The Philosophy of an Exile’s Return: Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine

Bread and Wine

Bread and Wine

Bread and Wine
Actual edition of the book used for this review. An oldie but a goodie.

by Ignazio Silone (translated from Italian by Gwenda Davis and Eric Mosbacher)
Penguin Books, 1946

I first have to admit that I’ve been on little bit of an early 20th century literature kick. This particular novel is part of that kick. So upon finding a rather well worn copy of this particular title at one of our local used bookstores I knew it would have to enter the rotation, so to say. This particular edition of Silone’s Bread and Wine is rather shoestring looking and has somehow managed to weather the better part of a century to find a home in my collection. Physical status of this book aside, Silone’s work provided some clear moments of wonderful writing and a rather engaging story.

Ignazio Silone is the pen name of  Secondino Tranquilli. Tranquilli was from the village of Aburzzi and a founding member of the Italian Communist Party in 1921. It was a connection and a true passion that eventually forced him out of Italy in 1930. His does have a sizable amount of literary achievements in his mother tongue, it seems that a good many of those have gone rather forgotten over the years. What you see a lot of though in Bread and Wine is the result of this life, the struggle of one political ideology in the face of an oppressive fascist regime.

Bread and Wine‘s main character is Pietra Spina, a revolutionary of the same persuasion as the author, who returns home to Italy after a prolonged absence or exile. For the better part of the novel he assumes the identity of Catholic priest in a small mountain village and becomes embroiled in the trials and tribulations of the peasant residents there. A great deal of the novel could be considered philosophical, pondering questions about religion and resistance and the sufferings of the Italian working class. It is perhaps in those philosophical moments that this particular novel does its best work. The wonderful portions of those philosophical sections are clearly enhanced by the characters that Silone uses to populate this story. Simply put, this is a philosophy that comes across as decidedly human and concrete because of the world that Silone manages to create here.

The action of the novel is well divided between Rome and the countryside of Silone’s youth. It is a story partially told in movements between places and the connections that a growing connected world has begun to push on the contemporary world of Spina. The novel’s view of fascist Italy is a big picture view of Italy where there is a decided division between the timelessness of a people connected to the land and a modern industrial world rub up against each other. It is a fascinating view is so much as it begs questions behind motivations and how much our well entrenched ideas of the never-ending present stack up against more ancient ways of looking at our world. In short Bread and Wine could and should trigger questions of about Silone’s contemporary human condition as well as our own.

All of that talk of philosophy doesn’t take away from the story here. It is strong at moments and I walked away from the book with the idea that I had experienced the life of at least one person of importance. As a reader I was genuinely into the idea of whether or not Spina would make it of fascist Italy in one piece. You could even see the strength of scenic level writing at work in many places. At moments you can feel the worlds inhabited by the peasants and working class people of Silone’s Italy. But it is the philosophical aspects that seem to rise to the surface most easily with this work. If you’re looking a bit of storytelling augmented by some excellent pondering on some of life’s bigger aspects and you can find a copy of this work, it is a worthwhile read.

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