Saturday, June 7, 2014

Book Review: Don Camillo and His Flock

My mom recently came across an old book buried at the back of our bookshelves and thought I would like it.  The book was Don Camillo and His Flock by Giovanni Guareschi.  It was funny and charming and thought-provoking, and I loved it.

I first read it a few months ago, but when I picked it up again the other day to refresh my memory to write a bookish post about it, I found myself basically re-reading the entire thing and falling in love with it all over again!

Each chapter of this book is its own story - I believe they were initially published individually in Guareshi's magazine Candido - but many tie together and they run chronologically, so there's an overarching theme as well.

The tales follow Don Camillo, the Catholic priest in a small village in post-WWII Italy.  He is constantly on the point of a (potentially violent) quarrel with the communist mayor and his old friend, Peppone.  Although often at odds with Peppone and many of the other communists in the town, Don Camillo also has a strong camaraderie with them, as they all fought together side by side in the resistance during the war.  Their banter and the way they settle their differences give the book a very heartfelt - sometimes reassuring, sometimes bittersweet - humor.  Don Camillo is the protagonist, but Guareshi shows that good intentions, silly prejudices, and selfish mistakes lie on both sides of the political divide.

Don Camillo's conversations with Christ were possibly my very favorite part of the book.  Don Camillo is constantly speaking with the Christ on the Crucifix above the altar in his church; and they're such beautiful, thoughtful, inspiring, funny, sweet exchanges.  Christ is the friend Don Camillo turns to when he's feeling troubled or triumphant or anything in between, and Guareshi writes about their relationship so wonderfully.  Here's one example:

The spire of the church tower had been struck by lightning and shattered into pieces.  It was just as simple as all that, but to Don Camillo it was so incredible that he rushed to tell Christ about it.

"Lord," he said in a voice shaky with emotion, "the church spire has been struck by lighting."

"I understand, Don Camillo," Christ answered calmly.  "Buildings are often struck that way in the course of a storm."

"But this was the church!" Don Camillo insisted.

"I heard you, Don Camillo."

Don Camillo looked up at the crucified Christ and threw out his arms in dismay.

"Why did it have to happen?" he asked bitterly.

"A church spire has been struck by lightning in the course of a storm," said Christ.  "Does God have to justify Himself for this in your sight?  A short time ago you thanked Him for sending a storm that damaged your neighbor, and now you reproach Him because the same storm has damaged you."

"It hasn't damaged me," said Dom Camillo.  "It has damaged the house of God."

"The house of God is infinite and eternal.  Even if every planet in the universe were to be reduced to dust, the house of God would still stand.  A church spire has been struck by lightning, that is all anyone is entitled to think or say.  The lightning had to strike somewhere."

Don Camillo was talking to Christ but during the conversation the thought of the mutilated tower was uppermost in his mind.

"Surely that particular stroke could have stayed away," he said.  And Christ took pity on his sorrow and continued to reason gently with him..."

Don Camillo is a big, burly guy - not afraid to use force when he needs to - and I loved the contrast between that and his simple faith and talk with Christ, which presents a very different picture and a very different but an equally powerful kind of strength.  "Don Camillo took his bitterness to the altar."  That's one of the best things you can do to deal with bitterness, I think.

I loved Guareschi's drawings at the beginning of each chapter!

Whatever your own beliefs, this book is certain to make you think.  Guareshi outlines important issues and ideas in simple, deft strokes.  Ideas about hope...

"...even when hope is based on material things, its origin is divine.  In Your divine wisdom You know how to turn evil means to a good end, and You chose to speak through sacrilegious mouths in order to restore hope to a mother's deny hope means to deny You."

Ideas about free will...

"God points out the right way, but man has a choice whether to follow it or not.  In His infinite kindess God leaves man free to choose the wrong way and yet, by repentance and recognition of his mistake, to save his soul.  A church spire has been struck by lightning in the course of a storm.  The lightning had to strike there, and so the man who built the tower is to blame.  Yet the tower had to be built where it is and man must thank God for it."

Ideas about friendship...

"Young Manasca and Peppone had had a fist-fight every day until they were twenty; as a result they were very good friends and understood one another perfectly."

Ok, that one just makes me laugh.  But then this book will certainly make you laugh too!  One of the reviews on the back of the book says: "More than a quarter of a million people who read this book are still chuckling."  Another says "The Book to Give Anyone for Whatever Ails Him...Its humor, its charm, its simplicity, its wisdom are more than sufficient to enchant any reader."

High expectations are always dangerous, so I don't want to praise it too much, but this title is certainly worth the trouble of hunting up an old edition at the library or online!  The translation I read was by Frances Frenaye, and you can find it used on Amazon.  There is a kindle edition by a different translator as well.

Will you be adding Don Camillo to your summer list?  What books have you been reading lately?

Previous Bookish Posts:

Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols
Leave it to PSmith by P.G. Wodehouse
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

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