1. The first English-language biography of Silone and the case “Silone the spy”
The first biography of Silone in English (“Bitter Spring. A Life of Ignazio Silone”, New York, 2009) has been written by the American historian Stanislao G. Pugliese after ten years researching and collecting documents from various sources. It comes to us after the latest studies on Silone have focused on the case of “Silone the spy” arousing political-historiographic controversy and media scandal.
Pugliese has chosen as his methodology a fluid overview and not a voluminous report of events weighed down by authoritative passages. This should leave the reader to decide on controversial arguments and episodes.
“Bitter Spring” is thus planned as a biography with a broad sweep and, as such, it is to be seen within the context of the general historical and literary criticism of Silone’s life and work.
(a) The first phase of the studies on Silone ties up with what François Furet (“Le passé d’une illusion. Essai sur l’idée communiste au XXe siècle”, Paris, 1995) calls the “first generation” of people “disenchanted” with the Soviet regime, disillusioned by the factional conflicts within the Third International and the reality of Soviet Russia during Stalin’s time. Silone, an underground communist, a political exile, sought by the fascist police, suffering considerable stress over his brother’s imprisonment and his own poverty, found himself unable to tolerate any longer the lies and hypocrisy of ‘party interest’. Having got himself expelled from the Communist Party (as he recounted in “Uscita di sicurezza”, in 1965) without tying himself to the Italian Trotskyist faction led by his brother-in-law Pietro Tresso, he began to expand on the political theories he had already voiced in the party, sublimating them in the novel “Fontamara” (1933), an epic revolutionary tale of the “cafoni”, the peasants of Italy’s south.
Apart from its literary merits and strong anti-fascist stance (“the most powerful and influential work of anti-Fascist literature of the 1930s”, p. 112 of the biography), Fontamara sets out its author’s political theories regarding the revolutionary role of the “peasants”. Indeed, Trotsky himself showed he was aware of this in the famous review written in 1933 on an Italian ship transporting him on one of the many legs of his exile (p. 121). In this early period, Silone was, unequivocally, a leading figure of the anti-fascist culture in exile. He was not only an internationally successful novelist but also an anti-totalitarian political theorist, author of such works as “Der Fascismus” (1934) and “La scuola dei dittatori” (1938). Neither his reviewers nor critics, fascists and Stalinists were aware of any contradiction between the contents of his novels, which were unknown and forbidden in fascist Italy, and his personal life.
(b) A second phase began when Silone returned to Italy in 1944, having run the Foreign Centre of the Italian Socialist Party throughout the war and collaborated with OSS to defeat fascism. In a country where almost all the intellectuals who had been with the fascist regime had turned to communism, Silone became a leading figure of the Italian social democracy, as well as a defender of cultural freedom, against party, economic and clerical links binding the intellectual class. This was his greatest handicap from the viewpoint of Italian literary criticism and the major press. The result was that Silone was reproached for his political ideals and his novels were disparaged for their literary value, by right and left alike (“the conservative establishment” and “the cultural elites of the left dominated by the PCI”, p. 12). Silone, who had long enjoyed international renown, was instead described in Italy as an inimportant and incompetent writer.
Literary criticism of Silone began to change with the publication of “Uscita di sicurezza” (1965) and finally with “L’Avventura di un povero cristiano” (1968), although this did nothing to alter the Communist Party’s dislike of the “renegade”.
(c) A posthumous phase started twenty years after Silone’s death. In Italy Dario Biocca and Mauro Canali built a theory, based on highly questionable archival documents, that Silone collaborated with the police during the 1920s and returned to spying at various points of his life, additionally reviving earlier accusations that the writer took part in CIA-financed anti-communist cultural activities during the cold war. A campaign of historical scandal began depicting Silone as an early fascist spy who wormed his way into the young communist party and its clandestine activities. A split formed between Silone’s secret life and his work. As Italo Calvino would have said, Silone was a “cloven viscount”, with a good side, his writing, and a bad side, repeatedly and secretly passing on information.
The contrast was too great to be plausible except for the gutter press and trashy historical research. Help came in the form of information on presumed mental illness, followed by concocted psychoanalytical interpretations of some of his works, desperately seeking minor characters who betray their comrades in the anti-fascist struggle and imagining thinly-veiled self-confessions of the author. Silone’s own autobiographical notes written to explain his tortured abandonment of the communist party are not interpreted as political memoirs but as brazen cover for a sordid attempt to distance himself as a spy. The sensation-seeking historians thus saw Silone’s work as an intricate web of betrayal, remorse and redemption concealed behind moral, political and ideological justifications.
