Italo Calvino, The poetry of Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno
My favourite single work by Calvino is the short story “L’avventura di una bagnante”. This is a mature work of immense subtlety and sophistication, full of irony and humour but also of sweetness and humanity.
I’m also particularly fond of his uneven but brilliant early novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno. That this is a far sadder, bleaker, harsher work is not surprisingly, given its setting in the dying months of the German occupation of Italy when Italian partisans were fighting the Germans and the Italian fascists in the Ligurian mountains – as the young Calvino himself did. However, it too is a work of profound humanity.
I feel a bit diffident setting down my ideas about it because I don’t know whether someone more deeply read in Calvino would find them too obvious to be worth stating or just silly. I’ve read a fair amount of his writing but in a very scattered way over a long period of time, and I only have A Level Italian.
At the heart of my feeling for the book is the depth of sympathy Calvino shows for Pin, its central character, or rather the remarkable way in which he combines profound sympathy with detachment, so that our responses to Pin are constantly changing.
At this point I need to summarise for the sake of those who haven’t read the novel. I don’t think my summary will spoil anything – it’s highly selective, and this isn’t a book that depends on not knowing what happens next for its interest. I’ve put the summary in italics so that if you want to you can skip it easily.
Pin is a child of about ten, a “bambino vecchio”, the deprived, damaged brother of a prostitute in the shabby Old Quarter of a small Ligurian town. Their mother is dead and their sailor father has abandoned them. Pin works for a cobbler who kicks and beats him. He sleeps in a lumber room separated by a wooden partition from his sister’s bedroom and spies on her copulations, which fascinate and puzzle and disgust him. Devastatingly alone, with no friends of his own age, seen as his sister’s procurer, he hangs round idle adults in bars, taunting them with his precocious knowledge of sex and crime, singing for them, mockingly indulged by them, tormented by his bewilderment at their appetites and the inconsistency of their moods. Pressured into stealing a pistol from a German sailor who is a regular client of his sister, he hides it by a path out of town where spiders make nests in a bank. He is imprisoned but escapes with a young partisan, who abandons him. He makes his way to the place where his pistol is hidden and is found weeping there by another partisan, a big, gentle and sad man called Cugino. Cugino has the face of a stone mask in a fountain with hardly any teeth and is carrying a submachine gun. He tells Pin he goes about at night killing people and is on his way back from killing someone now. He takes Pin to a partisan camp in the mountains, walking almost all night, holding Pin’s hand and then carrying him. Pin settles in with a small dysfunctional partisan band that becomes the closest thing he knows to a family, as bewildered as ever at the violence and sexual hunger of adults, playing his old role of emptily knowing jester. Cugino isn’t around much – the one really capable and dedicated member of the band, he wanders about on his own, deciding his own targets and rarely returning to base.
Two events precipitate the climax. It is revealed to the band that Pin’s sister is now working regularly for the SS and that her denunciations have resulted in a number of arrests and deaths. And Pin has an unrelated quarrel with the band that leads him to run away from them, back to town. By the path with the spiders’ nests he meets Cugino again, carrying his submachine gun. Cugino tells Pin he needs a woman and asks where Pin’s sister lives. Pin is surprised and disappointed. He had thought Cugino might be the Friend he has yearned for because Cugino is the first person he has met who is as interested as Pin in the spider’s nests and because Cugino had seemed blessedly free of the bewildering, disgusting adult obsession with sex. In fact Cugino is bitterly misogynistic – his wife betrayed him repeatedly while he was away at war. Anyway, Pin tells him where to go and tells him he will be too conspicuous going into town with the submachine gun. He offers him his pistol instead and Cugino takes it. Pin is left alone with his thoughts. He hears shots. Cugino returns and when Pin expresses surprise at his coming back so fast says he was overcome by disgust and couldn’t go through with it – ie the sexual act. Pin is delighted. Perhaps Cugino is the true Friend after all. It isn’t stated but seems clear that Cugino has killed Pin’s sister.
