Wednesday, May 23, 2012

1940s- the path to the nest of spiders (1947)

When I was trying to find inspiration for books to read for this challenge this year, it really struck me just how many books in the 20th century were written about the world wars. Not surprising perhaps, but still it is incredible to think of the enormous influence those wars have had on literature (as well as the broader culture, history, society etc.). So it seems fitting that I read a book about WWII for the 1940s. It's an interesting perspective too, Italo Calvino wrote The Path to the Nest of Spiders in 1947, not long after the war ended, and according to his preface it was inspired by his time with the Italian Resistance. That's not a part of the war I have heard much about before (and isn't it amazing the number of different stories that came out of the wars? So many people affected in so many different ways), so it was quite an unfamiliar experience. 

The Path to the Nest of Spiders starts by following Pin, a kid who is apprenticed to a cobbler and brother to a prostitute, who doesn't fit in with the other kids but doesn't really fit in with the adults either. His response is to view life with animosity, although he likes entertaining adults with his songs and his barbed jokes. He is a child who sees everything but doesn't understand anything fully, so he is well placed to play the fool, entertaining others by making fun of their dark secrets. When he heads to the bar to entertain his friends one day, he becomes involved in a plot to steal the gun from the German soldier his sister is seeing. From there on he becomes more entangled, ending up joining a group of partisan soldiers camped out in the wilderness. 

The focus of the novel becomes wider and wider, with Pin becoming less and less central to the telling of the story. At one point it jumps into another characters head altogether. It's as though the book is more interested in telling the partisans' story than Pin's, and so gets side-tracked. I found this a little disconcerting, but then again this is Italo Calvino (and his first book) and he is not know for straightforward storytelling. 

Pin is so naive, and yet knowing, sometimes the lack of understanding he showed could be frustrating. But it was occasionally heartbreaking to see how he was taken advantage of, or bluffed his way into trouble through not knowing what he was talking about. Pin is not exactly a victim though, he has a love for provoking trouble and a knowledge of what will most get under people's skin, as well as an occasional intense hatred for humanity. In fact the the whole book seems to swing back and forth with Pin's moods, from a disgust for humanity to a deep affection for people. Apparently Calvino based the characters on people he knew when he was with the partisans, but made them grotesque, and maybe that is what makes these characters so easy to love and to hate at the same time. It didn't convey to me a sense of real alignment with the partisans' cause though, more a sense of chaos, so many different sides fighting, with many men choosing a side arbitrarily or moving between them. I wasn't sure what to make of passages like this:

Ferriera mutters into his beard: "So you think the spirit of our men... and the Black Brigade's... the same thing?"
"The same thing, the same thing... but, if you see what I mean..." Kim has stopped, with a finger pointing as if he were keeping place in a book, "The same thing but the other way round. Because here we're in the right, and they're in the wrong. Here we're achieving something, there they're just strengthening the rivets."

Because on the one hand it seems ironic- surely men and both sides of the fighting would feel the same way- but on the other hand it is written after the war, the fascists have lost and Kim is vindicated. On the one hand it feels like all the sides are the same, made up of the same men divided arbitrarily, on the other there is a right side and a wrong side, as a reader I do not want the fascists to win. But maybe that is just the confusion of war, even if one side is clearly in the wrong, it doesn't mean their soldiers are automatically evil.

Overall I think this feels like a first novel, it's a bit uneven, and I didn't love it. But it does have its compelling moments, and it's an interesting story and a window into a tumultuous time in history.


On another note, I'm not sure if I will manage a 1950s post in June since I will be away, but if not I will write one up in July instead. And it's getting so close to June, yay!

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