The Path To The Spiders’ Nests, by Italo Calvino
It makes sense that Italo Calvino wrote this book early in his writing career, as it has the sex and violence that one would expect from someone who was an immature writer using the raw material of his youth and young adulthood spent among leftist partisans against the Republic of Salo to make a novel about the awkward process of growing up in World War II Italy. The book is a compelling one, mostly because the author writes about partisans that would fit in with Primo Levi and his ill-fated band as being rather incompetent and disorganized and a bit too much in love with Communism, and because the book is written in the point of view of a young man with a beautiful older sister who is a bit of a slut and spy for the fascist side. The richness of detail and the somewhat innocent point of view of the boy Pin who finds himself serving as a political prisoner despite his youth and not being able to make sense of adult games makes this a novel worth reading even if one’s own political worldview is far removed from the fashionable leftism of Italian novelists like Calvino.
The story itself is straightforward enough, as the innocent childhood of one Pin is drastically affected by the German invasion of Italy and his own theft of a P38 pistol from a sailor his sister was sleeping with. For is theft the boy is imprisoned as a political prisoner and finds an escape thanks to the help of someone else who is there, after having humorous conversations with an ordinary prisoner. We then find Pin spending his time with a band of partisans in the hills, serving as an assistant to the cook and dealing with the personal drama of the adults in the band, all of whom are leftists but none of whom seem particularly upright or moral or good examples for a boy like Pin. Of course, the Germans and fascists and their allies attack, the band has to deal with the violence of the Communist leaders of the partisan movement, and there is plenty of disorganization that leads Pin to return home to steal another pistol and then return with the only member of the band who appears to be somewhat sympathetic to his childish understanding of life and his lack of understanding about adult matters.
This book is made even better by the fact that it has a preface from the author himself, who looks back on the work and puts it in the context of his writings as a whole and his own youthful naivete as an author. In a sense, the author’s immaturity and the immaturity of the protagonist were a good fit, in that the story itself is not told with the sort of insight we would expect from a hardened political veteran. Given the author was in his mid-20’s when the book was written, though, and that it was edited later to make it less immature in terms of its adolescent humor about sex and violence and its grossly immature political worldview, this particular book works a lot better than the original would likely have been, a novel that was written by a young man about a younger boy and edited by a man who knew enough not to tamper with the story but to remove some of the rougher edges that would have run afoul of censors and those with censorious perspectives like this reader. The result is an achievement of writing about the Italian experience towards the end of World War II that reflects the chaos of the times from the point of view of someone confused about the deadly adult games of sex and politics and revolutionary violence.