A town means not being alone, knowing that in the people, the trees, the soil, there is something of yourself, that even when you’re not there it stays and waits for you. But it isn’t easy to live there and not be restless.
Which one of us doesn’t recognise himself a little in this opening quote from Pavese’s Moon and The Bonfires, read for what is now the extended Italian lit month, as the narrator at forty years old comes back to his native village in the countryside above Genoa just after the Second World War and after twenty years of absence in America where he has made his fortune.
The book circles around his erstwhile and newly re-emerging relationship with Nuto, a few years older than the narrator and who had stayed in their valley through the fascist times:
“Nuto, unlike me, has never gone far from Salto he says that to live a full life in this valley you should never leave it.”
This is a story of unspoken yet irrational guilt, the narrator for leaving his home town, where he had been brought up without a past in the ancient poverty still active in these villages and where, in flash backs to his own upbringing and the parallel with the actual story of Cinto, we understand the hopelessness of his previous situation. He was brought up in Gaminella by Padrino and Virgilia.
“Forty years ago there were people on these hills wretched enough to saddle themselves with a bastard from the hospital, in addition to the children they already had, just to lay eyes on a piece of silver.”
And he illustrates the cause of this poverty by the case of the young Cinto, in the present day living on the same farm as that on which he had worked, where they shared their crops with the land owner. Cinto tells us of events after the farmhouse is burnt down by Cinto’s father, the violent Valino:
“He’d gone down to Belbo. Then he’d heard the hog barking, his father tying up the ox. The madame of the villa had come to divide up the beans and potatoes. She’d said that two rows of beans had already been dug, so Valino would have to make up for them….He started shouting at Rosina and the grandmother because they hadn’t picked the green beans earlier. He said that now the madame was eating the beans that belonged to them.
Nuto takes most of the book, circling the question of his own guilt as bodies occasionally come to the surface in the hills from the shallow graves of the hectic wartime struggles between the partisans and the Fascist Republicans.
Firstly we learn of the family that employed the narrator, whom they had nicknamed Eel, Sor Matteo and his three daughters, Silvia, Irene and the much younger Santina. All of them now dead and how Nuto’s story is entwined with Santina’s, as Nuto finally gets to the point where he talks about his small part in those tumultuous times, the narrator asks him:
“And you, were you a partisan? Were you there?
Nuto swallowed and shook his head. Everybody did something. Too little….but there was the danger that a spy might send someone to burn down your house…
Nuto was still alive when so many others were not, the root of his guilt. Pavese himself committed suicide shortly after the book was published in 1950.
First published in Italian as ‘La luna e il falò’ by Giulio Einaudi in 1950.
Translated into English by R.W. Flint as “The Moon and The Bonfires” and published by The New York Review of Books in 2002.