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Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (58)
When Don Abbacchio came to the reading of the gospel,
he turned to us and preached us a little
The poor saint was utterly bewildered by this offer.
'May I ask for anything?' he asked timidly.
'You may ask for anything,' the Almighty encouraged
him. 'I give the orders here. I can do
But San Giuseppe da Copertino did not dare confess
what he really wanted. He feared that his
'O Lord,' he said, 'a big piece of white bread.'
And the Lord was as good as His word and did not
grow angry, but embraced the cafone saint, and
-Ignazio Silone, Fontamara
Secondo Tranquilli was born in 1900 in the Abruzzi region of Southern Italy. Though his father was a small landowner, the boy identified more with the peasants, the cafoni, than with the large estate owners who dominated them. Both of the boy's parents were dead by the time he was fifteen and by age 16, he had become a rebellious youth. He once saw a nobleman turn a dog loose on a peasant woman and when she took him to court, saw her lose her suit and the costs of the trial after paid witnesses claimed that the incident was her own fault. Disillusioned by the inability of the law to provide justice to the cafoni in such cases, he moved to Rome and became active in the Socialist Party, then, following a 1921 split in the party, was a founding member of the Communist Party. Mussolini and the Fascists took power just a year later and with much of the Party driven underground, Tranquilli took on greater responsibility, eventually traveling to the Soviet Union in 1927. There he was asked to join in the repudiation of Trotsky which Stalin and his allies were engineering. But in the absence of any actual evidence against Trotsky he refused. Returning to Italy, where his brother Romolo was arrested as a terrorist in 1928, he lasted several more years in the Party, but then in 1930 fled to a health clinic in Switzerland, where, adopting the pen name Ignazio Silone, he became a novelist.
In exile, Ignazio Silone produced two of the great anti-Fascist novels, Fontamara and Bread and Wine. He officially broke with the Communist Party in 1931, contributing a piece to The God That Failed, a collection of essays by some of Europe's leading ex-Communist intellectuals. Able to return to Italy when it was liberated by the Allies, he served in the National Assembly for a time and continued to write throughout his life.
Such at least were the known facts of Ignazio Silone's life until recently. But there is a whole other side of the story which has come to light. As Alexander Stille detailed in The New Yorker (March 15, 2000), beginning by at least 1924, Secondo Tranquilli appears to have been a police informant, in contact with Guido Bellone, a secret police official investigating subversives. The reports which have been pieced together indicate that, though he held back much significant information to which he would have had access, he betrayed numerous Communist cells and clandestine organizations. This cooperation continued until 1930 when, using his code name, Silvestri, he wrote to Bellone :
My health is terrible but the cause is moral. ,,,
I find myself at an extremely painful point in my
If you are a believer, pray to God that he give me
strength to overcome my remorse, to begin a new
It's no wonder he headed for a hospital when he finally left Italy; he seems in the letter to be a truly tortured soul. It's particularly striking that George Orwell, a writer with whom Silone is often compared, has also been revealed in recent years to have been a government informant. Since both men were considered to be fundamentally men of the Left, true socialists, these revelations have come as a great shock to modern intellectuals, who, conditioned by their own anti-McCarthy mythology, simply can not understand how anyone could inform on their former comrades. They perceive whistle blowing to be a worse sin than the anti-democratic and even homicidal scheming which drove these men out of the movement. But it should come as no surprise that, having awakened to the ugly truth about Communism, they considered it a sufficient threat to their respective nations to seek to thwart it. At any rate, this information provides important context for Silone's novels, making them more universal and less specifically anti-Fascist.
