24 November 2015


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 132

You might have noticed that last meeting ended with some confusion over whether or not we had a proper English translation of Italo Calvino's retelling of Naso d'Argento. Well, we did. What we didn't have was the original Italian text. (!!!) And so this meeting begins with an apology. To Bat and anyone else who read the story at the link, I'm sorry, but it wasn't another dip into Calvino, but another sort of language exercise. =( The elusive text itself is available online, but not for reading. If you like, you can listen to it on YouTube.

For those who are more skilled at mining the Internet than I am and who would like to try finding a written copy anyway, the text you are looking for should begin this way:

C'era una lavandaia che era rimasta vedova con tre figliole. S'ingegnavano tutte quattro a lavar roba piu che potevano, ma pativano la fame lo stesso. Un giorno la figlia maggiore disse alla madre: "Dovessi anche andare a servire il Diavolo, voglio andarmene via di casa."

"Non dire cosi figlia mia," fece la madre. "Non sai cosa ti puo succedere."

Non passarono molti giorni e a casa loro si presentò un sigmore vestito di nero, tutto compito, e con il naso d'argento.

Now, isn't that better? I had wondered why the text I was studying was so much harder than last week's L'Amore delle tre melagrane, and before I realised my mistake, I decided it had to do with all those verbs in the subjunctive tense. Having figured things out, I have a new hypothesis, which is that style matters. Calvino just wrote better. Even if your Italian is as bad as mine, those paragraphs trip off the tongue.

This example of his writing includes another significant change from his source story. The original had three bouquets; his version has three very specific flowers. And since they're important to the story, I've made them important to this post.

Le pose tra i capelli una rosa

Naso d'Argento is the Italian version of the more famous French faerie tale Blaubart. (And my languages collide again.) Don't they make fascinating separated-at-birth identical twins? Blaubart, the bloodthirsty serial husband, is merely a foreigner who fools the girl and her family into thinking he is one of them; but Naso d'Argento is actually the devil . . . who, come to think of it, is also a foreigner who wants to fool us into thinking that his home wouldn't be a bad place to live. But while Blaubart had to woo his reluctant bride through extravagant "dates," Naso d'Argento simply takes advantage of one girl's remark that she'd rather serve the devil than keep working as a laundress. Both stories have worthwhile morals, but the second definitely carries more weight.

Another similarity is that there is something immediately off-putting about the two villains: a beard that is an unnatural colour and a clearly unnatural nose. I'm reminded of Father Malachi Martin bringing up the Irish warning that you can always tell the devil by his feet: he cannot hide his cloven hooves. Perhaps the closest thing in Filipino folklore is the way to identify an aswang when it is in its human form: you will see that your reflection in its eyes is upside-down. Good luck to anyone who gets that close! =P

Le mise tra i capelli una garofano

In Blaubart, the wife's disobedience is revealed by the blood on the key that she was ordered never to use--a plot point that has brought out many a reader's inner Sigmund Freud. In Naso d'Argento, the first two sisters are outed by the flowers they hadn't even known were in their hair. I vastly prefer the Italian version. The withering of something that was once fresh and beautiful reminds us that virtue can be very delicate.

It's also interesting that all three sisters disobey Naso d'Argento, but he can act only against the first two because so much hinges on the flowers.

Even the reader's ability to get the most out of this story hinges on these blooms, as I saw only when I decided to accent this post with images of a rosa, a garofano, and a gelsomino. Now, I knew all along that roses are often red and might have also remembered that jasmine is white . . . but I couldn't have told you that carnations are usually pink. Which made me think of the following humbling graphic that you may also have seen on your social media haunt of choice . . .

Perhaps one day someone will write a Fiabe Moderne, in which brands get to have the mythic value that we've mentally assigned them.

Anche a lei mentr'era addornamentata mise un fiore nei capelli: un fior de gelsomino

We see why Calvino chose the flowers he did, but what is the logic that guides Naso d'Argento in making the same choices in the story? Is there something in the reckless character of the first sister that suggested a bold red rose to him? And something in the third sister's concern for her two older siblings that moved him to give her a pure white jasmine? Perhaps, but this implies that the second sister gets a pink carnation just because she comes between the other two. If the insult against the proverbial "middle child" weren't bad enough, there's also a plot hole to contend with: Naso d'Argento wouldn't have known that the third sister would turn out to be so virtuous, so how could he have anticipated the white with some pink?