Although eliciting less attention from the media, the historian Giuseppe Tamburrano has drawn up an itemised reply, highlighting the complete lack of documentary proof and logical foundation for the groundless assumption that Silone was a (gratuitous) informer. Indeed, these accusations were never levelled against Silone, neither by the fascist government when attacked by the author worldwide in his writings during the 1930s, nor later by the Italian communists engaged in tough political debates against one of the founders and high ranking member of the PCd’I who had left the party.
Again help came in the form of information on a presumed homosexual relation between Silone and the police official Guido Bellone.
Too much breaks the camel’s back. It is hard to believe that a political propagandist and author could praise peasants in the revolution against fascism on the one hand, while on the other betraying them repeatedly without anyone, in over 60 years of public disagreement with fascists, Stalinists and clergy, ever finding out the truth. Equally hard to believe is that in an Italy where little remains unknown, the melodrama of Silone’s shameless double life should come to light twenty years after his death through a slimy interpretation of police documents either anonymous or miscellaneously signed and almost all typewritten.
Pugliese’s historiography, an overview of Silone’s life and work, is therefore particularly important in that it is intended to cover, with full bibliography and references, all the essential points of the writer’s personal and intellectual adventure with its shadows and depth.
However, the shadows and depth which have been underlined in the biography, while making the subject very suggestive and the book interesting to read, nonetheless raise doubts and questions.
2. “The lifelong guilt” !
Pugliese – to distance himself, as intended, from the historiographical approaches and conflicts – never fails (perhaps exaggeratedly!) every time a positive moment in the life of the writer might be over-stressed, to highlight the opposite possibility, that behind the event might lie contacts between Silone and the police official Bellone, and thus with the fascist political police.
The refrain starts very early in the book, from “among Silone’s personal traumas…his spying” (p. 15), to “if Silone’s ‘original sin’ was his own collaboration with the secret police” (p. 94), and continues throughout the book (examples can be found, among others, on pages 27, 104, 105, 154, 188, 248, 271, 292, 311, 330, and 340).
It includes: Silone in Switzerland “tormented…” and feeling “guilt over his relationship with Bellone”; Silone’s “never ending guilt…implanted in his soul”, “his murky past”, the “need for redemption”, his “lifelong guilt”, and so on. Finally, Silone “by crafting an ‘emergency exit’ from the party he also freed himself from bondage to Bellone” (p. 311).
When Silone was imprisoned in Switzerland during the Second World War for political activism, his fear of discovery of the names of the socialist comrades in Italy he was in contact with as part of his duties as head of the Foreign Centre of the PSI was apparently due, according to Pugliese, to his “never-ending guilt” and the recollection of his personal experience of fascist police methods (which Silone described to the Swiss as “the diabolic means of penetration and corruption”) used to persuade people to become traitors (p. 154). Was it not obvious that Silone acquired his familiarity with fascist police methods as an underground communist and during his role in charge of the party’s Press&Propaganda and the party’s clandestine tasks?
In the biography, Silone’s refusal in the postwar period to become a member of the committee for the purge of fascist journalists was linked to his memory “of his own murky past with Bellone” (p. 188). However, had this been the case, he would have been able as an insider to take steps to cover up any evidence against him. The committee functioned perfectly well without him and no information about Silone emerged. Silone was, quite simply, against anyone who wanted to make a career of anti-fascism (p. 189, p. 205), just as he, unlike Koestler, did not make a career out of anti-communism: “I was once a communist; I am not ashamed of it” (p. 209).
The refrain of fear and guilt about his activity as informer and his relationship with the Commissario Bellone culminate on page 330 of the biography. “Silone’s lifelong guilt over his relationship with Bellone was responsible for some of the most poignant and powerful fiction of the twentieth century”.
Thus, Silone’s lifelong struggle was not against totalitarianism in favour of justice and liberty but against his own remorse!
This is in direct conflict with the biography itself when it recalls Silone’s never-ending “mourning” for his “youth” and the “burning stigmata” he bore for far more idealistic reasons (p. 103).
After all, the “lifelong guilt over his relationship with Bellone” which supposedly haunted Silone, is not based on any documentary or historical evidence. It is an assumption that finds no confirmation in reality.
3. Embittered spring
An aspect that Pugliese does not neglect for the sake of historical completeness is the one represented by Silone’s personality and character.
In order to produce the most complete portrait of Silone, Pugliese can count on the exclusive testimony of someone who maintains she was the only person to have known the writer well.
This precious, indeed unique, source does not need to be sifted for impurities nor filtered for turbidity. The person is Silone’s widow, a cultured woman, who, above all, has the advantage of coming from the Anglo-Saxon milieu. She herself has claimed her different milieu: “I am (with a few exceptions)…experiencing the Italians at their worst” (pag. 291).
