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Dialect Proverbs
A playful rhyme for the bitter fatalism of underlings Lu patrunu de campagna
cu arti e cu ngannu
campa mienzu annu
e cu ngannu e cu arti
campa l’atra parti

[The landowner/with art and deceit /gets by for half the year/ and with deceit and art/ gets by for the rest]
(Salento)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

      Yet another proverb dedicated to social relations, which offers more than one insight into the conditions with which those who wielded power exercised it over their subordinates, and above all, into the reactions, the attitudes and the ‘philosophy’ of the ones ‘underneath’ with regard to the ones ‘on top’.

      In the last centuries of the second millennium, the distribution of roles on the land was unchanging, on the great estates with extensive, poor farming methods like in the south of Italy, and on the richer, intensively farmed holdings in Piedmont, in Russia (where serfdom lingered on) and in the relatively modern Pomerania. There was a rich or stinking rich landlord, sometimes an impoverished nobleman, who usually lived so far away from the farm that he was perceived as a divine or abstract power, somewhere between the metaphysical and the virtual, capable, in popular imagination, of unspeakable wickedness or mythical generosity. And there was the bailiff, who administered the estate, the sharecroppers and tenant farmers: a much more concrete figure, because the farm workers interacted with him daily; tens or hundreds of farmhands, labourers, ploughmen and peasants, all plagued by an endemic poverty.

      This intermediate figure was bound by a complex link to the landowner, who generally kept him under control, suspicious of any independent initiative, but on the other hand kept him close, flattering him with a sort of feigned ‘class connivance’ which suited the landowner’s interests. Because of this strange tie, the bailiff, in the eyes of the farm labourer or peasant, was the incarnation of Property, Power and Command. He was the boss, ‘lu patrunu.

      If the landowner was as distant and powerful as a god, lu patrunu, nearer and more real, was a combination of demigod and a hellish demon: he didn’t work miracles but he possessed all the arts necessary to vex his underlings. He was a double-sided creature: he could use deceit like all wicked men and art – that of the curse – like infernal creatures.

      Our proverb describes perfectly this double nature, distributing it over the whole year: six months for the arts, six months for the deceit.

      But apart from the content we can observe the rhythmical structure. It is composed in such a way as to be easy to memorize, thanks to a sing-song rhythm, and to the clever use of elementary but efficacious conceits. There is not only the rhyming couplet, which is the simplest of rhymes, (ngannu / annu; parti / arti) but also inversion (cu arti e cu ngannu / cu ngannu e cu arti), the symmetry, the anaphora (campa / campa), and a clever prosody: if you take out the e that connects the two couples of lines, you get a quatrain of six syllables, with the accent on the penultimate one, and with an alternating of metrical schemes that gives the rhyme its beat, almost like a nursery rhyme.

      For these reasons the first impression that we receive is that of pleasantness. Because the spirit of this poem is not aggressive, not revolutionary. We don’t feel the class struggle is upon us, or a desire for social climbing. At most, the disenchanted complaining of someone who has understood how the world turns, and is interpreting the situation with philosophy, swallowing the bitter pill of wisdom, but also, at the same time, with a splash of color, a musical ‘scherzo’, or even ‘allegro’. Thought, music and color come together in this little gem of popular culture with the specific function of creating an instrument that is an aid to survival, in a world of inequality in which the poor man knows he is nailed, perhaps permanently, to his subordinate role.

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