A MERMAID WITH SOUL:
Gianni Rodari’s Antidote to Hans Christian Andersen
(Written by Bernie Libster)
Hans Christian Andersen is a cold fish. There I’ve said it and I’m glad. Besides, after some discreet questioning at the recent Providence conference, I believe that I’m not the only person who thinks so.
The Italian children’s writer, Gianni Rodari has a heart as big as the whole world, especially when it comes to poor and suffering children. Yet, like James Baldwin, nobody --except for my patient friends in the New York-New Jersey storytelling community-- knows his name. I’m gunning to correct this right here and right now.
Consider stories like these:
In The Soldier’s Blanket (Il coperto del soldato), a little boy is lulled to sleep under the blanket of his dead soldier-father with the story of a fairy who tirelessly weaves and reweaves a blanket large enough to cover every poor, cold child in the entire world.
In The Man Who Stole the Coliseum (L’uomo che rubava il coloseo) the most selfish man in Rome, whose scheme to take home the great structure stone by stone has left him blind and hunchbacked, comes to detest the word “mine” when he hears it on the lips of a little child who also wants to claim the Coliseum for himself.
In The Well (Il pozzo di Cascina Piana) eleven women who have always mistrusted one another nurse a young enemy soldier back to health because “If your husband were wounded in a foreign land, wouldn’t you want someone to rescue him.”
In A Violet at the North Pole( Una viola al Polo Nord) a mysterious little purple creature melts the polar ice cap by will alone and lays down its life so that flowers, houses and children may one day appear there.
In Teresa, the Girl who Wouldn’t Grow (Teresin che non cresceva) a girl whose father’s death in war leaves her determined never to grow voluntarily becomes a giant, a monster, to oppose a brigand terrorizing her village, and discovers that “whoever stands up against injustice becomes a giant but remains a normal person.”
In Tony the Invisible (Tonino l’invisibile) a little boy harassed by his teacher wishes he were invisible, has his wish granted, comes to hate it and is finally released by encountering an old man who feels invisible in the eyes of the young.
Wonderful as these stories are, at least to me, it’s The Little Mermaid (La piccola sirena) that won my heart and led me to demand equal time for this Italian teacher/journalist, who lived between 1920 and 1980, over the dreary Dane.
The Little Mermaid is the story I tell most often since becoming a storyteller, and I always preface the telling by saying, “It’s definitely not the story by Hans Christian Andersen.” But when this became knee-jerk I realized I’d better refresh my memory of the Andersen tale just to be fair to Andersen.
So I downloaded the story, read it, and afterward felt both vindicated and, dare I say it, repelled. There was Andersen’s poor mermaid, who fell in love with the human young man, learned she had no soul, watched her beloved marry a human maiden, etc., etc.. The story left me feeling as though I’d soaked through by a cold wave.
In Rodari’s story a little mermaid becomes entangled in the net, and the life, of a poor Sicilian fisherman, begs to be taken to his home because she’s become separated from her mother and sisters. Despite his fear, he agrees to challenge his wife, cleverly passes her off to the neighbors as a crippled cousin from another city. Her sweetness and presumed disability gain the sympathy of the neighbors, but when she begins to tell stories she heard when she lived in the sea, she captures their hearts. In the ultimate vindication of storytelling, she becomes at least part human while remaining a sirena, an enchantress, and “no one ever again felt sorry for the poor little crippled girl from Messina.” All of this happens within the space of two and a half pages (Andersen’s mermaid story rages on and on like The Perfect Storm).
I’ve recently come to joke that the two stories are so different because Rodari grew up eating pasta and gelato while Andersen grew up eating herring and prune danish. Perhaps there’s something to it,. I don’t know. But I’m using this an excuse to draw attention to a man who is beloved in Italy yet known in this country only for his The Grammar of Fantasy, a book on teaching children to write.
I discovered Rodari’s writings in a collection of simple pieces for Italian language students. All the stories I mentioned are in one book, Favole al telefono, i.e., telephone tales, along with perhaps 70 more. Each story can be read in 5 minutes because the teller, a traveling salesman, calls his little girl on the phone every night to to tell her a story and the rates are too high for long stories (this is the pre-cell phone era). I began to translate them during my wife Marian’s and my weekly Italian lesson. The teacher, a Calabrese--as is Marian--had never heard them and though most are for children he delights in them.
