Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Time of Indifference + Fontamara

A couple more book reviews.  Both books were written during the early
years of Fascism in Italy, but they're quite different in style and
substance.  "The Time of Indifference" is not political at all, while
"Fontamara" is clearly political.  The former is closer in atmosphere
to the decadence of "The Great Gatsby", while "Fontamara" is closer to
the desperation in "Of Mice and Men", with some of the political fable-
like qualities of "Animal Farm".

1. "The Time of Indifference" ("Gli indifferenti") by Alberto Moravia

This is the first novel by Alberto Moravia, author of "The Conformist",
"Boredom" and "Contempt".  It is set in Rome in the late 1920s.  It's
the story of a middle-class family that has been used to the easy life,
but has run into some financial troubles.

Maria Grazia is a widow, living with her two children: daughter Carla
and son Michele.  The mother has a long-standing boyfriend, Leo, but
he seems to have shifted his attention to her daughter.  The other main
character is Lisa, one of Maria Grazia's close friends who happens to
be an ex-girlfriend of Leo.

The pivotal event of the novel is Carla's 24th birthday.  She is aware
of Leo's intentions, and decides that she will acquiesce, even though
this will obviously hurt her mother.  She sees it as the start of her
new life.  Meanwhile, 20 year old Michele has been flirting with Lisa,
and is trying to decide whether to take it any further.

Tensions between the characters surface at various times in the novel.
When Maria Grazia and her family fall behind in their mortgage payments,
Leo (self-made man and opportunist) tries to convince her to sell their
house to him at a bargain price.  He considers he's doing them a favour
by helping them settle their debts.  Interesting confrontations also
occur when Michele finds out about Leo and Carla.  The mother, however,
seems quite oblivious to what is actually going on.  She thinks Lisa is
her rival, attempting to win back old flame Leo.

This is another psychological novel by Moravia.  Through the extensive
use of internal monologues, you're always aware of what each character
is thinking as events unfold.  Admittedly at times I found this style a
bit too intense, almost claustrophobic.  But this approach successfully
brings out the theme of the book, which as suggested by the title is
indifference: lethargy, lack of emotion, halfheartedness.  All of the
characters think and resolve to act a certain way, but end up doing
something else.  This mismatch is particularly stark in the case of
Michele, the youngest and arguably the central character.

Overall, an interesting read, but not quite as good as some of the
author's later work (which I've reviewed in the past).

2. "Fontamara" by Ignazio Silone

This is the story of a peasant community living in Central Italy during
the time of the Fascist regime.  The peasants from Fontamara struggle to
make a living in the face of corruption and greed from government and
capitalists.  Even the local priest, don Abbacchio, seems to have turned
his back on his parishioners.

Everyone tries to take advantage of the "backward" and gullible "cafoni".
An outsider, l'Impresario, has bought up a lot of land upstream from
Fontamara.  He begins using his political connections to great effect.
The authorities want to divert the stream that irrigates the land of the
Fontamarese, coincidentally to the benefit of the businesses of
l'Impresario.  First they send a man to gather signatures for a petition,
requesting the diversion(!).  The mostly illiterate cafoni are tricked
into signing.  Then, after they find out what has happened, they request
the assistance of don Circostanza (Mr Circumstance), the "Friend of the
People".  He is a rich landowner and former mayor, who negotiates a
"compromise" to share the water.  The deal means both l'Impresario and
the Fontamerese will each get three-quarters of the water.  The peasants
wonder how such an arrangement will work, but they have faith in don
Circostanza and so they accept the deal.  Later it is revealed that the
deal actually means l'Impresario will get three-quarters of the water,
and the Fontamarese will get three-quarters of what's left!

These are a couple of the many examples where the gullibility of the
peasants is taken advantage of.  But the cafoni can only accept so much
before they wake up and react.  It is the responses of the peasants that
result in tragic consequences by the end of the novel.

In some ways this book echoes some of the characters and themes in the
epic Italian novel, "The Betrothed" by Alessandro Manzoni.

It's also interesting to note that the author was a founding member of
the Italian Communist party.  He wrote the book while in exile in
Switzerland.  But the surprising "twist" is that, according to evidence
that has recently emerged, Silone may have actually been an informant
for the Fascist secret police during the period.  This revelation has
prompted people to question the book's message.  Did the author use his
writing as a cover, almost as if he was acting as a double-agent?  Could
the author have intended the book as a cautionary tale against the
excesses of corruption, rather than being a simple exposè of the corrupt
actions of the Fascism regime?  We may never know.

Whatever the motivations for the novel, it still stands up as a well-
written (albeit exaggerated) story about the struggles of poor and
illiterate peasants in an environment of greed and corruption.