's forehead.
  "I don't have a fever," said the invalid.
  I translated for the doctor, who didn't speak English.
  "What is the matter with you, then?" asked the doctor, taking the man's pulse.
  "I am afraid," said the invalid.
  "Afraid of what?" asked the doctor.
  "It is a special kind of fear," said the invalid, and then added, smiling, "but not a fear of dying. I am afraid of everything. Especially everything of which people normally are not afraid."
  "What did you do, in civilian life?" asked the doctor.
  "A pastor," said the invalid. "I was a Lutheran pastor."
  "When did you begin to feel sick?" asked the doctor.
  The invalid did not answer. He kept silent for a few moments, then said, "I am afraid of God."
  "So am I. Everyone is afraid of God," said the doctor. "That is not a sickness."
  "I never said that I was sick," answered the man.
  The doctor leaned closer and examined the man's eyes. "War makes for a cruel sense of humor," he said.
  "War is a ridiculous thing," said the invalid. "It is a pretext for men to hurt each other. A ridiculous thing. A children's game. Hurting each other is a children's game."
  "I will give you a sedative," said the doctor.
  "Thank you," said the invalid, then added, indicating his fellow partisans, "They are also afraid."
  "Certainly, we are also afraid," said one of the partisans, smiling.
  "Yesterday one of them committed suicide," said the invalid.
  "That happens on our side, too," said the doctor. "It is a question of nerves."
  "It isn't nerves," said the invalid. "It is something deeper."
  "Do you have any alcohol?" asked the doctor. "I brought some brandy with me. Take a sip now and then, when you feel like it."
  "Alcohol," said the invalid, "is only a way of changing the subject."
  "That's just the point," said the doctor. "Every now and then you need to change the subject. It will do you some good."
  "If I am sick, then you must be sick, too," said the invalid.
  "Yes, I am sick," said the doctor. "We are all sick. It is the fault of this war."
  "No," said the invalid. "The war is just the symptom of the disease. Are you married?"
  "Yes," said the doctor. "With two children."
  "Then you need to think about killing them," said the invalid, "so that they don't get sick as well."
  "Of course," said the doctor. "As soon as the war is over, I will go home and kill my two children."
  "You think I'm joking," said the invalid, "but I'm not. We are preparing a horrible future for our children. Only death can save them."
  "Here is the sedative," said the doctor, offering the invalid a tube of bromides.
  "You don't understand anything about me or my illness," said the invalid, pushing the tube away. "I have nerves of steel. Anyway," he added, "it wasn't for me that you were called, but for someone else. A Russian."
  "A Russian?" said the doctor.
  "A Russian partisan. One of the bunch that assassinated the Archbishop of Rovaniemi. He was wounded and we picked him up. I think his leg is turning gangrenous."
  "A Russian," said the doctor.
  "I know you hate the Russians, that they are your enemies," said the invalid, "but you are a doctor, and it is your duty to help him."
  "Where is he?" said the doctor.
  The invalid pulled back the wolfskin that he was using for a blanket, revealing a black, swollen leg, roughly wrapped in bandages.
  "Ah. He is you," said the doctor, frowning.
  "Yes, he is me. A Soviet engineer. With a wife and two sons," he added, smiling, "whom he regrets not having killed before leaving home. Can you do something for the leg?"
  "I didn't bring my tools with me," said the doctor.
  "That doesn't matter. You can examine it anyway. And then come back tomorrow."
  "The leg is gangrenous," said the doctor.
  "I know," said the Russian, "and it needs to come off. As soon as possible."
  "At once," said the doctor. "But I don't have my instruments. I will be back in a few hours." And he stood up.
  "Thank you," said the Russian, letting himself fall back onto his cot.


We went outside and set off across the forest,
  Silently following the partisans,
  Through an invisible, luminous rain
  In which butterflies traced the liquid outlines of their wings.
  A soft, immense murmuring rose from the grass,
  From the bushes, from the trees,
  Like the buzzing of gelatinous insects.
  And the sky curved gently, thickening
  As it neared the horizon,
  From light green to fleshy pink.
  It was a feminine sky, sad and pure.
  That sense of Northern abstraction:
  The impossibility of any heat, smell, or flavor,
  The air filled with water and stone,
  That thin, smooth odor of the Arctic--
  Not cold, in fact almost warm,
  But deprived of every animal substance,
  Of every human or vegetable weight--
  Was the dominant element
  In a landscape of trees, water, clouds;
  A landscape of distant prospects
  Modulated by musical rhythms,
  Rather than by anything visible to the eye.
