‘The End of the World’ is a nihilistic story of the fantastic penned by twentieth-century bestselling Italian author Dion Buzzati. Buzzati usually wrote haunting stories of the fantastic and arabesque, which were nihilistic, simple, and to the point. This short story titled ‘The End of the World’ is also haunting and nihilistic but moralistic. A reader would typically compare Buzzati’s writing style and his stories of the macabre with Franz Kafka, Roald Dahl, Saki, and Italo Calvino. However, unlike Kafka, Buzzati was moralistic and worked out simple and practical messages and endings for his stories focusing on the real pressures of everyday life. In this story, Buzzati takes on the realistic behavior of the people who see the fist of God’s judgment in the sky and do the most obvious things people in such a bizarre desperate situation would do. Buzzati highlights the immorality of his age in the form of this story titled ‘The End of the World’. He highlights how the populace caught unawares by Judgement Day behave like only human beings behave in any situation: either making money, robbing people of their money, acting hysterical, acting unreasonable, quarreling with each other, taunting each other, making love et al. For Buzzati Judgment Day as mentioned in the Bible would occur soon. He is confident that our civilization will be the same race that will see in some form or another a piecemeal Judgement Day happening every single minute because of our ignorance, indifference, greed, hardheartedness, sin, vices, and sexual perversity. One would say that the story is cruel but witty in a sadistic way. That was the specialness of Buzzati as a writer who was well-known in Europe as an excellent short-story writer akin to certain twentieth-century masters of the bizarre.
Judgment day happens in this story, just as mentioned in the Bible, without warning, and without an appointment. It comes to the people of the present or future world as a thief in the night, or rather the day! Here are some Bible texts to refresh your memory about the Last Judgement Day predictions, which this story is based upon:
But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into.Matthew 24:43
For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.1 Thessalonians 5:2
So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.Revelation 3:3
The people on seeing the fist of God in the sky first speculate as they do even today in the post-truth era. They wonder whether this fist in the sky is a ruin, flesh, or a rock and then realize it was God. Again, ruin, flesh, and rock are symbols of the Lord Jesus, as mentioned in the Bible. In other words, Buzzati was stating in a simple Roman Catholic moralistic way that indeed, as promised, the Lord Jesus came again to the world as he predicted, and no one was prepared for his return. He came unannounced and took Luisa and Pietro, friars, Catholic priests, great influential thinkers, famous and rich people, and the rest of the populace by surprise. We see in this text a lot of chaos spreading among the rich, who think that money can buy one’s way to eternity. Everyone was in a frenzy to save themselves from eternal damnation and rush to the Catholic priests to make their confessions. But the situation is such that even the Catholic priests, because of their corruption and vices, are not free from sin, and they too need to make their confessions to their superiors. Yet, the Catholic priests cannot make their confessions because of the vast number of people wanting to make theirs. A Catholic priest who emerges on Judgement Day directly from the ‘palace’, which is called a sumptuous house of courtesans or prostitutes, also needs confession. This Catholic priest is one of the central figures in this short story titled ‘The End of the World’. He probably symbolizes the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church of that era, and the ‘palace’ that he emerged from was the Vatican which had become a harlot’s den by the time it was Judgment Day. This points to the sex scandals that were prevalent even in Buzzati’s time in the Roman Catholic Church. It is indeed courageous of Buzzati to write something of this nature, and yet surprisingly, he seems to be famous in Europe as a writer.
This Catholic priest seems to be cornered by all the people outside the Vatican. Notice that the text subtly but powerfully indicates that the palace was the Vatican because it had a projecting balcony where the Pope addressed the people. Note that Buzzati mentions a fan-shaped flight of stairs which represents the stairs leading to the balcony of the Vatican. Now, this Catholic Priest is cornered and forced to hear people’s confession en masse. He is forced to sit in the small niche in the Vatican, which is symbolic of the confessional, a place which, according to Buzzati, was the place where the Catholic clergy should have focused their attention but did not. It, therefore, seems as it were that the Pope was made for this niche and nothing else. This Catholic Priest or Pope hears the people’s confessions but cannot bear the mass of confessions and sins that he is absolving. People are so desperate to make their confessions as quickly as possible that they act like they can speed up the process, like at a market, by telling the Catholic priest to throw in any of the cardinal or venial sins into his absolution because they have done it all. Buzzati shows how perverse this generation had become by the time of the Last Judgment. The part of the text where Luisa asks the Pope to throw in any sin he wishes to speed up her confession is painful to see yet absolutely incredulously hilarious. The Catholic Priest continues to absolve the populace quickly. The masses probably thought that since they managed to get the perfect Catholic individual to hear their sins, they might have a better chance to be with God or go to heaven.
