11 January 2016


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 138

Well, I was right about one thing from last week: I finished today's long story, Ari-ari, ciuco mio, butta danari!, the day after I chose it, because I was worried that if I tried to read it in bits and pieces, it would take me forever to get done! But the complexity made possible by the length got me dragging my feet when it came time to write the post for it. Perhaps next time I should go with a medium-length fiaba.

UPDATE: We have a story for Meeting 139! But it's not quite medium-length, as you will see when you scroll to the end.

. . . ma il figlio non aveva voglia d'imparar niente . . .

Did the set-up remind anyone else of Bella Fronte from Meeting 136? Indeed, Ari-ari, ciuco mio, butta danari! is another story about a young man trying to make his way in the world and disappointing a parent by missing the mark several times. But today's protagonist, Ntoni, could not be more different from the virtuous and talented Bella Fronte. Like Giovannin and the Fearless Simpleton of Meeting 135, he seems like another version of the archetype of the Fool. Instead of being fitted out for trade by a father who expects him to do well, he is kicked out of the home by a mother who expects he will only be a trial to her if he remains. (Can we really blame her?)

. . . Nanni-Orco, che era il padrone del giardino . . .

Here is another uniquely Italian detail: Nanni-Orco! He seems to be a scary creature--or rather, a creature whom you'd expect to be scary because of what you've picked up from local folklore. (Think: the trolls in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.) And even if you don't know much about him, you can tell that Italo Calvino has decided to give his character a little twist. (Think: the trolls in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. =P) Nanni-Orco's sniffing out of our protagonist is reminiscent of "Fee-fi-fo-fum" from a more famous faerie tale, but unlike the giant who wanted to grind Jack's bones to make his bread, Nanni-Orco has other plans for the terrified Ntoni.

I asked two of my Italian friends about Nanni-Orco, hoping they would share some stories they heard at their grandparents' knees. But alas, all of them are from the north of Italy--and all they could tell me was that Nanni-Orco is a southern figure. They also sent me some helpful links I had already found on my own, because apparently the north of Italy is as distant from the south as the Philippines is from their whole country. =P But at least one of them knew, from rumour and memory, that Nanni-Orco is meant to scare children. He is that boogeyman who will get you if you're naughty.

And in Ari-ari, he certainly "gets" Ntoni in a horrible way, putting him to work in his garden (Another Bella Fronte parallel!) and secretly planning the only sort of lesson that could thump some sense into him. (Do you suppose this is scarier to children than a brutal death at the hands of an ogre? LOL!) And of course I chose the word "thump" carefully!

The real villain here is the locandiere.

-Ari-ari, butta danari!-

Is anyone else thinking that this fiaba feels familiar? Yes, Naso d'Argento from Meeting 132 probably looks more familiar; but Ari-ari feels familiar for being so Grimm-esque. I know I read the complete Grimms Maerchen (Auf englisch, purtroppo!) as a girl; and though I promptly forgot nearly all the obscure ones, I'd be willing to bet that one I can't properly remember is very similar to Ari-ari.

Failing to recall it however, I'll stick to the English faerie tale I've already alluded to . . . The three gifts that Nanni-Orco lets Ntoni take home to his mother parallel the three things that Jack steals from the giant, also to bring back to mom: a ciuco that "throws" out money is like the bags of gold; a salvietta that spreads a table is like the hen that lays the golden eggs; and a bastone that metes out beatings is like the magical harp that can both sing and cry out for help. Okay, perhaps I'm forcing that last one. =P Jack from England and Ntoni from Italy may be separated-at-birth identical twins, but they lead very different lives. And yeah, okay, the ciuco is the proper "twin" to the hen.

Throw in Die goldene Gans from the Brothers Grimm, and we have three examples, from three different cultures, of farm animals that produce gold. (And two of thieving locandieri!) How wonderfully earthy this is! I wonder how many generations of farming, maybe in dirt-poor conditions, it took to prime the folk imagination for these creatures, which so perfectly blend the ordinary and the fantastic. Perhaps only those for whom egg-laying birds have meant the difference between starvation and survival, and for that reason have hunted eggs as if they were hunting gold, can truly understand.

