Buzzati stories -- in English; Restless Nights: Selected Stories of Dino Buzzati, chosen and translated by Lawrence Venuti. Berkeley, Calif.: Northpoint Press. 122 pp. $12 (paperback).
Here is a very welcome publication: the first major English translation of the stories of a modern Italian writer (1906-72), known here only for his Kafka-like allegorical novel ''The Tartar Steppe'' (1940). Buzzati is a fantasist and moralist in the vein of Kafka, indeed, and possessed of a bold inventive power that shows his kinship with such other unconventional spirits as Poe, Gogol, Borges, Donald Barthelme, and his countryman Italo Calvino.Skip to next paragraph
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''Restless Nights,'' one of Buzzati's last published works (1971), contains 23 brief stories best described as fables and parables. None are more than a few pages long, and most tell ''what happens next'' after the establishment of a startling premise (visiting aliens land on the roof of a parish church; a descending elevator keeps on descending, ''into the bowels of the earth'').
What gives the stories tension and comic force is one-time journalist Buzzati's reportorial directness and objectivity and economy. He's adept at showing the character of a society or tracing the curve of an entire life in a few compact paragraphs. The effect of this understatement is heightened by Venuti's skillful translation; an example of his resourcefulness and grace may be found in the opening paragraphs of ''The Falling Girl.''
A few stories settle for gnomic statements of provocative ideas, or predictable ironic reversals. ''The Bogey Man,'' for example, begins charmingly, but ends in an impassioned condemnation of the ''civilized world's'' intolerance for ''superstitious fantasies.'' ''The Seven Messengers'' and ''The Eiffel Tower'' suggest the existential impossibility of discovering one's limits and completing one's work.
The better stories take their premises to astonishing conclusions. ''The Falling Girl'' makes of its core situation - a young girl plummeting from a skyscraper, eager to reach the pavement below - a clever metaphor for youth's rapid, impatient ''passage'' through life. In ''The Scandal on Via Sesostri,'' the discovery that an eminent physician was once a war criminal provokes the realization that everybody's life is not what it seems; the idea may be unoriginal, but the supporting detail is remarkably ingenious and funny.
At his best, Buzzati is a ''maker,'' whose work should be read alongside that of Kafka and Borges. Northpoint Press deserves praise for making it available in this very handsome edition.