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Absent Friends: Between the River and the Mountains

By (January 1, 2008) 6 Comments
Our literary Shangri-las are meant to be evergreen. Six nights a week we may grapple with books that are relevant and challenging; six nights a week we deal with strained profundities and memoirs whose reviewers can be relied upon to call them ‘penetrating.’ But on that blessed seventh evening, we are allowed to seek comfort, to curl up with books that have already proven their worth to us, books whose wisdom and vigor we can continue to explore for decades specifically because we’ve achieved a modus vivendi with their greatness.Here we take up the recondite glories of Genesis and second Isaiah. Here we revel again in the acerbic wisdom of Tacitus. This is Shakespeare’s time, and Milton’s, and the philosophers’. Here Thomas Paine thunders again, and Tolstoy enlightens anew. These are the evenings when we reaffirm our reading selves.

But there’s a special class of such authors, a group we turn to when even Tacitus is getting on our nerves. Sometimes, we need the books that never change, the ones whose comforts are immune from reevaluation. Sometimes we need to turn to the safest harbor of all, to the books that only want to welcome us, no questions asked. Sometimes we need to return to Shangri-la.

There Rumpole of the Bailey is brilliantly cross-examining a duplicitous copper, the whole while dreading dealing with his dread wife, She Who Must Be Obeyed. There Holmes and Watson have just deserted the coziness of 221b Baker Street to pursue and evildoer through the chilly London fog. There Jeeves and Wooster motor from one English country house to another, the former trying to stave off impropriety in all its guises, the latter trying to stave off the amorous advances of Madeline Bassett or Honoria Glossop.

There are no clocks ticking in these warm, welcoming books. There are no points to be made – there are no points at all. This is a different kind of reading, one more akin to the sureties of bedtime stories than to the hipster proving-ground of contemporary fiction.

One such Shangri-la is plunked down in the oddest of places, an anonymous little Italian village along the Po, somewhere between the mountains and the river, a place broiled by the sun in summer and chilled by the fog in winter. In this pious little village, our unaging story unfolds over and over again: there is an old church, there are many families of devout faithful, there is a crusty Communist mayor, and there is Don Camillo, the redoubtable village priest, who was born into the world with a ‘constitutional preference for calling a spade a spade.’

Readers were first introduced to these stories in 1950, when an unassuming book by Giovanni Guareschi (1908-1968) called The Little World of Don Camillo was published. The Cold War was in its inexorable beginnings, postwar American prosperity was growing, and observers could be justified in thinking that both Communism and the Roman Catholic Church were experiencing the full flush of vigor. It’s hardly surprising, given all this, that the Book-of-the-Month Club would choose to select a book like The Little World of Don Camillo, in which Communism and Catholicism are brought into a lightly ironic rivalry that manages to underscore a shared humanity and a conviction that everything will work out fine in the end. The book became an enormous success, a bestseller translated into dozens of languages, made into a movie, and sold in millions of copies all over the world. Guareschi’s fame was assured, and more books followed: Don Camillo and His Flock, Don Camillo’s Dilemma, Don Camillo Takes the Devil by the Tail, and Comrade Don Camillo. A world wary of Stalin’s Communism found the perfect anodyne in these charming stories – stories, as Guareschi himself pointed out, that even Communists liked.

The heartfelt, knowing humor of the tales was hard-won by their author. Guareschi was born in Fontanelle di Parma, a tiny Italian village indistinguishable from Don Camillo’s little world. His family was ruined by the 1926 depression in Italy, and he turned to his pen to support himself. He worked on a series of humor magazines in Milan in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, and in 1942 (allegedly after a monumental public drunken tirade), he was taken into the Italian army. In 1943 Italian fascist partisans fell to the invading Nazis, and Guareschi was sent to a succession of concentration camps in Poland, where he managed to survive until the camps were liberated by the American army. He returned to Milan and in short order produced The Little World of Don Camillo, which was an immediate success in Italy, selling out several editions and winning the hearts of a war-torn country.

Reading these stories makes their success easy to understand: they are hugely inviting. The setting is a small village far from the city, a village whose two biggest men hold down the opposite ends of the spiritual and material spectrum. The town’s mayor and fervid party partisan is Peppone, who bosses around his sizeable crowd of sycophants and intimidates any townspeople who dare to oppose him. His foil and opposite number is the village priest Don Camillo – and the martial echo in his name is advised – who has ‘iron-plated fists’ and is not above punctuating his advice to his congregants with a thunderous kick in the backside.

