One of the advantages in this Day of the Download to maintaining actual bookshelves is that you browse through them now and again, looking for things you’ve read before that you might want to read again. I’m a proponent of re-reading, and I’ve come to trust my sense of when it’s time to pick up a book and give it another shot.
So one day last week I picked up my old copy of Ignazio Silone‘s Bread and Wine, a classic Italian novel that is celebrated for its anti-fascist and anti-communist leanings (Silone is often abbreviated as the Italian George Orwell) but which is at least as much, it seems to me, a reflection on the nature of the church and the chasm between organized religion and true morality.
That this reflection comes from a writer who has been accused by historians of spying for the fascists in the 1920s is something I can’t explain, except to suggest that the most potent condemnations of specific wrongs sometimes come from those who are tempted most mightily by them. And if, indeed, Silone was a police informant as a young man, it lends a deeper resonance to Bread and Wine, a story that includes a key character who has informed on his communist cellmates and later come to terms with his motives and actions, bravely enduring a Christlike death. Silone is extraordinarily understanding and insightful about this character, whose path to saintliness echoes the imperfections and weaknesses of Jesus in Nikos Kazantzakis‘s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, except that the Greek writer’s man/god, while tempted to the point of torment, doesn’t give in.
Silone wrote this novel in exile in 1935, when Mussolini and his crowd were riding high and had just gone a-venturing in Abyssinia, prowling for the spoils of victory. He rewrote the book in 1955, seeking to make it sparer and cleaner, and the version I have was published in 1986, which is I imagine when I first read it. That was my second go-round. I’d also read the novel in college, in the late 1960s, for the same class in which I read The God That Failed, the 1949 book of essays by Silone, Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, Andre Gide, Louis Fischer and Stephen Spender about how they became disenchanted with communism. Surely it means something that I’ve read Silone’s book at about age 20, and about 38, and now at 61, and each time it’s felt like a fine wrestle with literature that matters.
Silone’s hero, Pietro Spina, is, like his creator, a young Italian from the countryside of Abruzzo who has become a socialist and then a Marxist and has had to flee the country. But by the time the novel begins he is tired, and has become as disillusioned with the movement as he had been with the church, and wants desperately just to come home. He does. Trouble is, in Italy, where any nonconformist is an enemy of the Fascist state, he’s a marked man.
So friends create a disguise for him: He becomes Don Paolo Spada, an anonymous priest, who goes to a secluded mountain village to recuperate from a lung ailment and finds that, in spite of his loathing of the idea, he must act out some of the customs and duties of the priesthood. Shakespeare-like, Spina/Spada takes on a new identity that reflects a deeper, undiscovered aspect of his original identity, and by the act of taking on the habit of the church he becomes, in an odd way, more truly priest-like than the vast majority of ordained priests. The mask becomes the man, or vice versa. One believes in fascism or communism or God, and all are matters of faith. When one falls out of belief, strangely, one can become liberated to approach the ideal that was the impetus for believing in the first place. Which means, perhaps, that one has not lost belief, after all: Perhaps it’s been found, in its essence, buried beneath the rust of ideology.
Because it seems to me that Silone’s battle is not with a failed God or a failed sense of justice but with the failures of human beings, who take a potent idea — Christ’s example, social justice for all classes — and build an edifice of legalisms and hierarchy around it, turning it into a travesty of what it set out to be. Most of us, as we age out of idealism, come to accept this as the way life works. A few — the saints, the outsiders — refuse, and become dangerous simply because they refuse.
Listen, in Eric Mosbacher’s swift English translation, to Don Paulo talking to his earthy acolyte, Bianchina:
“The dictatorship is based on unanimity,” he said. “It’s sufficient for one person to say no, and the spell is broken.”
“Even if that person is a poor, lonely sick man?” the girl said.
“Even if he’s a peaceful man who thinks in his own way and apart from that does no-one any harm?”
These thoughts saddened the girl, but they cheered Don Paolo.
“Under every dictatorship,” he said, “one man, one perfectly ordinary little man who goes on thinking with his own brain is a threat to public order. Tons of printed paper spread the slogans of the regime: thousands of loudspeakers, hundreds of thousands of posters and freely distributed leaflets, whole armies of speakers in all the squares and at all the crossroads, thousands of priests in the pulpit repeat these slogans ad nauseum, to the point of collective stupefaction. But it’s sufficient for one little man, just one ordinary, little man to say no, and the whole of that formidable granite order is imperilled.”
This frightened the girl, but the priest was cheerful again.
“And if they catch him and kill him?” the girl said.
“Killing a man who says no is a risky business,” said the priest. “Even a corpse can go on whispering no, no, no, no with the tenacity and obstinacy that is peculiar to certain corpses. How can you silence a corpse?”
Yes, Bread and Wine is guilty, if that’s the right word, of being schematic in its symbolism: It goes with the territory. And certainly it’s romantic in its stubborn devotion to idealism in action. That romanticism doesn’t spread to Silone’s portrayal of peasants and the peasant life, although he seems to carry an exasperated affection for the people and a deep understanding of the harshness of the soil, which is making paupers even of the supposed landed gentry, the Colamartini family. The peasants are ignorant and superstitious and prone to drinking and fighting, and they are practical in an extremely narrow, self-interested way. They have no use for ideology of any sort: They work too hard to be swayed by that sort of thing, just to feed themselves. And they know they’re likely to work themselves into the grave. This gruelling view of country life is far different from our current urban romance with the idea of an arcadian idyll on a sweet, small organic farm. In Silone’s time and place, country life stunts you: ItÂ holds you down and wears you out.
Three times through this book, and I still don’t really understand its ending, in which beautiful Cristina, Silone’s vision of purity and devotion, stumbles to her doom in the mountains, waiting to be devoured in the snow by wolves. Is it that in a world such as this one, purity can’t survive? If so, he’s made a mistake, because he’s made Cristina too human and specific and appealing to be read as a mere symbol.
Silone’s aim in Bread and Wine is to rediscover the transforming power of Christianity and socialism in their original, primitive versions, stripped of ideology to their essence. Then they become not a set of rules but a way of living. There is scant territory between “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In a way, they’re yin and yang.
Late in his life Silone declared himself “a socialist without a party, a Christian without a church.”
Seems like there’s a lot of that going around.