There was a time when I was reading a Don Camillo book almost every other day. I was then deeply interested in politics and most of my friends and mentors – to the immense anger of my father – were hardcore Communists. Few of them had heard of Don Camillo books. The others who did lacked the basic sense of humour to appreciate it. Believe it or not, used books then could be bought for just one rupee. There was also a period when Penguin (if I am not wrong) came out with cheap book editions when classics were selling for one rupee. I was basically interested in Don Camillo books because the events in them took place in a bourgeois democratic country where the Communists were very strong. We were all then sure of Communists posing a strong challenge to the Congress Government.
The prestige of the Communist party, Soviet Union and Stalin, was at its highest in the years immediately following the Second World War. After the fall of Mussolini in 1943, the Communists organized resistance against the Nazis in a big way and the Communists participated in every Government from 1944 to 1947 with Comrade Togliatti serving as the Deputy Chief Minister. The main party however was the Christian Democratic Party and naturally their relationship with the Communists was uneasy, though initially somewhat friendly. The Party broke with the Communists (and Socialists) in 1947, thanks to Harry Truman, but Communists were a force to contend with until 1976 when they won about 35% of the popular votes in the elections.
More than fifty years after his death, the author of these novels, Giovannino Guareschi continues to remain a part of the Italian collective imagination as a consummate humorist, storyteller, editor, satirist, and journalist. Indeed, he is the most translated Italian author of the twentieth century, with more than twenty-five million copies of anthologized Don Camillo stories sold worldwide. Such is the fame of Don Camillo
The two primary characters in this stories are Don Camillo, a burly Catholic priest who is always ready for fist-fights, boxing contests and even using a gun when required and and his constant antagonist Peppone, the village mayor, who is equally hefty and a good match for the priest. The stories take place during the height of the Cold War in a small rural Italian town.
Don Camillo is a strong-willed but wise priest constantly at odds with the cunning Communist Mayor Giuseppe Peppone Bottazzi. Both priest and mayor share a deep concern for the well-being of their village’s citizens, but differ over what’s best for them.
Peppone makes fiery speeches praising the virtues of the Communist party while vilifying the non-communist reactionaries, who he thinks are vermin. Don Camillo, on the other hand, considers Communism, the religion of the very Devil.
In the books, the Communist Party happens to be the principal and often only political party in the Italian town. Don Camillo feels a responsibility to be not only the town’s religious leader, but also the opposition political functionary. And, even though the two bicker constantly in public, the reader will immediately be able to sense a certain secret respect between Priest and Mayor.
The third important character in the book is Jesus Christ. Don Camillo frequently consults with Christ on the Crucifix for help and guidance, and the reader is witness to these wonderful, amusing conversations. Christ, with exceptional tolerance, offers direction and, more than often, gentle reprimands for Don Camillo’s intolerance. But at times, Camillo emerges the winner.
The Communists in the novels breathe fire on political platforms but they attend mass and baptize their children.
Let me give you some feel of the novels.
This is a conversation between the Lord and the priest.
“Lord, let me beat him up for you!” “You’ll do nothing of the kind,” said the Lord. “But, Lord, you can’t trust a red! Let me at least hit him with this candle!” “NO,” scolds the Lord, “Your hands were made for blessing.” Lord, my hands were made for blessing but not my feet!” And he uses his feet.
Listen to this:
What do you wish to name this child?, he asked Peppone’s wife.
“Lenin Libero Antonio”, she replied.
“Then go and get him baptized in Russia.”
After a contest of fist fight, in which the Lord sides with Camillo, Peppone is defeated and he agrees to change the name of the child.
“What am I to name him?”
“Camillo Libero Antonio”
“No, We name him Libero Camillo Lenin. Yes, Lenin. When you have Camillo around such folks as he are quite useless.”
On another occasion, when the Lord tells Camillo not to carry a gun, he says airily , ‘Nothing can defeat good Conscience, Don Camillo.”
“I know, Lord, but the trouble is people don’t fire at the conscience but between the shoulders.”
I can go on and on.
After all these years, I agree many of the episodes read contrived, but the overall charm is still intact. I would like youngsters to pick the first book and if they like what they read they should read the rest of the set. As for me, the books will always appeal to me because they imagine situations when communism can coexist with religion, each secretly respecting the other.