The Poets and the World War: Fabio Pusterla and the threads of memory

A Belgian lancer
Events are planned everywhere to mark the centenary of WWI and define the general frame of its collective memory. Meanings, values and importance of the Great War are based today more on a social construction than on personal experiences, becoming so a narrative message inextricably bound to the historical and cultural context in which it is created. Comparative studies slowly enable us to learn other interpretative traditions, but especially in the daily life and even in official commemorations we still run the risk to use a sort of prepackaged “discourse”, so that all the myths and common clichés about the First World War come to light, impersonal and superficial. We should be aware of this danger, in order to avoid all alteration and rhetorical drift. Above all, it is a duty of memory to reflect critically upon the meaning of the WWI today and to elaborate it in our personal life. A cultural activity – like the celebration of WWI should be – always implies a personal engagement, a postural change in our horizons of meaning and action.

Fabio Pusterla
In this sense, we can be legitimated to question the attitude in approaching the Centenary. Today, after 100 years, how do the threads of memory still compose the legacy of the WWI? Why should we take part in the celebrations? But above all, are we still able to feel and catch the pieces of the past world war and to make them a living remembrance also in our personal life? Why remembering at all if the Great War does not speak to us anymore?
Submerged crowd is a poem by Fabio Pusterla, one of the most interesting contemporary Italian speaking poets, as well as translator and essayist. He composed this text – published in the homonymous collection Folla sommersa, Milano 2004 – when he read by chance in a newspaper about the death of Paul Hooghe (1899-2001), who was – incorrectly - considered the last living soldier of the Great War.  We offer today our translation of the poem because on the background of the general reflection introduced by Todorov’s citation on forgetting as an integral part of memory, it vividly discloses the intermediate zone where exchanges between our individual conscience and past public memories occur, giving breath to both. The poem weaves together few details collected in the news item about Paul Hooghe – from his death in Brussels at the age of 102, back to his enlistment as a teenager in the Belgian Army – and the author’s desire to know and understand him, disclosing so a virtual meeting, whose meaning is not diminished by the absence of one of the interlocutors. Memory becomes therefore the place where even a short article in a newspaper can be enough to trigger a domino of questions, of suppositions, of attempts to visualize the changing of the landscape or to recollect memories, feelings, hopes and fears of a single stranger, who preserves a collective – also our – message. A frontier place where we have the chance to meet living testimonies beyond time boundaries and enter in a dialectical exchange with them, to get involved in it, if we are willing and receptive. This is maybe a way to keep alive the past, to remember the Great War also in the private movements of our personal memories and feelings, in our personal attitude, and to give finally the human meaning it deserves. 


La memoria non si oppone affatto all’oblio. I due termini che formano contrasto
sono la cancellazione (l’oblio) e la conservazione; la memoria è,
sempre e necessariamente, un’interazione dei due.

Tzvetan Todorov

Paul Hooghe, l’ultimo lanciere caduto su nessuna spiaggia, il superstite
delle trincee dimenticate e scomparse, su cui sorgono oggi
grandi complessi commerciali o lussuosi villaggi satellite
immersi nel verde di pitosfori, di platani le cui radici vagano
per antichi camminamenti sotterranei, il granatiere fantasma
ultracentenario spentosi a Bruxelles pochi mesi or sono,
come una piccola candela su cui passa il vento, che era stato
coscritto sedicenne di un secolo sedicenne (1916) eppure già
molto cattivo, molto crudele, ma si era ancora
al principio di tutta la storia,
alle vaghe promesse di stragi, alle belle bandiere: sapeva
di essere una curiosità, aspirava a un Guinness dei primati, a una targa?
E aveva memoria,
lui, almeno lui, dei corpi nella notte o nel fango
straziati, trucidati, dei traccianti, sobbalzava, incompreso,
ripensando una mina saltare, una nube nervina?
Quei morti gridavano ancora grazie a lui,
dalla Marna o sul Carso?
O il nastro era già scorso, la pellicola
riavvolta e ormai illeggibile, tradotta
nel passato remoto dell'euro, o in un alzheimer? Ottant’anni,
secondo gli storici perdura la memoria
viva che il mondo ha di sé: poi è deportata
in un posto dove adesso c’è Paul Hooghe, coi suoi compagni,
i ricordi che forse aveva mio padre e quelli della sua età,
tra un po’ ci sarà anche mio padre e tutti i suoi amici e nemici,
una grande folla sommersa che ci guarda in silenzio e ci attende.


Memory is not the opposite of oblivion. The two terms that form a contrasting pair
are effacement (oblivion) and conservation. Memory is  always
and necessarily an interaction between the two.

Tzvetan Todorov

Paul Hooghe, the last lancer fallen on no beach, the survivor
of the forgotten and disappeared trenches, on which today safely rise
big shopping centers or luxurious satellite villages
plunged in the green of Pittosporum, of sycamore trees whose roots meander
through old underground walkways; the over one hundred year old ghost
grenadier passed away in Brussels a few months ago,
like a little candle on which the wind blows, who had been
conscripted as a sixteen year old in a sixteen year old century (1916) and yet
already very evil, very cruel; but so far the whole story
was just at the beginning,
at the murky promises of carnages, at the nice flags: did he know
he was a curiosity, did he long for a Guinness World Record, for a plaque?
And he, did he have memories,
he at least, of the bodies in the night and in the mire –
torn apart, lacerated – of the tracer; did he jump, not understood,
as he recalled a mine blowing up, a cloud of nerve gas?
Did all those dead men still yell thanks to him
from the Marne or on the Kars?
Or was the tape already run out, the film
rewound and by then illegible, translated
into the distant past of the Euro, or into an Alzheimer’s confusion? Eighty years
persists, according to the historians, the living
memory that the world has of itself – then it is deported
to the place where now Paul Hooghe is, with his companions,
the memories that perhaps my father and all those of his age had;
my father too will be there soon, and all his friends and enemies –
a big submerged crowd, that silently gazes upon and waits for us.