I was loving everything about this story until the third sister put her plan into action. For if Naso d'Argento truly is the devil, then you really shouldn't try to outwit him. Isn't this the very mistake the first two sisters make? I'm just being consistent here, but I'm likely also being too literal. Inspired by a Twitter friend who suggested that Aesop's fable of the crow and the pitcher can be an allegory for the rosary, I've tried to find a pious practice in the three supposed bags of laundry. The Three Hail Marys, perhaps? . . . Okay, probably not . . . The sacrament of Confession, by which the prodigal daughters return to Holy Mother Church and are washed clean--the number three being both merely what the plot demands and an allusion to the Holy Trinity? . . . Yeah, I think I'll stick with that for now. =)

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Naso d'Argento:

1. If you wrote your own version of this story, which body part would serve as your main giveaway that something is not right about its owner?
2. How do you think Naso d'Argento chose flowers for each of the sisters?
3. Do you see a moral or applicable takeaway in the third sister's escape plan? If so, do share!

Our next story is Principe Granchio. This time, I am very sure that I have found Calvino's own retelling. (If I haven't, please correct me as soon as possible!) I have no idea who translated the available English version, but I've checked random paragraphs in the former text against their counterparts in the latter and find that they fulfill the important condition of matching.

Image Sources: a) Naso d'Argento, b) Rose, c) Carnation, d) Brands vs. Plants, e) Jasmine


Belfry Bat said...

Intriguing point: only the Third Sister, of all the characters, has a proper name, and the name is Light.

One important thing about the Devil is that he is the Lord's Slave. In choosing to refuse God his service, which is to say in denying his nature, he has lost most of his freedom. Of course, strictly speaking, tigers also lack freedom (in a different way) and we shouldn't be reckless with tigers either; and the Devil is much more intelligent than any tiger. So, if you like, Naso D'Argento chooses the rose, the carnation, and the jasmine, because he had no choice in the matter...

1) His hands, I think. It'll take me some time to figure out why, though, or how.

3) Some folk do think the Devil prefers to be unknown; consider, for instance, The Usual Suspects. Maybe one suggestion here is that this D'Argento is so afraid of being known or seen from afar that he doesn't investigate too clearly when sight of him is even suggested; it's almost as if when he is seen clearly he himself cannot see as clearly. I don't know how solid is the theology there, but the poetry at any rate is appealing.

Sheila said...

I haven't read the story so I can't answer your questions. But I will say, carnations can be any color. When I was little, we had red, pink, and white in a flower box. The white were my favorite, but my husband says I shouldn't have white carnations as a favorite flower, no matter how heavenly they smell, because they are a symbol of death in Dominican culture. You put them in the hands of corpses.

And I can name those plants: maple, black walnut, hemlock (?), oak, birch, and ... that last one could be almost anything. I'd say probably elm, though, because that's what it would be if it were growing in my yard. So much of the information in my head, I didn't really need to learn because I could google it, but you can't google a leaf! So it's always worth it to learn your plants.

Bat, I think I'd go with hands, too. They'd be smooth (symbolizing a lack of work, obviously) and cold.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- So you were reading Calvino's Italian version with no problem? I wanted to mention that about the youngest sister, since St. Lucy is my best friend and all, but I didn't trust my understanding of the recording; and all the other sources I've looked at say that Calvino has named at least one other sister. And then I almost added a paragraph about the middle sister not even getting a proper name . . . only to run into a third source that had a name for her!

After I published this and went to bed, it did occur to me that Naso d'Argento chose the flowers at random and that their meaningfulness came from Someone Else . . . I like your explanation of it--as well as your explanation that our villain might be so afraid of scrutiny that he would do the silliest things to avoid it! He may have also wanted to avoid answering questions about why there were so many dirty clothes in his huge home, when he was clearly the only inhabitant. LOL!

I think the only real plot hole is the third sister seeming to forget about the other two after the first day. But perhaps you have an explanation for that, too? ;-)

Sheila -- I figured that if anyone would know those leaves, it would be you! My flimsy defence is that those trees don't grow where I live. I can identify several local trees on sight, but I haven't tried doing it by only their leaves.

As for the flowers, I confess that the red-pink-white reading is totally my own: the story actually doesn't identify their colours! So they could have all been white. In which case I'd have to find their meanings in Italian culture.

Now that I've written that, something is niggling at me . . . AHA! I've just pulled one of my Don Camillo books (sadly, an English translation) off the shelf. And it reminds me that white carnations were a symbol of Italy's Catholic political party. Red carnations, on the other hand, were the flower of the Communists. Italo Calvino would have known this. But would he have made Naso d'Argento use the Catholic colour (in the expectation that it would wither) or the Communist colour (because it was the atheistic one)? Now I imagine that he didn't mention colours because he wanted to corner readers later and ask what colours they saw when the flowers were mentioned! =P But this is just my projection of my desire to know which colours he himself saw when he was writing this story.

