"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 136
Merry Christmas! I wish I could say that all sorts of traditional Christmas things are the reasons I haven't been able to update my blog as often as I'd like . . . but let's not waste any more time! Today we meet our latest folk hero, Bella Fronte or Fair Brow, who, with a nickname like that, surprised me by turning out to be male rather than female.
-Figlio, ora che hai finite I tuoi studi, sei nell'eta giusta per metterti a viaggiare . . .-
The start of this fiaba feels like an allegory of a uni graduate who is having what we Anglophones might call "failure to launch." Which, come to think of it, is such an apt expression for this story full of ships that I wonder whether its Italian twin is equally nautical in imagery!
So what did you think of our protagonist's first venture? He spent settemila scudi to pay the debts of a dead man who was being denied burial. That's a corporal work of mercy right there--and incidentally, my personal favourite of the seven! But that money had been given to him by his father for him to set up a trade, and when he has to return home with nothing to show for the investment, he makes up a lie about corsari.
Then there's his second proper adventure, in which he rescues la figlia del Sultano, not just from slavery to real corsari (turchi) through a ransom, but also from slavery to sin through baptism. I can't even say how supportive of this I am--and how much I wish that more modern Italians had a similar response to the millions of souls who have been entering their country as refugees for years. (Perhaps their own figli e figlie del Sultano aren't also as belli.) The only problem we have here is that Bella Fronte is again using money that his father gave him for another purpose. This time, however, he tells the truth when he gets home. Did he give anyone else St. Francis of Assisi vibes?
The fairest criticism of our hero seems to be that he's just bad at following directions, including the one very simple one from his new wife. Mrs. Darwin can't be too happy with him. ;-)
-Tu con la canna, io con la battella
Forse ci pescheremo una sardella-
Forse ci pescheremo una sardella-
Everything works out when Bella Fronte finds a sympathetic old fisherman. (I'm starting to sit up and take notice whenever I read "vecchio" or "vecchia" in a fiabe.) I wonder how much of this is due to the twist we learn at the end and how much is due to his new work not being very mercantile. Previously, his only two "business partners" required him to do things he probably wasn't suited for; now, all he has to do is handle a fishing rod. (The Thomas Frederic Crane translation [Yes, I peeked. Sono tanto desolato!] gives the vecchio the additional line: "I will go and sell the fish, for I am not ashamed . . ." Crane must have noticed that sales isn't our protagonist's strong point!)
Later, when the two are made prisoners, they also acquit themselves well as gardeners and as musicians. Bella Fronte couldn't have found a better person with whom to agree to share his life, both il male and il bene. It is also the ideal of Christian marriage, though here we see it between two platonic friends rather than between husband and wife. (Nota bene: St. Thomas Aquinas has written that the greatest friendship is between husband and wife!)
It feels a little presumptuous for my unmarried self to suggest an allegorical reading for married couples, but naturally, I'll do it anyway! First, it makes sense that Bella Fronte and the old man start their relationship as two fishermen, who agree to split every day's catch whether it is a great haul or a meagre one: no bride and groom ever know what the future is going to bring, but they agree to share each other's joys and burdens anyway. Their shared captivity brings back the Catholic angle: even the happiest couples, able to bring forth good fruit and sweet music through their union, aren't really at home on earth . . . and will not be at home until death inevitably parts them. It must be bittersweet. The most moving moment in the fiabe is when a newly liberated--and newly wealthy--Bella Fronte remembers his promise to his friend and returns to keep his word. It means risking everything he has regained (and his wife might not have been too impressed with his virtue here!), but a promise is a promise. And there is hope in thinking that a spouse who finally receives his eternal reward will be able and willing to share that good with the widowed partner as well, through intercession from Heaven.
-E che carico avete?-
A final note: I liked the play on words that we get from the past participle "carico." The first time we read it in the story, it refers to the dead man's debts: he is a "morto carico di debiti." These may be literal debts, but Catholics know what they really symbolise. We read "carico" again when Bella Fronte is asking the corsari turchi what cargo they have on their ship. I'm a little disappointed that Italo Calvino doesn't use it a third time, when our hero and his wife sail home in the best ship yet.
Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Bella Fronte:
1) Why do you think Bella Fronte is represented by his forehead? What does this body part symbolise?
2) If you lived in a faerie tale and couldn't be royalty, how would you earn your living?
3) If you are married, do you think the friendship between Bella Fronte and the old man is a good model for your relationship with your spouse?
If you liked talking about marriage, we might get another chance with the next story: La Borea e Il Favonio or Miss North Wind and Mr. Zephyr. It's nice and short in both Italiano (Scroll down the PDF until you get to Scheda #6) and English.
Image Source: Un Tuffo nei Libri: "Bella Fronte"