: Giovanni Guareschi's The Little World of Don Camillo
: Mostly comedy with less funny bits and children hitting each other (is that a genre?)Rating
: Giuseppe Bottazzi wasn’t always called Peppone; in fact, when was little, he really was little,
and everybody called him Peppino.
Gino and Lina Bottazzi’s second-oldest boy had a few characteristics that his schoolmates had long decided made him a good chief.
First off, he was absolutely fearless (except where his parents were concerned, because Gino Bottazzi had arms like tree trunks and Lina Bottazzi could send even the boldest not-quite-nine-years-old cowering with a single look). The schoolmistress, Signora Cristina, had her hands full with the boy, who showed up in class with his pockets bulging with tadpoles or toads, hid sparrows’ nests inside his desk (with the occasional sparrow when he could get his hands on one), and even, on one memorable morning, had come to class proudly perched atop the largest cow his neighbours owned – which instantly earned him the everlasting admiration of most children between the ages of four and fourteen.
Second, he was the son of Gino Bottazzi, who had brought the first ever thresher to the Lowlands and rented it to whoever had need of a threshing machine. These things are not to be sneered at in the first place, but Gino had also mounted a dynamo on the steam engine, and used it to run moving pictures all over the Lowlands. So Gino’s son, being a generous soul overall, was only too happy to share with his friends when and where the next picture show would take place, even before it was announced on the newspaper plastered over the village walls.
Lastly, despite his small, scrawny stature that had earned him the affectionate but not really flattering (in his opinion, at least) nickname of Peppino, little Giuseppe Bottazzi had a knack for winning any scrape he got himself into, no matter how strong the adversary, whether by gift of gab, brute strength or sheer determination.
The problem was not, as most adults thought who bothered looking into these affairs at all, young Manasca, the son of old Manasca, a rich and stingy landowner who was about as far politically from the Bottazzis as it was possible to get. Manasca junior and Bottazzi junior had cheerfully started hitting each other daily when they were about three years old and remained evenly matched; consequently, as these kinds of things can happen, they were good friends.
The problem was Castano’s boy.
Gianni Maghenzani, usually called Castano on account of his thick mop of dark chestnut hair that refused to go grey, had three girls and a boy. Livia, Tina and Carla never made any trouble – in fact they were a sort of non-entity for Peppino, because Livia was older and Tina and Carla were too little to be included in anything interesting – but Camillo was an odd duck. Who else but an odd duck would want to be a priest, of all things?
Socialism was deeply rooted in the heart of the Lowlands, and Peppino took after his father in terms of political views as well as enthusiastic anti-clericalism (which was the subject of heated debates at home, his mother having Thoughts about these kinds of views). Priests were spies from the Vatican, after all, instrumental in keeping things exactly the way they thought they should be, which was the landowners having all the money and the honest working peasants having only their toil and the sweat and backaches that went with it. Vile creatures, the lot of them.
(Of course, as even the most raging priest-hater in the village would amend, this didn’t apply to the old parish priest. Don Cesare was a half-deaf, smiling little fellow with a halo of white hair, who had baptised pretty much the whole region and was said to have taken part in the Third War of Independence, even getting wounded during the Battle of Aspromonte, like Garibaldi. Nobody knew whether half of that was true, and Don Cesare never denied nor confirmed anything, but it did make for nice stories.)
Half the village and surrounding hamlets shared the aforementioned opinion about priests and Vatican (which didn’t stop anyone from going to Mass or having their kids baptised – such was the way of things), while the other half were just as fiercely in favour of the Clerical party. The children reflected the adults’ divisions, and politics, combined with the usual antipathy that can be born of anything and everything between children, were often cause for heated debates and even fights. Maybe it’s the sun that makes people’s blood boil so quickly that they prefer speaking with their fists, even in the winter, or maybe it’s something else entirely; the fact remained that the children thought about as much as the adults did before coming to blows, which was not a lot.
Castano’s boy was no exception. He was opinionated and pugnacious and seldom hesitated before returning punches, even throwing in a few pre-emptively on occasion, arguing that turning the other cheek was all very fine but you only ever got two of those. Consequently, he had a certain reputation as the sort of fellow you did not want to cross, or at least take on by yourself.
