Since today, July 4th, is Independence Day in the USA, now my home country, let me start by wishing all my fellow countrymen and -women the blessings of the day. Let’s remember what our forefathers sacrificed to bring us freedom, and let’s not abandon that freedom in the face of the attacks on it by modern extremists. Let’s also celebrate the anniversary in time-honored ways of which our ancestors would approve. (I bought a thousand rounds of ammunition yesterday, in honor of the occasion. I daresay that’s entirely in line with their expectations at the time!)
Speaking of attacks on freedom, Giovannino Guareschi was an Italian author, satirist and humorist, who lived through the tumultuous years of fascism before and during World War II, followed by the struggle between communism and other political movements in that country in the decades following the war. It was a time of great social and political conflict, later giving rise to full-blown terrorism from the so-called “Red Brigades” (although they emerged after Guareschi’s death).
Guareschi is most famous today for the characters of Don Camillo and Peppone, respectively the parish priest of a small, poor farming village in the Po Valley, and the Communist mayor of the town. Former comrades in arms during the Resistance years of World War II, the two embody the political struggle between Communism and the Catholic Church in post-war Italy. Through gentle humor, satire and shrewd argument, Guareschi, a devoted Catholic, sought to counter Communist arguments, but also display the common humanity that should unite people rather than divide them.
The Don Camillo stories were initially published in Candido, a magazine co-founded and edited by Guareschi. They were soon published in book form, selling millions of copies around the world, and also made into several movies (in Italian) during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Here’s the first of them, with English narration by Orson Welles. It and several of the others are available on YouTube.
More than a decade after Guareschi’s death in 1968, Terence Hill starred in a remake of the first movie, which had a rather different tone to the books and earlier films. It was somewhat amusing, but not as successful.
I grew up with the Don Camillo books, translated into English. I wasn’t aware at the time that many of the original stories were left out of the translated editions, because the publishers thought they would not appeal to English-speaking audiences. Guareschi (and, later, his estate) also appear to have been unaware of this. When his estate’s attention was drawn to the matter around the turn of the century, they withdrew his translated works from circulation until they could arrange for a more complete set of them to be issued, incorporating the missing stories. Today they are all available in print and e-book editions, for which I’m very grateful. They remain treasured memories for me, as well as inspirational reading for reflective moments (and just plain funny, too!).
Today I’m going to bring you just one of the stories. There are literally hundreds more, and I highly recommend them all. This one’s titled “The Elephant Never Forgets”. It’s from the volume of stories titled “Don Camillo’s Dilemma“.
Fulmine was the name of Don Camillo’s dog, but he answered to ‘Ful’. Gabazza Antenore was the name of one of Peppone’s gang, but he answered to ‘Fulmine’. Between the two, the dog was the brainier, which fact is noted simply in order to give some picture of the two-legged Ful, with whom we are concerned in this story.
Fulmine was an enormous fellow, who, once he got going, proceeded with all the grace and implacability of a hippopotamus. He was the ideal man to carry out orders, but Peppone took special care not to entrust him with their execution too often. And so most of what Fulmine did as a communist activist took place at the Molinetto tavern, where most of the time he played cards. He was an enthusiastic scopa player, and his phenomenal memory made him a formidable opponent. Of course memory isn’t always the deciding factor in a card game, and every now and then Fulmine took a trouncing. But the experience he had one Saturday with Cino Biolchi was worse than anything that had ever happened to him before. He sat down to play with 5,000 lire, and five hours later he was left without a penny. Now, Fulmine couldn’t stomach the idea of going home in this condition.
‘Allow me my revenge!’ he panted, grasping the cards with shaking hands.
‘I’ve given you I don’t know how many thousand chances for revenge,’ said Cino Biolchi, ‘but now I’ve had enough.’
‘Let’s have just one game – all or nothing,’ said Fulmine. ‘That way, if I win, I get my 5,000 lire back.’
‘And what if you lose?’ asked Cino Biolchi.
‘Well, you can see I haven’t got any more money,’ stammered Fulmine, wiping the sweat from his forehead, ‘but I’ll stake anything you say.’
‘Don’t be a donkey,’ said Biolchi. ‘Go off to bed and forget about it.’
‘I want my revenge!’ Fulmine roared. ‘I’ll put up anything … anything at all. You name it!’
