The Pitrè mentioned at the beginning is the Italian folklorist Giuseppe Pitrè. Also referenced are the stories Rosso Malpelo and its author Giovanna Verga (who we've mentioned on this blog before) and Poil de carotte by Jules Renard. Both stories had red hair as their focal point.]
Excerpt from Nero su nero
Was it a legendary heifer or a heifer of a particular breed, allegedly coming from Sorrento? Then he adds a brief strophe kids from Palermo used to mock their red-haired peers with: “Evil red / cling to the wood / hold on strongly / for death is passing through”. He also reports similar or equivalent proverbs from Naples, Sardinia, Tuscany, Veneto and Lombardy, and the medieval one “Si ruber est fidelis, diabolus est in coelis” (If the redhead is faithful, the devil is in heaven), stating the impossible faithfulness of redheads and not even allowing the exceptions of Jesus Christ and the heifer from Sorrento. Moreover Carducci, highlighting Christ’s ascent to the Capitol as ominous, recalled His “red mane”: as the stigma, harking back to popular tradition, of a man who could only be ominous.
“Omu signaliatu, guardatinni”, says a Sicilian proverb: look out for the man marked with a natural physical flaw. It is commonly believed that nature gives its stigmas to tell the good from the bad, just like, in the past, courts sentenced criminals to be marked on their forehead or to the amputation of their hand, nose or ears. However, the wickedness of those marked by a natural flaw is potential, not actual, and if and when it becomes actual we have a verification, a confirmation. Red hair is not a flaw, though, so the aversion towards it is to be considered a sort of racist superstition of Mediterranean peoples, who, after all, never achieved forms of conscious, theorised, “scientific” racism.
“He was called Malpelo because he had red hair, and he had red hair because he was a mean and bad boy, who promised to turn into a first-rate scoundrel…”. He had red hair because he was mean; he was not mean, turned mean, because of his red hair. That is, because he was considered marked, stigmatised, and therefore pushed away and isolated by the browns among whom he happened to be born and living, and who conferred to a genetic incident, very rare among them, the feature of a presence and a revelation of evil. In a way, it’s the same thing we say about blacks, according to Shaw: we make them work as bootblacks and then we prove their inferiority by saying they cannot do anything but bootblacking. We laugh at and mistreat a boy because he has red hair, and when the boy builds up enough rancour, saddens, turns nasty and takes revenge, here’s the evidence that redheads are always and naturally evil.
“As usual, Mr. Lepic empties the game bag on the table. Two partridges. Félix, the eldest brother, puts them on a small blackboard on the wall. It’s his assignment. The sister, Ernestine, grazes and plucks the game. As for Poil de carotte, his special assignment is ending the wounded animals. He owes this privilege to the well-known hardness of his cold heart.” The horror, the repugnance he feels for this task causes him to be clumsy and to prolong the agony of the partridges. But Mrs. Lepic, his mother says: “Don’t be sensitive, you’re savouring your joy”. Once finished, Félix and Ernestine cry out: “Oh what an executioner! What an executioner!”, and Mr. Lepic leaves in disgust. Equally disgusted, having received one more time the evidence of her red-haired son’s sadism, Mrs. Lepic says: “Look at how he thrashed them!”.
It is well know that Jules Renard told, in Poil de carotte, the story of his childhood, although it’s lacking, maybe even in France, a study comparing his narrative works (not only Poil de carotte, but also Les clopartes) with his Diary, his correspondence, his papers and the records on the writer’s life. Because at one point, reading Renard, you feel a sort of pity or a desire of justice for that world that marked his life with an indelible trauma. Or at least the desire to see things as they objectively were, always, of course, with the approximation and the uncertainty which are in every attempt to reconstruct not only faraway things, but also the ones we witnessed or witness.
What I want to say is that, reading the Diary, a question hits us: were things really that way? And along with the question, the doubt that Renard exaggerated and distorted, and that his heightened and day-dreamer sensitivity, his “diversity” depicted as abnormal and cruel, a human and domestic situation undoubtedly hard but completely normal in the rustic world, in the rural France of a century before. And we may suspect that Poil de carotte, “a book of which you can say it’s not a present to be given to your own family” (as Renard wrote his sister Amébe), has catalysed an enormous family tragedy: the father’s suicide, the brother’s premature death, the mother’s probable suicide.
Not recognised as “different” for his sensitivity, his inner thoughts, poetry and need of love, Renard was quickly recognised and confined to the “diversity” of carrot hair, to “malpelo”. And a similar situation, although reversed in more endearment and cure within the family and less mocking outside, is maybe the first germ of Verga’s short story Rosso Malpelo. It’s very objective, very “impersonal”, yet Malpelo’s terrible “diversity” must in some way have came from the red-haired child Verga had been. And I say “had been” because, as it happens, he was one of those redheads who, over the years, starts turning chestnut and eventually becomes one. Fake chestnuts, or fake reds, as indifferently they are called. At fifty, “he is a handsome and elegant man, with thick grey hair and a still chestnut moustache” (Ugo Ojetti), but at twenty he was tall, lean, delicate, slender… and red (although in juvenile photographs he looks blond).
Nearly no-one noticed it. Of a red-haired Verga talked many years ago an old man from Catania who knew him; and talks D. H. Lawrence – “with a big red moustache” – in the essay meant to be the introduction of the English version of Mastro don Gesualdo. Apart from the detail of the moustache, it is the most beautiful thing ever written about Verga.