Where were the other influential, intellectual, rich, and powerful theologians and priests? According to Buzzati, they were already bought by the rich and wealthy to hear their confessions, leaving the masses without a confessor. This is typical of mainstream society where according to Buzzati, even on the Last Judgment Day, the rich are so incredible that they think money can buy them a way to heaven and into God’s good books. They believe that because of their wealth, they can buy anything and deserve to have the benefit of most of the money produced by countries, empires, international agencies, etc. This part of the text ironically depicts the hypocrisy of life itself that even on the Last Judgment Day, the rich were making a paucity of an abundance by their greed and selfishness.
The Catholic theme and the scene of cataclysmic chaos are evident in this story. It reminds us of many of the Renaissance paintings of Last Judgement Day, and it wouldn’t be wrong to suppose that many of the descriptions mentioned here in this text are akin to the many scenes of disaster and turmoil in these paintings. A criticism of Catholicism is evident in this story and the fact that the haves always seems to possess even eternity, unlike the have-nots. Also, this text indicted the Catholic Clergy, who seem to only yearn for power, wealth, and sin and have never bothered about the things that are most needed in society.
Other scenes shown in the story are the desperation of the people, which I shall summarize in point form:
- The young couples made love or had sex openly on the grass in public unashamed of their act. They do so because of the indication in the Bible that such sensuous enjoyment is not available in heaven because, according to the Bible, there are no genders in heaven.
- The people search and hound priests to hear their confessions. Some swindlers are ready to do special home-delivery of confessions for a vast sum of money. It is bizarre but not unusual to see that humans, even on Judgement Day, want to still make a fair bargain and earn some good cash, but for what future?
- Luisa and Pietro were a couple but not married. Luisa was more sincere and vocal with the Catholic priest and confessed that she never went to church and told many lies; those are the primary sins of every second Catholic in Christendom, and Luisa is representative of all of them. However, would one think that her sins were great? She, by her confession, represents the guilt complex fed into the minds of Catholics that not going to church is a sin, when actually, not doing a kind deed to your neighbor is more sinful. Luisa does not even know the difference between a sin and a minor oversight, which indicates that she and most other people did not know what an honest confession meant. They all may have been confessing rubbish, and the Catholic Priest or Pope was absolving their sins.
- The young half-clad women in this story, which depict women in the midst of having sex, were taken aback by the fist in the sky and started acting hysterically. One notices that Buzzati equates sexual perversity and sin with women exclusively, which is very sexist and challenging to accept in the twenty-first century. Note in another part of the text he equates in the same breath ‘women and evil men.
- The regular church-goers also are disappointed and start cursing their church for not giving them anything that could have prepared them for this terrible moment of God’s wrath, as it were. This indicates that going to church or Mass every day does not solve the problem of sin, but a contrite heart does.
- Luisa is half-crazed but realizes that she was right all along to have thought that God’s second coming would occur not when she was in church or praying but ‘this way’. The ‘this way’ is either symbolic of a sexual act, sinful act, or even everyday living where you tend to be a timid tenant on the Earth eking out an existence.
- Two friars mock the people and the intellectuals. These friars are mendicants but are not exactly good people as they mock the public and think they, the friars, are in a better position to reach heaven. This indicates the mendicant clergy who renounce society for higher truth but turn arrogant in their progress towards enlightenment. They also tend to be indifferent to everything but their version of ‘God’.
Lastly, coming to the Catholic Priest, he ultimately realizes that he has been tricked by the people and can’t make his own confession. He thought that serving the people in the way conventionality demanded would be the way to attain heaven. But even that is not going to work because if he does not go to confession, then by the rules of humankind and Catholicism, even after absolving probably even the whole world, he would still not go to heaven. This priest feels tricked and curses everyone he has served. Here is the nihilistic element in this story, which brings out the beliefs of Buzzati, and is present in most of his short stories. Indeed, Buzzati is a nihilist, and so in the form of the predicament of this Catholic Priest, he depicts that probably whatever humankind may do, we are so diverse a people that no one knows who can save us from God and what indeed could save us from his wrath. There is a tendency to believe where the ending of this story is concerned that ultimately, there seems to be no reason for life and living, so it does not matter what people did to go to heaven or not go to heaven. Buzzati leaves the story in a cliffhanger moment where we ultimately do not know what will happen to everyone at the end of the world. This is the sort of writing style we notice in Kafka.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘The End of the World’ by Italian writer Dino Buzzati. I hope to read, re-read, and review more dystopian literature like this short story soon. If you are interested in my review of Saki’s short stories, you can check them out here. If you are interested in reading a middle-school religious fantasy novel, you can check out my book titled Someone Is Burning My Lord, Kumbaaya. I hope to read and review more of Dino Buzzati’s short stories shortly.
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