Ancient Musical Legend

[translated fiction]

An elderly shepherd was grazing his flock not far from the shore.

It was a very distant time, in an almost prehistoric spring, but the landscape was very much like the one we see today. There was a fresh green meadow surrounded on all sides by mountains so dark they were almost black. The mountains were set against an azure sky, and they were caressed at the base by the sea.

The shepherd’s hut was no different than today’s huts, and the shepherd, too, was no different than today’s shepherds. He was an elderly and yet hardy man with a long yellow beard, and black eyes lined in wrinkles. His clothes were of worn cloth and fur.

The old man’s name was Sadur (I have no idea what the name means, but I suppose it is like Sadurro, which then became Saturnino), and he lived with his still young wife, and his daughter Greca.

Other huts dotted the plain here and there, and other shepherds lived in those huts.

Where did those early Sardinians—with their small dark wives, and their wild flocks—come from?

Maybe their fathers, too, had come from eastern shores on pirate ships. I say “too” because every now and then the reddish wing of a Phoenician sail could be seen reflecting off the silvery sea, and pale men dressed in long grey tunics, with sandals on their feet and a cone-shaped hat on their heads, disembarked from those ships. Those men would sweep over the plains in a flash, burn down the huts, plunder what they could, butcher the sheep, and then feast under the trees.

Sadur despised those unwelcomed visitors who had ruined him time after time. He had had to escape to the mountains with the women and the flocks many times, returning to the plains only when the red sails had disappeared slowly behind the horizon, in the violet maritime eventide. But, alas, Sadur was growing old and his strength was leaving him.

Who would protect his women and his flock when he was gone?

He sat at the edge of the sheepfold, sadly, and observed the pale line of the sea anxiously.

  *     *     *

For many years now, however, the quiet life of those early Sardinian shepherds was a peaceful one. Sometimes a primitive merchant would arrive from the centre of the island, but nothing more. He would bring wheat, legumes, cloth, dried fruit, bracelets, and other bronze trinkets. In exchange, the merchant received wool, honey, and sheep’s hooves from the shepherds, and then he would be off again.

The women crushed the wheat between two stones, cooked flatbread, and sewed clothing. Sadur watched his flock but kept his eyes on the sea. Notwithstanding the peaceful times they had been living in for the past few years, he was not at all serene. His eyesight had dimmed, his strong teeth had started moving in his gums, and his hands had begun to shake.

It was all so sad. The only thing that was able to give him relief was the sound of his primitive, and somewhat rough, wooden flutes. They produced a monotone, and yet soft, melodious sound, a sound which was lost, like a lament, in the vast silence of the plain.

When Sadur played his wooden flute, he forgot his sorrow; his eyes would soften and an expression of sympathy and benevolence would spread over his usually stern features.

At the harmonious sound of his flute, Sadur could feel his heart fill with memories. Everything seemed sweeter. He dreamed of finding a kind, young husband for Greca, a man with whom both his daughter and wife would be safe. He dreamed of dying in peace, under an oak tree in the April sun.

He had numerous, more or less narrow flutes, and every time he made music he played them all, one after the other.

Each had a particular sound, and Sadur could play numerous melodies.

In the last year of his life, something happened.

*     *     *

It was May. Sadur was near the sea when, terrified, he saw Phoenician sails near the coast.

Trembling, he ran to his family and said:

“I believe that what I always feared would happen is now happening. There is no safety for us here. You run. Take most of the flock of sheep with you. Go to our hiding place. I will stay here with fifteen or twenty sheep. They will think that I live here alone and will remain to feast here. In the meanwhile, you will be safe, and, once they are gone, we will be reunited.”

The women left in tears. They pushed their way up the mountain with their flock.

*     *     *

Pretending to be totally blind, Sadur sat playing his flutes serenely. And this is the way the Phoenicians found him.

They thought he lived alone with the few sheep that were wandering about in the nearby grassland. As he suspected, the Phoenicians remained down below, looting the wooden hut, and then burning it to the ground. They butchered the sheep and feasted. Some wanted to tie Sadur and beat him, but the head of the expedition, a pale young man with long black hair, which was oiled and scented, stopped them.

