The Moon and The Bonfire [1949/68/2002] – ★★★★
“You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy”, so a proverb states. The Moon and The Bonfire is a deeply personal final novel by Italian author Cesare Pavese in which he tells the story of Anguila, a successful businessman, who returns from California to his native country Italy after years and years of absence. Never knowing his real mother and father, Anguila grew up in a foster family in one Piedmontese village near river Belbo in the north of Italy. Abandoned from birth and poor, he had to endure a rough childhood that was only somewhat brightened by his friendship with an older boy Nuto and his fascination with the beautiful daughters of his later master. Now, after years of absence, Anguila decides to reconnect with the land he once called home because after all – “there is no place like home”, or is there? Poverty, war and moral degradation had all left their mark on the region that was once Anguila’s whole world and his detailed re-evaluation of the past, spent desires and dashed hopes leads to surprising conclusions.
From the start, the uncertain position of the narrator is palpable in the story. Raised as a farm-hand, rather than a true son, Anguila had always been “adrift” in this world, always searching for a better life for himself somewhere else, in bigger and brighter cities. However, now that he has “tasted” many corners of this world, he is finally able to say to a thing or two about different lifestyles, and his disillusionment with these “better places”, such as Genoa and America, is heart-felt: “I remember the disappointment of walking the streets of Genoa for the first time – I walked in the middle of the road and looked for a little grass. There was the harbour, to be sure, there were the faces of girls, stores and banks, but a canebrake, a smell of dry branches, a patch of vineyard, where were they? [Pavese/Flint, 1950/68: 45]; “there [in America] was land, there was money. But nobody had enough, nobody stopped no matter how much he had, and the fields…looked like public gardens…” [Pavese/Flint, 1950/68: 59]. In turn, his nostalgic impressions of Italy are painted in brighter colours: “…there’s nothing more beautiful than a well-hoed, well-tended vineyard, with the bright leaves and that smell of the earth baked by an August sun” [Pavese/Flint, 1950/68: 101].
Pavese was deeply interested in this psychology of a man who was once very ambitious, chasing those big dreams of big cities, but then, suddenly, finds himself in the same “hole” of a town from which he once so desperately wanted to escape. All of the sudden, this shameful place of his upbringing reveals itself in all of its forgotten beauty and brutal reality, leading to our narrator experiencing a strange kind of enlightenment. It seems as though he has come full circle and is finally realising certain “truths” about his life, past and hometown, as T. S. Eliot once wrote: “… the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.” Anguila’s return to his “roots” brings a strange mixture of pain, confusion and nostalgic sweetness. Comparing his present life to those around him in the small village, does he feel regret, pity, guilt or shame? He looks at his home village with both detached curiosity and warm feelings, but few people seem to recognise him there. Then, traumas of war once pushed from his mind resurface with a brutal force.
The Moon and The Bonfire may be slightly repetitive in its main idea, but it is still a very evocative literary examination of nostalgia, childhood attachments and one’s sense of belonging that also pays a touching tribute to the beauty of Italian countryside.
Cesare Pavese (1908 – 1950) is considered to be one of the finest Italian writers of the twentieth century. He was also a poet, literary critic and an essayist who was once “exiled” for his anti-fascist activities and thus had trouble having his work published for quite some time. Instead, he translated many American and British classic works, bringing them to Italian readers for the very first time. Pavese died by suicide in 1950 shortly after the publication of The Moon and The Bonfire. This review was written as a contribution to my Italia Reading Challenge that runs from January to December 2022. It is still not too late to join in whether you want to read just one book or more by any Italian author(s) this year!