Books: If on a summer's day a partisan

THE PATH TO THE SPIDERS' NESTS by Italo Calvino Cape pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
CALVINO was ashamed of this, his first novel, and especially shamed of its success. He suppressed it and revised it by turns over a period of nearly 20 years and so its English publication has a somewhat tortuous history. Martin Mclaughlin has revised Archibald Colquhon's 1956 translation to follow Calvino's final 1964 edition and also provided an entirely new translation of Calvino's 1964 preface. Only now does the reader in English have the young Calvino's novelisation of his experience as a partisan and the mature Calvino's misgivings over how that experience was squandered.

The protagonist of The Path to the Spiders' Nests is Pin, an urchin in his early teens, too wizened and malnourished to have attained puberty but horridly knowing through sharing a one room apartment with his prostitute sister. Cut off from boys his own age, he longs wistfully to be included in games of cowboys, instead through his associations with the dubious set of adults who tolerate his company he becomes attached to a platoon of partisans and plays war for real.

In the hills he observes and connives at a love affair that both the adults involved know will lead to the disgrace and execution of the man. This is a distant tragedy for Pin. While he takes malicious pleasure in other people's dirty secrets, his own are disarmingly innocent. He shares a passion for observation with his creator, and knows an obscure path by the river: "There, in the grass, the spiders make their nests, in tunnels lined with dry grass. But the wonderful thing is that the nests have tiny doors, also made of dried grass, tiny round doors which can open and shut." It is a place of retreat but not of contemplation, Pin's visits there are generally disastrous for the spiders, but it is where, in his solitude, he longs for a friend worthy of sharing his discovery.

Calvino's representative in the novel is Kim, the Brigade Commissar, whose restless thoughts occupy a chapter in what is an otherwise rapid narrative. Pin, immune from desire through his immaturity, believes adult failings are signs of treachery and betrayal rather than weakness. Kim, inexperienced and bookish, has no such illusion and is prepared to exploit these weaknesses. Both characters recognise that the urge to kill is linked to the urge to copulate. Kim understands what confuses Pin, that the social misfits who form the platoon could just as easily be Fascists, but consoles himself that their futile rage will be justified because their anti-social and destructive acts are done on the side of history, so history will make their frustrated lives meaningful.

It was the fear that he had exploited his former comrades that caused Calvino remorse, almost as soon as the novel became a success. The partisans are presented as grotesques, and with the best of intentions, Calvino was determined not to bathe the partisan movement in the glow of idealism. But inevitably he drew the grotesques from real people, and when his caricatures achieved wider circulation than he expected, he regretted it. In the same way he came to recognise that his novel was a product of its time, part of what was hailed as a neo-realist movement, and realised that he had irretrievably sacrificed his experiences for the sake of literature. History had made his lived experienced meaningless.

Time, as opposed to history, has treated The Path to the Spiders' Nests well. When he revised the novel Calvino smoothed out the coarse eroticism and the political idealism. By 1964 the former was comparatively tame, the latter unduly subversive; even so it seems that it was sexual passages that caused him the most regret at that time, particularly the misogyny expressed by some of the characters. Both elements were excised from the first English translation and are now reinstated.

The novel is faintly under the shadow of Hemingway, as any book written about war by a young man in 1946, was bound to be. Calvino's mentor Cesar Pavese very presciently detected a fairytale element to it. This must be more apparent in the Italian (the book was written in the Ligurian dialect). Neither translator seems to have attempted to bring local idioms clumsily into English, or, thankfully, searched for Cor Blimey equivalents.

Louis Malle has said he mastered cinematography in order to make Au revoir les enfants, his personal memoir of wartime France. Calvino evidently wished he had mastered literature before representing the most important experience of his life. But it was his brutal disillusionment with realism that led to four decades of exploration of the mystery of fiction. If Pin had not gone down the path of the spiders' nests, perhaps Marco Polo would never have performed his mute and desperate dances before the Great Khan. That would have been a loss. There's quite enough experience in the world as it is.