by Secondo Tranquilli

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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 tries to incite them to violence and then have them arrested.

A wooden fence is soon built around the community grazing ground in Fontamara. The Contractor apparently appropriated the land that was common property for thousands of years. After the fence is burned, rebuilt, and then burned a second time, several trucks arrive in the village while the men are in the fields. Gunshots from the trucks break the church windows. Two hundred armed men descend upon the homes of the peasants and destroy everything in their path; they also rape the women. The ringing of the church bells causes the violence to cease. The frightened men, departing hastily, do not see the tree trunks placed across the road, and many of them are injured.

In the meantime, Berardo, returning to the village from the fields, learns that Elvira fainted atop the bell tower. He picks her up in his arms and carries her to her home. The next day, it is rumored that Berardo and Elvira will marry. Berardo, who owns no land, has to find work. Don Circonstanza tricks him into working for...

(This entire section contains 1035 words.)

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a pittance, and Berardo’s only consolation is a letter of recommendation that the lawyer sends to a friend in Rome.

The Contractor returns to Fontamara—this time with a hundred policemen—in order to resolve the issue of the diverted stream. Again Don Circonstanza comes to the aid of his “beloved” Fontamarans by proposing that the three-quarters of the water would belong to the Contractor for only ten lusters rather than for fifty years. The uneducated peasants, unaware that ten lusters is fifty years, accept his proposal.

The ensuing shortage of water causes the peasants great hardship. The crops are not growing, and the peasants face a terrible winter. Disillusioned with Don Circonstanza’s help, the men talk of taking matters into their own hands. Berardo, however, will not hear of the revolt. He is going to Rome, where the lawyer’s letter of reference will enable him to find work.

That next morning, accompanied by Giovà’s son, Berardo takes the train to Rome. The two men stay in a modest inn where they meet Don Achille Pazienza, a lawyer who extorts money from them by promising to find them work. Thrown out of the inn because they cannot pay their bill, Berardo and Giovà’s son run into the stranger from Avezzano; the stranger buys them something to eat. Shortly thereafter, the three men are arrested for allegedly leaving in the café a parcel of clandestine newspapers that attack the Fascist regime.

At that time, the police are looking for a suspect called the Mystery Man, who is responsible for spreading anti-Fascist literature in the city. While he is being interrogated at the police station, Berardo declares that he is the Mystery Man. The real Mystery Man is released while Berardo is subjected to numerous tortures. As he is about to inform on his friend, Berardo finds a newspaper that reports Elvira’s death. He changes his mind. Berardo soon dies in prison after repeated beatings. His death is reported in the newspapers as a suicide.

Giovà’s son is released from prison after he signs a statement attesting Berardo’s “suicidal tendencies.” He returns to Fontamara, where the Mystery Man already told the true story of Berardo’s death and left a duplicating machine. The peasants are busy selecting a title for their newspaper.

Shortly after the first edition of the newspaper is distributed, gunfire breaks out in Fontamara. Most of the peasants are killed. Among the few survivors are Giovà, Matalè, and their son, who, with the help of the Mystery Man, are able to flee to Switzerland.