"Old Don Benedetto was sitting on the low wall of his little garden, in the shade of a cypress tree. His black priest's habit seemed to absorb and prolong the shadow of the tree. Behind him his sister was sitting at her loom. She had placed it between a box hedge and a rosemary bed. The shuttle bobbed backwards and forwards through the warp of red and black wool, from left to right and from right to left, to the accompaniment of the rhythm of the treadle that lifted the warp cords and of the lamb that lifted the warp. It was a warm afternoon towards the end of April, and one's thoughts followed the movement of the shuttle, from left to right and from right to left. The right led towards the town; the left led straight into the mountains."
Opening paragraph of "Bread and Wine," by Ignazio Silone
Bread and Wine, the semi-autobiographical novel by Ignazio Silone, was first published in the United States in 1937. It attracted international attention for depicting the horror of Fascist Italy with brutal honestly and biting humor; the book was originally banned in Italy for this reason.
After a brief introduction hosted by the above-mentioned Don Benedetto, the story centers on Pietro Spina, one of Benedetto's former students at the monastary where he used to teach. Spina's communist beliefs got him kicked out of Italy (and France, and Belgium, and Germany...) many years before. He has just returned to Italy, partially because of his failing health, partially because of acute homesickness, but mostly to reestablish contact with his communist brethren. He is expected by the Fascists however and is forced into hiding. To mask his identity, Spina takes the name of Don Paulo and passes himself off as a Catholic priest.
As the novel progresses Spina tries to reconcile his political and spiritual beliefs while (usually unwittingly) improving the lives of the oppressed farmers and tradesmen around him.
The plot does sound a little hokey when reduced to a synopsis; nevertheless the book is astoundingly touching. Spina's struggle exudes pure humanity and loss, and mirrors the larger parallel struggle between the poor landowners and the Italian government and church that is always in the background.
When one reads contemporary novels set in World War II they're usually filled with references to the big names - Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and so on, because that is the history that has been handed down to us. This novel was written before those names acquired their places in history. Hitler is never mentioned in this book. Mussolini is mentioned, but only twice and never by name. It's refreshing to be given this smaller perspective where war is raging all around Spina's adopted village and the day to day fight for survival comes in the form of falling wheat prices instead of arial bombardments.
The book is laced with metaphor that fleshes out the duality of Spina's (and Spina's country's) situation. It all very subtle until the last paragraph, where you realize what the last (checks) 318 pages meant. So you take a breather, get a drink, and start it again.
"Old Don Benedetto was sitting on the low wall of his little garden, in the shade of a cypress tree…"