Guareschi’s final Don Camillo book in English (and the last of the original Italian ones) was published posthumously and is the second to have the feel of a novel rather than a short story collection. It is distinguished from all of the others, however, in that it pits the wily priest against a new enemy, one which is in many ways as formidable as Communism ever was: Modernity.
Don Camillo Meets the Flower Children, by Giovanni Guareschi.
Copyright Rizzoli Editore, 1969 (Don Camillo e i giovani d’oggi). Translated by L.K. Conrad. NEW YORK: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc.; 1969. Published in Great Britain by Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1970 under the title Don Camillo Meets Hell’s Angels.
It is the mid-1960s, and much has changed in the “timeless” Little World of Don Camillo. For one thing, the Church has been through Vatican II and is determined to drag Don Camillo’s parish into the 20th Century with it. Meanwhile, Peppone’s Communists, still in power, appear to have made a kind of peace with post-war Western prosperity and, consequently, face a challenge from radicals within their midst. Finally, the younger generation has come of age, full of questions about the validity of the respective creeds for which its elders have been fighting all these years.
Among the newcomers to the Little World in this book are Don Francisco (aka Don Chichi), a hip young priest who thinks he has a thing or two to teach Don Camillo; Peppone’s son Michele (aka Venom), a rebel with no particular cause but a surprising amount of character; the Bognonis, a Maoist couple out to divide Peppone’s flock; and — last but not least — Don Camillo’s niece Elizabetta (aka Flora), an unscrupulous free spirit who can and does play all of the other characters off against one another (though she may not always be sure of her own motives for doing so).
Not many people name this book as their favorite Don Camillo, but I find it a reasonably fitting farewell to the Little World. Still, it must be admitted that, though the older books are plenty violence-laden, Flower Children comes across as having a rougher (even meaner) sensibility, which may be what bothers some. I’m not sure whether this apparent change in tone is really a only matter of perception — the book is set long enough after the War that it is harder for the modern reader to extend the usual suspension of judgment regarding all the violence — or whether it’s attributable to something else. It may simply be the content (motorcycle gangs!), or perhaps the aging author’s increased grumpiness and cynicism (Guareschi had sounded pretty discouraged about the state of the world in the Epilogue to the previous Don Camillo book), or even the book’s new-to-the-series translator.
I wouldn’t discount the possible impact of the last of those. For some reason, when this book came along, the then-still-active Frances Frenaye was replaced as Guareschi’s translator by one L.K. Conrad. Without knowing Italian, I am not in a position to say whether Frenaye’s renderings into English typically softened the original material — or whether, perhaps, Conrad’s choice of language toughened it up. Either could explain the disonnect between Book Six and the rest of the canon.
One other thing, also related to translation, needs mentioning. An early character-establishing point in the story has Don Camillo fretting because his niece eschews her baptismal name (“Elizabetta”) in favor of the hippy nickname “Flora.” That monker sounds sufficiently latinate that I thought Guareschi must have chosen it for the Italian edition… but no. In the Italian original, the rebellious girl calls herself “Cat,” short for “Caterpillar” — as in the tractor! (Because she plows through everything that gets in her way?) Interestingly, the 1972 Italian movie version of this book also calls her “Cat,” but treats it as a diminutive of “Caterina” (effectively retconning the character’s Christian name) and forgets the tractors.
- Don Camillo and the Lost Sheep — Peppone’s long-haired son Michele stirs up trouble for his father.
- The Secret of St. Anthony the Abbot — A curate has arrived as an agent of Aggiornamento, so Don Camillo acquires a private chapel.
- Mao Does Not Take to the Water of the Po River — Peppone finds himself at a political swim meet.
- The Flower Child (UK: Hell’s Angel & A Wakeful Night) — Don Camillo’s wayward niece arrives and offers the village a 2 a.m. serenade.
- When a Cellar Is More Important Than a Dome (UK: One Occasion On Which a Cellar Was More Important Than a Dome) — Don Camillo discovers a Red arsenal under his newly- purchased private chapel, but its owners intend to claim it.
- A Thrashing Followed By a Salting — As “Don Chichi” alienates the parishioners, Flora organizes a rumble.
- Revenge — Don Chichi settles his debt to a dead man, while Flora enters the Reds’ “Miss Unity” contest.
- There Beat a Rock Platter in Place of a Heart (UK: But She Had a Heart After All) — Flora learns how her father died.
- When Devils Don’t Have Horns and a Tail (UK: Devils Are Not Necessarily Beings with Horns and a Tail) — Egged on by Flora, Don Chichi gets Don Camillo transferred; Flora then resorts to more devilment to save her uncle’s post.
- Old Parish Priests Have Bones of Steel — It turns out that the parish’s old altar crucifix, now in Don Camillo’s private chapel, is a work of art.
- Today’s Young People Are a Complicated Bunch — Flora, inspired by her late father, takes up a dangerous hobby.
- St. Michael Had Four Wings — Now Flora says she’s in the family way, and she’s named a certain Mayor’s son as the one responsible.
- That’s the Way the Sheep Baas — Her appliance sales racket booming, Flora goes to confession.
- Remembering a November Day Long Ago (UK: Remembering a May Day Long Ago) — Don Chichi returns from exile, just in time to deride Don Camillo’s Mass for the Souls of the Dead Who Fought in Hungary.
- A Little Boy Who Saw Angels — A cunning peasant boy takes advantage of do-gooder Don Chichi.
- Yet Another Tale About The Great River Po (UK: Yet Another Tale About the Great River) — When the flood displaces many, Don Camillo encourages the rebellious youth to find a cause and pitch in.
- Two Robbers Turn Into Three — Don Camillo helps out when a pair of Hell’s Angels is wrongly accused of a crime.
- Epilogue — Peppone contemplates resigning as mayor; meanwhile, Flora plans her own future.