I pick up used books in all sorts of places. When I drop off a load of goods at the Goodwill (I have no patience for hosting garage sales, all that storing and sorting and ticketing), I always pop into the retail part of the store to see what books have found their way to the shelves. There’s inevitably an eclectic mix. That’s where I might have picked up A Bell for Adano, by John Hersey. I had never heard of it. The cover said it had won a Pulitzer Prize and a few page flips showed it was set in Italy. The odds were in my favor.
It started slow. About seventy pages in I’m questioning who this guy is–he studied at Yale and Cambridge, then taught for several decades at Yale. He was born in China. Interesting enough to keep plowing through the story of an American major put in administrative charge of a small Italian town in the early years following the allied victory in Europe. The writing is clear but unimpressive.
Then some economics filters in. He starts with endearing stories about wine and hair cuts.
He traced the black market in wine to the house of Carmelina, wife of the lazy Fatta. The very first person who bought wine from Carmelina, on the very first night of the invasion, was Corporal Chuck Schultz. Carmelina’s story to the Major was that the Corporal had just handed her a dollar and walked away. Schultz’s story was that the Italian lady had haggled and shouted and threatened to call the police. In any case, Schultz paid a dollar. The regular price for that grade of wine before the invasion had been twenty lire, or twenty cents.
Four soldiers sauntered into a barber shop one morning, and made motions with their fingers around their skulls that indicated they wanted haircuts. None of them could speak Italian, so they based their payment on what they had last paid for haircuts in the States.
Each plunked down a fifty cent piece and said: “Keep the change, Joe.” The regular price for haircuts had been three lire, or three cents, shaves had cost two lire. Here in one morning’s work, the barber had made two hundred lire. He retired to a life of leisure, and refused to cut any hair for three weeks, till his money gave out.
Then the vignettes turn more somber. There are two economic platters, that of the American soldiers and that of the local Italians. The clash of the two is upsetting a balance of exchanges. The most basic needs of the villagers are put at risk.
The welfare of the town was really threatened by the black market in food. Peasants, instead of bringing their grapes and melons and fresh vegetables into the town market, would go to the various bivouac areas and hang around the edges until they could catch a straggler. Then, in the heat of the day, they would tempt the Americans with cool-looking fruits, and would sell them for anywhere from ten to twenty times the proper prices. It got so bad that city people would buy what little fruit did reach the town market, and would take it out into the country to sell it to the foolhardy Americans.
To stop, or at least to curb, the black market, Major Joppolo did three things: he put the town out of bounds to American soldiers, who from then on could enter only on business; he had the Carabinieri stop all food-stuffs from leaving the town; and he fined anyone caught selling over-price or under-measure three thousand lire– a lifetime’s savings for a poor Italian peasant.
Major Joppolo is struggling with how to manage the economic forces which drive fungible exchanges for commodities, such as the desire to sell to the highest bidder. When two very different economies intersect with one another, how does one straighten out the obligation to community versus pull of premium pricing? How indeed do other social commitments, such as those to far away marriages, all pan out when distance and time and groups live temporarily in close proximity to one another?
I will read on to find out. I’m starting to like this guy Hersey.