Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone
Translations are treacherous. They’re like a foreign film where you watch a character gesture emphatically, red in the face and shrieking, while the subtitles coldly state, “Why?” Something has been lost in the shuffle, buried under the exotic. Reading Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine was to hear its narration muffled and distanced by the English language.
Set in the 1930s under Mussolini’s rule, the story begins gently enough in a quiet, Italian countryside. With an elderly priest and his aged sister waiting for visitors to come celebrate his birthday. The nervous anxiety of the sister, while she worries that no one will come mingles uncomfortably with the priest’s forced optimism that some one will. Eventually three gentlemen join them. And we find out more about why the priest has lost favor in the community—his unwillingness to separate the church from the current politics of the country. The scene effectively sets the stage for the coming debates on communism and social responsibilty that will be wrestled with for the rest of the book.
The novel quickly leaves the priest behind to follow one of his students, Pietro Spina, as he steals his way back into Italy as a socialist comrade. Reluctantly his schoolmate (a doctor), decides to help him lie low for a few months in a tiny, rural and impoverished village where Spina is disguised as a priest—Don Paolo. During his time in hiding, he learns more about the terrifying hopelessness and resignation of the villagers. It is there that he begins to question the utility of the opposing Communist party, and eventually severs his ties when he discovers the party’s support for Italy’s war in Ethiopia.
Despite the strong political undercurrent, Pietro Spina’s story remains removed from the crisis in the country. This is largely because Pietro himself, is such a privileged character who is not ever seriously affected by the poverty around him, or burdened by familial obligations like the others. Even the romantic connections he forms, soon dissipates, and is forgotten.
Despite its dogged campaign against conformity, and popular thought of all kind, nothing endears me to this book. Prevailing throughout is a thinly disguised contempt for the rural villagers, and their perceived ignorance, passivity and apathy. The women are mostly smothering, feminine creatures plagued with hysteria (the very last scene and character being an important and interesting exception). Like Ayn Rand’s Fountain Head, it tackles themes of individual thought, socialism and captilism and its effect on the “simple, working man”. However, unlike Rand’s infamous work, Bread and Wine argues with a more succinct logic, and somewhat less irritatingly allegorical narrative that group-think breeds ignorance and a blind following. George Orwell’s 1984 does this best of all, but that’s another book review for another post.
Originally penned in Italian, Bread and Wine was published in multiple languages throughout Europe in the mid-1930s. Not surprisingly, the book was vilified and banned by Mussolini’s government, making it dangerous to possess, much less read. In this way, within this context, the ideas celebrated in the book are shocking and revolutionary. It takes no sides. It denounces capitalism, while betraying sympathy and respect for land-owners and bankers. It embraces communism, while sneering at its conformity and eventually dismissing its legitimacy.