By Ignazio Silone.
Translated from the Italian by Luigi Barzini
New York: Time Life Books, 1965.
Comments by Bob Corbett
See comments at end for addition from internet readers.
Just a few months ago I read and commented on Ignazio Silone’s novel FONTAMARA. In that novel he explored in detail the lives of peasants in the early 1930s rise of Fascism in Italy. Now in BREAD AND WINE Silone picks up the same theme in 1935, but this time the focus is more on the Communist resistance movement and views of the intellectual class.
The novel centers around the character of Pietro Spina, a young revolutionary in his early thirties who is being intensely hunted by the police so he takes on the disguise of an older priest and carries off this masquerade for the whole of the tale, as Don Paolo Spada.
Spina/Spada is in the beginning a hard-line doctrinaire Communist. However, he is pushed to sign documents saying he is fully in support of some political issues inside Russia. This causes Spina to become disenchanted with the doctrinaire position and he has a terrible argument with a party boss in Rome who threatens to have him kicked out of the party. I found this confrontation to be quite enlightening:
“(the party boss) How can you dare call our condemnation of Bukharin and the other traitors conformism? Are you mad?
“It’s conformism to always be with the majority”, said Pietro. “Don’t you think so? You were with Bukharin as long as the majority was with him; and you’d still be with him if he had a majority now. But how can we fight Fascist conformism if we’re going to give up our critical faculties? Try and answer me that.”
“Don’t you think Bukharin was a traitor?”
“To tell the truth, I don’t know,” said Pietro. “I only know that right now he’s in the minority. And I know that you dare to oppose him only because of that. Answer me this if you can. Would you be against him if he had a majority?”
“Your cynicism is getting to be just a bit too much!” Said Battipaglia, trying to keep his temper.
“You haven’t answered my question. Answer it truthfully if you can.”
“If it were up to me, I’d have you thrown out of the party right now!”
But Pietro remains within the party for the rest of the novel, albeit uncomfortably so.
However, he meets a young violin player who has fled the party and who tries to convince Pietro that he should as well. In talking about the coming Communist utopia Uliva and Pietro have this exchange:
“Don’t be fooled by appearances,” said Pietro. “The strength of a dictatorship is muscular, not spiritual.”
“You’re right,” said Uliva. “There’s something cadaverous about it. It hasn’t been a movement for a long time, not even a Vendee-type movement, but just a bureaucracy. But what sort of opposition is there? What are you? A future bureaucracy. You aspire to totalitarian power, too, but in the name of different ideas, which means just different words, and for different interests. If you people win and probably you’ll be unlucky enough to win, we’ll just go from one tyranny to another.”
“You live on hallucinations,” said Pietro, “How can you condemn the future?”
“Our future is other countries’ pasts,” said Uliva. “Yes, I don’t deny that they’ll be technical and economic changes. Just as now we have state railway and the state quinine, salt, matches and tobacco, so then we’ll have state bread, state peas and potatoes. Will that be technical progress? Let’s admit that it would be. But this technical progress will be an opening wedge for a compulsory official doctrine, for a totalitarian orthodoxy which will use all means, from the movies to terrorism, to stamp out any heresy and tyrannize individual thought. The present black inquisition will be followed by a red inquisition. There’ll be red censorship instead of the present one, and red deportations will take the place of the ones we have now – and the most favored victims will be dissident revolutionaries. In the same way, just as the present bureaucracy identifies itself the fatherland and exterminates every opponent, denouncing him as a hireling of the foreigners, your future bureaucracy will identify itself with labor and Socialism and will persecute anyone who continues to think with his own head as a prized agent of big landowners and the industrialists.”
Pietro struggles with this position throughout the novel and is neither caught in the doctrinaire position of the party boss above, nor as liberated from Communist theory as Uliva, the violinist.
His position is perhaps best described in his view of freedom:
“Freedom is not something you get as a present,” said Pietro. “You can live in a dictatorship and be free – on one condition: that you fight the dictatorship. The man who thinks with is own mind and keeps it uncorrupted is free. The man who fights for what he thinks is right is free. But you can live in the most democratic country on earth, and if you’re lazy, obtuse or servile within yourself, you’re not free. Even without any violent coercion, you’re a slave. You can’t beg your freedom from someone. You have to seize it – everyone as much as he can.”
But this is an historical novel and the fact is that this period of 1935 is a period when the Communists are losing the state of Italy to the dictatorship of the Fascists, and Pietro is fighting a losing battle, a last ditch stand. In the end he is forced, just as the author Ignazio Silone himself was, to flee into exile in order to keep up the battle from a far.
In addition to the message of struggle and self-responsibility (even within the party for Pietro), there is the title: BREAD AND WINE. The image runs throughout the novel and is an image of the unity necessary, the force in numbers and unity that dominates the view of Pietro’s resistance. Bread and wine are the unity of two equal and united things. He is forever dipping black bread into red wine to make his food of choice just as he struggles always to unite equal people in the life-giving struggle against Fascism. Unlike Uliva, Pietro gives less attention toward exactly what it is he’s fighting for; his struggle is much more one against the rise of Fascism.