Peppino didn’t understand why Camillo wanted to be a priest. The Maghenzanis were tenant farmers, and dirt-poor at that; if the family or the landowners ended the tenancy, the lad had a wide range of choices for a trade, even if he wanted to work indoors. Plus he was long and lean, with big bones and a pair of shoulders that would undoubtedly be as big as his father’s once he grew into them.
Peppino ignored him for the most part, and he ignored Peppino. The trouble usually started when they stopped ignoring each other.
The last time they had done so, they ended up dropping their school books on the cobblestones and brawling in the middle of the square, cheered on both sides indiscriminately by the village children, who always liked a show.
The ruckus alerted the adults, including Gino Bottazzi and Castano, who were in town to discuss rental of the thresher; both reached into the snarling ball of fists, feet and dust, and grabbed the first thing they could find.
Peppino found himself dangling upside down from Castano’s big hand while Gino held Camillo at arm’s length by the scruff of his shirt.
“I think I’ve got something of yours,” said Gino evenly.
“Same here,” said Castano with the same resigned look.
It should be pointed out that, while the two men weren’t friends and would never see eye-to-eye as far as politics were concerned, they were usually cordial enough with each other. Which is why children and adults scattered, disappointed at the anticlimactic outcome of the encounter.
The fathers swapped bundles and gave their offspring the once-over. The fight had been short but fierce; Peppino’s shirt was torn and he sported an enormous shiner, while Camillo had lost a shoe and was bleeding from a split lip.
Nobody had won.
It hadn’t been the first time, either.
This state of affairs bothered Peppino a great deal. Each time they squared off, somebody was there to break the fight, or a member of Peppino’s gang jumped in and Peppino had to stop to keep the odds even. No point in fighting dirty if everybody’s watching. If he was to win, then he would win fairly.
* * *
It was a time of social upheaval and changes; the long fight of the mondine – the female season hands who worked the rice fields – was paying off, their recent victories granting them easier working hours and salaries that, if they did not equal the men’s yet, were at least more decent. And they were not the only people who wanted a better outlook on life.
Thus the strikes were not confined to the factories and rice fields. When a strike started in a farm or a village, it was not uncommon for squads of people to set up pickets and keep away those who wanted to continue working. The land-, farm- or factory owners hired armies of crumiri – strikebreakers – to retaliate. Woe betide any hapless farmhand who chose to sneak back to work.
Benedetti, one of the men from La Rocca farm, decided after a week of watching the stocks of food decrease that enough was enough, and went back to work one morning. Not only he barely escaped a beating by the picketers, but half the village gave him the cold shoulder. When his ten-year-old son showed up in school the next morning, he was given a wide berth.
This did not bother Peppino much, as he had little sympathy for the boy and his father in the first place.
What did bother him was finding later that day, behind the school outhouse, two older boys who were holding little Benedetti’s arms while a third punched him in the stomach. In fact, it bothered him so much that he jumped on the third boy with a roar. The other two let go of their prisoner, who fled, practically folded in two, and they joined in the fight.
Righteous fury can only take you so far against three opponents who are taller and wider than yourself. Peppino fought like the devil and managed to get in a few vicious kicks and punches that caused the desertion of one of the bullies, but at some point he stumbled and fell to the ground, where a foot caught him square in the nose.
This boy had simple but good and dependable shoes, reinforced with a small light metal plate at the heel to slow down the wear and tear. Peppino’s world went white, then dark for a few seconds.
When he opened his eyes and the bright spots started to wear off, one of the remaining assailants was on the ground and the other was limping away and rubbing his backside, now decorated with a good few dusty footprints. And Camillo Maghenzani was bending over Peppino, looking at him oddly.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
‘All right’ was maybe a little too much to ask for, but Peppino nodded gingerly nonetheless.
“What the devil were you thinking? Have you seen the size of those guys?”
“They said something I didn’t like,” muttered Peppino, holding his handkerchief to his freely bleeding nose and checking his clothing for damage he could fix before he got home.