Pugliese reproduces without comment the remarks and confidences made by Silone’s widow during her last three years, when her husband had already been dead for 25 years. He scatters them throughout the book, providing the reader with an abundance of elements to understand Silone the man.
According to Darina Silone (she always liked to be called by her husband’s surname and not by her family name, Laracy), Silone had an “extremely difficult character” (p. 5), he had “many truths” (p. 6), his handwriting was “mysterious and unknowable” (p. 13), “threatening suicide” (p. 110) and capable of boasting about himself with a young woman just met in Switzerland by telling her “stories of every kind” (p. 169). And still: Silone’s “enigmatic and exasperating personality (p. 177), having “trouble understanding and pronouncing certain English words; words like ‘truth’” (p. 179), his “ambiguous character” (p. 180), “a mystery even” to her (p. 181); Silone “contemplated suicide” (p. 273). She had to destroy his personal correspondence after his death as “no one could ever understand it” (p. 293).
Actually in his will Silone had made provision for his private correspondence not to be published, but not destroyed. Besides letters that don Orione had written to him, there should have been also numerous letters received over the years from Gabriella Seidenfeld and Aline Valangin.
Darina Silone describes Silone as a man “suffering not only from depression, but perhaps schizophrenia as well”, “horrible”, with “no talent at all for human relationships” (p. 174), often “cruel”, engaging in “extramarital affairs”, “casual about his adultery”. The “traditional Madonna-puttana complex” from which, according to her, Silone suffered, was probably due to his widowed mother’s “semiprostitution” (!) (p. 175) and finally her confession “that their marriage was unconsummated” (p. 383).
These statements are untrue.
At the beginning of the slanderous campaign against Silone, before Darina Silone’s statements, Giovanni Casoli had written in “L’incontro di due uomini liberi: Don Orione e Silone” (p. 59) that “since a plausible or at least credible, or not incredible, motive has not been found because the hypothetical spy Silone never gained anything from it, not even the smallest relief for his brother Romolo, …such a senseless and stupidly dangerous activity could only serve to indicate he was either clinically mad or gratuitously amoral, both of which have been disproved, piece by piece, by the whole of Silone’s life and work.”
While the elderly lady recounts, from her own point of view, the character and relationships of Silone – displaying no sympathy with the family tragedies experienced by him as a young man – the biographer’s unbiased role does not require him to verify her words.
However, with regard to that which the biographer later calls a “scandalous (mis)reception by the literary establishment in Italy” (p. 295), when Silone’s widow puts the blame on her husband (“That situation was Silone’s own fault; his – to say the least – extremely difficult character.” p. 5), the unreliability of this “embittered” source becomes more than clear. In fact she seems to ignore the historical certainty and the incontrovertibility of the fact that Silone’s literary misfortune in Italy was due to the minority position of the social-democrats and the intellectuals of “Tempo Presente” (described in the works of Massimo Teodori) in respect of the two communist and Christian-democrat blocs.
As to Silone’s “extremely difficult character”, it is well-known that he had many friends and cultural and political acquaintances in Switzerland, including Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Robert Musil, as also described in the book (p. 94, 111 etc.). Similarly, he remained on very friendly terms with a large number of people in Italy and abroad. There is a huge amount of correspondence, part of which has not yet been examined. There were also pleasurable meetings with contributors and writers from “Tempo Presente”.
It certainly wasn’t Silone’s fault that the people in the communist party with whom he had spent “moments of sublime companionship and friendship” (p. 211) turned against him. On the contrary, the communist leader Camilla Ravera, who had shared clandestine activities with Silone, described him as being “affectionate, fraternal, and very cordial” (p. 73).
There is much evidence that Silone was courteous and generous in his relationships. This is clearly shown in the autobiographical writings and the important epistolary and personal relationship with the two women who loved him – Aline Valangin, a writer, pianist, and intellectual, who was a member of the Carl Gustav Jung club in Zurich (her last letter to Silone was dated 14 August 1978, fourteen days before his death) and Gabriella Seidenfeld, the faithful Jewish comrade with whom he shared political ideals and who loved him till her death (one year before Silone’s). In addition, there are numerous descriptions of Silone by, among others, Stefano De Luca, Franca Magnani, Claudio Marabini, Paolo Milano, Geno Pampaloni and Franco Simongini. Others who knew Silone have written important studies on him, such as Enzo Bettiza, Luce d’Eramo, Vittoriano Esposito, Gustaw Herling, Iris Origo, Gisella Padovani and Margherita Pieracci Harwell. All of them, without exception, paint a very different picture of Silone’s character, which can be summarised in the words “discretion and decency” used by Margherita Pieracci Harwell, Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Illinois, Chicago, when writing about Silone in “Un cristiano senza Chiesa”.
