1945: A Bell for Adano by John Hersey

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From the Dust Jacket:

This is a novel by the young war correspondent who wrote Into the Valley. It is a novel, but it is also the truth. It is about Americans in Italy. It tells of the Italian-American major who tried to rebuild an occupied town along the lines of his own good instincts and democratic upbringing. He understood the wonderful, simple people of the town-the fishermen, the officials, the cartmen, the children who ran in the streets shouting to American soldiers to throw them caramels-and he knew how much they wanted to carry on the customs of their homeland but also how much they wanted and needed a new freedom. He found that an ancient bell which the town had loved had been taken away by the Fascists to make gun barrels and he did something about it. He discovered that there were pretty girls in Italian towns just are there are in American towns. And he and his new friends ran into some crippling difficulties-red tape and prejudice which revealed themselves in astonishing quarters.

Mr. Hersey spent three months of the summer of 1943 in the Mediterranean theater, covered the Sicilian campaign, and lived for some time in a village like the Adano of his story. His novel has the kind of truth that could come only from first-hand knowledge coupled with profound understanding and feeling. But the story also has rich meaning for the future, for it deals with men who are already facing problems that will follow in the wake of the war. It makes startlingly clear the fact that charters and agreements are only as effective as the men who are sent to implement them.

Readers of Mr. Hersey’s Into the Valley and Men on Bataan will remember how deftly and sensitively the brilliant young correspondent of Time and Life sketched of our fighting men-their thoughts and feelings as they marched and waited and fought. And they will remember the exciting sweetness of his narrative technique. This is his first novel, and it displays to full advantage his remarkable ability to create lovable and unforgettable characters and to make a story move quickly and with purpose.

My Thoughts:

Though A Bell for Adano is undeniably a war novel, it is one on which the violence and the struggle at the front lines are not present, choosing instead to explore the American occupation of Italy, specifically in the small town of Adano, as the front line of the invasion pushes further and further from the town. It is not a novel about the present terrors of war, but about the aftermath, the rebuilding, and the reconciliation. The primary antagonist is not the Axis powers, or even fascism, but the military bureaucracy of the American military. It is a war novel that does not look at the recent horrors of death and destruction, but instead looks forward, hopeful for the future of Europe after the war, while still aware of the difficulty and time-consuming nature of making that stable future a reality.

A Bell for Adano follows Major Joppolo, and Italian-American, charged with the administration of the town of Adano, based in part on John Hersey’s own encounters as a war journalist in the Italian town of Licata, and it’s military governor, Frank E. Toscani. The novel follows Joppolo as he works to get the citizens on his side, introduce them to American democracy, and ensure a more stable rule that will not turn back toward the authoritarian fascism that thrived in Italy under Mussolini. It is about working toward a cultural understanding and stability, while empowering the people of Italy themselves. The titular bell is held as the example of that throughout the book: a 700-year-old bell from the city clock tower, rich with history and significance to the people of the town, that was taken by the Italian government to be melted down into rifles for the war.

The novel also emphasizes the importance of immigrants to America. In his forward to the book, Hersey praises the multiculturalism and immigrant history of America and it’s usefulness in the coming years with the occupation of Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He writes, “That is where we are lucky. No other country has such a fund of med who speak the languages of the lands we must invade, who understand the ways and have listened to their parents sing the folk songs and have tasted the wine of the land on the palate of their memories.” He goes on to speak of the second generation immigrants in America, like his character Joppolo, saying “We have need of him. He is our future in the world.”

Set at odds against Joppolo and his attempts to unite the town under democracy–and to replace the 700-year-old bell–is the military bureaucracy and General Marvin, a thinly-veiled representation of General Patton, who doesn’t understand, or care to understand, the culture or the way of life of the Italian people, who creates impossible and antagonistic orders based on perceived personal insults, and who is ultimately the downfall of Major Joppolo. Joppolo, who unites the townspeople of Adano, as well as multiple branches of the American armed forces, and coordinates them all into creating a happier, more thriving town than existed under fascist rule, is brought down by a culturally-insensitive general, and an almost-comically tortuous journey of paperwork around the Mediterranean. However, the work of Joppolo is not completely undone, and the town of Adano is changed for the better, even if the governor likely to replace him will be much less competent or understanding. The small victories of the town, and the legacy of Joppolo will continue in one form or another.

The writing of Hersey, is straightforward, honest, and often comical, drawing the reader into the eccentricies of the townspeople and the daily joys and struggles they encounter. The characters are well-explored, complex, and interesting, even in such a short novel, and Hersey captures well the feel of both the small town and the people within it, as well as the atmosphere of government and military bureaucracy, and the inherent ridiculous nature it often assumes. A short and easy, but rewarding novel.

Favorite passage:

Mercurio Salvatore stood before Major Joppolo in tawdry splendor. He wore a uniform of the eighteenth century, and looked as if he had been wearing it ever since that time. The tights had once been blue, but now they were a light and spotted grey. The turn-back coat had once been lined with red silk, but the silk had long since fallen apart, and Carmelina the wife of Fatta had replaced it with sacking from the sulphur refinery which she had dyed purple with grape juice, but the purple had washed out in the first few rains, so that now Mercurio Salvatore was a walking advertisement of Cacopardo Sulphur.

Why you should read it:

Interesting and honest, this quick read is often comically, and imminently enjoyable, while at the same time expounding the virtues and the humor of the common man, and poking fun at the farcical nature of bureaucracy.

Currently reading: Apartment in Athens by Glenway Wescott

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