I’m trying to find a publisher for my translations--Rodari stories make up about half of my active repertory (if anyone can help me in this effort, please contact me). I’m also planning to record some of my favorites as soon as I can raise the money. But if you’re impatient and you want to do your own translations and tellings, there’s no shortage of Rodari sources--in Italian. In fact, there are some 91 titles on the Internet Book Shop, an Italian equivalent of Amazon.com--www.internetbookshop.it.
But before you pick up that browser, I’d like to offer you my translation of La piccola sirena so you can judge for yourself. I’ve added a few things that have come to mind during tellings. For instance, in the original there is no mention that the mermaid by living with humans “receives” a human heart, but it’s implicit. The fisherman’s boatlessness is my concoction, as is the wife’s longing for a daughter. The extremely critical attitude of the wife toward the fisherman’s earning capacity is straight out of my parents’ battles. Otherwise, it’s all Rodari. Heart and soul. A big, beautiful soul. If you’re tired of feeling cold after telling an Andersen story, get to know him. I’ll be glad to help however I can if you’ll contact me by email: email@example.com.
Incidentally, this is not an anti-Danish tirade. I’m very fond of Victor Borge, Hamlet and the occasional pastry. And it’s not a pro-Italian diatribe. I’ve read many of the stories in the Italo Calvino collection of Italian folk tales and failed to find one that touched me in the same way as any of the Rodari stories. Maybe it’s just a preference for the expressions of the individual rather than the group soul. We Leos are like that. Especially when we’re doing the expressing.
THE LITTLE MERMAID
by Gianni Rodari
Translated and adapted by Bernie Libster
In the city of Palermo, on the island of Sicily, there lived a poor fisherman.
He was so poor, he didn’t even own a boat. Every day he carried his net down to the sea, tossed it into the water and pulled it up at the end of the day.
One day when he pulled in the net he saw something sparkling. At first he thought it was a doll. But he looked closer, he saw that it was a little mermaid, only two or three feet long.
At first he was frightened and wanted to throw her back in the water. He was a superstitious man, like many of the poor people of Palermo. But as he was trying to decide what to do, he heard a little voice.
“Please, please don’t throw me back.”’
The voice was coming from the mermaid.
It was so small and sad that he looked closer. She was a pretty little creature with long blond hair and the bluest eyes he had ever seen. Just like the color of the ocean.
“What,” he said, very surprised, “But you live in the sea.”
“Please, please” she said again, “I’m lost. I’ll never find my way back home. Please take me home with you.”
Now the fisherman was confused. “How can a mermaid get lost in the sea?
“Oh,” the little mermaid replied, “I was playing
hide and seek with my mother and my friends. I counted too long and when I tried to find them I couldn’t. I swam and swam for two whole days and never found them again. Please take me home with you.”
The fisherman shook his head. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m very poor. My house is very small. I have five huge sons who eat me out of house and home. My wife already says I’m no good at making money.”
“I’ll be good, I promise, “ the little mermaid said. “And I hardly eat anything at all.”
Her voice was so pleading and her eyes so sad that he agreed. “Well, okay, I’ll take you home and talk to my wife. But no promises. If she says you have to go back to the sea, I’ll have to bring you back here.”
“Oh, thank you,” said the little mermaid.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” the fisherman replied, and added, “But now I’ve got to cover you up with my sweater.”
“Am I so ugly? “ she asked.
“Oh no, you’re very beautiful. But you know how people talk. If they see me carrying a mermaid they’ll ask all kinds of questions. It’s better this way.”
So the fisherman covered the little mermaid with his sweater and carried her home in one arm while he dragged his net with the other arm. Soon he stood there in the kitchen before his wife, holding the little mermaid in his arms.
His wife protested. “What, we hardly have enough to eat as it is. Those sons of yours are eating us out of house and home. The house is already crowded and you’re a terrible provider.”
But after she got it all out of her system, and while she looked at this beautiful little creature with the sad eyes, her heart melted. Maybe it was because she’d always wanted a daughter and got only those five huge sons.
“Okay, we’ll try it for just a while. But if there’s any trouble, out she goes.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” the little mermaid said.
“You won’t be sorry, ” the fisherman said.
