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Uomini e no
original text by Elio Vittorini 
translated by Kimberly Swendson


Uomini e no
original text by Elio Vittorini 
translated by Kimberly Swendson


     He stood up, walking around the small bare room, and went to open the cupboards. 

     “Doesn’t she have anything to drink?” he said. 

     He opened a cabinet first, then a cupboard, then he went back to the cabinet, took out two glasses, and returned to the cupboard. He stayed between the two cupboard doors, searching inside. 

     “If I were with you, I wouldn’t have felt that way,” Berta said from the couch. 

     “True,” he said. “That’s true.” And he didn’t come out from the cupboard doors. “She must have something good to drink,” he said. 

     “Why do you want to drink?” said Berta. “Please,” she said. “Don’t hate me.”

     “I don’t hate you.” 

     “You do hate me. You will.” 

     “I won’t hate you.” 

     “Yes, you will,” said Berta. “And if I were yours, you’d hate me even more. That’s what I’m afraid of.” 

     He emerged from the cupboards, a bottle in his hand. “I’d hate you even more?”

     But he wasn’t looking at her, he was looking at the bottle against the light. 

     “You couldn’t stand the fact that I belonged to that man too.”

     He kept his eyes on the bottle. “And what if we didn’t talk about it anymore?” he said to her. “We’re friends,” he told her. “We can just be friends.” 

     And he poured the bottle into the two glasses and brought her one. “Don’t you want that?”

     “No. No.” 

     “You don’t want us to be friends?”

     “We can’t be, not with that ghost.” 

     “I can. He and I, we’ve been friends for ten years.” 

     Berta stood up. “Please, just give me a little more time,” she told him. “Don’t hate me. I want to be able to be with you.” 

     “But there’s no need,” he said. 

     “Yes there is,” said Berta. “I need it,” she said. “Don’t hate me.” 

     “We can be done with it,” he said. 

     “No we can’t,” said Berta. 

     “And we can be done with it without being together,” he said. “Can’t we do that without being together? We can be done with it and still be friends.” 

     “Why do you hate me so much?” Berta cried out. “You hate me the way you did when you went to jail.” 

     “No,” he replied. “You’ll see, I don’t hate you. You’ll see,” he added, “I’ll look for you.” 

     “But I don’t live in Milan now,” said Berta. 

     “What?” he said. And his face suddenly looked alarmed. “You don’t live in Milan?”

     “I come here every two or three days. I stay with my in-laws.”

     “I’ll look for you at your in-laws’.”

     He opened the front door and hoisted the bicycle onto his shoulder. “I have an appointment at a quarter to twelve,” he told her. “And it’s eleven o’clock now.” 

     Berta followed him out. 

     “You’ll look for me?” she asked him in the street. 

     “I’ll look for you.” 

     “The work you’re doing now scares me.” 

     “You don’t need to be scared.” 

     “What kind of work is it?”

     “I’ll explain another time,” he told her. But his face looked alarmed. “Why don’t you live in Milan?” he asked her. 

     “My house was destroyed,” she replied. 

     “Right,” he said.

     He climbed on his bicycle and, with her on the crossbar, brought her to where Tram 1 passed by and waited for her to board. 

     “Ciao,” he said to her. 

     “Ciao,” Berta said to him. 



     He rode alongside the tram for a while, watching her through the glass, her standing between the crowd and the glass, and he saw her hand pressed against the glass for him. He saw her bright eyes widen into a clearer gaze, he saw once more the clear winter, and he waved goodbye, turned, and rode off in a different direction. 

     Until a quarter to twelve, he rode up and down the high boulevards of the bastions between Porta Nuova and Porta Venezia, and at a quarter to twelve he stopped in front of a newsstand. 

     A lady buying a newspaper approached him. 

     “What a grim face!” she said to him. 

     “Oh?” En 2 said. 

     She opened her purse, and from it he withdrew a revolver that he slid into the pocket of his overcoat.

     “Take care,” he said to her. 

     “Take care,” she said to him. 



     Three men in gray coveralls, each with a tinsmith bag slung over his shoulder, were waiting for him behind a large apartment building a little further away, their bicycles propped against the sidewalk. 

     “Hey,” he greeted them. 

     The three were young and cheerful, their eyes full of laughter.


     “I showed you guys yesterday. They’ll come out at noon…”

     “We’ve got three minutes.” 

     “You three go on your bicycles, but wait until they’re in the car.” 

     “And as soon as they’re in, we go for it?”

     “As soon as the car starts.” 

     “Not as soon as they get in?”

     “As soon as the car starts.”

     “And you?”

     “I told you. I stay behind.” 

     The three young men looked at each other. 

