Italo Calvino’s novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders is essentially a coming of age story and the reader is presented with the life and times of various characters but most notably, the character of Pin. This is the novel’s central theme: the idea of a young boy struggling to find his place in the world – a scenario which is made all the more complicated by the backdrop of World War Two. Despite this, the novel has some fairy tale-like elements which bring it away from the increasingly popular at the time neo-realism style but helps to add the juxtaposition between reality and fantasy which lends itself to the book’s theme of growing up: the awkward relationship between Pin’s adult and childhood is mirrored by this throughout the novel. Italo Calvino has a unique style and voice – he frequently addresses the bizarre through a process of normalisation and as such, this book is no different. Whilst its central theme is Pin’s coming of age, it touches upon the difficulties of growing up in war time Europe and uses the war as an allegorical presentation of this – relying upon the idea of fantasy verses reality as one which further defines the tension between childhood and early adulthood that many experience, including Pin.
The reader’s initial introduction to Pin is one which immediately draws attention to him as a pubescent boy who is transitioning into becoming a man: “Pin has the hoarse voice of a much older boy; he shouts out his jeers in deep, serious tones, then suddenly breaks into a laugh with a note as high and sharp as a whistle, while red and black freckles cluster up round his eyes like a swarm of wasps” (Calvino, 1947, p2). This description demonstrates Pin’s boy-like nature with his high pitched laughter which juxtaposes with his impending manhood which is beginning to reveal itself through his serious, older-sounding voice. In doing this, Calvino has immediately thrust the reader into the novel’s central theme and from this point on, there is no avoiding it. Cleverly, Calvino has deliberately used the idea of Pin’s voice as being the ideal example of how the boy is growing up but is still not quite there yet: by having a character who speaks with a man’s voice, he is expected to behave like a man but by immediately contrasting this with Pin’s childish laughter and freckles, the reader is further reminded that this is a boy who is between child and adulthood – neither one exactly but not quite the other either.
Pin attempts to assert his adult status by becoming involved with the war and joining an Italian partisan resistance effort. In one scene, he is beaten by Nazis and upon discovering this, the leader of the Italian resistance, Pietromagro, states “Then you’re a political too” (Calvino, 1947, p98). Pin agrees that he is a ‘political’ although it clear from the way he agrees by repeating Pietryomagro’s exact words in a parrot-like fashion, that Pin is unaware of what this truly means on any deeper level and again, his two halves are juxtaposed against one another: his adult side has been beaten by the Nazis and is being accepted into a political movement whilst his child side is not totally certain what he is agreeing to and is clearly just trying to be a man. As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Pin’s masculinity is simply an act that he puts on in order to ‘fit in’ and to be accepted. The narrative voice reflects on how Pin’s life is now and states “Pin feels among them as he felt among the men in the tavern, only this world is more brightly coloured, more savage, with these nights in the hay and these beards crawling with lice” (Calvino, 1947, p210) – a statement which demonstrates how Pin is no longer concerned with childish fears and feels as though he is finding his place. But again, this is immediately juxtaposed by the following sentence: “There is something else which attracts and frightens Pin, apart from that absurd fixation about women which is common to all grown-ups…” (Calvino, 1947, p210) and instantly, the reader is reminded again of Pin’s young age and here he demonstrates his innocence by disregarding adult attraction as being a ‘fixation about women’ – something which he clearly hasn’t experienced yet and therefore implies that he is still immature in his thinking.
Calvino has carefully crafted the theme of growing up in his novel and does so through the experiences of a young boy trying to establish himself as a man in a world where war is the subject of the day and his masculinity must be proven before he is taken seriously. Repeatedly, throughout the book, Calvino juxtaposes Pin’s childish innocence with the terrifying brutishness of the war around him and Pin’s coming of age is something which fits into that very neatly. The novel is a discussion of the transition from boy to man and it is clear that Calvino is making the comment that war is the catalyst which speeds that process up.
Calvino, I., 1976. The Path to the Nest of Spiders. New York: Ecco Press.