I don’t have any new books by friends to introduce today: but I do have one that brings joy to my heart (and I do mean that). It’s the eighth and last in the new editions of the Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi: the tales of an old-style Catholic priest in the Po Valley of Italy and his rousing (and often extremely funny) disputes with the local leader of the Communist Party. Set after World War II, they document the internal political strife that divided Italy at the time: and, in a sense, they’re mirrors of what we see around us in these (dis)United States (and much of the rest of the world) at present. (We met Don Camillo in a Saturday Snippet last year.)
The new volume is titled “Don Camillo and Don Chichi“, and is an expanded, annotated version of the 1960’s English translation titled “Don Camillo and Hell’s Angels”.
The blurb reads:
A gang of Hells Angels rips through the village, bringing mayhem and a generational shift to traditional enmities between Don Camillo and Peppone. The year is 1966, a time ripe for rebellion, for overturning conventions – a time, above all, to be young. Meanwhile, beset by the third young progressive leftwing priest with a mandate to steer him into the modern world, Don Camillo digs in and finds a surprise ally in Peppone as he fights to save the three-metre high figure of il Cristo through which he conducts his famous conversations with God.
These are the last Don Camillo stories ever written. Two years after they are set, on July 22, 1968, the author died in Cervia on the east coast of Italy, where, due to ill health, he had taken to spending the summer months.
‘Guareschi’s was one of the most prescient and perceptive voices of the twentieth century.’ Tobias Jones, author of The Dark Heart of Italy.
‘Guareschi’s tales are absolutely delightful in their satirical swipes at human weakness.’ Paul Merton
I love all the Don Camillo books. I grew up with them, and still have those original editions (very well worn) on my bookshelves. I can’t bring myself to part with them, but I’ve augmented them with all eight e-book editions of the new translations, and I continue to enjoy the stories very much. Someone with little or no faith in God will probably find them impenetrable at times, but for those who have faith, they’re both inspirational and very amusing.
Here’s one of the stories from the new volume.
Don Camillo and the Lost Sheep
Peppone’s Achilles heel was a bad boy called Michele, who had hands as big as shovels and a mop of hair that made one think of those acacia trees reduced to tall trunks with absurd looking leafy top-knots. He travelled around on a trendy motorbike with saddlebags studded and fringed like a cowboy’s and wore a black jacket on the back of which he’d painted a white skull with the inscription ‘Veleno’, meaning Venom, the moniker by which he was known.
Venom was the youngest of Peppone’s children and the only longhair in town [see Note 1 below], but that didn’t bother him because, as well as possessing the strength of a buffalo, he commanded all the other longhairs scattered around la Bassa and when he and his gang got together it was like an earthquake was ripping the place apart.
Other big news from Don Camillo’s village, which nestles below the embankment of the Great River: the pharmacy has been taken over by a young city doctor, Bognoni by name, who moved to the village with her husband, also a doctor. And old Piletti has passed away.
Meanwhile, Peppone has transformed his workshop into a large emporium where he sells cars, motorcycles and appliances of all sorts on the never-never. The money to fund the enterprise had been largely provided by comrades of the local Communist Section, who were convinced by Peppone’s reasoning that ‘if working-class people today want a car, a washing machine, a television, a fridge and so on, then it should be their comrades who supply them. That way profits will remain with the working people, because the profits of the store will be divided among its shareholders.’
The enterprise did not find favour with Dr Bognoni and his pharmacist companion Jole, however. Both had been recommended by the regional Federation as ‘highly efficient activists’ and welcomed enthusiastically onto the Board of the local Section. Their view was that Peppone’s initiative served only to encourage bourgeois tendencies among the working people and diminished their revolutionary zeal: ‘All you’re doing, Comrade Bottazzi,’ Bognoni had said, ‘is creating an illusion of happiness among the people, forgetting that revolution can only be achieved out of suffering!’
‘Owning a Fiat 600, a television, a fridge and a washing machine won’t stop people suffering!’ Peppone had countered, adding that he was a man of the people and knew the people inside out.
Forced to bite the bullet, the Bognoni retreated, keeping their cards close to their chests and waiting for a suitable occasion to unleash an offensive. The opportunity arose when Venom and his gang happened to turn up at the dance hall at Castelletto. They were refused entry as undesirables, but the gang arrogantly went in anyway, only leaving after they’d removed the trousers of every man present.
The episode caused a particular stir because that same night Venom climbed one of the two very tall pylons that conveyed the high voltage line across the Po and tied one end of a long rope to the top of it, on which he hung the fifty-seven pairs of trousers in descending order, creating as it were a massive bunting.
The following day people flocked to the bank of the Great River to enjoy the unusual spectacle of pants flapping in the wind, while in a public rally the two Bognoni raged against Venom, calling him a filthy example of bourgeois hooliganism, a dishonour to the country, and concluded treacherously: ‘If Comrade Bottazzi raises children like this, how can he pretend to inspire the new generation of the Party?’ Finally, they added that the cause of the working people was hardly served by sitting in a shop selling old wrecks and electrical appliances.
