I first read Marta's story in Sudden Fiction International, a collection of short shorts from around the world. It was the early nineties. The Tories had yet to relinquish control of the UK. Labour continued to dream of power. Marta's tale, The Falling Girl, is as relevant now as it was back then and I guess as when initially written by Dino Buzzati in 1966. The lure of the city is immense and desirable; its influence corrupts.
Marta is bewitched by the city. It is a 'sweet abyss burning with pulsating lights '. She leans over the edge of the building, purposefully accepting the descent.
She felt as if she were hovering in the air, but she was falling.
She falls past the upper floors with balconies buzzing with the 'rich and elegant': cocktails, music and inane chatter. For them Marta is a curiosity, but she holds their interest even if only temporarily. Her passage between levels is brief but not so rapid that she can’t engage in conversation. She is flattered by the beautiful people's interest. Her dress is inexpensive but 'the lyrical light of the sunset exalted it somewhat, making it chic'. Momentarily, Marta belongs, or feels she belongs, until she flits to the next floor…and the next.
As her descent quickens, and the carefree set disappear from view, the tone of the short changes. No longer is there a sense that her life is expansive, to be explored at leisure. There is urgency and monotony. The floors she is passing now are occupied by employees stuck at rows of desks. Only the odd terse phrase is thrown in her direction by a worker. Marta’s laughter has tightened and for the first time she begins to feel cold. The penthouse executives are a dim memory. The middle level is dull, it holds nothing for Marta, but far below at street level, what appears to be a party attracts her attention. She pins her hopes on reaching this. As she continues to fall she realises that other young women, prettier and better dressed, are plummeting alongside her.
During the race to the pavement below, the bustle slows down. The windows grow dark. Life isn’t so vibrant. As she approaches, it is early morning.
“Alberto!” the wife shouted, “did you see that? A woman passed by.”
“Who was it?” he said without raising his eyes from the newspaper.
“An old woman, “the wife answered. “A decrepit old woman. She looked frightened.”
In around four pages, Marta’s life has vanished. Tempted by the beguiling power of the city, she gave herself to it completely but received nothing in return. Marta was just a fleeting fascination for the upper classes. Once she was out of sight, she was no longer relevant. I’ve reread The Falling Girl so many times, drawn in by the simple, dreamlike language, the evocative and vivid imagery, and its brutally merciless social commentary. Each reading revealed another subtlety and I made a mental note to seek out more work by Dino Buzzati, but I never did.
I mentioned this on Twitter. The alert @LookingGlassBooks replied to my tweet, saying they’d check out what was available. They ordered me a copy of his novel The Tartar Steppe (Canongate). Unfortunately his short work was out of print. Not willing to leave it there though, @LookingGlassBooks (thanks Gillian!) went one better and tracked down a book of short stories in the library (follow @TalesofOneCity). The book Restless Nights, is a collection of short work covering thirty years until his death in 1972. It’s published by Carcanet. You should borrow it.