In brief, from the recollections of Silone by political comrades in Switzerland, by social-democrats in Italy, by contributors to “Tempo Presente”, by his old friends from Marsica (despite being divided in the postwar period by different political beliefs) and by his relatives, it can be evinced that Silone maintained excellent relations with all of them. They were generally of an informal nature, and very different from those with rival politicians and intellectuals siding with party apparates.
Many people are still alive and can testify in person.
Of course, one can cite as evidence of a difficult character the instance when Silone refused to utter a word during a dinner party (p. 135) or the time in London at an ambassador’s residence when Silone left the table to follow a football match. Yet, this behaviour could be forgiven to a man who, having experienced such exceptional personal and political events, did not bow to certain formalities.
As to the fact that he was prudent and wary, like someone used to looking over his shoulder (p. 221), one need only recall his life as an underground communist entrusted with clandestine tasks of great responsibility in Italy and abroad. In addition, one should not forget the affair of Tresso, his friend and comrade in the communist party, who later became the husband of Barbara Seidenfeld, and the impact that his persecution had on Silone. Partly because of his closeness to Gabriella Seidenfeld, Silone experienced directly the hunt for the Trotskyist Tresso by the communist agents, his imprisonment in France, his escape and final execution alongside three other Trotskyists, by the Stalinists, in a wood close to the maquis. Furthermore there was Trotzky’s own end and that of other comrades executed in Switzerland, France and Russia.
There is one point on which all who knew him are unanimous: the fact that he was often alone. In the biography we read that “Silone had been as alone in death as he had been in life” (p. 290).
His loneliness both at home and outside in the 1950’s and the 1960’s did not weigh too heavily on him. For Silone, who had been completely alone since he was fourteen until he met Gabriella Seidenfeld, loneliness could be something constructive. Writing in “Tempo Presente” of September-October 1962 about Angelo Tasca, Silone noted that “suffering loneliness undoubtedly helped to strengthen his spirit”.
Throughout the 1970’s, his health failing, racked by asthma and having difficulty moving, loneliness was probably not good for him. This emerges from the recollections of Enzo Biagi, Giorgio Bocca, Gustaw Herling, Iris Origo, Margherita Pieracci Harwell as well as many others.
As to a Silone “suicidal”, Darina Silone, who had read everything of Silone, knew about the melodramatic letter written by Silone in Switzerland to Aline Valangin, at the end of their tempestuous relationship. However, in this letter the hint about suicide was a kind of “intellectual creation”.
In this regard, Silone himself explained in an interview with Enzo Giannelli on 3 February 1971: “Suicide is an aberration. I believe that nothing could justify it, neither misery nor persecution. It is the end of the power of life … I could imagine a situation … In “Vino e Pane” there is an anarchist, a musician, called Uliva who killed himself and before killing himself described his complete despair over the future of mankind. But this is more than anything an intellectual creation”.
Even before, in “La Fiera Letteraria” of 11 April 1954, Silone gave this answer to a question about what he thought of suicide: “It is one of the many things I find impossible to understand”.
The biography incorporates many elements from the unfinished, mythical autobiography of Silone’s widow, who was seventeen years younger than her husband and met him when he was already an internationally famous writer. Unfortunately, upon their return to Italy, she was soon traumatised by the lack of social and financial success in the climate of Silone’s general political and cultural ostracism by Italy’s clerical-fascist and catholic-communist society. After the disastrous collapse of some cultural initiatives launched together, Darina Silone often travelled abroad, especially in India and Greece, and never cooperated politically with her husband in daily events and minority initiatives.
The unpublished autobiographical writings (p. 164) are probably the typewritten texts prepared by Darina Silone at the suggestion of Dario Biocca, the historian who invented the story of Silone the double-agent, and distributed widely at the beginning of 2001 under the titles “Religious Experiences” (three pages, March 2001, also published in full in Corriere della Sera of 25 August 2003 as “L’avventura di Darina, Io povera cristiana”), “Esperienze Politiche” (five pages, April 2001), and the speech prepared for India “The Making of an Earth Citizen” (seven pages, January 1989).
