Bread and Wine
Date Published: June 7, 2005
Number of Pages: 304
Print Price: $7.95
eBook Price: $
Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone is a celebrated tale about the country people of Italy during the rise of fascism that took place in the early 1930’s. This novel is often characterized as an apology for the compatibility between Christianity and socialism.
I must confess to approaching this book with some general skepticism about novels as ideological vehicles – such literature can be unpleasantly heavy-handed. But having read it now, I wonder if Bread and Wine has received a reputation that is overly simplistic.
The author himself is known to be a man of unclear political loyalties. It might be tempting to focus on Pietro’s politics and the historical conditions in Italy, but Bread and Wine deserves recognition for more than association with a political movement; this work contains themes that transcend its particular setting.
It begins with an elderly priest, Don Benedetto, in the fruitful Italian countryside. Some former students of his come to visit him, and he inquires after their peers. News of one in particularly interests Don Benedetto; he wants to know what has become of Pietro Spina, who the priest describes as having once been a pupil imbued with a rigid, and sometimes imprudent, sense of righteousness, and an unordinary piety. Don Benedetto’s visitor tells him that Pietro Spina is now a notorious socialist incendiary.
Unbeknownst to these men, Pietro has returned from exile in France, and is a fugitive in the Italian countryside. He is ill, and in order to give him the opportunity to recover his strength, his friends create an odd disguise for one such as Pietro. He is outfitted as a Catholic priest, and adopts the name Don Paolo Spada.
But Pietro finds that assuming the character of Don Paolo is not an easy solution for his need for peace and rest. Rather, he is forced into the uncomfortable juggling act of playing the part of a man whose position represents to him the oppressive establishment. In his contact with the country men and women, the cafoni, who view him as an object of veneration, and even a source of good luck, it is difficult for him to maintain the pretense of an office from which he would prefer to distance himself.
Through these circumstances, Pietro experiences the timeless scourge of every political or social idealist: fallen human nature. Pietro necessarily views these people as the victims of an unjust social system, yet they have limited receptivity to his ideas. A particularly revealing example of this occurs when Don Paolo is asked to arbitrate a disputed card game. He reminds the players that the rules are man-made, and likens this to the social order, saying that both might be subject to human caprice.
The priest’s response causes some talk in the village, but generally the cafoni seem incapable of taking real interest in politics or anything beyond their individual and immediate needs and desires. Pietro tries to encourage opinions on the state of their region, but he is told that:
“Everyone has his own little bit of land…Italy is an endless number of plots of land, mountains, hills, plains, woods, lakes, marshes, beaches. If you had to think about them all, you’d go mad. Man’s brain isn’t big enough. All we can do with our little brain is to think about our own bit of land.”
It seems that this indifference is Pietro’s true nemesis. Furthering Pietro’s discouragement, a former socialist leader confides in the priest that he doesn’t believe in this movement’s principles, but merely had a passing, selfish enjoyment in giving speeches.
In direct contrast to this, the symbols of bread and wine appear to be emblematic for love and fraternity among men. Pietro’s actions are directed toward this, and in his heart, he is the same boy that the Don Benedetto remembers as a fighter for justice, who does not consider the peril that this might cause himself, though he has lost his former piety.
The role of the Church in fostering this fraternal charity is not readily apparent here. Pietro (not without reason, given the historic and social circumstances in Italy at that time) views the clergy as belonging to a privileged and self-indulgent class. But the character of Don Benedetto is an exception, and he seems to be associated with plainly Eucharistic imagery for which the book is titled, and is the best of the Italian countrymen.
I found a great deal of enjoyment in the depictions of these inhabitants of Italy’s bucolic scenery. This aspect of the novel is vivid, and lively, and Silone relates their foibles without falling into rough characterization. The pacing of this story is encumbered by some inconsistent lulls, within a plot that is not especially structured and culminates in a perplexing finale. Yet, Silone’s aptitude for creating these colorful individuals is strong enough to carry the weight of maintaining a reader’s attention.
Bread and Wine is not only a politically interesting work, but also a pleasure to read.
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 7 x 4.5 x 0.8 inches
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