Virtually unheard of novel by Giuseppe Berto. Published in 1947, "The Sky is Red" chronicles the experiences of 4 teenagers in a small, ancient village in Italy after it was indiscriminately bombed to bits during World War II. The teens bond together out of need, searching for food and clothing while occasionally robbing the unsuspecting. The ending is expectedly tragic.

Berto's writing style takes a little getting used to. His narrative isn't really linear - following in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf, we're presented with huge jumps forward in time without so much as a mention. He also introduces his protagonists in a rather stilted fashion - we meet two, then one and then another. The last of the four doesn't appear until a third of the way through the novel, and even then it takes awhile for one to realise that those four are the ones to pay attention to. This is also in part because Berto has a habit of introducing characters, fleshing them out and then leaving them behind in the narrative or simply killing them off to make a point. So when our little group of teens solidifies, we're always wondering how long they'll last. For a war novel that's quite an effective technique.

One other interesting thing to note is that the novel is surprisingly lacking in moral messages. When people die, they die. When someone is starving, they're starving. The reason for this is historical rather than artistic - Berto wasn't a communist, he was a Fascist and a decorated soldier. He reported things as he saw them - the fact that the novel reads as a condemnation wasn't necessarily what he had in mind.

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(This is an essay I just wrote for my 20th Century Italian Literature class. Check here for a synopsis of the novel - this might not make much sense without it. Spoilers might lie within, but this isn't the kind of book where the writing overshadows the plot)

Once Upon A Time:
"The Sky Is Red" vs. The Big Bad Wolf

It truly is a shame that the concept of morality is so hopelessly intertwined with fairy tales. The word moral, rather than connoting justice, righteousness or ethical conduct instead unleashes a torrent of culturally embedded images and memories: gingerbread houses, fairy godmothers, Mother Goose and The Brothers Grimm, all coupled with the immortal phrase 'and the moral of the story is...'

The reverse is also true - literature outside of children's stories aren't thought to have morals, though in essence a moral framework is either taken for granted or ruthlessly disassembled in books; one could argue that imparting a moral is the point of writing in the first place, that without taking a stand and defending it an author is wasting their time. We don't call them morals then; we call them concepts, themes, or the worst of these euphemisms, messages.

So what do you do when you come across a novel that is almost totally lacking in a structured morality? How is it possible to draw any conclusions about the author's focus, to differentiate the heroes from the villains, when the subjectivity we subconsciously take for granted simply doesn't exist? The answer seems like a bit of a cop-out - the absence of morality, an almost fanatical attention to not getting too involved or attached to the characters makes a powerful statement on its own: that a world so disrupted as to render a person's morality inconsequential (or simply impractical) is an infinitely terrible one. The characters' personalities and what they are forced to live through focuses the narrative and the horror of their moral position reenforces it rather than the other way round.

The four main and two notable subsidiary characters of Giuseppe Berto's "The Sky Is Red" are totally incomplete as individuals, and similarly are incapable of surviving in the ruins of their city without the others. Each brings a basic element of humanity to the group that, when combined, creates something approaching a functioning collective of desperate individuals. Their contributory traits are ingrained parts of their personalities, but their situation has made these characteristics almost heroic in their proportions; they have been metamorphosed into more resilient versions of themselves.

Tullio embodies reason. He's a thief out of necessity and a breadwinner of sorts. He is easily the strongest-willed member of the group, meticulously planning his actions while shielding the others from most of the pain inherent to their lives. His death causes the group to lose their sense of direction.

Carla is the group's sexuality - she prostitutes herself and attempts to seduce Danielle. Her profession creates a dichotomy within her personality - she is the most emotionally dead of all of them while her job lies in giving others pleasure (or at least respite). She is also the most animalistic of the four major characters and ultimately the most hardy - she is the only of the four who survives.

Giulia represents the other side of Carla - motherly femininity, working as a homemaker of sorts (cooking dinner, washing and mending clothes, etc.) and keeping watch over Maria. Her motherly impulses are tempered by a great emotional rift between her and the world; she is a cardboard cutout of a mother, going through the motions of domestic life while not understanding their ultimate purpose: survival. It is Danielle who slowly teaches her to feel again; immediately afterwards she falls ill and dies. The frailty of her physical condition was held in check by her emotionlessness - she actually managed to convince herself that she could feel no pain, but with it went any hope of joy. With the return of happiness came the return of illness and the illness proved fatal. It is because of this that Danielle is convinced he is responsible.

Danielle is their emotional center, the stranger to their world who reminds the others of their mental rather than temporal needs and, to a certain degree, fulfills them. He shows Tullio how to express his feeling to Carla, gives Carla a semblance of self respect and brings Giulia back to the world of the emotionally living, albeit briefly. His primary struggle throughout the novel is to not fall into the trap that has been laid out for him, the same fate as the rest - he struggles to retain his humanity. Berto doesn't make this an easy proposition, killing off Tullio, making it impossible for danielle to find work and infusing him with such a vibrant dignity that his every action in the burnt out city either pains or humiliates him. He manages to cope until Giulia's death; in a way he was living solely for her. It is important to note that he ultimately won - he didn't die within the city's walls. That was the last hurdle, and once he made it out alive the prospect of living didn't matter as much.

The two subsidiary characters of importance help round out the core group in various ways rather than having one encompassing characteristic. The child Maria serves multiple subtly important roles - she gives the others a focus to their survival efforts because she, more so than the rest, absolutely cannot fend for herself. She represents childhood and innocence (and therefore the death thereof) in a more immediately visceral way than the rest. She also serves as a historical lesson, that the sins of a generation effect the next to a much greater extent than the current.

The old man is the last of the representative characters and he plays a rather confounding role in the story - he is the only character who speaks of greater morality. In essence he is the group's moral center. He knows how the world works, why it works that way, why it shouldn't and why it's never going to change. He outlines these facts for the reader very carefully and methodically in the two meetings Danielle has with him, essentially saying that anything a person chooses to do (or not to do) in their circumstances is moot, that it doesn't change anything and that survival in and of itself is rather pointless. He proves this point rather eloquently by dying, though of what is uncertain.

It's a pity that Berto wasn't stronger himself - he couldn't stick to his own setup. The emotional wasteland that characterizes the rest of the novel makes the eccentric old man's unexpected morality jump out at a reader as particularly startling (a good thing) and, intentionally or not, makes him look like an avatar for the author. It looks like Berto couldn't deal with the flatness of the landscape he created, couldn't deal with the desolation that he himself had wrought and simply had to offer a counterpoint. In doing so he muddied the waters, slipping over the line from structured non-morality to fairy-tale, and doing so in such an utterly obvious and self-referential way obliterated his delicately constructed world. In a way that's exceedingly fitting.

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