An enduring faith in the power of the intellect

 

Darina Silone: Darina Silone, the Dublin-born widow of one of Italy's best-known writers, has died in Rome aged 86 years. How the brilliant, independent-minded 24-year-old young woman from Rathgar met the 41-year-old ex-communist, Ignazio Silone, a political exile living in Zurich and an internationally famous author, is in itself a fascinating story.

Elizabeth Darina Laracy was the eldest of four gifted daughters whose home reflected the cultured, cosmopolitan background of their parents. While at UCD reading History and Politics, Darina discovered in her father's study Fontamara and Vino e pane (Silone's first two novels which had just been translated into English).

She was captivated by the author's profound plea for social justice and his clear insight into the inherent danger of totalitarian regimes, whether communist or fascist.

In 1939, after graduating with a First, followed by an MA, Darina won a travelling scholarship to study for a doctorate at the Sorbonne. In April 1940, against the advice of family and friends, she made the fateful decision to take a brief trip to Milan to visit a friend and do some research in the Ambrosiana library.

When Italy entered the war on the side of Germany, on May 10th, 1940, she moved to Rome where she found work as a correspondent for the Herald Tribune and International News Services. Not surprisingly, her incisive articles with their anti-Fascist emphasis attracted the attention of the Gestapo. When she refused to collaborate they expelled her from Italy; she found herself travelling to Berne with a 15-day visa on the very day that Hitler invaded Russia, June 22nd, 1941.

Darina contacted the British legation in Berne and gave a first-hand account of the political situation in Italy which much impressed the chief intelligence officer. She often recalled that she was then offered a post in the Ministry of Information in London, but the officer in Berne decided, for his own selfish reasons, to block her appointment by saying she was, in fact, a spy from the Italian Secret Police (OVRA).

Alone and too proud to ask parents for help, she survived for four months by giving private lessons and writing unsigned articles for the American and British press. The cantonal authorities in Berne refused to extend her visa so when an English publisher commissioned her to write a book about the contemporary situation in Italy she decided to move to Zurich which had better-equipped libraries.

In the Museumsgesellschaft, a private library used by many famous names, including Lenin, Darina began researching her book. It seemed obvious to her that she should start with the daunting task of reading the complete works of Mussolini.

The sight of this tall, elegant young lady whose only interest seemed to be Il Duce aroused the curiosity of Ignazio Silone who, unknown to Darina, was studying in the same room. She would learn that the British Secret Service had mischievously warned Silone that she had been sent to spy on him by the OVRA.

After his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1931, Silone had lived for nearly 10 years in the home of Marcel Fleischmann, a philanthropist of Hungarian origin, who showed kindness and generosity to many intellectuals who had become refugees because of their opposition to dictatorship. It was not long before Silone invited Darina to afternoon tea in Fleischmann's magnificent house adorned with paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh and Braque.

She told Silone how much she admired his three books (La scuola dei dittatori was published in 1938) and guessed correctly that he would have had active links with the opposition in Italy. She left him in no doubt about her passionate opposition to fascism and offered to help him in his clandestine work. (Silone directed the Italian Socialist Party's external activities from Zurich.)

Silone was at a stage in his life when he needed the intellectual stimulus and vivacity which Darina provided, and they returned to Italy in October 1944 and married two months later.

This was a period of turmoil and expectation of a new dawn for Italy, but the Socialist Party was not numerically strong enough to deliver the kind of change Silone craved and so, like Dante, he decided that by concentrating on his writings he would make a more effective contribution to society. In this, Darina was a constant support, never seeking the limelight, but able to enrich his work with her constructive critique and fluency in six European languages; she also translated his post-exile novels into English.

Her natural Irish charm and extraordinarily attractive personality won her a wide circle of friends in every continent. She made no secret, however, of having a particular love of Greece and especially India where she had many close friends, including Indira Gandhi.

After Silone's death in 1978, Darina became a major reference point for scholars of his life and work. Her knowledge was prodigious, and she was gifted with a memory which never failed. She even completed his last unfinished novel, Severina, in an authentic way and complemented it with notes and an essay, Le ultime ore di Ignazio Silone, retelling her last conversation with him when for the first time he spoke of the circumstances which led to the tragic death of his brother, Romolo, in a fascist prison. (This book became a best seller in Italy in 1981.)

Darina's generosity with her time and knowledge, advising younger scholars, reading manuscripts and clarifying details of translations continued until a few months before her death. Always a dignified, courageous lady, she never wavered in her belief in the power and responsibility of the intellectual to influence society. She kept in constant touch with her sisters, Cecily, Moira and Eithne who reside in Dublin and took great pride in the achievements of their families.

After a cremation ceremony in Rome, Darina's ashes have been returned to Ireland at her own request.

Darina Silone: born March 30th, 1917; died July 25th, 2003