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by Rina Brundu. There are no more than two statements which we can regard as true: 1) we are all doomed to die, 2) Italy has never been the birthplace of great writers. But while the first has been disproved (even if it took three days before resurrection and it has been costing us almost 2000 years of tithes to be paid to the “family”!), the latter lives on unchallenged and as true as ever. This is because in Italy the title of Great Writer MUST be DESERVED. Bluntly said, it is not enough for a literary author - in order to be crowned as such - to have been one who has successfully created a few immortal characters, who has managed to model a language, who has given a substantial hand in helping his/her nations’ cultural growth, who has succeeded in transforming his/her most inspired moments into some sort of shared experience with million of readers; on the contrary, it is a STRICT requirement that he/she also befriends the “right” people, that he/she gets the approval of the intellectual caste, that he/she grows fond of pseudo-artistic snobberies and that he/she grows a taste… for butt-kissing.
Needless to say, when an artist cannot live up to such “expectations”, his/her artistic-life and claims to glory can be seriously jeopardized. Needless to say the constipated status-quo has affected, in time, the lives of many authors such as the nowadays-almost-forgotten, brilliant and most prolific adventure-novel writer Emilio Salgari (Verona, 21 August 1862 – Turin, 25 April 1911), father of the well-known fictional Malaysian pirate Sandokan; the same is true for Carlo Collodi (pen-name for Carlo Lorenzini, Florence , 24th November 1826 – Florence, 26 October 1890), an Italian writer and journalist whose Pinocchio, a world classic of children’s literature, has managed to enter the Heavens of Italian Literature thanks only to a good review by Benedetto Croce. But, amongst all, the appalling status-quo has affected the personal and artistic life of the genial father of fictional characters (among the many) Don Camillo and Peppone, that is to say the personal and artistic life of Giovannino Oliviero Giuseppe Guareschi (1), a most gifted Italian writer, journalist and humorist. Paradoxically, the more the “intelligentsia” persecutes these very creative and talented spirits the more their readers love them, both in Italy and abroad. Giovannino Guareschi, 44 years after his passing on, is, in fact, one of the Italian writers most read abroad, as well as the Italian literary author most translated.
Than again, in my view, Giovannino Guareschi is much more than an author universally read and translated. The writer Guareschi was an exceptionally creative mind who, thanks to his extraordinary vis comica, to his great wit, and to a truly felt intellectual, social and political commitment, managed to describe the Italy of his time, its vices and its virtues, in such a way that, reading through his writings it is almost possible to foresee the current digitalized, corrupted and undignified status-quo. The journalist Guareschi, instead, never made it to be considered one of the “Venerable Masters” of Italian journalism, but it has certainly been one of the few Italian journalists worth of this name and the first one who was jailed for libel after the accusation levelled against him by the then Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi. The man Guareschi, on the other hand, does not need to be presented, as happens to every mother who toils to bring her babies into this world – hints of his real human essence can be spotted in each and every one of his fictional characters, from the most famous ones to the minor, as well as on each and every one of his remarkable satiric anecdotes, stories, tales and humoristic sketches.
Ultimately, 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!”.
Author note: the original interview was first published in October 2012 in the digital magazine Rosebud, Giornalismo online https://rinabrundu.com/2012/10/28/esclusivo-mio-padre-giovannino-intervista-ad-alberto-guareschi-e-sul-giornalismo-delle-idee-da-affermare-e-da-servire/
First published in English in Rina Brundu – Critique http://www.rinabrunducritique.com
Biographic notes (from Wikipedia): (1) Giovannino Oliviero Giuseppe Guareschi May 1, 1908 – July 22, 1968) was an Italian journalist, cartoonist and humorist whose most famous creation is the priest Don Camillo.
Giovannino Guareschi was born in Fontanelle di Roccabianca in the Province of Parma into a middle-class family. Guareschi always joked about the fact that he, a large man, was baptized Giovannino, a name meaning “little John” or “Johnny”. In 1926 his family went bankrupt, and he could not continue his studies at the University of Parma. After working at various minor jobs, he started to write for a local newspaper, the Gazzetta di Parma. In 1929 he became editor of the satirical magazine Corriere Emiliano, and from 1936 to 1943 he was the chief editor of a similar magazine called Bertoldo.
In 1943 he was drafted into the army, which apparently helped him to avoid trouble with the fascist authorities. He ended up as an artillery officer.
When Italy signed the armistice with Allied troops in 1943, he was arrested and imprisoned in prison camps in German occupied Poland for three years alongside other Italian soldiers. He later wrote about this time in Diario Clandestino (My secret Diary).
After the war, Guareschi returned to Italy and founded a monarchist satirical magazine, Candido. After Italy became a republic, he began to support Democrazia Cristiana. He criticized and satirized the Communists in his magazine, famously drawing a Communist as a man with an extra nostril. When the Communists were soundly defeated in the 1948 Italian elections, Guareschi did not put his pen down but criticized Democrazia Cristiana as well. In 1950, Candido published a satirical cartoon by Carlo Manzoni poking fun at Luigi Einaudi, President of the Republic. The President is at the Quirinal Palace, surrounded by, instead of the presidential guard of honour (the corazzieri), by giant bottles of Nebbiolo wine, which Einaudi actually produced in his land in Dogliani. Each bottle was labeled with the institutional logo. The cartoon was judged in Contempt of the President by a court of the time. Guareschi, as the director of the magazine, was held responsible and sentenced.
In 1954 Guareschi was charged with libel after he had published two facsimile wartime letters from resistance leader and former Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi requesting the Allies to bomb the outskirts of Rome in order to demoralize German collaborators. The legitimacy of the letters was never established by the court, but after a two-month trial it found in favour of De Gasperi. Guareschi declined to appeal the verdict and spent 409 days in Parma’s San Francesco jail, and another six months on probation at his home.
By 1956 his health had deteriorated and he began to spend time in Switzerland for health reasons. In 1957 he retired from the post of editor of Candido but remained a contributor. He died in 1968 in Cervia from a heart attack.
- La scoperta di Milano (1941)
- Il destino si chiama Clotilde (1943)
- Il marito in collegio (1944)
- Favola di natale (1945)
- Diario Clandestino 1943-1945 (1946)
- Italia Provvisoria (1947)
- Lo zibaldino (1948)
- Corrierino delle famiglie (1954)
- Vita in famiglia (1968)
Published English translations
- The Little World of Don Camillo (1950)
- Don Camillo and his Flock (in USA); Don Camillo and the Prodigal Son (in UK) (1952)
- The House That Nino Built (1953)
- Don Camillo’s Dilemma (1954)
- Don Camillo Takes the Devil by the Tail (in USA); Don Camillo and the Devil (in UK) (1957)
- My Secret Diary (1958)
- Comrade Don Camillo (1964)
- My Home, Sweet Home (1966)
- A Husband in a Boarding School (1967)
- Duncan & Clotilda: An Extravaganza with a Long Digression (1968)
- Don Camillo Meets the Flower Children (in USA); Don Camillo Meets Hell’s Angels (in UK) (1969)
- The Family Guareschi: Chronicles of the Past and Present (1970)
La rabbia, 1963. Co-director with Pier Paolo Pasolini.
A link to one of the many films featuring the fictional character Don Camillo in French (Le retour de Don Camillo, (1953), a film by Julien Duvivier.
Featured image, the actor Fernandel starring as Don Camillo, one of the most succesful characters created by Giovannino Guareschi