“Annihilation, death throes, diaspora, dissolution, emigration, exile, exodus, extinction, genocide, metamorphosis, suicide”… nouns used in describing the vicissitudes of the peasantry.

Two descriptions of “peasant identity” set the tone for this review. First, writing on nineteenth-century France, Karl Marx highlights peasants’ lack of ability for self-representation:

“The small-holding peasants form a vast mass […], much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life […], they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, […], they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, […]. They cannot represent themselves.” (Marx, pp. 123-24)

Raj Patel, expert in food politics, enquiring into what lies behind the “war” for control of food resources, also questions peasants’ ability to assert their own identity:

“The story of food production to which most of us can admit, […], owes more to fairy tales and children’s television programming than anything else […]. Who, for example, is the central character in our story of food – the farmer? What is her life like? What can she afford to eat? If only we asked […]: the majority of the world’s farmers are suffering. Some are selling off their lands to become labourers on their family plots. Some migrate to the cities, or even overseas. A few, too many, resort to suicide.” (Patel, pp. 6-7)

Francesco Genitoni is a contemporary writer (born 1951, in Cola, in the Apennino reggiano) who came to my attention for the central theme – rural demographic change – in his short novel, IL TEMPO FORSE (2004). Genitoni has also authored an essay on the Resistance, Soldati per conto nostro (1989); various short stories for children; and his poetry and racconti appear in numerous anthologies and journals. His first novel was CARTE DELLA DELIZIA (2002), a tale about small-town bureaucracy. Currently, Genitoni is Assessore alla cultura in Sassuolo (Modena).

This review deals, in particular, with the depiction of an identity already difficult to pinpoint, where Genitoni’s writing would appear to gain its stimulus – applied to an Italian micro-situation – from the theme at the centre of the two opening citations. His work shows the tip of the iceberg of what writers have examined in relation to peasant history not only in Italy in past decades, but from Mexico to India to Korea in the present day. Silone’s “universal peasant” would still appear to be very much alive. The dynamics exposed in IL TEMPO FORSE are those that invariably impacted on rural populations in his district in the post-WWII period: mechanisation of agriculture, “urbanisation and civilisation” of the countryside, “l’esodo dalla campagna alla città”, demise of the mezzadria, impoverishment – in every sense – of agrarian communities. None of these are explicit but furnish tangible undercurrents in the novel.

Peasants have never possessed “identity”. Refer to any textbook of European history and one reads that the roles of feudal peasants were “undifferentiated”, as opposed, for example, to “specialised” work in early industrial contexts. This poses a problem for the attributing of unique identity and, perhaps for this reason, peasant expression has tended to belong to collective, oral, unrecorded cultures. It is therefore apt that Genitoni does not give his peasants a name: in the fashion that the peasant has always worn the mask applied by those who write about him/her (political society, intellectuals), so Genitoni’s peasants – in parody – wear masks, those of “Oncle” and “Grandmère”. How should “peasants” be identified? To use the term at all can be derogatory. Silone thought so, but also predicted that society would eventually come to honour that ill-defined mass (Silone, p. 6). Western Europe has, instead, history books reveal, born witness to the uprooting of the so-called peasants; many texts report the “death throes” of the peasantry: but what of it? The peasant is, anthropologically, the lowest common denominator: a human-animal living – by Carlo Levi’s descriptions – outside of Time, State, and History.

This would seem to be the case for Genitoni’s protagonists. IL TEMPO FORSE represents, in all of ninety-three pages, the deteriorating life and lifestyle of Grandmère, an aged peasant woman struggling to maintain her hillside smallholding, and Oncle, her psychotic middle-aged bachelor son, driven into a maelstrom of nature-inspired insanity by hardship, solitude, suppressed sexual urges. This erupts, in fact, in unexcused, silent aggression against the senility-bound Grandmère – violence echoed in the poorly farmed land. Grandmère is forced to make a decision: her move to the plain is thus fixed, to change sides as it were, to the town and the large, all mod cons suburban dwelling of her other son’s family. Oncle will remain alone, madness quietly festering.

