Sebastiano Vassalli: Le due chiese [The Two Churches]
Vassalli claims that the tune of Internationale, the working class anthem, had its origins with Vincenzo Antonio Petrali’s Orobia. (The only references I can find to this is here (text in Italian) and here (text also in Italian, near the bottom of the page). However, he does accept that the tune we know was written by Pierre Degeyter. Whatever the case, he feels that this spirit of labour is to be found in the valleys of the book. The names of the towns are, as he makes quite clear, fictitious but they are overlooked by a large mountain called Macigno Bianco, which means something like White Rock and is, I assume, Mont Blanc (Monte Blanco in Italian) and the valleys must therefore be in and around the Valle d’Aosta. While the book has a historical setting – much of the action takes place from World War I up to almost the present day – the characters are, unlike some of his other books, fictitious. Moreover, there is not one main character but, rather, the book is about all the people of the village of Rocca di Sasso.
Everything starts, as Vassalli puts it, with four shots from a gun. The body is that of a police officer, Ermes Prandini and his son, Luigi, will become a key character in this book. After her husband’s death, Luigi’s mother, Immacolata. becomes very religious. Luigi does not. But first he listens to some of the legends of the region. For some, the Macigno Banco is God’s residence on earth. It is also where we go when we die. Heaven is on the other side of the mountain. A group of villagers tried to find the Lost Valley where Heaven is. They did not get there but did see it from a distance. Because of their efforts, they invented the sport of mountain-climbing. Hell is, of course, beneath the mountain. In times past, the climate was much milder and people lived up the mountain. But, they turned away from God and behaved badly, so he punished them, sending masses of snow onto them and burying them beneath it, which is why, during the spring thaw, you can hear the groans of the sinners.
Luigi grows up to become the local school teacher and also a socialist and atheist. Some parents try to pull their children out of school when they learn this but are firmly told that school attendance is mandatory and so they have to leave them in school. He lives in sin with Mariaccia. The key event of the morning is when the bus pulls up to take all the children from the various areas to school. The bus driver is called Anselmo but everyone calls him Ansimino. Everyone in the town has a nickname and it is almost obligatory. Indeed, Vassalli gives us a long explanation of how nicknames are formed – some from behaviour (for example, the priest is called Oliosanto (holy oil) while Dr. Barozzi is nicknamed Lavatif, which means enema because he has only two cures for every illness – an enema or herb tea, while Eusebio dei Cravon, the surveyor is nicknamed Caproni, which means goat and has been used for all his family since time immemorial as they are all stubborn. Ansimino’s arrival is eagerly awaited because it is he that brings the news and gossip of the valley. Another person who has inherited a nickname is Giuliano Mezzasega. Giuliano is bullied by his father, Giacomo, who owns the local store. Giuliano wants to get out and sees his chance when he does national service. He plans to stay in the army. However, when Giacomo learns this, he goes straight to the barracks and tells the army that Giuliano has to come home. He does. Giacomo is called Mezzasega (Half a Saw) because when he did his national service, the doctor noted that he had flat feet and a weak chest and said to him, You are only half a saw. The nickname has passed to Giuliano.
Only two people have left traces of their life in the area – one called The Heretic and the other The Blessed. The Heretic – real name Dolcino – is the son of a priest and engaged to a beautiful woman. The pair make a fine couple, almost like Hollywood film stars. Dolcino wants to build God’s kingdom on Earth. He has quite a few followers. The obvious place to build God’s kingdom is on the mountain so off they set – in the summer. However, winter comes. It is cold. There are avalanches. The mountain men do not share their views on co-ownership of property and some people are killed. The second winter is worse still. It does not end well. The Blessed is Fra Bernardino who finds it inconvenient that Jerusalem is not in their valley and plans to build it there. He collects money, he preaches. He even persuades a rich man to give a large rock as the area to build his Jerusalem. While digging they find a rock exactly the same size as the one on Jesus’ sepulchre. It is a miracle. Sadly, a few months later, Fra Bernardino has a heart attack and dies. Work will continue slowly over a period of three centuries but it is never the New Jerusalem Fra Bernardino wanted.
But war is in the offing. Most people are against it, not least because they do not know who they are fighting or why, though one or two favour it. These include Luigi Prandini, who is no longer a socialist. However, it inevitably comes. (This is World War I.) Thirteen local men are called up, though a couple of mothers try to hide their sons. Ansimino organises a last supper. The symbolism of thirteen men – the number of the apostles plus Jesus – is not lost on him. So, off they go to war. War is brutal. Men get killed. One is taken prisoner but never seen or heard of again. One man loses his legs. Luigi Prandini overhears anti-war talk and reports it. The men concerned are punished but a stray shot hits him and he loses a hand. He now wears a glove and will be called Black Hand. Ansimimo is badly hurt when his lorry’s brakes fail but he recovers.
As they are called off to war, a small chapel is built to honour them, with the famous local painter, Gianin Panpôs (it means hard bread and is inherited from his father, also a painter, who had a hard life), painting the walls. Another one is built to honour them after the war – The Church of the Veterans, as they call it – hence the title of the book. However, before the war ends, there is the Spanish flu epidemic, which kills a few of the villagers. After the war, things seem to get worse as there are three murders (all because of love) but once again life moves on. Luigi Prandini writes a book about his experiences in the war and then publishes it himself but when he tries to get booksellers to stock it, they refuse, saying they are inundated with such books and no-one wants to read them. So he joins a party, that is looking after men like himself who had fought in the war – though not named, he obviously means the Fascists – and works for their newspaper, eventually becoming editor and then a member of parliament. World War II comes and men are again called up but, this time, the deaths we see are between the Fascists and the partisans. The book ends sometime after World War II, with one major change. Our two heroes – the two churches – have been almost abandoned and are knocked down to make a car park.
This is another fine book by Vassalli, even if it is not based on fact, like some of his others, nor – with the possible exception of the two churches – is there an obvious hero. It is clear where Vassalli’s affections lie – with the ordinary men and women of the valleys, with all their foibles and faults. If there is a single hero, it is Ansimino but even he disappears from the narrative for long stretches while we learn of the activities of the others. No, the real hero is the village and its inhabitants.
First published 2010 by Einaudi
No English translation