A translation of ‘The Little Decameron’, by: Marina Di Stefano


A photo of Luigi Capuana

*The full story of The Little Decameron was recently published by Legas (New York) and is available now through Amazon.

Below is a translated copy of Luigi Capuana’s The Litte Decameron. I wanted to share my experience on re-proposing into English some of Capuana’s humorous stories. Through the use of imagination, we can be transferred into Baroness Lanari’s salon and enjoy Doctor Maggioli’s fantastic storytelling.

The Little Decameron

Introduction by Luigi Capuana

The Little Decameron was recited on several occasions by Doctor Maggioli, a dear friend who knew how to invent stories about everything without giving rise to any suspicions that he was improvising them. When he recounted his stories, he looked as if he was remembering something someone told him in confidence based on a youthful affair years past. The audience was amazed at the man’s good memory, who now at the age of eighty-six seemed rather heartier and livelier than any of today’s youth.

It is only by chance that Doctor Maggioli was a fantastic storyteller, a sort of Gianni of Sgricci, who instead of writing tragedies or rhymes was improvising short stories. I hope my readers will be grateful that his most impressionable stories have not perished, despite the author having died peacefully three years ago drinking one of the ten or twelve cups of coffee he used to have every day.

Day One: A American Trash

‘How come!’ the doctor exclaimed, ‘you didn’t know that teeth, formed by the same material as hair only much harder, could be called mouth’s hairs? But they are the same thing. A dear friend of mine from Boston learned the hard way. When I was in the States I made friends with a young chemist, a real Yankee, who dreamed of becoming rich by making prodigious discoveries so he could get married to his sweetheart.’

‘An unbeatable toothpaste! A regenerating water for the hair! We can make millions in a few years,’ he used to say widening his eyes, greedy for the millions as if they were there, in front of him, and someone had stopped his hand from grabbing them.

‘Look for something more useful,’  I suggested.

‘Nothing more useful than a cosmetic paste that could give a beautiful  lady’s teeth the pure whiteness of ivory! Nothing more useful than a water that could improve the hair’s beauty, a golden halo on a nice woman’s head.’

‘But there are so many toothpastes! So many regenerating waters!’

‘They are cowboy products!’

‘They produce wealth all  the same!’

 ‘But not in an honest way!’

He was an American chemist with some scruples, and a young man, so we had to make allowances for him, poor thing!

For  days and nights he researched, shut in his small lab, which he used to leave only to make a short visit to his girlfriend, who hand sewed white underwear.

Miss Mary Stybel was blond, tall, beautiful as all American girls are …when they are beautiful, but worried over her not too white teeth and her not so abundant hair. Many times my friend had found her close to tears because she was losing her thin golden hair, easily torn off by combing, even if very gently done.

‘If it goes on like this…’ the poor girl used to say sobbing.

And those teeth persisted in remaining yellowish in spite of powders and all kind of waters she used to make them white!

No better wedding present could her fiancé provide than a very effective toothpaste and a regenerating water invented by him. What use was science if it could not help to find them?

So he kept on researching with the tireless patience of those inventors who are meant to be successful.

From time to time I asked him questions. I was sorry for him. He was getting thinner, his eyes marked by dark rings because of so many hours spent awake over his experiments, anxious to succeed.

‘Where have you got to?’

‘Nowhere yet! But I think I am on the right track.’

‘Try not to get too down, dear chap.’

‘Either find something or die.’

That was his motto and he had it engraved on a brass plate on his lab door. Actually, I thought it would be easier to die than find something, especially if you were looking for the impossible. But I have always been skeptical, even in my youth, and maybe this has been the reason why I have never done any good. You need patience – I understand it now – and determination in order to get anything you want. And Lost Loiterer, in spite of his surname, which means ‘slacker’, had patience and determination much more than he needed.

And that is what we are going to see!

One morning I saw him rushing into my room transformed, radiant with joy: ‘Eureka! Eureka!’

I was astonished to see him naked, which, as they say, was like what happened to Archimedes, but at least wearing underpants.

‘When you are in need of a thousand dollars…. I’ll be a millionaire in two years’ time!’

‘I’ll be quite happy with five hundred just now,’ I answered with a smile. He was offended by my skepticism. So he replied: ‘You know I’m not a vain person. I now have the absolute proof; my toothpaste has made an ebony stick as white as milk and an old leather suitcase has become hairy thanks to my regenerating water after I have used it only for a full month!’

‘Congratulations and celebrations!’ And I was about to add: ‘Enjoy your future children!’ But I didn’t want to appear cruel.

Since then, I have learned how foolish it is to question science, and most of all chemistry.

‘Does your fiancé know it?’ I asked.

‘I have already brought her two bottles of my medicine. And look here, don’t you notice anything?’ And he was pointing at his cheeks.

‘I can’t see anything.’

‘I thought her kisses, so long and strong, had left a mark.’

But chances are unpredictable, isn’t it ironic! What was meant to produce family happiness and wealth for Lost Loiterer was instead (it seems impossible!) the cause for his permanent misfortune.

Sometimes I feel that nature takes its revenge on those people who are trying to steal some of its secrets.

The beautiful Miss Mary Stybel was a bit careless and absentminded. In the rush to try her fiancé’s products she started using the tooth water for her hair and the regenerating one to clean her teeth! The effect was terribly damaging.

It would not have been too bad if it had only damaged her hair. White hair is irresistible on a young girl’s pretty face, as a daisy… And besides there is always something to be done about it as dyeing to give your hair the color you wanted. Do not many brunette girls turn into blond ones from one day to the next or the other way round?

But it is a different matter to feel your teeth growing and growing, and have your canines stuck into your palate and jaws like nails; and then also your molars growing so much that you have to keep your mouth wide open while your teeth are pushing up and down as hard as levers, one on top of the other!

It was the case of the poor needle worker that moved everybody in Boston and in the whole United States. Nothing could put a stop to that growing force, meant for her blond hair but, because of the wrong bottle, the regenerating water happened to be used for her teeth. All of her teeth had to be pulled  out, which caused terrible pain. A golden denture, a most accomplished American make, was presented to her, thanks to a public contribution. But it couldn’t ever make up for her loss of real, even yellowish teeth.

What about Lost Loiterer? He could not face such a misfortune and blew his brains out, without leaving any indication on how to prepare his two fantastic remedies.

Do not be deceived by what is today advertised in some American and European perfume shops where Loiterer’s tooth water and Loiterer’s regenerating one are sold. They are fooling you!

My dear friend has taken his precious secret with him into the next world!

Luigi Capuana [1839 -1915] was a Sicilian writer, gifted with a restless imagination. He felt the need to express his creativity in many areas: as a novelist, playwright, poet, critic, journalist, photographer and etcher, and also creator of five collections of fairy tales. In his later, minor tales, collected in The Little Decameron [1902] his attitude towards science and mechanical progress became more ironical and distant as he adopted an allegorical way of writing.

Marina Di Stefano Cocuzza is a retired lecturer of Italian from Cardiff University. In 2012 she edited and translated with Lorna Watson The King of Love and other Fairy Tales, a selection of Sicilian Folk Stories from Giuseppe Pitrè’s Collections. In 2014 she edited and translated with Joseph Farrell The Dragon’s Nest, stories and plays selected from Luigi Capuana’s five collections of Fairy Tales. In 2020 she has translated and introduced Luigi Capuana’s The Little Decameron and Vampire that will be published by the end of this year. All books are published by Legas, New York, and available from Amazon also as  kindle eBooks.

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