This is Calvino’s first novel, and one which for a long time after writing it he disowned. I was assuming this was because it was written in the post-Second World War Italian neo-realist tradition, which Calvino also disowned – or at least, diverged from immediately after (the stories in his next book, Our Ancestors, are a long, long way from neo-realism) but apparently not: he disowned it for its contemptible lack of authenticity.
The novel is about a boy (a teenager) growing up in Italy (San Remo) during the Second World War, and follows him as he becomes increasingly involved in the Italian resistance against the Germans, drifting through the war-time landscape in a manner very reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s film Come and See. Its most successful parts I found to be the early parts of the narrative: of the boy who comes from the lowest rung of society, looked down upon by all, whose upbringing has made him too grown-up to belong among other boys but not yet either accepted in adult society. Strangely – or perhaps not so, considering Calvino’s later writing – this is also the element most divergent from Calvino’s own life: it is when the boy meets the resistance that the novel becomes less striking. Calvino’s own basic complaint about this book is that he felt he did a grave disservice to the comrades he fought alongside in the resistance, making them for literary reasons merely caricatured versions of themselves; and in so doing, he sees his novel as a failed attempt to express the Italian experience of this particular part of the war. He recommends instead reading Beppe Fenoglio’s A Private Matter, a book which I have indeed read but remember almost nothing about (a man perhaps takes his own private revenge over something, while at the same time fighting for Italy?).
Calvino’s criticisms are true enough, but it serves for a passable yarn.