Ignazio Silone was born in Pescina, a small town in the Abruzzi region of southern Italy; the town served as a model for Fontamara. Silone was the son of small landowners and spent much of his youth among the impoverished peasants of the area. He witnessed the social injustices and economic hardships to which the cafoni were subjected.
It was Silone’s sympathy for the peasants that led him to turn to political action as a vehicle for social and political change. He envisioned a society founded on the socialist concepts of solidarity and equality and the Christian virtue of charity. As a young activist, Silone joined the Socialist Youth League, and in 1921, he helped to found the Italian Communist Party. In 1930, sought by the Fascist police for his involvement in the underground movement against Mussolini’s regime, he was forced to flee from Italy.
Fontamara was written while Silone was in exile in Davos, Switzerland. In the novel, he has three refugees from Fontamara—Giovà, Matalè, and their son—visit him in exile in order to relate the tragic story of their hometown. Giovà is the first to narrate, and within the narration, the other cafoni speak for themselves. This technique creates the impression of a choral narrative and appropriately so, for Fontamara is the story of all suffering peasants and oppressed people in the world.
Within Giovà’s narration, one of the cafoni, Michele Zompa, relates a dream he had concerning the lice that plague the townspeople. In the dream, Christ tells the Pope that he wishes to celebrate the Concordat of 1929 between the Church and the Fascist state by granting the cafoni a favor such as a gift of land, an exemption from taxes, or an abundant harvest. The Pope rejects Christ’s proposals because such favors, he argues, would damage the interests of rich landowners and government officials. The Pope chooses as a gift for the peasants a new and vicious strain of lice that will cause them to scratch fiercely, thus distracting them from their misery. The fable-like quality of the dream stands in sharp contrast to the biting realism of its implications—the Church’s complicity with the oppressive Fascist government and the Church’s blatant insensitivity to the plight of the peasants—recurrent themes in the novel, which are personified by the figure of a corrupt priest, Don Abbacchio.
Forsaken by the Church, the cafoni remain the helpless victims of Fascist oppressors; they are mercilessly burdened by government taxes, and they are repeatedly swindled by the Contractor and by Don Circonstanza. As Matalè relates in the second chapter, however, such treatment is to be expected, for the cafoni are looked upon by the rich and the middle class as “flesh used to suffering.” Since time immemorial, the peasants of Fontamara have been resigned to the economic deprivation and the social injustices perpetuated by government officials.
Only Berardo Viola’s anarchic acts of violence offer some resistance to government oppression. Berardo destroys the electric lamps, burns the Contractor’s fences, and places a tree trunk in the path of the fleeing Fascist henchmen. Ironically, the cafoni are driven by desperation to active revolt against the state at the time when Berardo decides to conform—to work and to set aside a small sum of money—so that he can marry Elvira.
Elvira’s death transforms Berardo’s social consciousness so deeply that he emerges as a Christ figure. Giovà’s son narrates the most poignant part of the novel, in which Berardo sacrifices himself for the love of his fellow men—for their socioeconomic redemption. His confession will enable the Mystery Man to go to Fontamara and incite...
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thecafoni to revolt.
The novel ends as the three narrators ask, “What are we to do?” This question echoes the title of the clandestine newspaper that caused the destruction of Fontamara and its inhabitants. The novel ends on a positive note, however, and this note is consistent with Silone’s faith in socialist ideals. Berardo, the first peasant to die for the love of his fellows, has pointed the way to the establishment of a society rooted in Christian brotherhood and charity, a society in which freedom, social justice, and equality will prevail.