Biolchi was an original fellow. And now, after a moment‘s thought, he said: ‘All right; I’m with you. Five thousand lire against your vote.’
‘My vote? What do you mean?’ ‘I mean that if you lose, you promise to vote for whichever party I say in the upcoming election.’
Fulmine didn’t want to believe that Biolchi was serious, but soon he had to believe it. Biolchi had him by the throat, and for Fulmine it was all or nothing.
Biolchi put a 5,000 lire note on the table and gave Fulmine a fountain pen and paper.
‘Just write: “The undersigned Gabazza Antenore solemnly swears to vote on 7 June for such-and-such a party…” You can leave the name of the party blank, and I’ll put it in when I feel like it.’
Fulmine wrote down what he had to write and shot Biolchi a look of resentment.
‘This must remain a matter between you and me,’ he said. ‘And until 7 June, I have the right to have my revenge.’
* * *
Peppone was just leaving the People’s Palace when Fulmine loomed up in front of him.
‘Boss, I’m ruined. I played with Biolchi and lost everything.’
‘All the worse for you. But it’s nothing to do with me.’
‘Well, it is to do with you, because I lost my money and my vote.’
Fulmine told him the story, and Peppone laughed.
‘Forget it, the election is by secret ballot. When you’re in the booth you can vote for whoever you please and nobody will know any better.’
Fulmine shook his head.
‘Can’t be done. I signed a contract.’
‘A contract! It has no value.’
‘I gave my word and we shook hands on it. I’m not the kind of a fellow that breaks his word.’
Fulmine was a hippopotamus and not given to change of mood or behaviour. In place of a brain he possessed an agricultural tractor engine, which, being cast in iron and steel, had its own relentless logic which no one could change, unless he decided to smash the engine to pieces.
Peppone, a connoisseur of engines, now realised that the matter was more serious than it had seemed at first sight. Fulmine was never going to see things his way.
‘It’ll be fine,’ Peppone said. ‘We’ll talk it over calmly tomorrow.’
‘At what time, Boss?’
‘At ten thirty-five,’ replied Peppone barely suppressing either his anger or his preferred response, which had been: ‘You go to hell and all wretches like you!’
So, at exactly ten thirty-five the next morning Fulmine turned up at the workshop, saying: ‘It’s ten thirty-five, Boss.’
He stood there in front of Peppone’s anvil, tired and dismayed, and it was obvious that he hadn’t slept a wink. Peppone’s first impulse was to hit him on his great pumpkin with a hammer. This was the logical and most sensible idea. But even now Peppone pitied the poor fellow, and the hammer found itself lying on the floor instead.
‘You are an ass!’ Peppone shouted. ‘I ought to eject you from the Party with my boot. But elections are coming up and we cannot let our opponents use this to steal a march on us. Here’s 5,000 lire; now go tell Biolchi to return your contract. If he won’t, let me know.’
Fulmine pocketed the banknote and disappeared, but he came back no more than a quarter of an hour later. ‘He won’t do it.’
Peppone put on his jacket and cap and left his workshop, saying: ‘Wait for me here!’
Biolchi greeted him courteously enough.
‘What can I do for you, Mr Mayor?’
‘Forget the Mayor malarkey. I’ve come about that stupid Fulmine. He must have been drunk last night. Take the 5,000 lire and release him from his commitment.’
‘He wasn’t drunk at all. In fact, he was in full possession of his mental faculties. And he was the one to insist on my choice of a stake. Our agreement is clear. Until 7 June I am at his disposal for a revenge match.’
‘Biolchi,’ replied Peppone, ‘if I were to go to the carabinieri about this, they’d lock you up. But since I don’t want to make a public scandal, I’m here to tell you that unless you give me Fulmine’s contract I’ll flatten you out against the wall like an electoral poster!’
Biolchi emitted a nervous little laugh.
‘And then I’d report your assault to the carabinieri. That would be very unwise, would it not Peppone?’
Peppone clenched his fists, but he knew that Biolchi, for the moment at least, held all the cards.
‘All right, then. But if you are not a complete coward, you’ll play the return game against me instead of that idiot.’
Biolchi closed the door, drew a pack of cards from a drawer and sat down at the table. Peppone took a seat opposite him.
It was a desperately hard-fought game, but at the end Peppone went away lighter by 5,000 lire.
