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A really interesting work. I agree with the author of the introduction in that the work is a bit uneven, but a good read and worth the price of admission (I wish I could score it a 4.5). The plot is pretty simple--an ailing communist underground leader from Abruzzi returns from exile to Italy during the fascist regime of Mussolini in the 1930's. While in hiding, he reluctantly takes the garb of a priest and seeks to convalesce in a small town in his home region. Despite the simplistic plot, there is a number of layers of meaning in the text--Silone uses this as a vehicle to discuss everything from freedom in a dictatorship to the role of the Church in bad times. His is critical of dogmatic communism--in fact, the main character is at his least convincing when spouting the party line and never gets anyone to agree with him when doing so. It's only when he talks in broader terms of humanity--and here Silone heavily relies on a Christian allegory--that he gains supporters. These moments are when the book really shines. Silone challenges us to ask what would happen to Jesus if he returned to our world. The ending is a bit odd, but is allegorical--some might find it off-putting.
The two characters I'll remember most from this classic are Uliva and Luigi, two of many Silone created with their own stories of how fascism or the Church (or both) affected them.
When Pietro Spina, Silone's aetheist, anti-fascism activist protagonist visits his old friend Uliva, he finds Uliva despondent and defeated, and Uliva tells Spina it's a waste of time to organize against the government and that the only answer is violence. Soon thereafter we learn that Uliva and his wife die in an explosion in their apartment, and that Uliva had been planning to blow up a church during a meeting "with everyone in the government there" (182). I'll remember Uliva as the activist who was ready to turn terrorist for the sake of his beliefs, a reminder of how people can turn to destruction when they're disappointed by failed attempts at peaceful protest.
I'll remember Luigi Murica as the physically weak, harmless peasant taken advantage of, beaten physically, and made to suffer the horrifying truth that he was helpless to prevent the gang rape of his girlfriend, Annina, when he fled her apartment for fear of being taken back to jail. The gang rape ruined what had mattered most to him, his relationship with Annina, for many years. When Spina meets Luigi, Luigi seems to be finding his inner strength and ready to reunite with Annina. But before Luigi's life can move forward, he's arrested and the police find a piece of paper on which he'd written, "Truth and brotherhood will reign among men instead of lies and hate; labor will reign instead of money" (268). Luigi doesn't deny that he wrote this single sentence, and the police officers beat him severely for it - "they wrapped him up in a red rug from the floor, they bandaged him and the soldiers beat him and kicked him.... When he fell, they walked on him, with their spiked shoes" (268). Luigi, physically weak since childhood, dies the next day. Spina attends Luigi's funeral and there, in my opinion, we find Silone's most moving passages, delivered by Luigi's father, in which Silone makes the literal and figurative connection between the book's title and its most powerful message. The older Murica gives bread and wine to his guests and describes Luigi's efforts to make both, from the harvesting of the grain and the grapes to the baking of the bread and the bottling of the wine, each process taking the same nine months it takes from human conception to birth, and the same provisions representing the body and the blood of Jesus Christ in church.
There's a reason Bread and Wine is considered a classic. Its characters are memorable and come through as realistic to their day, and its stories don't pretend to provide any specific answers to the problems they present. The characters and stories simply tell us what it was like to be a peasant in fascist Italy, and how although a few fictional people couldn't change things, their little efforts were closer to divine than the Church's cowardly backing of Mussolini.
The first time I tried to read this book, I didn't get it. Perhaps I was too distracted or reading it too quicky or sporadically, but I kept waiting for something important to happen or somebody to say something worth underlining and quoting, and got impatient when nothing happened and nobody said anything. It has sat abandoned on my bookshelf for a couple of years. This time around, I had a little more time to read and a little more space to think. It made all the difference. I enjoyed the subtlety of Silone's characterization. He delights in small, subtle humor, in symbolism that doesn't scream itself aloud -- like the drunk peasant who falls off his donkey and then beats the donkey. It slips by you if you're not attuned to it. There are probably other valid interpretations, but to me, Pietro (or Don Paolo) really isn't the main character here. He is simply a placeholder for the reader, so that I can see and hear and experience rural Italy. Perhaps because I can so easily identify with him. (I, too, am an idealist, a revolutionary with romantic ideas about the poor and romantic hatred for Institution. I may not be an exile on the run, but I live in a more tolerant time and place. A demonstration in Italy in the 30's might have been viewed by the authorities as criminal activity; in 21st century America, it's considered entertainment. I don't know which is more frustrating.) I have experienced Pietro's (and Silone's) frustration with those he is trying to help -- that ironic feeling that you could do a lot of good for the poor, if the poor would just cooperate. The peasants of Italy, and the universal poor by extension, are the heroes of this book -- those people that most revolutionaries strive and die to empower and free from oppression, yet few revolutionaries actually take the time to understand and love. The gold in this book is Silone's gentle, compassionate, humorous rendering of these people -- what they care about, don't care about, how they make decisions, what they fear, what they think about and hope for. It is an exposition of a collective mind; a dangerous undertaking, bound to slip into stereotype at times, and one that Silone undertakes with great reverence. As I go among the poor in my own day and age, I remember Silone, and find that what he has to say rings true. Much too often, attempts to help, to organize, and to "empower" are ultimately patronizing and arrogant. It is much better simply to break bread with them, and learn to know and love them. After all, this is what Jesus did, the greatest and best riend of the poor, and the ultimate Saviour of all mankind. I would rather follow his model than Marx's.
