A very short (85-page) hybrid of a novel--essentially a lightly fictionalized investigation of real people and real events--by Italian author and critic Magris (the nonfiction Danube, 1989). A retired priest, in a long letter to a fellow priest, gives his account and interpretation of one of the minor but tragic sideshows of WW II. In 1944, the Nazis cynically promised Cossack refugees from the Soviet Union their own homeland in a region around Carnia in northern Italy. In return, this mixed group of men from the Caucasus, along with White Russians led by General Krasnov, a White Army hero in the Russian civil war, helped the Germans subdue the local peasants. After Germany's defeat, the warriors were handed over by the British to the Soviets. Many committed suicide with their families rather than endure Soviet justice. Though many believed that General Krasnov had been executed by the Soviets, the priest who had been working in Carnia in 1944 thought he might have been killed by his own men near the end, perhaps for some buried treasure or to save him from the humiliation of a public execution. Using the hilt of a sabre found in an exhumed Cossack war grave as if it were a key to a map, the priest examines the paradoxes of this man--so decent in many ways, brave and courageous, yet willing to make a pact with the devil. He decides, finally, that ``this unconscious desire for Krasnov's redemption persuades me to believe that this man who believed in adventure, was capable of admitting, in extremis, that his own adventure had been mistaken and that the true, hazardous adventure lay in acknowledging the impossibility of his absurd egocentric dreams.'' Magris raises and often answers many big questions, but the ideas tend to overshadow the people involved. General Krasnov remains as incomplete as the sabre from which all these inferences are drawn.