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An exclusive interview with Mr Alberto Guareschi. And on journalism as a means to “serve” the community and to “assert” ideas.

by Rina Brundu.
Giovannino Guareschi was a talented author who managed to obtain the admiration of posterity, a privilege granted to great souls only. The interview with his son, Mr Alberto Guareschi, is the result of such everlasting admiration and fascination with the artist and his achievements. And, last but not least, it is just another way to pay a small homage to an Italian man who had the guts to live his life like every man and woman should: without fear!

Q. One of the most important moments during the lifetime of Giovannino Guareschi was his encounter with Cesare Zavattini, a master of the so-called Italian neo-realism. Zavattini was the man who started him off in the world of professional journalism. What kind of relation was there between them? What did they admire about each other? Could you tell us more about their human and working interactions?

A. I believe Mr Zavattini was a very liberal man and the real talent scout of my father.  In 1925, when a teacher at Maria Lugia College of Parma, he wrote into my father’s school report: “Witty boy. His humour is often out of place. His shortcomings are a direct consequence of his unrestrainable sense of humour. Really clever, while studying he manages to get the most out of a minimum effort”. A school report completely different from the one that he was going to get six months later: “He is a dangerous team leader. He sacrifices discipline to being funny…. He believes that being a good student gives him the right to do whatever he likes”. As a matter of fact, the real cause behind this sudden change in my father’s behaviour was to be found in his own father’s recent bankruptcy which brought misery to the family.  Economic family collapse was somehow avoided thanks to his mother’s salary as a teacher of the local elementary school and the lodgings offered by the college. When the family was eventually unable to pay the fees my father was forced to leave school and it was then that, in the words of my father “Cesare Zavattini took me under his protection and suggested I should write for the “Gazzetta di Parma..”. It was on that occasion that my father explained how “… with journalism what counts are genial ideas…..” and that local papers are generally badly run in the sense that as a rule of thumb they give priority to national news, just like leading newspapers, and in doing so they neglect local stories. In 1936, Andrea Rizzoli, the son of the Milanese publisher Angelo Rizzoli – following a recommendation made by Cesare Zavattini  who in the meantime had successfully moved to Milano – offered him a position as the editor of the satiric magazine “Bertoldo”.

During the following years their destinies took different paths as did their political ideas: Zavattini, a left wing supporter, had immediate success in Rome in the world of cinema; my father, loyal to the monarchy and to the king, remained in Milan working as a journalist. However, even if they had taken opposite political sides, they would often meet in our Milan house, together with many other “exiled” friends from Parma, just to recall the good, poor and old days and the many parties made memorable by an abundance of “lambrusco” and “culatello” (1)….

Q. Giovannino Guareschi cursed Mussolini, he refused to reject the authority of the king immediately after the Italian signing of the Armistice with the Allies; he drew a cartoon showing the leader of the Italian Communist Party Palmiro Togliatti with three nostrils (the third one – according to my father – would allow easier discharge of brain matter and, at the same time, faster receipt of the Communist Party directives and orders);  he publicly insulted the President of the Republic Luigi Einaudi and last but not least he was sued for similar reasons by the then Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi. On the other hand, he was a faithful subject of the monarchy and he was deeply religious. It almost seems that he had little trust in the capabilities of men to govern themselves while he placed greater faith in some sort of divine order of things. Is this idea correct? And if so, what would have determined such “political” visions?

A. My father did not like either the Constitution of the Italian Republic or the Republic itself, which he believed was born under unclear circumstances.  At the end of December 1947, he wrote on “Candido” the weekly satiric magazine he had created together with fellow journalists Mosca and Mondaini: “On the first day of year 1948, on a grey horizon, rises the dull sun of a Constitution that protects the landscape, supports liberal arts and does not give a damn for serious problems”. He admired the constitutional monarchy because the king did not take an active part in the determination of the political life of the Country, he had a mere representative function and one of preserving the nation’s Risorgimento’s values,  while the government was a parliamentary one.

Q. “No, I am not going to appeal this court’s ruling. It’s not a case of changing a court’s decision but it’s about changing a nation’s morality… (…). I am going to accept this court’s sentence like I’d accept a fist in my face: I am not interested in demonstrating that I have received it unfairly”. These were Giovannino Guareschi’s words in the aftermath of the trial following the legal action taken against him by Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi. In what way the prison experience changed him? And what was the actual role that your father thought should be played by journalism in the battle to change the morals of an entire country?

