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I almost regretted not reading “The Wager” to the end. I was so bored with the story for most of the chapters. But something “pushed” me to read on and I did. I could not explain how I reached chapter 14 and got hooked to the book. It is a very strange experience. Don Giovanni is a man of affluence although he’s barely twenty. Inheritance makes him rich but hedonism and generosity strip him of his wealth. He’s reduced to begging overnight after all his properties in Messina are destroyed by Tsunami. His extravagant lifestyle has indirectly contributed to his rock-bottom poverty: his creditors seized everything in his castle. All his servants leave him, knowing that he cannot afford them wages anymore. In his destituteness, the Devil appears to him and offers to make him rich again. In return, he cannot bathe or change his clothes for three years, three months and three days. He agrees and the Devil gives him a purse that produces unlimited money. His beauty, however, rots gradually (like the portrait of Dorian Gray).
Don Giovanni remains an outcast despite becoming rich again. He’s not welcomed in the inns because he stinks like a sewage. His only friends are the beggars who help him to buy foods. His best friend is a strayed dog. A chance encounter leads him to the purchase of a villa. The good old days return: he has servants and throws lavish parties. But this time, he can only observe the merriment from a distance. His appearance and his stench are appalling. None of his guests ask about their host; they didn’t care if he was there or not. Reputation of his immeasurable wealth travels far and wide and reaches the king’s ears. He sends his messenger to ask for a huge loan from him and Don Giovanni gives generously. To show his gratitude, the king makes him a royal offer. The Faustian deal gets in his way but he’s determined to restore his lost happiness.
“The Wager” is based on an old Sicilian Fairytale called “Don Giovanni De La Fortuna”. Author, Donna Jo Napoli expanded the short tale into a 259-page novel and beefed it up with vivid descriptions of the twelfth century Italy and its cuisines. At the same time, she threw in grotesque details of the stages of decay and degeneration of one’s body when left unwashed for months. For readers who like their senses tickled will find her descriptive style delightful. I usually scan descriptions of places and particularly, foods. Take away all these and the most parts of the story are about the wandering life of Don Giovanni. I didn’t read this book to understand the lives of beggars and vagabonds. But without passing through point B from A, how can any author bring us to C? Still, I’m bored to read about what Don Giovanni does and who he meets on the streets. Even his meeting with the Devil didn’t excite me. I was going to close the book and forget about it – just like I did with some misjudged cases of interesting covers. “The Wager” has a gothic artwork on its cover and it’s all red (my favorite color). Somehow, I kept on reading. I sort of like Donna’s distinctive use of short sentences and simple words in the story. She didn’t stretch my patience like French novelist, Marcel Proust. My boredom with the book dissolved from chapter 14 onwards when she “rescued” Don Giovanni off the street and moved him into a villa. At the last three chapters, I couldn’t stop reading at all. I prefer her ending to that of the original tale.
The likeability of Don Giovanni makes up for the slow pace of the story. It’s an irony that while his body and health change dramatically, the goodness of his character remains unchanged. He’s still the kind man before, during and after his ordeal: He’s never mean to his servants; he’s always generous to others’ needs; he’s slow to anger but quick to dispense his wealth from the devil for philanthropic causes. His relationship with his dog, Cani has also injected some heartwarming moments to his plight.
On a deeper level, the story illustrates what ill-gotten money can do to its recipient through the suffering of Don Giovanni. After the Devil grants him an unlimited wealth, he makes his life miserable. Nobody wants to get near Don Giovanni let alone befriend him. He’s dirty and smelly but the Devil forbids him to bath or change clothing. He can’t buy foods freely by himself because he doesn’t look like he has money. He pays an exorbitant rent for a mediocre room and even so, the inn-keeper insists that he stays inside the whole day; foods will be brought to his room. When he hosts parties in his villa, he cannot mingle with the guests because of his repulsive appearance. He cannot enjoy himself because of his deteriorating health.
I have never read a book like this before. I actually want to read it again despite not liking many chapters. Strange.
About the author
When Donna Jo Napoli, the multi-award winning author of children’s fiction is not writing, she teaches at the Department of linguistics Swarthmore College. PA. She holds a Ph.D. in General and Romance Linguistics from Harvard University. She began teaching as an instructor of Italian in 1970. She started writing “The Wager” in 2004 when thousands of lives are lost in the Indian Ocean Tsunami . Because of the emotional toil , she took a hiatus from her story. As a result, her first draft took her more than four years to complete.