At the end of the feast, the young commander asked Sadur to play his flutes. Sadur took up his instruments and played. The young commander sat listening to him attentively. He was lost in thought, almost solemn.

Then suddenly, he was overcome by a strange desire. He asked Sadur to play all his flutes together.

“But how is that possible?” exclaimed the old man.

“Sit down, or I will have you beaten!”

So, the old man found some long, stringy grass, and he tied the flutes together in a row: it was the very first Sardinian launeddas flute. Sadur tried again and again until he was able to play a melancholy, somewhat harmonious melody.

Drowsy from the spring sun and the abundant feast, the Phoenicians lay on the grass listening to the old man play. A feeling of peace swept over them.

The young commander in particular seemed entranced. He fell slowly asleep. He had never slept so well, so serenely, and in a more welcoming surrounding before.

When the commander awoke, he told the old man that he could ask for anything he liked, and it would be granted to him, if possible. Sadur shivered, then said:

“Well, you see, I have a wife, and an innocent daughter. If you meet them, please don’t harm them.”

“Bring them down from the mountain,” said the young commander. “You will never be hurt again.”

While he waited for the old man to return with his wife and daughter, the commander had the hut rebuilt.

He wanted to hear the flutes again, and he wanted to sleep again on the grass.

Sadur returned to the plain with the women and his flock of sheep. He played the flutes, and the young commander fell asleep again.

When he awoke, he saw Greca, and his surroundings seemed even more welcoming.

“Would you give me your daughter’s hand?” he asked the old man. “I will marry her and stay here with my companions.”

*     *     *

And, so, one of the very first Phoenician colonies was formed in Sardinia, and Sadur continued to play his flutes, his launeddas.

Vecchia Leggenda Musicale

Poco distante dalla riva del mare un antico pastore pascolava le sue gregge.

Era in un tempo lontanissimo, in una primavera quasi preistorica; ma il paesaggio era quale ancora si ammira adesso, una fresca pianura verde, chiusa da montagne quasi nere sul cielo d’un azzurro chiaro, e lambita dal mare; la capanna del pastore era eguale alle odierne capanne dei pastori sardi; e lo stesso era il pastore, vecchio ma ancora possente, coi lunghi capelli e la lunga barba gialla, gli occhi neri circondati di rughe, e vestito di rozzi pannilani e di pelli.

Il vecchio si chiamava Sadur, (ed io non so l’etimologia di tal nome, ma ritengo che da questo provenga il moderno Sadurru, che poi vuol dire Saturnino) e viveva con la moglie ancor giovane e la figlia Greca.

Qua e là per la pianura sorgeva qualche altra capanna e viveva qualche altro pastore.

Donde venivano quei primi sardi, con le loro donne piccole e brune, e con le gregge ancora selvatiche?

Forse i padri loro erano venuti anch’essi dalle coste d’oriente, con barche di predoni; e dico anch’essi perché, di tanto in tanto, sul mare argenteo disegnavasi l’ala rossastra di qualche vela fenicia, sbarcava un gruppo d’uomini pallidi, vestiti di corte tuniche grigie, coi sandali ai piedi e in testa un berretto a cono. E si spandevano sulla pianura come un turbine e incendiavano le capanne, predavano ciò che potevano, sgozzavano le pecore e banchettavano sotto gli alberi.

Sadur nutriva un odio feroce contro questi sgraditi visitatori, che l’avevano più volte rovinato. Spesso s’era salvato con le donne e il gregge sulle montagne, ritornando alla pianura quando le vele rosse sparivano lentamente all’orizzonte, nei violacei crepuscoli marini; ma ora vedeva avvicinarsi con dolore l’estrema vecchiaia e sentiva tristemente svanir le sue forze.

Chi avrebbe salvato oltre le sue donne e le sue gregge?

Egli sedeva melanconicamente sul limitare dell’ovile, e guardava inquieto la linea chiara del mare.

