Although the literary canon of Ignazio Silone may be divided into several fairly distinct phases or periods, a number of themes and motifs serve to unite his works into a single vision of life. One of the most obvious of these is the use of Abruzzi villages as the setting for his fiction. A second common element is a fascination with the idea of the hero as a solitary figure who must strive to restore communion with his fellow human beings. Yet another may be found in the persistent motif of the hero’s return to his native region, an experience that triggers a flood of ambivalent emotion in more than one Silone character. Finally, the symbolic role of women and the emphasis accorded to acts of self-sacrifice and renunciation also help to unify Silone’s works. Taken together, these elements create a peculiarly Silonean frame of reference in which the vicissitudes of history and circumstance test the capacity of the human spirit to endure and prevail.
Fontamara, Silone’s first novel, portrays the injustices suffered by a mountain village at the hands of the Fascist state. In one sense, the entire village is the hero of this work, with its collective sorrows and bewilderment serving as the focal point of the action. While the emphasis rests on this common tragedy, the novel also reveals its author’s interest in the reactions of individuals caught up in the aggregate patterns of human fate. Thus, the fortunes of the village of Fontamara are interwoven with the private destiny of one of its sons, Bernardo Viola. Viola’s hopes for a better life, a life enriched by love and freedom from poverty, are dashed on the rocks of the times in which he lives. Having journeyed to Rome to seek his fortune, Viola is betrayed by the false promise of urban life under Fascism and, upon hearing of the death of the woman he loves in Fontamara, he confesses to crimes he has not committed in order to allow a young revolutionary to go free.
Viola’s personal sacrifice, though certainly noble, is less than redemptive as far as Fontamara is concerned. The young revolutionary who has been freed because of Viola’s sacrifice makes his way to Fontamara and sets up a clandestine newspaper, which the villagers decide to call What Must We Do? When the authorities trace the paper to Fontamara, the village is attacked and many of its inhabitants murdered by Fascist militiamen. The few survivors are described at the end of the novel as asking the same question that had served as the title for their newspaper: “What can we do?” The novel thus closes on a highly ambiguous note, for the villagers’ query is never answered. This ambiguity deepens the tragedy that befalls the village and Viola, who ends his own life in a jail cell. Fontamara thus portrays the defeat of human hope on both the collective and the individual levels. It seems content with alerting readers to the dangers of Fascism and to the tragic triumph of history over human desire. The bleakness of Fontamara presents a challenge to Silone’s basic faith in the resilience of the human spirit, and it was only in his later works that he could clearly respond to the haunting question with which this early text ends.
Bread and Wine
In Bread and Wine, his second novel, Silone discovered resources on which he could draw for the remainder of his literary career. These resources were both thematic and technical: The title of the novel suggests the power latent in the communion of humankind and the dynamics of literary symbols that point beyond the present moment to a better future.
Pietro Spina, the novel’s hero, returns in disguise to his native Italy from exile in Belgium. Because he is still a hunted man, Spina assumes the identity of a priest and calls himself Paolo Spada. As a “priest” of the secular gospel of brotherhood and social reform, Spina feels himself bonded to the lives of the humble rural folk through breaking bread and drinking wine with them. As the plot progresses, the terms of this secular Eucharist become more and more explicit, until in the episode of the funeral meal for a young Socialist, Luigi Murica, who has been killed by the Fascist authorities, the full meaning of the novel’s title is revealed. The many grapes needed to make wine and the ears of grain necessary for the production of bread speak of the merging of individual human lives into a common identity. It is the strength of this new corporate identity that provides the hope that beyond the present misery lies a brighter future.
This dominant theme is even hinted at by the novel’s time scheme, a span of approximately nine months, to which the period needed for the maturation of grapes and grain and that allotted for human gestation correspond. The motif of gestation applies to subtle changes undergone by Spina himself during the novel. The limitations of his devotion to political principle are suggested by the hero’s growing interest in people rather than in doctrine and by the episode of the apparent suicide of the embittered revolutionary Uliva in Rome. For belief in causes, Silone substitutes a compassion rooted in the experience of human solidarity. Lest the novel seem blindly optimistic, however, the fate of the old Don Benedetto, priest and teacher of Spina, is included. Don Benedetto attempts to maintain his faith and personal integrity in the face of the progressive corruption of Church and state and is finally murdered when he drinks poisoned sacramental wine while saying Mass. The figurative implications of the old priest’s death mitigate the hope inspired by the novel’s central image of communion by reminding the reader that wine also symbolizes blood, sorrow, and death.
In the novel’s two most prominent women, Bianchina Girasole and Christina Colamartini, Silone presents both the two sides of human nature, body and soul, and a dual vision of Italy dominated by Fascism. Bianchina, a rural girl who eventually becomes a prostitute in Rome, represents the physical degradation endured by the oppressed Italian people. Christina, the daughter of an aristocratic old family, is devoured by wolves after following Spina into the mountains as he tried to escape capture by government authorities; her fate represents the death of the human spirit under Fascism. At the close of the novel, then, the promise of human solidarity suggested by the image of communion is imperiled. Spina’s flight to the mountains may be read as an allusion to Moses on the mountain or Christ at Golgotha, but in fact the text of Bread and Wine is silent concerning his fate. This ambiguous closure, though it recalls the end of Fontamara, also transcends it, for Spina, unlike Viola, is still alive and thus may return to reestablish his communion with the peasants of the Abruzzi. For this reason, and for many others, Bread and Wine is a more satisfying and affirmative novel than Fontamara.
The Seed Beneath the Snow
The Seed Beneath the Snow is designed as a sequel to the message...
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