The Little World of Don Camillo is set in the Po valley after the end of WW2 – about 1948 – but these short stories are all fables and have a broader relevance.
Don Camillo is a Catholic priest and former resistance fighter – though he’s a man of peace now – the days in the resistance are well behind him. He’s a powerfully built man with strong arms and a temper to match. His rival is Peppone, the communist mayor of the village, and Don Camillo’s equal physically. The two pose and fight like rutting stags.
The Po valley is a magical place where rural pastimes continue unabated and the world of the city and the twentieth century don’t intrude. In the real world it’s the time of the Marshall Plan, American financial aid given to Europe to promote American policies, and Stalin also has his eyes on Italy. This battle of political ideas is fought in microcosm in the valley, where Peppone, the communist mayor sells the party newspaper, L’Unita, and Don Camillo quietly confides in Jesus, to whom he speaks every day in the parish church.
In the end this book isn’t about politics. Its values go much deeper, and Peppone and Don Camillo have more than they realise to unite them. When family love, and death, and illness intrude into the lives of the villagers both characters are called on to intervene. They find common cause and a common humanity in the face of suffering and crisis. When Peppone’s son is ill he brings candles to the church, but can’t bring himself to acknowledge his dependence on God. Out of love, Don Camillo borrows money to buy candles and light them for Peppone.
Guareschi claims that the Jesus on the cross in this story is really his own conscience. He portrays Don Camillo as a completely human character, ever in need of the guiding hand of that conscience. Much of the humour in the book comes from the clash between Don Camillo’s religious ideals and his very human weaknesses and behaviour.
The situations faced by Don Camillo, Peppone and all the other characters in the book are so very human and universal that we can easily empathise with them. Guareschi has a light and humorous touch, finding the bright gems of human feeling amidst the debris of everyday life, and reminding us that too often dogma and pride can get in the way of truth and light.
I first read these stories many years ago – I must have been about 12 at the time. I loved them then because they were simple, funny, entertaining. The short story isn’t a genre I really like, but here all the stories are linked by a common theme and by recurring characters. It’s not a book that’s easily available in a hard copy – I downloaded from Kindle for about £5. Well worth it. There are more volumes available, and I expect I’ll read them soon.
The Little World of Don Camillo is quite well known, and was made into a television programme. Here is a link to it on Youtube, with English audio. The stories were originally published in an Italian satirical magazine called Candido. Apparently it had a monarchist stance!! The monarchy is only mentioned in one of these stories. As I said, its values go beyond politics.