The World's Best Unknown Books
02 04 2011

Parent book: Mario Rigioni Stern - The Sergeant in the Snow

Mario Rigoni Stern

John Francis Lane

Italian author whose wartime memoir was a bestseller

Like his compatriot Primo Levi, the Italian writer Mario Rigoni Stern, who has died aged 86, was the author of a much-admired bestselling memoir about his grim experiences during the second world war. But the two men wrote from utterly contrasting perspectives. Levi, an Italian Jew, survived Auschwitz, recounting his sufferings there and on his arduous return home in If This Is a Man (1947). At first, Rigoni served the fascist state. He was a sergeant commanding a platoon in Mussolini’s army on the river Don in the Soviet Union during the last catastrophic period of defeat and retreat of the Italians during the winter campaign of 1942-43.

His memoir of those dramatic last days, The Sergeant in the Snow (1953), described how he succeeded in leading 70 survivors on foot from the Ukraine into white Russia and back to Italy. Over the following 60 years, this work, which was to win him the Viareggio prize for best debut the year after its publication, would sell more than a million copies and be translated round the world; it was first published in English in 1954. It was not written, he said, to claim a role as a hero, but as a tribute to his fellow soldiers and the ordinary Russians who gave them shelter. Like Levi he felt that “only by putting it down in print can I save myself from madness”.

Born in Asiago, a town on the plateau above the city of Vicenza in north-east Italy, Rigoni became a cadet at the military alpine academy at Aosta in 1938, then enrolled in the alpine corps, with whom he became a sergeant posted to the eastern front, the episode he documented so vividly. After the Italian armistice with the allies of September 1943 and the subsequent civil war, he refused to continue serving in the army of Mussolini’s puppet-republic of Salò and was interned in a German prison camp. At the end of the war, he returned to Asiago, where he would live for the rest of his life. Rigoni never expected to make a living as a writer, and accepted a job with his local council, where he continued to work until 1970.

In 1953 he had sent the manuscript of his first book, called, in Italian, Il Sergente Nella Neve, to the writer Elio Vittorini, who worked for the Einaudi publishing house. Vittorini replied: “We’ll publish your book, though I don’t think you have a vocation as a writer.” He was proved wrong. In addition to the enormous success of his debut, Rigoni was to publish a dozen novels and collections of short stories on the themes which most interested him - war and nature - and he went on to win many more of Italy’s leading literary prizes.

His second book, published by Einaudi in 1962, was The Wood of Wild Cockerels which, like many of his subsequent works, was about the people and animals in the mountains where he lived. Other books had titles like Men, Woods and Bees or Book of Animals, which give a flavour of their rural concerns. He also wrote many other war memoirs, of his own experiences and those of others.

Perhaps his most admired book after The Sergeant in the Snow was The Story of Tonle (1978), about a peasant-smuggler of the mountains, who lived between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the first world war. Tonle was a simple shepherd who couldn’t avoid getting caught up in the outside events of the new century leading up to the war. Rigoni described vividly this world where no one had a distinctive nationality and citizens were obliged to struggle to preserve their identity.

Among Rigoni’s neighbours was film director Ermanno Olmi, who first met him in the 1960s when nursing a project to make a film of The Sergeant. The film was never made, but Olmi was soon to abandon Milan and build his own home in Asiago where, with Rigoni and Italian television consultant Tullio Kezich, he would later write a film for television, I Recuperanti (1969, The Scavengers) about a young veteran of the Russian campaign looking for a job who finds one helping a half-crazy 80-year-old to dig up unexploded first world war bombs buried in the mountains.

Only in his 80s was Rigoni to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing The Sergeant in the Snow recreated on both stage and television by the enterprising actor-author Marco Paolini, a specialist in one-man shows dedicated to pungent social subjects. The production, first staged at Milan’s Piccolo theatre, was filmed spectacularly in 2007 before a vast audience in a disused quarry near Vicenza, from which Palladio had once extracted the materials to build his villas.

The resulting two-hour transmission was shown on the only remaining nationwide independent Italian television channel, TV7, without any commercial breaks, winning an audience which exceeded 5 million.

Rigoni is survived by his wife Anna and their three sons. Mario Rigono Stern, soldier and writer, born December 23 1921; died June 16 2008.