From Catastrophe and Other Stories
The great literary chronicler of bureaucratic nightmares is Franz Kafka, whose novels The Trial and The Castle, along with stories such as “In the Penal Colony,” present the mechanisms of modern industrial statehood as horrifying, faceless entities capable of completely obliterating individual choice, agency, and – ultimately – lives. There is a strain of Kafkaesque frisson running through certain stories in the late Italian author Dino Buzzati’s oeuvre, in particular work like “The Epidemic” and the frighteningly absurd “Seven Floors.”
The former story is about a mysterious strain of flu that appears to afflict only people who are antagonistic toward the reigning government. As one character puts it, “Influenza which attacks only pessimists, skeptics, opponents, enemies of the country lurking all over the place … while the devoted citizens, the patriots, the conscientious workers are untouched!” Here, Buzzati has hit upon a cogent metaphor for the ill effects an uncaring political system can have on its citizens. The influenza is intelligent enough to detect which citizens are antipathetic to the ruling party even if they have not vocalized this position. While this is clearly emblematic of totalitarian regimes in 20th century Europe and Latin America, it also has uncomfortable resonance in 2018 for people living under the shadow of Bentham-like surveillance states.
The fact that Buzzati chooses illness as his metaphor is not accidental and carries over into “Seven Floors,” a weird, vaguely surreal story about an everyman named Giovanni Corte who admits himself as a patient at a famous sanatorium where he has been told he can get treatment for the unnamed illness he is suffering. The hospital is normal in all respects save one: each of its seven floors is restricted to patients at a specific stage in the progression of their ailments. The top floor is for mild cases, the next floor down for slightly less mild manifestations, and so on down to the first floor, which exclusively houses incurables.
Corte arrives by train, feeling “a little feverish,” and is admitted to “a cheerful room on the seventh and top floor.” The description Buzzati provides is bucolic and appears suitable to rest and recuperation: “The furniture was light and elegant, as was the wallpaper, there were wooden armchairs and brightly coloured cushions. The view was over one of the loveliest parts of the town. Everything was peaceful, welcoming, and reassuring.”
It should come as no surprise that this feeling of well-being does not last. Soon after his admission, Corte is asked to relocate to the floor below to accommodate a woman who is arriving with two children and requires adjoining rooms. Uncertain but reassured that his move to a lower floor has no medical purpose and will only be temporary, Corte agrees. As the story progresses, a series of external incidents and administrative edicts prompts the hospital staff to move Corte to lower and lower floors, proceeding ever closer to the first floor, after which there is only death.
Buzzati has concocted a fable about the mindlessness and harmful effects of bureaucratic systems and institutions that uses Corte’s sickness to symbolize the increasing damage the hospital’s apparently arbitrary policies have on him. There is no somatic reason to relocate Corte to a floor among patients who are more gravely ill than he, yet as he is shuttled further and further into the bowels of the institution, his condition actually deteriorates commensurate with whatever floor he is placed on. Moreover, the further down he goes in the building, the darker and more drab his surroundings become, which likewise contributes to the galloping progression of his affliction: “His agitation seemed to nourish the disease, his temperature began to rise, the state of continued weakness began to affect him vitally. From the window – which was almost always open, since it was now midsummer – he could no longer see the roofs nor even the houses, but only the green wall of the surrounding trees.”
Throughout the story, the hospital staff appear as functionaries blindly following orders or some unexplained protocol; at one point, Corte is told he must move from one floor to the next to accommodate the staff’s vacations, all of which occur at the same time. And the more distressed and terrified Corte becomes, the more dispassionate and removed his attendants seem to be. The loyalty of the staff, far from being to the patient and his care, is to the institution and its continued functioning.
On one level, Buzzati’s story is about the existential anxiety that accrues to any illness and the particular fear that a hospital environment naturally arouses in a patient. But on a larger level, the story addresses the inhuman and inhumane nature of the anonymous institutions to which individuals must submit themselves in order to survive in the modern world. It tilts at the difficulty of social mobility and the prevalent trajectory of that mobility – which is down, not up. And it hints at the appalling idea that our fates, our health, our very lives may be outside our control, subject to the whims of a system that has rules and priorities that differ mightily from our own. Reminiscent of Kafka at his most shiveringly absurd, Buzzati’s “Seven Floors” is a nightmare fable about the insidiousness of the institutions that we have set up to help us but that serve only to keep us subservient, incapacitated, and enfeebled.