The House on the Hill

by Cesare Pavese

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The House on the Hill, set in northern Italy in the city of Turin and its surrounding hills, describes events in 1943-1944 as the Allies invade Italy, the Germans occupy it, various Italian governments claim authority, and armed partisans take to the hills. Anarchy exists outside the range of the guns of the nearest political authority.

The narrator, Corrado, ceaselessly moves between the city of Turin, where he teaches, and the nearby hills, where he lives in a villa owned by Elvira and her mother. His movement matches that of the city dwellers who go into the hills at night to escape air raids. There is a feeling of movement without change as Corrado seeks a peace that always eludes him. At night, Turin looks calm viewed from the hills; by day, the hills promise haven from dangers in the city.

In the first chapters of this relatively brief novel, Corrado introduces a number of characters who will be eliminated, one by one, from his life. Some of his friends have already been killed in the war or imprisoned by the Fascists. Several of his friends are anti-Fascist, especially Fonso, a young partisan who can commit himself to action in ways that Corrado cannot.

Cate, his lover eight or ten years earlier, reenters his life with her son, Dino. Corrado soon realizes that Dino is probably his child. He reestablishes his friendship with Cate and spends time talking, studying, and walking with Dino. Elvira, a forty-year-old spinster, loves the narrator, but he rejects her with contempt and pity. “We are born and die alone,” Corrado tells her, and she answers: “But we just want a little love....”

In the summer of 1943, the Allies invade Italy, Benito Mussolini is overthrown, and the Germans tighten their grip on Turin. As the months pass, the war becomes more brutal and more personal. Corrado becomes increasingly fearful, not of winter’s approaching cold or death rained from bombers, but because he grasps a secret: Amid the gentle hills and beautiful city, which promise that the cycle of history will bring a brighter future, bestial things still happen: “I was beginning to look round me, panting like a hare at its dying gasp.” As Fonso and others prepare to go into the hills and join the resistance, Dino is pulled into their orbit, away from Corrado. Cate is imprisoned, perhaps to be shot. The Germans conduct a desultory search for Corrado, evidently wanting him only because of his association with Fonso and Cate. The Germans do not pay much attention to him; maybe, he thinks, because he alone is useless and does not even merit punishment. Elvira arranges for Corrado to hide in a seminary, the College of Chieri, where he is joined by Dino.

Even Chieri does not provide sanctuary. The student body, like the general society, is divided into factions, some students informing on others. In the spring of 1944, the Germans come to Chieri and Corrado flees. Dino has already disappeared, evidently to join the partisans.

Corrado moves to another range of hills, to his family’s farm. He threads his way through Italian Fascists, Germans, partisans, and other bands of armed men. Violence is random. The last chapter opens six months after Corrado reaches the farm. Corrado, looking back, regards himself as having lived in authentically. He has come to know that life consists of something else than what he has lived. The war continues; only for the dead is it really over.

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