Simply the Best

Still trying to get over this horrible cough/cold.  My lungs feel more compromised than a Victorian maiden caught skinny dipping with the stable boy.  So I’ve been sleeping and reading, since nothing else is happening.  Reading inevitably turns to my "comfort reads."

Giovanni Guareschi remains – to my mind – the best writer of short short fiction (Not flash. His stories run about 1 to 2 k words, I’d guess) who ever worked. This is probably a personal quirk of mine, predicated on having read him when I was very young, but maybe not. You judge. The stories are set in post WWII Italy, all the way to the sixties. The later sixties stories are not as good, but the man was getting old, after all.

The thing is with the coldwar setup and the communist mayor and the catholic priest as the main characters you’d expect a spy vs. spy cartoonish thing. It’s not even close. I re-read these books every fall to figure out how he does things with a minimal fuss. I buy his books used and new, when I can and give them to all and sundry, as much as I give Techniques Of The Selling Writer.

As an illustration, I’m copying below about two and a half pages of Technique of the Coup D’Etat, first published in Don Camillo and the Prodigal Son (though I have it in The Don Camillo Omnibus.)

So, here is Technique of the Coup D’Etat, by Giovanni Guareschi, translated by Frances Frenaye – follow if you will how he develops danger and sheer blood chilling creepiness without ever SAYING anything about it.

Technique of The Coup D’Etat by Giovanni Guareschi, translated by Frances Fernaye (Typos mine.)

At ten o’clock on Tuesday evening, the village square was swept with wind and rain, but a crowd had been gathered there for three or four hours to listen to the election news coming out of a radio loudspeaker. Suddenly the lights went out and everything was plunged into darkness. Someone went to the control box but came back saying there was nothing to be done. The trouble must be up the line or at the power plant, miles away. People hung around for half an hour or so, and then, as the rain began to come down even harder than before, they scattered to their homes, leaving the village silent and deserted. Peppone shut himself up in the People’s Palace, along with Lungo, Brusco, Straziami, and Gigio, the same leader of the "Red Wing" squad from Molinetto. They sat around uneasily by the light of a candle stump and cursed the power and light monopoly as an enemy of the people, until Smilzo burst in. He had gone to Rocca Verde on his motorcycle to see if anyone had news and now his eyes were popping out of his head and he was waving a sheet of paper.

"The Front has won!" he panted. "Fifty-two seats out of a hundred in the senate and fifty-one in the chamber. The other side is done for. We must get hold of our people and have a celebration. If there’s no light, we can set fire to a couple of haystacks nearby.

 

"Hurrah!" shouted Peppone. But Gigio grabbed hold of Smilzo’s jacket.

"Keep quiet and stay where you are!" he said grimly. It’s too early for anyone to be told. Let’s take care of our little list."

"List? What list?" asked Peppone in astonishment.

"The list of reactionaries who are to be executed first thing. Let’s see now…"

Peppone stammered that he had made no such list, but the other only laughed.

"That doesn’t matter. I’ve a very complete one here all ready. Let’s look at it together, and once we’ve decided we can get to work."

Gigio pulled a sheet of paper with some twenty names on it out of his pocket and laid it on the table.

"Looks to me as if al the reactionary pigs were here," he said. "I put down the worst of them, and we can attend to the rest later."

Peppone scanned the names and scratched his head.

"Well, what do you say?" Gigio asked him.

"Generally speaking, we agree," said Peppone. "But what’s the hurry? We have plenty of time to do things in the proper style."

Gigio brought his fist down on the table.

"We haven’t a minute to lose, that’s what I say," he shouted harshly. "This is the time to put our hands on them, before they suspect us. If we wait until tomorrow, they may get wind of something and disappear."

At this point Brusco came into the discussion.

"You must be crazy," he said. "You can’t start out to kill people before you think it over."

"I’m not crazy and you’re a very poor Communist, that’s what you are! These are all reactionary pigs; no one can dispute that, and if you don’t take advantage of this golden opportunity then you’re a traitor to the party!"

Brusco shook his head.

"Don’t you believe it! It’s jackasses that are traitors to the Party! And you’ll be a jackass if you make mistakes and slaughter innocent people."

Gigio raised a threatening finger.

"It’s better to eliminate ten innocents than to spare one individual who may be dangerous to the cause. Dead men can do the party no harm. You’re a very poor Communist, as I’ve said before. In fact, you never were a good one. You’re as weak as a snowball in hell, I say. You’re just a bourgeois in disguise!"

Brusco grew pale, and Peppone intervened.

"That’s enough," he said. "Comrade Gigio has the right idea and nobody can deny it. It’s part of the groundwork of Communist philosophy. Communism gives us the goal at which to aim and democratic discussion must be confined to the quickest and surest ways to attain it."

Giggio nodded his head in satisfaction, while Peppone continued: "Once it’s been decided that these people are or may be dangerous to the cause and therefore we must eliminate them, the next thing is to work out the best method of elimination. Because if by our carelessness, we were to allow a a single reactionary to escape, then we should indeed be traitors to the Party. Is that clear?"

"Absolutely," the others said in chorus. "You’re dead right."

"There are six of us," Peppone went on, "And twenty names on that list, among them the Filotti, who has a whole regiment in his house and a cache of arms in the cellar. Fi we were to attack these people one by one, at the first shot the rest would run away. We must call our forces together and divide them up into twenty squads, each one equipped to deal with a particular objective."

"Very good," said Gigio.

"Good, my foot!" shouted Peppone. "That’s not the half of it! We need a twenty first squad, equipped even better than the rest to hold off the police. And mobile squads to cover the roads and the river. If a fellow rushes into action in the way you proposed, without proper precautions, running the risk of botching it completely, then he’s not a good communist, he’s just a damn fool."

It was Gigio’s turn to pale now, and he bit his lip in anger, while Peppone proceeded to give orders. Smilzo was to transmit word to the cell leaders in the outlying settlements and these were to call their men together. A green rocket would give the signal to meet in appointed places, where Falchetto, Brusco and Straziami would form the squads and assign the targets. A red rocket would bid them go into action. Smilzo went off on his motorcycle while Lungo, Brusco, Straziami and Gigio discussed the composition of the squads.

"You must do a faultless job," Peppone told them. "I shall hold you personally responsible for its success. Meanwhile, I’ll see if the police are suspicious and find some way to put them off.

Don Camillo, later waiting in vain for the lights to go on and the radio to resume its mumble, decided to get ready for bed. Suddenly he heard a knock at the door and when he drew it open cautiously, he found Peppone before him.

"Get out of here in a hurry!" Peppone panted. "Pack a bag and go! Put on an ordinary suit of clothes, take your boat and row down the river."

Don Camillo stared at him with curiosity.

"Comrade Mayor, have you been drinking?"

"Hurry," said Peppone. "The people’s Front has won and the squads are getting ready. There’s a list of people to be executed and your name is the first one!"

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Go buy the book. Read the whole thing. It is a collection of exceptionally good short stories written about the sort of times that try men’s souls.

 

One thought on “Simply the Best

  1. Now that I’ve actually been to the relevant bits of Northern Italy I ought to reread these. I think I read them in yellow Victor Gollancz edition when I was about 9 and I’ve never read them since

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