Favola di Natale (A Christmas Story) is a product of Giovannino Guareschi's time in the German Lager (prison camp) during WWII; he wrote it for his fellow internees in the winter of 1944, as their second Christmas in captivity approached. Identifying his "muses" as Cold, Hunger, and Nostalgia, Guareschi explains in the book's Introduction (added after the War) that the horrible conditions of the camp invested even the most everyday things with wonder and beauty. Thus, his audience of prisoners marveled at the "imaginativeness" what was really a very simple tale of "a man who finds his mother and small son" on Christmas Eve. Indeed, GG adds, the audience was more interested in the trio's little adventure than they were in the political polemic with which their story was laced. [He also notes that some of the prison guards who heard the story missed the point of the polemic, laughing at ridiculous figures which were actually representations of themselves!]
And the story? It begins with a little boy, Albertino, who has memorized a poem to recite for his father on Nochebuena (Christmas Eve). However, his father is not at home for Christmas Eve, so the boy recites the poem to the empty chair, whereupon the window blows open and the poem, which has become a little bird, flies out on the wind. After a series of adventures, the poem sadly realizes that it will not be able to reach the boy's father, who is a prisoner of war; however, it manages to return to Albertino. The boy then decides that he, himself, will go to his father. But he and his dog Flik have not traveled very far before they run into the boy's grandmother, who, it turns out, is on the same errand. So they travel together, north through the Land of Peace towards the Land of War, encountering many strange and interesting characters on their way. Then they reach a sort of No Man's Land, called the Forest of Meeting, and suddenly they are approached by the most surprising character of all--the father himself, who has traveled from the prison camp in his dreams to spend one special night with his little boy.
This modern reader, who barely knows the Spanish into which her copy of the book is translated, knows that she's missing some of the specifics of the political polemic (but at least, unlike the dense prison-camp guards in the Lager of Guareschi, I think I can see where the satire is!). I have no trouble at all, however, understanding the simple story of a miraculous journey made possible by the love of a boy for his father and of an old woman for her own "little boy."
Notes: Favola represented the second collaboration between author/librettist Guareschi and prison-mate Arturo Coppola, who composed the incidental music and songs for the story as well as organizing the orchestra and chorus for its performance. And I know that a few years ago in Italy one could buy an edition of the book with a companion audio cassette, featuring a reading of the text accompanied by Coppola's background music and songs. If that's still in print and you know a little Italian, it's worth getting. If English is your only language, though, it'll be a while longer before this book is available to you: ours is not among the languages it's been translated into.
Below: Guareschi's illustrations for Favola di Natale
The father, in his dreams, leaves the concentration camp.
I find this drawing particularly moving--a testament to hope and the human spirit.
After she meets her son in the forest, the grandmother explains how she has "visited" him every night in the camp.
After their Christmas Eve adventure, the father must go back to the camp.
"Papa, why don't you take me with you?" asks Albertino.
"Children cannot come in, not even in dreams," the father replies. "Promise me you will never go there."
"I promise, Papa."