     “He’s not essential.” 

     “Let’s go,” En 2 said. “It’s noon.” 

     The three mounted their bicycles.

     “Take care.”

     “Take care.” 

     They rode off, and the man En 2 steered his bicycle around to the front of the building, passing between a parked black car and a short flight of stairs at the top of which a young blond S.S. soldier stood guard, his uniform also blond. The winter sun shone on the black barrel of his machine-gun. He abruptly gestured, and four men wearing long military coats stepped outside into the sun. 

     En 2 saw their faces for a moment —three German, one Italian with gray eyebrows—and he moved on, walking up to the corner without turning around. 



     The three young men on bicycles cut in front of him. 

     They were talking to one another, pedaling slowly, not looking at him. All three had brown hair that gleamed in the winter sun like the brown fur of an animal. Then En 2 turned around, preparing to mount his bicycle. He saw the blond boy at the top of the stairs frozen mid-gesture like a statue, he saw the car with its door open, someone dressed in black holding the door, and he saw the four men in long coats who were already at the foot of the stairs. 

     The three with German faces were saluting each other, and the one with the Italian face stood a little further ahead, keeping his head bowed, and he suddenly decided to slide into the car. 

     The three young men on bicycles were already level with the car, but the Germans were still saluting each other. En 2 saw the three young men continue past the car. 

“Good,” he said. “That’s better.” 

     Two of the Germans got into the car, the man dressed in black closed the door and climbed in himself, and the one German who remained on the sidewalk was still saluting, still bowing. En 2 watched the blond boy at the top of the stairs and the official who was saluting at the foot of them. 

     The car pulled away. 

     The three young men on bicycles moved to the side to let the car pull ahead, all three of them riding on the same side. En 2 saw their arms raise into the air, and he heard three explosions one after the other. 

“That’s it,” he said. And he got on his bicycle and pulled out the revolver. 

    Up above, the blond boy aimed his black weapon at the three escaping on their bicycles, and at the foot of the stairs the official, who until that moment had continued to salute, reached down to remove his revolver’s safety. 

     He was shouting in German. 

     “And what do you want?” said En 2. “What do you want?” 

     He found himself firing twice, the blond boy fell slack over his weapon, and the official turned and fired at him. 

     It looked like he was swelling. He swelled and kept swelling and En 2 fired into that swollen body. Up ahead he saw the black car across the street, a smoking black ruin. 



     Before long he was back behind the apartment building. 

     He went down one of the side streets, joining the throng of people running in the opposite direction, their faces white, and he raced alongside others who were speeding away on bicycles. Front doors were shut, grates were lowered over storefronts, faces were white, and he asked what was going on. 

     “Black Dog! Black Dog!” they cried. 

     “Black Dog?” he asked. 

     “Black Dog is coming!” they cried. 

     In front of a dairy shop there was a line for milk. The shopkeeper wanted to close his store, the women wanted their milk first. 

     “But Black Dog is coming!” the shopkeeper yelled. 

     The women cursed Black Dog. 

     “But what happened?” asked En 2. 

     He caught sight of the person he was looking for. She was standing between the dairy shop and a hair salon, behind the throng of people who were running, and she was the same as she had been at a quarter to twelve.

     “It seems they’ve blown up the German Headquarters,” she answered him. 

     She was smiling, with no trace of fear. 

     “My God!” En 2 thought, looking at her. And there was nothing else that he could say. “My God!” he repeated out loud. 

     The lady opened her purse, amidst the throng of people, and took out a handkerchief to blow her nose. 

     “Were there many dead?” En 2 asked. 

     The lady looked down into the purse and saw the revolver had reappeared.

     “Seems like it,” she replied. “Twenty or thirty.” 

     A grocer’s delivery boy bumped into her as he ran past. He passed by them and was shouting: “They killed a general!” 

     The lady had closed her purse again and grabbed the boy by the arm. 

     “What did they do?”

     “They took out the Tribunal head.”

     The delivery boy was white in the face but his eyes were happy. 

     “Cra, cra!” he crowed. “They killed him.” 

     The lady let him go, she looked at En 2 who was lighting a cigarette, perched on the seat of his bicycle, and she walked across the street. En 2 caught up with her near the opposite sidewalk.

     “Take care, Lorena,” he said to her. 

     “Take care,” Lorena replied. 



     He passed by her, and he was alone. He saw the desert of the city. 

     Skeletons of houses filled the desert, ghosts of houses with their doors closed, windows closed, the shops around them closed. 

     The desert sun was shining on the wintry city. The winter was unlike any other since 1908, and the desert was unlike any other anywhere else in the world. 

