Giovannino Guareschi

The Little World

Gabriele Dessin

For it is the broad, eternal breath of the river that cleanses the air. Of the placid, majestic river, on the bank of which, towards evening, Death passes swiftly by on a bicycle.

     When I was young I used to be a reporter for a newspaper and I would ride around all day on my bicycle to find facts to report.

     One day, I met a girl, and so I spent my days thinking about how she would have behaved if I had become emperor of Mexico or if I had died. In the evenings, I would fill my page with invented facts, and people liked these facts because they were much more truthful than the real ones.

     I have no more than two hundred words in my vocabulary, and they are the same words I used to tell the adventure of the old man run over by a cyclist or of the housewife who, while peeling potatoes, lost her fingertip.

     So no literature or other such stuff: in this book, I am the newspaper reporter who merely reports news events. Invented stuff, and therefore so plausible that it has happened to me many times to write a story and see it, after a couple of months, repeated in reality. And there’s nothing extraordinary about it, it’s simply a matter of reasoning: one considers the time, the season, the fashion, the psychological moment and concludes that, this being the case, in a certain environment this and that other story can occur. (…)

     The environment is a piece of land in the Po Valley: and what must be made clear here is that, to me, the Po begins in Piacenza.

     The fact that the river is the same from Piacenza upwards means nothing: even Via Emilia, from Piacenza to Milan, is basically the same road.

     You cannot make a comparison between a river and a road because roads belong to history and rivers to geography.

     And that said?

     History is not made by men: men suffer history as they suffer geography. And history, after all, depends on geography.

     Man tries to correct geography by piercing mountains and diverting rivers; in so doing they deceive themselves in beleiving they are giving history a different course. But they actually don’t change a thing, because, one fine day, everything will go to hell. The waters will swallow the bridges, break the dams, and fill the mines; houses, palaces and hovels will collapse, grass will grow over  the rubble, and everything will become earth again. And those who survive will have to wrestle the beasts, and history will recommence once more.

     The same old story. 

     Then, after three thousand years, they will discover a water tap, buried under forty metres of mud, and a lathe made by Breda of Sesto San Giovanni and they will say: “Look at that!”. And they will get busy organising the same nonsense as their distant ancestors. Because men are wretched creatures condemned to progress, which in turn, irretrievably leads to the replacement of our Everlasting Father with the newest chemical formulas. And so, in the end, the Everlasting Father gets fed up, shifts the last phalanx on his left hand’s little finger by a tenth of a millimetre, and the whole world goes up in smoke.

     So, the Po begins in Piacenza, and it does well because it is the only respectable river that exists in Italy: and rivers that are respectable develop in the plains, because water is made to remain horizontal, and only when it is perfectly horizontal does water retain all its natural dignity. Niagara Falls are freaks, like men walking on their hands.

     The Po begins in Piacenza, and the Mondo Piccolo [2] of my stories also begins in Piacenza, which means it is situated in that slice of plain between the Po and the Apennines.

     «… The sky is often a beautiful blue, as everywhere in Italy, except in the worst season, when thick fog rises. (…) The soil is for the most part gentle, sandy and fresh, somewhat strong upstream and at times distinctly clayey. A luxuriant vegetation cloaks the land, which does not have a bare palm of verdure, which seeks to extend its dominion all the way over the wide sand land of the Po.

     «The fields of swaying crops, lined throughout with rows of vines married to poplar, (…) crowned by rows of well-heeled mulberry trees, show the ferocity of the soil (…). Wheat, corn, coupled grapes, silkworms, hemps, clover, are the main products; every generation of plants proves well here, and oaks and every kind of fruit used to grow there: dense reeds make the coasts of the riverside bristly, along which, in the past more than now, green were wide and rich poplar woods, here and there interspersed with alders and willows, or made vague by the fragrant lonicera caprifolium, which, embracing the plants, forms little huts and spires sprinkled with colourful bells.

     «There are many oxen, pigs and poultry, threatened by martens and beech martens: the hunter finds many hares, often prey for foxes, and, at the right time, quails, turtle doves, partridges with greyish plumage, woodcocks that mock the ground like sieves, and other birds of passage; you can see large groups of swift starlings: crowds of ducks spread out over the Po in winter. The white gull shimmers on its attentive wings, then swoops down and catches the fish; among the reeds hides the multicoloured sandpiper, the reed warbler, the moorhen and the cunning coot: on the river you hear the charlotti’s cry, you see herons, plovers, lapwings, and other riparian birds, rapacious hawks and swirling cackle-terrors; nocturnal barn owls and silent fairy-birds: sometimes greater birds were admired and taken, to which up the Po or down the Alps, the winds from strange countries brought.

«In that hollow the mosquitoes bite… (“From muddy ponds the frogs sing the ancient lay”), but in the dazzling summer nights the enchanting nightingale accompanies with its sweetest song the divine harmony of the universe, lamenting perhaps that a similar synphony will not sweeten the free hearts of men.

