The Path to the Spiders’ Nest by Italo Calvino

Calvino’s first novel written shortly after his wartime experiences as a partisan. His prevailing priority seems to be to debunk the myth of the noble heroic freedom fighter. I can imagine its somewhat cynical tone would have caused a rumpus when first published in 1947. He states in the preface that his aim was twofold – to launch an attack at both the detractors of the resistance and against the “high priests of a hagiographic Resistance that was all sweetness and light.” Personally I saw a lot of the latter and little of the former. And that very flimsy “all sweetness and light” doesn’t strike me as a very credible premise against which to launch a counterattack. No one’s perfect and no one would make that claim for the partisans but they did fight the Nazis and for that alone don’t warrant the mockery Calvino heaps on them here.

We see the war mostly through the eyes of Pin. Pin is an orphaned child though far from innocent. He lives with his sister who is the town’s most notorious prostitute. He entertains the menfolk by singing bawdy songs and insulting them. Like most of the males in the town he is torn between siding with the fascists and the partisans. Pin is like one of Calvino’s fairy story characters drafted into a novel that aspires to providing objective realist commentary. Often you can feel the strain of Calvino’s attempt to anchor his imagination which always seems to be tugging at its leash.

To be honest I found his preface a lot more fascinating than the novel. In the 23 page preface he describes how the novel came to be written, mentioning the unease he felt about this book for many years and the difficulties he underwent constructing it, especially achieving the transition between Pin’s picaresque village life and his enrolment in history when he joins the partisan band. He also mentions books that are written solely to illustrate a thesis (of which this novel is a little guilty). At the same time he justifies it by admitting Pin was a self-portrait, that he dramatized what he himself felt about the war – a sense of inferiority faced with the incomprehensible world of adults. Calvino’s sense of inferiority though stemmed from his middle class upbringing while Pin’s centres on his age. Calvino calls this a symbolic substitution.

Anyway, the preface was brilliant; the novel itself just okay.

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