Darina Silone seems to claim an inspiration role behind Silone’s spirituality. She said it was thanks to her that Silone wrote his call for civil disobedience in 1942, after his future wife had introduced him to the ideas of Gandhi (p. 179). Again, she claims she introduced him to Simone Weil and to Père Charles de Foucauld (p. 259 and p. 281). As to Silone’s pacifism, one need only recall that he began his political activities at a very young age leading the protests of the peasants of Marsica against the Great War and that later he declaimed his pacifism as a young socialist activist. Regarding Silone’s religious beliefs, he was influenced by the Christian socialism of the Swiss theologian Leonhard Ragaz, although he had already experienced the Abruzzi mediaeval Christianity during his childhood at Pescina. Silone knew that Simone Weil admired “Pane e Vino”, and as for Charles de Foucauld, as recalled by Margherita Pieracci Harwell, Silone used to visit a convent of the Petites Soeurs where a nun was the daughter of an old friend of his.
As to their marital relations, as recalled by the widow and having little to do with events that occurred decades before she met Silone, they have unfortunately been used as evidence to bolster the lame accusations against Silone by the historian Dario Biocca, who was also allowed to search Silone’s personal study.
5. In short, a poor wretch !
In addition to the above remarks about some of the questionable stylistic features of the biography – inserts on the lifelong guilt for Bellone and inserts on Silone the man, erratically repeated throughout the biography as a “delenda Cartago” – others can also be made.
In the “Prologue” to the biography, on page 9, there is a portrait of Silone that leaves one speechless.
Besides being a man who “never had any of the qualities necessary for a successful political career” Silone “was a difficult husband, an exasperating friend, a mediocre politician, an aloof acquaintance, a morose presence in public, a distant and cool relative, often manic-depressive, sometimes suicidal…”.
In short, a poor wretch!
To this portrait, clearly based on unconfirmed rumors, the author adds further details.
Silone “painfully shy”! Since this is not the Silone who was “shy of sexuality” on p. 356, perhaps this statement refers to the fact that he was well-mannered! And yet the biography does not neglect a number of incontrovertible facts. In his youth Silone boldly organised uprising at Pescina (from p. 61); defied the rectors of religious institutes and made courageous life choices (p. 66); became secretary of the regional socialist youth at 17, then secretary general of the USR at 19; afterwards, when he was one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party at 20 “he was not intimidated by his more learned comrades” (p. 68); when addressing his party comrades from the podium “he was confident, almost to the point of arrogance” (p. 70) and so on during his entire life;
Silone “uncomfortable in the public light and perpetually doubtful of himself” and “a mediocre politician”! Surely it is not the Silone “whose ascent through the political ranks of the left was astonishing” (p. 67), Silone who “refused to be cowed by the prestige of the Russians” (p.72). On his return to Italy, after the split in the socialists, he founded a party; he openly criticised Gramsci’s politics, who had become an icon of the left, careless that this would aggravate his “ostracism by the cultural hegemony of the political left” (p. 74); he organised the Association for Freedom of Culture; he didn’t hesitate to contradict publicly Sartre and Neruda, and so on.
Perhaps “mediocre politician” refers to the words of Salvemini: “Silone doesn’t have the qualities of a practical and cunning political man but he is a splendid moral and intellectual figure” (p. 191).
No doubt “the pettiness, venality and corruption of the postwar period” (p. 187) was a million miles away from Silone’s own sentiments, as were the ambiguities and compromises of the political parties that revolved around politicians as protectors and providers of jobs; instead Silone believed that politics should “make available the tools necessary for education, labor and culture” (p. 210). It was this type of politics to which Silone, by his own admission, was ill-suited (p. 210).
Should he be considered a “mediocre politician” because, as a candidate in the 1953 political elections, he failed to get himself elected? How did he get there, what had happened to cause him to return to political activism after 1948 when, “disillusioned with the state of Italian politics”, he had refused to become a candidate (p. 196)?
Here follows an example of Silone the fighter, who had no skeletons in his cupboard.
After the publication in London at the end of 1949 of his essay “Uscita di sicurezza” in the volume of collected works titled “The God that Failed”, L’Unità and Rinascita published, respectively in January and May 1950, two attacks by Togliatti against Silone “the renegade” and against “the six that failed”.
Silone immediately devoted himself to the novel “Una manciata di more”, which was published in the summer of 1952. The subject speaks for itself. Through the main character, Silone sets out his reasons for leaving the Communist Party. In the novel, which is an accusation against the party apparatus, Togliatti is portrayed in the party bureaucrat named “the blindfolded mule”. Silone and his work were immediately the target of bitter criticism by the communist party, from Salinari in L’Unità in July and August 1952 to Togliatti himself in Rinascita in January 1953 (Silone had only recently also publicly defended Slansky during the Stalinist trials in Prague).
