August 14, 2009
Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone
By STANISLAO PUGLIESE
Reviewed by George Scialabba
Though the Cold War ended less than 20 years ago, Communism now seems a distant memory. So thoroughly did the Soviet and Chinese Communists betray the ideals in whose name they seized power, and so ruthlessly did they silence nearly everyone who protested that betrayal, that the ideals themselves are in danger of being forgotten. But many of the wisest and bravest men and women of the 20th century began by embracing Communism, and some of the century's best political writing was occasioned by their efforts later in life to understand what, if anything, of that youthful commitment remained valid.
The original allegiance of these ex-Communists was not to a party or ideology but to ordinary working people. Facing the harsh, sometimes lethal conditions of early industrialism, workers gradually organized themselves, usually against ferocious opposition from above. Their struggle for a modicum of comfort, security, and dignity won the support of many sensitive compatriots from other social classes. Some of these sympathizers joined the struggle as spokesmen or even leaders. One was Ignazio Silone, the subject of Stanislao Pugliese's excellent new biography.
In the stark physical and moral landscape of rural southern Italy, a boy named Secondino Tranquilli grew up during the first years of the 20th century observing the travails of the peasants, or cafoni. His father died when he was 11, and his mother and all but one of his siblings died four years later in an earthquake that devastated the region. He was a rebellious and melancholy adolescent, but he came under the influence of a saintly priest who, unlike every other priest the boy had known, actually practiced Christianity. The experience left young Secondino with what the Gospels call "a hunger and thirst for justice."
World War I and its aftermath generated waves of revolutionary activity in Europe. Secondino joined the Italian Socialist Party and, before he was out of his teens, became one of its leaders. When that party split, he became one of the leaders of the new Communist Party. A year later, Fascism descended on Italy and "Pasquini" (his Party name) went underground.
Throughout his 20s, he travelled widely on assignments for the Communist International, besides editing numerous Party publications. There were several sojourns in Spanish, French, and Italian prisons, and many pseudonyms. "Ignazio Silone" was the one that stuck.
The intolerance and deceit of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the other Russian Communist leaders increasingly disturbed Silone. In 1927 he attended a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, where Stalin's manipulations shocked and disgusted him. (He told the story in his most famous essay, "Emergency Exit," reprinted in the influential Cold War anthology The God that Failed. ) Two years later, gravely ill with tuberculosis, he went on medical leave from the Party, and two years after that he was expelled.
Exiled in Switzerland, warned by his doctors that he had only a year or two to live, Silone began writing a story about his hometown, "so that I might die among my own people." The resulting novel, Fontamara (Bitter Spring), made him internationally famous. Unexpectedly he recovered, and a few years later came Bread and Wine, his best novel and some critics' choice for the finest political novel of the century. During the Second World War, he divided his energies between fighting Fascism and fighting Communism, advising Allied intelligence and trying to keep the Italian Socialist Party from merging with the Communists.
After the war, and after 20 years in exile, he returned to Italy a hero. He remained highly visible, as a novelist, essayist, and editor of the leading Italian literary/political journal, Tempo Presente, until his death in 1978. Communist intellectuals never forgave him, but among the best of his contemporaries -- Orwell, Camus, Macdonald, Chiaromonte -- he was revered. Camus, on his way to receive the Nobel Prize in 1957, told a friend that the award should really have gone to Silone.
Why, now that both the commissars and the cafoni have disappeared, are Silone's writings still valuable? Perhaps because of his unusual combination of earnestness and skepticism, of lofty idealism and earthy humor. The peasants in his novels are exploited and deceived, but they are also, at times, a stitch, their wry fatalism tempering the reader's high-minded indignation on their behalf with frequent smiles at their expense. The same ability to see from all sides served Silone well as a combatant in the Cold War. Even among the minority of intellectuals who tried to maintain a critical distance from both sides, everyone lost his balance at one time or another -- but Silone less often than most. He was unyielding in his criticism of Soviet-bloc unfreedom, but he also criticized McCarthyism, racial discrimination, and American military interventions.
Idealism without illusions, an unsentimental passion for justice -- this is Silone's legacy. He called himself "a Socialist without a Party, a Christian without a Church." What he meant by both Socialism and Christianity, he explained, was "an extension of the moral values of private life" -- generosity, solidarity, candor -- "to all of social life." It is a simple vision but still a very long way from realization. Few people in his time did more than Silone to keep it alive.
A few last, anticlimactic words must be added. In recent years, two Italian historians have accused Silone -- one of the best-known and most hated opponents of Fascism -- of having been a Fascist informer. Stanislao Pugliese reviews their case and the subsequent controversy with scrupulous fairness. The evidence is slender, but it seems clear that Silone had a correspondence with a Fascist police official. What is not clear is that Silone ever told him anything of importance. If he did, it may have been a desperate attempt to save the life of his brother, who died in a Fascist prison. How significant is any of this? Not very, I'd say; but the reader must decide.
George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University. He was the very first recipient of the National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.