—Nefelomanzia, said the man, it’s a Greek word, nefele means cloud and manzia, to foretell, nefelomanzia is the art of predicting the future by observing the clouds, or rather, the form of the clouds, because in this art, form is substance, and that’s why I’ve come on vacation to this beach, because a friend from the air force who deals with meteorology assured me that in the Mediterranean there’s no other coast like this one where clouds form on the horizon in an instant. And as quickly as they take shape they dissolve again, and it’s right in that instant that a real nefelomant must practice his art, to understand what the shape of a certain cloud foretells before the formation dissolves in the wind, before it transforms into transparent air and turns to sky.

- Antonio Tabucchi, "Clouds," translated by Martha Cooley & Antonio Romani

I read Antonio Tabucchi’s short story "Clouds" last year, and it is still haunting me all these months later in the way that recalls of one of my all-time faves, J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Besides their power to stay on my mind, the stories have other things in common: a long shadow cast by war, and the mental and emotional toll it takes, even on outsiders to the central conflict.

Both protagonists - Tabucchi’s man and Salinger’s Seymour - are characters deep in desolation, suffering tremendously, invisibly, on the oblivious baking beaches where each story takes place. In Salinger’s story the beach is far from the war that haunts it, while Tabucchi’s story takes place almost where the fighting did - in Yugoslavia, or what was once Yugoslavia. Both have seen war and cannot recover from the inhumanity of it, not even as outsiders. 

I can’t deny a streak of misogyny that runs through each, either: silly girls and women serve as counterpoints to the sick, solemn, and dying men. (In the end) Salinger's Seymour commits suicide. Tabucchi's man tells us he is suffering from effects of depleted uranium - used mostly by the United States in armor and ammunition - to which he must have been exposed during the Yugoslav Wars, where he served as U.N. peacekeeper*. His suffering radiates from him hopelessly. Fruitlessly.

Ascending cloud from Redoubt Volcano from an eruption on April 21, 1990. The mushroom-shaped plume rose from avalanches of hot debris (pyroclastic flows) that cascaded down the north flank of the volcano. Via USGS and Wikipedia...

But. While Bananafish is political in a vaguer way, it is also American. Clouds on the other hand dredges up specific Italian and Yugoslav issues of late, arbitrary, modern, destructive or destroyed nationhood. And unlike its American counterpart it so delicately illustrates this border-shifting and -enforcing, and the suffering it can cause, in contrast with the permanence of the land and its sea-edges, and with the evanescent occupants of the sky above: the clouds, and our silly names for them.

Sequence showing mushroom cloud formation from a U.S. test at the Nevada Test Site. Video at archive.org.

Sequence showing mushroom cloud formation from a U.S. test at the Nevada Test Site. Video at archive.org.

Clouds, translated by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani, is available to read on The Common website (link above). But I most recommend buying your own copy of Time Ages in a Hurry, a collection of nine of Tabucchi's stories, and was published in 2014 by the incomparable Archipelago Books (and originally in Italian, by Feltrinelli, in 2009). I hope we write about Archipelago soon, I love so much of its work.