Silone’s reply, three months later, in May 1953, was to come back to political activism seeking election in Abruzzo as the social-democrat candidate standing against the Communist Party. However, there was nothing he could do against a party whose broad network in his region of birth – most of the inhabitants kept a framed picture of Stalin (who had died in March) in the bedroom – ensured his isolation, and on 7 June 1953 he failed to gain election.
6. Divergent views
The importance of the biography contributed by Pugliese cannot be diminished by some misunderstandings, although they need to be reported.
If later we read again of a Silone “haunted by thoughts of suicide and death much of his life…Tormented by melancholy, depression…” (p. 272), the young Silone must have been just as bad. Silone was said to have been an “enigmatic child” (p. 35). The origin of that statement is not known.
Silone’s father died of tuberculosis, from which Silone also suffered (p. 272 and p. 281). Silone’s father, a very strong man, like all his brothers, took to his bed with a fever after being out in heavy rain and died a few days later: antibiotics had not yet been discovered. Silone suffered throughout his life from acute bronchial asthma. In Switzerland in the 1930s he was treated for relapses of bronchial pneumonia (see his correspondence with Gabriella and with Tasca). “L’attestation médicale” issued by the Swiss clinic where Silone died runs as follows: “En résumé, Monsieur I. Silone présente actuellement …insuffisance rénale avec angiosclérose…qui trouve…son origine dans la toxi-infection trés ancienne des foyers bronchectasiques (dilatazione patologica dei bronchi) et dans une retention vésicale…hypertrophie prostatique benigne”.
Silone “failed to excel academically or even to integrate socially” (p. 50). Leaving aside Silone’s excellent performance at the seminary in Pescina and then in various other religious institutes, including the San Remo institute, perhaps this refers to the fact that, like his brother, he refused to wear the school uniform, a cassock, and did not turn the other cheek when he and his fellow pupils from Marsica were insulted by the pupils from Rome, who unlike them were neither orphans nor penniless. This is evident from the letters written by a very young Silone to don Orione between April 1916 and June 1917, published in the Casoli’s book mentioned earlier. The young Silone loved to study. In February 1915, one month after the earthquake, while his injured brother was brought to Rome, Silone resumed his education at Chieti, but in May the institute was requisitioned because of the war. He even begged his brother to help him from Rome. In fact in June he entered a college in Rome. After experiencing the hypocritical education provided by the religious institutes and hearing news of peasant revolts throughout Marsica, in June 1917 he left the college in Reggio Calabria to return to Pescina.
As far as Silone’s cultural knowledge goes and his “formal little training in literature” compared to Darina Silone’s, he could boast a culture acquired at the Italian Ginnasio-Liceo, which was very different, and still is, and greatly superior to that offered by equivalent schools in the Anglo-Saxon countries. In fact it included the study, at a very high level, of Latin and ancient Greek language and literature, philosophy, mathematics, physics, history, geography and other subjects. Moreover, when he met Darina at the end of 1941, in addition to personal acquaintances and regular encounters in the international intellectual milieu, Silone had already had the opportunity to remedy any possible gaps in his knowledge of European literature (p. 161).
On Silone’s physical appearance the biography describes him as “shorter” than Darina Silone (p.162). As every photograph of him shows, he was a tall man being about 5’ 11” tall and he was by no means shorter than Darina Silone (attached are two photographs, a / b, of Silone and Darina together). His identification sheet at the Prefecture in L’Aquila, lodged in the Ministry of the Interior’s files for 1925-1938 – which can be seen on the website – notes among his distinguishing features that he was “tall”, as later reports confirm (for example Franca Magnani on p. 90 in “Una famiglia italiana”, also in the biography, pag. 110). The inhabitants of Pescina who were short, were generally descendants of the Sicilian fishermen who came to Lake Fucino following the Mazzarino family. The Tranquilli family, probably of Norman origin, were typically very tall compared with the Italian average, and still are judging from Silone’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Exiled in Switzerland in 1930” (p. 27): After Togliatti had ordered the party leaders to leave Italy in the summer of 1927, Silone worked for the party in France and travelled also between Paris and Berlin before settling in Switzerland during 1929.
Torlonia “the local aristocrat” (p. 32): Torlonia was a Roman banker of French origin who had been granted a licence in 1853 by the Bourbons to drain Lake Fucino. He accomplished his task during the second half of the 19th century using French hydraulic engineers. In 1875 King Victor Emmanuel II gave him the title “Prince of Fucino”.
“…mysterious deaths of a few head of cattle” (p. 32): the draining of the lake had caused the temperature to drop by a few degrees. This not only destroyed the olive trees that had grown at that altitude because of the mild climate of the lake, but also reduced the supply of water, causing many pastures to dry up.