Camillo crossed his arms and snorted.
“What do you want, a thank you note?” shouted Peppino, humiliated and angry – at the older boys, at Benedetti, at himself, at Camillo … But mostly at himself. He had let himself get beaten, torn his clothes in a way that would probably get him a hiding when his parents found out, and worse, an enemy had taken pity on him and done the job he should have done. And was now standing over him to gloat.
… Or maybe not. The expression on Camillo’s face was not exactly gloating. Peppino couldn’t tell what it was, and he didn’t care enough to find out, either.
“So you jumped them because you felt like it.”
“That’s right. You got something to say to that?”
“Why don’t you ask Benedetti. He came running to me yelling that Sabattini and his thugs were going to kill you and it was his fault.”
Peppino looked up, startled out of his black mood. Then he blinked.
“No it’s not. It’s not his fault his father’s a jackass and a bloody strikebreaker.”
Camillo pursed his lips with a stormy look in his eyes … Then he sighed. And smiled.
When he held out his hand to help Peppino up, Peppino took it.
Some of the holes and tears in his shirt and trousers were beyond repair, but the few hooks and pins Camillo managed to procure saved him from the beating he would surely have got if he had walked home with his clothes in tatters. Gino Bottazzi rarely raised a hand to his sons, but clothing was expensive and meant to last as long as possible. Peppino had only inherited his big brother Marco’s shirts when the sleeves fell about three inches from his wrists, and Giacomino would get Peppino’s clothes the same way. Camillo, whose parents were likely minded and who knew the price of damaged clothing, didn’t even think twice before offering his help, which Peppino accepted without thinking twice, either.
Some things are too important.
* * *
After this incident, a sort of almost-peace reigned between the two. Peppino and Camillo still ignored each other, but in a more affable sort of way. The usual animosity hadn’t disappeared, but it shared first place in the two boys’ hearts with a grudging respect that held back the urge to hit each other for a while.
It didn’t last, of course.
A couple of months or so after the end of the strike, they found themselves disagreeing on something that should have been trivial; one word leading to another, jackets fell off and shirt sleeves got rolled up, and they would have been rolling in the dust pummelling each other had Cino dei Bassi, one of Camillo’s best friends, not broken up the fight before it truly began. As it was, Peppino and Camillo evaded punishment, since Cino’s timely arrival had prevented Signora Cristina from catching them red-handed. However, as they filed in into the classroom, Camillo hissed to Peppino, “Sunday afternoon, four o’clock, by the bridge near the Main Dyke.”
“I’ll be there early,” Peppino hissed back.
Unfortunately, someone heard them.
Paolo Sabattini had taken Peppino’s punches and Camillo’s kicks very badly indeed, and his two friends had not forgotten their own stinging defeat, either. They had been looking for a way to retaliate for some time; this was the perfect opportunity, and they intended to make the most of it.
Every village has its nemesis, another village usually quite identical to it except that for some reason the inhabitants can’t stand the sight of someone from “that place”. Usually, there is no real reason for such enmity; the original excuse comes from the dawn of time and everybody has forgotten it, even old people. Some people will spit at the ground when they see somebody from that village; football matches are unusually ferocious, both between the actual players and the supporters; even the respective mayors, priests and schoolteachers avoid one another.
Casalino was such a nemesis. The war between the two villages had been bloody, once, not so long ago; now the hate had died down to a solid dislike and an instinctive mistrust. Which is why, when Paolo Sabattini approached Alfredo Vicino, the ringleader of the children of Casalino, and suggested they joined forces against a common enemy, he was received somewhat coolly.
If there is one thing that can bring two people together, though, it’s the prospect of ganging up on someone disliked by both.
Peppino and Camillo, both blissfully unaware of the conspiracy, both arrived at the meeting place five minutes before the appointed time.
The first of the autumn rains had come, filling the canals between the dykes and wrapping the whole Lowlands in fog fifteen hours a day. It was not quite yet the thick winter fog that can make a man lose his way a hundred metres from his house, so the great river’s surface shone a dull silver over the Main Dyke. The sun had been bright enough in the morning, but by now it was dimming, and a damp, clammy cool was settling in everybody’s bones.
