Gianni Rodari (1920-1980), the author of Favole al telefono (1962) (English translation, Telephone Tales), is the most important Italian children’s author of the 20th century. He is largely known in Italy and Eastern Europe and was particularly relevant to the USSR when it existed. In fact, his “ties” to the former Soviet Union have somewhat prevented Rodari from becoming a household name in Western countries such as the United States, notwithstanding he is very well regarded by critics and scholars.
WHO WAS GIANNI RODARI?
Rodari was born in a small town named Omegna, a Piedmont comune (a city or town with its own legal jurisdiction) 100 km northeast of Turin. His dad passed away when Gianni was only eight, so he and his brothers, Cesare and Mario, were raised by their mother. Although he was forced to join the Fascist Party when applying for a job, his experience with the Fascists turned out to be rather deplorable: he lost too good friends and his favorite brother Cesare was incarcerated in a German concentration camp. Thus, Rodari joined the Italian communist party and the Italian resistance movement, and his fiction works will ooze politics, however at a very subtle level.
Rodari had received his teacher’s diploma at seventeen and began his career teaching in rural elementary schools of the Varese district. Already a communist party member, and working for communist journal L’Unità, he was named editor of the new children’s magazine, Il Pionere, on the sole grounds of being the only one who knew first-hand what working with kids was like. In 1951, Rodari published his first two books, Il libro delle filastrocche (The Book of Children’s Poems) and Il romanzo de Cipollino (The Adventures of the Little Onion), which were instant hits.
‘Telephone Tales’ by Gianni Rodari was published in 1962. Rodari was awarded the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal for children’s literature, the only Italian to have ever received the award to this day, in 1970. A man of poor health even from his youth, he dies in Rome in 1980.
TELEPHONE TALES BY GIANNI RODARI
These Gianni Rodari tales are about Mr. Bianchi, a sales traveler who, much like Scherezade in Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights), had to tell a story to his daughter every night before she went to sleep. But unlike Scherezade, Mr. Bianchi only had the time slot allowed by the coin in the telephone to deliver his narration, so forcefully all the stories are really short.
The length of the stories won’t make them less imaginative, neither are they deprived of Rodari’s imago mundi while he relies on a very accessible language (because it’s a father telling a story to his daughter).
The book opens with the short story “Il cacciatore sfortunato” (The Unlucky Hunter). Look at this excerpt:
”Giuseppe prese il fucile e andò a caccia. Vide subito una lepre che balzava da una siepe e correva in un campo. Puntò il fucile, prese la mira e premette il grilletto. Ma il fucile disse: Pum!, proprio con voce umana, e invece di sparar fuori la pallottola la fece cadere per terra”.
“Giuseppe took the rifle and went out hunting. Suddenly, he met a hare hopping by a hedgerow and running toward a field. He prepared the rifle, aimed at the hare and pulled the trigger. But the rifle said: “Boom”, just like a human voice and, instead of firing off the bullet, it made drop down to the ground”. – Atrocious as could be, the translation is ours.
This short story is about Giuseppe, who is sent by his mother off for something that could be used as a meal in his sister’s imminent wedding. Not only does his weapon fail to fire the bullet: the hare is female and adorned as if she was heading for her own wedding, too. Some other incidences like this will take place throughout the story, making Giuseppe a very frustrated man by the end of it.
The rest of the stories will go to the same well: some people will lick down a palace made of ice cream; one kid is so absent-minded that he literally loses himself to pieces when out of home, to the extent that his neighbors need to bring his ears, nose, arms and other body parts back to his mom until what remains of him (a leg) comes in home hopping in very good spirits; and so on.
Telephone tales has deservedly helped to establish Rodari at the level of other Italian fantasy writers, such as Italo Calvino.
GIANNI RODARI GRAMMAR OF FANTASY
One last word is deserved by this ‘Grammatica della fantasia’ (The Grammar of Fantasy, 1974), Rodari’s theoretical legacy for the art of storytelling. It is the product of years of reflection and research and summarizes what Rodari has to teach to educators, parents, and animators when it comes to tell stories. It is, also, Rodari’s only non-fiction work.
Would you like to learn more about Italian stories? Discover a fantastic Italian Christmas witch tale “la Befana” with us!