Peppone’s initial reaction was to kick the Bognoni from here to kingdom come, but then he thought about it and sent a detailed report to the regional Federation demanding an immediate response. That evening, Don Camillo jumped for joy and went to let off steam with the Crucified Christ above the High Altar:
‘Lord,’ he said, ‘I thank you for having brought confusion and discord into the camp of God’s enemies.’
‘Darkness and discord are not mine to bring, only light and peace,’ Christ replied. ‘Your enemy is your neighbour and your neighbour’s pains must also be your pains.’
‘Forgive me, Lord,’ replied Don Camillo ‘but I cannot get too distressed about Peppone having a longhair for a son!’
‘Don Camillo,’ said Christ smiling, ‘we must not forget that I too, during my short life on earth, wore my hair long.’
‘Lord!’ exclaimed Don Camillo indignantly. ‘This fellow, who enjoys wearing long hair and dressing oddly, is also wicked and violent!’
‘Don Camillo,’ Christ reproached the priest, ‘you give the sheep of your flock to the wolf too easily!’
‘He is not a sheep of my flock!’
‘You baptised that boy in the name of the Lord and he is a sheep of my flock.’
Don Camillo could not answer because, in that instant, in came Peppone to the church with a face that promised a storm. Don Camillo ushered him into the presbytery and once in the dining room began an apparently earnest entreaty:
‘Comrade Mayor, are you finally ready to repent of your sins? Speak freely: God will listen to he whom Comrade Bognoni does not.’
‘You and your goddamn Latinisms!’ roared Peppone. ‘Would you care to tell me what “cum grano salis” means?’
‘It depends on the context,’ answered Don Camillo.
‘The context is that I reported to the Federation what those two windbags said about me in public, and the Federation replied that I have to act “cum grano salis”. It’ll be the ruin of the Party! Can’t they speak in Italian? Now, even as the priests throw Latin in the trash, the officials of the Communist Federation choose to start using it!’
‘Comrade,’ Don Camillo began, exercising great patience, ‘how could they possibly advise you to act with tact, prudence, diplomacy and intelligence when they know only too well that these are traits you wouldn’t even recognise if you could see them? All they can do is to appeal to that microscopic grain of salt that they hope resides inside your great pumpkin.’
‘Rubbish!’ Peppone shouted. ‘I’ll show them a grain of salt! I’m going to sort out those cankerous doctors and I’ll do it with slaps “cum grano pepis”! What fault is it of mine if my son’s gone off his head? You know what? If that no-good had the guts to come home, I’d kill him!’
‘Good idea,’ Don Camillo approved. ‘Much easier to kill a child than to educate him.’
‘Who said kill!’ Peppone was indignant. ‘What I mean to say is, if I happen to be within range, I’ll beat him to a pulp!’
‘You’d be better off killing him, Comrade. Prosperity has reduced you to a stack of lard: if your boy lets loose a fist on you, he’ll kill you.’
‘Are you telling me that if I beat him he’ll turn on me?’
‘If he really is your son, yes.’
‘Well he is, unfortunately,’ Peppone admitted very sadly.
At that moment, Smilzo entered upon the scene and Don Camillo exploded:
‘What the hell are you doing in the presbytery? Is this some kind of Party cell meeting?’
‘If the Pope can receive the Soviet Foreign Minister at the Vatican, an insignificant country priest like yourself can surely receive a couple of comrades from the local communist Section!’ replied Smilzo. ‘Or do you consider yourself more important than the Pope?’
‘What’s up?’ asked Peppone.
‘Boss,’ began Smilzo: ‘Michele just piled into the pharmacy and forced Comrade Jole to drink half a bottle of castor oil. Then he went to the clinic and made Dr Bognoni drink the rest!’
Peppone, his face white as a sheet, collapsed onto a chair.
‘He’s done for me!’ he groaned. ‘Castor oil! Now they’ll accuse me of having a fascist for a son! The scoundrel! With so much stuff around that he could have made him drink, he chose to go for castor oil!’ [See note 2 below]
Meanwhile, Brusco had also arrived at the presbytery with fresh news: ‘Boss, it wasn’t castor oil: it was a bottle of cod liver oil!’
‘God be praised,’ Peppone sighed. ‘They’ll not be able to make political capital out of that, but I swear I’ll bust the head of the thug! You two follow me but only get involved if he has a go at me and you see that I can’t sort him out on my own!’
The three men made a hasty exit and Don Camillo turned his eyes to heaven, spreading his arms wide in desolation:
‘Lord, a sheep of your flock is lost; the wolves they look for it. I don’t know where to find it: what should I do?’
‘It is written, “Pulsate et aperietur vobis”,’ came the distant voice of Christ.
Don Camillo began to walk up and down the room: he didn’t understand what Christ meant, but when there was a knock at the door, he ran to open it.
Enter Venom, his shock of hair all but concealing his face. The young man was very agitated:
‘Reverend,’ he said, ‘my father is looking for me, to break my bones.’
