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Ignazio Silone: Fontamara (Fontamara)

Silone wrote this novel when he was in exile in Switzerland, hiding from the Fascist police and suffering from tuberculosis so severe that he thought he was going to die. When it first appeared in Italy, it was condemned for being rabid anti-Fascist propaganda and, indeed, it was, but Silone’s skill was to produce a book about a small Italian village, clearly based on his home village of Pescina, which, like other great books, combined a story about a small community, while, at the same time telling a story with universal themes. He finished the work in 1930 but was unable to find a publisher. A German woman read the work in manuscript and was so impressed that she translated it into German and, therefore, its first appearance was in German in 1933, with an English translation appearing the following year. An Italian edition was published in Zurich in 1933 but it was not published in Italy till the end of the war.

The book concerns the poor villagers of a fictitious village called Fontamara (Italian for bitter fountain). Right at the beginning the narrator tells us that they do not speak Italian, which is, to them, a foreign language, but the local dialect. He also tells us that they are poor, ignorant and miserable. At the beginning of the novel they lose their electricity because they had not paid their bills. They are then cheated out of their water. They are tricked into signing a document which allows the Impresario, which translates into something like entrepreneur, and who is also the mayor, to divert the water from the stream. When they realise what is going on and object forcefully an agreement is reached whereby they get three-quarters of the water and the mayor also gets three-quarters! Of course, they are the ones to lose.

If there is a hero of this book, it is Berardo Viola, a strong man, who is honest and tries to help people. However, he is determined to get out and go and make his fortune in South America. He sells his land, buys his ticket and then learns that there is a new law forbidding emigration and he is stuck in Fontamara. He is unable to get his former land back and the new land he buys does not work out. Like others, he becomes bitter and considers violence. He goes off to Rome but that does not work out, either. But most of the inhabitants, attacked by the Fascists, the women raped, cheated out of their basic rights by those in authority, quietly accept their fate and, when they do revolt, they pay a bitter price.

Silone tells an excellent story of the downtrodden. The Fascists are, of course, attacked but all in authority – the rich, the government, the police – are all equally to blame, exploiting the poor for their own benefit, taking what little the poor have. Silone has no qualms about showing where his sympathy lies but, with the possible exception of Berardo and the Solito Sconosciuto [The Solitary Unknown], he does not paint these people in a heroic, Soviet-style manner but rather as people we can sympathise with, if not necessarily admire.

Publishing history

First published in German 1933 by Oprecht & Helbling
First published in Italian 1933 by Nuove Edizioni Italiane
First English translation 1934 by Smith & Haas
Translated by Michael Wharf (Smith & Haas); Eric Mosbacher (Methuen); George Weller (Modern Age); Harvey Fergusson (Atheneum); Judy Rawson(Manchester University Press)