Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Guareschi: How I Got Like This

A couple times in the past I've posted Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi. Now I find that all of the first collection, The Little World of Don Camillo, is available online in PDF.

What follows is the introduction to The Little World, in which Guareschi tells how he came to be the man who wrote the Don Camillo stories. Guareschi's history is in many ways a reflection of and counterpoint to Italy's history from the Great War through the 1960s. In a time during which Fascists, Communists, Socialists, Monarchists and Christian Democrats vied, sometimes violently, for control of Italy, Guareschi kept a critical, humane and humorous eye on all of them.
How I Got Like This
My life began on the 1st of May 1908, and between one thing and another, it still goes on.

When I was born my mother had been teaching in the elementary school for nine years and she continued to teach until the end of 1949. In recognition of her work, the parish priest of the village presented her with an alarm clock in the name of all the people, and after fifty years of teaching in schools where there was no electric light or water but, in compensation, an abundant supply of cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes, my mother now passes her time waiting for the State to consider her request for a pension and listening to the tick-tock of the alarm clock given her by the village.

At the time when I was born, my father was interested in all kinds of machines, from harvesters to gramophones, and he possessed an enormous moustache, very similar to the one I wear under my nose. He still has the splendid moustache, but for some time he has not been interested in much of anything, and he passes his time reading the newspapers. He also reads what I write, but he does not like my way of writing and thinking.

In his day my father was a very brilliant man, and he travelled around by automobile at a time, in Italy, when entire populations went from one time to another in order to see that darned machine that ran by itself. The only memory I have of these ancient splendours is an old automobile horn - the kind with the rubber ball that you squeeze. My father screwed this to the head of his bed and he used to sound it every so often, especially in the summertime.

I also have a brother, but I had an argument with him two weeks ago and I prefer not to discuss him.

In addition to the above I have a motor-cycle with four cylinders, an automobile with six cylinders, and a wife and two children.

My parents had decided that I should become a naval engineer and so I ended up studying law and thus, in a short time, I became famous as a signboard artist and caricaturist. Since no one at school had ever made me study drawing, drawing naturally had a particular fascination for me and, after doing caricatures and public advertisements, I studied wood-carving and scenic design.

At the same time I kept busy as a doorman in a sugar refinery, a superintendant of a parking lot for bicycles, and since I knew nothing at all about music I began to give mandolin lessons to some friends. I had an excellent record as a census-taker. I was a teacher in a boarding school and then I got a job correcting proofs on a local newspaper. To supplement my modest salary I began to write stories about local events and since I had a free day on Sunday I took over the editorship of the weekly magazine which came out on Monday. In order to get it together as quickly as possible I wrote three-quarters of it.

One fine day I took a train and went to Milan, where I wormed my way into a humour magazine called Bertoldo. Here I was forced to stop writing, but I was allowed to draw. I took advantage of this by drawing in white on black paper, something which created vast depressed areas in the magazine.

I was born in Parma near the Po River; people born in this area have heads as hard as pig iron and I succeeded in becoming editor-in-chief of Bertoldo. This is the magazine in which Saul Steinberg, who at that time was studying architecture in Milan, published his first drawings and for which he worked until he left to go to America.

For reasons entirely beyond my control, the war broke out and one day in 1942 I went on a terrific drunk because my brother was lost in Russia and I couldn't find anything about him. That night I went up and down the streets of Milan shouting things which filled several sheets of legal-size paper - as I found out the next day when I was arrested by the political police. Then a lot of people worried about me and they finally got me released. However, the political police wanted me out of circulation and so had me called into the army, and on the 9th of September 1943, with the fall of Fascism, I was taken prisoner again, this time at Alessendria in Northern Italy by the Germans. Since I did not want to work for the Germans, I was sent to a Polish concentration camps. I was in various concentration camps until April 1945, when my camp was taken over by the English and after five months I was sent back to Italy.

