Notes from a Swiss Prison

Notes from a Swiss Prison

In English for the first time, with an Introduction by Stanislao G. Pugliese

Ignazio Silone, born Secondo Tranquilli in the Abruzzi region of Italy on May 1, 1900, was a founding member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). He changed his name while in a Spanish prison, under arrest for his political activities. Charged with important tasks by the PCI, he traveled to Moscow for a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in May 1927. There, Joseph Stalin insisted that the EC condemn Leon Trotsky for treason based on a document that Stalin refused to make available to the members of the committee. When Silone naively asked to read the incriminating document, Stalin protested. Silone refused to condemn Trotsky without having seen the evidence, and Stalin insisted that if the motion to condemn was not unanimous, it would be withdrawn. A day later, Silone was astonished to read in the newspapers that the EC of the Comintern had “unanimously” condemned Trotsky. So began a long and painful process of disillusionment that was to end with Silone’s expulsion from the Communist Party in 1931.

By then, he was living in exile in Switzerland. For some time, it seems, he had carried out an exchange of letters with Guido Bellone, a police official in Rome. Apparently, Silone, in an attempt to mitigate the condition of his younger brother, who had been languishing in fascist prisons since 1928 (and where he would die in October 1932), passed along to Bellone information concerning the clandestine organization of the PCI in Italy and abroad. Although there is no disputing Silone’s authorship of some of the letters, there is still a question concerning how long this relationship went on (a “farewell” letter of April 1930 to Bellone mentions a period of ten years), how serious the damage to the PCI, and Silone’s motives (at least two scholars have implied questionable sexual intrigue). Further muddying the waters is the curious fact that after Silone became a famous antifascist writer in the 1930s, he was never “outed” by the fascist regime (although documents indicate he was still being followed by fascist spies). The epistolary relationship raises more questions than it answers, but we do know that in an attempt to extricate himself from that base and humiliating relationship, he allowed himself to be expelled from the communist movement, thereby ending his relationship with Bellone, the fascist police, and the PCI.

In the summer of 1929, penniless, broken physically and spiritually, told by his doctors that he did not have long to live, and on the verge of suicide, Silone sat down to write a novel of his native town, “so at least to be able to die among my own people.” The result was Fontamara, a tale of fascist repression and brutality, written in a deceptively simple style, that went on to be translated into twenty-seven languages and that was the most well-known work of antifascist literature of the 1930s and 1940s.

Silone remained in his Swiss exile for...

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