Tönle’s Arrest. An extract from TÖNLE’S STORY by Mario Rigoni Stern, with illustrations by Quentin Blake, translated by Joe Whitlock Blundell, Part 2

Part 2

Never had it befallen him to pasture his sheep under armed guard, nor had he ever heard tell of such a thing; and the two Styrian soldiers charged with this duty were happy as city lads as they followed him and his flock along routes hidden from Italian artillery fire; but after three days, always taking paths hidden from the guns – and he knew these paths better than the soldiers who studied them on their topographical maps – their route took them across the old border. The guns on the south side of the plateau sent their salvos day and night into the communication trenches, or the presumed Austro-Hungarian assembly points and command posts, or their supply depots: Tönle slowly took the longest possible route, and the two soldiers were happy to go along with him.

They passed through places where the battle had raged in the last days of May, and the signs were still plain to see: guns blown up and abandoned, baggage trains, materials of all kinds, remains of fires, shrivelled woodland and pastures torn by explosions. But also the corpses of men and animals.

He did not want to look at all these things, those effects, but they were there even if he didn’t look at them, and he sensed them following him like a shadow, together with his sheep and the two escorting soldiers. In the Sichestal woods, hurrying past, he saw thirteen Italian soldiers lying dead in a row, without any badges, insignia or indications of rank, and one of his escorts told him that they had been shot by their own companions, following who knows what order from above. Nearby, some soldiers speaking Croatian among themselves were digging a ditch, their guns piled under a fir tree.

The memory came to our old man of that evening – it was 28 or 29 May – when after the storm and the battle he had heard a volley of rifle-fire.

They continued via the Dhorbellele wood, where they had once made him take his sheep during their firing practice; on Mount Kuko, between the mugo pines and the rhododendrons, he again saw soldiers lying down as though to sleep, and again one of his escorts explained that they were Italian soldiers who had died in the battle of 26 May – and that he himself had been there, on Mount Portule.

They descended into the Ass valley; beside the streams, squads of off-duty Austrians were resting under the fir trees: they looked with curiosity at the old man, the sheep and the escort, and commented ironically to each other about these unusual prisoners.

Finally they reached the road, that same road he had taken many times when going to find work beyond the frontier, and the sounds of bombardment and of battle that had never ceased, and which even the sheep had got used to, were left behind them.

At Vezzena they encountered a group of officers, who with binoculars, shoulder-bags and orderlies were making their way towards Italy; as they passed they stopped to look at this strange band and a young lieutenant, Fritz Lang, came over to speak to one of the escorting soldiers and the old man. Tönle, who had decided not to talk to anyone any more, did not reply to the officer’s questions. Nor did he respond even when he saw, at the centre of the group, surrounded and treated with deference, his commanding officer from Budejovice, none other than Major von Fabini.

Field Marshal von Fabini, now commander of the 8th mountain division of the XXth Army Corps of Archduke Charles, Margrave of Asiago, stared for a moment at that dirty, ragged old man; for a moment he seemed to have recognised or remembered something, then removed his left hand from his sword-belt, made an indeterminate gesture and continued on his way towards the Astico valley, followed by his staff. The others too continued on their way: Tönle and his sheep, I mean, with the black dog and the armed escort.

At Pergine gendarmes came to take charge of him. Sick at heart, the two soldiers set off back towards the battle front after bidding him an affectionate farewell. The gendarmes shut the sheep and the dog in an abandoned stable and put Tönle on a train to Trento.

Every protest he made was in vain, and in vain was the barking of the dog and the bleating of the sheep. Still under escort he arrived at the gendarmerie headquarters where after two days they interrogated him again.

It was during this interrogation that when replying to a question in a loud and angry voice he was heard by his dog and the sheep, who were being led by soldiers along the street, under the window, as though in transhumance. He too heard the sheep bleating shrilly and the dog howling, and dashing to the window, much to the surprise of the interrogation officer and the gendarmes, he started to shout out his shepherd’s calls, which brought the whole flock to a halt, blocking the road and preventing the passage of a detachment of artillery.

Nothing they could do would move the sheep and the dog, so eventually they had to let him go out into the street and put himself at the head of the herd, and like a king with his escort he crossed the city, to the amazement of the few civilians and the far too many soldiers.

By Mario Rigoni Stern

Translated by Joe Whitlock Blundell

© Mario Rigoni Stern 1978; Translation © Joe Whitlock Blundell 2024; Illustrations © Quentin Blake 2024

The first part of Tönle’s Arrest can be found in the previous post.

Asiago is a small town at the centre of The Plateau of the Seven Communes, in the Italian pre-Alps a few kilometres north of Vicenza. Here Mario Rigoni Stern was born in 1921, lived all his life apart from the war years, and died in 2008. During the Second World War Stern served with the Alpine corps on the French, Albanian and Russian fronts, and he took part in the catastrophic retreat from the Don. Refusing to fight for the Nazis, he was then imprisoned in German concentration camps until nearly the end of the war, when he escaped and walked home across the mountains. 

Stern’s first book, The Sergeant in the Snow, an autobiographical account of the retreat from Russia, was published by Einaudi in 1953 and quickly acclaimed as a modern classic. He went on to write four more short novels and over a hundred stories, almost all inspired by his own experiences and by life on the Asiago plateau. Stern’s champion at Einaudi was Élio Vittorini, his editor was Italo Calvino, and he enjoyed a close personal and literary friendship with Primo Levi.

Levi wrote of his friend: “That Mario Rigoni exists is something of a miracle. It the first place because his own survival is miraculous: this completely non-violent man was constrained by fate to take part in all the wars of his time, yet emerged unscathed from the French, Albanian and Russian fronts and the German camps. But it is equally miraculous that Rigoni is the man he is, that he has managed to retain his integrity and modesty in this era of suicidal urbanisation and confusion of values. It is rare to find in other books a more more complete cohesion between the the man who lives and the man who writes; it is rare to find pages as full of meaning as his.”

Joe Whitlock Blundell was Art and Production Director of The Folio Society for over 30 years. He now works as a freelance editor, translator and photographer.

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