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Cesare Pavese: La luna e i falò (The Moon and the Bonfire; The Moon and the Bonfires)

This was Pavese’s last novel, finished only a few months before he killed himself, and generally agreed by critic to be his best. It is narrated by an unnamed man, known only by his nickname of Anguilla (Eel). He has, as he tells us, travelled round the world, most recently having been in California. He has now returned to Italy (he had been orphaned while a child and brought up by another family). He has a small business in Genoa but visits the Langhe region where he and Pavese are from. He doesn’t know where he was born (he was abandoned as a baby on the steps of the cathedral) but goes back to Gaminella where he had been brought up. His adopted parents only agreed to bring him up, as they were paid for it. He is trying to rediscover his roots and reconnect with his native region, after his many travels.

His adopted parents have gone but he goes to the old farm. He meets his childhood friend, Nuto but also meets the current tenant of the farm, Valino, an unpleasant man, and his handicapped son, Cinto. It is Nuto who is able to help him understand what happened during the long period he was absent and help him try and understand the culture of the area where he is now, and maybe was before, a stranger. Nuto is now a carpenter and used to play the clarinet but gave up when his father died. It is Nuto, in conversation with Anguilla who both brings back Anguilla’s childhood but who also shows the special nature of the area, its attachment to the earth. We see this particularly in the case of Silvina who betrays the Partisans. She is captured by them and shot while trying to escape. Her body is covered with branches and burned, to fertilise the earth.

Violence is a key theme of this novel (and other Pavese novels). Valino loses his temper and burns down his farm, killing the handicapped old grandmother, nearly killing Cinto and finally killing himself. Another key theme is his relationship with the United States. Pavese had written a book on American literature and clearly adored the culture of the country, as did many Europeans but now he is moving away. The moon of the title refers, in part, to the landscape of California. Non c’è niente, è come la luna. [There’s nothing there. It’s like the moon.], though it also refers to the special landscape of the Langhe area, as the moon shines down in it on several occasions in the novel. In particular, the United States does not have the culture and traditions that Anguilla has come to find and, in the end, does find.

As a final novel, this is a fitting ending to a career, even though his death was so tragic. The connection with the culture and the traditions of his native region is skillfully brought to the fore and the way that Anguilla, the man of no background who has roamed the world, comes back to find this culture and these traditions is masterfully told.

Publishing history

First published 1950 by Einaudi
First English translation by Peter Owen in 1952