By Ignazio Silone.
165 pages
New York: New American Library, 1981

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2001

See comments at end for addition from internet reader.

The small village of Fontamara in southern Italy is poorly prepared for the coming of the Fascists in the early 1930s. The cafoni, as the small holding peasants are called, have lived traditional lives for centuries in which they had very little, worked for the benefit of the town folks and local authorities, but nonetheless had simple rules of how to be in the world, and while very poor, eked out lives of hard work and human satisfaction.

All this begins to be disrupted when the fundamental nature of power and life changes. The cafoni are accustomed to changes in the power structure over dozens of generations, but not changes in the fundamental nature of daily life. The Fascists bring such changes and the cafoni simply have no idea of what is going on.

This sad and tragic tale of the fictional village tells the story that was repeated throughout southern Italy in the early 1930s. It is one in which we see these poor people who live on the very edge of survival, being pushed over that precarious edge and driven into despair, suicide and rebellion.

Mainly, however, they simply don't understand what is going on. They had come to think the structure of human society was fixed, they were on the very bottom, yet had their place. Slowly this begins to change and the world of everyday reality is one they do not understand or recognize.

Ignazio Silone tells the story in an interesting and unusual fashion, though the voices of three narrators, husband, wife and son of the same family. In the early parts of the novel he simply switches voices between the husband and wife, however, later, when he introduces the voice of the son, he has the father say: My son will tell what happened next… and the third narrator enters in.

I became convinced of the truth of Silone's portrait, yet astonished by it at the same time. The peasants simply have no idea in the world what is going on and their view of reality is limited to the tiny village of Fontamara and a few local places which surround it. They know of Rome and a few have been there, but it seems like some other worldly place perhaps from another dimension of reality rather than simply the capitol of their nation. They all know of America and have people who've gone there or are planning to themselves. However, in one episode when the Russian Revolution is discussed the peasants are rather doubtful that this place "Russia" really exists. They allow that they know Rome and America too, but who has ever know anyone who went to Russia? The rest of the world -- as unknown to the cafoni as most small towns of central Asia are to most westerners today,

There is a feeling of frustration I often get when watching a movie and a character is doing something very stupid and I know it is going to cause him or her much suffering and trouble. But, I am forced to watch in silence since the script writers and director and actors have already chosen: this craziness will be done and the logic of it will play out. Similarly, I read Silone's account of the cafoni response to their changing circumstances with a mix of incredulity, frustration, at times even exasperation as they made horrible choice after horrible choice. In the early chapters I couldn't help but wonder about author Silone. Could he even possibly be getting this right; could it ever have been this bad; were their choices so absurd and their misunderstanding some complete? After a while I became convinced he tells not an historical tale of a real village, but records an accurate composite of what happened the length and breadth of rural southern Italy in the 1930s.

What surprises me most is the level of ignorance of the cafoni. I couldn't help constantly comparing their inappropriate understandings and judgments in their Italy of the 1930s and the understanding, judgments and choices of the peasants of Haiti whom I've watched since the early 1980s. There are many similarities. The people are uneducated and illiterate. They live in isolated communities and are quite powerless and have been for hundreds of years. The people have internalized their lives of desperation as nature itself, yet nonetheless, expect that this tiny zone of survival and the sorts of everyday joys and satisfactions they have learned to expect will always be there. Then, when some upheaval comes, which Fascism brought to Italy of the 30s, and the excesses of the Duvaliers brought to Haiti from the 1960s, the people are sort of lost in the early changes, not understanding that the world was no longer going on as they had expected it must by nature itself. The period of coming to understand and then learning to cope is one of great sadness and tragedy.

Silone only takes the story of Fontamara from the earliest beginnings of the changes until the Fontamara cafoni are driven into rebellion and struggle. He leaves us at the outskirts of the village, hearing the gunfire off in the distance of the "war" which has come to Fontamara. But we don't learn the outcome, yet we can know it surely must have been very bad. The cafoni of southern Italy did have to conform and find their place in this new world of Fascism, make the compromises necessary to survive, and find ways to rethink the world and struggle for survival in those hard years to come until reconstruction of life in the 1950s.

Ignazio Silone gives us a deep and sensitive and sympathetic portrait of that lost world of the pre-Fascist cafoni. It is a book worth the read, a marvelous and touching accompaniment to any larger study of WWII in Italy.

Silone was born in 1900 in the mountains of central Italy. Ignazio Silone is a pseudonym he was forced to choose when his political activity got him in trouble with the Fascists. He fled into exile in Switzerland. After the liberation of Italy he returned and became a member of the Italian National Assembly. He has written another half dozen or more novels.

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.

Best wishes,

John Bingham, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
History Department
Dalhousie University
6135 University Ave.
Halifax, NS B3H 4P9
902.494.3641 (v)
902.494-3349 (f)

Another internet read wrote to comment:

Please note that fascism came to power on Italy in 1922 and that therefore events in Fontamara were set in that period not the ‘30s.

I have just read Fontamara and I am halfway though Bread and Roses. Despite the knowledge that throughout his years as a leader of the Communist Party, Silone was police spy, his portrayal of the suffering of the peasants under Mussolini in Fontamara and the debates on the left in Bread and Wine still come over as passionate and sincere. I find it hard to understand how and why a supporter of fascism could have written these books. Maybe the murder of his brother by the police made him recant.

Bob Corbett

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