‘I don’t know where I was born. There isn’t a house or a piece of land or any bones in this part of the world about which I could say, “This is what I was before I was born.” I don’t know if I come from the hill or the valley, from the woods or from a house with balconies.’
A foundling raised in poverty in a rural community in northwest Italy, the narrator of The Moon and the Bonfires, has returned, after twenty years away, to the place where he grew up. He has made his fortune in America, but he has come back with mixed emotions and intentions. As he wanders along the roads, past the places where he lived and worked, he is retracing the footsteps of his younger self – barefooted or shod in wooden shoes – over fields, through vineyards, over the tiled floors of his master’s house. A self-made man, a success, he is now seeking to find traces of the world he knew, a world changed, not only by the ravages of time and the upheaval of war, but by something deep within himself. One of the saddest truths of this melancholic novel is that the idea of home and the reality of the place, any place, may never coincide.
Pavese’s protagonist is an inveterate outsider. His experience of exile is deeply internalized. Known only by his nickname Eel, he is nostalgic for a time when he was a nobody; he longs for a simpler place in the world. He may have been groundless in the place where he grew up, but he was equally groundless in America, unable to settle, continually on the move. Back in Italy now, his foil is Nuto, a childhood friend. Three years his senior, the narrator had idolized this confident, clarinet-playing boy who travelled the region with his band, had a way with the ladies, and was the first to go off to war. Twenty years on they are both grown men. Nuto, who had once seemed so worldly, has inherited his father’s house and carpentry business, and is married with a young family. It is the narrator who has navigated far horizons. One is bound to the destiny he was born to, while the other had to leave to search for his own.
The relationship between Eel and Nuto is complicated. There are currents of envy and resentment that course beneath the surface of their interactions and conversations. Much is left unsaid – the truth behind the protagonist’s decision to set sail and the shocking fate of the beautiful young daughter of the wealthy family with whom Eel spent his teenaged years – are only revealed as the latter’s visit is drawing to a close. Political tensions simmer between the two friends as a consequence of their very different experiences. As corpses surface in fields and streams, the narrator’s alienation from those who stayed and endured the years of Fascist rule and wartime devastation is heightened. After his many years in America, pictured in Pavese’s account as a rather idealized place with its own hard won set of rules, our hero is surprised to find that the superstitions borne of the old country – the power of bonfires to “fatten” the soil, the rule of the moon to govern activities on the farm – are still adhered to with a seriousness he can no longer imagine.
Yet, this is a book not only about returning to the past, it is also a lament for the lost innocence of youth. In an effort to reach into his past, almost in the way that we sometimes fantasize about going back to advise our younger selves, our protagonist becomes attached to Cinto, a crippled young boy who lives with his aunt, grandmother and explosively violent father in the hut where Eel spent his earliest years with the family that first adopted him. In this boy he sees himself and he is struck with a pained nostalgia mixed with a desire to offer Cinto hope of a future, an encouragement to look beyond the nearest horizon. The bond they forge is touching, and becomes central to one of the most intense episodes in the novel.
Moving back and forth between the past and the present, The Moon and the Bonfires unfolds over the course of 32 short chapters. The language is devastatingly spare, contemplative and measured. A wistful beauty plays out against recurring images of harsh brutality, while the rolling hills and the valleys of the regional landscape form a constant and abiding presence. What the narrator cannot find in buildings, towns or people – most of which are irrevocably changed or gone – still exists in the sights, scents and sounds of summer and, as he discovers, it has permeated his very being:
‘There’s a sun on these hills, a reflection from the dry soil and volcanic stone, that I’d forgotten. Instead of coming down from the sky our heat rises from below – from the ground, from the ditch between the vines where every trace of green seems to have been eaten up and turned to dry twigs. I like this heat, I like its smell: there’s something of me in the smell, too, many grape harvests and haymakings and cornhuskings in the autumn, many tastes and desires I didn’t know I still had.’
The persistent longing to belong to a place that underscores this slim, melancholic novel raises questions that are not easily answered. It is not clear that the narrator really knows what he expected to find in coming back. Although he could buy himself land or a house, he is no more capable of making that sort of commitment now than he was during the many years he spent in America. He still has business overseas, although the exact nature of that business is not revealed. If working for his keep from an early age gave him anything, it ingrained in him a deep resourcefulness and resilience that he has been able to exploit to his advantage. But without roots, without knowledge of the people he is connected to in his bones, as he likes to describe it, he has found himself incapable of building solid relationships. He had to leave to find himself, but in the process he may have sacrificed the possibility of ever having a home.
‘One night, under the moon and the black hills, Nuto asked me what it was like to ship out for America, whether I would do it again if I could have twenty years back and another chance. I told him it hadn’t been America so much as my rage at being nobody, a mania not so much to leave as, one fine day, to come home after everyone had given me up for dead.’
The themes of longing and loss that run through The Moon and the Bonfires are likely to reverberate with anyone who wonders what it would feel like to truly feel grounded, to know that you are in the place you are meant to be. I would argue that one can live in the same place for decades and still feel out of synch, groundless. It is less a question of space than of being. These same themes haunt all of Pavese’s work, and never more sharply than in this, the last work he published before taking his life in 1950 at the age of 41.
Cesare Pavese was an Italian poet, novelist and translator. He was, in his lifetime, the pre-eminent Italian translator of American literature, known especially for his translation of Moby Dick. His love of American literature and culture informed his work. This edition from NYRB Classics features the 2002 translation by R. W. Flint and an Introduction by Mark Rudman.