Bread and Wine
Author: Ignazio Silone
Publisher: Signet Classics (1986)
Reviewer: Stephen Keim
I have a friend who works in North Queensland at a community legal centre. He is about my age and we go back a long way. This friend shares my passion for left wing causes and, in particular, my opposition to the death penalty, anywhere, at any time, for any reason. We share tidbits in which we think the other may be interested. Silone’s classic 1936 novel, Bread and Wine, something much more than a tidbit was shared with me by my friend, almost a year ago.
In a recent period of unexpected free time, I found the book lying on a nearby shelf and I am very glad that I took the opportunity to read it, almost then and there.
Bread and Wine was first published in 1936 in Switzerland in the German language with the German title, Brot und Wein. The novel is set in the poor region of the Abruzzi in southern Italy and was very successful, when first published, as a revealing portrait of the injustices being perpetrated by the Mussolini’s fascist regime. It centres around the experiences of Pietro Spina, a socialist activist, who has returned, without permission of the authorities, from exile and has been given the task by the Party to organise the poor peasants of his home region in the service of the Revolution.
The reader meets a very ill Spina in an early chapter being hidden by a supporter, Cardile, in his barn. Cardile summons, with a degree of deception, the local doctor, Nunzio, an old school friend of Spina to provide treatment and medicines. Nunzio is reluctant, at first, having abandoned any expression of radical ideas as a necessity for professional advancement and self-preservation. But, for a time, Nunzio, inspired by Spina’s words and example, provides the necessary treatment and, with Cardile, devises the plan that Spina will disguise himself as a priest, Don Paolo Spada, while he recuperates in the extremely poor hillside village of Pietrasecca.
The result is that, for the course of the novel, at least, the main protagonist is a reluctant priest attempting to preach rudimentary ideas of socialist revolution to an utterly sceptical group of old poor peasants. Irving Howe in his introduction to the 1986 Signet edition, characterises those parts of Bread and Wine where the action occurs in a rural setting (which is almost the whole of the novel) as having a feel and style of allegory. I would go further and suggest that Don Paolo Spada’s efforts at avoiding any priestly duties while raising visions of a better more just future with his rural audience carries a feel of Moliere’s, Le Médecin Malgre Lui, and is within touching distance of farce on many occasions.
Howe identifies the central themes of Bread and Wine when he describes Silone’s work as portraying the competing visions of the socialist promise of socialist liberation and the Christian promise of spiritual transcendence. Howe describes Silone’s choice as a writer as seeking to pursue both visions despite the tension which exists between them.
While this may be the central tension in Bread and Wine, Silone manages to give expression to many different visions of reality. The peasants, when challenged, articulate a reasoned acceptance of their reality which has persisted for generations. What is the point of struggling to change a fixed reality, they say. When a disappointed Spina reflects upon their responses to his provoking questions, he finds it hard to fault the peasants’ logic.
Many characters debate the choice between conformity and resistance in the context of an unjust and repressive regime. Spina, as Don Paolo, is a voice in favour of action as is his old and respected, but generally sidelined, teacher, Don Benedetto. But there are many voices for conformity among the townspeople whose positions also carry persuasion.
There are ironies flitting back and forth between Silone’s own life and the action in Bread and Wine. Spica, in the novel, is raised by his grandmother because his parents died in the earthquake which struck the region in 1915. Silone’s father died in 1911 but his mother was killed in the earthquake.
Don Paolo, as progressive priest, comforts and restores a young activist, Luigi Murica, who had, after severe beatings at the hands of the regime’s police force, been seduced into becoming a police informer against his socialist comrades. Don Paolo assures Murica that he is forgiven and that he trusts him by telling Murica that he is not a real priest. Strangely, it was revealed by research in the 1990’s that Silone, himself, had been a police informer in the 1920s and that he broke with the police when his younger brother died as a result of torture and beatings at the hand of the carabinieri. In forgiving Murica, was Silone forgiving himself for his own actions?
Spica speaks a number of times in the novel concerning the matters that compelled him to return from exile despite the risks that carried for both his safety and his freedom. Remaining outside his country and outside the struggle was pointless, says the character. Silone, on the other hand, remained in exile and, no doubt, by writing and publishing Bread and Wine, was a much more effective opponent of the fascist regime than if he had returned.
There is no doubt that both the author and the main character had become disillusioned with Soviet communism and the Italian communist party’s slavish devotion to the latest directive of the Soviets which same devotion it demanded from its members. When Spica receives some policy papers arguing approval of the great purge and show trials then being set up in Moscow, he glances at them and puts them in the fireplace. When pressed by his party leader in Rome, Spica declines to grant his approval. His argument, in support of his refusal, is one of a need for plurality of thought and critical judgment, even in the course of a socialist revolution. None of this dulls Spica’s own passion to resist the government and to work and organise for the betterment of the conditions experienced by the ordinary people even at risk to his safety and his life.
The position of the Church is characterised by its complete surrender to the fascist party in power and the support it gives to that government by turning up to key public events and in other ways. For this, it is condemned. But Spica’s experience as a fake priest gives him an insight into the comfort that ordinary people demand and, even despite his best efforts to refuse to cooperate, take from their clergy. As Don Paolo, Spica comforts and inspires people, especially, young people and women, in ways he could never achieve as a socialist organiser, alone. He changes people’s lives, positively, for the good and he receives devotion, even love, from many including the two young women, Christina and Bianchina, both of whose lives he has dramatically touched. And when Spica sees a real priest in action, Don Girasole, he is impressed by how much good a poor hard working priest does for his community including in areas for which the government has responsibility but fails to act with compassion or empathy.
It is 25 years since the Signet edition was published and 75 years since the first edition of Bread and Wine was published, albeit, in German. In some respects, it has become quaint and, no longer, relevant (although every avowed socialist who broke with Stalinism in the 1930s will always have huge Brownie points from me). In other respects, Bread and Wine retains a timeless quality. For me, Bread and Wine was not about the competing visions of the socialist promise of socialist liberation and the Christian promise of spiritual transcendence identified by Howe. It was more about the luxury of principles when we do not have to put them into action and the varied human responses of those who have to live through some kind of challenge or repression. When our beliefs have the potential to cost us dearly, or even a little, there will be no right answer and everyone will respond in their own way. For some, preserving professional advancement or the safety of oneself and one’s family will take precedence. Others may choose their principles and, perhaps, even martyrdom, whether Christian or socialist or both. And all, hopefully, will learn something along the way, perhaps, even from those who hold different views and make different choices to ourselves.