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This is the definitive account of one God that failed. It describes a man's loss of faith during the 1930s in the international Communist movement. Wanted as a terrorist, he slips back into southern Italy where he hides as a Catholic priest recovering from tuberculosis. Fascism is rampant and war with Ethiopia has given national purpose to Italians suffering from economic stagnation. His priestly duties involve offering forgiveness to Catholics saddled with a primitive and uncompromising faith. His contacts in the Comintern underground demand his obedience to party dogma from Moscow that he now sees as meaningless. While Silone offers no grand solution to the dilemna that loss of faith presents, the book presents an uncompromising and wonderfully written portrait of the strength and weakness of humanity in the Godless world of the 20th Century.
Great book. Every time I opened it, I felt like I was in Italy for a moment. Beautiful imagery and multi-dimensional characters. The plot had depth and left me wondering how conflicts could possibly be resolved.
The bread and wine book was an excellent view of Italy and the problems of autocratic government. We read it for our Book Club and I added to it a succulent Italian lunch menu Which I called "Cafoni Pranzo". It was a success and all the members enjoyed the food and the discussion on the book.
This is a novel of the Italian resistance to fascism set in Italy in the mid-1930’s. A revolutionary hunted by the authorities (as was the author) has returned to the country disguised as a priest. The real political action is in Rome but, emaciated and sickly (probably from tuberculosis), the rebel is hiding out in the countryside – still a land of poor peasants, donkeys and ox-carts. The area is the Abruzzi, a hilly region in central Italy due east of Rome but considered culturally part of southern Italy. As part of his disguise he coats his face in iodine to create wrinkles to look older.
He avoids priestly duties despite demands for him to hear confessions and preside over baptisms. When he is coerced into some priestly action, he has good luck. He makes a life-long friend of a young woman on her death bed (from an illegal abortion) to whom he administers last rites; but she survives. He has an eye for the women including a married peasant and a wealthy lady. He makes a poor priest. If you irritate him his spiritual advice to you might be “Go to hell.”
We learn a lot about the peasants, their poverty, politics and religion.
“…the poor people whose capacity for suffering and resignation was truly without limit. They were used to living in isolation, ignorance, diffidence and the sterile hatred of one family for another.” Their lives are so hard that many have been disfigured and you can tell what kind of work they do by their disfigurement: stooped from mines, lame from heavy labor, bow-legged from harvesting on hillsides or ‘wall-eyed’ (abnormally white eyes) from years of work with furnaces.
The church is for the government and the wealthy, not the people. A wealthy woman says: “Social inequalities were created by God and we must humbly respect them.” Some peasants accept this perspective and our rebel despairs at the peasants’ lack of political capacity. “Politics is a luxury reserved for the well-fed.” There’s a lot of talk of inequities and inefficiencies in the land system that serves to keep the poor peasants poor, and the rich landowners rich. There’s sarcasm about the economic system: “Finally, to make his fortune, he contracted some important debts and declared himself bankrupt.”
One character says: “I think religion does for women what salt does for pork. It keeps up the freshness and savor.” Religion is mixed with superstition. The people particularly fear earthquakes. The priest’s landlady is desperate to have him stay at her house as a talisman against another earthquake. People remember the tremendous earthquake twenty years before (in 1915) in the Abruzzi region that killed 35,000 people.
When he arrives in a small village, the local witch/herbalist fears him as ‘competition’ until she learns he’s not authorized to carry out his priestly duties. One old woman crawls up the church floor keeping her tongue to the ground, leaving a glistening trail like a snail.
But there are also some good priests. He visits an old priest, a retired teacher who gathers former pupils in his home. All were idealistic rebels as young boys and the priest encouraged such thinking. But now some are rebels and some are wealthy fascists and even spies for the government.
Spoken by those in charge of preparing for a fascist rally: “We’ll have to have some policemen on the trucks, so that the people will know that they have to come spontaneously.”
The main character is disgusted by the Italian war against Ethiopia. Yet the war was supported by many peasants because the fascist government paid a stipend to soldiers’ mothers. They were so poor that some women prayed for the war to continue.
“The country seems to have been divided not into just two different political parties but two different humanities.” (Shades of the current political situation in the USA?)
The main character (as did the author) left the communist party because he felt it become as self-serving as the church and that it had come to represent ‘red fascism:’ “…has not the organization itself become the supreme value?”
There’s good writing: “She did this with a tiny little voice and a fearful smile which looked as if it had been prepared behind the door and held in place with some pins.”
The book reminds me a lot of Italo Calvino’s novel of the Italian resistance, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests. As Calvino did, the author gives a preface about how and why he revised the book in 1955 after it was originally written in 1937.