08 December 2015


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 134

C'erano due gobbi, fratelli . . .

In case you were wondering about the "random" way I've been choosing the Fiabe Italiane selections . . . I start by looking over the list of all 200 and picking a title that suggests it will be different from the story we've just read. Then I check to see if Italo Calvino's retelling is available online. If it isn't, I choose another story; if it is, I move on to the next step. That next step is finding an English translation of the Calvino. If there isn't one, then it's back to square one; if there is one, then I get ready to announce the title in both Italian and English. And that is how we ended up with I due gobbi or The Two Hunchbacks this week.

- Lo vedi come sono diventato bello? -

This will probably be the weirdest story of the readalong. And maybe even the shortest. So this post will be short, too.

My understanding of Italian was enough to get the story's main ideas across: I was like someone watching a cartoon in another language, picking up a lot from the visuals and missing only the subtlety from the dialogue. But it was partly because I lost a whole layer of meaning that I found the ending almost unbearably cruel.

The younger gobbo is nothing but lucky. The tree he climbs just happens to be the ones the three old ladies like to dance under and he shows up when they just happen to name only two days in their chant. He calls out the obvious third day almost as a reflex and wins the magic lottery.

But can we say that the older gobbo is nothing but unlucky? Unlike his brother, he doesn't stumble upon the old ladies by accident, but seeks them out with a very definite plan. The plan just turns out to be based on a wrong assumption--though one we can't really blame him for making. Does he truly deserve the punishment they inflict upon him?

Full disclosure: I grew up with a physical deformity of my own, and it is making me extra sensitive to the ending. What happens to the older gobbo is like what would have happened to me if I had gone into the operating room trusting the plastic surgeon to reconstruct the left side of my face, only for him to damage the right side of my face. This just isn't something I can take very lightly, even though I know it's not meant to be hurtful.

Luckily, someone else, namely professional translator Denise Muir, was able to on her own blog . . .

Throughout the tale, I'd noticed that things often come in threes. There are three old hags, they come out of a hole in the ground, one after the other. 1. 2. 3. The song that they sing, which ends up having three beats (not two, not four) when the hags start to sing Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, 1, 2, 3 but don't like it when Tuesday is added to make 4. So three is better than two, and four is definitely wrong. When we recreate this in the English version, the placing of commas and conjunctions becomes critical, and the slightest re-positioning can completely change the rhythm, and the musicality of the story. When you're trying to read stories out loud late at night in the library, musicality is often the key to keeping your audience awake!!

Musicality is one thing I definitely missed, reading in silence at my desk at work. But I really should have noticed things coming in threes. Isn't "3" every faerie tale's favourite number? 

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for I Due Gobbi:

1. Do you have an allegorical interpretation for the brothers' crooked backs?
2. What would you say is the moral of this story?

Our next story, chosen after several "spins" on my method, will be Giovannin senza paura or Dauntless Little John. Read along in Italian or in English, and come back soon for the discussion!

Image Source: I Due Gobbi


Belfry Bat said...

This one, I think I had heard before. At least the bit about the singing old ladies...

But I'd be quite at a loss re. any subtext at all, if not for that librarian's commentary you link to here.

Funny thing, though, having read the story the first time and not got the point, it seems that also the second hunchback heard the first half of the story and didn't get the point. Maybe it's a cautionary tale, then, about acting too precipitously on tales cautionary or otherwise?

About allegorical significances... apart from superstition of the Pharisees et al. (who asked "for whose sins was this man was born broken? His parents', or his own?"...), there are back problems that are acquired by long bad habits... I feel like I'm over-reaching, though.

Enbrethiliel said...


I like your interpretation! We can't say what a story means until it is done . . . but in fairness to us, how can we be sure when it's done???

My own back isn't very happy with me these days. I know that all I have to do is work on better posture at the office, but the work I do encourages slumping and I usually just give in. =( I wish I could find some of Calvino's notes on this story.

Perhaps I Due Gobbi is also about form: good structure in music and symmetry in the human body. Beautiful music makes its composers and listeners beautiful, too, while not-so-beautiful music has a deforming effect.

Belfry Bat said...

I think you're winning this one.

Brandon said...

I think it's often true that there are goods that we can get by accident that we only mess up if we try to get them by design. We tend to take fairy tales as moralistic, but sometimes, I think, they just convey the sad reality of things so that we won't be naive about them.

Enbrethiliel said...


What we might call "Tier 1" or "A List" faerie tales are definitely affecting the way I read these lesser-known folk tales! Right now, the only ones with sad endings that I can think of are by Hans Christian Andersen--and they are more vehicles for his sense of morality than the distilled folk wisdom of centuries. The closest I due gobbi gets to the stories I first read as a child is the one about the two sisters who each behave differently toward an old woman who knows some magic: the sister who is kind to her gets to have a rose and a pearl fall out of her mouth whenever she speaks, while the sister who is mean to her gets to have a toad and a snake emerge when she tries to talk. (I can't imagine this was too much fun for the first sister, either, but it's a great allegory anyway!) But as you've pointed out, even that one is predictably moralistic.

I do like your own take on this one. In my own life I've had to wrestle with the seeming unfairness of someone getting a massive good totally by grace, while another person sweated, suffered, and all but starved for the same and didn't receive it. And I was the one who got the grace!