Reviewed in the United States on December 14, 1999
Set in Italy, at the outbreak of the invasion of Africa, at the height of fascism, Silone's main character, the communist leader Pietro Spina, disguised as a priest, is confronted with a sad reality: the large distance that separates ideological communism and the daily reality of the "cafoni," the Italian peasants who have to face the cruel struggle for survival, their indifference to political rhetoric, their acceptance of a future with no perspectives, and their reliance on blind faith. Spina is the intellectual mind who painfully learns that ideologies by themselves are not enough, the element of "faith" has to be present in life. The narrative has superb discourses, simple in its language, but with an incredible depth of meaning, there are plenty of allegories for the attentive reader, the story is a pleasure and a delight, as much as some good bread and wine!
The late Ignazio Silone, the author of "Bread and Wine," stated that he "would willingly pass [his] life writing and rewriting the same book -- that one book which every writer carries within him, the image of his own soul..." "Bread and Wine" is just that -- a beautiful reflection of a man's soul. Using humor, easy language and insights into the Italian fascist regime, Silone tells the story of all humanity's search for truth. In the figure of Pietro Spina, a Socialist political activist, the reader is lead to ask questions about politics, relationships, and faith. The irony is that Spina has just returned from exile and must remain incognito -- as a priest, of course. Through his experiences, he asks many difficult questions about his Socialist party, his church, and himself. In the end, he is left to bring together who he is as the "priest" Don Paolo and who he was as the anti-political activist Pietra Spina. He must learn to "let the inner and the outer man meet" (Plato).
Reviewed in the United States on December 27, 2014
I picked up the book because the reviews said the book reflected the difficulty of life during WWII. The glimpse into life during WWII was limited. When I completed the book I felt like I had just wasted my time reading this largely forgettable story. The ending of the story is just bizarre.
Reviewed in the United States on September 4, 2005
Silone's communist message is outdated.
More, he makes the cardinal error to believe that solidarity is a basic human characteristic: 'Bread is made of many grains of corn, wine is made of many grapes, so it means unity. Unity of similar, equal, useful things. Hence truth and fraternity are also things that go well together.'
But, man shows only solidarity if there is a 'personal' gain. Pure altruism is absolutely no option in the struggle for survival.
His picture of mankind is static, too rosy and naive. His belief in the proletariat is obsessive: 'the poor are uncontaminated by greed for property.' Hence, he proposes the abolishing of private ownership of land.
'Evil is only everything that prevents millions of people from becoming human.' For Silone, evil is not a basic and intrinsic part of the human character.
He doesn't understand that all proletarians want their children to become (not static) doctors, engineers, lawyers, economists ..., in other words 'bourgeois'.
In Stalin's Soviet Union, he sees only a fraternity of peasants and workers.
The political role of the Catholic Church nowadays is marginalized. In Italy, they even don't have a Christian Party anymore.
Of course, the main character poses certain questions: had that (communist) community not itself become a synagogue? abandoned the critical spirit? the risks of conspirational struggles?
His answer is no. He refutes that the communists aspire too to totalitarian power and orthodoxy and that a black inquisition will be followed by a red one. His return to his homeland 'had been basically an attempt to escape that professionalism', and he has the 'hope of one day playing a big role'.
Like a fanatically convinced Christian missionary, he tries desperately to sell his communist gospel to the poor cafoni. Unfortunately, they are terribly conservative ('it has always been so') and his message falls on deaf ears.
What is left in this book are the struggles against a totalitarian (here fascist) regime and against the butchery of war.
It is partly very melodramatic (e.g. the confession at the end) and its main symbolism (a marxist apostle disguised as a priest) irrealistic.
I prefer Silone's more direct and less apostolical 'Fontamara' and recommend highly his masterpiece 'Emergency Exit'.
Whats not to like. Great description of italian peasant life buffered against the forces of facism and religion. Author finds time for some humour amongst the inevitable messages of poverty, powerlessness and revolution.
Bread and Wine is an anti-fascist and anti-Stalinist novel written by Ignazio Silone. It was finished while the author was in exile from Benito Mussolini's Italy. It was first published in 1936 in a German language edition in Switzerland as Brot und Wein, and in an English translation in London later the same year. An Italian version, Pane e vino, did not appear until 1937. After the war, Silone completely revised the text, publishing a significantly different version in Italy (in 1955), reversing the title: Vino e pane (‘Wine and Bread’). This updated version is also available in English translation.