The Don Camillo series – Giovannino Guareschi
You know what? You should know about Don Camillo and his adversary, Peppone. Don Camillo is the Catholic priest of a little village in Italy’s Po Valley – his ‘little world’. When we first meet Don Camillo, it is in an Italy trying to find its identity again after the Second World War. The eponymous priest is himself based on Don Camillo Valota, a priest who fought the Nazis as a partisan and was detained in Dachau and Mauthausen.
The fictional Don Camillo is enormous and “about as graceful in his movements as a division of armoured cars”, with hands like shovels and size 12 shoes. His physical immensity is matched by his personality which is by turns playfully mischievous and furiously vengeful. Like all priests, he talks to Jesus and has a particularly good relationship with the crucifix in his chapel – because this Jesus talks back.
The Communist mayor of the town, Peppone, is equally Don Camillo’s bitter political nemesis and his trusted friend and the dynamic between the pair is brilliant. Don Camillo, although a man of God, is not averse to committing little sins if it means thwarting Peppone’s ludicrous, politically charged schemes. Peppone isn’t blessed with Don Camillo’s intelligence but whatever he lacks, he makes up for in a militant belief in Russia, Lenin and the People. He’s a man with big ambitions and, as the mayor of the town, a man of influence. Sure, he’s an idiotic and quick-tempered communist but he’s well liked – so he must be doing something right.
Despite their political differences, the pair have a deep respect for each other – one they unsuccessfully try to mask. In many of the stories, they have to declare a temporary ceasefire in order to look after the interests of the town and, with a duo like Don Camillo and Peppone protecting it, the town is in danger only of farce.
Written and illustrated by Giovannino Guareschi, the first of the Don Camillo stories appeared in Candido magazine, in December, 1946, a couple of days before Christmas. It was so popular that Guareschi was bombarded with letters from fans demanding that he write more.
They’re like that in Italy.
On the whole, each story involves some farcical situation, usually sparked off by the latest mischievous episode in the ongoing feud between Don Camillo and Peppone. Having been born and raised in the region, Guareschi evokes post-war rural Italy perfectly. I wasn’t around the Po Valley at the time, mind you, but you can’t disguise the genuine article.
The stories can be read individually, if you like, but they blend together quite nicely. They were first published in English by Gollancz in the 50s as gorgeous little hardbacks. They’re ridiculously hard to find but I’ve tracked down two Penguins from the 60s and 70s so they’re probably easier to get hold of.
I’ve only recently come to learn of Don Camillo and it’s a perfect example of a series I should have known about. Sadly, it has faded into obscurity a little. I think anyone who has had the pleasure would agree that these books deserve to be read by everyone.
In the 50s and 60s, a series of five films were released starring French comic actor, Fernandel in the title role. Like the books, the movies are fantastic, but a nightmare to find in the real world although you can pick them up online for a small fortune. The first movie is available on Amazon for £15-£22 but take my word for it – it’s money well-spent.