'Into the War' Is Introspective, Poignant, and Moralistic in All the Right Ways

by Hans Rollman

17 October 2014

Italo Calvino offers a rarely personal, and deeply insightful, glimpse of the adolescent experience of war.
 
cover art

Into the War

Italo Calvino

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
US: Sep 2014

The name Italo Calvino may not ring with as much familiarity for the present generation as it did for their parents, but that may soon change. The renowned Italian writer, political activist and journalist, who died in 1985 at the height of his fame, produced a prodigious body of work, yet some of it is only now appearing in English translation for the first time.

Calvino dabbled in a wide range of fiction as well as non-fiction. His work ranged from the fantastical ‘Cosmicomics’ series (the very definition of ‘genre-bending’), to a variety of stylized novels, short stories, even folktales. He dabbled in literary analysis, and wrote essays on politics, travel, and much more.

One genre he treated with a combination of fear and disdain, however, is autobiographical fiction. And that is precisely the genre of his recently translated short story collection, Into the War.

Calvino professes to despise the genre of autobiographical fiction. Which is odd, since he does it so well. Yet his suspicion and dislike of the genre verges on obsession. In response to compliments, he chastised colleagues for using or quoting from this material, and lectured them on why he regarded it an inferior and dangerous form of writing. “Once you start on the road to autobiography, where do you stop?” he famously wrote.

In fact, he wrote only occasionally in that style Translator Martin McLaughlin notes in his introduction that he dipped into it at oddly precise nine-year intervals, almost like an ex-drinker or ex–smoker who picks up a pack or goes on a binge every few years, only to emerge after the experience abstentious again.

Nevertheless, what he did produce in this genre is as delightful and stirring as the rest of his work (despite his own opinion of it). Calvino himself described this particular collection as his “concession to autobiography”.

Into the War is a collection of three short stories that was originally published in 1954 – “Into the War”, “The Avanguardisti in Menton”, and “UNPA Nights”. Surprisingly, as a book it is only now emerging in English translation. This is thanks to the work of McLaughlin, an Italian literature expert who has translated several of Calvino’s other works (and written a biography on the man), as well as contributed a useful introduction on the text to this volume. To be honest, this English translation appeared first in 2011, but Mariner Books is now in the process of reissuing it in a new series along with several of Calvino’s other works in English translation.

The three autobiographical stories are set in Italy during the early years of World War II; they offer evocative descriptions of what life was like for youth growing up as the war unfolded. The plots are simple yet Calvino’s beautiful and compelling prose, coupled with his tendency to tease out moral questions under unlikely circumstances, renders them deeply satisfying and highly engaging.

The story “Into the War” opens with the announcement of Italy’s entry into the war, and describes the subsequent arrival of refugees from mountain villages along the border. “The Avanguardisti in Menton” relates a ‘field trip’ of sorts that Calvino takes with the Avanguardisti (a sort of fascist youth brigade that Italian schoolboys were required to join) to a nearby town in occupied France. “UNPA Nights” describes a night Calvino and his irrepressible friend Biancone spend on air raid watch together. The stories all take place over short periods of time,  usually a matter of hours, yet they’re rich in detail, description and moral dilemma.

These are not war stories, per se; not in the style of Hemingway or Malraux, at least. Calvino didn’t actually see much in the way of action during the early years of the war: he was just young enough to avoid it (hence his descriptions offer the interesting and unusual insight of a teenage boy’s experiences on the home front and in the youth brigades). What the stories offer is the picture of war from a different angle: not that of the front lines with explosions and gas and runaway slaughter; but the picture of refugees being evacuated from the lines; old men removed from the villages in which they’d lived their whole lives and left to die alone in the streets of unfamiliar cities; bombed out villages and the death-like ennui of occupied French border-towns.

Calvino’s power of observation was clearly in full effect despite his youth during this period: the minutiae of detail and the evocative power of his prose is remarkable (especially for someone who distrusted the “literature of memory”). He joins a youth brigade outing to an occupied French town across the border, mostly just for the sake of having something interesting to do, and finds himself disappointed by what it offers: “We passed by big grey Art Nouveau buildings all boarded up. What was missing were those insignificant details, like the colours of paint on the walls around shops or the different bodywork of their cars that gave a sense of a life that was different from ours though very close to us: the sense of a France that was alive. This was a France that was dead, it was an Art Nouveau sarcophagus…”

There’s another theme running through these stories, and that derives from Calvino’s interest in exploring the experience of adolescence and the morality of youth. Calvino doesn’t succumb to caricatures of youth that fail to take young people seriously. He suggests that young people, even teenagers, have a very deep and active sense of morality that is all the more intense since it is in the process of unfolding, and of being tried and tested. He is therefore fascinated by his own reaction, and that of his young friends, to the war and to the fascist movement.

When Mussolini announces the country is at war, it is oddly anti-climactic. There’s an idle, abstract excitement – the opportunity for interesting adventures, glory and career advancement – but deep down the boys in his circle are much more interested in continuing their long summer nights of swimming and flirting. One of his friends is on leave when the announcement comes: he’s enjoying his vacation but fears he ought to cancel it because he assumes the war will only last a matter of days or weeks and he might miss it; and that might mean missing out on career opportunities and connections down the road. Reading with the gift of hindsight, one cannot help feeling a sense of poignancy at the pathos of their situation; at how little the boys knew of what was to come (this friend did not return from the war).

