The Fox and the Camellias (Le Volpe e le Camilie) by Ignazio Silone, 1960
THE FOX AND THE CAMELLIAS (Le volpe e le camilie)
by Ignazio Silone, 1960
In the tradition of his earlier novels on political dissent, Ignazio Silone's novella "The Fox and the Camellias" ("Le volpe e le camilie"; 1960) deals with the Socialist-Fascist conflict among Italians in the post-World War II era. Daniele, a farmer in the Ticino region of Switzerland, is a Socialist who engages in clandestine operations against the Fascists. The story focuses on the perennial struggle of the farmers to trap foxes who steal their chickens and on the annual Festival of the Camillias. The fox and the camellias become emblematic of the struggle between the Socialists and Fascists. The trapping of foxes becomes an analogy for catching men, while the Festival of the Camellias affords a means of reconciliation.
Daniele, the protagonist of the story, displays early on his resistance to his father Ludovico's reactionary ideas and his affinity for revolutionary causes. His mother, on the other hand, is the granddaughter of an Italian exile and is an intellectual. When his father confiscates his mother's books and starts to destroy them because of their purported evil influence on her character, he contributes to her early death. Daniele leaves home and takes a job in an engineering shop in defiance of his father, who labels his flight a "rebellion of the soul." Daniele befriends Italian refugees from across the border and espouses their ideology. Without his father's blessing he marries Filomena and has two daughters. The elder daughter, Silvia, in many respects resembles her father, but she has no knowledge of his political activities. Silvia effects a reconciliation of sorts between her father and her estranged grandfather, who gives his farm to his son, causing Daniele to return to the land.
When a young man from Italy tries to interrogate the seamstress Nunziatina, an Italian residing in Switzerland, about people who might be Socialists, she asks for help from Daniele and Agostino, his helper and confidant. Nunziatina is a gray-haired old lady who has been a Swiss resident for 30 years. She is polite and easily frightened. Deeply religious, she relies upon her faith in times of crisis. When the Italian visitor tries to pry information about her customers from her, she is confused about his purpose. Further, since she is a simple woman, she does not understand that she is being manipulated. Like the cafoni of Silone's novels, Nunziatina is apolitical and uneducated. She does not read newspapers, nor does she participate in clandestine politics.
As a result of her plea for assistance, Daniele and Agostino plot to catch their political "foxes" by using Nunziatina as their bait. The old woman meets with the Italian, who tries to question her. She talks about religion, rice, cheese, and apples instead of naming Socialists. None of her information is useful to her interrogator. Agostino, who has been hiding, waits to spring his trap against the Fascist, but a second man arrives with a gun. Franz, Agostino's accomplice, rescues him, and after the scuffle Agostino goes into hiding. By a strange turn of events, while Daniele is away from home for a few days, the young Italian Signor Cefalù has a purported accident and is taken in by Silvia and her mother. Silvia and Cefalù fall in love and want to be married. For the first time conflict occurs between father and daughter over her wish to marry and her father's belief that the young man is too conservative, not a rebel like himself. Because Daniele had hoped that she would marry an honest man like Agostino and because he believes that Cefalù is dishonest, he is upset.
Although Silvia calls Cefalù an honest man, her father's definition implies that a man is honest only in relation to the times in which he lives and that he must, therefore, by implication act in response to his environment. When Cefalù comes to visit and finds Daniele's political papers in his study, he is appalled and flees. Only then does Daniele realize that the young man is a member of the Fascist secret police and the same person who tried to interrogate the seamstress. In a fit of rage, when a fox is caught in a trap, Daniele beats it to death. A family crisis ensues, and Daniele leaves and his wife and daughter are distraught. Cefalù commits suicide by drowning himself, apparently because he could not betray Daniele, nor could he resolve the problem caused by his love for Silvia and his duty to inform his superiors about the family.
While Silvia and Filomena await Daniele's reaction to Cefalù's suicide with trepidation, instead of their anticipation that Daniele will be delighted and enjoy feelings of revenge, they find that he is sorry about the young man's death. Thus, peace can be reestablished in the family. Further, the Festival of the Camellias is also saved from being ruined by a plot hatched by the uregiatt and foreigners (Daniele's group) and the opposition, all of whom finally decide that the festival is more important than politics. Even though Daniele has brutally killed the fox, he is able to effect peace in his family, thus paralleling the lesson of the Festival of Camel-lias in settling for reconciliation. Ironically, the Festival of Camel-lias will have a float with a fox holding a dove in its paws under a camellia bush.
The subplot of Nunziatina's troubles takes on an ominous note when she learns from the police that she will be expelled from Switzerland without a reason. Because she is not a citizen, she has no rights, and no explanation need be given to her. The unfeeling policeman who delivers the harsh message shows no compassion to the elderly lady. She has no financial means, and she cannot deal with her expulsion to Italy either financially or psychologically. Here Nunziatina serves as an example of the suffering cafoni who are the victims of evil events. She is a casualty of the government and of political forces she cannot understand. The government bureaucracy, in turn, has no concern for her welfare and the misery wrought by the arbitrary decision to expel her. Only when Nunziatina threatens to leave her furniture in the street during the Festival of the Camellias does the policeman show a human reaction and urge her not to do so because her action would spoil the festival. And, because of her decency, Nunziatina agrees not to upset the people attending the festival.
Although a lesser work than Fontamara, Bread and Wine (Vino e pane), and The Seed under the Snow (Il seme sotto la neve) , "The Fox and the Camellias" is a novella that echoes issues arising in the earlier novels. Taking up the conflict between the Socialists and the Fascists and the plight of the cafoni, Silone emphasizes the necessity for honesty and social responsibility. Peace in the family and in the community at the end of the novella points out the value of reconciliation.
—Shirley J. Paolini