Da qualche tempo, però, anzi da qualche anno, nessuna disgrazia aveva turbato la vita di quei primi pastori sardi. Solo, dall’interno dell’isola, giungeva, di quando in quando, qualche negoziante primitivo. Recava frumento, legumi, pannilani, frutta secche, armille e altri gioielli di bronzo: in cambio riceveva lana, miele, formaggio, unghie di pecora, e ripartiva.

Le donne macinavano il frumento fra due pietre, cuocevano le focacce, cucivano le vesti.

Sadur guardava le gregge, e fissava gli occhi nel mare. Nonostante la pace di quegli ultimi anni, non si sentiva tranquillo. I suoi occhi si indebolivano, i suoi denti ferini si muovevano entro le gengive, le sue mani cominciavano a tremare.

Ciò era ben triste. Il suo unico conforto, spesso, era di suonare certi flauti di canna, molto rozzi e primitivi. Ne veniva fuori una melodia monotona, ma flebile, soave, che si smarriva come un lamento nel gran silenzio della pianura.

Quando suonava i suoi flauti di canna, Sadur dimenticava ogni sua tristezza; gli occhi suoi si raddolcivano, su tutta la sua selvaggia fisionomia si spandeva un’espressione di tenerezza e di bontà.

Al suono melanconico del suo flauto, Sadur sentiva il cuore empirsi di care ricordanze, tutto gli sembrava dolce, sognava di maritar Greca con qualche giovine gagliardo, di lasciar lei e la madre sotto una forte protezione, e di morir tranquillo, sotto una quercia, al sole di aprile.

Egli aveva parecchi flauti, più o meno sottili, e ogni volta che suonava li provava tutti, ad uno ad uno.

Ciascuno aveva un suono particolare, e Sadur sapeva trarne diverse melodie.

Ora, nell’ultimo anno della sua vita, gli accadde questo fatto.

Era di maggio: un giorno egli se ne stava vicino al mare, quando con terrore scorse le vele fenicie a poca distanza dalla costa.

Tutto tremante corse dalle sue donne e disse loro:

«Ahimè, succede ciò che io da vari anni temevo. Non c’è che un mezzo per salvarci. Fuggite voi due con buona parte della greggia; avviatevi al nascondiglio che sapete. Io rimarrò qui con quindici o venti pecore: crederanno ch’io viva qui solo e si indugeranno a banchettare. Intanto voi potrete salvarvi, e, dopo la loro partenza, ci riuniremo».

Le donne partirono, piangendo, spingendo verso i monti il grosso della greggia; e il vecchio rimase. Finse d’esser quasi cieco e si mise a suonare.

I fenici lo trovarono così, in apparenza tranquillo, e credettero ch’egli vivesse solo con le poche pecore smarrite nel prato vicino. Com’egli aveva preveduto, essi s’indugiarono laggiù: frugarono la capanna, la distrussero per accender il fuoco coi rami dei quali era formata, sgozzarono le pecore e banchettarono. Alcuni di loro volevano legare e bastonare Sadur, ma il capo della spedizione, ch’era un giovine pallido dai lunghi capelli nerissimi, unti d’olio profumato, vi si oppose. Solo, finito il banchetto, comandò al vecchio di suonare. Sadur prese i suoi flauti e suonò. Il giovine capo si mise ad ascoltarlo attentamente, pensieroso e quasi triste.

Ad un tratto parve preso da un capriccio strano, e comandò a Sadur di suonare tutti assieme i suoi flauti.

«Come farò?», disse il vecchio.

«Accomodati, altrimenti ti farò bastonare.»

Allora il vecchio cercò certe erbe filamentose e unì in fila i suoi flauti, formando la prima delle leoneddas sarde. Prova e riprova, gli riuscì di suonare abilmente una melodia melanconica, armoniosa, discretamente sonora.

Presi dalla sonnolenza dei meriggi primaverili, dopo il pasto abbondante, i fenici ascoltavano sdraiati sull’erba, e una grande dolcezza li invadeva a quel suono.

