Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Letter From Piemonte by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Accompanied by two Piemontesi friends, we drove out to the district of Le Langhe in the hilly back-country of the province of Cuneo, some fifty or sixty miles southeast of Turin. I wanted a look at the town of Santo Stefano Belbo, where Cesare Pavese was born, and at the rugged hills and well-tended vineyards thereabouts which figure in so many of his novels, stories, and poems. And more generally I was trying to see as much as I could of the rural north of Italy, where tourists seldom travel.

We crossed the high Cuneese plain on good straight roads and at Bra entered the first hills, where crusts of snow lay in the hollows. More snow would fall (it was the end of February), but men were already out pruning orchards and lopping and bundling brush from grotesque stubby trees growing in widely spaced rows in the soaked fields. Our road wound among the terraced vineyards, up and up. The land was contained by stone walls, and the vines, supported by reeds and strands of wire, were long naked lines against the winter sky. From a summit you could look away and see on a farther hill the clustered buildings of an ancient town, towers, castles, and defensive walls. And far below, sprawled in its stony bed on a course to the Po, was a shallow river bordered as far as the eye saw into the mist by perfect fields and rows of pollarded trees and aisles of Lombardy poplars marking the irrigation ditches. At every curve of the way you expected to come upon a caparisoned horse ridden by a knight in a metal suit. But there were only the contadini on bicycles - old men with great black capes wound around them - and leatherjacketed young men driving tamdem lorries and motorcycles.

Near Alba was the vermouth country. Under a hill crowned by a five-hundred-year-old castle the plants of Cinzano and Cora bustled, their modern yards buried under stacks of empty bottles. We stopped in Alba, one of the centres of the Langhe and a town famous for the marketing of truffles gathered in the surrounding hills. There were some medieval watchtowers to see, with columned openings in the upper stories, and there were Lombard churches and plaques marking the places where partisans had been executed in the tight crooked streets by the nazifascisti.

Le Langhe began - Pavese's Langhe, the Langhe of The Moon and the Bonfires and Paesi tuoi and the last part of The House in the Hills - beyond Alba where the land was poorer, the hills steeper, and the old stones spoke not so much of past artistry as of present poverty. We turned into the Belbo valley above Canelli, where the tiny river ran between two commanding hills. The higher, Monte Cucco, had an old church sitting on its levelled crest; on the other stood a ruined tower of the Middle Ages. Under this hill with the tower lay Santo Stefano Belbo.

The town was very small. Behind the square it started halfheartedly up the hillside and quit against the impossible massive bank in a quarter of stone-paved alleys, some of them quite steep. Water seeped out of the hill, barely forming a trickle, but enough to keep the stones damp and cold. The crooked streets bore the illustrious names of Cavour and Mazzini, and the stone houses were squat. A big open place, ill-defined and unpaved, was the piazza. Was this the place so often mentioned by Pavese, where the bands played at the fairs and festivals, and people the length of the valley came down from the hills, milling round the booths and the bandstand, dancing and drinking and playing cards? Now a corner of the square was cluttered with a makeshift amusement park that was left over from Carnival and seemed to be breaking up. A merry-go-round, some vans and booths, all dead. Alongside one of the vans, where those who ran the amusements camped, a big wash hung waiting for the sun. It was noon, nobody was about, nor was there anything to be recognized out of Pavese's books. Instead, in the middle of the piazza a monument erected to the dead of the First World War towered above the merry-go-round and clotheslines, reminding one what a minestrone Italy's history has been in this century. For set in its cairn-like bases were marble plaques on which the names of the fallen had been cut, and the list had been amended to include one or two killed in Ethiopia and those killed in the first part of the Second World War that was the Fascist War, as well as those who had died as partisans after the summer of 1943 in what is now officially known as the War of Liberation.

We turned down a side of the piazza pleasantly lined with plane trees and stone benches and a broad walk, and at the end of these trees in a quiet dignified corner, unexpectedly, was a small memorial to Pavese, which had been dedicated last September, probably on the anniversary of his birth in the town, in 1908. It seemed an excellent likeness, a bronze head on a square travertine shaft, inscribed simply, 'Santo Stefano Belbo to Cesare Pavese'.

