Outskirts of literature: Uncovering the munitions factory in “A Natural History of the Dead”, The

outskirts of literature: Uncovering the munitions factory in “A Natural History of the Dead”, The

Gandolfi, Luca

BOLLATE IS A BIG TOWN in the outskirts of Milan, built for the most part in the 1960s, during the great migration of workers from southern Italy There afe no monuments, historical buildings, famous streets, or any of the things that usually attract a foreign tourist to a Eurt)pean city It’s hard to imagine that Ernest Hemingway not only visited Bollate, but also set a portion of one of his short stories, “A Natural History of the Dead,” in the town.

“I first saw the inversion of the usual sex of the dead after the explosion of a munition [sic] factory which had been situated in the countryside near Milan, Italy”- Hemingway wrote (SS 441-2). Then, any Hemingway reader knows the story of how the young ambulance driver searched the surrounding fields for the bodies of dead women workers and detached fragments from “a heavy, barbed wire fence surrounding which had surrounded the position of the factory” (442). Hemingway also wrote about this episode in a postcard to the Kansas City Star published on 14 July 1918 (Baker 571).

While I was.teaching Hemingway’s short fiction at the Punto Rosso, a cultural association in Milan, a student asked me where that munitions factory had been. No one knew, or had yet tried to discover it, so the student’s question provided the impetus for starting a search. I went to the Palazzo Sormani, Milan’s public library, and consulted the two major newspapers in , Italy during World War I, Corriere della sera (still the most important Italian newspaper), and L’Avanti, a socialist newspaper. Because Hemingway had been in Milan only a few days during June 1918 before leaving to drive ambulances in the mountains around Schio, there was not a long period to analyze.

The first interesting article I found was in the Corriere delta sera for io June 1918. In the rhetorical style typical of the period, it discussed the funerals of victims of a munitions factory explosion in Bollate. The journalist wrote of twenty-one coffins containing entire bodies and ten coffins containing the fragments of other victims. More than 15,000 people, including delegations of the Italian and American armies, were present at the funerals, which ended in the Bollate cemetery.

The 9 June 1918 L’Avanti wrote that the explosion took place on 7 June, that the total number of victims was thirty-five, and that only a storage area had exploded, so that the factory started working again after twenty-four hours.

Sabotage was suspected, but after an enquiry, the newspapers reported on ii June 1918 that no evidence of intent had been found. It’s interesting that the quite conservative Corriere delta sera wrote more about the possibility of sabotage than the socialist L’Avanti, especially if Mussolini, a socialist journalist until expelled from the party for his support of World War I, was on the staff at the time.

My wife Grazia and I decided to search for the ruins of the factory, to see whether anything remained. A colleague at the Punto Rosso who lives in Bollate told us that at the cemetery there was a monument commemorating the victims of a World War I factory explosion. At the cemetery, we located the monument bearing the name of the factory, Suffer and Thevenot, and the date of the explosion, 7 June 1918, telling us we were on the right track. Sutter and Thevenot was a Swiss factory, the cemetery’s guard told us.

On interviewing old people native to the town, we learned that the Sutter and Thevenot factory was located on the outskirts, in an-area named Castellazzo di Bollate, amid the Groane’s park (one of the greatest Lombard parks). We were also told that nobody visits the factory ruins today, apart from religious fanatics who use the site for black sabbaths during the night.

As it was only three o’clock in the afternoon, we went anyway, leaving the car on the edge of the road, and found the Sutter and Thevenot factory by following a muddy path. In a clearing among the trees and some wall covered by grass were old destroyed buildings, now transformed into an illegal garbage dump. The red brick walls had been burnt by fires, probably more than one.

I began looking for some kind of proof of the explosion, perhaps some military object, but Grazia begged me to leave-she was frightened by something without a name.

“It was here,” I told her, lighting a cigarette. And in that bad-smelling silence I tried to imagine an eighteen year old ghost in an American Red Cross uniform.


L’Avanti. 9 and 11 June 1918.

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner’s, 1969. _ , Corriere delta sera. io and ii June 1918.

Hemingway, Ernest. “A Natural History of the Dead.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner’s,1938. 440-449


Copyright The Hemingway Review Spring 2000

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