The hillside town of Fontamara is without electricity. While several cafoni (a common term for southern Italian peasants) are seated in front of Marietta Sorcanera’s bar, a government bureaucrat named Pelino arrives on the scene with blank papers that the cafoni are asked to sign. The peasants balk at the idea, but they acquiesce when they are assured that no new taxes are involved. The official leaves with the signatures, some authentic, some forged; he threatens the peasants for having cursed the Church and the state. Perplexed, the Fontamarans return home in the dark. On the way, Giovà passes Berardo, who is intent on breaking the electric lamps no longer of use.
The next morning, a crew of roadmen begins to divert the stream that irrigates the peasants’ soil. It is decided that the women will go to the town and complain to the mayor. At the town hall, the women are told that there is no longer a mayor, but, instead, there is a new podestà (a term for mayor, used during the Fascist period). The police escort the women to the home of the podestà, where, to their surprise, they learn that he is the rich and powerful Contractor, a newcomer who “discovered America” in southern Italy.
The women try in vain to speak to the Contractor. Out of desperation they turn to Don Circonstanza, a lawyer and self-proclaimed “Friend of the People” who is dining at the Contractor’s house. Don Circonstanza solves the problem: The Contractor will receive three-quarters of the stream’s water, and the Fontamarans will receive three-quarters of the remaining water. Confused, the women sign a hurriedly produced paper, once they are assured that there will be nothing to pay.
The next day, the digging continues as the quarrels among the peasants become more frequent and more furious. Don Abbacchio, the town priest, arrives in Fontamara and urges the peasants not to oppose the Contractor, who, he says, is the devil incarnate. The peasants notice, however, that Don Abbacchio arrived in a coach owned by the Contractor.
The Fontamarans are later summoned to Avezzano, where they will learn the decisions made by the new government concerning the redivision of the fertile Fucino plain. The cafoni are herded into a large square and are ordered to stand and cheer on cue as local administrators parade past amid myriad black flags marked with skulls and crossbones. Fortunately, the peasants do not allow themselves to be influenced by a police informant who...
(The entire section is 1035 words.)