You could set your watch by it: Every day, in the Italian farm town where I once lived, a verbal battle would break out in the piazza. On one side was a painter who argued for the communist cause, on the other, a greengrocer who would not abandon the fascist cause of old. They would yell at each other, gesturing wildly and saying things that were quite unkind, then, like the sheepdog and coyote of Looney Tunes fame, would clock out and drink a glass of wine together.
So it was with Don Camillo and Comrade Peppone, the creations of an Italian writer named Giovanni Guareschi (1908-1968). A native of Parma, he talked his way into writing and drawing for a humor magazine called Bertoldo, working for a time alongside an American expatriate named Saul Steinberg, later famous for a New Yorkerdrawing in which America is made up of coasts with a little slice of terra incognita in between.
In Guareschi’s time and ours, fashionable Italy was Milan, and he became an urban sophisticate in the big city. Then the war broke out, “for reasons,” he wrote, “entirely beyond my control.” He was drafted just in time for Mussolini’s regime to fall and, captured by the Germans, was trucked away to a lagerin Poland, where he spent two years. Liberated, he went back to writing, but now, in an Italy divided between a powerful Communist Party and an equally powerful Vatican-backed Christian Democratic machine, he had just the scenario he needed for a series of novels that have since been translated into dozens of languages, chronicling the adventures of a priest named Don Camillo, who is always wrangling and fussing with Comrade Peppone, the mayor of the village near Parma where Don Camillo serves.
Comrade Peppone is a loyal son of Stalin, but he harbors dreams, as when he wins the lottery and, in Comrade Don Camillo, fulfills his dream of visiting the Soviet Union along with his friendly foe; as Don Camillo prophesies, Peppone finds that it’s not the workers’ paradise he thought it might be. In a short story some might find sacrilegious, Don Camillo has a conversation with Christ himself over the savior’s disapproval of his fondness for cigars—though, since Don Camillo spirited away one of the two cigars Peppone had in his pocket, and since Peppone is a Communist who believes in dividing property, Christ allows that Don Camillo is only taking his fair share. And so on, in funny yarns in which conflicting ideas are argued out affectionately through characters that, Guareschi once said, “allow me to turn my internal polemic into one that is public.”
Clever clerics have a time-honored place in popular literature, from Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Edith Pargeter’s (aka Ellis Peters’) Brother Caedfael. Don Camillo joins their number, and if he and Comrade Peppone have largely been forgotten since their author died 50 years ago, the two adversaries still have plenty of things to say in a world that sorely needs lessons in civil disagreement.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.