Oncle is one of a long line of rural “matti” – a common trope for the “unconventional” peasant – which perhaps already reached their peak in Paolo Volponi’s second novel. But does Oncle have a choice when “conventional” no longer exists? Genitoni’s tale seems to arrive at the conclusions predicted by this other writer, in the absolute failure of schemes for rural development and cooperation launched by the subversive “thinker”, Anteo Crocioni, in LA MACCHINA MONDIALE. This figure of peasant origin was a character at odds with his identity: a peasant-non peasant, in that he “saw” and “acted” rather than indulge in the tradition of “peasant inertia”. Oncle, this most recent “matto”, tragically appears not to think at all, to see little beyond his bottle and cigarette butts in a downward spiral of self-annihilation. Indeed, he is as far removed from the restorative properties of REASON AND HISTORY, à la Levi, as any other twentieth-century literary peasant. There is little left of Italian rural society to keep Oncle or Grandmère standing and so if identity is defined by context, setting, social and cultural group, here the context has dissolved: they are bared fossils.

Stefano Jossa notes how the identity of the “other” Italy is linked to ‘la fatica e la sofferenza’. Carlo Levi’s work, according to Jossa, places “[il] mondo contadino in opposizione alla storia] (Jossa, p. 135). If there is, on one side, the State and, on the other, the extra-state world of peasants, then there are, as Jossa puts it, “due Italie […]: quella dei vincitori e quella dei vinti, […], l’Italia contadina, più volte violentata dalla storia” (Jossa, pp. 135-36). Pasolini contemplates non-identity in the peasant world: “l’Italia umile e vera dei contadini che lavorano”, that clashes with the “Italian State”: “che crede nella storia e nel progresso”. So the peasant has identità non-identità, a shadow of the identity created by “Italian culture”, and yet one fails to exist without the other (Jossa, pp. 137-38).

The issue of peasant identity in contemporary European literature might seem anachronistic, and yet Genitoni gives an insightful response to the above questions so that one might take this text as an exposition of what has remained washed up of peasant identity in the wake of phenomena discussed by the canonical Silones, Levis and Volponis. His tale of nameless characters, further mystified by the use of foreign soubriquets, is narrated by the nephew/grandson, Paolino. Oncle and Grandmère are largely defined by the arrangements of settings around them, how Paolino perceives the two in context: a simple, but dirty and degenerated rural abode (anything but bliss), detached from the polished suburban dwelling from which he comes to visit. Descriptions reveal much of the life that Grandmère has led, the residual toil. Our meetings with Oncle, on the other hand, come through violent acts perpetrated against Grandmère, resonant of the violence of peasant “genocide” that precedes his generation and leaves his own without landmarks. And while Grandmère’s identity may be perennially conditioned by work and hardship, Oncle’s is indivisible from the detritus he leaves about him: pools of spit, crushed dead flies, cigarette ash.

Grandmère repeatedly laments the deteriorating situation of this odd-couple, their impossible “convivenza”, while descriptions of them are sketched impressionistically, in quick succession. The beatings that characterise their relationship happen suddenly, out of nothing, and the reader, a witness, is left to contemplate, to fill in the omitted reasons. The curtains thus draw quickly on any sense of the bucolic: in Paolino’s modern Italy, this is not what peasant life is made up of. The tale cuts quickly to Grandmère’s removal to the plain, a somewhat tardy “fuga”, forty years or so after the exodus of her kind. Where Volponi told much of abandoned farmhouses and breathless fields discarded in the slipstream of peasant flight, Genitoni is his equal in depicting Grandmère’s descent, etching it into the literary history of the peasantry. Grandmère states: “Chiuso con la guerra, abbiamo ricominciato a lavorare. E basta. La terra era sempre poca, sempre meno, per tutti. Il figlio più vecchio ha dovuto andare via [sic], in pianura, per campare” (Genitoni, p. 25). It is to this son’s abode that Grandmère, squeezed out of her domain, is now headed. In the country, writers say, time passes unheeded; timelessness prevails. But Grandmère’s fate is decided in an instant, to become no longer peasant but ex-peasant, émigrée, exile, her two sons in conflict: one, Oncle, of the hills, still contadino, but the elder, Paolino’s father, of the plain, long since “cittadino”. Paolino is summoned to bring the car, to transport Grandmère and her wares down to the plain. And thus one more “peasant” lifestyle ends abruptly.

