Walter Laqueur was born in Breslau in 1921 and now lives in Washington DC and London. He was founding editor of The Journal of Contemporary History and Survey, and between 1965 and 1995 director of the Wiener Library. Walter has taught 19th and 20th century European history at Brandeis, Chicago, Georgetown, Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Tel Aviv universities. His books include The Last Days of Europe, Fascism: Past, Present, Future, A History of Zionism, and Thursday's Child Has Far to Go: A Memoir. Here he remembers first reading Ignazio Silone's Fontamara.
Walter Laqueur on Fontamara by Ignazio Silone
When I was 16, a friend of mine belonging to an underground left-wing group passed a book on to me with the request to return it within a day or two. It was in German, written by an Italian author of whom I had not heard, the year was 1937, the place Nazi Germany. It was a novel, not very long, and I finished reading it that very evening. I was an avid reader but my literary sophistication was quite limited at the time. And yet I understood that this was a great, a powerful work, and I was more impressed by it than by any anti-fascist book I read before or after. It was the story of the inhabitants ('cafoni') of a small village in the Abruzzi named Fontamara, desperately poor, in danger of losing their livelihood altogether because the big landowners were about to deprive them of their water supply. They try to resist, but the authorities - the fascist police - crush their resistance, some are killed, others have to escape. It was very different from the revolutionary literature I had read by that time, rather depressing, neither Marx nor Lenin were mentioned, even not Mussolini, no promise that 'we shall overcome', no false phrases; but I instinctively realized that it was great literature. It became a classic and I felt a little proud to have discovered it for myself.
In the years after, I heard a great deal about Ignazio Silone (Secondino Tranquilli): that he had been a founder, with Gramsci, of the Italian Communist party, that he had been expelled in 1930 as a right-wing deviationist. Fontamara had been highly praised by Trotsky and it had even been published in the Soviet Union despite the fact that Silone was by then considered a renegade. It had appeared in English with a preface by Michael Foot. I read Silone's later books but they did not have the same impact; perhaps it was the strong religious element which bothered me. He returned to Italy in 1945 and was active for a short time in one of the two Socialist parties (the one headed by Giuseppe Saragat), but his heart was not in politics and he concentrated on his writing in the years after that.
I had dinner with Silone in Rome in 1970, and it was not a success. He seemed depressed and hardly talked. I later heard that he had been treated by Jung or one of his disciples when he was in exile in Switzerland in the 1930s. He also suffered from tuberculosis.
Silone died in 1978. Twenty years later two Italian historians published an article (later a book) according to which they had found documents in the archives proving that he had been an informer for the fascist political police. At first there was great resistance to accepting this; he had enemies among the literary intelligentsia, many of whom had become Communist fellow-travellers after 1945, having been fascist sympathisers earlier on. But the documentation left no doubt that Silone had indeed been in touch with Guido Bellone, one of the chiefs of the political police up to 1929 when he left the party. Exactly what kind of information Silone had passed on has remained a matter of contention to this day: there is by now a whole literature on the subject. If he had been a fascist agent, how to explain that his handlers had permitted him to leave the party at a time when they needed information most? In the 1920s his younger brother, also a Communist, had been arrested and had died a few years later in prison. Again, as an important agent he should have been able to help his brother who was very close to him.
There were and are many unsolved questions. Silone, it appears from studying all the material available now, had never been a fascist. At the age of 19 he had been befriended by Bellone, years before Mussolini came to power. Bellone was engaged at the time in the administration of government aid to the Abruzzi which had been devastated in an earthquake in 1915. Silone's father died when Ignazio was 11, and his mother was killed in the earthquake. Bellone seems to have become something like a father figure to the young Silone.
This seems to me the most likely explanation, but there are no certainties. In any event, it seems to have been a case of psychological-political schizophrenia, of which Silone must have been aware; he felt a terrible guilt all his life and I doubt he found consolation and absolution in Jung or the Catholic church.
My friend who had lent me the book emigrated to Latin America and became a major cultural figure in his new home. His picture appears on one of the stamps of the Bolivian mail.