When their sons came home, they were delighted. “Hooray, at last you’ve given us a sister,” they said all together. They immediately dashed out into the streets to find colorful trinkets for the little mermaid’s hair. They found ribbons and beads and pieces of brightly colored glass, all kinds of things, brought them home, and wound them around their new sister’s hair.
And so the little mermaid stayed with the fisherman and his family. But there was one problem. In Palermo, people lived in small houses on tiny narrow streets. They just used their houses for sleeping. Otherwise, everyone lived in the streets. They played cards in the streets. They sang in the streets. They gossiped in the streets and argued and danced. What would they say about Marina--which was what they named the little mermaid because she came from il mare, the sea. You can’t just bring a mermaid out into the streets and say, “Meet the new member of the family.”
The fisherman thought and thought. Finally, he said, “I know. We’ll put her in a little cart and cover her tail with a blanket and say she’s the poor crippled daughter of some cousins from Messina,” which is another city in Sicily.
And that’s what they did. Marina was fascinated. She sat in her wagon all day watching the strange and wonderful sights. And everybody fussed over Marina and felt sorry for her. The old ladies would come by and pinch her cheeks and, thinking about her poor crippled legs, tears would come to their eyes. The young men would all pretend to fight over who would marry her. Her five brothers were so proud. And she was so happy to sit outside in her wagon her beautiful blue eyes sparkled like the crests of waves.
One day, her brothers came running, full of excitement. The carnival was in town. The whole neighborhood went to see it, and her brothers took Marina in her cart. There were games. And rides. And wonderful things to eat.
Best of all, there was the puppet show, the famous puppets of Palermo. The puppets were gigantic. They were dressed in such wonderful costumes. The puppeteers told a story from many, many years ago, about Brave Knights and Lovely Princesses. The knights dressed in suits of shining armor and fought great battles. And the princesses didn’t just hang around the castle pining for their knights to come home. They also put on armor and fought as bravely as the men. They had wonderful names like Orlando and Martellone, Biancafiore and Gelsomina.
Marina was enchanted. And when they all came home after this long, exciting day, Marina remembered other stories too and began to tell them. Stories she had heard when she lived in the sea. Ancient stories of sea monsters and terrible shipwrecks and giant waves and buried treasures.
She told stories about all the people who had come to Sicily to conquer it, the Greeks and Phoenicians, the Arabs and Spaniards, the French and Romans. Her eyes blazed with wonder and her family sat and listened long into the night.
Marina had never been happier in her entire life, not even when she lived in the sea with her mother.
The next day, when her brothers took her out in the street, she kept on telling stories. The neighbors gathered about to listen. She told the most famous story of all, about the great hero Ulysses who was sailing victoriously home to Ithaca after many years of battle. Ulysses’ ship was approaching the Island of the Sirens, those strange sea creatures who took the form of beautiful women. But more beautiful still were their voices, and they sang the most exquisite songs, irresistible songs, to lure sailors near their island where their ships would crash on the rocks and they would drown.
Ulysses knew what had happened to so many sailors. And he told his men, “I want you to lash me to the mast with our strongest ropes. And no matter what I say, no matter how much I shout or yell or bellow, do not cut me down from the mast. Whoever tries will be put to death. As for you, stop your ears with this wax so you won’t hear anything.”
And so the ship of Ulysses and his men drew near the Island of the Sirens, and the Sirens knew that it was the great hero Ulysses who was approaching, and so they sang every more sweetly and more seductively. What a trophy he would make! Tied to the mast Ulysses thrashed and bellowed and ordered his men to cut him down. But since their ears were stopped with wax they heard nothing and the ship sailed safely passed the Island of the Sirens and home to Ithaca.
All the people gathered round to listen, and they were captivated. An old sailor warned the fisherman, “Watch out, she’s enchanted you all.”
And indeed she had. For Marina was a siren too. But now that she had lived among humans her heart had become human.
From then on, every day the people gathered round to hear Marina’s stories. And every day Marina told stories and more stories.
The little old ladies still came round to pinch her cheeks and the young men still pretended to fight over who was going to marry her. But no one ever again felt sorry for the poor little crippled girl from Messina. Her voice was clear and bright, and in her eyes shone such merriment, such joy…a carnival.
Translation copyright 2001 by Bernie Libster