Vatican fumes over peasant tale parody

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There are two books that all Italians are forced to read by the time they leave school. One is Dante's Divine Comedy, a work whose merits and importance are contested by nobody. The other is a sweeping 19th- century historical novel by Alessandro Manzoni called I Promessi Sposi, known in its scarcely read English translation as The Betrothed.

For generations, Italian schoolchildren have been submitted to the torture of reading and re-reading every line of Manzoni's 600-page doorstopper, committing to memory countless quotes, critical commentaries and every twist and turn of its tortuous plot. Taken at normal speed, it's not a bad read, a tale of two innocent peasants in 17th-century Lombardy whose plans to marry are thwarted by a corrupt aristocrat and whose subsequent adventures take them through famine, political revolt and plague.

But when the book is treated as holy writ, as it is in the Italian school system, it quickly turns to turgid, sanctimonious slush, shot through with a naive Catholic sentimentalism, that reduces many of the characters to ciphers of vice and virtue. The good end up vindicated, the bad converted, humiliated or dead; the book then concludes that although life's troubles are too numerous to avert through virtuous conduct, "faith in God sweetens them and makes them useful for a better life".

Well might one wonder why such a second-rate page-turner is rated so highly in the canon of Italian literature. Well might one wonder, too, why a novel published 170 years ago could still have the force to spark an almighty literary row, as it has in the past few weeks following the publication of a cheeky erotic parody by the late novelist and critic Piero Chiara.

In Chiara's version the virtuous and virginal heroine Lucia has been transformed into a voluptuous nymphomaniac who juggles several lovers, including a monk. Her fiance Renzo has strong sexual urges of his own, sleeps with the most famous prostitute in Milan and ends up deciding that he is homosexual.

Don Abbondio, the cowardly parish priest, is depicted living in sin with his gossipy housekeeper Perpetua. So the parody runs, gently defaming every one of Manzoni's characters and stripping the plot of every last vestige of high-minded moralising.

To many, Chiara's subversion of a long-suffered classic has touched off a delicious frisson of forbidden pleasure. But from one quarter, at least, it has sparked a torrent of outrage. Barely had the book hit the shops when the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, thundered against its "miserable decadence" and declared it unfit to sit on any decent person's bookshelves.

When Ferruccio Parazzoli, who wrote the preface to Chiara's book, came out in its defence, L'Osservatore put the boot into him too, calling him "fatuous" and "dim-witted". Many people, the Vatican paper declared, had tried to demean Manzoni's great work, but none had managed to diminish what it called "a thorn in the side of 20th-century Italian literature".

A thorn it indeed is, though not necessarily for the reasons the Vatican would have us believe. From its publication in 1821, I Promessi Sposi was more than a work of literature. Manzoni was an ardent supporter of the Risorgimento - his book became a benchmark for the kind of pan-Italian culture that the burgeoning unification movement hoped to promulgate.

If Italy was to become a nation, it needed a great 19th century novel to rival those of Britain and France, and I Promessi Sposi seemed to fit the bill. Manzoni even went so far as to rewrite his novel - stripping it of dialect words and phrases - in a kind of "neutral" Italian that was intended to form the literary base of a unified national language.

The book did not exhaust its usefulness after Italy achieved unification in the 1860s. The novel's Catholic sentiments made it perfect teaching material in a country where the Church has wielded enormous influence. Indeed, one can see I Promessi Sposi as the embodiment of the Church's co-existence with the Italian state; for much of this century, attacking it was considered tantamount to attacking the ideological concept of Italy itself.

When Guido da Verona produced his own parody in the 1930s, his work was banned and put on the Vatican's index of forbidden books. The furore over Chiara's book shows such feelings are still very much alive.

The taboo is not just restricted to parodists. One of the consequences of Manzoni's book has been to equate literary language solely with the artificial "standard" Italian that he helped create. Since unification, dialect has been considered vulgar by the intellectual elite and authors who write in it are shunned.Carlo Emilio Gadda, for example, does not appear on any undergraduate syllabus even though he is considered one of Italy's greatest 20th-century writers.

This linguistic heritage initiated by Manzoni is challenged in Chiara's book. Characters use Lombard dialect words - thus displaying characteristics that Manzoni worked so hard to expunge. Indeed, the parody is more intelligent than it first appears; as one reviewer has said, it manages to pull off its stunts without veering into bad taste and often seems affectionate, if not reverent, towards the original.

It is not just sex that Chiara has added to I Promessi Sposi, but a whole dimension of Italian life - carefree, amoral, and marked by a strong sense of regional identity - that Manzoni, for religious and political reasons, chose to leave out. That is the real reason why it is subversive,and the real reason why the Vatican is fuming with indignation.