Who was Silvestri?

Martin Clark

  • L'Informatore: Silone, i Comunisti e la polizia by Dario Biocca and Mauro Canali
    Luni, 275 pp, lire 30,000.00, March 2000, ISBN 88 7984 208 0

Ignazio Silone was one of Italy’s most respected 20th-century novelists. His best-known work, Fontamara, is a dramatic account of peasant life in the Abruzzi, where he was born in 1900. He was always a political, or perhaps an anthropological, novelist, portraying the values of his cafoni with a wonderful, sympathetic realism; but he also had a very sharp eye for the way political power was used, and for the impact of the Fascist regime even on remote Southern villages. His early novels, particularly Bread and Wine, are centred on an anguished debate about the possibility of maintaining one’s integrity in a corrupt, self-seeking society that demands lies and collusion. Written in exile, these books were strongly anti-Fascist in tone, and, when translated, contributed to making Mussolini’s regime less popular abroad in the mid-1930s than it had been ten years earlier.

Silone also wrote an overt satire on the subject of Fascism, The School for Dictators, and after the war achieved real fame in the English-speaking world with his first-hand account of Communism, published in Richard Crossman’s The God that Failed. He has often been compared to Orwell, and shared with Orwell a deceptively plain style (in fact, one full of Biblical and historical allusions), a fine sceptical wit, strong sympathy with non-intellectuals, combined with a general aloofness and a total disillusionment with Communism.

Silone had been a significant figure in the underground Italian Communist Party in the 1920s, and, ironically, was in charge of agitprop for some time; he had been entrusted with Party organisation in Spain and France, and had gone on missions to Moscow. He broke with the Party in 1930-31 and spent the rest of his life as an independent-minded Christian Socialist: always rather a loner, but revered – at least by non-Communists – as a novelist, as a robust defender of democratic socialist values and as a man who had fought bravely against both Fascism and Communism.

Dario Biocca and Mauro Canali’s book presents a very different picture of Silone. They claim that from 1919 until 1930 he was a police informer who passed on detailed information about, initially, the Socialist Youth Federation and, later, the Communist Party and the Comintern. The information he supplied wasn’t routine or trivial: Silone provided first-hand accounts of the Party’s policies, factional disputes, personalities and tactical activities, often in loving and extravagant detail – far more than any policeman needed to know. All this is demonstrated with the help of extensive documentation from the Italian police archives, where Silone’s reports are now to be found.

This has naturally come as a shock to the Italian literary and even political establishments. Since the 1930s Silone has been an anti-Fascist icon; yet here he is depicted as working for the Fascist police, presumably for money (the authors, assertive and uncompromising on most other issues, are rather coy about this). It is as if Orwell were suddenly shown to have spent his time in Catalonia working for Franco. It hardly seems in character, to say the least; to many of Silone’s devoted readers and followers, let alone to those who knew him personally (he died in 1978), it seems simply incredible. Even the ex-Communists, who had loathed Silone for decades after 1931, were upset: they, too, had eventually accepted his anti-Fascist status and it was bad news that such a prominent former leader had been betraying the cause all along.

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