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Experience Of The Italian Peasant Class Under Fascism

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The interpretation of Italian fascism in history has always faced some controversy. This essay attempts to show that Silone’s Fontamara is able to depict the peasant experience under the fascist regime. This is achieved not through stringent historical accuracy but through fictional representation of Silone’s own experiences and reactions to the regime as he saw it. Thus it is important to consider the political ideologies with which Silone identified with, although recent revelations about Silone’s correspondence with the fascist regime may demand reinterpretation of Fontamara other than simply as an anti-fascist work. Fontamara delivers a very strong political message and has long been considered propaganda, although the overall message may not be anti-fascism but the appeal to nationalistic sentiments. Above all the novel through literary devices gives a voice to the Italian masses, the peasants, after being written out of history for so long when the focus of fascism has always been on leadership.

The novels by Ignazio Silone are particularly rich for the historian who wishes to learn more about Italy under the fascist regime. In particular, the novel Fontamara is instrumental to the understanding of the experience of the Italian peasantry under fascism. If approached from a political point of view, the blatant denouncement of Fascism present in the novel conflicts with the recent speculation that Silone himself was a spy for the Fascists. Being a novel about a fictitious town in the southern parts of Italy, the novel raises some concerns as to the historical accuracy of the events that are depicted, being particularly fallible to exaggeration and falsification. However, it must not be overlooked that Silone never intended the novel to depict events in historical accuracy, but to represent the Italian fascist regime as he saw it.

In essence, Fontamara is about a southern Italian village and its inhabitants being overwhelmed and brutally treated by the fascist regime. It is generally agreed that Silone wrote Fontamara in 1929, which meant that he was as eyewitness to the actions of the regime. Silone had been a prominent member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) since its inception in 1921, and since publication, his political affiliation with the communists meant that his works were always interpreted as anti-fascist. However, published recently was an article in Il Corriere della Sera [1] which revealed hand written letters by Silone showing him in contact with a member in the fascist party whilst still a member of the PCI, thus implicating him in espionage against the PCI. More importantly to this essay, the correspondence occurred during the years 1928 -1930 before his expulsion from the PCI, which was during the time that Fontamara was written. Biocca suggests that Silone ‘suffered from a devastating moral and intellectual crisis in which he temporarily lost his psychological and political identity’ [2] . In the interpretation of the novel, Silone’s political ideologies and biases must be considered, especially because of the blatant criticisms seemingly levelled towards the fascist regime. Given the dominant anti-fascist tone in the novel, it is not too bold to suggest that he most certainly became disillusioned with them also, if he was indeed a spy for them. Perhaps it can be said that Silone’s political fluidity was indicative of his faithfulness to the Patria [3] rather than to any fundamental political ideology.

As well, Fontamara had been widely acknowledged to be an effective piece of anti-fascist propaganda outside of Italy in the 1930s. Hanne asserts that ‘Fontamara played a major role in discrediting Mussolini’s regime in the eyes of the readership’ [4] . In particular, his portrayal of the hardships that the peasant class had to endure, the rape of the village women by fascist youths while the village men were away and the massacre of Fontamara towards the end of the novel being two examples, created an ‘underdog’ mentality which appealed to the audience outside Italian borders. This portrayal is further achieved with the interspersed voices of the man, his wife and their son whose ignorance is viewed with fondness creating characters that are likeable and allow the readers to sympathise for their misfortunes. Many early reviews of Fontamara treated the text as historically accurate. A review in the New Yorker in 1934 stated: ‘ “Fontamara is a little epic of peasant resistance, based upon an actual event in recent Italian history” ‘ [5] . Similarly, a review in the London Spectator wrote: ‘ “Fontamara is the most moving account of Fascist barbarity I have yet read” ‘ [6] . The very first sentence in the introduction of the novel aides in the misconception: ‘What I am about to set down took place at Fontamara last summer’ [7] and it was a compelling idea that there were resistance movements in Italy as this was effective for propaganda purposes if it was perceived as truth amongst its readers. Thus, the initial positive reception of Fontamara and its subsequent anti-fascist interpretation is particularly useful for the historian studying the political climate of Europe at the time and its perceptions and biases against the Italian fascist regime. The popularity of the novel meant that it was inevitably translated into several languages with the German version being translated by Nessie Sutro [8] from the original Italian and then re-translated back into Italian and other languages. This of course has the implications that the phrases particular to a language can be misquoted and distorted entirely which would affect the meaning of the novel.

