First, let me welcome a few readers who have recently found and commented on some of my earlier posts. Second, I should apologize for the long gap between my previous update and this one–I hit the busy season at work and somehow managed to let Giovannino Guareschi’s 104th birthday pass without noting it here! By way of compensation, I’ll devote this post and the next to the GG biography from my old Don Camillo site. Enjoy!
Giovannino Guareschi: Early years
Born on May 1, 1908 in the Northern Italian village of Fontanelle di Roccabianca, Giovannino Guareschi was the son of a schoolteacher mother and an entrepreneur father. One has to smile at the fact that this child who would grow up to become such a well-known opponent of the Left should have made his debut on a May Day. Indeed, as Winthrop Sargeant recounts in a 1952 Life magazine feature on the author:
“At the time when [Giovannino] first saw the light in a small bedchamber in the building that [also] housed the Socialist party headquarters, a huge party rally was taking place in the street below…. Overcome with the drama of Nino’s birth on so auspicious an occasion, the Socialist leader [Giovanni Faraboli] rushed into the bedchamber and held the newborn infant in the window for the crowd to see. ‘The champion of the workers is born,’ he cried, amid frenzied applause from the workers below.”
The irony there is worthy of one of Guareschi’s own stories (and the episode is faintly echoed in the first of the Don Camillo films, when Mayor Peppone steps out on his balcony and presents his newborn son to a crowd of cheering townspeople assembled below, proclaiming, “Another comrade!”).
Young Giovannino, because of his mother’s job, spent much time during his formative, pre-school years in the care of his mother’s grandmother. From her, the future storyteller later said, he learned many of the stories of the people of his Po River valley region. Then his formal schooling began at age 6, and things went well until 1918, when his father decided that the promising student should become a naval engineer.
Giovannino was enrolled in the Royal Technical School where, he would later say, “I had a terrible time understanding what the instructors were teaching, on account of the fact that I had absolutely no interest in technical studies.” After a difficult two years, his parents changed tacks and enrolled him in grammar school for a liberal arts education. It was here that Guareschi shone, studying classics and becoming a top student at the school.
Unfortunately, his secondary education would be interrupted by the severe economic hard times experienced by his family (and many others) under Mussolini’s regime in the 1920’s. This culminated in a financial crash in 1926, during which the family went bankrupt. Giovannino, who had been a boarding pupil at his school, returned home to help his family by working. He eventually finished high school as a day student and began studies at the University of Parma, but he finally left there without a degree, holding a series of odd jobs before establishing himself as a writer.
Milan and the War
Success found him in Milan, where his way with words and skill with pen and ink took him from contributor to staff member to editor of the weekly paper Bertoldo. These were the 1930’s and early ’40’s, days of heavy censorship by the Fascist government, so there was no question of Guareschi’s yet becoming known for the overt political satire which would be his ultimate forte. Under the circumstances of the times, however, the commentary in some of his New Yorker-esque cartoons and humorous articles for Bertoldo would have to be considered remarkably biting. Meanwhile, outside the paper, the busy writer produced a variety of other published works during these years, from a comic book to several novels (two of which were eventually translated into English).
It was also in this period–in 1940, to be precise–that Giovannino Guareschi married his Parmese sweetheart, Ennia Pallini; not long after, they produced a different sort of work–a son, Alberto. And at this time something else of importance was happening around them: war was brewing in Europe.
Though the author had already done his compulsory military service as a younger man (and even though Ennia was expecting their second child), he found himself called up again in 1943, at the height of the war. But no sooner had he reported and been posted to the field, than he and thousands of others in the Italian army became victims of an odd twist of fate. It began as good news: at home, the Nazi-aligned, Fascist rule of Benito Mussolini was overthrown, and the new Italian government signed a cease-fire with the Allies. Far from being “freed” by the deal, however, the Italian officers and soldiers were left virtually stranded in the field, now at the mercy of their former German partners. And all who would not agree to serve the Nazis were imprisoned for the duration of the war.
Because the Italians were not technically prisoners of war (their status, officially, was that of “military internee”), the rules of the Geneva Convention did not cover their captivity. They suffered terribly; Guareschi was reduced to half his weight during his internment and later claimed, in a famous phrase, that he survived only because he had vowed, “I will not die, even if they kill me.” Others were not so fortunate.
Those two years in the German Lager (prison camp) were critical ones for Guareschi, focusing and deepening his energy and commitments in a way that would remain apparent for the rest of his life. He never stopped writing in the camp, whether recording melancholy reflections in his personal diary or composing humorous pieces for the morale of his prison-mates (these collected prison writings were later published, and an English version exists). When the war ended, it was his fervent hope that men like those fellow prisoners–resilient souls who in their time together proved that, despite lacking every material comfort, it is possible for people to create for themselves a civilized and even spiritual environment–would be willing to do their part to build the new Italy.
Giovannino Guareschi himself was so willing, and it was after the war that he would produce his mature writings: the ones which had the biggest impact in his lifetime and for which he is most remembered today.
To be continued…