It’s one thing to throw punches in the heat of the moment, when blood rushes to your head and drives away all rational thought. It’s another entirely to show up for a duel having forgotten what you were fighting about and why it was so very important at the time.
Peppino and Camillo stood awkwardly for a few minutes, looked at each other sheepishly, and then Camillo suggested settling the matter with ricochets. Peppino shrugged, secretly relieved that he wouldn’t be coming home with his clothes ripped and blood on his face this time.
They had barely started to look for adequate pebbles when Paolo Sabattini and Alfredo Vicino showed up, both flanked with their usual followers.
All in all, the group amounted to six boys, most of them taller than Camillo, all of them larger than Peppino. For a few seconds they did not do anything else than stand there trying to look as threatening as they could, which was admittedly quite effective; soon, however, it became obvious that Peppino and Camillo were cornered between the gang and the edge of the dyke. Even if they wanted to escape, they still had to take on the group.
Peppino thought of his good jacket and shirt and seethed.
As for Camillo, he closed his eyes and muttered under his breath with a set expression on his face.
“What are you doing?” asked Sabattini, somewhat mystified. Camillo made the sign of the cross and rolled up his sleeves. The glare he shot at them made two boys take a step back in alarm.
“I’m telling Jesus I’m sorry for beating the snot out of you on a Sunday,” he bellowed, and the fight began.
Revenge is a powerful motivator, but Peppino and Camillo were defending not only their dignity, but their Sunday clothes as well. They punched, kicked, slapped, knocked down and did whatever they could to avoid blows. The other six had numbers on their side, but they quickly realised that victory would have to be hard-won, as Peppino and Camillo turned out to be a surprisingly formidable team.
Peppino grabbed hold of one of the Casalino boys and proceeded to repeatedly kick his hindquarters, steering him right and left as a shield from his other opponents’ blows. When the boy broke free and ran away, sniffling loudly, Peppino whirled around and punched somebody’s nose. There was a satisfying whimper, and he stopped, suddenly aware of a lull in the fight.
Vicino and his remaining companion were staring at Sabattini, whose eyes were jumping back and forth between the stick he was clutching and Camillo. Camillo had a puzzled look on his face and a gash on his forehead; he was swaying slightly and actually staggered as he raised a hand to wipe the blood out of his right eye.
Something about the sight of Camillo with blood all over one side of his face made Peppino snap. A red mist fell before his eyes, and, with a deafening wordless howl, he jumped at Sabattini, Vicino and the two assailants who hadn’t fled or quitted yet.
Peppino had always been a decent fighter, albeit not a very technical one; that day, however, he descended upon his opponents like a thunderstorm in a flurry of ferocious punches and kicks, and gave them one of those crushing defeats like you only get once in a lifetime. When the dust settled, Vicino and the other boy from Casalino had turned tail, Sabattini was half-sprawled on the ground with a broken nose, and his friend Gazzola was nursing his left shoulder, staring at Peppino as though he had never seen him before.
Peppino picked up the stick Sabattini had dropped, stood on the dyke with his legs wide apart and shouted, “Anyone comes any closer and I’ll smash ‘em to a pulp!”
Gazzola hastily crawled back a couple of feet; Sabattini stumbled up and ran across the fields as though the devil was on his tail. Satisfied, Peppino dropped the stick and turned to look at Camillo.
There was nobody behind him.
Peppino gazed around, confused. Camillo couldn’t have run away. Camillo Maghenzani never ran away from anything. Ego, thought Peppino who had never been very good at Latin, he hadn’t run away.
Then he looked over the edge of the dyke at the deep water, five feet away, and shuddered.
As though on cue, a few bubbles popped up on the surface. Peppino barely took the time to kick off his shoes and fling his jacket to the ground before jumping feet first into the grey-brown water.
He had to come up for air twice before he found what he was looking for: a few fingers, then a hand and a long, bony arm. When he broke the surface and stopped for breath, everything hit him at once: the damp, pervasive cold of the air, the biting cold of the water, the fact that he was a small, scrawny ten-year-old, the dead weight of Camillo and his own waterlogged clothes … And the possibility that his parents would kill him for getting his Sunday shirt in that state.