“Silone lived in the poorest…part of town” (p. 43): he went to live there two years after the earthquake, having abandoned his studies in June 1917, before moving to Rome, as later noted on page 48.
“Aline Valangin…eleven years younger than he” (p. 106): Aline was eleven years Silone’s senior (she was born on 9 February 1889).
“Abide to the censorship laws” (p. 305): In the years in question the fascist regime was not yet in power and censoring the newspapers before publication.
7. Unknowability !
Finally, we come to the analysis of the accusations which began in 1996, that Silone was a fascist spy who infiltrated the Communist Party. As regards the documents that are supposed to prove Silone’s guilt, it is evidently not a question of only proving their authenticity but of proving that they belonged to Silone.
According to Pugliese “at least some do appear in the calligraphy of Silone” (p. 298). Also his widow had “admitted …that some of the letters may indeed be his” (p. 309).
Instead, as the historian Giuseppe Tamburrano demonstrated, only one letter can be attributed to Silone, the letter dated 13 April 1930 and presumably addressed to Commissario Bellone. The others are almost all typewritten and either anonymous or variously signed. As regards the “forty pages of documents” attributed to Silone on p. 307 of the biography (“certainly appear to be in Silone’s hand”), Giuseppe Tamburrano has had them analysed by a handwriting expert, Dott.ssa Anna Petrecchia, who, on 19 January 2001, excluded their ascription to Silone. During the press campaign about Silone the spy, on 14 April 2003 “the” proof put forward by Canali was the recognition of Silone’s handwriting by a grandnephew!
Events in Silone’s life that are accurately recalled by Pugliese in many parts of the biography contradict the accusations that Silone was a fascist spy. To give some examples: “Orione was under the correct impression that the agents were ‘authorized to shoot on sight…’” (p. 53); “Silone … wanted by the fascist police” (p. 57) and so on. The book informs also about his vicissitudes as a clandestine communist (p. 77 onwards); how the fascists were looking in Italy for his address abroad (p. 87); how the verdict of the fascist court “sounded more like an indictment of Silone than Romolo” (p. 88); about the fascist spies who from Switzerland wrote reports on Silone even with the plan to assassinate him; how Silone during the war insisted on combating fascism and so on.
But in spite of all the above, “the lifelong guilt over his relation with Bellone” is still there until the last pages of the biography.
As regards the reasons for his spying, putting aside the accusations against Silone on his presumed schizophrenia and amorality, Pugliese appears to favour the thesis of Silone’s generally ambiguous personality and impenetrability.
“Many aspects of Silone remain a mystery even to me”, Silone’s widow had confessed to him (p. 340). Therefore, if “she, who knew Silone best, could never fully plumb the mystery of his identity” (p. 177), because there were “aspects of his personality that always remained a mystery to her” (p. 293), then no one else could unveil the mystery that was Silone.
And if he was a living mystery and it was impossible to know the truth about him, then the question of betrayal becomes completely undecipherable.
According to Darina Silone “there was undoubtedly something, but what?…” as unfortunately “the real truth will never be known, because all concerned are now dead” (p. 320). Ten pages later Pugliese repeats: “we may never really untangle the mystery of whether and why Silone may have spent as much as a decade (or as little as two years) writing to Bellone”.
In other words, following sophist epistemology – Gorgias’ unknowability – it is impossible to know what course Silone’s relationship with the fascist police took and whether it was confined to a period of two years and to his attempts to help his brother.
8. Silone has never been a fascist spy
Yet the facts of the case were known in Italy and made public already in 1979. In the commemorative book published a year after Silone’s death, entitled “Silone tra l’Abruzzo e il Mondo”, on p. 354 was printed – without unleashing the least scandal – the original fascist document dated 16 January 1935 stating that Silone had feigned spying in order to save his brother from a death sentence in the fascist prison where he had been taken in 1928. (Attached is a copy of the document)
Romolo had been arrested at about ten kilometers from Switzerland, while he was attempting to cross the border illegally in order to reach Silone. It was 13 April, the day after the attempt to assassinate the king in Milan.
Silone knew very well that the charge of attempted regicide and mass murder which hung on Romolo, though innocent, would have led to the death penalty. Also, Silone knew that his brother would have been subjected to repeated torture.
On 6 February, two months before Romolo’s arrest, the communist Gastone Sozzi, a young journalist appreciated also by Gramsci, had died under torture in the fascist prison of Perugia. Silone had immediately gone to Paris to deal with the “Sozzi case” on behalf of the Communist Party and launch an international campaign on the ill treatment and torture to which the political prisoners were subjected in the fascist prisons. On 6 April, just seven days before Romolo’s arrest, Silone participated in Paris in an antifascist rally to commemorate the young communist tortured to death.
