After the Earthquake

Tim Parks

  • Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone by Stanislao Pugliese
    Farrar, Straus, 426 pp, $35.00, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 374 11348 3

The life story of the Italian writer and political activist Secondino Tranquilli, alias Ignazio Silone, is both disquieting in itself and a serious challenge for anyone who believes that the value of a work of literature can be entirely separated in our minds from the character and behaviour of the person who produced it. Essentially, there are two versions of the Silone story. In the first he is an Orwell-like figure, a man who, following an idealistic commitment to Communism during the 1920s, reacted against its totalitarian inclinations and used his writing to promote freedom and democracy. In the second version, he was a police spy throughout his ten-year involvement with the Communist Party. In this account his repudiation of Communism was not, or not only, a matter of conviction but arose from his need to end a double life that had become too exhausting and too dangerous. The writing that followed allowed him to reconstruct his past and create an impression of courageous moral integrity.

The heroic Silone was the standard figure until 1996, when researchers uncovered documents indicating he had collaborated with the Fascist police. In his new biography, Bitter Spring, Stanislao Pugliese clearly wants to believe Silone was not a collaborator; he repeatedly mentions the possibility of a neo-Fascist smear campaign and describes the documents as ‘supposedly proving that Silone had been spying for the Fascist police’. Assuring us he will avoid hagiography, Pugliese presents a generally sympathetic Silone: he frequently praises his political courage and rather oddly delays consideration of evidence about his involvement with the police until the penultimate chapter. Obliged, then, to accept that some of that evidence is hard to refute, Pugliese thinks of every possible reason to doubt the bulk of it, leaving the reader confused and dissatisfied.

Interest aroused, one is more or less obliged to turn to Dario Biocca’s Silone, La doppia vita di un italiano (2005, not available in translation); here any doubts as to Silone’s collaboration are quickly dispelled. Biocca has meticulously researched Silone’s early adult life. The difference between the two biographies is the difference between a neutral professional historian and a romantic, politically engaged literary biographer. For those interested in literature, the historian’s approach is more useful and, for all Biocca’s doggedly dry accumulation of detail, more moving.

Why would a man who always emphasised the importance of morality regularly betray his friends and his cause for so many years? Money may have changed hands, but this is not, in Silone’s case, sufficient explanation. All his biographers agree that, in so far as an answer is to be had, it must lie in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck central Italy in 1915.

The third child of small landholders, Secondino Tranquilli was born in 1900 in Pescina, a poor village in the rugged mountains of the Abruzzi, about halfway down the Italian peninsula. In 1911 his father died; two months later his elder brother followed. There had been other deaths. Of the seven children born to his parents, Secondino and his younger brother, Romolo, were the only two still alive when an earthquake destroyed Pescina on 13 January 1915. Secondino, who was living in a seminary close by, saw his family home reduced to rubble. Five days later he dug out his mother’s body; Romolo was also buried for some days but survived.

The village had been flattened; in the surrounding countryside thousands were dead. The Tranquilli orphans were taken into state care and sent to separate church boarding schools in Rome. For Secondino, trauma and insecurity were exacerbated by the school’s strict regime and classmates who mocked his provincial manners. After trying to run away, he was expelled and eventually placed in the care of Don Orione, a charismatic priest dedicated to rescuing orphans. Don Orione accompanied Secondino on the long train journey north to a new school in San Remo. The fascinating correspondence between the two over the next few years was driven by Secondino’s evident need for a parental figure. Don Orione was willing to play that role but required in return that the boy not stray too far from the faith. When Secondino was unhappy in San Remo, Don Orione had him moved to Reggio Calabria. This time Secondino found the atmosphere ‘corrupt’: his letters speak of a battle between good and evil; reading between the lines one senses the boy’s need to please the priest and at the same time his desire to be loved unconditionally. ‘I’m very afraid of myself,’ he writes in 1916, ‘and would like to be in an isolated environment, but there’s an irresistible fire in me that pushes me to do good and I’d like to be out in the midst of the world.’

This conflict between withdrawal and engagement, coupled with a fear that he would not make the grade morally, characterised Tranquilli/Silone’s entire life. In 1918, Secondino left school without taking his final exams and wrote to Don Orione explaining that he had lost his faith and become a socialist. But the letter was also an appeal for help and attention: ‘In the huge flock you are following, take care of the little sheep who is tottering on the brink.’ When he then went to Rome to work for the revolutionary Young Socialist Party, Don Orione broke off the correspondence. Tranquilli was dismayed.

On the extreme left in every debate, Tranquilli rose rapidly through the ranks of first the Socialist, then the Communist Party. Pugliese sums up the early years:

In August 1919 . . . he was elected secretary of the Unione Giovanile Socialista . . . two months later, he was elected to the Central Committee of the Gioventù Socialista Italiana; a few weeks after that, Silone was named to the Communist Youth International; in January 1920, he assumed direction of the Socialist weekly newspaper L’Avanguardia; at the Socialist Party congress a year later, he represented the Socialist youth wing and brought it to the newly formed Communist Party of Italy and was named to the central committee; in June, he participated in the Third International. Almost as soon as he set foot in Rome, a police file had been opened in his name. In September 1919, he was already marked as ‘subversive’ and ‘dangerous’.

According to Biocca, however, 1919 was also the year in which Tranquilli started passing information to a police inspector called Guido Bellone, a courteous, well-respected, unmarried man in his late forties, a possible replacement father figure. This was three years before Mussolini’s March on Rome and the formation of the first Fascist government.

It seems that belonging to an extremist political group gave Tranquilli a surrogate family and a purpose. ‘I was a cynic,’ he later wrote of himself. ‘I cared nothing about others or myself, my health, my future, my studies. I had no plans, no ambitions.’ Political activism changed that. Tranquilli was good at it: an effective organiser, compulsive conspirator, writer of fiery articles and convincing speaker. But it was a radical and dangerous choice: he had to follow the party line and live in a precarious milieu in which arrests were frequent and the pressure to inform considerable. As Biocca remarks, Silone’s fiction includes various accounts of a young activist being arrested, beaten up, then ‘saved’ by a parental figure who encourages him to spy, turning his idealistic commitment into a nightmare of duplicity from which it seems impossible to escape.

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