Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Smell of Hay

Giorgio Bassani published a collection of short stories with the deceptively innocuous title The Smell of Hay. I suspect that for many people, that triggers fond, nostalgic associations with spring and summertime–universal and perennial symbols of new life, new hope, and the prime of life. Likewise, I'm sure that for many people, summer represents the carefree days of youth. Some of their fondest childhood memories are memories of summer break. The mere sound of lawnmowers can instantly evoke that past. 

In that respect, Bassani's title is subversive, because the default associations are juxtaposed against the intended meaning. The title fosters a false impression that Bassani will sabotage. In context, the title alludes to mown hay at the gates of the 17C Jewish cemetery in Ferrara. In that setting, it has reference, not to hope and halcyon youth, but to death and forgetfulness. Bassani trades on the contrast between the default association and the abrasive context. 

And it has a more sinister significance. Not death by natural causes, not death from old age, but the Holocaust. Of the 760 Jews who lived in prewar Ferrara, only 200 survived. So many of Bassani's Jewish friends, neighbors, and classmates perished in the gas chambers. So his title is actually ominous. 

Bassani wrote to keep their memory alive. Ironically, he is now interred in the very cemetery his title evokes. 

At one level, this illustrates the open-textured character of metaphors. Metaphors have surplus meaning. What they signify is context-dependent.

But to some degree it illustrates the ambiguity of good and evil. I don't mean to suggest that good and evil are generally ambiguous. There are unambiguous examples of good and evil.

However, there are situations in which one person's good is another person's evil. What is beneficial for one person may be maleficial for another. For some people, the fragrance of fresh-cut grass brings back memories of a happy childhood. But for Bassani, it's the stench of death and moral horror. 

That complicates the problem of evil. For there are situations in which good and evil are relative. That's not to deny absolute good and evil, but not every event can be dichotomized in that fashion. 
Enclosed all about by an old perimeter wall some three meters high, Ferrara's Jewish cemetery is a vast grassy expanse so vast that the gravestones, gathered in separate and distinct groups, appear far fewer than they actually are. On the eastern side, the circling wall is in the lee of the city's bastions, thick planted even today with big trees–limes, elms, chestnuts and also some oaks–arrayed in a double row along the top of the embankment. At least in this stretch, the war has spared these beautiful, ancient plants. You can only just make out the red sixteenth-century tower that some thirty years ago served as a powered magazine, half hidden as it is behind their broad green domes.  
During the summer months, the grass in our cemetery always grows with a frantic vigor. I'm not sure if that's still the case, but what's certain is that around 1938, at the time of the Racial Laws, the Jewish community used to entrust the cutting to an agricultural agency from the province…The scythers advanced slowly, in a semi-circular formation, moving their arms in synchronized rhythm…in the dog days' heat haze. 
Towards five o'clock in the afternoon, the farm workers would abandon their scything. Overladen with swaying heaps of hay and drawn by a yoked pair of oxen, their carts went out one after the other into Via dell Vigne, where, at that hour, the inhabitants of the neighborhood, pensioners in shirt sleeves with a pipe or a Tuscan cigar between their teeth…were almost all seated out of doors, in a row in front of their little one-story dwellings. 
As soon as the hearse had crossed the threshold of the big entrance gate, doing so at a leisurely jolt, the sharp smell of mown hay wafted across to liven up the cortege oppressed by the heat. Giorgio Bassani, The Smell of Hay (Penguin Books, 2014), 12-13.

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