     «Barbels, tenches, voracious pikes, silvery carp, exquisite red-finned perch, lubricious eels and large sturgeon, sometimes harassed by small lampreys, swim up the river, sometimes weighing a hundred and fifty kilograms or more. (…)

     «On the beach of the river lie the remains of the village Stagno, once very extensive, now almost all swallowed up by the waves: on the side where the municipality touches Stirone near the Taro, stands the village Fontanelle, open and vast. There, where the provincial road crosses the bank of the Po, stands the hamlet of Ragazzola: towards morning, where the ground lowers, is the small village of Fossa; and the hermit little village of Rigosa stands, humble and enchanted, amidst white maples, poplars and other plants, not far from the place where the Rigosa river flows into the Taro. Among these villages is Roccabianca».

     When I reread this page by the notary Francesco Luigi Campari, I seem to become a character in the fable he recounts, because I was born in the “open and vast” village.

     The little world of Mondo Piccolo is not here, however: it is nowhere fixed: the village of Mondo piccolo is a little black dot that moves, together with its Pepponi and its Smilzi, [3] up and down the river for that slice of land between the Po and the Apennines: but this is the climate. This is the landscape: and, in a town like this, all you have to do is stop on the road and look at a farmhouse drowned in maize and hemp, and a story is immediately born.


This is the Bassa, [4] land where there are people who do not baptise their children and blaspheme not to deny God, but to spite God. And it may be twentyfour miles or less away from the city, but in the plain jagged by the embankments, where you can’t see beyond a hedge or beyond the turning, every mile is worth ten. And the city is part of another world.


   I say that this is the miracle of the Bassa.

     Against a scrupulously realistic backdrop such as the one depicted by the notary Francesco Luigi Campari (a man of great heart and in love with the Bassa, but who would not have granted the Bassa even a turtle dove if turtle doves had not been part of the local fauna), a newspaper reporter shoves in a story and one no longer knows whether the notary’s description or the story invented by the reporter is more true. 

     This is the world of Mondo piccolo: long, straight streets, small houses painted red, yellow and navy blue, lost amidst rows of vines. On August evenings, a huge red moon rises slowly behind the embankment, looking like something from other centuries. One is sitting on a pile of gravel, on the bank of the ditch, his bicycle leaning against the telegraph pole. He rolls himself a cigarette. You pass, he asks you for a match. You talk. You tell him you are going to the ‘festival’ [5]to dance and he shakes his head. You tell him there are pretty girls and he shakes his head again.


     One now says: brother, why are you telling me these stories?

     Why yes, I answer. Because you have to realise that, in that slice of land between the river and the mountain, things can happen that do not happen elsewhere. Things that never clash with the landscape. And there breathes a special air that is good for the living and the dead, and there even the dogs have a soul. So, one understands don Camillo better, Peppone and all the other stuff. And one is not surprised that Christ speaks and that one can smash another’s noggin, but honestly, though: that is, without hatred. And that two enemies find themselves, in the end, in agreement in the essential things.

     For it is the broad, eternal breath of the river that cleanses the air. Of the placid, majestic river, on the bank of which, towards evening, Death passes swiftly by on a bicycle. Or you ride along the embankment at night, and you stop, and you sit and look into a small cemetery that is there, under the embankment. And if the shadow of a dead person comes and sits next to you, you don’t get scared and talk quietly to it.

     That’s the air you breathe in that remote slice of land: and you can easily understand what politics can become down there.

     Now, there is a fact: in these stories Christ Crucified often speaks. Because there are three main characters: the priest Don Camillo, the communist Peppone and Christ Crucified.

     Well, here something needs to be clarified: if the priests feel offended because of don Camillo, they are perfectly free to break a big candle over my head; if the communists feel offended because of Peppone, they are perfectly free to break an iron bar over my back. But if anyone else feels offended because of Christ’s speeches, it’s pointless; because the speaker in my stories is not Christ, but my Christ: that is, the voice of my conscience.

     My personal stuff, my internal affairs.

     So: every man for himself and God for all.

[1]  Giovannino Guareschi, Tutto Don Camillo, Rizzoli, Milano 2018, 3 voll., vol. I, pp. 5-28 passim. Translated by La Livella Magazine.

[2] Literally translated in English: “Little World”.

[3] Peppone” and “Smilzo” are two of the main characters in the Mondo piccolo stories. Here, the author uses their plural forms (“Pepponi” and “Smilzi”) to rhetorically indicate his characters in general.

[4] “La Bassa” is the popular Italian name for the area extending from the south bank of the Po River, in the north, to the Apennines mountains, in the south; and from the city of Piacenza, in the east, to the coast of the Adriatic Sea, in the west.

[5] The “festival” was a typical attraction of Italian folk festivals of the post-World War II years: it consisted of a rotating circular wooden floor covered by a marquee, above which people danced while listening to the orchestra.

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