Those who were previously united by strong social bonds, suddenly became enemies and killed each other. This situation prompted many writers to testify what the Resistance period meant for people who lived it firsthand.
On April 25, Italian people celebrate their Liberation Day. This national holiday commemorates the end of the twenty-three years-long fascist regime and of the nazi occupation as well. Liberation came in 1945, after a civil war lasting two years during which the Italian resistance, together with the Italian Co-belligerant Army and the allies, fought the fascist forces of the Italian Social Republic (RSI) supported by Germany. The time of civil war was characterized by the large participation of both young men and women, leading to the death of almost 40 thousand fighters on both sides.
The urge to testify
Therefore, this event is considered a controversial page of Italian history, whose protagonists were indeed very young men and women who, previously united by strong social bonds, suddenly became enemies and killed each other. This particular situation prompted many writers of that time to testify what the Resistance period was and what it meant for people who lived it firsthand. Novelists such as Italo Calvino, Beppe Fenoglio, Cesare Pavese, Carlo Cassola and many others felt the need to put in writing those years of war, giving birth to very heart-felted masterpieces.
Calvino’s point of view
One of the most popular books of the post-war period is Calvino’s first novel, ‘The Path to the Nest of Spiders’, a fiction novel alluding to war. Written in 1947 and translated into English ten years later, this work is also significant for the preface that the author added in the 1964 edition. With a retrospective analysis, Calvino tried to individuate the reasons that, in those years, led to what he called ‘Italy’s literary explosion’:
‘This was my first novel; I can almost say it was my first piece of writing, apart from a few stories. What impression does it make on me now, when I pick it up again? I read it not so much as something of mine but rather as a book born anonymously from the general atmosphere of a period, from a moral tension, a literary taste in which our generation recognized itself, at the end of World War II.
Italy’s literary explosion in those years was less an artistic event than a physiological, existential, collective event. We had experienced the war, and we younger people—who had been barely old enough to join the partisans—did not feel crushed, defeated, ‘beat’. On the contrary, we were victors, driven by the propulsive charge of the just-ended battle, the exclusive possessors of its heritage. Ours was not easy optimism, however, or gratuitous euphoria. Quite the opposite. What we felt we possessed was a sense of life as something that can begin again from scratch, a general concern with problems, even a capacity within us to survive torment and abandonment; but we added also an accent of bold gaiety. Many things grew out of that atmosphere, including the attitude of my first stories and my first novel.’
War and Resistance in modern novels
Calvino stressed the importance of direct experience as a precondition for writing stories set during the war or post-war period. However, even in recent years, many Italian authors kept writing about resistance. This kind of movement that can be defined as ‘inexperience literature’, has been the main object of a recent academic study, conducted by Marina Calivi, a newly graduate from Bologna University. Thanks to her research, it could become easier to understand why, even today, resistance remains a current topic and which is the difference between direct and undirect testimony.
Loss of agency
‘Our age is characterized by a loss of connection between ethics and politics: The ideologies of the 20th century do not influence events anymore’. This statement, supported by several sociologists, literary critics and historians, is linked to the so-called ‘sovereignty of present’. Indeed, modern individuals seem to have lost touch with the collective past and have a precarious vision of their future. As a consequence, the only perceptible time is the present one. Furthermore, agency is felt as an impossible faculty, as it has been deprived of concreteness and authority.
As a reaction to this historical context, many contemporary authors chose to write historical novels, in order to restore a connection with our history and social background. In this regard, the Italian resistance period is particularly meaningful, as it represents a controversial page of our national past. For this reason, modern novelists try to explain events from a different perspective, proposing not exactly a counter-history, but an alternative version of the official history.
Obviously, there is a significant difference between these historical novels and the traditional ones, due to the lack of firsthand experience of the narrated events. Therefore, the ‘testimony era’ has been replaced by an ‘archive era’: mediated experiences, pictures and documents are the main source of inspiration for these writers. The loss of firsthand experience represents a limit but, on the other hand, this could help contemporary authors to maintain the right distance from the events, as they are necessarily less emotionally involved. In conclusion, it could be said that the main difference between first-generation writers and modern ones is that, while the former had to elaborate strategies to move away from narrative subjects, the latter try to get closer to historical periods they did not live.