- War and Peace in Beppe Fenoglio’s Partisan Novels 1
War, or rather wars—the civil or partisan one of 1943–45, the first World War, or even the African war of the early thirties—can be found to some extent everywhere in the narrative work of the Piedmontese writer Beppe Fenoglio (1922–1963). At the most evident and literal thematic level: his stories are often set during a war, have war as setting or background, preparation or perspective (as in his Racconti della guerra civile, later entitled I ventitre giorni della città di Alba, in the series of texts that have Johnny as a protagonist—Urpartigiano, Partigiano Johnny 1 and 2, Primavera di bellezza—or Milton, another embodiment of Johnny in Una questione privata and in Frammenti di romanzo), or as a follow up, a consequence, a product, or an effect, as in La paga del sabato. At another more general and metaphoric level, war can and has in fact been recognized as the natural status, the natural, almost consubstantial, condition of man according to Fenoglio (and here I am thinking in particular of the short novel La malora, and of many of the stories collected in Un giorno di fuoco). At this level, of course, there is no longer, or not even, a need for an historically identifiable war. Any time, place, or situation is sufficient and adequate for such a characterization. There is, as we shall see, something true even in this contention, notwithstanding or perhaps precisely on account of its generality. But here I would like to call the reader’s attention not so much to one or [End Page 31] the other of the two terms mentioned in my title, as to the relationship they declare, and inquire about it. War and peace: what is the relationship between the two in Fenoglio, according to Fenoglio?
We may begin perhaps (and end, I suppose, given the time at our disposal) with a question, the one asked by Nick, for instance, in Frammenti di romanzo I, 3, 1708: 2 “C’è mai stata una pace? Did we ever have peace?” “Never—is Milton’s answer—I really believe that there was never a peace. The world has always been sick” (p. 1709); and, always in Frammenti di romanzo, the text into which Una questione privata, once it was abandoned by the writer, precipitated or metamorphosed, consider what the character Milton himself has to say about what he calls his “irregolarità,” his irregularity, of the “burning” he feels inside, in other words of his desire, which is ambiguously defined “sete di morte”: the thirst for death, the fascists’ death, but also his own death. For him, we read first, “when [the war] will end, it will be really the end in every possible sense.” But then the character corrects himself:
And then for him it would never be finished: he would continue being thirsty and peace would turn off all the taps. Only his death would quench his thirst(I, 3, 2168). 3
In other words it is war that sustains him, keeps him alive, or is even his reason for living. Taking it away from him is the same as killing him. It is necessary however to clarify the nature of this war, of his war. Milton is someone who hunts for fascists: obsessively, one might even say, maniacally. This is a character dominated by an exasperated, evil, almost experimental naughtiness, that is generally absent in other more “sentimental” fenoglian heroes. But what is interesting, or should be found interesting, is the structure of the relationship that regulates our two terms, war and peace. The structure is not teleological, as it is clearly in a sentence like: the end of war is peace; or we fight, we make war in order to reach peace. On the contrary, or instead: war becomes an end in itself; peace, or the end of war, becomes for a character like [End Page 32] Milton The End: his own, first of all. But let us try to explain better, by adding more elements to the picture.
In Il partigiano Johnny, the particular angst that at one point seemingly takes hold of...