The Padre and the Party Boss

May 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

Don Camillo and his Flock (Guareschi, Giovanni)

 “People born near the Po river have heads as hard as pig iron, a highly developed sense of humor, and where politics is concerned they can get as excited as a man who has swallowed a mouse”
Giovanni Guareschi, Don Camillo and his Flock

“Furthermore… no other European country has thrown up as many radical popular movements from below – all against the background of an unbroken continuity in conservative rule at the top: a unique combination of ‘social insurgency and political immobility’.
–       Jan-Werner Muller, The Paradoxes of Post-War Italian Political Thought

From Count Cavour in 1861 to Benito Mussolini in 1922, Italy had 26 Heads of Government, or an average tenure of 2.7 years per Prime Minister. Il Duce, an exception in every sense, reigned for 21 tumultuous years, but his tenure culminated in a disastrous world war, occupation and anarchy. The end of the war brought peace and stability to Europe, and the resumption of normal service to Italy: between 1946 and the present day, from Alcide de Gasperi to Mario Monti, Italy has seen 39 heads of government, at a mere 1.7 years a pop. In contrast, since World War II, Germany has had only 9 Chancellors, the USA 12 Presidents; India 13 Pradhan Mantris, and the UK 14 Prime Ministers. Only France rivals Italy at the revolving door stakes, with an impressive post-War Head of Government headcount of fully 40 men; even there, only 20 of them have been at the helm since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1959.

 Two other significant data-points are to be digested before one can fully appreciate Italian post-war politics and Giovanni Guareschi.

 The first is that although Italian governments were as brittle as biscotti, it was a single political party – the Democrazia Cristiana, or the Christian Democracy – that was in power from 1946 to 1992, with the exception of four years with the Socialists (under Bettino Craxi and briefly, Guiliano Amato) and 18 months under Spadolini’s Republicans. The Christian Democrats were pro-America, pro-capitalism, and steeped in Catholic orthodoxy. And so, despite a mildly eccentric habit of replacing Prime Ministers every time they spring-cleaned, Italians never vacillated on the subject of which political party they wanted in government. On the surface, therefore, you would have reason to believe that Italy was consistently conservative and stable in this period – a little bit too stable, in fact, so you may even doubt the existence of healthy democratic dissent in the country. You would be dead wrong – and this leads to the second point.

 Despite the calm, unchanging facade, there were seething, raging undercurrents of radical and revolutionary political movements at play in post-War Italy – Republican, Socialist and most extraordinarily, Communist. As Muller points out in the Princeton paper quoted above, the Partito Comunista Italiano was Europe’s largest Communist Party, and it came closer to actually forming a government than their counterparts anywhere else in Western Europe, except perhaps France. They ran local government in several districts, and coming out of the War, they were viewed as a credible anti-Fascist, democratic, constitutional and moral political force. As the years went by, some of the high moral ground wore off, and their survival involved an uneasy and intricate balance between working class anti-authoritarianism, student militancy, left-wing theory and the political necessities of occasionally having to prop up the Christian Democrat government in power.

 It is this unique combination of ‘social insurgency and political immobility’ that defined Italian politics through most of the second half of the 20th century, and it must have caused quite a bit of a flutter through the fabric of their society. As Orwell remarked in his Road to Wigan Pier (reviewed here), the common man has no use for either theological nuances or for dialectical theory; instead, he has an intuitive, broad, but powerful grasp of both social justice and religion. So in the villages and towns of Italy, this clash between Left and Right, between workers’ unity and Christian faith, between high-falutin ideas brought from the faraway Vatican and the even further away Kremlin on the one hand, and the practical ground realities on the other, must have become part of people’s daily lives. This is the background to Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo series of short stories.

Bluto and Popeye, Italian style…from the French TV adaptation (courtesy

They are not even stories, but simple socio-political parables, each less than ten pages long. The setting is a village on the banks of the Po, no different from the thousands of little towns that dot Italy. Naturally, it has a church and a priest, a town square, a city hall and a mayor; naturally the priest, Don Camillo, is a Christian Democrat. Not implausibly, the mayor of the town, Peppone, is a Communist. Peppone has henchmen to carry out his bidding, while Camillo has Jesus Christ for a confessor and conscience-keeper. The two squabble over things that may be trivial from the distant considerations of party ideology, but are momentous matters for the village: an ugly Madonna sculpture in the church, the school-house, a new cinema theatre, the accuracy of the town hall clock, a strike of farm workers, a boy who needs to be taken to the city hospital, the child of a Communist who needs to be baptised, the flooding of the river.

Of course Guareschi’s sympathies lie more with Camillo, but he has a soft corner for Peppone as well, and the battles between the two are never one-sided. Camillo has his moments of moral weakness, and occasionally, Peppone’s heart of gold peeps through his gruff exterior. In each episode, Peppone and Camillo attempt to outwit each other and gain political mileage; they trade insults, and are never shy of getting involved in physical brawls (though never directly against each other). Occasionally, they save each other’s lives and are grudgingly grateful. Once, several years ago, they had both been holed up in the mountains, shoulder to shoulder, Christian and Communist, fighting Fascists. They are the best of friends and the bitterest of rivals at the same time.

They say that politics makes strange bedfellows. Silvio Berlusconi may have taken the saying a little too literally, but it is never truer than in Italy, and Don Camillo and Peppone demonstrate this repeatedly.

Outside the village: Peppone reports to a shadowy, slightly nasty Communist Party official, and Camillo’s Bishop is only marginally nicer. These interlopers belong to a different world, the world of the big bad City, of DC and PCI, of America and Russia, light years away from the here and now of the little village by the river, which is the only world that matters to Peppone and Camillo. Here they stay and fight for the souls and votes of the villagers; it is a primordial never-ending clash between two mythical forces, reduced to its essential elements, like a cartoon or a caricature. In fact, my own mental images of Camillo and Peppone have been those of Popeye and Bluto. But Guareschi is subtler than that.

Yes, the stories involve a tussle between two forces; prima facie they are between the Democrazia Cristiana and the Partito Communista Italiano. In reality, Peppone and Camillo are on the same side; they are almost the same person. They are simple, straightforward, poor, honest, hard-working, generous and enormous-hearted: they are the People. They have a common man’s understanding of justice and identity, of anger, guilt and shame. On the other side is impersonal, uncaring political doctrine. These two worlds are tangential to each other, and wherever they collide, they lead to conflicts. These conflicts are temporary: the world of abstract ideas always loses, and the world of common people always wins.

Guareschi wrote in a grey, dull world of Marshall Plans and Stalinist propaganda. Much of that world does not exist any longer. But today’s world pits Left against Right as well – in France, Greece, Russia, Egypt, the USA, and elsewhere. In this context, Guareschi’s mischievous little tales retain the relevance of their message – that in order to work, politics have to be about commonsensical solutions to the common man’s problems, that doctrine counts for diddly squat, and that no matter how chaotic and unstable life is, it is always possible to laugh out loud at it. And in that sense, I was wrong earlier – you don’t need to know too much Italian history, or care about politics at all, in order to appreciate the Don Camillo stories of Giovanni Guareschi.


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