The history of Italian fascism is highly contested firstly because of the writing style adopted by the intellectuals, as endorsed by Mussolini. Italian realism flourished under fascism where the intellectuals were encouraged to produce political, but not openly propagandistic works [9] . The fascists pit themselves against the materialism of the communists by advocating individualism and naturalness in their literature [10] and this style is reproduced in Fontamara. This fluidity and ambiguity enabled reinterpretations of the texts as anti-fascist and as apologists for the fascist regime. What many Italian intellectuals attempt to convey is that the they do not regard fascism as merely a military dictatorship, nor was it, according to Silone, a reactionary consolidation of the conservative liberal state, but that the fascists and their ideology became ingrained into the existing social fabric [11] . Fascism, as a term, is too broad which contribute to the vast interpretations of any pro-fascist or anti-fascist text. The memory of Italian fascism invokes accounts of unresolved agency and accountability with Italy still yet to face up to its fascist past [12] .

Fontamara was written with every intention of being published so this may have influenced Silone to exaggerate the extent of peasant sufferings and sensationalised others. Overall, although Fontamara cannot be said to present a historically accurate portrayal of the experience of the Italian peasants under Mussolini’s fascist regime, it nevertheless is reliable in assisting in the study of general attitudes towards fascism.

At the time of the fascists, Italy was divided into three distinct regions: the industrialised north, the mezzadro [13] in central Italy and the semi-feudal south. It is important to note that Fontamara was a southern Italian village because whilst the north had the salariati [14] , the south was where the absent landlord let out land to the peasants at extortionate rates [15] . It is important to note that when one considers the different socio-economic conditions, the novel is absent of any universal Italian peasant experience. The general disinterest of the southern peasants in politics suggests that Fascism originated from its northern stronghold and imposed on the south when the provincial authorities sought to influence the fascist political movement [16] . The existence of the braccianti, who were landless day labourers hired by the mezzadri, contributed to the dissent as they were unemployed for about half the year. They were restless and bitter and eagerly joined the fascist ‘blackshirts’ [17] . In Fontamara, this is shown when Peppino states: ‘It was a new kind of politics: twenty lire a day wages and the right to beat and not be beaten’ [18] 

The power of the provincial authorities can be noted in the tax burden placed on the peasants where up to two thirds of the local revenue came from food taxation. In Fontamara this is expressed as: ‘There’s a house tax, and a vineyard tax, and a donkey tax, and a dog tax, and a pasture tax, and a pig tax, and a wagon tax, and a wine tax…’ [19] . A Tuscan landlord in 1907 noted that this tax system was ‘a genuine regime of oppression’ [20] . Furthermore, the overpopulation of the region exacerbated the problem, and put the peasants in fierce competition with each other worsening their conditions. In Fontamara there is mention of ‘the prohibition of emigration… (meaning that) the young had no choice but to stay at Fontamara where work was becoming scarcer for everybody’ [21] . As well, the changing economy meant that traditional forms of income could no longer be viable for the peasants, and this is noted in Fontamara: ‘Many things contributed to the killing of the trade- the disappearance of local flocks of sheep, the introduction of town-made woollen goods and the ever-increasing poverty of the peasants’ [22] . It is clear that the conditions of the peasants were deteriorating and outside their sphere of influence, contributing to the tone of helplessness.

Similarly, Fontamara is highly critical of the attitudes of the professional class and the hypocrisy of the Church. The caricature of the lawyer Don Circostanza, who accepts wage reductions on behalf of the peasants of Fontamara, encapsulates the debonair attitude of that class towards the poor, which in turn shows Silone’s socialist background. At the same time, the Church is criticised for its corruption: ‘The Pope is frightened too. He accepted two thousand million lire from the new government’ [23] and it is highlighted in the personification of the priest Don Abbacchio who refuses to preach Mass at Fontamara without a further ten lire in payment. In their repertoire are empty rhetoric devices which were used by the fascists to legitimise the exploitation of the poor [24] .

Thus it can be seen that although Fontamara is a fictional novel, the characters and events depicted are representations of experiences of Silone himself and should therefore be interested not just in the wider context of Italian fascism but also within Silone’s personal context. The novel is a social commentary with a political message that has been interpreted as anti-fascist in its depiction of peasant life under Italian fascism. Fontamara is representative of the exploitation of the poor by the rich as seen by Silone by presenting a ‘history from below’ and giving a voice to the peasants who were otherwise excluded from history.


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