The lives and places at the heart of Pavese were not the kind you discovered merely visiting a town. For in Pavese's writing about Le Langhe what he most concerned himself with was the life in the hills, the brutalized warped existences of contadini who with their bare hands and strong backs tore their living from an unyielding land, men half-starved on a diet of polenta and grapes and bad wine. These were the isolated farms the visitor saw only from afar, if at all, clusters of shedlike stone buildings with red-tiled roofs, huddled and leaning together, barn, stable, living quarters, toolshed, threshing floor, and haystack sharing the same bit of ground. If you passed close enough you saw the dogs leashed to a long wire racing madly up and down their runs. Reading Pavese, you knew the women here came down to lesser villages than Santo Stefano once a month to bake their bread and in times of illness might wait weeks and weeks for the doctor, who climbed up to them on calls just once a year. We imagined we saw dozens of such places, and the glimpse of them alone, in their setting, made understandable those eruptions of violence encountered in Pavese's pages. There was the girl in Paesi tuoi pitchforked through the neck by her brother; and in The Moon and the Bonfires the wretched farmer who worked on shares and, overcome by 'the utter misery and rage at his life which never gave him a break', kicked his sister-in-law nearly to death, burned down his house with the woman and her bedridden mother and his ox in it, and hung himself from a tree. The country evoked these things, but not the town.

We had lunch in Santo Stefano in a trattoria fronting the piazza. At a long table in a cavernous room with a vaulted ceiling workingmen drank wine and wiped their plates with bread. But we were led past them into a smaller back room that had a coal stove to heat it and tables spread with cloths. The people who came to eat in here were dressed like businessmen and spoke Italian rather than Piemontese.

It was not possible to meet Pavese's contadini. There simply were no opportunities. I had to imagine that they were the same men we saw in the marketplace on Tuesday mornings in Cuneo, in from the country with their meagre baskets of shrivelled apples and a few dozen eggs, standing in rows in the big cold shed, and with their holy patience waiting for customers. There you could look them in the eye, and I studied them as they studied me. I watched their twisted black hands burrowing for a coin in their purses; they looked at my English shoes. There were two obstacles preventing contact: one was the language, the dialect, and the other was the celebrated taciturnity of the Piemontese countryman.

The language was a rather French-sounding dialect using a lot of French words and having also a vocabulary of its own. I recalled Corrado's flight from the fascists and Germans at the end of The House in the Hills; the first thing he did to blend into Le Langhe once he passed Bra and Alba was to adopt the dialect in his speech.

Coming up through the mountains from Savona on the train one evening weeks before, we had had our experience of it. I was watching at the window, wanting to know when he left Liguria and passed into Piemonte. One other person shared our second-class compartment, and by his horny hands and burnt red face I knew he belonged to that country. Turning to him, I asked where we were, was this Piemonte yet. I got the most dampening silence imaginable, as if I had spoken to the winds on the peak of one of his mountains. This man never acknowledged our existence. Later I found we had been in Piemonte at that moment all right - in the district of Le Langhe. Yes, a Cuneo friend told us when we related this incident, the contadino hereabouts is as closed within himself as his land is closed within these mountains. And when this friend used the word closed, chiuso, he drew his fingers slowly into a fist and tightened his forearm against his chest. I had read examples in Pavese of the commoner range of contadino taciturnity, such as this one from The Moon and the Bonfires:

... I'd met old Valino already. Nuto had stopped him in the square when I was with him and asked him if he knew me. He was dark and thin, with eyes like a mole which looked at me narrowly, and when Nuto told him laughing that here was someone who had eaten his bread and drunk his wine, his face clouded and he stood there without committing himself.... We told him who I was and where I came from, but Valino didn't take the black look off his face and said only that the land was poor on the hillside and the rains took away a bit more every year.

Leaving the trattoria, we went and looked up an old man in the town who had known Pavese. 'Is this where the barrel-maker lives?' we asked at a door, and a woman, the cooper's wife, invited us inside to sit in the one heated room while she went for her husband, who was lying down after lunch in another part of the house. In came a magnificent bent-over little man with wavy snow-white hair, and taking his place behind a large table that nearly filled the room he greeted his four visitors with a great smile which never left his face.

He stood leaning over the table on his fists and spoke only Piemontese, saying he was sorry his Italian was not good. But our friends spoke dialect to him, putting him at ease, and they translated my questions from Italian into Piemontese.

