Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 176 pages; 2021. Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks.
First published in 1948, Cesare Pavese’s novella The House on the Hill, which is set in Italy during the Second World War, makes a perfect companion read to Dominic Smith’s Return to Valetto.
Said to be based on the author’s own wartime experiences, it recounts the tale of a school teacher who falls in with a group of anti-fascists but can’t quite commit to their cause because he’d rather lead a quiet life.
The book explores notions of self-preservation versus altruism and examines the concept of collective moral responsibility in the face of war.
Safe on the hill
Set in and around Turin, in 1943, during a time of immense political upheaval, it shows how the Italian people, living under a Fascist regime aligned with Nazi Germany, tried to continue their normal day-to-day activities while their evenings were beset by the terror of bombs and fires.
It is against this backdrop that Corrado, a young unmarried man, lives his life, teaching in a school by day and escaping to a house on the hill at night. He rents a room in the house, occupied by two live-in landladies and their dog, and occasionally feels guilty for “escaping the sirens every evening, hiding away in a cool room, stretched out on my bed in safety”.
When he returns to the unscathed school every morning, he is never sure which children will have died in the night-time air raids, but seems immune to their plight, dismissing it as just another symptom of war:
We’d all become inured to terrible events, found them banal, ordinary, disagreeable. Those who took them seriously and said, ‘That’s war,’ were even worse, dreamers, morons.
Meeting the partisans
It is from the vantage point on the hill that he can often hear laughter and frivolity rising up from the valley, and when he traces those sounds he comes across a group of local partisans, who gather to drink and sing in a house-turned-tavern every night.
He joins them socially when he realises an old flame, Cate, is part of the group but stops short of signing up to their movement.
She [Cate] walked a few steps with me, then stopped.
‘You’re not a Fascist, I hope?’
She was serious and laughed. I took her hand and protested. ‘We’re all Fascists, Cate dear,’ I said softly. ‘If we weren’t, we’d be rebelling, chucking grenades, risking our necks. Anyone who lets be and puts up with it is a Fascist.’
‘Not true,’ she said. ‘We’re waiting for the right moment. When the war is over.’
Later, when Fascist leader Benito Mussolini is disposed and imprisoned and the Germans begin occupying Italian territory, a new era of violence is ushered in. Corrado must make an important decision: should he take up arms and join the partisans, or keep his head below the parapet and continue living his relatively stable and uninterrupted life where he has a roof over his head and food on the table every day?
The book charts what happens next, and it’s not quite as straightforward as Corrado might have imagined.
Alongside this exploration of human weakness and raw doubt, all beautifully translated by Tim Parks, Pavese uses the Italian countryside as a metaphor for life continuing on regardless of human history. His descriptions of the timeless landscape, its plants and the changing seasons are vivid and cinematic.
I walked in the sunshine, on the wooded slopes. Behind le Fontaine there were vineyards and fields with crops, and I were there often, to gather herbs and mosses in sheltered little glades, an old hobby from when I’d studied natural sciences. I always preferred ploughed fields to houses and gardens, and the edges of the fields where the wild takes over.
Told in a self-reflective, self-aware and often resigned voice, The House on the Hill gives us a glimpse of one man’s moral uncertainty and indecision at a time of great violence and political uncertainty.
The way Corrado rationalises his choices and tries to remain uninvolved is honest and insightful. Until we are put in those same situations, how does anyone know how they will react?
This is a real literary gem, and one I am pleased to have discovered.
Finally, the beautiful cover image of this Penguin Classic edition of the book is by Italian artist Mario Borgoni (1869-1936) from a 1927 travel and advertising poster of Merano.