Written when Italian author and political activist Ignazio Silone lived in Switzerland after fleeing the fascist Italian state, Fontamara
(1933) resonates with the widespread political anxiety of its time, foreshadowing
the growth of fascism in Europe which culminated with Hitler’s regime and World War II. For its incisive criticism of the Fascist party and its political effect on its readers, the novel was considered a piece of political propaganda. It takes place primarily in a small, impoverished village, Fontamara, in southern Italy. Here, Fontamara’s citizens (the Fontamaresi) are engaged in a class struggle against the urban elites, the latter embodied by a man called the Impresario. The naive Fontamaresi, constantly exploited by the upper class, gradually grow conscious of the reality of fascism. An event in which a Fascist cohort called the Squadristi rapes a number of Fontamaresi women results in the proliferation of anti-Fascist literature through Italy. The novel delves into the lives of these exploited people, showing how they formed solidarity and internalized a new political consciousness.
The novel begins at night in Fontamara. A writer visits Berardo Viola and his lover, Elvira, who live with Berardo’s son. They relay to him the history of their village. He compiles their words into a book, ostensibly the text of Fontamara
. Most of the story is told by the father. Pelino a Cavaliere, or Italian knight, comes to Fontamara and tricks the peasant class into endorsing a decree that agrees to shift the local waterway farther from the fields where they work. In order to trick them into agreeing to a plan that will only hurt them, he coerces them to sign a blank piece of paper, virtually gaining a blank legislative check.
Soon enough, the Fontamaresi men are astounded to see workers shifting the waterway. The women respond by protesting at the region’s capitol. However, they are ignorant of the fact that the mayor is now a fascist leader called a podesta. He sends the women to the estate of the Impresario, a wealthy fascist businessman who exerts political control over the region. Finding him absent, they go on a wild goose chase to find him. Eventually, a facetious lawyer Don Circonstanza and the Impresario coerce the women into accepting a compromise in which they accept a small share of the waterway in exchange for ending their protest. They learn that the Impresario has claimed their local flatland, which they utilize to facilitate the natural migration of their sheep. A number of new emigration restrictions are passed, preventing Berardo from carrying out his dream of moving to America. This puts him in a dire position, as he had already sold his land to Don Circonstanza to pay for the cost of emigrating. He falls into despair, deeming himself unworthy of marrying Elvira. Pelino tells the regional Fascist leadership that the Fontamaresi lack understanding and respect for the regime’s new stipulations. In response, Innocenzo la Legge institutes a town-wide curfew, taking away the right to public political speech. Berardo retaliates, speaking out against Innocenzo for betraying the people.
The townspeople are swindled once again when the Fascists convince them to sign away rights to a fertile land called Fucino. Crestfallen, they meet a man who feigns an offer to help arm them for a rebellion. When he departs, someone warns them that it is a ruse, and they are falling into a political trap. When the men return to the fields, a gang of soldiers rapes the Fontamaresi women. The rapists encounter Elvira at the town’s bell tower and flee in fear, recognizing her as the Madonna. Berardo finds her and carries her home. The next morning, he resolves to find a job in town in order to deserve her hand in marriage.
The Impresario leverages his knowledge that a price floor will be set on the price of wheat, buying up the cafoni’s stock just before its value is increased by nearly fifty percent to turn a profit. He creates a law reducing agricultural wages. Don Circonstanza also uses their ignorance of an obscure Italian word to trick them into giving away the rights to their water for fifty years. By this point, the younger Fontamaresi start plans to rebel; Berardo distances himself from them. He is distraught when one of his followers, the young Teofilo, commits suicide at the bell tower. Berardo goes to Rome to find work and meets Don Achille Pazienza, a lawyer who tries to use him for financial gain. Not long after, Berardo receives a telegram stating that Elvira is dead. At a cafe where he is meeting the leader of the rebellion, the Solito Sconosciuto, he is arrested by the Fascist Police, who discover anti-Fascist papers in his possession. He convinces the police that he, not the leader himself, is the Solito Sconosciuto, sacrificing his life for the future of the rebellion. The Solito Sconosciuto honors his life, giving the Fontamaresi a printing machine to create rebel propaganda. Berardo’s friend and son travel to Fontamara to help distribute a publication, but hear gunfire as they approach. They turn back, learning that nearly everyone is dead; the Solito Sconosciuto helps them pass safely out of Italy.
A highly tragic novel, Fontamara
uses the class struggle of its fictional town as a proxy for the spread of fascism in Italy, and Silone’s own experience as a political enemy. Nevertheless, the novel’s moral message is that individuals must resist fascism and economic exploitation no matter the cost.