'When he was a boy this high I knew him,' the old man said of Pavese, levelling his hand table-height. 'His father had a farm outside the town, but Pavese himself left Santo Stefano when he was still very young, five or six.' He screwed up his deeply lined, ruddy face, trying to remember, and then taking his breath said he did not have much to tell.

'I saw a lot of him then,' he started up again. 'But the boy didn't talk; it was a funny thing, he never said a word.'

'Didn't talk or didn't know how to talk?' I asked him.

'Didn't talk - shy, taciturn,' the old man said. 'He just listened to everything that was said and didn't speak. He was very strange.'

'These people came from America to see Pavese's native town,' our friends said in cross conversation with the old man's wife, who stood like him at the edge of the table without sitting down.

'They say that's the way with deep minds,' the old man went on.

'From America?' the wife said. She had been making a coat, and the cloth lay there on the table between them. 'They know about Pavese in America?' That seemed marvellous to her. But what the word America told her I did not know. Once when I told a man I was from America he said he had a sister there, in São Paulo.

When we were about to leave, the old man commenced on a long story about some business dealing with Pavese he'd had in later years. Something to do with a property which Pavese's more business-minded sister had had to straighten out for him. 'They sat right there,' the old man said, nodding his head towards us. 'He said nothing; she did all the talking.'

Afterwards, we went walking in the town, looking in at a shop which displayed Pavese's novels in the window along with the lurid pulp novels that were the regular diet. I had my eye on the ruined tower on the hill and wanted to climb up there. In the steep alleys at the back of the town, searching for the path, we discovered a beautiful old church set on a platform that had been carved out of the flank of the hill. But only after we had gone around from one side to the other searching for an open door did we discover the place was in ruin. There was no glass in the few windows, and the plaster was damp and crumbling. A woman came out of a house to ask what we were looking for. We wanted to see the church. It was closed. Couldn't it be opened?

'It's closed for ever,' she said. 'Abandoned.'

'Too bad,' I said, 'it's a beatiful church.'

'Was beautiful,' the woman said. 'There's nothing inside it now. They stripped everything, decorations, paintings, even the stones of the floor. The priests,' she added.

'And what did they do with these things?'

'Well, they built a new church.'

'Then everything is in the new church.'

'Ah, no,' she said. 'The new church is as bare as this one - the priests sold everything.'

From up on the hill the rooftops of the houses were not the usual red tile but a mixture of red and yellow, like Indian maize. We studied the bare damp vineyards. The walls terracing the land were built in the form of arches. The vines were small, on ancient stalks, and in the corners and edges of the steep vineyards were the beds of rustling reed that were harvested as stakes to support the vines. Far below a man pruned his vineyard. The air was mild but the sun was miserly, shining through a shroud of mist. Yet we could see straight across to Monte Cucco. Somewhere on the slopes of that hill Pavese's uncles still had property. The old cooper had told us. You could see the farms there, looking more like villas. The houses were nestled into the hillside, and the yards were all planted in grapes. A road zigzagged up to the flattened summit, where a church or small monastery sat.

Leaving Santo Stefano we drove up the Belbo valley in the opposite direction from Canelli. The hills around us were suddenly much higher and wilder. At a certain point in the road by a wall where a few poor houses huddled together and some rows of hazels grew in the strip of land along the river, I felt I saw the exact place where a partisan had died in an encounter with the enemy in a poem of Pavese's which starts, 'You have no idea of the hills/ where blood was spilled.' We crossed the river, heading up towards the distant ridge. Our road wound from one summit to another, each one higher, so that now the ground was covered with snow and we were in clouds. I was sure these were the hills Corrado had crossed, sleeping in haystacks and hiding in an abandoned chapel, as he made his way home. Groups of contadini in their black capes emerged ghostlike in the grey light as we sped past.

It was not until later that I thought again of the old man who had known Pavese as a boy. How had we ever found him? Somebody in Cuneo had given us a name, saying, 'When you get to Santo Stefano look up Pavese's old friend Nuto, the bottaio.' The white-haired man we spoke to had not been named Nuto. But there was a character called Nuto in The Moon and the Bonfires who made buckets and barrels. We had been in a strange town looking not for a real man but for a character in a novel. We might have been in Hannibal, Missouri, asking for someone named Huck.

First published, in slightly different form, in The New Republic, 12 September 1964.

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