The novel is written with power and great sensitivity toward characters. So many of them breathe with such real vibrancy and life that we feel we know them and would recognize them were they to walk into the room. Even though the novel is heavily about the battle of ideas in this struggle against Fascism, like FONTAMARA, much of it is set in the countryside and once again Silone demonstrates his deep understanding of the hardships of rural life in the time of deep depression and deprivation.
This is no happy book. One knows the historical outcome and Silone doesn’t hide its coming in any way. We can feel the powerlessness of the people as the black time of Mussolini sweeps away the opposition. The bulk of rural people think all this talk of resistance is just pure stupidity. Life gives one what it gives; the issue is to bear it as best one can. The resistors like Pietro, the party boss, Uliva and others are concepts which, while they dominate this novel, are quite strange and incomprehensible to the simple peasants amidst whom most of the action takes place.
Ignazio Silone is a writer of great power, style and sensitivity. I look forward to reading more of his work and commend him to anyone willing to be informed and challenged on this period of Italian history.
Note sent to me July 31, 2003.
From: Andy Griswold
I was researching the works of Ignazio Silone on the Internet when I came across your commentary on the novel Bread and Wine, which has been a favorite work of mine for many years.
I enjoyed your comments but there is something very central to the novel which is missing in your analysis. The central image of bread and wine which runs throughout the novel is more than simply a symbol of unity. It is a symbol of the Eucharist, the saving power of Jesus Christ. Pietro is masquerading as a priest. He never expected to take on this disguise when he returned to Italy, but under the circumstances of his hiding, he begins to recall his secondary education in a religious school. We meet Pietro's school mentor, the old priest Don Benedetto, at the begining of the novel. Pietro's journey in the novel is from the doctrinaire positions of the party back toward his early youthful idealism, which was informed by something more than a simply materialistic vision. At first quite uncomfortable in his assumed role, he in a sense grows into the character of Don Paolo, and becomes in some ways a more authentic representation of Christ than some of the dry functionaries of the Church which the novel once or twice presents to us.
I read this novel as a college student twenty years ago, and then again after my conversion to Catholicism in 2000. The breadth and depth of the religious imagery, and subtle commentary on the source and uses of the truth, were suddenly made apparent to my "new sight" the second time I read Bread And Wine, and I saw many allusions and images that I had missed as a secular undergraduate. This work remains one of my favorites, especially for its understated, ironic tone. It will always have a special place in my bookshelf and I would recommend it to anyone who is exploring the dimensions of the Catholic faith.
Parish Operations Manager
St. Paul Parish
A second addition from a reader:
John Bingham writes on Feb. 10, 2004
Thanks for your internet notes on Ignazio Silone and his works, which I and my students found useful.
Might I suggest, however, that you amend your comments to consider the revelations that have come out of Italian archives over the last 8 years or so? Extensive documentation has shown *without doubt* that Silone was an informer of enormous importance to the Italian political and then Fascist secret police, without a break from 1919-1930. Although I still teach his novels in my undergraduate classes, and find them sublime works of art as well as lucid commentaries on the national and international politics of the left in the 1920s and '30s, there is simply no possibility of this information not affecting how these novels are read today.
John Bingham, Ph.D.
6135 University Ave.
Halifax, NS B3H 4P9
A third addition from a reader:
Gerald McCarthy writes on Feb. 10, 2005
Sorry to get engaged in this, but the so-called scholarship that paints Ignazio Silone as a fascist informer is part of the new awakening to how fascism benfitted Itlay--mirrored in statements by Mr. Berlosconi and others. The novels by Silone especially Fontamara, Bread amd Wine and The Seed Beneath the Snow remain among the best of our time. Write his widow who still lives in Rome, if you want "proof." The truth of Silone's loyalties lie in his work.
A fourth addition from a reader:
Feb. 17, 2010
Renato Baserga, M.D. wrote:
I am not convinced that Silone was a Fascist spy. His sworn enemies (Togliatti and the Christian Democrats) had plenty of time to go through the Fascist police files. And found nothing. I can accept that he was in epistolary communication with Bellone, whom he knew BEFORE the advent of Fascism, but the famous letter signed Silvestri is an existential letter. When our partisan group (Partito d'Azione) communicated with OSS agents (then in charge of organize resistant in Nazi-occupied countries) they wanted to know movements of German divisions, how many anti-aircrafts were posted near bridges on the Ticino river, could we interrupt telephone communications so that the Germans had to to the air (and after the war I found out that the German code had been broken), not my existential condition. And the Bocchini document with a cover document that says Secondino
Tranquilli. In the '30s, no policeman, no carabiniere, no gymnasium professor, no one would ever refer to an individual with his first name first, it was always Baserga Renato, and therefore Tranquilli Secondino. I suspect that there has been some planting of evidence.
Renato BasergaBob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com