Tuesday, July 25, 2006


In “Fontamara,” Ignazio Silone speaks of “the men who make fertile the earth and suffer from hunger—the fellahin, the coolies, the peons, the mouzhiks, the cafoni, alike in all the nations of the earth.” It’s a clever touch: “universalizing and particularizing,” a commentor calls it, which is heavy handed but right enough. “Cafoni,” (new to me) are the hill people of the Abruzzi, the parched moonscape east of Rome. The name of “Fontamara,” Silone’s fictional village, translates as “bitter creek.”

A clever touch: all beasts of burden and all, in some sense, all surplus. But the differences are interesting. “Coolies:” we think “men who pull rickshas.” “Peons” yields “peonage,” compulsory debt service, a hop, skip and a jump from serfdom. “Fellahin,” it turns out, derives from “fellah,” day laborer, not at all to be confused with the Most Happy Fella of in the Whole Napa Valley.

“Mouzhik” seems to me a bit trickier. Wiki says it just means “man,” with resonances of “dude” or “chap.” Neither of these seems right, but “mouzhik” does seem more inclusive than the other items on the list—a bit more like, well, like “peasasnt,” which is, at the end of the day, a pretty ambiguous term. Some peasants support themselves and their families, and some make a bloody nuisance of themselves in politics. Some peasants rise to be kulaks, which may or may not turn out to be a blessing. What Silone seems to have in mind is perhaps something more Biblical, as in “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” as it says (three times!) in the Book of Joshua.

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