Another Eton mess. Sorry, cheap joke. This short novel by Calvino, his first, was written in 1946, almost immediately after the end of the Italian partisan war. It follows a young (adolescent?) boy, Pin, who gets involved almost by accident in the partisan campaign. Pin is wise beyond his years in some respects, an orphan (we presume, although this is not confirmed) brought up by his prostitute sister, but innocent and naïve in other ways, always searching for companionship and love. This edition of the novel includes an introduction, written later in the 1960’s, in which Calvino apologises for the story’s failings, including its “neo-realism”, and its sentimental ending.
Most of the action of the novel is shown through Pin’s eyes. He has a limited understanding of what he sees, and it is the gap between his relative innocence and the world going on with its business around him, that offers some the amusement of the novel. Don’t get me wrong – this is not a novel of compic misunderstandings. While Pin is an innocent abroad, trying to survive among short-fused partisans living in the hills above the unnamed city, he is also very “street-wise”. At the same time he is also short-sighted – he steals a German soldier’s gun without giving any consideration to the likely consequences, for himself or his sister.
Although Pin carries most of the narrative focus of the novel, there is one chapter where the point of view switches to one of the partisan fighters – this chapter, and the switch in particular, jars and disrupts the overall flow of the narrative, simply to give a brief lecture on the politics of resistance. The novel also includes some heavy handed symbolism. A pet hawk has its neck wrung, which I wrongly thought might foretell Pin’s eventual demise. The hawk is a more flexible metaphor for innocence and liberty, killed in the bloody war it gets caught up in (you can see why I thought this might have meant Pin, who also carries a lot of symbolic weight on his young shoulders.)
The introduction to the novel is in some ways more interesting than the novel itself. Calvino directly addresses the reader, and is very frank about the novel’s genesis and its weaknesses. He avoids the obvious explanation/excuse – he was a young writer just setting out to learnt his craft – and gives a series of false starts, interrupting himself and restarting each time with “This was my first novel…” Through this iterative process he comes to an acceptance that this novel is a very minor part of Italy’s literature of the war. He points out some interesting parallels – for example with Treasure Island. Treasure Island is a very simple children’s novel, with memorable but two-dimensional characters (with, arguably, the exception of the charismatic but evil Long John Silver) and has a young boy as its narrator, caught up in an adventure out of his control. So is this novel also a children’s story? And does that explain why it appears on the Eton list? Probably. Roald Dahl’s autobiographical “Boy” is often taught in state schools for the same reason – tell a child a tale about another child having adventures, and it will capture their attention in a way that other stories by the same author may not. This is one of the secrets behind the success of Harry Potter of course. It confirms my suspicion that the Eton list is not an aspirational piece of showing off, but more in the way of a light, unadventurous summer reading list that a bright 16 year old could probably run through in a couple of months.
And as for this novel? Well it won’t occupy you for long, and its weaknesses are capably pointed out by the author himself (although I would recommend you read the preface after the novel). It is an interesting tale of the partisan war in Italy, but other than that it is little more than a curiosity.