Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Bell for Adano by John Hersey

This is a very American book. It could not have been written by any other nationality. It also could not have been written in any other era, certainly not in today's (2007) post-Vietnam, Iraq-burdened United States.

In a Bell for Adano, Hersey tells the story of the occupation and administration by Allied forces in 1943 of a recently-liberated Sicilian village. The administrator, Major Victor Joppolo, himself Italian-American, is an idealistic young man who earnestly wishes to help the village for all the "right" reasons-- to see justice done but with compassion, to help the villagers practice and see the benefits of democracy, American style--and a very American desire to be liked. He is, as the Prologue asks us to believe,
"a good man".
And we do indeed wind up believing in Joppolo's very American-style goodness.

The village is shattered under the twin effects of over a decade of Fascist rule and the war. Joppolo's desire is to see the town get back on its feet as fast as it can.

So, instead of fast-paced action, we have a series of interwoven vignettes of just how that occurs. Early on, Joppolo discovers that the people of the town are both greiving and outraged over the loss of their 700 year old town bell. During the time just before thre allied invasion, the Fascists had removed the bell to have it melted down to make cannon. The bell was a part of the psyche of the village. It was the one that rang out the hours, it
"told us when to do things, such as eating. It told us when to have the morning egg and when to have pasta and rabbit and when to have wine in the evening."

It was
"the tone that mattered. It soothed all the people of this town. It chided those who were angry, it cheered the unhappy ones, it even laughed with those who were drunk. It was a tone for everybody".

Moved, Joppolo dedicates himself to finding another, suitable bell.

But meantime the bakeries have to reopen, the fishermen must be able to fish again--and food and water must be brought into the village by mule cart.

And there hangs the crisis of the tale. The late 20th century-early 21st century American idolatry of the military does not take into account the common soldier's experience--that most general officers are narrow-minded, rigid egotists who have no business in any sort of position of authority. We meet one such, General Marvin, who bewilders the village by ordering the killing of the mule of a poor carter and forbidding the entry into the village of any carts--all because one cart was in his way as he made his self-important way down the road. Joppolo, in an act of common sense, rescinds the order--and lays the foundation for his own undoing.

And so the story unfolds--of good acts by the major, of whom the village becomes quite fond, of the hard-headed common sense displayed by the cynical Sgt. Borth, of well-intentioned but disastrous acts on the part of 3 drunken M.P.s. Joppolo uses ingenuity and a sound knowledge of the psychology of his countrymen to get things done--while falling in love with one of the beautiful Sicilian young women in the town, who has lost her fiancé in an insane act during the recent invasion.

In the end, Joppolo's common sense is his undoing, and he is removed form the village by order of General Marvin. But not before he sees the replacement bell--a bell for Adano--hung in the bell tower and hears its clear tone ringing out as he makes his way out of the village.

Hersey's simple, direct style conveys beautifully the view that a majority of Americans had of themselves at this time--direct, uncomplicated people with common sense values who knew how to get things done. An idealistic people who really believed in democracy and that The American Way as embodied in American values would work for everyone. Yes, there were stupid people such as General Marvin, and the acts of American soldiers were sometimes embarassing but still, overall, the G.I.s behaved well and sincerely.

That was the rock-solid belief. The truth, as in all wars, no doubt was different, but that's what Americans believed.

It's a gentle book about good but far from perfect people struggling to survive in the aftermath of war--both the conquered and the conquerors. People die but accidentally. The truth was no doubt different, but Hersey's book captured the beliefs and ideals of the American people who had just come through a horrendous war but could still feel compassion for the unwitting victims of that war. The Marshal Plan was probably the perfect embodiment of that spirit and generosity.

It is a book that could not be written today.

5/5 Highly recommended.

1 comment:

David said...

I just read this book. I think the Marvin character is a thinly veiled rendition of Patton (there is a similar mule scene in Patton). I was also struck by the buffoonery of the Sicilians. There is more than one reason this book would not be written today.

In any case, I think your commentary is accurate and good. I was surprised that the same man who wrote Hiroshima was able to write this humane tale. Definitely worth a read.