In the world and the time that gave rise to the Don Camillo stories, the power of the Roman Catholic Church was at the peak of the century, untouched by scandal and unshaken by doubt. The power a village priest wielded over his congregation was all-pervading: he saw them into the world, sorted their troubles, scolded their shortcomings, ordered their lives, attended their deathbeds, and spoke the expected words over their graves. In the real-world version of Guareschi’s stories, party posed no contest to priests, especially not to a wily ox of a priest such as Don Camillo.

It’s for this reason that our author gives Don Camillo, Peppone’s foil, a foil of his own, the ultimate such: from the big crucifix above the altar Jesus himself provides a running commentary on Don Camillo’s life and times, and despite the fact that Jesus is very fond of Don Camillo, the commentary is usually far from gentle. Our priest loves a good cigar, relishes his power over his flock, and takes a brawler’s instinctive pleasure in besting Peppone – it’s Jesus who recalls him to himself time and again, in a voice identical to the whisperings of a good man’s conscience. The whimsy of the conceit irritated some of Guareschi’s early critics, but their affront seems prudish to modern ears. God talks; countless late-night televangelists assure us so – the only shock is that he should here sound like an ill-tempered Milanese plumber.

Just as P.G. Wodehouse could locate all the world’s drama in the piqued defection of a cherished country house’s chef, so Guareschi can find the heart of his little dramas in the smallest things – a crack in a church wall, a firecracker in the vestry, the erection of a monstrous skyscraper (all of two storeys). It’s the hallmark of this type of fiction that nothing very important is ever at stake.

As in all comedy, the genius is in the balance. It isn’t simply that Jesus reliably berates Don Camillo’s various vanities – it’s that Don Camillo will berate himself, and perhaps more importantly, Peppone will never have the true complacent satisfaction given to real villains. All well and good for Professor Moriarty to calculate the path of comets and devise pure evil, but that only works when your adversary is also superhuman. Lowlier parallels are no less precise: Peppone and Don Camillo are not only identically enormous bruisers, they shared the same fugitive guerilla existence during the war (when they were ‘up in the mountains,’ to use the stories’ most frequent euphemism). They fight constantly, but they are indispensable to each other.

Guareschi everywhere evokes this, but the best example is surely the story “The Return to the Fold,” which finds Don Camillo absent from the town, having been sent to a hillside village temporarily. His young replacement “knew his business and spoke courteously, using lovely polished phrases that seemed newly minted.” He makes a few minor changes to the church and is immediately confronted by Peppone. When the stammering young replacement offers to change everything back, the gigantic mayor, as Guareschi puts it, “reached the end of his supply of diplomacy”:

“Well,” he said, “if you really want to know, it is not a solution because if I give you a sock in the jaw I would send you flying at least fifteen yards, while if it were the regular incumbent he wouldn’t move so much as an inch!”

When the stunned young priest asks why on Earth Peppone would want to hit him, the question produces another explosion:

“Who in the world wants to hit you? There you go, running down the left-wing parties! I used a figure of speech merely to explain our views I’m not wasting time hitting a peanut of a priest like you!”

Peppone’s objection, as its hapless object would be the first to point out, makes no sense, unless it be the schoolboy sense of the playing-yard. And yet, sense or no sense, this relationship forms the heart of the stories that come out of the little world. This new cult of Communism is roundly mocked by Don Camillo, but Peppone is treated more as a treasured rival than a godless apostate. Indeed, Peppone is often the first person Don Camillo turns to when he needs help in undoing some new village wrong. In “The Thirteenth Century Angel,” for instance, when Don Camillo seeks Peppone’s aid in hauling a massive angel sculpture up to the top of the church tower, Peppone calls him a madman – to which Don Camillo instantly agrees, adding that he requires the help of another madman to get the job done. The story is a winning example of the sweet sentimentality that runs throughout Guareschi’s work, seen here in the conclusion:

“Why did you rope me into it?” Peppone asked Don Camillo. “What damned business is it of mine?”
“It isn’t damn business at all,” Don Camillo answered. “There are too many false angels loose in the world working against us already. We need true angels to protect us.”
“Silly religious propaganda!” he said, and went away without saying goodbye.
In front of his own door something made him turn around and look up into the sky. There was the angel, shining in the first light of dawn.
“Hello there, Comrade!” Peppone mumbled serenely, taking off his cap to salute him.
Meanwhile Don Camillo knelt before the crucifix at the altar and said:
“Lord, I don’t know how we did it!”
Christ did not answer, but He smiled, because He knew very well how.