That evening there was a meeting of the General Staff at the People’s Palace and he told them the story, giving it due weight and seriousness, and concluding:
‘That scoundrel does not belong to any party, but he is against us – that’s for sure. We must settle this business quietly or else he’ll turn it into a tremendous joke. Has anybody a suggestion about how we can sort this out?’
‘Well, we can’t settle it at scopa, that’s also definite,’ muttered Smilzo. ‘Biolchi will eat us alive. Let’s try offering him 10,000 lire instead of five.’
Although it was late, they went in a gang to knock at Biolchi’s door. He was still up and in restless mood, as if something unexpected had happened. In answer to Peppone’s proposition, he threw out his arms.
‘Too late! I just played cards with Spiletti, and he won 15,000 lire off me, plus Fulmine’s agreement.’
‘Shame on you!’ said Peppone. ‘It was agreed that the matter was strictly between you two.’
‘Quite right,’ said Biolchi. ‘But Fulmine was the first to spill the beans, when he went to you about it. This simply makes us even. Anyhow, I got Spiletti to promise that he wouldn’t break news of it to benefit the clerical party and that any time up to 7 June, he’d give Fulmine a chance for revenge.’
A pretty kettle of fish! The paper was in the hands of the head of the Christian Democrats and there was no telling what use he would make of it. Peppone and his gang went back to headquarters, where Fulmine was anxiously waiting.
‘This is no time for talking,’ said Peppone. ‘We’ve got to act, and act fast. Tomorrow morning we’ll post news of Fulmine’s expulsion from the Party.’
‘What’s that?’ said Fulmine, pitiably.
‘I said that the Party is purging you for undignified behaviour. And I’ll date the expulsion three months back.’
Peppone braced himself for an explosion of anger. But there was nothing of the sort.
‘You’re quite right, Boss,’ said Fulmine in a voice that was anything but thunderous. ‘I deserve to be kicked out like a dog.’ And he laid his Party membership card meekly on the table.
‘We’re not kicking you out like a dog!’ exclaimed Peppone. ‘The expulsion is just a pretence, to stave off an attack from the opposition. After the elections, you can make your little act of confession and we’ll take you back into the fold.’
‘I can confess right now,’ Fulmine said mournfully. ‘I’m a donkey, and after the elections I’ll still be a donkey. There’s no use hoping I can change.’
Fulmine walked dejectedly away, and the spectacle was such that for several minutes Peppone and his henchmen could not settle down to business.
‘We’ll prepare the announcement,’ said Smilzo, ‘but don’t let’s post it tomorrow. Perhaps Spiletti will keep his word.’
‘You can’t know him very well!’ said Peppone. ‘But just as you say.’
* * *
For the next two days nothing happened, and it seemed as if, for a while at least, the silence would remain unbroken. But as evening approached, Fulmine’s wife arrived in a state of agitation at the People’s Palace.
‘He’s gone crazy!’ she burst out. ‘For forty-eight hours he hasn’t eaten. He lies flat on the bed and won’t look at a soul.’
Peppone went to survey the situation, and sure enough he found Fulmine in bed, immobile. He shook the fellow and even insulted him, but could not get him to say a single word or to abandon for even a second his pose of absolute indifference to the world around him. After a while Peppone lost patience.
‘If you’re really mad, I’ll call the asylum, and they’ll take care of you, all right.’
With his right arm Fulmine deliberately fished for an object between the bed and the wall. And his eyes seemed to be saying: ‘If they come from the asylum, I’ll give them a proper welcome.’
Inasmuch as the object in his right hand was an axe, there was no need for words. Finally, Peppone sent everyone else out of the room and said sternly:
‘Surely you can tell me, only me, what’s got into you to make you behave this way.’
Fulmine shook his head, but he put down the axe, opened a drawer of the bedside-table and took out a pad on which he wrote with considerable effort: ‘I’ve made a vow to the Madonna not to speak, eat, move or get up for any purpose whatever until I recover that paper, Signed: Gabazza Antenore.’
Peppone put this note in his pocket and called Fulmine’s wife and daughters to him.
‘Do not let anyone into this room unless he calls them. Leave him strictly alone. It’s nothing serious, an attack of moral hiatus, which requires rest and a strict diet.’
Peppone returned the next evening to inquire after the patient.