Il giovine capo, specialmente, pareva incantato. A poco a poco si addormentò, e gli parve di non aver mai gustato un sonno così delizioso, in luogo più ameno di quello.

Svegliandosi, disse al vecchio di chiedergli tutto ciò che desiderava; glielo avrebbe accordato, se era in suo potere. Sadur tremò, poi disse:

«Ebbene, senti. Io ho moglie e una figlia vergine: se le incontri, non toccarle».

«Tu puoi farle tornar qui», disse il capo, «non sarete più molestati.»

Intanto fece ricostruir la capanna e attese che il vecchio, andato in cerca delle sue donne, fosse di ritorno.

Desiderava sentire ancora il suono dei flauti riuniti e di addormentarsi ancora una volta sull’erba.

Sadur e le donne e le gregge tornarono, e il vecchio suonò ancora, e il giovine si addormentò.

Allo svegliarsi vide Greca, e il luogo gli parve ancora più ameno.

«Vuoi tu darmi la fanciulla?», chiese al vecchio. «La sposerò e resterò qui coi miei compagni.»

Così si formò in Sardegna una delle prime colonie fenicie, ed il vecchio Sadur continuò a suonare, tutti assieme, i suoi flauti di canna.

Translator’s Note:

Grazia Maria Cosima Damiana Deledda was the first Italian woman to receive The Nobel Prize in Literature, which was motivated by the committee with these words: “For her idealistically inspired writings which, with plastic clarity, picture the life on her native island and, with depth and sympathy, deal with human problems in general.”  This statement alone is enough to make any translator uneasy, and yet I couldn’t resist the challenge. Reproducing “inspired writing,” being able to give “depth and sympathy” to human problems and to a land that is not my land is not an easy task, but it is exactly the task I had to face. Luckily, I was not alone: I soon realized that it was Deledda herself who was guiding me, introducing me to the shepherds and huts, the meadows and flocks, the music of the hills, the fear of the stranger, and then, in the end, that final embrace which set everything right again.

It was, in fact, that final embrace that drew me to this particular legend: In today’s strange world of walls and intolerance, “The Birth of the Launeddas Flute” offers a view of a world that I like; it is a short story about borders, and fear, perhaps, and violence, sometimes, but it is also about how different peoples could, in this case through music, come together. Apart from the things I have already mentioned, my difficulty in translating Deledda’s voice also had to do with the distance between our times and hers. It was written one hundred years ago, in a language colored in the sounds of Sardinian; and I would be translating it into a language that could not share those sounds, while absolutely needing to reproduce them. The magical musicality of Deledda’s tongue, its ability to create images that are a delight for both the eyes and the ears, is what I most love about it, and it is what I so wanted to share with English speakers: It was like trying to translate magic. I hope I was able to do so, at least in part.

Matilda Colarossi is a translator, blogger, and teacher. Her work can be found on: Asymptote (poem from “solo andata” – Erri De Luca, “On translation” – Susanna Basso, “Poachers” – Alessandro Cinquegrani, “Future Perfect” – Paolo Zardi, and “Eva’s Mother” – Silvia Ferreri); Lunch Ticket (“The Last Cigarette,” “Six Minutes,” and “XXI Century” – Paolo Zardi); Ilanot Review (“In conformity with glory” – Demetrio Paolin; Sakura Review (three poems – Erri De Luca); and Poetry International Rotterdam (Roberto Amato). She blogs at Books: Fiamma by Dana Neri, and Leonardo da Vinci Fables and Legends (MutatuM Publishing, 2018).

Grazia Deledda was born in Nuoro, Sardinia on September 27, 1871. At the age of eleven, her formal education ended, but she continued her studies by reading Italian, French, Russian, and English literature. She began to publish in local papers at a very young age. Although she is best known for her novels and short stories, she wrote poetry, theatrical works, essays, and articles on folklore, children’s stories, and even one translation. In 1926, she received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Vecchia Leggenda Musicale (1910) was first published in the commemorative collection Onoranze a Grazia Deledda, edited by M. Ciusa Romagna, Nuoro-Cagliari, 1959.