Thursday, February 2, 2012

Review: A Bell for Adano

My search for audio books at my local library is a pretty haphazard thing. I don’t place holds, and generally don’t plan ahead. My selection just depends on whatever they have available whenever I happen to drop by. Sometimes I come across a book I expect to be phenomenal, and it ends up falling flat. (I’m looking at you, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy) Other times I pick something up out of sheer curiosity and end up loving a book I’d never heard of before. That’s exactly what happened when I pulled John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano off the shelf.

Turns out this book won the Pulitzer in 1945. It’s the story of a Major in the American Army who is stationed as the Allied Military Government Officer in the fictional occupied town of Adano, on the coast of Sicily. It is a novel full of colorful characters: the eccentric villagers of Adano, the cantankerous army General, the conniving former fascists, and the hapless soldiers who try to make sense of it all.

The book’s amusing descriptions of military incompetence and beaurocratic inefficiencies rival those in Heller’s Catch-22 or any good episode of M*A*S*H. Here’s a description of the runaround a local Italian gets when he wants to relay some piece of intelligence to General Marvin (who is modeled after General Patton):

After an argument with Colonel Henderson, Cacopardo was sent upstairs under guard, was stopped and questioned by a sentry at the head of the stairs, was sent downstairs because he did not have a proper Division pass, was given a pass, was taken upstairs again and was questioned as to age, religion, political beliefs and sex by a Sergeant, was interviewed by a staff officer who doubted whether the General  would be free to see him, was referred to Colonel Middleton, the General’s Chief of Staff, was questioned by Colonel Middleton’s secretary, who thought the Colonel was busy, was finally admitted to Colonel Middleton, who after an argument, agreed to see whether the General would see Cacopardo, which he doubted. At the moment, General Marvin was playing mumblety-peg with Lieutenant Bird, his aide.
The main character, Major Joppolo, is a competent, well-meaning officer and all-around good guy. A rarity in both the U.S. beuracracy and the long-oppressed Sicilian town. There is truly nothing not to like about the man. The reader wants him to do well, wants him to succeed in establishing democracy in Adano and in replacing the 700-year-old bell that the fascists had melted down for war munitions.

Unfortunately he’s in a race against the clock to accomplish everything he wants to in Adano. Early in the book he countermands a ridiculous order of the General’s and a memorandum explaining the insubordination is mailed off to the General to make sure he knows where to place the blame. In intermittent chapters we trace the memo as it makes its way from wrong Division to wrong Division, back to Allied Command in North Africa, and then finally to the General’s desk in Sicily. The feel-good ending turns bittersweet just at the crucial moment, but the book was as enjoyable a read as I’ve had lately.

The writing won’t knock you over with its lyrical beauty, but it is a great story, well-told. And what it lacks in breathtaking prose it makes up for in delightful lines from crass characters:
“This place is such a dump. Say, if they ever give this old world an enema, this is where they’ll put the tube in.”
A very strong recommendation for A Bell for Adano, a light but powerful read. Check it out.

No comments:

Post a Comment