BY RAVI VYAS
The Abruzzo Trilogy: Fontamara, (1930) Bread and Wine (1926) and The Seed Beneath the Snow, (1943), Ignazio Silone, Steerforth Press, Paperback, £18.99. Other Books Consulted: Christ Stopped Eboli, Carlo Levi; Selections from Prison Notebooks, Gramsci; Little Novels of Sicily, Giovanni Verga.
The Abruzzo Trilogy is a sociological study and a political essay on the real meaning of fascism in the world today.
ALL memory is grist to the fiction writer's mill. The pleasure and the pain experienced by the storyteller's characters, the euphoria of happiness and the ache of grief, must, of course, be the storyteller's own. It cannot be otherwise, and in that sense all fiction has autobiographical roots, spreading through — as with Ignazio Silone, one of the greatest Italian writers of the 20th century. His is a provincial world of the Italian peasantry, limited and claustrophobic, yet universal in its study of peasant societies exploited by the landed aristocracy and the big bourgeoisie.
Encounter with fascism
Silone's experiences with Mussolini's fascist world of the late 1920s and 30s were partly transformed into the three great anti-fascist masterpieces in The Abruzzo Trilogy — Fontamara, Bread and Wine and The Seed Beneath the Snow — that have to be read in one go to understand the roots of Italian fascism and its tenuous hold over the masses who were thrilled in the early days with trains running on time. A great novelist, it is said, is also a social historian — the operative word is also — and a great novel is nothing more than a philosophy expressed in images. The Trilogy is social history "from below" and its subtext is the ugly face of fascism with its anti-liberal, anti-communist philosophy rammed down by Mussolini's dictatorship.
Know the historian before you read the history is the central axiom for any critical evaluation of historical writing that ought to be extended to the novelist and his or her historical novels. Ignazio Silone was the son of a small landowner, orphaned at 14 and saw life in the raw in Italy's sparse countryside. Before long, he involved himself in political agitation, first locally, later through the socialist weekly L'Avanti and finally with Gramsci as a clandestine worker against fascism. (Gramsci was one of the intellectual giants of the century who had a profound influence on Silone and that is reflected in these novels.) Silone was denounced and had to flee the country, settling in 1930 in Switzerland. Although he broke with the Communist Party in 1933, he remained a lifelong socialist (he called himself "a socialist without a party and a Christian without a church"). Out in the cold, he drafted his first novel, Fontamara, to be first published in German and soon translated into 25 languages. The impoverished, desolate mountain region of Abruzzo in south-central Italy during Mussolini's region provides the backdrop to the three great anti-fascist novels. Here was a region cut off from history and the State, hedged in by custom and sorrow, without comfort or solace, where the eternally patient peasant lived in age-old stillness in the presence of perpetual hunger and death. In Fontamara and Bread and Wine (both partially covered in these columns some time ago) and The Seed Beneath the Snow, presented together for the first time in English, Silone narrates the struggles of the cafoni, the peasants and farmers of his native Abruzzo, against poverty, natural disasters and totalitarianism.
Expression of compassion
The first novel in the series, Fontamara, portrays the bitter trials of the villagers of Pascina as they battle with the landowners who have appropriated their only source of water. (As one of the characters, seeing the struggle to get a bucket of water, says: "It takes a whole lifetime to grow up; but one scene like this is enough to make you grow old.") Bread and Wine introduces the semi-autobiographical character, Pietro Spina, a revolutionary who seeks refuge among the peasants of Abruzzo by posing as a priest, Don Passlo Sparda. The metaphor is clear: the Catholic Church would have to be the vanguard in any revolution against the fascist State.Pietro continues the story in The Seed Beneath the Snow (Silone's favourite, as it is the most autobiographical) as he flees again with the police in hot pursuit. His grandmother, Dona Maria Vincenza, takes him in, who, though comfortably settled in Italian bourgeois society, jeopardises her own life in order to protect him. In describing the chase, Silone gives a vivid picture of the Italian countryside in the 1930s — its poor gentry, priests, rich landowners, farmers, peasants, even animals, the seasons and the scenery.
Not a sentimental portayal
Silone throws the whole of his compassion into the intensity of his descriptions with a simplicity that lays bare all the sweat and tears and desperation of a peasant's life. He has depicted the grimness of his stories with honesty quite free from propaganda. Perhaps the best thing in this trilogy is the detachment with which Silone avoids sentimentalising the peasants and at the same time renders their undestroyed feelings for human values. Ezra Pound has said somewhere that great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. The Abruzzo Trilogy fits the bill: it is first and last a sociological study and a political essay on the real meaning of fascism in the world today.