I’m not going to belabour further why I venerate Achille Campanile, whom I consider to be Italy’s greatest ever humourist. This week’s post consists of the tenth chapter of his novel Povero Piero (Poor Peter), which tells of the death and burial of a very ordinary man.
In this chapter, two family friends, Paolo and Lola, have been sent by Piero’s widow to the post office to draft a telegram for his family and friends so they can arrive in time for the funeral. The pair wish above all to take special care to break the news to them gently.
The novel was originally published in 1959, although the artwork below – unattributed – is from the cover of the 1988 edition. The translation is mine.
“Imagine what a blow it would be, for them,” said Lola, sitting with her fiancé at the long table that took up the middle of the telegraph office. “They’ll have a heart attack if we wire them to come because Piero is dead.”
Around them, hurried people came and went. Every now and then, a clerk spied from behind the shoulders of the seated customers to check that they weren’t writing letters instead of telegrams.
“Naturally,” Paolo said, “We can’t communicate with brutal honesty the news of Piero’s death. Those poor souls must embark upon a long journey, it wouldn’t be humane to subject them to the harrowing certainty. We shall use due form.”
He took out his fountain pen and got ready to write.
“I suggest,” said Lola, “that we employ the customary formula in these circumstances: “Piero critical, come at once””.
Paolo put down his pen and stared coldly at his fiancée.
“Lola,” he said, “you are a good sort, full of initiative and good intentions, but you never think before you open your mouth.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’m sorry, but you may as well write: “Piero is dead””.
“This way we won’t frighten them.”
“But everyone knows that, when you wire that someone is “critical”, it means they are dead. You said it yourself: it’s the usual formula in these circumstances. Everyone knows that, if someone dies, this is what you put in the telegram.”
“Yes, that’s true. Let’s write then: “Piero serious.” It’s less frightening.”
“I don’t think so. They will suspect that we don’t want to alarm them by saying “critical” and that Piero really is critical. That is to say, dead.”
“What about: “Piero unwell, come at once.””
“How do you figure that? If one is unwell to the point of requiring the immediate mobilisation of their loved ones, it means that they are critical, and we’re back to square one. You’re going to kill those poor people. Or they’re going to think we’re crazy.”
“You’re quite right. Let’s write: “Piero not very well, come at once”; or “Slight ailment requires your immediate presence at Piero’s bedside”, or…”
Paolo kept shaking his head, disconsolately.
“What then?” Cried Lola. “You’re not going to suggest we write: “Piero in perfect health, come at once”!?”
“My dear Lola, it’s not whether he’s good or well or in perfect health, it’s the “come at once” part, the urgent request, which makes the euphemism meaningless. As a matter of fact, the greater the contrast between the first part of the telegram and the second, the more we’re going to frighten them. I’m sure you realise that if we were to write “Piero quite well,” or even “Piero well,” or “very well”, followed by “come at once”, they would most assuredly be alarmed, so long as they really are fond of Piero. We need to concentrate on the second sentence, to avoid striking a blow to the pit of the stomach by brutally spelling out what happened.”
“By the same token,” said Lola, pensively, “we must get them to come to the funeral. We cannot wire: “Piero unwell, stay where you are.””
A brief silence fell. With furrowed brows, the couple racked their brains to find a formula that reconciled the need for tact with the need to inform.
“What if,” exclaimed Lola, “instead of “Piero critical” we wrote: “Filippo critical, come at once”?”.
Her fiancé gave her an astonished look.
“What’s Filippo got to do with anything, it’s Piero who died.”
“This way they wouldn’t be alarmed.”
“What a lousy solution! They wouldn’t be alarmed, but they wouldn’t understand either. Who is this Filippo?”
“I’m just saying. Any name is good as another. But I think the building's caretaker is called Filippo, isn’t he?”
“Lola, sometimes you baffle me. What kind of a solution is this? They would say we’re crazy if we wire them to come at once because the building's caretaker is ill. In fact, the same thing would happen if we wired them that other tenants or even you or I are critical.” (They both touch wood.)
“Even you or I? I cannot believe it.”
“But of course. And rest assured that, if that were the case, they would believe we are critical rather than dead, because they would not care a jot that we are dead, and nobody would think of informing them using a euphemism, therefore…”
Lola had already stopped following the subtle arguments of her fiancé. She wasn’t one to easily let go of an idea, not matter how far-fetched.
