Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Penguin no. 143: Fontamara
by Ignazio Silone

"When fear grips a whole population there isn't any explanation. Fear grips everyone. It isn't only the opponents of the government; the so-called Fascists are more frightened than anyone else. Even they say that things can't go on like this, and are afraid. Why do they murder their opponents? Because they're afraid. Why do they constantly increase the number of police and militia? Because they're afraid. Why do they put thousands and thousands of innocent people in gaol? Because they're afraid. The more crimes they commit the more frightened they get. The more frightened they get the more crimes they commit. Which leads to more fear and more crimes."

Fontamara is a political novel with a very clear agenda. It was first published in 1930 when Ignazio Silone (Secondo Tranquilli) was in political exile in Switzerland, and at the simplest level it is a story criticising the Fascist government in Italy, and exposing the duplicity of the Church and the professional classes during that regime. Silone had been subjected to Fascist oppression: the offices of the newspaper Lavoratore in which he worked were burnt down three times after Mussolini came to power, and his brother Romolo Tranquilli died in prison following his arrest by the Fascists (and this after his mother and five other brothers had been killed during an earthquake in 1915). The story is told simply, from the perspective of the poorly educated and uncomprehending Italian peasants. Their lives have always been difficult, but the advent of the Fascists makes it far worse.

But Silone's agenda is clearly something more than this. He had been a founding member of the Italian Communist Party, and he spent three years hiding out amongst the peasants after a warrant was issued for his arrest.  He weaves his vision of the solution through this narrative of the peasants' troubles, and it is a solution strongly influenced by Marxist ideology. The peasants need to alter their approach; they need to put aside their traditional methods of coping with adversity: no more wailing, cursing, and fighting amongst themselves. And no more viewing their situation as God-given, or random, or in all ways beyond their influencing. The first step is to question; the second is to unite. And they need to identify themselves with the struggle of their class: the sacrifice of the individual is noble if it advances the aims of the many.

In this story Fontamara is a fictitious village located in the Abruzzo region of Central Italy. It is poor and primitive, the home of peasants who struggle to cultivate grapes on their own small holdings, and who provide a poorly paid workforce of day-labourers to cultivate the fertile lands leased by the town-dwelling lawyers, doctors and professors. Much is made of this divide between the classes: the hard working peasants who produce all the food are despised by the  town-dwellers who consume it. The flow of provisions (food and taxes) has only one direction: from the country to the town. The only innovations which have flowed the other way are cigarettes which the peasants do not want, and the provision of electric light, which is turned off when the taxes are not forthcoming. The story which unfolds is of a naive and trusting community cheated of the little they have by the combined actions of the Fascists, the landowners and the priests, and of the intimidation and violence to which they are subjected when they try to do something about it.

I found this novel disturbing, but for reasons other than the story it told. I have no doubt that Italians suffered greatly under the Fascists, and I know that Silone was never going to be an objective reporter of his country's troubles, given his experiences as an opponent of the government. But this is a work of propaganda, and the author deliberately sets out from the first page to blur the distinction between what actually happened and what has been made up. And I wondered why: surely the truth was damning enough? Exposing the corruptness of the Fascist regime, its use of propaganda, deception, and intimidation, comes across as secondary to the promotion of a Marxist ideology through the re-interpretation of the Italian situation in terms of class struggle. And when the facts fall short of such an interpretation, the gap is breached by fiction.

This is a book which must have been written for a foreign audience in no position to verify its contents; with its references to Mussolini, the Fascists, and the Blackshirts, publication within Italy would have been impossible. And in this context there is something troubling about the signed and dated foreword: it is a message from the author strongly implying that this fictitious story is an accurate and firsthand account of events that actually happened; it suggests to the reader that Fontamara cannot be found on a map because of its insignificance, that the recorded events never made the press because of Fontamara's unimportance. It explains the background of the story in terms of real events such as the draining of Lake Fucino, and real people such as Prince Torlonia. It implies that the reader is one of a select few given a glimpse of the truth. And all this troubles me because the reader is being manipulated, and in a small but not unimportant way the author is guilty of some of the underhanded practices of which he accuses others, and in doing this he undermines his own message.


  1. oh ,bet this is out print I like sound of it I ve read a couple of italian writers written about same time fengolio in particular I enjoyed and this sounds along similar lines will have to check if its available ,great find as ever Karyn ,all the best stu

  2. Hi Karyn, you write:

    “But this is a work of propaganda, and the author deliberately sets out from the first page to blur the distinction between what actually happened and what has been made up.”

    But isn’t this the objective of every good novelist, trafficking as they do in fictive realities and realistic fictions??


  3. I have one big problem with subscribing to your excellent blog ... I'm beginning to feel what I fear may be an insatiable urge to start collecting old Penguins. Certainly I want to read most of the books that you write about! Thanks.

  4. Hi Stu,

    It probably is out of print, its moment has passed. But I'm always looking out for Penguins, if I see a copy I'll send it to you.

    And Kevin,

    I'm sure you're right but I have never seen such an overt deception, and it seems clear he did it for a reason. Most authors are content to explain the world, this one had an idea to sell: the idea that the solution to one totalitarian regime was an alternative totalitarian regime. Instead of arguing his case he made up a story and pretended it was true, and I'm sure that pretence was there to generate an emotional response that would distract his readers from reflecting rationally on the distortions of his perspective.

    And Brett,

    Collect them, there is just no downside. You come across all these interesting books that you have never heard of, they look great, and sometimes you can find them very cheaply. And thanks for such a nice comment.

  5. Well, now I count them, I see that I have 30 of them already, and today I went to a second-hand book fair and guess what ... I found 3 more! Oh dear.

  6. I bought this a few years ago and never got around to reading it, but it was a modern edition - so not out of print.

  7. The books are an interesting read the pace is gentle and engaging.

  8. My parents grew up and were married in Calabria. My oldest sister was born there as well. My father was born in 1896 and my mother in 1908. I currently spend large portions of the year living in a very small town in Calabria. The stories my parents told me, based on their families' experiences, were very consistent with Silone's basic message, and evidence of it can still be seen in some locations today. I say that with the understanding that there is no message that fits multiple situations and circumstances in the same way, and thus with complete accuracy. It is true that communism is another form of state oppression and that anarchism was a much better fit for the lower half of Italy. But, of course, anarchism by its nature has lacked the political will and organization to survive in any deliberate or planned sense. It is more a way of life than a political party. But it is a way of life that involves resistance to imposed authority and corruption, which is part of Silone's message and part of the message of activist young people all over the world today who are resisting the control of the wealthy, completely self serving, upper classes. It was also the message of Communism at the time of Silone and why Silone and so many others were drawn to Communism. How could they have realized that the wealth-based constructed state apparatus would always work against their interests regardless of what it was called.



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