A Book Review: “A Bell for Adano”

L'articolo descrive il libro A Bell for Adano di John Hersey. Il libro descrive la vita di Victor Joppolo, un italo-americano nell'esercito americano. Joppolo deve governare e controllare il paese di Adano durante la guerra. Anche se la storia è piena di stereotipi sugli italiani, è una bella storia. La campana è uno simbolo per gli abitanti di Adano e simboleggia la loro cultura. Gli abitanti descrivono a Joppolo come la campana li aiutasse le persone. Ad esempio, quando la campana suonava di mattina, significava che era ora di alzarsi. Quando la campana suonava più tardi, invece, significava che i mercati fossero aperti. Ad un certo punto della guerra, i fascisti presero la campana e la sciolsero per produrre più fucili. Questo fu il momento in cui iniziò la caduta di Adano in molti sensi. Il finale è una sorpresa e se ne consiglia la lettura.

Historical fiction is one of today’s most popular genres. From the Peloponnesian War to the war in Iraq and all points in between, you can read books that will give you a sense of what it was like to live in those times. Unsurprisingly, the most compelling of these works are created by the people who witnessed these momentous events, who were part of it. I think of such great novels as Hemmingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, Heller’s “Catch-22”, and Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”. John Hersey’s Pulitzer Prize winning “A Bell for Adano”, although not ranked as highly as these others, deserves praise. There is an authenticity to it that gives the reader a sense of what life in Italy must have been like as the war ended.   

As a correspondent during WWII, Hersey covered the fighting in Asia and Europe, accompanying the troops in the invasion of Sicily. In addition to “A Bell for Adano”, Hersey wrote several other war novels, including “Hiroshima” and “Of Men and War”. One of the stories in the latter was inspired by President John F. Kennedy, whose PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. 

Hersey’s experiences in Sicily informed his writing of “A Bell for Adano”. The novel tells the story of Major Victor Joppolo, an Italian American AMGOT (American Military Government Occupied Territory) officer. It was his job to administer, that is to, govern the town of Adano during the Allied occupation. This is one of the many areas where the book shines. As is the case with many of the veterans I have met from that war, Joppolo is well motivated, seeking to revive compassion and justice in a town that suffered under the Fascists. In this, he represents so much of what is right and good of the American efforts. 

Unfortunately, the book does have a significant shortcoming. The Italians are all stereotypes, and most are comical ones at that. When I first read the book, I did not pay much attention to the author’s background, but I quickly realized he certainly could not have been of Italian ancestry. Once I learned of his experience, I thought Hersey’s time in Sicily would have enabled him to write more realistic characters. Still, there are some very funny moments, even some that ring true.

Putting that one fault aside, the book is well worth the reading. There are moments of great compassion in this book. One such scene is when Italian prisoners of war, those who fought against the Americans, return to Adano after being released. I will not attempt to summarize what Hersey so beautifully describes other than to say that you can feel the longing that the men and the women with whom they are reunited have for one another. 

But what of the bell? What is the bell thing all about? When Major Jappolo arrives in Adano, he asks residents what the town needs the most. Some say food, which is understandable, but surprisingly, many say a bell to replace the bell that hung in their city hall’s bell tower. Toward the end of the war, just a few weeks before the Americans arrived, the Fascists took the bell to melt it down and make rifles out of it. When asked how a bell could be more important than food, one of the locals says that the bell, which had been given to the town by Pietro di Aragona, was the spirit and history of the town. Later, a local priest tells the major that all life revolved around the bell. It awakened the people, told the cart men when to start, and the bakers baked by it. It regulated their lives. Even the church relied on that bell more than their own. Its tone was clear. And when it spoke, their fathers and their fathers far back spoke to them. 

The bell is clearly a symbol of Italian culture and spirit. It is our culture that binds us with a common spirit, a spirit that is the clear voice of those who preceded us. When the Fascists under Mussolini destroyed the bell to make rifles, they were destroying, or at least attempting to destroy, the spirit of the Italian people. In that attempted destruction was the silencing of the generations of Italians that had gone on before. Hersey, however, made his main character an Italian American, a descendant of those whose voices had been silenced with the loss of the bell, acknowledging the bond between the two nations. 

There are many wonderful things about this book, including the ending, which I will not give away here. One might be tempted to take a shortcut and watch the 1945 movie adaptation of the book, but this would be a mistake. The adaptation is somewhat dated. Instead, read the book. It is a quick, easy read that deserved the Pulitzer Prize.