Silone was therefore ready to go to any length to save his brother not only because he felt responsible for having asked him to join him in Switzerland, but above all for a most intimate and profound reason.
It is known that Silone, when he was fourteen years old, at the time of the Abruzzo earthquake in the freezing January of 1915, helped dig with his bare hands amongst the rubble, extracting after five days the body of his mother. When all hope had been lost of finding his nine-year old brother alive, Silone saw him emerge from the wreckage, whitened by mortar, with a broken shoulder, and his mouth full of dust from screaming for help. Alive. For Silone, it was like seeing his birth. His brother was the only family member to survive and the only person he loved that remained to him.
Thirteen years later Romolo, buried in the fascist prison, was to be considered dead as when he was still beneath the rubble of the earthquake.
Silone did the only thing he could do, the thing he had observed in his work in charge of the party’s clandestine tasks: barter the life of his brother with some harmless information that could trick the fascists.
When Silone decided to play-act as an informer, he did not keep the Communist Party in the dark (and they may well have been in full agreement). The party was not opposed to trying to help political prisoners, as long as this would not damage the party itself. In fact, the police file on Silone, which has always been preserved in its entirety, has always contained the void information and useless press cuttings that Silone had tried to pass off to the fascists as important and confidential.
However Silone was unable to carry on such an obvious fiction for very long.
After sending irrelevant news, when required by the fascists to play it for real, Silone put an end to his pretence at spying. It can therefore be concluded that Silone has never been a fascist spy.
Romolo who, at the time of his imprisonment, was a strong and handsome young man, twenty-four years old, athletic, sports lover – as documented in the schools reports and as proven by the number of races he won not only in Abruzzo, in particular in Sulmona, but also during the military service – will die in prison as a result of the torture, in particular the repeated blows with sandbags to his chest and body that left no visible traces but shattered his insides.
9. “The Shadow Line”
In the closing chapters of the biography Pugliese weighs the great value of Silone’s work against “the shadow line” of his relationship with the police: “Silone’s lifelong guilt over his relationship with Bellone was responsible for some of the most poignant and powerful fiction of the twentieth century. ” (p. 330, already quoted).
The so-called Machiavellian side of Silone – seen abroad as typically Italian behaviour – reflects the words that Manzoni had don Ferrante say about Machiavelli: “famous Florentine secretary, indeed a scoundrel, but a deep one”.
Finally, Pugliese places Silone’s alleged tortuous processes in context: “…although the documents may discredit Silone as unblemished hero of the left, they add shadow and depth to a figure who had been considered a secular saint, much to his displeasure. In his story, we might come to a better understanding not only of the man but also of the complicated moral choices demanded by his times” (p. 339).
To summarise Pugliese’s assessment of Silone one could say, in legal language, that the biography leans towards finding in favour of the moral offences with which Silone was charged but also towards allowing all the extenuating circumstances deriving from the literary and political value of his work. In other words, Silone should not be fully acquitted on the grounds that he did not commit the crime of spying but pardoned beforehand by reason of his “work”. “Pardoned” to be understood in the sense of Celestine V, as a remission of his sins.
10. Ignazio Silone’s song
At this point, it is worth correcting the misunderstanding about the word “secret” as attributed to Silone by Pugliese in the biography.
Pugliese writes that “late in life, Silone intriguingly revealed in an interview that ‘there is a secret in my life; it is written between the lines of my novels’” (p. 330).
Instead Silone used the word “secret” in a metaphorical sense, and not as something which needs to be hidden. In fact in the television interview in “L’Approdo”, May 1966, by Franco Simongini (reproduced on p. 192 in “Silone tra l’Abruzzo e il Mondo”, 1979), talking about the sadness of someone who leaves for a faraway destination but in the end finds himself back where he began (referring to the novel “Una manciata di more”), Silone said: “One who returns from a long journey is never the same person as before and even the place he left is not the same place”, and that “it is very difficult to explain some things to people who have always stayed in their birthplace”. He went on to tell the story of a Spanish sailor who used to sing a beautiful song when he was on the high seas. One day, at the end of a meal, his family begged him to sing it for them but he replied “It is impossible; I sing my song only to those who come with me on the high seas”. Concluding, Silone said: “I want to reveal a secret, [my song] is between the lines of my books”. In other words, the story of his life and his thoughts was interspersed in his books and could only be fully understood not by the “ignavi” but by anyone who set off on the struggle for democracy.
To gain an insight into the profound meaning of Silone’s life and works, one only needs to listen carefully to the song – his song – which is the leitmotiv of all his writings, the same leitmotiv that accompanied his entire life.
Rome, 12 October 2009