     It wasn’t like deserts in Africa, not even like deserts in Australia, it wasn’t made of sand or stones, and still it was the same as every part of the world. It was even the same as it is in the middle of a room.

     A man enters. And he enters the desert. 

     En 2 saw that it was the desert, he crossed it, and he thought about Berta who no longer lived in Milan. He rode to the end of Corso Sempione where he lived. 

     And always behind him came the cry of Black Dog, rising above the desert. 

     En 2 opened the door to his room. 



     The man called En 2 is in his room. He is lying on the bed, smoking, and I can’t help but go to him. For ten years I have wanted to write about him, to describe this thing he’s had with a woman for the past ten years, and as soon as I am alone in my room, lying on my bed, my thoughts turn to him, and I have to get up and go to him.  

     “I’m here,” I tell him. “En 2.” 

     This is his name now, what his people call him now, but he’s had other names and I’ve known them all. For the past ten years I have called him by each of these names in turn.  

     “I’m here,” I tell him, “I’ve come back.”  

     His face is white. He is lying on the bed fully dressed, shoes still on his feet, and his eyes are closed. Is he sleeping? A cigarette is glowing in his mouth; he’s not sleeping. But it seems like I’m tormenting him. He believes I am a specter, the Ghost of the thing between him and her, or maybe of his Separation from her, and every time I enter his room, he treats me at first as if I really were a specter, that Ghost of his.  

     I tell him: “Haven’t we known each other for ten years? I am like you.” 

     But it’s no use. He opens his eyes and props himself up on an elbow, getting used to having me here again. In me, he sees the old face of a deprivation that hurts him, her absence for ten years. Like the woman’s dress that he keeps on a hanger behind the door.  



     Whose dress is that? He looks at it, I look at it. At times we have also touched it.  

     “I’m not leaving you alone,” I tell him. “Aren’t I your friend?” 

     “Yes,” he says. “Thank you.” 

     “I can do a lot for you.” 

     “You can?” he says. 

     “I can,” I tell him.  

     “What?” he asks. “I need to rest.” 

     And he looks at me. “Do you know what I’d like?” 

     “What?” I ask.  

     “A day from my childhood.” 

     “That’s not hard to do.”  

     “Put my head inside it.” 

     “It’s not hard,” I tell him. “Is that what you want?” 

     “Yes, but with one difference.” 


     “I want it with the thing she and I have between us.”  

     “How?” I ask him. “That and your childhood at the same time?”  

     “My childhood and that at the same time.” 

     “But it’s not real.”  

     “It’s twice as real.” 

     “You as you were then?” I say to him. “And you as you are now?” 

     “Me in my childhood,” he tells me. “And her there too. The thing we have between us in a day from back then.” 

     “But you,” I say, “you didn’t know her when she was a girl.” 

     “I know everything about her.”  

     “You were in Sicily and she was in Lombardy.” 

     “I was in California too.”  

     “But you never met each other when you were children.” 

     “And we can’t meet each other now?” 

     “We can try,” I tell him. “Let’s see.” 

     “So I can put my head inside it,” he says.  



     His cigarette goes out, and he relights it. He flicks the match far away from him.  

     “What do you know,” I ask him, “what do you know about her childhood, what did she tell you?” 

     “I know that she lived in the country,” he answers. “In the middle of a garden.” 

     We enter a garden.  

     “With tall trees like this?” I ask him.  

     “Tall trees like this,” he says. “Are they Lebanon cedars?”  

     “I don’t know much about trees. Did she tell you there were Lebanon cedars?”  

     He looks up at the sky and we walk. It is late afternoon in the trees, almost nightfall.  

     “I hear her voice,” he says.  

     “Her voice as a child?”  

     “Her voice when she was ten years old. Running like she’s running away from something.” 

     “She’s not alone.”  

     “There were many children.”  

     “Will she be in the house?”  

     We see windowpanes, and on the panes, sun. I draw nearer.  

     “Let’s not get too close,” he says.  

     But he is right there beside me and we see, behind the windowpanes, a fireplace. A fire is lit in it, and maybe what looked like sun on the panes of glass is the fire in the fireplace. Two girls are sitting and reading.  

     “She’s not here,” he says.  

     “Where could she be?” I ask him.  

     “She must not have come back from school yet.”  

     “So late?”  

     “She was a brat. She’ll be in the streets with her friends, beating each other up.” 

     “From her voice it sounds like she’s playing.” 

     “She must be on her skates,” he says. 

     We hear the sound of roller skates, and we go up on the garden wall and sit there.  

     “There she is,” he says.  



     She as a ten-year-old girl comes racing in on roller skates; she is all legs and hair, wearing a short dress that ends just above her knees like a wing.  

