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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

A stranger comes to town - in Bread and Wine

Ignazio Silone's 1930s novel Bread and Wine (not to be confused with many cookbooks with the same or similar titles) is a classic "stranger comes to town" novel with a few great twists: the stranger is a political radical who'd moved abroad and now returns to his native Italy a wanted man and in terrible health, he finds refuge in an extremely remote and impoverished (redundancy?) mountain village, posing as a priest - so there are political, sociological, and comic dimensions to this plot, obviously. In particular, Silone is interested in the sociological, and if nothing else this novel is a documentary-like account of life in rural Italy int he 1930s, the incredible poverty and deprivation (for most) and the wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few, who protect their privilege with vehement efficiency (or maybe inefficiency). The village where the protag., using the name Don Paulo, hides out is so impoverished that there are not even latrines or lavatories; rather, everyone in the village relieves themselves behind some bushes (which are bare in winter), which leads to some skirmishes when some from the peasant bushes encroach on the landholder bushes. With characteristic humor, Silone notes that there's a sign at the edge of the village that says "No rubbish dumping here" and at the sign there's a huge pile of old trash, proving, he notes, that the villagers can at least read. Don Paulo into a few fixes as people ask him for blessings - to which he invariably replies that he can't because he's not from this diocese, which makes no sense. An off-beat love interest begins to develop when a village girl, quite lively and intelligent and bound for the convent, seeks his blessing - and the engage in a thoughtful discussion about faith and commitment to a cause: "Don Paulo" reflects on the idealism of his youth that caused him to oppose the church teachings, but now, a wanted man, he has some second thoughts. These observations, from the first third of the novel, give a sense as to how Silone takes on serious themes but does not present the world in starkly delineated black and white, heroes and villains, but shows characters wrestling with the faith and their fate and sets these internal struggles against a realistically portrayed social milieu. He could not have known at the time how this milieu would be destroyed by fascism and the war - and how these villages today are no doubt homes to the agro-tourism phenomenon and the world's appetite for olive oil, red wine, and the Euro.

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