‘The same as yesterday and other days,’ said his wife.
‘Good,’ said Peppone with appropriate medical gravitas. ‘That’s the normal course of the affliction.’
Things were the same on the fourth day, and it was this news that took Peppone from Fulmine’s bedside directly to the presbytery, where he found Don Camillo sitting at his desk, reading a large sheet of paper.
‘Father,’ began Peppone, ‘do you know the story of the fool who lost his vote over a game of cards and…’
‘Yes, I happen to be reading it this very minute,’ answered Don Camillo. ‘Someone wants to make it into a poster.’
‘Ah, it’s that scoundrel Spiletti! He gave his word that he’d not go public with this, and that he’d give the loser a chance to redeem himself in a return game.’
‘I don’t know anything about that. All I know is that we have here an interesting document signed in the said loser’s own hand.’
Peppone took from his pocket the sheet of paper Fulmine had given him. ‘Here, Father, you should also publish this other document, signed by the loser, which he gave to me. That will give people the whole story, and be even more interesting if he starves himself to death, as seems quite likely.’
Peppone took his leave and left Don Camillo to read Fulmine’s vow to the Mother of Christ.
* * *
Spiletti arrived at the presbytery fifteen minutes later.
‘Father, was there anything you didn’t like in my draft?’
‘No. But the trouble is that ten minutes ago Fulmine came here to demand a return game.’
‘A return game? Nonsense! I’m giving him nothing of the sort. This document is entirely too precious, and I have no intention of relinquishing it.’
‘What about your promise?’
‘Why should we have to keep a promise made to one of a mob that deals exclusively in lies?’
‘All right, dear Spiletti, but even if you have 100,000 reasons why you should not give Fulmine a return game, he – even when normal – is unpredictable and now he is half-mad. If you deny him this, he is capable of bumping you off like a fly. And although propaganda is important, it is surely more important for you to stay alive.’
Spiletti thought about this and admitted that Don Camillo was not entirely wrong.
‘Let’s play the game, then. But what if I lose?’
‘You mustn’t lose, Spiletti. If you beat Gino Biolchi, then you ought to make mincemeat out of Fulmine.’
‘The truth is that I didn’t beat Cino Biolchi, Father. I didn’t win the paper away from him; he gave it to me so as to get rid of Peppone. Look here, Father, why don’t you play in my place? I’ll say that now the document is yours, and I doubt if Fulmine will come anywhere near you.’
Don Camillo was a shark at cards, and so he said laughing: ‘If he plays with me, I’ll demolish him! And he won’t dare say a word. Never fear, Spiletti, we shall win!’
* * *
The next day Don Camillo went to see Peppone.
‘The document is now in my hands. If your fasting friend wants it back, then I’m his opponent. If he refuses, then it will go on public display.’
‘What?’ said Peppone indignantly. ‘How can a poor wretch who’s had nothing to eat for almost a week stand up to you at a game of cards?’
‘You’re just as much of a wretch as he is, although you eat a large meal every day. If you like, I’ll play against you.’
‘Then it’s 5,000 lire against the famous contract.’
Peppone put a banknote on the table and Don Camillo covered it with the incriminating document. It was a tough game, and Peppone lost it. Don Camillo stuffed the money into his pocket and said:
‘Are you satisfied, or do you want a return game?’
Peppone put up another 5,000 lire bill. He fought hard, but played like a dog. However, Don Camillo played like two dogs and Peppone won.
‘Here’s Fulmine’s agreement, Comrade,’ said Don Camillo. ‘I’m satisfied with the money.’
* * *
Peppone had been at Fulmine’s ‘Liberation Dinner’ for fifteen minutes when Don Camillo appeared upon the scene.
‘Fulmine,’ said the priest, ‘you lost 5,000 lire to Biolchi, is that so?’
‘Yes,’ Fulmine stammered.
‘Well, here they are. Divine Providence has repatriated them to you. Remember this when you are about to place your vote. Do not vote for God’s enemies.’
‘Yes, I know – the small sacrifice that was part of the deal,’ sighed the unhappy Fulmine.
Peppone left the room and waited for Don Camillo outside.
‘You’re a snake in the grass! You use my money to promote Divine Providence!’
‘Comrade, the ways of Divine Providence are boundless!’ sighed Don Camillo, raising his hands and eyes to the sky.