I was all of 14 when I first met Don Camillo. A good friend (and rather devout Catholic) recommended the stories to me. I found a paperback edition of The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi in English translation. It didn’t take long to become a fan of the battling priest in the small village in northern Italy who engaged in a war of words, and sometimes fists, with the village’s communist mayor Peppone.
The stories were hilarious. Both Don Camillo and Peppone continually get themselves in issues, problems, and impending disasters. And while sometimes it’s the priest who triumphs, and sometimes it’s the mayor, neither one is down for long.
As it turns out, that English language edition was first published in the United States, and then used for the British edition. What few knew at the time was that the American publisher had left out some 19 stories deemed unsuitable for American readers (likely because many of them showed a communist mayor who also had a heart). Many of those stories are included in Don Camillo and His Flock, published in 2015 and based on the Italian edition published in 1952.
The stories are still hilarious. This edition includes a total of 27 of them and a map of the fictional town. In some, Don Camillo and Peppone are dealing with the aftermath of World War II. Others concern basic human relationships. All contain at least a hint of the famous rivalry between the two, and the occasional times they’re forced to cooperate and work together.
And there’s a story about a hunting dog named Thunder, and one about the ugly Madonna, that are priceless.
What these stories reminded me of was the third main character – and that is the figure of Christ. Don Camillo often has an extended discussion with the figure of Christ on the cross that hangs above the church’s altar. And the figure tries to keep Don Camillo to the straight and narrow, but he also knows his priest well.
Guareschi (1908-1968) was an Italian journalist who joined the Italian army in 1943, just in time for Mussolini’s government to be overthrown, the German army to invade and take over, and himself to be arrested and sent to a prison camp in Poland. Guareschi returned to Italy at war’s end and helped start a pro-monarchist newspaper.
The character of Don Camillo was based on a real person and priest, Don Camillo Valota (1912-1998), who was a partisan fighting the Germans and sent to the Dachau and Mauthausen concentration camps. And the political battles involving the monarchists (and later the Christian Democrats) and the communists were very real in postwar Italy. The stories were first published in Guafreschi’s newspapers.
Don Camillo and His Flock is funny and moving, and has some rather subtle suggestions for the kind of divided times we live in today.
Illustration: The almost childlike illustrations of Don Camillo (the angel) and communist Mayor Peppone (the devil) accompany every Don Camillo story.