The Path to the Nest of Spiders

by Italo Calvino

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

It is Italy in the year 1944: The Germans are locked in combat with the Allied forces advancing from the south, while the countryside is roamed by partisan bands, ambushing German convoys and disrupting their supply lines. Overhead, Allied bombers pass by on their way to the destruction of cities and factories, while at sea the low, dark shapes of warships patrol the coasts.

The convulsion of a world at war is lost on Pin, a young, foulmouthed urchin who is both precocious in worldly ways and almost touchingly naive. He smokes, cadges drinks from men in the local bar, sings them dirty songs and tells them filthy jokes to win their approval, but despises them so thoroughly that he inevitably turns on them with his cruel, accurate wit. The men turn on him with their fists and boots and kick him out into the street. For Pin,however, adults are his only companions; he cannot get along with boys his own age.

Pin lives with his sister, Rina, who is known as the Dark Girl of Long Alley. Rina’s current boyfriend is a young German sailor; there have been many others, and Pin contemptuously dismisses his sister as a whore. Their mother is dead and their father has deserted them.

Pin is plunged into the complexity of the war through accident, almost on a dare. The drinkers in the bar become excited when a partisan recruiter passes through town, and, although their commitment is limited to some loud and indiscreet talk, they convince Pin to steal a pistol from Rina’s German sailor. Pin takes the weapon when the two are making love, but instead of turning it over to the men he buries it at his secret place, a stretch of grassy riverbank where spiders build their nests.

On his way home, Pin is arrested, beaten during interrogation, and lodged in a former English villa that is now a prison. There he meets Red Wolf, the legendary young Communist partisan. Even Pin, who is indifferent to the war, has heard of this young bridge destroyer and Nazi fighter. Perhaps, Pin thinks, he has at last met someone with whom to share the secret of the spiders’ nests. Red Wolf and Pin escape, but before Pin can reveal his treasure the two are separated.

Pin meets Cousin, another partisan, who takes Pin with him to his detachment. It is a ragged group, a combination of misfits, and the partisan commanders always station it far from actual fighting during battles. Pin finds these adults no better than the wine drinkers back home. As he follows them he resumes his old behavior, mocking the men with his coarse, uncomfortably accurate jokes, while watching them narrowly for any signs of weakness or fault. Only Cousin, who, like Pin, expresses contempt and scorn for women, wins his approval. Finally, disgusted beyond endurance, he leaves the band to return home.

Pin finds that his sister is now the mistress of a German officer; nothing has changed at home, so he leaves. Down by the river he searches for the hidden pistol among the nests of spiders. Throughout his adventures he has often thought of it and feared that others might have found it. At last, he unearths it. Cousin comes along and Pin shows him the spiders’ hidden homes. As the book ends, the two go off together across the fields.

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