Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A thousand pieces

‘Their way of making war is very much the same. Into the pot they cast human flesh, explosive powders, and extracts from manuals of military science, then they put on the lid of uncompromising discipline and wait for a whistle to tell them that it’s all over. Only the whistle doesn’t blow, and the pot explodes into a thousand pieces.’ This is the famous Italian Giovannino Guareschi, born 110 years ago today, writing in a diary he kept during his imprisonment by the Germans in the latter years of World War Two. Guareschi is best known for his comic short stories about Don Camillo, but his humour also shines through the tales of horrors in prison camp life.

Giovanni or Giovannino Guareschi was born in Fontanelle di Roccabianca, near Parma, on 1 May 1908 into a middle-class family. After an unsuccessful stint at the local university he worked as a doorman at a sugar refinery, but soon found his niche in writing for a local newspaper. In 1929 he became editor of Corriere Emiliano, a satirical magazine, and between 1936 and 1943 he was chief editor of Bertoldo, a similar publication. In 1940, he marred Ennia Pallini, and they had two children. During the Second World War, he was a critic of the Mussolini government, but nevertheless joined the army (to avoid prosecution), and trained as an artillery officer. After Italy signed its armistice with the Allies, he was stationed on the Eastern front. He was imprisoned, alongside other Italian soldiers, by the Germans in Poland for three years.

Subsequently, Guareschi returned to Italy and was a cofounder of Candido, a satirical magazine, which he edited until 1957 (apart from a spell in a Parma prison for libel). However, Guareschi is most warmly remembered for his novels, in particular those featuring Don Camillo, the stubborn Catholic priest, who is constantly in trouble with the local communist mayor Peppone. From 1956, he began to spend time in Switzerland for health reasons; he died 1968. There isn’t a wealth of biographical information on Guareschi available online in English, but there is a little at Wikipedia, and the World of Guareschi.

During his imprisonment during the war, Guareschi kept diary notebooks - often reading aloud their contents to other prisoners. He brought them home after the liberation, and these were published in 1949 by Rizzoli as Diario Clandestino 1943-1945 (which has its own Italian Wikipedia page). Some years later, in 1958, this was translated by Frances Frenaye for publication in English in the US (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy) and the UK (Victor Gollancz) as My Secret Diary 1943-1945. The full text is freely available online at Internet Archive.

Rather than a preface or introduction, Guareschi begins his published diary with Instructions for Use, which is worth reproducing at length.

‘This Secret Diary is so secret that it isn’t a diary at all. I say this partly in order to correct the title of the book and partly in order to allay the misgivings of anyone whom it happens to antagonize. It is not a diary in the sense of being a day-by-day account of what the writer thought and did, one of the usual compilations in which he regards himself as the center and fulcrum of the universe.

I did have the intention of compiling a diary of this kind, and for two years I jotted down everything I did or didn’t do, everything I thought and saw, including what I should have thought, even if I didn’t think it. As a result, I brought home with me three bulky notebooks, containing enough material to fill a volume of two thousand pages. As soon as I got there, I put a new ribbon in the typewriter and set about deciphering and amplifying my notes. Out of the two years I did not skip a single day. It was a tiresome and feverish job but, at the end, my diary was complete. I reread it attentively, polished it up and tried to give it a good tempo. Then I had it retyped and, after all this was done, I put it away with the intention of never looking at it again. This, I believe, is one of the wisest acts of my whole career as a writer. [. . .]

Like millions of others, better and worse than myself, I was drawn into this war. As an Italian, I found myself an ally of the Germans at the start and at the end their prisoner. In 1943 the Anglo-Americans bombed my house; in 1945 they freed me from prison and gave me cans of soup and condensed milk. As far as I am concerned, that is the whole story. I had no more influence than a nutshell tossed about on the ocean, and I emerged without ribbons or medals on my chest. I emerged as a victor, however, because I came through the cataclysm without hatred in my soul and I made the discovery of a precious friend, myself.

As for the exact course of my personal story, it was this. One day in September of 1943, I found myself, along with a group of other officers, in an internment camp in Poland. Subsequently I changed camps several times, but the story remained essentially the same. It’s no use going into all the details, because anyone who wasn’t a prisoner in this last war or the one before it will probably be a prisoner in the next. If he has not had the experience himself, then a father has had it before him or a son will have it after, or else he has heard about it from a brother or a friend.

