Into the War
Italo Calvino, 2014.
A slight, slim collection of 3 interlinked stories set in 1940, at the start of Italy's involvement in WWII, describing an Italian adolescent's hesitating steps at the threshold of manhood.
The war is just an intriguing artifact to him, more a symbol of all he longs for and is afraid of, rather than the brutal reality to follow. He is more concerned with fitting in, emulating his friend who seems more experienced and worldly-wise, and to a lesser extent, girls.
The writing is clear, precise, and confident. The boy's intelligence, perceptiveness and innocence -- or perhaps, lack of world-weariness -- are skillfully sketched. And it is made clear, in a wonderfully subtle way, how little he knows of himself, particularly of his own weaknesses and self-delusions.
By the third story the protagonist is beginning to doubt the friend he admires, and beginning to suspect that the friend's supposed experience and sophistication is a sham. This is the first step to him becoming his own person -- or as Dickens put it (in the opening line of David Copperfield), he is starting to become the hero of his own story, so that that station is not held by another.
But in the end the collection disappoints. It is obviously told from the vantage point of adulthood, and what we feel cheated of is the full narrative arc of the adolescent's transition to adulthood, with all its attendant confusion, pain, disillusionment -- and wonder. Without that, the stories feel like little more than prologue, sketches for a memoir, perhaps. Would these ever have been published were they by a different author? Probably not, as they wouldn't have sold.