This is why we reread Calvino’s “The Cloud of Smog” today

When Italo Calvino he started to write The cloud of smog it was the summer of 1958. A distant time compared to ours, and not only because of the 65 years that had passed in the meantime: that decade, the 1950s (which Calvino himself defined as “a phase of beautiful epoque), it represented an explosion of well-being for Italian society that today, in 2023, is difficult to even imagine.

Calvino’s intention was to write a story that was above all a photograph of the economic boom, of the people who were experiencing it, of the evolution of a social mentality; of the effort (often failed) towards a necessary awareness.

Yet, as happens with great writers, Calvino’s “photographic subject”, the Italian society of that time, trespassesin other words overcomes time barriers: this is how we end up, reading, of find ourselves inside a portrait that is also ours, of our society, which experienced the economic recession.

The protagonist of The cloud of smog it doesn’t have a name. Like the rest, it doesn’t even have a name the city he just moved to. The scenario is that of a unspecified urban-industrial centre, which at the time was identified as Turin but which could recall (perhaps today more than before) a frenetic and suffocating Milan.

All around him, a veil of dust and dirt, of grayness that settles on houses and things, and on the faces of passers-by that lose definition. “Those facades of blackened houses, those opaque windows – wrote Calvino, filtering through the eyes of his protagonist – those windowsills that you couldn’t lean on, that mist […] lost its damp smell of weather and became like a quality of objects, […] substance of a general misery”.

Almost an obsession, his, which he never lets him lose sight of that dirty air: a constant presence, on the hands and everywhere. A presence that doesn’t seem to bother anyone else: “But you, sorry – I tried to ask him [al collega d’ufficio, ndr] – after a while, you don’t find your hands feeling here, is it true, have you seen how dirty they get?”.

And the answer is vague; a “Probably, doctor” which does not satisfy him, and which he reveals the indifference that envelops societyas if immersed in a cloud, precisely, which it clouds and suffocates much more than smog.

It is there, in this long story, published in the autumn of ’58 on New Topics of Moravia, everything the feeling of the modern human being towards an inexorably declining nature: and therefore indifference first and foremost, and immediately after (but just on the surface) an involvement that does not arise from an authentic interest, from a real intention, but for purely economic reasonsselfish.

We realize this by following the protagonist in his activity editor in The Purificationperiodical focused on environmental issues directed by Cordà, an illustrious engineer and industrialist who dedicated himself to the issue of smog despite being himself, with the companies he started, among the main causes of the problem.

”[…] to be honest – Calvino has his protagonist say – I thought it was all a story put together just for the sake of talking about it with a wink, and I had accepted that job as any job”. In short, greenwashing naked and rawwhich at this point seems to move from era to era, as if stuck in an eternal karmic cycle.

There is also a clear tendency towards climate denialism which, when it is not made explicit, hides behind doubt at all costs. «But, listen, doctor – asks Cordà regarding the changes in the climate caused by atomic radiation – you are concerned about this danger of radioactivity do you believe it? Yes, in short, it’s already that serious…”. And it is a denialism that comes close to shame: the shame of being tacitly complicit, and therefore co-responsible for a climate gone mad.

“The normal course of the seasons seemed to have changed, dense cyclones were crossing Europe, the beginning of summer was marked by days full of electricity, then by weeks of rain, by sudden heat and by sudden returns of a cold like March. The newspapers ruled out that the effects of the bombs could have entered into these atmospheric disorders; just a few lonely scientists it seemed to support him (which, however, it was difficult to establish whether he trusted) and at the same time the anonymous voice of the populace, always ready, as we know, to create a jumble of the most disparate things. […] Now we avoided talking about the weather, or having to say that it was raining or that it had cleared we were overcome with a kind of shame, as if we were keeping quiet about some obscure responsibility of ours.”

There Smog cloud vision, the real one however, almost tangible, which flies over “towns and roads and rivers”, the vision of the cloud from a panoramic point outside the city is the only moment of disturbance, halfway through the story, capable of undermining the impassivity of the protagonist, of the average human being. The smogonce perceived as external reality, Eliminable, and not as an intrinsic quality of things, it succeeds for a tiny moment clear his cloudy mind.

”[…] I wrote that yes, there were still those who lived outside the cloud of smog, […] who could pass through the cloud and stop right in the middle of it and emerge from it, without the slightest breath of smoke or speck of coal touching his person, disturbing his different rhythm […] but what mattered was everything that was inside the smog, not what was outside of it: only by immersing oneself in the heart of the cloud, breathing the foggy air of these mornings (winter was already obliterating the streets in an indistinct mist), it was possible touch the bottom of the truth and perhaps free yourself”.

Reread The cloud of smog, today, it means recognizing how short are the steps we have taken, especially on the level of awareness. From the 1950s to our present, the gaze of society towards i climate change has remained the same: detached, disinterested, ready at a moment’s notice to turn elsewhere. Perhaps in the exasperating search for a preferable beauty.

On the other hand, it is precisely beauty, pure, Arcadian, that closes the story. Landscapes of meadows and hedges, and scenes of country life that give breath to the soul. “It wasn’t much, but to me who wasn’t looking for anything other than images to keep in mind, maybe that was enough.” A escape from reality, in short, which gives (us) relief, while the world collapses.

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