What strikes Grandmère within her new system of reference points? “Le tantissime case, le automobili, e i pavimenti lucidi” (Genitoni, p. 39). “Poi c’era la televisione”, adds the narrator: “non si sarebbe mai spogliata davanti alla televisione accesa” (Genitoni, pp. 40-42). Now, displaced and disorientated, Grandmère is a mere relic, in her own words sadly explaining to Paolino that she no longer recognises herself in these adoptive circumstances: “ho abitato sempre in casacce da contadini, ho dormito in stalle e fienili… e adesso non riesco ad alzarmi da letto perché è troppo morbido e ho paura di scivolare” (Genitoni, p. 58). On her deathbed, Grandmère turns against her elder son, calling for him to leave her be, shaking her stick and shouting that she would gladly have split his head. He believed in a gesture of charity but little did he appreciate the near-seismic magnitude of removing her from the country.

Oncle’s demise, too, is without grace. His coordinates have been removed: the hens fail to lay; he can no longer wash himself; around him all is filthy. Paolino’s reflection says much on the question of peasant exodus, “sapevamo tutti troppo della solitudine, per nominarla” (Genitoni, p. 74). Oncle stares into space, laughs inexplicably, and hurls violent insults in imagined dialogues. Perhaps his most significant act comes when he gives up trying to be a farmer; yields his identity by tearing down the most symbolic of all farming paraphernalia: the fence. The narrator spells out the poignancy of Oncle’s action: terrifying, prophetic, revolutionary. Oncle is well aware that there is nothing left for him, no relatives, no community, no more peasant society, and on his deathbed sees with lucidity what he has been these past forty years: “[un] pagliaccio pazzo [che] aveva divertito tutta la parocchia” (Genitoni, p. 91), playing along where the stage has long since been transported to other market squares.

To return to the social history of the peasantry, the major factors that bring change come from outside: market forces, political decisions, world trade agreements, corporations, urban consumers. As Patel comments: “written out of this story are the rural communities, who seem to be suffering silently” (Patel, p. 15), […]. “From the city, it is hard to see the violence in the countryside, both physical and economic” (Patel 18). This is ironic, given that most Western states have, at some recent point in their promotion of national identity, employed the notion that ‘the proud modern state, now more urban than rural is the offspring of the countryside’ (Patel, p. 23). One is brought back to the perennial country/city debate, which Patel reiterates:

“If ever we think of fields, our thoughts about the countryside are benign, passive and vapid. To become and remain an idyll, the rural is forgotten, sanitized and shorn of meaning to fit the view from the city. […]. The city, now home of the majority of the world’s people, writes the country.” (Patel, pp. 21-22)

But Genitoni does much to dismantle this misconception: his metaphors offer a startling view of the modern peasant context, reconsidering perceptions of what the countryside means, what a rural person’s identity and reference points entail, the mocking anachronism, its loss, its non-existence.


- F. GENITONI, IL TEMPO FORSE, Reggio Emilia, Aliberti, 2004.
- S. JOSSA, L’ITALIA LETTERARIA, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2006.
- C. LEVI, CRISTO SI È FERMATO A EBOLI, Torino, Einaudi, 1990.
- K. MARX, THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE, New York, International Publishers, 1994.
- I. SILONE, FONTAMARA, Milano, Mondadori, 1988.
- P. VOLPONI, LA MACCHINA MONDIALE, Milano, Garzanti, 1965.