The story of the pistol is more complicated and ironic than I’ve made it seem – I’ve tried to say no more than was necessary to bring out the main resonance of the key image at the end. The idea I want to suggest is that though Calvino is, formally speaking, mainly a novelist and short story writer, he is essentially a poet. It’s not that he writes the kind of purple prose clotted with metaphor that sometimes gets called poetic. His writing is very clear and, particularly in Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, simple and close to speech (Cesare Pavese advised him in the writing of this book). It isn’t a matter of mere poetically or metaphorically charged language; it’s that the whole narrative forms itself into a series of immensely resonant images that work like images in a poem.
The one I want to focus on is that of Cugino holding Pin’s hand as he leads him back into the mountains.
When Cugino first meets Pin crying by the path he gives him bread and takes his hand:
Ora camminano per un campo d’olivi. Pin morde il pane : ancora qualche lacrima gli cola per le guance e lui la inghiotta assieme al pane masticato. L’uomo lo ha preso per mano : è una mano grandissima, calda e soffice, sembra fatta di pane.
Now they were walking through a field of olive trees. Pin bit into the bread. Tears were still trickling down his cheeks and he swallowed them together with the chewed bread. The man had taken him by the hand. The man’s hand was huge, warm and soft, it felt as if it was made of bread.
(I’ve abandoned the historical present of the Italian: in the original the effect is one of stylistic simplicity, but in English it feels artificial.)
At the end Cugino takes Pin’s hand again. The simile of the bread is repeated and the phrasing in other ways echoes that of my last quotation so the effect is a bit like a leitmotif in music and the sense of an important symbol is emphasised:
Il Cugino si rimette il mitra in ispalla e restituisce la pistola a Pin. Ora camminano per la campagna e Pin tiene la sua mano in quella soffice e calma del Cugino, in quella gran mano di pane.
Cugino shouldered his submachine gun again and gave the pistol back to Pin. Now they were walking through the country and Pin kept his hand in Cugino’s soft and calm one, in that great hand like bread.
Pin’s growing trust is poignantly suggested by the shift from Cugino’s taking Pin’s hand on the first occasion to Pin’s taking Cugino’s on the second.
That last quotation is about a third of a page from the last words. Pin and Cugino talk about fireflies and their mothers. Then the last words of the novel are:
E continuano a camminare, l’omone e il bambino, nella notte, in mezzo alle lucciole, tenendosi per mano.
And they walked on, the big man and the child, in the night, among the fireflies, holding each other by the hand.
There’s a cinematic clarity about the tableau itself and about the way it and the simile of the bread are repeated together, and in that last sentence there’s a beautiful simplicity to the way the commas emphasise the night with its darkness and the fireflies with their beauty and light. I find it intensely moving, but it’s moving because the resonances and reflections that surround the images are so complex and conflicting. The whole novel has presented Pin as a kind of paradoxical innocent in the treacherous, corrupt and corrupting world of adults. That final image is the ultimate picture of his dependence on adults. I think two opposite impressions collide here – that Pin is at last receiving truly kind and disinterested adult support and guidance, being led out of the darkness that the whole novel has portrayed; and that he is the oblivious victim of the most devastating betrayal. The novel doesn’t tell you how to resolve this conflict of feelings or the multitude of other ways of seeing the situation that are precipitated here. The hand that feels warm and comforting like bread, the staff of life itself, is also the hand that (we are led to assume) held the pistol that killed Pin’s sister. In the couple of sentences before the last one Pin says that when you look closely at fireflies they’re disgusting creatures, them too, and Cugino says Yes, but when you see them like this they’re beautiful. This resonates with the immediate situation, with much else in the novel, and I think with Calvino’s whole attitude to life and humanity.
Ultimately what I find so beautiful about these images, and what I think makes Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno the work of an essentially poetic imagination, albeit one working in the medium of prose fiction, is the way the whole novel seems to focus itself around these pictures and others like them so that they become images in an almost Poundian sense: “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”, “a radiant node or cluster… from which, and through which, and into which ideas are constantly rushing” – that intellectual and emotional complex, those rushing ideas, implicating everything that’s happened and been written in the work up to that point. The inconclusiveness of the thoughts we are left with reflect fundamental contradictions and ambiguities in human nature and the way they are sharpened or brought to the surface by the chaos and moral darkness of civil war. And of course they reflect the greatness of the artist who is able to see and epitomise these contradictions without sentimental or didactic falsification.