Monday, December 2, 2013

A family bestiary

It’s hard work, catching a pidrüs. You must go out at night, at the end of the year, when it is coldest. And because the animal has a most acute sense of smell, you must travel with a soaking wet sack-cloth draped over your shoulders, to mask your scent. It takes patience, too. Your best course of action is to crouch in a frozen ditch, making as little movement as you can. Then you wait.

The pidrüs

The pidrüs – a creature with ‘the snout of a pig, the head of a cow, the ears of a horse and the eyes of a cat’ – symbolised credulity. It was a ruse designed to induce the simple-minded to spend a night out in the dead of winter with a soaking wet sack-cloth draped over their shoulders. I heard stories about these expeditions occurring within living memory, although I doubt that they are true: such legends (rural, as opposed to urban) are best nurtured with just the right amount of apocryphal facts.

Of the creatures of fantasy that populated the imaginary of my mother’s native village, few were spoken about by the time I was born, and even those few mostly in proverbs, or as figures of speech. My grandmother, for instance, might have cautioned me once or twice about venturing out at dark by suggesting I might fall prey to the babau, or that the gosa might lurk in shallow waters, and I should therefore keep away from ditches, drains and canals, but did so out of an old reflex, without making any great attempts to persuade me that those dangers were real. Those were never therefore for me creatures of fear, and I didn’t bother to imagine or piece together what they might look like. I encountered them only later, in a book that catalogued that ancestral bestiary, just as some of those creatures found a new life in papier-mâché‎ form at country festivals as part of a revival of interest in local folklore. I still have the book, which was published by a rural bank in a single print run. It’s the source of the pictures in this post.

The babau

The gosa

All of the beasts were pre-Christian, or rather, they ran parallel to the Christian lore, which was also in flux by the time I was a child. When my sister was little, for instance, the December festival when the children got presents was still the feast of Santa Lucia, the poor martyred girl who was robbed of her eyes, who would come visiting on a cart pulled by a donkey on the night of the twelfth of the month. And later, for Christmas, if you got any presents, it was the Child Jesus who brought them (how, it was never quite made clear to me). Whereas by the time I was little, only a few years later, Santa Lucia had been phased out, and Santa Claus was beginning to replace the prodigal infant, as it already had in the big cities.

That flattening of the shared imaginary mirrored the shift towards a homogenous and mass-mediated national culture which had little regard for the local dialects and customs, much less for local fables of dubious didactic value. In fact what strikes me as I leaf through the bestiary of Poggio Rusco and its immediate environs is not that it is especially delightful or inventive, but rather that those creatures inhabited such a small territory: a handful of villages, situated on a square parcel of the Lombard plain that measures a mere ten miles on each side. Outside of that square – in spite of the uniformity of the landscape and seeming lack of natural barriers or historical political boundaries – you’ll find other tales and different beasts, cautionary or otherwise.

The löf: a starving wolf that allegorises atavic human hunger 
Somebody asked me recently what it is that I miss of home and it occurred to me perhaps for the first time that I miss this: the remarkable density of the culture along the axes of both history and space. How I could hop on a train from Milan and travel to Bergamo, 50 kilometres away, and if I spoke my dialect and they spoke theirs, we’d struggle to find a single word in common, for that town had been for centuries the last bastion of the Venetian Republic, and had been isolated by politics and geography at many other times in its history from the surrounding region. To be sure not all aspects of this density are benign or desirable – another, more common word for it is parochialism – but I confess to feeling a degree of sympathy and admiration, sometimes in spite of myself, for how large parts of the country have managed to resist being assimilated into the idea of a modern, unified Italy that was forged in the big centres of industry and commerce and imposed everywhere else through the national school system and the mass media.

The dormalora
When I look at my bestiary, then, I see this, too: ghosts of a past that won’t let itself be forgotten; a past that, like the dormalora, or shadesleeper, knows that a mix of indolence and quiet stubbornness can take you far, even into an unlikely future.

Stefano Scansani and Mario Setti. Bestiario Podiense. Poggio Rusco: Banca Popolare Agricola di Poggio Rusco, 1984.