Such a note is essential to comedy of this kind: our foils must be redeemable. P. G. Wodehouse’s Roderick Spode may bluster and threaten poor Bertie Wooster, but he also secretly manufactures a line of ladies’ undergarments. The droning judges who so bedevil Rumpole’s courtroom antics always admit they would miss the Old Bailey hack, if he ever actually did retire. And it’s in this light we see Professor Moriarty for the distraction he is: Holmes’ true foil is of course Dr. Watson.

In this dialectic Christ functions as a kind of Heavenly commentator. No one else, apparently, can hear him but Don Camillo, and yet Guareschi never for a moment leads us to believe his words aren’t real. He may favor Don Camillo (even cheering him on from the sidelines of an impromptu boxing match), but he has little patience for the priest’s temper or his self-pity. It’s an odd device, and one Guareschi often uses with a sly humor, as in this exchange:

“I still say that numbers must be finite,” he [Don Camillo] insisted. “Only God is infinite and eternal, and numbers can’t claim to have the attributes of God.”
“Why have you got it in for numbers?” Christ asked him.

The fun of these stories comes from watching these three main characters deal with the unending series of little crises that grip the village on a regular basis. Guareschi shares Wodehouse’s inventive skill at constantly keeping the tempests blowing in his little teapot, although unlike Wodehouse he sometimes stops to defend himself:

There is no visible movement in the valley, and a stranger may have the idea that nothing ever happens along the deserted river banks, that nothing could happen in the red and blue houses. Yet more things happen there than up in the mountains or in the big city.

Many more things indeed – from the village banding together to send a budding opera singer to the big city to someone painting graffiti on the church wall; from one of Peppone’s flunkies catching Don Camillo skinny-dipping to Don Camillo’s dismay that the church’s carved Madonna is ugly; from visiting Communist dignitaries to visiting bishops, the stories fizz with trivial incidents, each seen as calamitously important to our village cast (Christ himself gets caught up in the excitement quite regularly).

But regardless of the tumult, a note of concord is sounded in the end every time. Despite his terrible wartime experiences – or perhaps because of them – Guareschi infuses his work with a Horatian geniality that is the brightest characteristic of this particular kind of reading. In the end, after the shouting, after the threats, after the benches that have been brandished, a tranquility will be restored – however briefly, before the next disaster strikes. In “To Men of Good Will,” the concluding story of the original Don Camillo book that gained Guareschi so much acclaim, Peppone has thundered into the church at night, furious over some new outrage, just as Don Camillo is repainting the Nativity figures for the village crèche. Naturally, Peppone is drafted to help, and the reader is given the charming picture of these two hulking men sitting on either side of a table, gently painting little statues by flickering candle light:

“My son is learning a poem for Christmas,” Peppone announced proudly. “Every evening I hear his mother teaching it to him before he goes to sleep. He’s terrific!”
“I know,” agreed Don Camillo. “Remember how beautifully he recited the poem for the Bishop!”
Peppone stiffened. “That was one of the most rascally things you ever did!” he exclaimed. “I’ll get even with you yet.”
“There is plenty of time for getting even, or for dying.”
Then he took the figure of the ass and set it down close to the Madonna as she bent over Her Child. “That is Peppone’s son, and that is Peppone’s wife, and this one is Peppone,” laying is finger on the figure of the ass.
“And this one is Don Camillo!” exclaimed Peppone, seizing the figure of the ox and adding it to the group.
“Oh well! Animals always understand each other,” said Don Camillo.
But Peppone said nothing, and for a time the two men sat in the dim light looking at the little group of figures on the table and listening to the silence that had settled over the Little World of Don Camillo and which no longer seemed ominous but instead full of peace.

There isn’t much traffic to this unique little Shangri-la nowadays (indeed, even traffic to the original Shangri-la, found in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, has dropped off precipitously in the last twenty years). Although the books are still in print in Italy, Guareschi’s fame has fallen silent in the rest of the world, and this is a pity, for that world is riven by religious and political fanaticism unlike anything seen for centuries. For testaments to humor, friendship even in adversity, and most of all reconciliation, readers could look in far worse places than the Little World of Don Camillo.

Steve Donoghue’s first literary endeavor, an English translation of the Bible, was imperiled when Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More issued his proclamation against vernacular Scriptures. Although Donoghue completed the work, he did not attempt its publication, and soon thereafter turned to writing history and scholastic criticism. Today he hosts the literature blog Stevereads.