Wednesday, January 02, 2008

In Search of Lost Time in the Piedmont

For years, I knew Cesare Pavese mainly through his diaries - a seemingly bottomless pit of existential despair and suicidal thoughts. To discover that he killed himself only a few months after the completion of this novel hardly comes as a surprise.

The Moon and the Bonfires is a sort of backwards look - a longing for a past that was brutal, yet somehow tenderly regarded. The narrator begins his life as a foundling in the Lower Piedmont, taken in by a family of dirt-poor sharecroppers not out of affection, but because he provides an extra set of hands, and because they can count on a yearly stipend of 5 lire for his upkeep. As a child, he works for his daily bread and the opportunity to sleep in the barn with the animals. He later ends up working for a more prosperous family, and is fascinated by their life of comparable privilege.

Following his mandatory military service, the narrator ships out to America, where he makes his fortune. He finds himself rootless in America, and so after the war he returns to survey the aftermath of fascism in the Piedmont. He meets up with his old friend, the tight-lipped Nuto, a partisan who plays a semi-mute Virgil to his Dante. Providing background to what happened during the war, Nuto is a Marxist who sees no reason for optimism. When the narrator finds, on his old farmstead, a lame boy who is a mirror of his younger self whom he hopes to inspire to cast off his poverty and drink in the wider world, Nuto sees no point in fostering such futile dreams. Yet Nuto takes pity when the boy's father goes mad and murders his family, burns the farm to the ground, and hangs himself from a tree. It is only by the narrator's gift, a penknife, that the boy is able to defend himself and avoid his family's fate. Nuto takes the boy in to help him learn a trade, and pledges to work with the narrator to better his life.

Much of the novel is taken up by reminiscences of the fascinating daughters of the prosperous landowner, yet even they cannot persist in their idyll. They all come to tragic ends, and the murder and cremation of the youngest, Santina (who may or may not have been a fascist agent), is the culmination of the novel.

In the local folklore, bonfires lit on the feast of St. John help to regenerate the world. In his essay "Pavese and Human Sacrifice" Italo Calvino notes Pavese's interest in the idea of blood sacrifice and purification by fire, learned through his reading of Frazer's The Golden Bough. The burning of the farmstead and the cremation of Santina (ostensibly to keep her body from being defiled) are the signal events of this novel - modern sacrifices in an endless cycle of madness and regeneration - private holocausts in a poor and obscure corner of the Piedmont, under a cold and uncaring moon.

The Moon and the Bonfires is a minor masterpiece of fatalism.

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