John Hersey is probably best remembered today, to the extent that he’s remembered at all, for “Hiroshima,” his mammoth piece for the New Yorker that took up all of the periodical’s August 31st, 1946 issue, and was later republished as a standalone book. A year before that remarkable piece of non-fiction, first-person journalism, however, Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his satirical war novel A Bell for Adano, a spiritual precursor to Catch-22, one that allows the absurdity of military life and bureaucracy to satirize itself while also humanizing the American occupation of Italy through one character, Major Joppolo, who becomes the wartime mayor of the Italian town of Adano.
Adano has lost much in the war; the people are starving and thirsty, and the ousted Fascist mayor was a corrupt coward. But no loss seems to matter as much as the loss of the town’s 700-year-old bell, recently taken by Mussolini’s government and melted down to make more munitions. As Major Joppolo attempts to restore order to Adano, reestablishing basic services and some semblance of the rule of law, he also makes it his main mission to find the town a new bell, one that has some historical significance and will have the “right tone.” Of course, other military officials think he’s crazy, and the General overseeing that part of the occupation, based on George S. Patton, is a single-minded tyrant. The scene in Patton where the titular character shoots a local merchant’s donkey appears here, and, like much of the book, is based on an actual incident; the shooting and Major Joppolo’s response to it sets up an obvious if poetic conclusion to the story that also creates some comedic pressure for the Major to find that bell before his time in Adano runs out.
While Joseph Heller’s book spares nothing and no one in its farcical look at the pointlessness of war and the human machines we build up to wage it, Hersey grounds his story in reality and lets the book’s rich humor come from very believable personal interactions, from the concupiscent Captain Purvis’s unending attempts to seduce Italian woman with whom he can’t communicate, to naval Lieutenant Livingston, whose snobbish first impressions of Major Joppolo give way when the latter employs a little bit of flattery. The return of Mayor Nasta and his subsequent arrest are almost slapstick comic moments. The memo that describes Joppolo’s countermanding of General Marvin’s order stopping all carts from entering Adano takes the most circuitous route imaginable to the latter’s desk as various underlings try to “lose” it before it does any harm. Some parts of the book were just laugh-out-loud funny, and most of it was smile-inducing, other than the occasional intervention of the details of the war, or the strongly sentimental notions connecting Joppolo and the citizens of Adano.
So why hasn’t A Bell for Adano endured as a work of American literature, especially war literature, when it’s based on true stories from the occupation (Major Joppolo himself was modeled on an actual American officer), is funny, and would be easily accessible to high school readers? I’ve long been appalled at how little of the American canon we present to American students; many great authors are omitted from even honors or AP reading lists even though books like Adano could be read and covered inside of a week. Perhaps it’s just been overshadowed by later works – it may have inspired Heller’s novel, but Heller’s book was funnier, more vicious, and covered far more ground – but it’s worth pushing it back on to the modern bookshelf.
Next up: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.