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Don Camalèo

by Michael McDonald



Malaparte witnessed first hand the consolidation of Mussolini's dictatorship in the critical years 1922-1925. Highly intelligent, he was also a literary artist of distinction with a talent, typical of Tuscan writers since Dante, for barbed invective. These qualities led him to challenge Mussolini to make good on his promises of reform in the years when an open debate was still possible. "It was not Mussolini who carried the Fascists to the Prime Ministership, but the Fascists who had carried Mussolini to power," Malaparte thundered in 1924 in his newspaper, La conquista dello Stato. And, in the wake of his realization that Mussolinismo had triumphed over the kind of idealistic leftwing fascism he advocated, it was these same qualities that led him to write what the critic Giuseppe Pardini has labeled "one of the few strictly original products of fascist culture": Don Camalèo: A Novel About A Chameleon.

The American reading public was first introduced to Malaparte in the aftermath of the Second World War when Kaputt appeared in English in 1946. At the time, interest in Malaparte in the States was such that his portrait appeared on the cover of The Saturday Review of Literature on November 14, 1946. Two other books by Malaparte would make their way into English in later years. But Kaputt, that long, rich and macabre mediation on the horrors of war, remains the single book for which Malaparte is chiefly remembered today.

Don Camalèo, written in 1926-27, like Kaputt, has a strange publishing history that Malaparte describes in the preface he wrote to the first integral edition of the work, which appeared in Italy in 1946. At the time of the book's publication, Malaparte was basking in the international success of Kaputt, but his reputation in Italy remained suspect. Publishing Don Camalèo thus served two purposes: it enabled Malaparte to offer his recently acquired immense readership yet another "new" novel at the same time as it bolstered his claim to have been part of a fronde within Fascism. Don Camalèo is also like Kaputt in that Malaparte relies upon a first person narrator modeled closely on himself, sharing his name and many of his biographical details, to shepherd the reader along the twists and turns of the story’s path. But there the similarities end. In lieu of a series of darkly surrealistic encounters with death, we find a spirited, fast-paced comedy in the form of an eighteenth-century roman philosophique by Voltaire or Diderot.

Malaparte wrote Don Camalèo to deny validity of the equation that fascism equaled Mussolini. At its most basic level, the novel is an anti-Mussolinian satire characterized from start to finish by the knowledge that the kind of revolutionary fascism that Malaparte and others had urged upon the regime since 1922 was dead and that Mussolini would do little more than mouth revolutionary platitudes as he maintained power by appeasing the reactionary elements that had always counted in Italian life. But the novel has a deeper side. Malaparte would later write: "It is not possible to draw a portrait of Mussolini, without drawing one, too, of the Italian people. His qualities and his defects are not his own. Rather they are the qualities and the defects of all Italians." Accordingly, as it pokes fun at Mussolini, the reader also finds Don Camalèo cutting deeper to mock many of the centuries-old vices besetting the Italian people as embodied in a series of broadly drawn characters.

The initial chapter (of twenty-three), which I present here in translation, with its semi-serious use of classical erudition concerning the nature of salamanders, basilisks and chameleons, sets the tone for the peculiar kind of jocular satire that will characterize the novel as a whole.

In the second chapter, current events then heave into view as Malaparte describes what it was like to have observed the March on Rome in 1922. He then recalls how one day he was outdoors horseback-riding with Mussolini when a chameleon appeared out of nowhere. This animal ex machina is what launches the tale since before Malaparte can object, Mussolini has assigned him the task of raising the beast, certain in the knowledge that the chameleon will be able to adapt to Roman political society.

Malaparte entrusts the chameleon to a Panglossian tutor by the name of Sebastiano, whose methods and mentality symbolize the hidebound nature of traditional Italian culture. Following this initial education, Malaparte introduces the chameleon, who has learned to speak, into political society, where he learns the finely-honed Italian art of trasformismo—what today’s spin doctors would call “triangulation”: finding out what you need to say you will change in order to win support, and then maintaining the status quo. But by dint of spending time with Malaparte, the chameleon comes to believe in the Fascist Revolution. He takes to the street to protest the slow pace of reform and his popularity soars with the common people. Seeing this, Mussolini decides he has no choice but to invite the chameleon into his inner circle of advisors.

Malaparte cautions the chameleon: "Everyone knows that the Head of the October Revolution, like any good Italian, doesn't love revolutionaries; in fact, it's likely that he despises them." And he adds: “It's true that you're a chameleon, but if you join Mussolini in power, you'll change colors so furiously that you'll die from all the effort." But the chameleon accepts the invitation in the belief that he will make the Revolution live up to its promises. Sadly, the lizard’s proximity to Mussolini, day in and day out, in Parliament gradually causes his political positions to mutate yet again. When, in January 1925, Mussolini institutes his personal dictatorship and calls upon all good fascists to embrace order over the Revolution, the chameleon does likewise. The novel predates the Lateran Pact of 1929, but it is prophetic in that it depicts Mussolini introducing the chameleon to a certain Dr. Libero, a Jesuit, who inadvertently causes the animal to believe he is the Son of God by goading him into reading The Imitation of Christ. Things do not end well for the poor lizard at the book’s conclusion, which takes place in Saint Peter's Cathedral.

In sum, then, there remain three compelling reasons for Don Camalèo to appear in English: to add to our historical knowledge of the period; to add to our knowledge of Malaparte's literary career and strengths as a writer; and for the sheer enjoyment to be had from this minor literary gem, once believed to have been lost.
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