“And yet,” she said, “I don’t think it’s that bizarre a suggestion. We would be able to write without reticence, with brutal honesty, even things like “Filippo expired. Filippo defunct. Filippo dead and buried. Come at once.””
“But to what end, my dear? I acknowledge that this ploy would resolve some of our problems, because the news of the death of the caretaker, or of any other unknown Filippo, wouldn’t upset them at all. But it would be no use. At most they will say: “Filippo is dead, good riddance to him.””
“I don’t think they are that cynical, and remain of my opinion.”
“It’s not a question of cynicism. What use is it to wire them that a stranger has died? Don’t you see?”
“Even if,” she said, “there’s no-one among their family or friends called Filippo, I’m still convinced that his death would not fail to inspire in them that measure of basic human sympathy you wouldn’t deny to a dog.”
“But not to the point of making them come here.”
“All right, all right,” she finally relented, with a hint of bitterness in her voice. “You’re always right, according to you. What are we going to do, then?”
“It’s not easy, let me think.”
“Can I make a suggestion?”
“Let’s wire: “You critical, Piero will come at once.””
“I don’t understand. What do you mean, “you critical”?”
“In order not to frighten them. Let’s reverse the roles. Instead of saying that Piero is critical and they need to come at once, we’ll say that Piero is coming at once and they are critical.”
“Oh, my dear soul! You really think that a person would be less frightened to hear that they are critical themselves, rather than somebody else, even if they’re very fond of them? Are you all there? Health is the most important thing. “I” comes before anyone else. And then, to be told via telegram! Can you imagine? You would give them a heart attack, without a doubt. No, no. And anyway, apart from the fact that receiving news of being critical would be worse, I think it would be no use.”
“Oh you’re so long-winded, Paolo! I don’t know how I’m going to cope when we are married and I’m tempted to initiate separation proceedings here and now.”
“I’m saying they wouldn’t understand.”
“Aren’t we trying to make sure they don’t understand?”
“They must both understand and not understand. Tell me, why do people send telegrams in these situations?”
“To summon people to the funeral.”
“Exactly. But they must come without knowing for sure that their loved one is dead.”
“In that case, why don’t we write, for instance: “You won lottery prize, come see what’s in the box”? I bet they would be here in no time. And they wouldn’t suspect for a moment that it’s for a tragic event. It would be a wonderfully happy journey, the journey of a lifetime.”
“What about when they get here? Have you thought of what they’re going to do when they get here? Are you really suggesting, my dear Lola, that we lure them here with the prospect of claiming a prize, only to present them with a dead relative? The shock would be even worse, devastating, as would the gap from imagination to reality, as would, so to speak, the rush of the column of mercury from one hundred above to one hundred below zero, or the run of the piston from end to end. It would be like exposing someone to a strong heat source, only to plunge them under an icy cold shower.”
“Norwegians do it and they seem to enjoy it.”
“I know. But we’re not in Norway, we’re in Italy. You’re lucky if you get to take a lukewarm bath. No, no. Better to just give them the shower first and get it over with.”
“My dear man,” exclaimed Lola again, “you really are long-winded! I don’t know where you get that from and I hate to think…”
“I’m going to get right to the point. We must not create pernicious illusions, but rather a sense of generic alarm that, without producing certainty, will soften the final blow, whilst, at the same time, giving a glimmer of hope, and creating a transitory zone between obliviousness and anguish, so that they can move slowly from one to the other, thereby…”
“You’re going to write a dissertation before we’re done here,” Lola cried. “I still think we should wire: “You won lottery prize, come see what’s in the box.””
“I veto it,” Paolo replied coldly.
“And I raise a motion of no confidence,” said Lola, who was beginning to get agitated.
“Listen, Lola,” said Paolo “I don’t want to argue with you for a matter that, to be quite honest, doesn’t entirely concern us. Let’s split things down the middle. Between your version and mine, let’s adopt half of your telegram.”
“Let’s get rid of “You won lottery prize” and stick with “Come see what’s in the box.”
Lola was beside herself with admiration. She looked at her fiancé with amazement.
“I think we got it,” she said. “This time I really think we got it.”
But Paolo was having second thoughts.
“No,” he said. “The phrase is open to two interpretations. One would kill them before they leave, the other would kill them when they get here.”
“Well,” said Paolo, “let’s cut to the chase. We’ll write: “Piero in excellent health, stay where you are.” Few words to the wise will suffice.”
“It’s the only way.”