In other words, I get the hen and I get the goose, but I don't get the ciuco. LOL! Cuichi are no-frills beasts of burden: they don't give milk like cows and they don't run as fast as horses. Perhaps some of the more fanciful farmers thought it would be nice if the simplest of their animals had this special ability. Or maybe they thought ciuchi are already as good as gold and the only way they could possibly be improved is if they also produced the precious metal. A third possibility is that this is another joke about Ntoni: he's so simpleminded that he can profit from a perfectly good ciuco only if it were magical. And now I'm out of ideas. What do you think?

-Ah, infame! Ah, giuda! Batti tua madre?-

This isn't the first time I've been startled by a more-or-less disciplinary beating portrayed positively in an Italian story. Perhaps it's just because I'm not Italian (yet!!!) that my reaction is, "Hey, that isn't funny!" And yet . . . I see that it kind of is. Ntoni commands the stick to beat his own mother not out of malice, but simply because he knows it's the only way to get her to open the door . . . and he needs her to open the door so he can give her some great gifts at last. (Perhaps a bit of Nanni-Orco has rubbed off on him? =P)

It is probably another "cultural thing" that has made me zero in on the physical violence of a son toward his mother and almost forget the verbal and emotional violence of a mother toward her son. Not to mention a man's violence against an animal. Yet all these instances are played for laughs. They're not always so funny in real life--and I suppose that's one good reason to be more tactful in storytelling. But anyone with experience telling stories to children knows that if Ari-ari is told in the right tone of voice in a safe setting, the little listeners will find the exasperated mother, the simple-minded son, and yes, the donkey that "[molla] tutto che quel aveva in corpo" absolutely hilarious. And perhaps there is folk wisdom in getting them to laugh at what would otherwise make them cry.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Ari-ari, cuico mio, butta danari!

1. What can we learn from "Fools" that we can't learn from "Heroes," "Sages," "Kings," etc.?
2. If you could put a fantastic twist on an animal that you see every day, what would it be?
3. Have you ever been startled by another culture's sense of humour?

In an ideal world, our next story would be something in honour of my friends from Italy's north . . . but Italo Calvino's two Milanese fiabe and one fiaba with a character from Milan are just not feasible for a readalong. So I went with another choice determined by chance and luck: STOP! DON'T READ!!! COME BACK LATER. I'M SO SORRY . . . Il papagallo or The Parrot. Unlike the other three, it is available in both Italiano and English. And yes, it's medium-length. =)

UPDATE: Thank you for waiting! Our next story will be L'acqua nel cestello or Water in the Basket. There's a PDF for the Italian and a PDF for the English.

Image Source: Ari-ari, cuico mio, butta danari!


Belfry Bat said...

It's not only the humility (humiliation?) of donkey that makes Ari-ari a commedy prize, it's how one must use him; incidentally what does one call it when Chekhov's Gun requires a substitution to go off? A straight morality story (or a present-day technology story) might allude to rewards to perseverence with something along the lines of "there's gold in them thar hills (of ***)", but in this case, though in humble wrappings, the gold really is not very well hidden.

3) I certainly didn't get the humour of most everyone else in elementary or high school.

Brandon said...

All the beating reminded me a bit of a Punch-and-Judy show -- which, now that I think of it, is Italian in origin, although I think the actual physical violence is an English innovation. But the story does have that general commedia dell'arte feel.

I'm pretty sure this is the Grimm you have in mind: Table-Be-Set, Gold-Donkey, and Cudgel-out-of-the-Sack.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- The animal which inspired Brother Ass is definitely a humble one! And simultaneously a comical one! =)

Brandon -- That's the one! Thank you! =D A comparison between the German and the Italian versions would "throw" down a lot of gold before a dedicated reader. The edge that these stories have over the better-known Jack and the Beanstalk is the moral that all the riches in the world won't do you much good if you can't defend them from those who would take them away.