The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, by Dino Buzzati. Translated by Frances Lobb. Illustrated by the author.
NYC, Pantheon Books, October 1947, hardcover $2.75 (146 [+1] pages).
The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, by Dino Buzzati. Translated by Francis Lobb. Illustrated by the author.
NYC, New York Review Children’s Collection, December 2003, hardcover $18.95 (147 pages).
The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, by Dino Buzzati. Translated by Francis Lobb. With an introduction and reader’s companion by Lemony Snickett. Illustrated by the author.
NYC, HarperCollinsPublishers/Harper Trophy, February 2005, paperback $5.99 (186 pages).
This is a book that I never expected to review. It was one of the first library books that I read, from the Los Angeles Public Library, presumably when I was seven years old since the American edition was published at the end of 1947. I loved it! I read and reread it, and memorized several poems in it. I still remember this, after almost seventy years:
One, two, three, four
These dark thoughts soar
Fear, sorrow, doubt, despair
Hover in the midnight air.
I eventually grew up and forgot about it. I was reminded of it this January when Jim Korkis mentioned in his column on animation history that Heinz Edelmann, the art designer of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine animated feature (1968), had later seriously tried to produce an animated feature of The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, but had failed to get financial backing for it.
This led me to see whether Wikipedia had any mention of the book. It does, but the Wikipedia article just says that it was a famous Italian children’s book, La Famosa Invasione degli Orsi in Sicilia, published by Rizzoli in 1945, and “The American hardcover edition was published by HarperCollins in 2003 and the paperback was published in 2005, also by HarperCollins and The New York Review Children’s Collection.” Not only is that slightly inaccurate, there is no mention of the 1947 American edition that I read! This seems unfair to me, and since the LAPL still has that 1947 edition, here is my review of it.
I am also reviewing it because I think that it’s a book that adult furry fans will enjoy, especially those with children.
“Sit still as mice on this occasion
And listen to the Bears’ Invasion
Of Sicily, a long, long while
Ago when beasts were good, men vile.” (p. 21)
The bears live high in the mountains of Sicily, where life is hard and there is little to eat, but they like it. One day the bears’ King Leander (il Re Leonzio) and his little son Tony are searching for food when two human hunters capture Tony and take him away. King Leander is heartbroken, but he accepts this. Years later there is a particularly harsh winter and the bears are all starving. They resolve to go down into the lands of men because they have nothing more to lose.
“But one night in haste a messenger cried
‘A snake has been seen on the mountain side!’
And a serpent appeared, made of little black dots,
He-bears and she-bears and bear tiny tots.
‘Bears?’ laughed the Duke, ‘Just leave them to me,
And soon you will see a great victory!’
And then there was heard a fanfaronade
As the Grand Ducal army came out on parade.
‘Forward, you dogs! Quick march, you cattle!
Tomorrow at dawn we go forth to battle!’” (p. 26)
Guns! Battles! Monsters! Wizardry! Crime! Drunken orgies! Ghosts! Treachery! Blood! This was stronger stuff than was in any American children’s book in 1947. Buzzati’s prose is just as good:
“It was in fact the horde of wild boars of Count Molfetta, the Grand Duke’s cousin, coming to the rescue. Instead of soldiers, this important noble had trained an army of huge, savage pigs to war, and these were very wild and extremely brave, and celebrated all over the world. The Count cracked his whip from the hilltop on which he was standing so as to be out of danger. And on came the terrible boars at the gallop, their tusks whistling in the wind!” (p. 37)
An introduction to the 2003 edition says, “If the bears’ famous invasion of Sicily sounds too distressing to read alone, that’s because it is.” Don’t You Believe It! (but Lemony Snickett’s notes to the 2003 edition are worth reading). This is a wonderful book that is really for All Ages (meaning you adult furry fans), and can be read by an older 3- to 7-year-old reader by him- or her-self.