     “Is it her?” he asks.  

     “Of course it’s her,” I tell him.  

     Behind her come three older boys, shouting and also on skates. She jumps and spins around, racing between them, the three boys fall shouting to the ground, and she takes off; she is long gone along the deserted strip of asphalt, between the garden wall and the countryside, between the countryside and the village, into the growing night. 

     “I’m going down,” he says.  

     “Go down then.”  

     It is a seven-year-old boy who slides down from the wall.  

     “You’re funny,” I tell him.  

     “Why?” says the boy.  

     He looks at me. His eyes have no white around them and his face is dark, only his hair is blond like wheat stubble.  

     “Your pants look like knee breeches,” I tell him. 

     There is a canal filled with water between the garden wall and the street, and the ten-year-old girl comes rushing back on the roar of her roller-skates.  

     “Berta,” the boy calls her.  

     He reaches a point where a board crosses over the canal, and he’s now on the street.  

     The ten-year-old girl comes to a stop on her skates. “How do you know my name?” she says to him.  

     She draws closer, stalking towards him like a puss in boots. 

     “I know how to write it too,” the boy says.  

     “Ah, you do?” the ten-year-old girl says. “In French too?” 

     “And in Turkish,” the boy says. “In every type of writing.”  

     “Oh wow!” the ten-year-old girl says.  

     Then she calls her friends, the shouting boys. “Come and see!”  

     “What is it?”  

     “Don’t you see?” the ten-year-old girl says. “Don’t you see how dark he is?” 

     “Uh,” the boys grunt.  

     “Where did he turn up from? He knows my name too.”  

     The older boys close in around the younger. 

     “You know her name?” 

     “I know it,” the boy says.  

     The older boys circle him, looking like Indian braves on roller-skates.  

     “Forget it,” they say. They revolve around him, almost singing. “You know her name? Forget it. You know it? Forget it.”  

     The ten-year-old girl is also among them; they skate around him in a war dance.  

     “That’s enough,” the boy says.  

     “What?” the ten-year-old girl says.  

     “I’m in the GAP,” the boy says. “Call them off or I’ll take them out.”  

     “What?” the ten-year-old girl says. “What?”  



     Evening is falling, it’s a clear winter, and I am seated on the garden wall. I call him. 

     “Haven’t you had enough?” 

     Once again he has an unlit cigarette in his mouth. “She didn’t recognize me,” he says.  

     “So go to her as you are now.”  

     “Go to her as a ten-year-old looking like I do now?”  

     A light turns on at the far end of the house, and we walk into the night of the large cedar trees. A fire now glows where we saw the fireplace, and the ten-year-old girl sits with her feet on the table, the same way we know she used to. 

     “What is she doing in the dark?” he asks. “She’s alone.”  

     He calls out to her with his current voice.  

     “Berta,” he calls.  

     She jumps up and runs to the glass door. She is dressed in white.  

     “Berta,” he says.  

     We see her small face, and it’s not scared, but it’s no longer how it was when she played on her skates; against the pane of glass, her face seems aware of everything she will have to bear.  

     She opens the pane and looks towards where we are, on the step of the threshold.  

     He has relit the cigarette that keeps going out. It flickers in the night, and we realize that she’s watching it. What is she thinking, that ten-year-old girl? What does she believe? 

     We hear her call out. “Who is it? What’s out there?” 

     Through the white of her dress, we see that she’s caught cold, and I plead with him to leave her be.  

     “But I want to stop her,” he says.  

     “You want to stop her?”  

     “I don’t want it to go on. I don’t want what happened to happen. I don’t want her to meet that man. I want to stop her!” 

     Then the ten-year-old girl cries out and retreats, closing the glass door on us.  

     “You can only scare her,” I say.

Elio Vittorini (23 July 1908 – 12 February 1966) was an Italian writer, translator, editor, and literary critic born in Sicily and eventually settled in Milan. A contemporary of Italo Calvino and Cesare Pavese, Vittorini was an influential voice in the modernist school of writing, known for his characters’ veiled and restrained language as they struggled with immense emotional material. His best-known work is the anti-fascist novel "Conversazioni in Sicilia" ("Conversations in Sicily"), for which he was jailed when it was published in 1941. He wrote Uomini e no (Men and Not) while working alongside the partisan resistance in Milan at the tail end of WWII.

Kimberly Swendson is a literary translator and poet from Colorado. She received her M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Notre Dame in 2019 and her M.F.A. in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa in 2021, where she was the recipient of the Stanley Research Award and the Iowa Arts Fellowship. Her work can be found in ballast, Bruiser Magazine, and elsewhere. 
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