Luigi Pirandello, the great twentieth-century Italian playwright, was also a maestro of the short story. In Virginia Jewiss’ introduction to her new translation of Pirandello’s short stories, she writes, “The Pirandello we meet here is a master storyteller, with an ear for dialogue, an eye for revealing details, and a keen sense of the crushing burdens of class, gender, geography, and mores.”
In “The Jar,” set in the olive orchards of Pirandello’s native Sicily, class, land, and tradition clash in the lives of the tale’s colorful characters. After an opening vision of abundance in the olive orchard, we meet Don Lollò, the fiery and litigious owner of the olive fields, whose stinginess prevents him from feeling any pity for a local repairman who ends up trapped in Don Lollò’s new olive jar. With wit and dark humor, Pirandello offers up in his stories what he called “tiny mirrors”—vignettes of Sicilian agrarian life that reflect to us our own world, in all its complexity and beauty.
A good year it was, even for olives. Robust trees, laden with fruit, which had all set earlier that spring, despite the fog that had weighed heavily on the blossoms.
Don Lollò Zirafa, who had a fair number of trees on Le Quote, his farm in Primosole, realizing in advance that the five old glazed earthenware jars he had in his cellar wouldn’t be sufficient to hold all the oil from the new harvest, had ordered a sixth, larger one from Santo Stefano di Camastra, where they were made: a magnificent, big-bellied jar, as high as a man’s chest, that would be a mother superior to the other five.
It goes without saying that he’d quarreled with the kiln owner about the jar. Was there anyone Don Lollò didn’t pick a fight with? For every little thing, even for a small stone fallen from the walls of his property, even for a piece of straw, he’d shout for his mule to be saddled so he could dash off to the city and file a complaint. And so, with all those official stamps and lawyer’s fees—a lawsuit here, a lawsuit there—and all those legal expenses to pay, he’d practically ruined himself.
People said that Don Lollò’s lawyer, tired of seeing him appear two or three times a week, had, in order to get rid of him, given him a little book, similar to those used during mass: the law code. That way Don Lollò could rack his own brains searching for the legal foundations of all the lawsuits he wanted to start. To poke fun at him, everyone with whom he quarreled used to shout: “Saddle the mule!” But now: “Consult your law book!”
And Don Lollò:
“I will, and I’ll strike you down, you bastards, all of you!”
The new jar, which had cost him four onze in real money, was placed in the fermentation shed until room could be found for it in the cellar. No one had ever seen a jar like it before. But it made a sorry sight there in that cave, which reeked of must and the raw, pungent smell that hangs in the air in dark, close places.
The olive harvest had begun two days earlier, and Don Lollò was in a rage; between the men who’d come to beat the olive trees and the mule-drivers whose mules were laden with manure to heap on the hillside for next season’s bean planting, he didn’t know which way to turn, whom to attend to first. He was swearing like a Turk and threatening to kill now this worker, now that, if one—even one—olive were missing, as if he’d already counted each and every one of them when still on the tree; or if every pile of manure were not exactly the same size. In a ratty white hat and shirtsleeves, his chest bare, his face all red and dripping with sweat, he ran here and there, roving with wolfish eyes and furiously rubbing his cheeks, which sprouted a new beard as soon as he’d been shaved.
Now, at the end of the third day, three of the tree beaters, entering the shed to put away the ladders and sticks, stopped in their tracks at the sight of that beautiful new jar, broken in two, as if someone, slicing its big belly with a clean cut, had lopped off the whole front part.
“Who could have done it?”
“Oh, mamma mia! What’s Don Lollò going to say now? The new jar, what a shame!”
The first beater, more scared than the others, suggested they immediately close the door and leave as quietly as they could, leaning the ladders and sticks against the wall outside. But the second one said:
“Are you crazy? With Don Lollò? He’s likely to think we broke it ourselves. Stay right where you are!”
He stepped outside, cupped his hands to his mouth, and cried:
“Don Lollò! Hey, Don Lollò!”
There he was, at the base of the slope with the manure haulers, gesticulating furiously, as usual, and every now and then pulling his ratty white hat so low over his eyes that it would get jammed on his neck and forehead. The final shimmers of twilight were already fading from the sky, and as the evening shadows brought sweet coolness and peace to the countryside, his gestures became even more furious.
“Don Lollò! Hey, Don Lollò!”
When he came up and saw the damage, he nearly went mad. He hurled himself at the three peasants. He grabbed one by the throat, pinned him against the wall, and started screaming:
“By the blood of the Madonna, you’ll pay for this!”
When the other two, their weathered, bestial faces distraught, grabbed him in response, he turned his fury against himself, throwing his hat to the ground, pummeling his cheeks, stomping his feet, and braying as if mourning a dead relative:
“The new jar! Four onze worth of jar! Brand new!”
He demanded to know who broke it on him! It certainly didn’t break by itself! Somebody must have broken it, for spite or envy! But when? And how? There was no sign of any violence! What if it had come that way from the kiln? But how could that be? It had rung like a bell!
