Note: I have read the 1947 revision, not the original novel, so this is not a review of the original and I cannot comment on the changes between the original and this version.
This is a blackly comic novel about fascism, yes, but also about industrialization and modernization and about the closing of the common areas. It seems that this happened in at least this part of Italy all at the same time, rather than how it happened in the UK for example.
I should note that I’m not 100% that it was intended as a very black comedy, but it’s hard not to laugh at absurdity and there is a lot of absurdity here.
Silone is at his best when he is demonstrating the complexity of peasants; how they are common sense smart but uneducated. The peasants in this novel are human beings who have lived a certain way for a very long time – they know what they know and they have trouble understanding things they don’t know. They’re like everyone else. But nobody has bothered to educate them about what has been going on outside their village in the previous decades (and especially, the past few years), so their experience of modernization is limited to know what trucks look like, rather than understanding any kind of systemic problems. Despite their common sense, they are easy to manipulate.
I really liked the novel up until the climax. I wonder how much that changed from the earlier version. I had trouble with the climax because I found at least part of it unsatisfying; not so much what happens to Fontamara (that’s a given, I think) but what happens the ostensible hero of the book. Maybe I just don’t know enough about Italy at this time, but something about it didn’t ring true to me.
But that’s a minor quibble. On the whole, this is one of the classic portrayals of the absurdities of fascism with the added bonus that it is from the perspective of group that doesn’t normally get represented in the anti-fascist genre.