Pavese’s “The Moon and the Bonfires”

The Moon and the Bonfires (La luna e i falo

The Moon and the Bonfires is Cesare Pavese’s (1908-1950) last novel. Published in June 1950 by famed Italian publishing house Einaudi, (where Pavese held a prominent position) the novel met immediate critical and commercial success.
“To be rooted,” wrote Simone Weil, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” A rootedness can come in many forms and guises. For some, this stability, this grounding, implies a link with family and tradition, as well as a fundamental tie to the land. Written feverishly between September and November 1949, Cesare Pavese’s last great novel, The Moon and the Bonfires explores the exilic and tells the story of one man who attempted (unsuccessfully) to go home again.
The storyline of The Moon and the Bonfires weaves together three distinct yet related narratives. The first narrative, and the main one which frames the overall structure of the novel, tells the story of an unnamed narrator who, after making his fortune in the United States, returns to Italy to rediscover the hills of his youth. The narrator is revealed to have been an orphan who was taken in by a peasant farmer and his wife. His childhood, told in a selective series of flashback scenes, consisted of working on his “adopted family’s” farm for room and board, and dreaming of traveling beyond the hills of Canelli, a neighboring village that marks the boundary of the “known” world for the peasants of Salto; a fictionalized name given to the hills of Pavese’s own youth, Santo Stefano Belbo. The narrator’s childhood friend is a clarinet playing Marxist named Nuto. Nuto is based on Pavese’s real life friend from Santo Stefano, Pino Scaglione. Nuto, like Scaglioni, never leaves the borders of the hills around Salto, yet somehow seems to contain the wisdom of a worldly intellectual on the most practical level, yet still believes profoundly in the superstitions of the hills. Therefore, the novel’s title invokes the superstitious nature of the peasants, the country-folk, in and around the hills of Santo. If there is an “authoritative” figure in The Moon and the Bonfires, it is certainly Nuto.
The second storyline details the unnamed narrator’s time in the United States. Fleeing the Fascists, the narrator escapes to the United States and eventually makes his way to California where he works at various jobs, but mostly as kitchen help in what can only be assumed is a roadside dinner. There he meets a young woman whom he almost marries. The “almost” is fundamental to Pavese’s oeuvre. It suggests a sense of profound failure to commit and take root—to start a family and begin building a life. Although the California episodes depicted in the book take up less than a fourth of the story, they do function to expand on the theme of severe isolation and remoteness that pervades much of Pavese’s work.
The third storyline depicts the peasants of Salto and their confrontation with Fascism. Most of the story is revealed to the narrator via conversations with Nuto, who until the end is very reluctant to recall this troubled aspect of Salto’s past. However, when bodies begin to be discovered, Pavese shows the reader that the past may be inescapable. Perhaps most important is the figure of Santina, the youngest daughter of the family that took the narrator in as a boy, and the mystery surrounding her murder by the partisans. Pavese reveals to the reader, slowly and in much the same way Faulkner reveals in his storylines, that she was either working on the side of the Fascists or the partisans during the war. The narrator’s entire trip back to Salto seems to be headed for the revelation of what side Santina was on. At the end of the novel Nuto (who was a partisan) tells the narrator that he was a witness to her murder. We are never told whose side Santina was for.
Pavese’s straight forward, some have argued, American influenced style, does not cancel out the complexities of his storylines. Calvino has stated that the significant meanings in Pavese’s work reside in what is left unsaid. The Moon and the Bonfires is one of those fundamental works that has gone mostly unread in the United States. Yet, to read it is to experience the fractured nature of Italy during and after the Second World War, as well as the profound condition of “being at home in the not at home” which informs so much of our postmodern condition. Moreover, the novel suggests that we can never be free from our entanglement with the past. Pavese’s own relationship with the partisans, of which he was never an active member, can be read as informing much of the action in this novel. Pavese’s suicide just months after the publication of The Moon and the Bonfires, presents us with, not a culmination of Pavese’s oeuvre, but with an all too abrupt ending.


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