The Sicilian bears’ King Leander leads them into the humans’ lowlands during a desperately cold winter, hundreds of years ago. The tyrannical Grand Duke fights them with cannon and evil magic, but the bears are ultimately victorious. The bears settle into the capital city of Sicily, and King Leander tries to establish a peaceful kingdom of bears and humans alike. But the noble bears are corrupted by human vices, and King Leander finds himself having to deal with ursine crime and debauchery. Finally treachery against King Leander himself is discovered! But who among the bears’ royal court can be the villain?
Buzzati has been called by some art critics an amateur or a bad artist, but his own illustrations for The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily are Just Right. As a young child, I was particularly impressed by the corrupt bears’ orgy showing drunkenness, gluttony, gambling, fighting with wine bottles, and (since the now-civilized bears have adopted clothes) nudity. Strong stuff for a seven-year-old. (Much later, I read about how Carl Barks was ordered to redraw a barroom brawl in an Uncle Scrooge comic book because the editor considered Barks’ original too strong for 8-to-12 readers.) Several reviewers dismissed the book as too adult for children; but one pseudonymous reviewer, Anokatony, said, “I suppose the ideal audience would be children of the age of six or seven, maybe just before they are of an age for action movies.”
Dino Buzzati (1906-1972) was an Italian novelist, short story writer, theatrical and radio scripter, opera librettist, poet, and artist, but primarily a newspaperman for Milan’s Corriere della Sera where he was a reporter, essayist, art critic, special correspondent, and editor from 1928 for the rest of his life. During World War II he served in North Africa as a journalist attached to the Royal Italian Navy.
His life was active and colorful. John Bemelmans Marciano, the grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans and the continuer of his Madeleine children’s picture books, said, “Reading The Little Prince [by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry], you may feel like you are in the company of an author who can elevate you to the heavens. With La famosa invasione, you ride shotgun to a man who would come over to your house, drink all your liquor, burn your house down with his cigarette, and still manage to convince you how lovely a waltz the flames were dancing.” After the publication of Tolkien, La Famosa Invasione was compared to Tolkien “with the addition of a certain satirical edge.” Buzzati himself dramatized La Famosa Invasione for the stage, where it was performed in Milan in 1965.
La Famosa Invasione degli Orsi in Sicilia was his only children’s book. It was first serialized in Milan between January 7 and April 29, 1945 in Corriere dei Piccoli; the final installment appeared the same day that the machine-gunned bodies of Benito Mussolini, his mistress, and 14 of his ministers were hung upside down in a Milan city square by the citizenry. It was published as a children’s book by Rizzoli on December 10, 1945. The story and its reception were heavily influenced by the war that had just ended. A review in Life magazine in August 1948 said, “… the book stirred up protests both before and after publication. Buzzati’s publishers made him delete one illustration showing Russian-looking bears conquering a Nuremberg-like city because it might be offensive to the Germans. A good many Italians thought the bears in the story were Sicily’s U.S. invaders.” The 1947 American edition was in fact printed by Rizzoli, reusing the 1945 Italian dust jacket.
So I’ve reread The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily. Yes, it’s as wonderful for adults as it is for children. Guns! Battles! Monsters! And so on. The 1947 edition is long out-of-print and a valuable collectible today, but fortunately the 2003 hardcover and the 2005 paperback editions, with Lemony Snickett’s commentary, are readily available in cheap used copies at most bookstores. And check your local public libraries.
The 2005 edition adds Lemony Snickett’s reader’s companion analyzing the story, chapter by chapter (there are 12 chapters plus Buzzati’s introduction, a cast of characters, and the scene). Each chapter’s analysis includes a moral lesson, a list of “questions you may find interesting”, and a “suggested activity”. One of the possibly interesting questions: “It is almost impossible to find an interesting story – a true story or an imaginary story – that does not contain violence. Why is that?” (p. 167)
Incidentally, there are no bears in Sicily. Never have been. Or mountains as tall as those in this story, although Sicily does have lower mountains, including Mount Etna, one of Italy’s most active volcanos.