This volume consists of Ignazio Silone's three most well-known novels: Fontamara, Bread and Wine, and The Seed Beneath the Snow, and includes a foreword which provides a helpful introduction to the author and his works. Written between 1931 and 1940 these books, recounting the harsh lives of the Abruzzo peasants in their struggle against poverty, injustice and the bleak mountain territory they inhabit, are towering achievements and to my mind stand alongside the greatest literature. Written with scathing wit and with remarkable insight into the realities of life in the mountain villages of Italy in the fascist Mussolini years, they also reflect Silone's own struggles with both politics and his faith. Remarkable writing.
Anyone who has asked me for a book to understand Italy and Italians, has been referenced to The Italians by Luigi Barzini. Now I will have to add The Abruzzo Trilogy. If you want to understand the soul of an Italian and why Italy is what it is today, this is a must read. If you want to understand the basis of "familismo amorale," the cultural moray that explains everything from perceived government corruption to why someone will park in a crosswalk at an intersection and create a hazard to pedestrians and drivers alike, genuinely without a thought about it, then this book is your read. Modern Italians may appear to have little in common with the "cafone" of Fontamara but almost all are only a generation or two removed from them and the attitudes of modern Italians are only dressed up in new clothes rather than changed. Wonder why most Italians first goal in life is to have a paid for home? Read this book. Wonder why moral and ethical behavior is only practiced to members of the extended family? Read this book. Wonder why patronage drives an entire nation and culture, when most of European civilization has moved beyond it? Read this book. If you are not an Italian, Italians will not tell you about the history that Fontamara represents; even many Italians are ignorant because their family wants to ignore that they were ever part of this culture. A must read.
This massive work by Ignazio Silone aka Secondino Tranquilli is actually three novels set in the rural and mountainous region of the Abruzzo where much of the population of farm peasants (calfoni) lived in continuous poverty for centuries and from where many of the Italian immigrants to the U.S., Canada and elsewhere came. The first book of the trilogy, "Fontamara", is the story of a particular village of calfoni and how its residents continuously suffer from exploitation not just by the landed gentry of the area but also by the new Fascist government that preaches egalitarianism but practices a rapacious state corporatism. When a champion of the poor rises out of frustration in their defense, he is quickly isolated and brought down, sometimes with the collaboration of the people he is trying to help.
"Bread and Wine" is the second part of the book, taking place some years after "Fontamara" and centered on the return of a native son, Pietro Spina, who has been living in political exile outside the country. Spina returns with hope of provoking political resistance to the increasingly oppressive national government led by Mussolini (but always referred to as "the leader".) Spina's arrival coincides with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia which brings new misery to the calfoni. Constantly moving through the Abruzzi landscape, but with little success to show for his organizing efforts, Spina eventually must flee (into Book Three).
The last part of the trilogy, "The Seed Beneath the Snow", is the author's subtle denunciation the stifling, corrupt and treacherous social structure of petit bourgeois living in the region's villages and small towns. Hypocrisy and conformism by the relatively privileged and dumb acceptance and inbred defeatism by the peasants, are the norm and force the fugitive Pietro Spina to look in other directions for personal salvation. Ultimately, it is basic friendship and personal sacrifice that brings him peace.
What makes these three novels quite wonderful, is their underlying honesty and the eventual humanity that shines through at the end. The conversations between the richly drawn characters drive the book forward. Overall, a unique and fulfilling reading experience that gives you a great deal to think about at the end.
I loved the first in the trilogy, it gives a very good idea of what life for Italians was actually like until about 30 years ago. It was hard. I have one for a father. He makes a lot more sense now. The second book seems just more of the same, which is fine but the characters aren't as likeable, and I don't actually care about them. Definitely worth a read if you want to know more of the real Italy, which certainly isn't what you find when you stay in a Tuscan villa for 2 weeks.
Silone has to be rated as one of Italy's best writers. This thought provoking work of provincial Italy during the Facist regime provides a fascinating insight into Ordinary man of any Nationality. Much of the work is based on a cut off backwater in the South of Italy, which is where a political activist hides disguised as a Priest. The novel shows the creeping influence of Facism even on such a region, where the peasants are so uninvolved with politics that the still believe they are ruled by the King of Spain. The peasants only concern is Bread and Wine, as the local self important Civil servant discovers to his horror. His impolite exit from the village marks the area being incorrectly labelled a trouble spot by the Government. The peasants are now forced to deal with the politics of the day.
This is quite a thick heavy book, and not ideal for a quick lighthearted read, but for those who enjoy family sagas and suck like, it is something to really get your teeth into, plus learning about a part of Italy.