  One's gaze lost itself
  In the green and pink remoteness of Lake Inari
  As if in some atonal horizon--
  A composition by Schoenberg,
  Or an abstract sonata by Hindemith.
  It was a sky without shadows,
  Clear yet lightly obscured,
  Similar to the insides of certain seashells,
  Where the light is equally reflected from the sea and sky,
  Creating a separate universe,
  Secret, pure, intact.
  And as seashells capture the reflections of the sandy shore,
  Of the sky, and of the sea,
  And of the voice of the sea,
  Melting them all together in a universe of light and sound
  Like the reflection of an alternate universe
  Invisible to the eye and inaudible to the ear,
  So this sky seemed a reflection of a universe far from us,
  A universe foreign to us, inhuman,
  A universe of a cruel and impassive abstraction.
  In certain hours of the day or night
  When the light came to rest
  And everything was still, dreamlike,
  Suspended over an immobile abyss of lakes, forests, rivers,
  It seemed that even the sky had abandoned us,
  That over our heads shimmered the void,
  The absolute void,
  Of experimental physics.
  Every smell, every color, was extinguished,
  And we spent long hours sitting by the shore of the lake,
  In that world without smell, without color, without sound;
  In that landscape of paper, glass, and luminous shadows,
  Of transparent stones and trees
  Where animals moved as they move in dreams:
  Soundless, colorless, odorless.
  Then it began to rain again,
  And that diffuse music of Hindemith,
  Of Schoenberg, would filter down upon us:
  Music that was as sad, as lonely, and as deep
  As a landscape reflected in a mirror.
  The partisans said farewell,
  And a few miles after crossing the river
  We passed the reindeer cemetery:
  A multicolored forest of antlers--
  Brown, green, white--
  Sprouting from half-buried skulls,
  Those peculiarly triangular reindeer skulls,
  Over which the grass had modestly spread
  A delicate green cover.
  I had often gone there before, alone,
  To wander through this garden of bones
  With its borders of distant sky and lake.
  And I would lie down among the forested antlers,
  Imagining myself wounded
  On some remote battleground of history:
  One of Xenophon's soldiers
  Reclining on the banks of the Euphrates;
  A Persian cavalryman abandoned among his dead horses;
  A worker stretched out among his broken machinery
  After some failed revolution.
  And I would rediscover in that grassy garden,
  Scattered with white bones,
  Those things which were most Pure,
  Precise, Mathematical, and Abstract
  About that long-ago bright morning of defeat
  On the banks of the Euphrates;
  That exact feeling of mechanism,
  Which the neighing of the King's horses
  Must have inspired when heard from the far shore;
  The voices of the Greek infantry
  Moving off through transparent air,
  Not yet ripened by the heat of the day,
  Toward distant mountains hovering blue and white
  In the finely etched glass of the sky.
  I would rediscover in that reindeers' graveyard,
  In that lake shining with the precision of milled steel,
  Those things which were most Dry,
  Arid, Thin, and at the same time Luminous
  About objects and animals:
  About polished weaponry, jewels, helmets,
  Chain mail, strips of leather,
  The wheels of wrecked chariots,
  The immobile outlines of dead horses and soldiers
  Lying on the silent, hard-packed battleground.
  I would rediscover in that remote horizon--
  In which the landscape, slightly shrunken,
  Appeared and disappeared
  Like an image reflected in a mirror--
  Those things which were most Precise,
  Essential, Functional, and Logical,
  About machines and their disemboweled parts:
  Dented wheels, transmission belts,
  Gleaming steel handles, bearings,
  Gauges, gearings, and crankshafts scattered
  On the factory floor
  Among workers who themselves had been cut loose
  With the essential and definitive precision,
  The unchanging precision of a machine.
  Those were moments when I felt most detached
  From humanity, from all those things
  That humanity contributes to life, to nature:
  Our sensuality and heat, our confusion.
  But I did not yet know how to value
  That sense of detachment,
  That feeling of intimate loneliness,
  Of distance and difference
  From everything that is recognizably human.


I was tired, and threw myself into bed--let the doctor go back to the partisans without me! It was the end of June 1944: midsummer in the Arctic. I turned on the radio: every day brought more battles, more bombardments, more massacres. As soon as I snapped off the switch, the horrendous smell of blood hovering over Europe began to dissipate. And the silence, the splendid purity of the Nordic summer, started to gain the upper hand.
  Svarstrom came in to where I was resting and announced, "They have taken Rome."
  "Je m'en fous."
  "It's your country," said Svarstrom.
  "Je m'en fous."
  "Don't you care who has taken Rome?" asked Svarstrom.
  "It was the Allies. They entered Rome last night. The Pope blessed the Allied army from the Loggia of St. Peter's."
