One day, in the illustrious nation of Panduria, a suspicion crept into the minds of top officials: that books contained opinions hostile to military prestige. In fact trials and enquiries had revealed that the tendency, now so widespread, of thinking of generals as people actually capable of making mistakes and causing catastrophes, and of wars as things that did not always amount to splendid cavalry charges towards a glorious destiny, was shared by a large number of books, ancient and modern, foreign and Pandurese.
Panduria's General Staff met together to assess the situation. But they didn't know where to begin, because none of them was particularly well-versed in matters bibliographical. A commission of enquiry was set up under General Fedina, a severe and scrupulous official. The commission was to examine all the books in the biggest library in Panduria.
The library was in an old building full of columns and staircases, the walls peeling and even crumbling here and there. Its cold rooms were crammed to bursting with books, and in parts inaccessible, with some corners only mice could explore. Weighed down by huge military expenditures, Panduria's state budget was unable to offer any assistance.
The military took over the library one rainy morning in November. The general climbed off his horse, squat, stiff, his thick neck shaven, his eyebrows frowning over pince-nez; four lanky lieutenants, chins held high and eyelids lowered, got out of a car, each with a briefcase in his hand. Then came a squadron of soldiers who set up camp in the old courtyard, with mules, bales of hay, tents, cooking equipment, camp radio, and signalling flags.
Sentries were placed at the doors, together with a notice forbidding entry, 'for the duration of large-scale manoeuvres now under way'. This was an expedient which would allow the enquiry to be carried out in great secret. The scholars who used to go to the library every morning wearing heavy coats and scarves and balaclavas so as not to freeze, had to go back home again. Puzzled, they asked each other: 'What's this about large-scale manoeuvres in the library? Won't they make a mess of the place? And the cavalry? And are they going to be shooting too?'
Of the library staff, only one little old man, Signor Crispino, was kept so that he could explain to the officers how the books were arranged. He was a shortish fellow, with a bald, eggish pate and eyes like pinheads behind his spectacles.
First and foremost General Fedina was concerned with the logistics of the operation, since his orders were that the commission was not to leave the library before having completed their enquiry; it was a job that required concentration, and they must not allow themselves to be distracted. Thus a supply of provisions was procured, likewise some barrack stoves and a store of firewood together with some collections of old and it was generally thought uninteresting magazines. Never had the library been so warm in the winter season. Pallet beds for the general and his officers were set up in safe areas surrounded by mousetraps.
Then duties were assigned. Each lieutenant was allotted a particular branch of knowledge, a particular century of history. The general was to oversee the sorting of the volumes and the application of an appropriate rubber stamp depending on whether a book had been judged suitable for officers, NCOs, common soldiers, or should be reported to the Military Court.
And the commission began its appointed task. Every evening the camp radio transmitted General Fedina's report to HQ.
'So many books examined. So many seized as suspect. So many declared suitable for officers and soldiers.' Only rarely were these cold figures accompanied by something out of the ordinary: a request for a pair of glasses to correct short-sightedness for an officer who had broken his, the news that a mule had eaten a rare manuscript edition of Cicero left unattended.
But developments of far greater import were under way, about which the camp radio transmitted no news at all. Rather than thinning out, the forest of books seemed to grow ever more tangled and insidious. The officers would have lost their way had it not been for the help of Signor Crispino. Lieutenant Abrogati, for example, would jump to his feet and throw the book he was reading down on the table: 'But this is outrageous! A book about the Punic Wars that speaks well of the Carthaginians and criticizes the Romans! This must be reported at once!' (It should be said here that, rightly or wrongly, the Pandurians considered themselves descendants of the Romans.) Moving silently in soft slippers, the old librarian came up to him. 'That's nothing,' he would say, 'read what it says here, about the Romans again, you can put this in your report too, and this and this,' and he presented him with a pile of books. The lieutenant leafed nervously through them, then, getting interested, he began to read, to take notes. And he would scratch his head and mutter: 'For heaven's sake! The things you learn! Who would ever have thought!' Signor Crispino went over to Lieutenant Lucchetti who was closing a tome in rage, declaring: 'Nice stuff this is! These people have the audacity to entertain doubts as to the purity of the ideals that inspired the Crusades! Yessir, the Crusades!' And Signor Crispino said with a smile: 'Oh, but look, if you have to make a report on that subject, may I suggest a few other books that will offer more details,' and he pulled down half a shelf-full. Lieutenant Lucchetti leaned forward and got stuck in, and for a week you could hear him flicking through the pages and muttering: 'These Crusades though, very nice I must say!'