For present purposes, the only thing of interest is that, even in prison, I remained a stubborn native of the province of Emilia, of the lower reaches of the Po valley; I gritted my teeth and said to myself: “I won’t die, even if they kill me!” And I didn’t die, either, probably only because they didn’t kill me, but at any rate I didn't die. I stayed alive in spirit as well as in body, and kept right on working. I wrote not only notes for my diary, but also a number of things for everyday camp use.

Indeed, I spent a good part of my time going from hut to hut and reading aloud the sort of thing of which the present book will furnish examples. Pieces which were intended at the time only for camp consumption and not at all for publication in the world outside the Lager. And yet, now that years have gone by, these pieces are the only ones that seem to me to have some validity. Having locked up my diary, I searched among the greasy, thumb-marked sheets of my camp writings and made up this “secret” collection.

As I have said before, it is a diary so secret as not to be a diary at all. Yet, in many ways, it seems to me to give a better picture of those days, and their thoughts and sorrows than my huge original compendium. Nothing else, I repeat, is valid or deserving of publication. This material is what you might call “authorized”.’

And here are a few extracts from the diary itself.

31 October 1943
‘Many of the captured Russian coats which the Germans have distributed to us have a patch on the chest or back, a little, round patch covering the hole where a bullet went in and a soul went out. My coat has such a patch, just over the heart. It is made of stout cloth and carefully sewn, yet a breath of cold air penetrates the patch, even when there is no wind and a warm sun. And my heart aches, when it is pierced by this icy needle.’

10 December 1943
‘Some men spend the day covering sheets of paper with plans and sketches. They rebuild the house, shift the furniture and debate the wisdom of carving a fireplace out of the living room. This is homesickness, pure and simple; it expresses a man’s need to cast out a safety line linking him to the vital center of his life.

Some men throw themselves into lectures, and into historical, political, philosophical, artistic and literary discussions; they argue about Proust, Croce, Marx, C├ęzanne and Leopardi. This is the instinct of self-preservation; it reflects the necessity of injecting oxygen into the Lager’s dank, stuffy air.

There are men that wander from hut to hut, from bunk to bunk, asking for opinions on the war, how long it will last and what will come after. This may reveal a certain weakness of character, but it is due in large part to boredom and inanition. Other men do nothing but think and talk about food. And this is sheer madness. Of course we are hungry. Hunger hovers over us at every hour of the day and peoples our dreams at night. We accept it in a spirit of resignation, as an inevitable and incurable ill.

But such men are on the way to going mad. Food is the only subject of their conversation. They plan breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks and midnight suppers. They describe and invent sandwiches, draw up menus for sensational banquets to be held after their return home. They collect the names of good restaurants and local delicacies and compile gastronomic guidebooks, or else they write down and annotate recipes for the most complicated dishes.

The futile chatter about things to eat and the futile thought concentrated on eating only spur the appetite. In these men’s heated imaginations are bottomless pits, with stomachs the dimensions of their desires. This form of madness is fraught with anxiety. Its practitioners acquire protruding bones; their faces are yellow from the fear of being hungry rather than from actual hunger.’

3 February 1944
‘They fill a pot with water, measure out the meat and the powdered extracts, close the airtight lid, light the gas and then, when a certain valve emits a whistling sound, the soup is ready.

Their way of making war is very much the same. Into the pot they cast human flesh, explosive powders, and extracts from manuals of military science, then they put on the lid of uncompromising discipline and wait for a whistle to tell them that it’s all over.

Only the whistle doesn’t blow, and the pot explodes into a thousand pieces.’

14 May 1944
‘Today is my son’s fourth birthday. In him I relived my childhood, and now this is taken away. I count his days rather than my own, and even if I am a prisoner I wish that time could have a stop.’

28 June 1944
‘It is pouring rain; the camp is a sea of mud, and the dripping huts look like old boats rotting in some forgotten harbor. The shirts and shorts hung up to dry on a wire in front of the hut hang limp, like a charwoman’s rags.

In these parts hanging up the laundry is a futile act of faith. The weather is just as unstable as the temper of the rags called men, who are supposed to be drying out after immersion in the purifying bath of sorrow. After a brief moment of calm, they have sunk into a mood of complaint and gloom, of doubt, fear and resentment. It is just as futile an act of faith to believe in their spiritual resurrection.

The rain has ceased, and men are streaming outdoors. The camp is studded with puddles, and in them is mirrored the hopeless failure of the Italian middle class, clad in rags and pettiness.’

The Diary Junction

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