Well, nothing to be done for it. Peppino swallowed his panic and started crawling up the dyke, dragging Camillo by his feet.
Fortunately, just as he made it on top of the dyke, Gazzola was there, reaching shyly. Peppino blinked the mud out of his eyes, wheezing, and took his hand with some caution. He tugged on Camillo’s jacket with all his might to get him away from the slope; Camillo fell against him, stiffened, and coughed up half his volume in muddy water. He remained curled up on himself for a while, then looked up blearily. The fresh blood oozing from his bruised cut and the mud drying on his cheeks made his face look very white.
Peppino was still huffing and puffing like a bull, his limbs and lungs burning from the exertion.
“Are you all right?” he panted.
Camillo looked muzzily at Peppino, Gazzola, and the river in turn, and nodded gingerly.
“Not really,” he said slowly, “but it’ll do.”
Then he looked down the dyke again and blinked.
“Did you drag me all the way up here?”
Peppino shrugged. “Somebody had to.”
Behind the mud and the blood Camillo’s grin shone like a flash of lightning.
“It’s not ‘Peppino’ they should call you, it’s ‘Peppone’.”
“I’ll say,” added Gazzola excitedly. “You should have seen the way he trounced Sabattini and those guys from Casalino!”
“And you,” said Peppino with half a sarcastic grin.
“… And me. Yeah.”
Camillo wobbled to his feet; Peppino stood up too, followed by Gazzola, and helped him down the slope to the path that ran along the dyke.
“I did see most of it,” said Camillo with a wry grin. “I was boxing Vicino when somebody punched him so hard he knocked me off the dyke. But what I saw before was pretty impressive.”
“Impressive or not,” muttered Peppino, who remembered throwing the punch but had not noticed Camillo’s fall at the time, “whoever punched Vicino was a jackass who should’ve been more careful.”
“Maybe. Thank God that jackass could swim, though.”
Peppino said nothing, but his ears went scarlet.
Gazzola left them at a fork in the road and continued to Castelleto. Peppino only let go of Camillo on the Maghenzanis’ doorstep and planned to slink away unnoticed, but he was not quite fast enough. Amalia Maghenzani took one look at their drenched and muddy clothes, and got to work in her typically brusque, though efficient and warm, manner. In the blink of an eye, the two boys were stripped to their underdrawers and covered in winter blankets near the hearth, and Peppino was sipping a big cup of hot honeyed tea while Castano examined the puffy, ugly-looking cut on his son’s forehead.
By unspoken agreement, neither Peppino nor Camillo said anything about what had happened, nor did they name anyone. The only thing Castano managed to pry out of them was the assurance that they hadn’t been fighting each other, as well as Camillo’s pointing out that Peppino had pulled him out of the water by himself.
Nobody said anything about the Sunday clothes, but Peppino had no doubt they would come up in conversation soon enough.
Once his clothes had dried up in front of the fire and after he had downed one more cup of hot sweet tea, Peppino was allowed to get home.
The sun had set, and the mist rising from the river had settled little by little, creeping over the naked fields and stretching between the poplar trees like a giant spider web. Castano walked Peppino to the outskirts of the village; when they reached the first houses he drilled the boy one last time, but Peppino remained stubbornly silent.
“Go on home, and be careful,” said Castano in the end with a mixture of exasperation and approval, and went back to the farm.
Two minutes later, Peppino heard running footsteps clattering on the cobblestones behind him. He looked back, and found Camillo, wearing his clothes again with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders and a bandage around his head.
“I didn’t say thank you,” he gasped, leaning heavily with his hands on his knobbly knees.
“Didn’t you?” asked Peppino, surprised. “Oh, well, you’re welcome.” He thought for a bit, then added sheepishly, “I didn’t thank you for giving me a hand last time, either.”
“Oh, well, you’re welcome,” said Camillo as offhandedly as he could while still panting after two kilometres at a dead run.
