Saturday, January 30, 2010


"Bread and Wine" is a great little book, one I still haven't completely been able to puzzle out yet.  It's a piece of anti-fascist literature, very much a product of the author's situation (living in exile during the Mussolini years); it's also something more, something I can describe but not define.


The story is bookended by Don Benedetto, a venerable retired Catholic priest who lives a quiet life in mountainous rural Italy.  The bulk of the story is devoted to Pietro, one of Benedetto's former students who is now a revolutionary socialist.  Pietro agitated for the Party, was exiled, spent several years campaigning in other European nations, and has now returned, in ill health, to Italy.

The central conceit of the book is simple and effective.  The police have been alerted to Pietro's return, and in order to avoid their suspicion, he disguises himself as a priest.  Calling himself Don Paulo, this atheistic communist plays the role of a pious man of God.  And he plays the role horribly.  He doesn't want to hear others' confessions, complains loudly when he is confronted with spaghetti, and flirts with a village girl.  He wears the cloth, and this seems to be enough.  The people he encounter take his identity for granted; priests are by definition strange, and nothing he does raises their suspicion.

It's hard to like Paulo at first, but as he grows more accustomed to his rural community and softens his attitude, we soften towards him as well.  He can come off as brusque or complaining, but he fundamentally and passionately cares about the cause of justice, so much so that he has sacrificed his wealth, health, and comfort for it.  He's also quite intelligent; his mind is a weapon, and once he turns that weapon against those in power instead of the powerless, it's easier to cheer for him.

Most of the book is spent in the countryside, as Don Paulo moves between a few small villages.  The peasants are great, colorful characters, providing great pathos and humor, as well as a bright shot of truth. 

I was a bit uneasy with some of the humor... a lot of it comes off as "Gee, look at those rubes!"  They don't seem too bright, cling proudly to their superstitions, and are given to frequent bouts of drunkenness.  One of the first we meet is a man nicknamed Sciatap.  We later learn that he spent his youth in America, and after many years of living there, he returned to Italy knowing only a single phrase of English, that was endlessly directed at him - Sciatap.  (Or, as you realize it should be spelled, "Shut up.")  He and a young boy take turns whacking a donkey, yelling "Garibaldi!" after each strike, in order to teach it that this is its name.  When the boy holds up some food and shouts "Garibaldi!", the donkey trots forward.  The boy is happy, confident that it has learned its name, apparently not considering that the donkey was just responding to the offered food.

The peasants fear two things in life.  The first is the Evil Eye.  To avert it, they paint horns on their doors.  This superstition I'm familiar with.  The second one is stranger to me - the peasants frequently cite a fear of envy as well.  I'm really curious what the original Italian for this is, and if it has different connotations than the English word.  Frequently, individuals describe how disaster struck those with envy, and disclaim any envy for themselves.

The role of the peasants in this book remind me a bit of peasants portrayed in Shakespeare's comedies.  In both, the peasants are very ignorant, but their ignorance itself can become a sort of superiority.  When they argue with wiser people, the peasants often win; their appalling lack of knowledge leaves the other side sputtering, unable to respond coherently.  On the other hand, sometimes the peasants, with their strong connection to the physical, the real, the actual, are able to see things more clearly than the more educated who, who are too attracted to the ethereal, the theoretical, the ideal.  This second aspect comes across most strongly towards the end of the book, when Pietro is finally starting to question his role in the party, and just what effect the revolution can have on the poor.

Paulo eventually comes to love the peasants.  He also grows more comfortable in his role as priest.  I don't think he ever becomes a believer, but he begins to see some good in faith.  When he and Don Benedetto are finally reunited, he draws some great insight from the older man.  The last portion of the book is filled with religious allegories, both those offered by Paulo (recasting Jesus's plight as that of the poor's struggle against the powerful) and those he encounters (echoes of the Last Supper, Judas, the Sermon on the Mount).  I enjoyed these parts, though I'm at a loss to explain exactly how the author intends us to take them.

There's an nifty shift in this book between the persons of Pietro and Paulo.  Interestingly, the narrator will use the term Pietro when he is in his civilian clothes, playing the role of the revolutionary, and Paulo when he dons his clerical vestments, playing the role of the spiritual intercessor.  It's the same man, and at the same time two different men.  Both are informed by the other: Paulo's direct experiences with the poor causes Peter to rebel against the abstract natterings of his party superiors; and Pietro's passionate devotion to the cause leads Paulo to dispense socialist homilies to his impromptu flock.  The more the two sides mix, the better and more effective a person he becomes.


I'm still at a total loss when it comes to the very final chapter.  Let's face it: up until now this has been a fairly pleasant book.  Even with Pietro's persistently poor health and the background specters of fascist totalitarianism and war in Africa, the actual events in the book feel largely peaceful.  It's a man on a journey, meeting other people and reforming his view of the world.  So, jumping from that to a sympathetic young maiden being eaten alive by wolves on a barren frozen mountainside felt very disturbing.

Fundamentally, I just don't know what to make of it.  Should we blame Pietro for fleeing, which abandoned those who loved him and brought them destruction?  Should we view the incident metaphorically?  If so, are we witnessing the cruelty of war destroying innocence?  Is this fascism devouring its subjects?  Has primal nature reared up and asserted primacy over the mind?  I could probably back any of those up with messages elsewhere in the book, but they can't all be true.

I'll give the author this - it's definitely powerful, and certainly memorable.  I just wish I knew what to do with it.


Sometimes I think that I took my "English Major" degree too seriously.  I'm pretty well-read in most of the major American and British writers, but still have many embarrassing gaps when it comes to writers from the majority of the world.  When you come down to it, it's just odd that most of my impressions of World War II and its surrounding events have been informed by islanders, not people on the mainland who directly struggled with the ground troops pushing back and forth over boundaries.  Bread and Wine is closer to the action than many other books of this era, and at the same time it feels far more peaceful and thoughtful than anything from Orwell, Huxley, or even Lewis.  That's probably because the book is set among common people, who see things for what they are and not for what they represent.  It's an interesting change, and one I'm glad to have encountered.

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