The Moon and the Bonfires

by Cesare Pavese

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Moon and the Bonfires is a novel narrated in the first person by protagonist Anguilla. It begins with a reflection on his mysterious origins. Unsure of his parentage, Anguilla was abandoned on the church steps at Alba before being adopted by Virgilia and Padrino from the orphanage at Alessandria.

At the age of forty, Anguilla has returned to his home village after traveling the world. He reflects on how the place has both remained the same and changed in his absence, recalling his childhood in poverty. After settling in a hotel for a fortnight’s stay during the Feast of the Assumption, Anguilla goes to visit his boyhood companion Nuto. Nuto was a clarinet player in a local band for a decade prior to his father’s death, and Anguilla recalls hearing about Nuto’s musicianship while living in Oakland, California. Nuto, whom Anguilla idolized in his youth, says he had to give up his musical aspirations. Nuto also implies that the farm on which the two men met as children, La Mora, is now for sale—and that Anguilla should buy it. Nuto also laments the impoverished, ignorant conditions in the village.

Anguilla visits the croft at Gaminella that his adoptive father used to own, where a sharecropper named Valino now lives with his physically fragile son, Cinto. Anguilla desperately wants to tour the meager home in which he spent his infancy, but Valino resents Anguilla for being rich. Anguilla wonders whether his fate may have been the same as Valino’s had he not made a fortune in Genoa and America.

Anguilla takes personal interest in Cinto, who reminds Anguilla of himself as a young man.

Once two buried fascists' bodies are found on the Gaminella property, the entire town becomes embroiled in unending drama over who is to blame. The parish priest seizes the opportunity to stir the people’s passions against communism and partisans, which angers Nuto.

In the interim, Anguilla learns that his two sisters and father died many years ago, and that his beloved La Mora has fallen to ruin under the old master’s nephew, Nicoletto.

He recalls the patron of La Mora, Sor Matteo, as a genial old man, while the farmhand Cirino taught Anguilla how to tend both livestock and crops with finesse. Anguilla rememberers La Mora as a generous, happy place. This causes him to examine his childhood with that of Cinto, whose father physically abuses the boy and who lives in utter squalor. Anguilla credits the influence of Nuto for his decision to change his own station in life.

For several chapters, Anguilla discusses the notable women he has known in life. These include Sor Matteo’s spirited daughters, Irene and Silvia, with whom Anguilla was somewhat obsessed as a farmhand at La Mora. He also recalls the kind yet controlling Teresa in Genoa and the sexual, ambitious Rosanne in Fresno.

Suddenly, while Anguilla and Nuto are strolling together at night, Cinto runs up to the pair in a frenzy, saying his father has killed the women, set fire to the house, and hanged himself in the vineyard after trying unsuccessfully to murder Cinto, too. Anguilla tells Nuto that they must take care of Cinto, but the Signora who owned the crop insists that the boy repay his father’s debts as a servant in her home.

Anguilla once again reflects on the fates of Irene and Silvia. After nearly succumbing to typhus one winter, Irene loses both her beauty and her spirit. Silvia, despite being jilted by many lovers, remains as hot-tempered as ever, and the young Santina becomes the most beautiful of Sor Matteo’s daughters....

(This entire section contains 795 words.)

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Silvia dies from a botched abortion procedure after getting pregnant by an older man who deserted her, and Irene marries the manipulative and abusive Arturo, who squanders her dowry until they are forced to leave La Mora for good.

Anguilla decides that he must leave the villages in the valley of the Belbo and return to Genoa. Cinto has moved in with Nuto and is learning a trade. On their last night together, he and Nuto walk up the hill that overlooks Gaminella, and Nuto tells Anguilla what became of Santina.

At twenty, Santina—or Santa—became a double agent spy for both the partisans and the fascists after abandoning La Mora; her mother had died, and she couldn’t stand Nicoletto. After discovering that she was behind a series of mopping-up operations where many partisans died, Santa is executed under a hail of gunfire. Afterward, Nuto and the men set fire to her body.

The novel ends abruptly after this revelation, which seems to shock and dismay Anguilla, who feels somewhat disillusioned with the provincial village life he had come home to experience again.