Something crossed Peppino’s mind and he had to snort at the thought. “Hey, we did have our fight after all.”
Camillo, still wheezing, didn’t say anything.
The village was dark, wreathed in fog; the only light they could see by was the misty moonlight and the warm yellow candlelight seeping through the windows and the cracks in the shutters. It gave a singularly lonely feeling, and Peppino shuddered, suddenly very eager to get home to his parents and brothers.
“Look at us,” he heard Camillo whisper. “What a pair of jackasses.”
He sounded a lot like there was only one jackass in that sentence, and he didn’t mean Peppino.
Peppino thought about all the times he had seen adults yell and fight about politics or religion, and all the times he had yelled and fought as well, because he felt so strongly about these things. He thought about Benedetti and his father, and Sabattini going to Casalino for revenge, and Gazzola following Sabattini’s lead in the first place even though he could be a decent lad on his own.
For some reason – the cold, maybe, or the fog, or the memory of the taste of mud in his mouth, now mingled with the hot tea with honey, when he had thought they would both drown because of an argument he couldn’t even remember – Peppino felt strangely sad. But seeing Camillo shivering in front of him, Camillo who had fought by his side and had called him ‘Peppone’ without laughing, as though Peppino was a lot larger, taller and broader, kindled a tiny warm glow that dulled the sadness.
Peppino held out his hand. Camillo looked at Peppino thoughtfully, and shook it. His hand was cold but his grip was strong and steady.
“Let’s not fight again, ever,” said Peppino earnestly.
“Agreed,” said Camillo, just as solemn.
They parted ways, and Peppino, bruised and chilled to the bone but grinning, trotted home triumphantly whistling Nostra patria è il mondo intero.
* * *
This time the truce lasted six whole months.
* * *
Although none of the children from either village breathed a word about the fight at the dyke, the adults put two and two together and deduced what had happened fairly quickly. Gazzola got off rather easy because he had stayed, but Sabattini was severely punished by his parents and lost all credibility in school. The other children could never forgive nor forget his temporary alliance with the boys from Casalino, and gave him the cold shoulder for months.
They also couldn’t stop laughing about how he and his allies had got thrashed so thoroughly by little Peppino. Gazzola, who remembered Camillo’s remark, started calling him Peppone, and soon the nickname stuck – half out of derision and half because of Sabattini’s broken nose and he and his friends’ bruises. Sabattini himself took to calling him that way as well, because getting trounced by a Peppone stung a lot less than getting trounced by a Peppino.
However, by the time Giuseppe Bottazzi turned fifteen, he had grown as tall as an adult and about as large in the shoulders. It wasn’t long before every single soul in the village forgot that Peppone used to be called Peppino.
* * *
In the wall of old Manasca’s garden, facing the street, was a small niche; and in that niche, protected by a sheet of thin, dusty chicken wire, was the painted portrait of a Madonnina, a little Madonna. It had been there for centuries, and now it was something of a landmark, in an understated way. People tipped their hats as they passed her by, or made small offerings, often if they did not want to go to the trouble of lighting a candle in church in thanks or did not have the means to.
Around Christmas 1918, two men found themselves standing in front of the Madonnina. They were fresh off the train and still in uniform, a chaplain and a corporal. Both had the unmistakeable look of big men who had lost too much too quickly – blood, fat, muscle, soul – to the first great butchery of the 20th century.
Camillo Maghenzani had a few flowers, stubby little things sturdy enough to live through winter in the Lowlands; Giuseppe Bottazzi had his battered army tin cup to protect them from the wind. The first was a newly-ordained priest, sent to take over the parish after Don Cesare’s recent death; the second was trying to learn how to be the older brother now and not to be a soldier any longer.
They stood in front of the alcove for a long time, staring at the little painted picture and their own meagre offering, and letting the sounds and the smells of home start to wash away the memories of blood, hunger, misery and pain.
After a while, they looked more alive, their eyes a little brighter, their souls a little less heavy. And they turned to each other with a grin.
“Hello, Don Camillo.”
And it was as though they had been calling each other by those names their entire lives.
THE END/THE BEGINNING