This first novel tells the story of the village of Fontamara, where the cafoni discover one day on their way to the fields that the stream which supplies their water is being diverted to the use of the Contractor, a petty official in the new government. This new government, which has already cut off their electricity, has approved this plan too and the ignorant cafoni are powerless to stop it. Nor can, or will, any of those to whom they have traditionally turned help them now--the former mayor, tradesmen, small land owners, the local clergy, all are equally helpless or in cahoots with the new government. Eventually resistance to this injustice comes centers around the person of Berardo Viola. The strongest man in the village, but ignorant and inarticulate even by the low standards of his fellow cafoni, Berardo is capable of little more than mulish resistance which, once begun, leads him inevitably to a tragic end. In Rome looking for work, Berardo is mistakenly arrested under suspicion of being the Mystery Man, who prints and distributes anti-government newspapers. Initially content just to play along, when he finds out that the girl he loves has died back in Fontamara, Berardo accepts death in the Mystery Man's stead, saying :
It will be the first time that a cafone dies, not for himself, but for others.
The real Mystery Man brings the tale of Berardo's martyrdom back to Fontamara, triggering a brief uprising which the government violently quells. The novel ends with a question :
After so much anguish and so much mourning, so many
tears and so many tricks, so much hate and
This question is all the more poignant given the circumstances of the author at the time he wrote it, for it must have continually plagued him. What was he to do about the injustice he saw, especially having given up on first liberal democracy, then Socialism, then Communism, and finally fleeing Fascism.
This is a short but powerful fable. Hindsight is, of course, twenty-twenty, but the attack on fascism is so non-specific, and so many other groups and institutions are indicted, it seems like it would have been obvious that Silone really only had faith in the cafone themselves by this point, not in the capacity or willingness of any of the various "-isms" to help them. I notice, looking back at my woefully inadequate plot summary, that I've failed to convey a sense of just how funny the book is. If I've made it seem relentlessly depressing, it's not. It is fatalistic, but it is also darkly comic.
This is a fine novel, human and humane. The real life political journey of the author, though it will trouble some, adds compelling layers of additional meaning to the text. That Silone himself had such a difficult struggle with the very questions he raises should not be held against him nor the book. Throughout it all he continually sought the one thing that the book too demands : simple justice for the cafoni. And if he was finally forced to acknowledge that he was not sure how to secure them this justice, such honesty is all too rare.
REVIEW: of Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone By STANISLAO PUGLIESE (George Scialabba, Barnes & Noble)
Book-related and General Links:
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "ignazio silone"
-NEOREALIST AUTHORS : Ignazio Silone (Thinkquest)
-Ignazio Silone (International Institute of Social History Archives)
-ARCHIVES : "ignazio silone" (NY Review of Books)
-ESSAY : Il Caso Silone : Leftist intellectual, communist apostate, and fascist spy? Shoddy scholarship has obscured the legacy of Ignazio Silone, the political lightning rod of 20th-century Italian literati. (Michael P. McDonald, National Interest)
-ESSAY : Jul 19, 1979 Darina Silone: SILONE'S ARCHIVE (NY Review of Books)
-ESSAY : John Manson on Ignazio Silone's Fontamara
-ESSAY : Dissent and anathema. The demonization of the adversary and the annulment of the ex-communist. Italy 1929-1956 (Franco Andreucci, American Historical Association Meeting)
-ESSAY : Towards A Marxist Theory Of Fascism (Dave Renton)
-REVIEW : of Bread and Wine (Amanda)
-REVIEW : May 31, 1973 Robert Mazzocco: Beautiful and Damned, NY Review of Books
Brother Sun, Sister Moon directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Ludwig directed by Luchino Visconti
The Story of a Humble Christian by Ignazio Silone and translated by William Weaver
Save the Tiger directed by John G. Avildsen
-REVIEW : Nov 20, 1969 Neal Ascherson: Raw Nerves, NY Review of Books
Speak Out! by Günter Grass and translated by Ralph Manheim
Emergency Exit by Ignazio Silone and translated by Harvey Fergusson, II
-REVIEW : of A NEED TO TESTIFY Portraits of Lauro de Bosis, Ruth Draper, Gaetano Salvemini, Ignazio Silone and An essay on Biography by Iris Origo (H. Stuart Hughes, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of A NEED TO TESTIFY Portraits of Lauro de Bosis, Ruth Draper, Gaetano Salvemini, Ignazio Silone and An essay on Biography by Iris Origo (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)