Don Benedetto, a Catholic priest in a small Italian village, had “a liberty of spirit and a liveliness of mind that in his station in life were positively foolhardy.” His relatives hated him for “not having the prestige with the authorities that they expected of him and for having been reduced to living like a hermit instead of being able to use influence on their behalf at a time when honest work was of no use whatever in the absence of recommendations and backing in high places.” When his sister arranged a small celebration on his 75th birthday, only two of his former students bothered to attend, one of whom excuses his membership in the Fascist party on the ground that, “in school you dream, in life you have to adapt yourself.” To which Don Benedetto ironically replies, “What? Is that how an activist talks? A Nietzsche fan?”
Don Benedetto is not very interested in either of his guests; he is much more interested in someone who is not there, his favorite pupil, Pietro Spina, a boy who was not satisfied with what he found in textbooks. Don Benedetto still has the essay in which Spina had written, “But for the fact that it would be very boring to be exhibited on altars after one’s death, to be prayed to and worshipped by a lot of unknown people, mainly ugly old women, I should like to be a saint. I don’t want to live in accordance with circumstances, conventions and material expediency, but I want to live and struggle for what seems to be just and right without regard to the consequences.” It does not surprise Don Benedetto that Pietro Spina is a member of the Communist party.
But not a very good member. The party requires total commitment, unquestioning support for whatever the party majority decides, and Pietro objects to this. “I can’t sacrifice for the party’s sake the reasons for which I joined it.” Told that “Breaking with the party means abandoning the idea behind it,” Pietro insists this “would be like putting the Church before Christ.”
This is the key to understanding everything Ignazio Silone, who had himself once been a communist, is trying to say. The Church had promised heaven in life after death; Communism promised heaven on earth. The Church, as the source of revealed truth, spoke with only one voice; the Communist party, the source of the truth about history and what history would bring, had to do the same thing. The question posed by Pietro Spina became more pointed, and more tragic, when the Russian Communist party, under the control of Stalin, began the systematic elimination of the leaders of the Russian Revolution of l917, men like Bukharin and Trotsky, who believed that the Russian Revolution could not survive by itself and that it was impossible to have what Stalin called Socialism in One Country.
“How dare you describe our condemnation of Bukharin and other traitors as conformism. Are you mad?” asks one of Pietro Spina’s superiors. To which he replies: “How can we destroy fascist subservience if we abandon the critical spirit?”
Through Pietro Spina, Ignazio Silone raises questions men like Bukharin could not bring themselves to ask. Marxism had become their religion; the Communist party their Church. Failure to follow the orders of their Church meant questioning their religion, which would make a mockery of everything they had believed and everything they had done. Put on trial for betraying the party, accused of being an agent of foreign powers, Bukharin confessed to crimes he did not commit. It was the only way he had left to serve the cause to which he had dedicated his life, the only way he could still honor his belief that the Communist party was the chosen instrument of History. There was a reason that Arthur Koestler’s once famous novel about that trial was called Darkness at Noon.
Pietro Spina is less attached to the Communist party than he is opposed to the Fascist party that has taken control in Italy. Arrested at the beginning of l927 and deported to the island of Lipari, he escapes to France. He comes back, sick and dying, to the small village in Italy where he had been raised. In a subtle reminder of the parallels between the Church and the Party, Silone has the priest, Don Benedetto, disguise his former student, now wanted by the Fascist government, as a priest. His new name is Don Paolo.
His illness becomes the excuse why he cannot perform the duties of a priest and must recover in a place where he will not be required to do so. He goes to a village some miles away and takes rooms at an inn run by an older woman, Matalena, who is enormously proud that Don Paolo has chosen her place to stay. A girl, for whom Don Paolo had once done a kindness, thinks him not only a saint, but might be Jesus Christ himself. Matalena wonders whether, if he really is Jesus Christ, she should inform the carabinieri. As Silone points out, “a copy of the police regulations was displayed on the inn door, but the arrival of Jesus was not an eventuality foreseen in them.”
The village is filled with ignorance and superstition. A chapel is dedicated in memory of a miracle in days gone by. That year, someone explains to Don Paolo, roses bloomed, cherries ripened and ewes lambed in January. “Instead of rejoicing, people were terrified, of course. Were not such blessings the harbingers of disaster? Sure enough, cholera came that summer.” A little further down the same road, he is shown a cross inscribed with the date a notary, Don Giulio, was robbed and murdered. “Don Giulio lent out money at thirty percent. After his death usury disappeared.”
With the Fascists in power, the schoolmistress wears the emblem of the government party on her dress. One of the few literate people in the village, she reads every day in public from the official government newspaper from Rome. One day she reads that, “We have a leader from whom all the nations of the earth envy us. Who know what they would be prepared to pay to have him in their country.” One of the villagers, an old man “who disliked generalities,” interrupts to ask how much. “What are they offering, and would it be a cash or a credit transaction.” He was serious.
The government has decided that the glory of Italy, destined to repeat the glory of the Roman Empire, requires the invasion of Abyssinia. All anyone can talk about in the village is the war in Africa, which will take only a few days because, “Our death ray will carbonize the enemy.” The government organizes a “spontaneous demonstration.” Everywhere, even in this small remote place, trucks are sent in all directions. “But the carabinieri must go with the trucks so that people will see the necessity of coming here of their own accord.” Everyone gathers in the village square. Two brass bands march through the streets. A radio set, “crowned by a trophy of flags,” is placed on a chair. “It was from there that the voice proclaiming war would emerge. As the poor people arrived they were herded beneath this small object on which their collective destiny depended.”
After the announcement, a local attorney gave an oration in which he remarked without conscious irony that, “Our country has grown greater after every war, and in particular after every defeat.”
Later that day, Don Paolo asks some of the locals, who have been drinking, if they understood “anything of what is going on?” “What a thing to ask,” replies one of them. “No one told us there was any need to understand.”
What Pietro Spina understands is that fascism, like communism and every other form of dictatorship, is based on unanimity. One man “who goes on thinking with his own brain is a threat to public order.” Nor is this true only of dictatorships. “You can live in the most democratic country in the world, and if you are lazy, callous, servile, you are not free, in spite of the absence of violence and coercion, you are a slave.”
Bread and Wine was first published in a German edition in 1936. An English version was published that same year in London. The original text was completely revised before it was published for the first time in Italy in 1955. No one knows how many revisions it went through. Ignazio Silone was what every writer, every serious writer, should be: someone who would, as he put it, gladly spend his life, “writing and rewriting the same book: the single book that every writer has within him that is the image of his soul and of which his published works are only more or less fragments.” It only follows that the thing that matters most “in a work of literature” is “the development of the interior life of the characters.” As Ignazio Silone was one of last to understand, the life of literature is the life of the mind. Which is one of the reasons that each reading of Bread and Wine teaches something new.