Tönle’s Arrest. An extract from TÖNLE’S STORY by Mario Rigoni Stern, with illustrations by Quentin Blake, translated by Joe Whitlock Blundell, Part 1

I came across the work of Mario Rigoni Stern completely by chance, picking up one of his books in an idle moment at a railway station some forty years ago. But it was only many years later that I finally got around to reading it, and I enjoyed the book so much that I felt the need to translate it into English. The process of doing this led me to research the author’s life and times, and particularly the history and geography of the plateau around Asiago where he spent almost all his life, and which he wrote about with such feeling. I have since made several visits to that region, and read almost all of Stern’s work: very little of this has been translated into English, a situation I set out to remedy.

Joe Whitlock Blundell

Part 1

The year is 1916. The scene is the Plateau of the Seven Communes, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now in Italy. The Plateau has been bombarded and invaded by the Austrian army, causing huge devastation and forcing the entire population to evacuate. But Tönle, a curmudgeonly old shepherd, refuses to leave, and continues to pasture his sheep in the battle zone, avoiding the troops of both armies. One night he sleeps at home, but in the morning . . .

. . . he heard footsteps approaching the house, then violent banging on the door. He didn’t move from the bed, but thought to himself: ‘Of course! If I’d left the door wide open then no one would have knocked; one closed door when all the others are open means there’s someone inside, and soldiers know about these things.’ The banging got louder, then the latch broke and the door crashed against the wall. He heard someone walking through the kitchen, then into the stable, and he thought: ‘Let’s hope he doesn’t find the tobacco’. The soldier returned to the kitchen then came up the stairs.

The bedroom door was also flung open, and peering through half-closed eyes in the semi-darkness he saw a boy in uniform who stood motionless in the doorway for a moment, looking around him and then resting his gaze on the bed where Tönle was pretending to sleep. Attracted by the ticking and the gleam of the pocket-watch hanging above the bed-head he approached very quietly and stretched out his hand to take it. Tönle opened his eyes and in growled in German: ‘Don’t touch it, you fat baby!’

The soldier was petrified, then, recovering, he left at a run and stumbled down the stairs. Hardly had he reached the yard when Tönle got up, quickly put on his shoes and went down to the stable to get his pipe tobacco which, bound up in string, he had hidden under the straw in the darkest corner. But when he went out of the door he found an Austrian patrol commanded by an ensign, who quickly blocked his way and said in Italian, ‘You are a spy and I declare you under arrest!’ 

Tönle spat on the ground, his spittle dark from tobacco juice, and growled something that the officer did not entirely understand, so he asked him, still in Italian, ‘But what are you talking about? You must come with us!’

‘I have to take my sheep to pasture,’ replied the old man in German, ‘and don’t have time to waste with the military.’ He started to go on his way but at a gesture from the ensign two soldiers barred his progress and gripped him by the arms. With one wrench he freed himself, but not being so agile these days he was at once recaptured and held firmly. 

‘You old devil!’ said the ensign in German with a Viennese accent, ‘Now we’ll settle your hash. We’re taking you to headquarters to hear what you have to say. We’ll have you shot!’

‘You, Mr Ensign,’ said the old man, mimicking his Viennese accent and making the soldiers snigger, ‘are a little boy who understands nothing. I repeat, I have to take my sheep to pasture.’

They took him between them and made him walk towards the Pûnes’ house; walking at a crouch through the Grabo they rejoined the Petareitle at the place where in 1909 Matío Parlío had built his house away from the rest: it was here that the Austrians had now established their regimental headquarters. Behind the house field kitchens were being set up and there was a constant coming and going of soldiers: some digging, some carrying wood, some bringing water from the Prunnele; in Nicola Scoa’s stable they must have installed a medical post because there were soldiers with obvious bandages standing nearby.

A crowd of curious onlookers gathered at once around the old man, chatting among themselves; a corporal came up and offered him a cup of hot coffee and he took it without saying a word. He drank it slowly under the gaze of all the clustered soldiers then gave back the empty cup, saying, ‘Thank you, corporal.’

‘Do you speak German, grandpa?’ the man asked him.

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘before you did.’ And would not add another word.

Then they escorted him into the house and to the kitchen where a major, leaning his hands on the edge of the table, was studying topographical maps spread out on it. The ensign who had captured him was standing respectfully two steps back, and evidently had already explained the facts of the case. 

‘So,’ the major said suddenly, straightening himself upright, ‘you have sheep to take to pasture. And where are they?’

‘In the Kheldar cliffs.’

‘And how many are there?’

‘Twenty-seven including ewe lambs.’ But the old man said ewe lambs in our old language, and the major did not understand.

‘With what?’

‘With virgin ewes’, he replied. At which the ensign smiled, raising a hand to cover his mouth.

‘Why didn’t you leave with the others when we started the bombardment?’

‘Why? Because my home is here and I’m an old man.’

‘Have you spoken to or met with any Italian officer?’

‘Not one!’

‘And where did the Bersaglieri go who were on Mount Mosciagh?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why do you speak German so well?’

‘Why, always why. I served as a soldier in Bohemia, and later worked in all the lands ruled over by Emperor Franz Joseph.’

‘Who was your commanding officer in Bohemia?’

‘Major Fabini.’ 

‘Field Marshal von Fabini, perhaps you mean. But then you must be a loyal subject,’ said the major with a certain enthusiasm.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I’m just a humble shepherd and an old proletarian socialist.’ 

‘Then you’re an Italian spy and that’s why you stayed here!’

‘The devil take you and the Italians. Let me go about my own business.’

But the major lost patience too and gestured to the two escorting soldiers to take him back outside, behind the house.

Half an hour later the ensign and a corporal-major took charge of him and followed him along the path of the Platabech as far as the the Kheldar cliffs, to confirm that the story about the sheep was true. And in two hours they returned with the sheep and the black dog.

By Mario Rigoni Stern

Translated by Joe Whitlock Blundell

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

Tönle’s Arrest will be concluded in a subsequent post.

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