What a difference a pair of glasses makes. Philip Larkin and Italo Calvino shared a lifespan, born barely a year apart, in 1922 and 1923 respectively, and dying within three months of one another in 1985. That’s commitment. Larkin read English at Oxford, while Calvino studied agriculture at Turin and Florence, but when their countries came calling Larkin’s duff eyesight got him out of National Service, whereas Calvino joined the Resistance. It was Calvino’s wartime experience that formed the basis of his first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno), which I read in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation, revised by Martin McLaughlin.
Calvino’s protagonist is Pin, a boy of indeterminate age (I’d have put him at about 12 or 13; other sources – OK, Italian Wikipedia – say 10). He has had a difficult life. His parents are dead and he now lives with his older sister who works as a prostitute. He spends his time in bars, cracking jokes and singing sexy songs he doesn’t really understand in the company of much older people. He’s full of pugnacity and bravado.
All Pin talks about is men and women in bed, or men murdered or put in prison, stories picked up from grown-ups, fables they tell among themselves.
Pin is desperate to be taken seriously by the regulars at the bar, and so when one of them dares him to steal the gun of Frick, the German sailor who is his sister’s most frequent visitor, he sees the chance of acceptance. Having stolen the gun, his first instinct is to play around with it (‘Your money or your life!’), but then he marvels at the power it gives him, the power he wants so badly.
Pin cannot resist the temptation any more and points the pistol against his temple; it makes his head swim. On it moves, until it touches the skin and he can feel the coldness of the steel. Suppose he put his finger on the trigger now? No, it’s better to press the mouth of the barrel against the top of his cheek bone, until it hurts, and feel the circle of steel with its empty centre where the bullets come from. Perhaps if he suddenly pulls the gun away from his temple, the suction of the air will make a shot go off; no, it doesn’t go off. Now he can put the barrel into his mouth and feel its taste against his tongue. Then, the most frightening of all, put it up to his eyes and look right into it, down the dark barrel which seems deep as a well. Once Pin saw a boy who had shot himself in the eye with a hunting-gun being taken off to hospital; his face was half-covered by a great splodge of blood, and the other half with little black spots from the gunpowder.
He hides the gun in a secret place he knows on the riverbank where some spiders have built their nests. This place, known only to Pin, acquires a symbolic significance. Throughout the book he looks for someone he can trust enough to share the secret of its location, someone who will understand its beauty.
At times I struggled with this book, not with the words (the translation reads very well) but with maintaining an interest in it. It’s partly the result of an ingrained apathy to war stories. Some years ago I exchanged my copy of A Farewell to Arms for a not very good ballpoint pen as part of a Rag Week swap thing. You were supposed to keep swapping and eventually end up with something incalculably more valuable than what you started with. I was happy enough with the pen.
People draw comparisons between this book and Italian neorealist cinema. Calvino, like Rossellini or De Sica, takes as his protagonists the downtrodden, the people uncared for by those in power, the people with no ability to help themselves. It’s admirable, if not always a great deal of fun. A late chapter introduces two new characters, the philosophical Kim and the practical Ferriera, apparently solely so they can have a polemical conversation about the motivations of Resistance men. It feels clumsy, and perhaps the older Calvino would have omitted it.
The theme of how easily people can be bought when they’re desperate recurs throughout: the group of partisans Pin eventually joins is betrayed by a renegade who defects to the enemy; Pin’s sister ends up consorting with the SS; even Pin himself considers joining the Fascist Black Brigade. More than once I thought of Louis Malle’s masterpiece Lacombe Lucien, whose antihero Lucien joins the Nazis when he is rebuffed by the local Resistance forces; more than anything else he wants to belong, even if it means turning his back on his own people. Pin, like Lucien, is bored of waiting for something to happen to him.
The effect of the indifference of the people around him is to make Pin’s mischievousness, which might otherwise be tiresome, amiable. When the sailor Frick arrives for an assignation with Pin’s sister, Pin informs him that she’s in hospital being treated for VD. His repartee is spontaneous and often amusing.
‘If you want to, you can get into the Black Brigade too,’ the militiaman says to Pin.
‘If I want to, I can get into that cow of a grandmother of yours,’ Pin replies readily.
Pin’s smart mouth is the catalyst for his departure from the Resistance. When the rest of the detachment goes off to fight a battle, he is left behind with the leader, Dritto, and Giglia, the wife of the cook, Mancino. Pin appears more interested in whether Dritto and Giglia will fuck than in watching the fighting, and when the others return he jokes about Mancino being a cuckold and is chased out.
The final chapter is the most beautiful. One last time Pin takes the path to the spiders’ nests. He walks past places where he should be playing, but has no appetite for play: the war has hardened him. When he reaches the spiders’ nests, he finds the place changed and the gun no longer there. It’s been so long since he visited. He’s at an impasse, unable to go back or forward, when Cousin (Cugino), a member of Dritto’s detachment, arrives unexpectedly. Might Cousin be the friend Pin has been looking for, the person who will understand the secret of the spiders’ nests?
This book is sometimes talked of as a coming-of-age novel, but it seems to me the opposite is true. Pin has spent a long time trying to be a grown-up in a world that has no place for children, and his incipient friendship with Cousin seems to signal a return to childhood innocence. Pin’s interest in sex throughout the book is vicarious: he understands it as something that obsesses the grown-ups who surround him, and as the means by which his sister makes her living, but is not interested in it for himself. When Cousin embarrassedly asks Pin if he can meet his sister, Pin is deflated: if, like everyone else, Cousin is only interested in sex, their friendship cannot bloom; but Cousin returns to him having changed his mind, and they walk off together, hand in hand, like Pooh and Piglet.
‘Can you remember your mother, then?’ asks Pin.
‘Yes, she died when I was fifteen,’ says Cousin.
‘Was she nice?’
‘Yes,’ says Cousin, ‘she was nice.’
‘Mine was nice too,’ says Pin.
‘What a lot of fireflies,’ says Cousin.
‘If you look at them really closely, the fireflies,’ says Pin, ‘they’re filthy creatures too, all reddish in colour.’
‘Yes,’ says Cousin, ‘but seen from this distance they’re beautiful.’
And they walk on, the big man and the child, into the night, amid the fireflies, holding each other by the hand.
Tags: A Farewell to Arms, Archibald Colquhoun, Childhood, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, Italian neorealism, Italo Calvino, Lacombe Lucien, Martin McLaughlin, Second World War, Sex, The 1947 Club, The Path to the Spiders' Nests, War, Winnie-the-Pooh