Don Camillo viewed him with disgust:
‘And you, with those paws, are you afraid of a bladder of lard like your father?’
‘Sure I am! If he catches me, I can only stand and take it. You don’t want me to turn against my own father…!’
Don Camillo regarded the bad boy with a little less disgust: ‘Don’t you realise the trouble you’ve caused by purging the Bognoni?’
‘I didn’t purge them for what they said about me but for what they said about my father. Save me, Don Cam…’
‘The house of God is open to all sinners who repent.’
Venom swelled his broad chest and clenched his fists:
‘I do not regret a damn thing!’ he cried. ‘The sin was committed by those two windbags, not me!’
‘If that’s what you think,’ replied Don Camillo calmly, ‘you have two options: you can leave immediately or, if you intend to stay, you must pay!’
‘I am willing to pay!’ roared Venom. Don Camillo told him the price and the boy replied that, rather than accept, he would allow himself to be slaughtered.
‘Then off you go!’ Don Camillo concluded.
Venom set off towards the door, but halfway there he stopped and turned:
‘Reverend, the price you ask of me is total degradation!’
‘Take it or leave it: here you pay the fixed price and there are no discounts.’
Venom returned, sat down and, gritting his teeth, agreed to pay the full price. Finally, he got up and said, ‘Reverend, you have ruined me!’
‘It is not my sort of work and the end product is not perfect,’ agreed Don Camillo. ‘However, I find that with less one is more.’
While Don Camillo put away scissors and razor and swept the great pile of hair into the garbage, Venom took a mirror out of his pocket and boy and reflection studied one another: ‘Like this I am a nobody,’ they said in anguish.
In truth he felt drained of all his strength, like Samson when he found himself kidnapped by Delilah, because the secret of his strength lay in his long hair.
‘I no longer have the courage to show myself to people,’ he groaned. ‘I will leave town.’
‘And where will you go?’
‘I have a job: I am a conscript. I am going to be a soldier.’
Don Camillo was amazed at this decision: ‘But you were among those who call themselves conscientious objectors?’
‘I was, because if I’d gone into the military they’d have cut off my hair, Now that I am shaved to zero, there is no longer any moral question.’
‘I see,’ mumbled Don Camillo. ‘Now, go to the kitchen and get something to eat and then go to bed: the bedroom is on the top landing. Sleep in peace: no one will disturb you there.’
Don Camillo went into church to confide in Christ:
‘Lord, thank you. The good shepherd found the lost sheep, just as you said.’
‘Yes, Don Camillo: but I did not say that the good shepherd must shear the sheep that he found.’
‘This is a detail of a technical nature that concerns only the shepherd, not God…’
Venom remained hidden in the presbytery for a week and spent the time chopping and sawing all the wood that Don Camillo would need for the winter. Then, on the eighth day, Peppone surfaced, very agitated:
‘The district call-up orders have been delivered,’ he screamed. ‘I don’t know where that wretch is holed up but if he doesn‘t appear in time he’ll be prosecuted as a draft dodger. More trouble for me if I don‘t find him!’
Don Camillo took him to the kitchen, and stood him in front of a window that overlooked the presbytery courtyard. Peppone saw Venom chopping wood and gasped.
‘Shaved to zero!’ he exclaimed.
‘Of course,’ Don Camillo explained. ‘I convinced him to become a monk.’
Peppone jumped: ‘This… No!’ he screamed. ‘Rather than see it go so badly for the boy I’ll take him home right away. I swear I won’t say a word against him even though it’s because of him that those damned Bognoni intend to take revenge on me by creating an autonomous Maoist Section in the village.’
‘He’s doing well,’ answered Don Camillo. ‘Too bad: it sounded so good – “Brother Venom, sheep of God”.’
‘In the Bottazzi house there is no place for sheep!’ shouted Peppone.
‘Ah, yes!’ said Don Camillo scornfully. ‘I forgot that there was a time when you, Comrade, had written on the façade of your house: “Better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep”.’
‘To hell with your confounded memories,’ roared Peppone as he left. ‘Between you and me, the account remains open!’
‘We will close it,’ Don Camillo reassured him. ‘Mao permitting, of course.’
Meanwhile, the Great River flowed calmly and impassively on and it was a day like any other, but different.
These notes are footnotes in the book, reproduced here for those who don’t know the Don Camillo series or the period in which it’s set.
Note 1: Michele is a ‘capellone’, literally a long-haired hippie, but his description marks him out as what was known variously as rocker, ton-up boy and Hells Angel, the latter implying membership of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. All were culturally distinct from hippies, with their anthem of peace and love.
Note 2: Peppone is referring to the practice among fascists of purging political enemies by forcing them to drink castor oil. See ‘The American Indian’ in Don Camillo and Peppone (Pilot, 2016).
Note 3: ‘Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.’ Matthew 7:7–8.
I’m giggling my way through the rest of the stories in the book. If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of Don Camillo, you’re in for a treat. Start with the first book in the series, and work your way through them all.