In any case, it's worth noting that both roses and carnations could be several colours, but jasmine is only white.

This is the first time I've heard of white carnations meaning death, though two articles I've pulled up in the past few minutes say that they are also associated with death in France and Hong Kong. *shrug* We use white orchids here.

Finally, would you know if the flowers here are carnations? --> https://popbabble.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/tobey-maguire-spiderman-2-1.png?w=474

That's a screen cap from Spider-man 2. Peter Parker is about to watch one of Mary Jane's plays, and he hopes to present her with that bouquet backstage. If they are carnations, I don't think anyone on the crew or in the main cast would have known about the association with death.

Belfry Bat said...

No, I wasn't reading Calvino's (apparently), and had many problems, and I did in the end look at Martin's English.

And now I that you mention that another sister was named,... I can't be sure I don't remember reading one... Oh! I see now. Lucia is named first, by the other sisters, and then Lucia names the oldest. Well, if I were re-writing it (which, as it's a fable, I can totally do... ) et.c.


Hi, Sheila! There's something in that, for sure; I think I was going to make them clumsy, as if they had no feeling, but it's hard to make that visible at a glance.

Enbrethiliel said...


According to Wikipedia, the oldest sister is Carlotta. You'll also find versions or stage adaptations of Naso d'Argento that name the eldest Assuntina and give the name Carlotta to the middle sister. I wish I could ask Calvino why he didn't name the middle sister.

Brandon said...

So I suppose one moral of the story is that when you wake up you should always make sure your hair looks nice!

I was also not very impressed by the third sister's plan; although I suppose outsmarting the devil is a common folktale theme, it's necessarily a fool's game. And it's made a bit worse by the fact that its success really ends up depending on the affection the devil has for the third girl! But perhaps there's a message that one need not fear the devil as long as someone has an eye out for what he is doing?

Enbrethiliel said...


Naso d'Argento isn't an easy story to draw a worthwhile moral from: that's for sure!

There is an earlier version of the story in which the devil figure falls in love with the girl; it ends with a line to the effect of, "And that is why the devil has never married again." The lack of theological depth bothers me. The devil isn't just any character, you know!

But I do like your suggestion for a takeaway. Unlike the third sister, however, the rest of us should likely leave the watching to those with some authority!

MrsDarwin said...

I was interested that the first two sisters didn't notice the flowers in their hair, or, perhaps more to the point, they didn't question the flowers in their hair. Maybe that's part of the moral: the devil places this beautiful thing in the sisters' way as a way of managing their behavior, and only the youngest is critical enough to question why he'd done it and remove it. Also, thought it was fascinating that the devil doesn't directly know what the sisters are up to. He can only tell by the consequences of their behavior -- when they go along with his scheme by leaving the flower in their hair. The first two sisters themselves are responsible for revealing their snooping to the devil.

I couldn't name any of the leaves on a quick glance, though I could tell you right away that none of them was poison ivy. :)

Sheila said...

Well, I can well imagine the story being made up by an exasperated grandmother to answer a child's question of, "And who's the Devil's wife? What do you mean, he doesn't have one?"

That picture is definitely of carnations.

Not all trees can be easily distinguished by their leaves -- they picked some obvious ones. :D

Enbrethiliel said...


Mrs. Darwin -- Seeing seems to be a major theme here. Naso d'Argento doesn't want us too look too closely at him . . . or at ourselves!

The withered flowers seem to have a function similar to the silver nose: they're a dead giveaway that something is off. But while Naso d'Argento's "red flag" is literally as plain as the nose on his face (and I can't believe I didn't notice the Pinocchio connection until now!), there have to be "detectors" planted on people.

Sheila -- I would have settled the question with "He doesn't have one because he's so awful," but my imagination might have also insisted on weaving a proper fiaba in reply.

Brandon said...

A thought I had this morning was that the 'make sure your hair looks nice' moral might not actually be too far off. What gets the first two sisters in trouble is that they rushed into it -- opening the mysterious door was the first thing that they did when they had the chance. But the third sister, while just as resolved to open the door, didn't rush into it at all, and because of that she didn't miss the important relevant detail of the flower.

Enbrethiliel said...


I recall an article on prayer that said if the very first thing you do when you wake up is pray, then your day will be ordered rightly, no matter what happens afterward. Since it turns out that there's nothing inherently damning about opening the forbidden door, we can conclude that the sister just ordered the events of her day rightly!