The Path to the Nest of Spiders

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Novel by Italo Calvino, 1956

The Path to the Nest of Spiders has become one of the key post-war novels in Italian literature, despite the fact that it is an anomaly, both in the context of Italo Calvino's other output and in the context of the developing neo-realist movement. The novel is at once far more realistic than those that would later bring Calvino fame and tinged with a certain fairy-tale symbolism that distinguishes it from most neo-realist novels. Nevertheless, by providing one of the most lucid and intelligent firsthand accounts of the new movement, Calvino's 1964 preface to the novel established it as a key neo-realist text. The Path to the Nest of Spiders was published as Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno in 1947, when Calvino was 24—a talented writer still testing his craft and attempting to process the traumatic events of the war. There are a few hints of the crystalline structure and playful fantasy that would characterize his later work, but for the most part this novel represents an attempt by Calvino to transform his own experiences as a partisan in the Italian resistance into fiction and to enter into the contemporary polemic about the nature of the partisans and the growing Communist movement.

In the 1964 preface Calvino writes: "For the fact is that those who now think of 'Neo-realism' primarily as a contamination or coercion of literature by non-literary forces, are really shifting the terms of the question: in reality the non-literary elements were simply there, so solid and indisputable that they seemed to us to be completely natural; for us the problem appeared to be entirely one of poetics, of how to transform that world which for us was the world into a work of literature." Concerns such as the role of socialism in Italy, resistance to dogma, and the desire to be an accurate and illuminating witness to history were paramount for Calvino. Interested in the ambiguous nature of human character and discontent with programmatic fiction, Calvino recalls himself as having aimed "to launch an attack both against the detractors of the Resistance and against the high-priests of a hagiographic Resistance that was all sweetness and light … What do we care about someone who is already a hero, someone who already has class-consciousness? What we ought to be portraying is the process by which those two goals are reached!"

Although there are moments where a clear conflict between good and evil seems to exist, such as the scene in which the boy-narrator Pin is beaten by Nazis who are interrogating him, the narrative focuses far more often on the vast, muddied, and mixed-up area between these two absolutes. The band of partisans that Pin joins is often incompetent and uncommitted to its cause; in fact, more than one of them seem to have difficulty choosing on which side to fight. Throughout it all our narrator Pin wanders, an urchin with too much experience of sex and violence (his sister is a prostitute) to play with the other children but still too immature to be accepted fully by the adults. His child's viewpoint allows Calvino to show the treachery, deception, or heroism of the characters without moralizing. Using Pin as the narrative filter also allowed Calvino to displace his own feelings and experience as a young bookish upper middle class man who felt out of place among the tough and often working-class partisans onto another marginalized character who is also younger and less capable than his companions.

The Holocaust, like the ideologies of fascism and Communism, are incomprehensible to Pin; the reader has the benefit of understanding the motivations behind actions that go over Pin's head while at the same time seeing what he sees, a world of adults who sometimes commit good actions and sometimes very terrible ones. The distinction between the ethical and the unethical adults is a question of personal character, not party. Pin sees individuals, without dehumanizing them into abstract ideological conceptions. In Pin's view, adults constantly play games with each other but break the rules. Death is the penalty of their game. Confusion and guilt are the visible signs of a larger corruption and evil whose roots are unguessable to Pin but clearly implied for the reader. The Holocaust is the most extreme result of a tendency the adults on both sides are vulnerable to—a tendency to betray oneself or others by treating people as abstractions or by acting in corrupt self-interest. No one is innocent, not even the orphan Pin.

Calvino's book was a watershed for readers used to more dogmatic and uncritical novels about the resistance movement, such as those by Elio Vittorini or Marcello Venturi, with whom Calvino shared a literary prize for a post-war collection of stories in 1946. He had mixed feelings, however, about the book: "The uneasiness which this book caused me for so long has to a certain extent subsided, but to a certain extent still remains: it resides mainly in my relationship towards something so much bigger than myself, involving emotions which affected all my contemporaries." As a form of collective memory, the book also endangered his own personal memory of the war years, involving a sense of loss that implies history can never be fully understood at the time it is experienced: "A completed book will never compensate me for what I destroyed in writing it: namely, that experience which if preserved throughout the years of my life might have helped me to compose my last book, and which is in fact sufficient only to write the first."

—Christina Svendsen