The theme of death and decay dominates this novella, from the first chapter with the anecdotes of people who have been lost and have died in the mountains to Barnabo’s last sighting of the famed bandits as thin old men. Del Colle’s grave, with his plumed hat nailed above it, is referred to at different stages in the story as a recurring thought haunting Barnabo. The Polveriera, constant reminder of the road that was never built, is a concrete symbol of the vanity of human aspiration and endeavor.
The novel juxtaposes two notions of time. On the one hand, there is the time which is measured by human standards: the shape on the wall betraying how long it has been since the rifles were last taken down, substantiated by the rust in the barrels; or the moth holes in Barnabo’s uniform. On the other hand, there is the timelessness of the mountains and of nature, which dwarfs human experience.
The present is gauged as a failure against the aspirations of the past, but there is also a third dimension of time: the future. “It is today that time passes,” thinks Del Colle, “tomorrow it has not yet passed.” The future exists either within the limits of human aspirations, invariably to be disappointed, or in the endless permanence of nature. It is in this latter dimension that Barnabo, having realized the futility of any human gesture, finds peace and fulfillment.