In the commission's evening report, the number of books examined got bigger and bigger, but they no longer provided figures relative to positive and negative verdicts. General Fedina's rubber stamps lay idle. If, trying to check up on the work of one of the lieutenants, he asked, 'But why did you pass this novel? The soldiers come off better than the officers! This author has no respect for hierarchy!', the lieutenant would answer by quoting other authors and getting all muddled up in matters historical, philosophical and economic. This led to open discussions that went on for hours and hours. Moving silently in his slippers, almost invisible in his grey shirt, Signor Crispino would always join in at the right moment, offering some book which he felt contained interesting information on the subject under consideration, and which always had the effect of radically undermining General Fedina's convictions.
Meanwhile the soldiers didn't have much to do and were getting bored. One of them, Barabasso, the best educated, asked the officers for a book to read. At first they wanted to give him one of the few that had already been declared fit for the troops; but remembering the thousands of volumes still to be examined, the general was loth to think of Private Barabasso's reading hours being lost to the cause of duty; and he gave him a book yet to be examined, a novel that looked easy enough, suggested by Signor Crispino. Having read the book, Barabasso was to report to the general. Other soldiers likewise requested and were granted the same duty. Private Tommasone read aloud to a fellow soldier who couldn't read, and the man would give him his opinions. During open discussions, the soldiers began to take part along with the officers.
Not much is known about the progress of the commission's work: what happened in the library through the long winter weeks was not reported. All we know is that General Fedina's radio reports to General Staff headquarters became ever more infrequent, until finally they stopped altogether. The Chief of Staff was alarmed; he transmitted the order to wind up the enquiry as quickly as possible and present a full and detailed report.
In the library, the order found the minds of Fedina and his men prey to conflicting sentiments: on the one hand they were constantly discovering new interests to satisfy and were enjoying their reading and studies more than they would ever have imagined; on the other hand they couldn't wait to be back in the world again, to take up life again, a world and a life that seemed so much more complex now, as though renewed before their very eyes; and on yet another hand, the fact that the day was fast approaching when they would have to leave the library filled them with apprehension, for they would have to give an account of their mission, and with all the ideas that were bubbling up in their heads they had no idea how to get out of what had become a very tight corner indeed.
In the evening they would look out of the windows at the first buds on the branches glowing in the sunset, at the lights going on in the town, while one of them read some poetry out loud. Fedina wasn't with them: he had given the order that he was to be left alone at his desk to draft the final report. But every now and then the bell would ring and the others would hear him calling: 'Crispino! Crispino!' He couldn't get anywhere without the help of the old librarian, and they ended up sitting at the same desk writing the report together.
One bright morning the commission finally left the library and went to report to the Chief of Staff; and Fedina illustrated the results of the enquiry before an assembly of the General Staff. His speech was a kind of compendium of human history from its origins down to the present day, a compendium in which all those ideas considered beyond discussion by the right-minded folk of Panduria were attacked, in which the ruling classes were declared responsible for the nation's misfortunes, and the people exalted as the heroic victims of mistaken policies and unnecessary wars. It was a somewhat confused presentation including, as can happen with those who have only recently embraced new ideas, declarations that were often simplistic and contradictory. But as to the overall meaning there could be no doubt. The assembly of generals was stunned, their eyes opened wide, then they found their voices and began to shout. General Fedina was not even allowed to finish. There was talk of a court-martial, of his being reduced to the ranks. Then, afraid there might be a more serious scandal, the general and the four lieutenants were each pensioned off for health reasons, as a result of 'a serious nervous breakdown suffered in the course of duty'. Dressed in civilian clothes, with heavy coats and thick sweaters so as not to freeze, they were often to be seen going into the old library where Signor Crispino would be waiting for them with his books.