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Beppe Fenoglio: Il partigiano Johnny (Johnny the Partisan)

Unfinished and only published after Fenoglio’s death, this book is probably the best Italian partisan novel (there are more than you might imagine). It tells, of course, the tale of Johnny who, like Fenoglio, is in Rome after the armistice and German invasion on 8 September 1943 and who hurries back home to Alba to join the partisans. The book is the story of Johnny and the group of partisans that he is associated with. It is an epic account of their difficulties and sufferings in the Piedmont mountains, with a few skirmishes with the Fascists, not always successful, followed by their regrouping and their attacks on the Fascist stronghold of Alba and how they take it and then defend it.

The book ends during the defence of the city but the long and detailed account – doubtless semi-autobiographical – is a superb account of their struggle, both against the Fascists as well as dealing with their internal order. But at all times, Johnny remains the epic hero, clearly and unreservedly anti-Fascist, though he comes from a relatively well-to-do family, and it is Fenoglio’s skill to paint him as such, surrounded by his comrades-in-arms, such as Pierre, the Frenchman, Ettore and their leader, Nord.

Fenoglio’s use of language makes it particularly worthwhile reading this book in the original Italian. He invents numerous Italian words, most of which are readily understandable. More particularly, Fenoglio the English teacher has Johnny the English teacher liberally sprinkle his conversation with English words, often used in a decidedly strange way and, indeed, he also invents English words. For example, the word icefying appears as early as the second page. It must confuse the hell out of Italian readers but, for English readers, it certainly makes the book more colourful.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Einaudi
First published in English 1985 by Quartet