Calvino’s depiction of their attitudes and reactions offers a convincing portrayal of the drives and contradictions they felt. They were torn between a general awareness that the war was a bad thing and a dislike for the silly patriotic fervour they saw around them. On the other hand, there was desire for the opportunity to pursue interesting experiences and adventures. Calvino reflects on his own reaction: he knew that if he reached the right age and the war was still going, it would mean danger and death. “Yet each time I allowed myself to fantasize about my future I could not set it in any other context than the war: and then it was a war of derring-do, in which somehow I found myself happily free and different. So I experienced both the pessimism and excitement of those times, and I lived in confusion, and went out to amuse myself.”

Calvino was able to avoid being sent to war when he finally turned of age by getting into university instead. Following graduation – the war was still ongoing – he went into hiding to avoid military service, and eventually he joined a band of Communist resistance fighters waging guerrilla war against the Italian fascists and German Nazis in the mountains.

But back to his teenage years. The confusion felt by these youth is poignantly conveyed: a regret and embarrassment that war has come to define their lives; a disdain for the pretensions of patriotism; yet a desire to be liked and popular. What matters to them is not winning or losing or fighting for their country, but being witty and liked by their fellows. While strolling around an occupied town, he and a militia friend are quick to make fun of lingering symbols of French pride; but equally quick to make fun of the Italian eagle on their own uniforms: “the whole world was stupid and only the two of us were witty and clever.”

Indeed, one of Calvino’s recurrent interests was understanding adolescence, a period of change that is often not treated seriously or in any great depth in ‘serious’ literature. But it provides a central focus for Calvino’s reflections here. This is a book about childhood and childishness, in which children are not necessarily childish, and in which childishness is not the exclusive domain of children. For it is also a book about war, and one of its subtle successes lies in its portrayal of the deadly childishness of war.

This is deftly conveyed in Calvino’s description of the Avanguardisti (youth brigade) looting of a town on the French Riviera. Looting is condemned in wartime, but the childish excitement with which these youth range through the town, eager to be the first to discover some new wonder, breaking open cupboards and workshops abandoned by the fleeing French, conveys the sense of a great game. They eagerly fill their pockets with useless metal pipes, door handles, umbrellas; they make labyrinths of the furniture-covers left by the evacuating inhabitants of the houses. The discovery of a cuckoo-clock offers a world of delight. Looting may be considered bad form, but for Calvino and his friends it is also a great game and part of their childhood journey of discovery. Calvino is a writer who enjoys moralistic tales: and the moral here is that putting children into the middle of a warzone will not change the fact they are still children.

But this does not mean they are devoid of morality, and Calvino’s talent lies in the way he teases out these complications. While he joins the others in exploring and looting the town, he doesn’t feel right taking anything for himself. But later, when the brigade reassembles and shows off to each other their loot, he feels ashamed and jealous at being the only one going home without exciting or valuable treasures. He briefly hates himself for this: he’s missed a great opportunity. Why didn’t he take anything? Was it because he was a coward? Or because he was simply lazy and lacked initiative? But then the adults, their officers, appear, congratulate them on their looting, promise to help them sneak it back home, and the captain sends them off to do a bit more looting with the admonishment: “’I tell you this,’ he added, in a louder voice, ‘that any young man who is here today and does not take away something is a fool! Yes, sir, a fool, and I would be ashamed to shake his hand!’

Suddenly everything has changed: Calvino no longer feels himself inadequate for not having looted with his peers; the captain’s comment has suddenly turned him into a courageous resister, virtuously rejecting the lure to buy into the fascists’ patriotic drivel. He is sanctimoniously proud of himself once more.

Such is the emotional volatility and honest confusion that ensues when moral people are put into immoral situations. Calvino excels at this sort of subtle psychologizing: it’s thought-provoking, and not in the least heavy-handed. (and he does eventually take a souvenir, with a twist – but I’ll leave that for the reader to enjoy)

But it’s not just the children who suffer from childishness. The opening story, “Into the War”, ends on a powerful note, with Calvino catching a glimpse of Mussolini himself, and realizing the truth that even while old refugees were dying in the streets, torn from their homes – and later his friends were dying too, out on the front—for the politicians and generals this war was a childish game. Their great leader, he realizes, is nothing more than a little boy. The description is one easily transferable to other leaders who take their countries to war.

“The war was here, the war he had declared, and he was in a car with his generals; he had a new uniform… And as though it were some sort of a game, he sought only the complicity of other people – not too much to ask – so much so that people were tempted to allow him it, in order not to spoil his party: in fact one almost felt a sting of remorse at knowing that we were more adult than he was, in not wanting to play his game.”

In our current era in which old conflicts have flared anew and wars once more dominate the headlines, it’s appropriate that Calvino’s astute observations be made available to a world struggling to understand what it means to be surrounded by conflict, with new generations growing up in a context defined by military struggles and their aftermaths. Much of the literature of the immediate post-war period was unabashedly critical of war, but Into the War offers a perspective that’s refreshing in its honest portrayal of the conflicted feelings this produces. It portrays the horrors of war as experienced on the home front, and demonstrates how the subtle effects of a militarized society creep back to haunt the homeland and transform even the most stubborn and timeless traditions. Because as Calvino writes, no matter how patriotically the war is pitched, “…for the conquering soldier every land is enemy territory, even his own.”

Into the War

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