As soon as the peasants saw that his initial rage had subsided, they began urging him to calm down. The jar could be repaired. It wasn’t such a bad break. Only one piece. A skilled clay mender could fix it, good as new. Zi’ Dima Licasi was just the man. He’d discovered some sort of miracle putty, a closely guarded secret: a glue so strong not even a hammer could break it once it had set. So if Don Lollò wanted, Zi’ Dima Licasi would be here tomorrow, at the crack of dawn, and in less than no time the jar would be fixed, better than before.
Don Lollò kept rejecting their advice: it was pointless, nothing to be done. But in the end he let himself be persuaded, and the next day, right at dawn, Zi’ Dima Licasi arrived at Primosole, his basket of tools over his shoulder.
He was a crooked old man, with crippled, gnarled joints, like the stump of an aged Saracen olive tree. It was like pulling teeth to get him to say a word. Surliness was rooted in his very frame, misshapen as it was; as was his misgiving that no one could truly understand or appreciate his worth as an inventor, amateur that he was. He wanted the facts to speak for themselves, Zi’ Dima Licasi did. He had to keep his eyes peeled to make sure no one stole his secret.
“Let’s see this putty of yours” was the first thing Don Lollò said after looking him up and down for a long time.
Zi’ Dima, dignified, shook his head no.
“You’ll see it in action.”
“But will it do the job?”
Zi’ Dima put his basket on the ground and took out a ball of tattered red cloth—a big, cotton handkerchief—which he proceeded to unfold slowly, everyone curiously looking on. When he finally produced a pair of glasses, the broken bridge and temples held together with string, they all laughed. Zi’ Dima didn’t care; he sighed and cleaned his fingers before picking up his glasses and putting them on. Then, with great solemnity, he set to examining the jar, now out in the farmyard.
“It’ll do the job,” he said.
“I don’t trust just your putty, though,” Don Lollò stipulated. “I want wire stitches too.”
“I’m going then,” Zi’ Dima replied categorically, straightening up and throwing his basket of tools over his shoulder.
Don Lollò caught him by the arm.
“Going where? So this is how you behave with a gentleman? Would you look at him, acting like Charlemagne! You miserable pauper, you donkey’s ass, I have to put oil in that jar, and oil leaks! Mend a mile-long break with nothing but putty? I want stitches. Putty and wire. I’m in charge here.”
Zi’ Dima closed his eyes, pursed his lips, and shook his head. They’re all the same! Denying him the pleasure of doing an honest job, a precision repair, and of demonstrating the quality of his putty.
“If the jar doesn’t ring like a bell again . . .”
“I won’t hear it!” Don Lollò interrupted. “Stitches! I’m paying you for putty and stitches. How much do I owe you?”
“For just the putty . . .”
“Sheez, you’re stubborn!” Don Lollò exclaimed. “What did I say? I told you I want stitches. Fine, we’ll settle accounts when the job’s done, I don’t have time to waste arguing with you.”
And off he went to look after his men.
Brimming with rage and spite, Zi’ Dima set to work. His rage and spite increased with every hole he drilled to thread the wire. His grunts, which accompanied the whirring of the drill, grew louder and more frequent, his face turned white with rage, his eyes narrowed with vexation. This first step finished, he hurled the drill into his basket and held the broken piece in place, to make sure the holes on both pieces lined up properly and were evenly spaced. Then, with a pair of pincers he cut enough lengths of wire for all the stitches, and called for one of the beaters to help him.
“Cheer up, Zi’ Dima!” the peasant said, seeing how overwrought he looked.
Zi’ Dima gestured angrily with his hand. He opened the tin can with the putty and, shaking it, lifted it heavenward, as if in offering to God, since men refused to acknowledge its qualities: then, with his finger, he began to spread it all along the broken edges. He picked up his pincers and the lengths of wire and climbed into the jar’s open belly, ordering the peasant to set the broken piece in place, as he had just done. Before he began stitching, he spoke from inside the jar. “Pull, pull as hard as you can! See how it won’t come off? Curses on those who don’t believe it! Now bang on it, go ahead, bang on it! Does it ring, yes or no, even with me inside? Go on, go tell your boss!”
“Whoever’s on top is in charge, Zi’ Dima,” the peasant sighed, “and who’s on the bottom be damned! Come on, put the stitches in.” Zi’ Dima set to stitching up the jar, threading each length of wire through two adjacent holes, one on each side of the joint, and then twisting the ends with his pincers. It took an hour to do the whole thing. He was sweating like a fountain inside the jar. As he worked, he grumbled about his ill luck. And the peasant, outside the jar, consoled him.
“Okay, now help me get out,” Zi’ Dima finally said.
But wide as it was in the belly, the jar was narrow in the neck. In his rage Zi’ Dima hadn’t noticed. Now, try as he might, he couldn’t fit through the opening. And the peasant, instead of helping him, doubled up with laughter.
Zi’ Dima was imprisoned in there, trapped inside the jar he himself had fixed, and that now, in order to get him out—it was the only way—would have to be broken again, this time for good.
. . .
Read the rest of this story in Stories for the Years by Luigi Pirandello. Originally published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with Permission.
Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936) is one of Italy’s most significant literary figures of the last century. Virginia Jewiss, a translator of Italian literature and cinema, lives in Rome and in Washington, DC.