  "Je m'en fous."
  "I don't understand you," said Svarstrom, shaking his head. And then added, "They have landed on the coast of France."
  "The Allies. Who else would it be?" said Svarstrom.
  "I thought it might be the Eskimos."
  "I don't understand you," said Svarstrom.
  A half hour later, a sissi came to collect us: the doctor needed help after all. We set out along the trail, and near the river met a pack of wolves. They were loping along through the trees about a hundred yards away, turning to look at us with their red eyes--during the summer when food is plentiful, wolves were not likely to attack human beings. And, in fact, they seemed like dogs. Like big dogs, except for the red, glassy eyes which gave their expressions a clear and sad cruelty.
  It took a couple of hours to reach the partisan camp, and when we arrived everyone was asleep, even the doctor, who was stretched out on a pile of furs over in a corner, almost underneath the table. Only the Russian was awake, staring at us with his shining, fevered eyes.
  "The news on the radio is encouraging," said the Russian. "The Allies have taken Rome."
  "That's their business," I said.
  "Don't you care?" said the Russian.
  "It doesn't concern me at all," I said.
  "That may be stretching it a bit," said the Russian, studying me.
  "It doesn't concern me at all. If the Germans took Moscow, I couldn't care less."
  "This war doesn't interest you?"
  "No. Not at all."
  The doctor woke up and began going about his business.
  "You're right," laughed the Russian. "This war is interesting for only one reason: it has murdered Europe."
  "Exactly," I said.
  "But Europe was already dead before it was murdered," said the Russian.
  "Not everybody knew that," I said. "Now everybody does."
  The doctor asked me to translate for him. It was necessary to amputate, as expected, but the gangrene had progressed, and he wasn't sure if it wouldn't continue to progress even after the operation. He felt it was his duty to try anyway.
  "All right," said the Russian.
  While the doctor prepared his instruments, Svarstrom and I went down to the river's edge: that odor of rotten flesh made me nauseous. It was the smell of winter 1941 in Russia, and I had had enough then of that frightening smell.
  The shepherds were working around the reindeer stalls and enclosures, gathering sheets of lichen and hanging them on racks to dry in the sun, like the skins of great lizards. Three men returned with a salmon they had caught in the river. They carried it on their shoulders, bent under its weight, and the women busied themselves lighting the fires, getting ready to boil the fish in an aluminum kettle.
  Two shepherd girls were bathing in the freezing current, swimming slowly with deep, powerful strokes, laughing loudly and calling out to each other. They approached the shore and climbed out of the water, naked. The air was cold, and it was drizzling lightly, but the sun was warm, and they lay down on the grass and closed their eyes. They were young, tall, lithe, with that particular ash-blonde hair that Lapp girls have, their faces covered by thousands of tiny, almost invisible freckles.
  A reindeer paused to gaze at them with his round and gentle eyes.
  When we reentered the cabin, the doctor was busy washing his hands in a basin. The Russian was unconscious and his amputated leg lay on the table. A heavy, greasy stench emanated from it: the unbearable smell of Naples during the bombardments; of Russian villages along the Don; the stink of Europe. I picked up the leg by its heel.
  "Let's bury it," I said to Svarstrom.
  We took the leg outside, and it seemed to grow heavier, dangling from the tips of my fingers. And now that horrible smell seemed to be coming from me, from my own flesh. We reached the bank of the river, and Svarstrom began to dig a hole.
  The girls were sitting up, smoking their pipes in silence, watching us. They were still naked.
  Underneath the topsoil Svarstrom hit a layer of granite, so he moved a few paces away and started to dig again.
  The girls began scrubbing themselves, pipes clenched in their teeth, using handfuls of grass soft from the rain. The younger of the two stretched on the tips of her toes to gather some leaves from a birch tree, and used them to scour her long, supple body.
  The shovel rang out a second time against granite.
  "Hurry up. I can't take it much longer," I said. I wanted to let the leg simply drop to the ground, but I didn't, and I can't say what kept me.
  "Just toss it in the river," said Svarstrom.
  I swung the leg back and forth several times and then flung it into the water: it stayed afloat, spinning slowly for a while, and then began to slide along with the current.
  The girls watched the lazy rotations of the leg and then started playfully wrestling with each other, laughing softly--almost moaning. They continued for a while, rolling around on grass still shining from the rain, until one bit the other on the shoulder right near the throat.
  Meanwhile, the leg caught up against a boulder, disappeared under the water, bobbed to the surface, then finally floated away, leaving horrible ripples in its wake.
  The girls stood up, got dressed, and set off toward the village, turning around every so often to look back at us and laugh.