The Red and the Bleak

Comrade Don Camillo

(This review appeared in the ReadReverb newsletter, August 4, 2006, and on the ReadReverb website)

The atmosphere of the Cold War now seems as alien to us as that of prohibition America, or the grime and crime of Victorian London, and it's easy to forget what strange, misshapen battle-lines were drawn in those years. The Roman Catholic Church and the Communists found themselves on opposite sides of the putative Front for a number of reasons---the former's investment in established orders; the latter's tacit hostility to any religion proportional to the extent to which it might be "organized"---despite professing respective interests in the soul and freedom of the common man. But it's in this subtle, fearful era that we find Don Camillo, Italian priest, secreting himself and a copy of the Gospels into Russia as part of a junket arranged by international branches of the Communist party.

Guareschi's series of stories about Don Camillo all have a knockabout atmosphere to them: Father Brown, retold as farce. The priest causes havoc on the trip, using Communist pedantry to split the little group of Italian Reds, starting fights and revealing (to themselves, not to the authorities) the deeply-buried religion of both oppressed natives and disillusioned politico-tourists. And, as usual, Camillo has a rather everyday hotline to God and Jesus in his head, and this familiarity extends to parish-magazine cartoons at the start of each chapter, parables of the ensuing stories. But of all the books in the series, this alone has a core of iron to it: sometimes the silliness drifts away like smoke to reveal a rather withering satire of aspects of Communist Russia that we now all know to have been true. One wonders why, of all the books, it's the last one that has condensed so surprisingly in this way.

Only on reaching Guareschi's postscript is this change of tone explained. In keeping with the times in which he wrote, the author considered himself under siege---politically, culturally and journalistically---from the Communists, and seems to have moved a pace or two in the direction of the hard right-wing, as a reaction to his own perceived oppression. It's as though the series has lost its admixture of Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote that, thus far, has prevented it becoming a political tract. And although the stories are as fun and as intricate in their comedy as any of the earlier ones, spotting this swerve to the right serves as a timely reminder that, however clearly Don Camillo the man serves his God---and despite the moralizing against Communism, the priest remains a decent, kind, sympathetic figure---it's important to remember that the Don Camillo books are in the service of their author, at the very least.