A. The prison experience was a terrible one for my father as it affected his already poor health and greatly diminished his love and enthusiasm for his work, while filling his life with bitterness. It was only after having spent several months in Assisi (he was a devout of San Francesco), after prison time, that he found once again a desire for civil commitment and managed to get back to writing.

He had a clear vision of his duties as a journalist: “I haven’t done my political journalism training within a Party…. I have done it in a prison-camp; and thousands of gentlemen with whom I have shared those dreadful days can testify how Lieutenant Guareschi – il signor Giovannino –conducted his activities of free and honest journalist with dignity from the very first day to the last one. I have learnt – the hard way – how beautiful it is, how virile it is, how civil it is to speak publicly our thoughts, specially when doing so puts us at risk. I have proceeded without hesitations along the journalistic path: a path which cannot lead towards press offices, or to Parties premises or towards a Parliament seat, because journalism must be served, not viceversa. And whoever uses journalism for his own ends is not a journalist even if writes beautiful articles”.

And he would add: “We cannot confine journalism as an profession whose main goal is objectivity. And cannot justify the existence of a newspaper only capable of saying: “This is good, this is bad”. There must be a clear idea to be asserted….”.

Q: When Prime Minister Palmiro Togliatti called him “three times an idiot times three”, your father wrote on “Candido”: “Aspired Award”. This is one of the many moments which best describe the anti-communistic ideals of Guareschi. Paradoxically, if we look at the modern Italian leftist satirical school, it would seem that they are the real heirs of his extraordinary satirical talents. On the other hand, the leftist intelligentsia never forgave him for not being one of them. What has been – particularly after his death – the price that Guareschi’s Art paid to such an intellectual ban?

A: The cultural establishment made him pay a huge price for his outcast role by using a very powerful weapon: silence. A dead silence that lasted from the day of his death till the beginning of the ‘80s, when such strategy was defeated by the loyalty of my fathers readers who forced the publisher Rizzoli to reprint his books but also to reprint most of his short-stories which first appeared in “Candido”.

Such an intellectual ban – which in some respects still exists – is mainly due to the ideological filter which does not allow the leftist intelligentsia to judge his works with the necessary serenity. Somehow it is my father’s “fault” because – during all his life – unfortunately quite short – he has striven to remain free. He managed to do so by escaping the network of the nazi dictatorship (which made him pay for his choice of non cooperation with the Germans as well as for being part of the Italian Social Republic), and subsequently by ending up in a jail of Democratic Italy, where he paid with his isolation and forced removal from the public scenes. He would have never managed to adapt himself or to accept compromises for the sole purpose of living longer and having less worries. Guareschi’s was a true, great love for Freedom; a love that would not tolerate exceptions nor treason, while he would be putting his talents at work for the benefit of his readers. We now believe he succeeded in achieving this result although love for real freedom usually brings with itself a great degree of suffering. On the other hand it also brought peace to his conscience which then could not be troubled by any prison cell, not even the smallest one. Such a choice in life has been rewarded by his readers who never abandoned him and have made of his books gifts to be passed along from generations to generations…

Q: “Inside the voting booth God can see you, Stalin can’t” was one of the famous slogans with which Guareschi campaigned against the Fronte Democratico Popolare (an alliance between the Communist and Socialis Parties), during the political elections of 1948. Looking at the modern Italian political scandals it would seem that even God is quite absent nowadays, or perhaps this is what the corrupted members of our political class are thinking. In your opinion what would Giovannino Guareschi have thought of the status-quo? And where would have found the roots of the problem? Do you think he would have acknowledged a political failure of his generation on both sides, left and right?

A: Fearless Giovannino managed to come out of his life’s battles victorious because, in spite of it all, he did not hate anyone. In addition he kept his faith in God and never abandoned his hopes for a better world. A few years before his death, he wrote: “It is here, on this planet, that the son of God chose to be born, to suffer and to die as a man. Here is our past and our future…. A flame still warms our old earthly heart. And within us hope is still stronger than fear. Thank you God!”.