The period I spent in prison was the most intensely active of my life. In fact I had to do everything to stay alive and succeeded almost completely by dedicating myself to a precise programme which is summarized in my slogan 'I will not die even they kill me'. (It is not easy to remain alive when one is reduced to sack of bones of which the total weight is one hundred pounds, and this includes lice, bedbugs, fleas, hunger, and melancholy.)

When I returned to Italy I found that many things were changed, especially the Italians, and I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out whether they had changed for the better or for the worse. In the end I discovered that they had not changed at all, and then I became so depressed that I shut myself in my house.
Shortly afterwards a new magazine called Candido was established in Milan and, in working for it, I found myself up to my eyes in politics, although I was then, and still am, an independant. Nevertheless, the magazine values my contributions very highly - perhaps because I am editor-in-chief.

A few months ago the leader of the Italian Communists Mr. Palmiro Togliatti, made a speech in which he lost his temper and called the Milanese journalist who invented the character with the triple nostrils 'a triple idiot'. The threefold idiot is me and this was for me the most prized recognition of my work as a political journalist. The man with three nostrils is now famous in Italy, and it was I who created him. I must admit that I am proud because to succeed in characterizing
a Communist with a stroke of the pen (that is, putting under the nose three, instead of two, nostrils) is not a bad idea, and it worked very well.

And why should I be modest? The other things that I wrote and drew during the days before the election also worked very well; to prove it I have in my attica sack full of newspaper clippings which malign me; whoever wants to know more can come and read them.

The stories in The Little World of Don Camillo were very successful in Italy, and this book, which collects the first series of these stories, is already in its seventh edition. Many people people have written long articles on The Little World of Don Camillo and many people have written me letters about this or that story, and so now I am a little confused, and I would find myself rather embarrassed if I had to make any judgement of The Little World of Don Camillo. The background of these stories is my home, Parma, the Emilian Plain along the Po where political passion often reaches a disturbing intensity, and yet these people are attractive and hospitable and generous and have a highly developed sense of humour. It must be the sun, a terrible sun which beats on their brains during the summer, or perhaps it is the fog, a heavy fog which oppresses them during the winter.

The people in these stories are true to life and the stories are so true that more that once, after I had written a story, the thing actually happened and one read it in the news.

In fact the truth surpasses the imagination. I once wrote a story about the Communist, Peppone, who was annoyed during a political meeting by an aeroplane which threw down pamphlets of the opposition. Peppone took up a machine-gun, but he could not bring himself to fire on the plane. When I wrote this I said to myself, 'This is too fantastic.' Some months later at Spilimberg not only did the Communists fire on an aeroplane that distributed anti-Communist pamphlets, but they shot it down.
I have nothing more to say about The Little World of Don Camillo. You can't expect that after a poor fellow has written a book he should also understand it.

I am 5 feet 10 inches high and I have written eight books in all. I have also done a movie which is called People Like This, now being distributed throughout Italy. Many people like the movie; others do not like it. As far as I am concerned, the movie leaves me indifferent. Many things in life me indifferent now, but that is not my fault. It is the fault of the war. The war destroyed a lot of things we had within us. We have seen too many dead and too many living. In addition to 5 feet 10 inches, I have all my hair.


Anonymous said...

I first read the Don Camillo books when I was a teenager and fell in love with them. I think I will include them in my Lenten reading: hilarious and truly Christ-centered is a great combination.

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

I grew up with Dom Camillo! I rememebr spending the little college savings I had on the newest Dom Camillo finds at the bookstore. Thanks!

Darwin said...

Yeah, I grew up on Don Camillo as well, and have been trying to build a complete collection though some of the books have become rather expensive used.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Your posts have whetted my appetite. I'm putting Don Camillo on my wishlist.

Fred said...

I heard a story about Don Camillo this past weekend. He asks Peppone "I don't belong to your party so therefore Stalin doesn't exist?" Do you know this story?