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The Wager


The Wager

Having a particular weakness for fairy tales (especially exotic ones), I was eager to read THE WAGER, based on a Sicilian fairy tale. Admirers of stories of the Brothers Grimm might be familiar with another version of this in short story #101, “Bearskin.” I enjoy the vibrant scenery and outlandish gallantry in some of these, which take readers far away from anything modern. This involves a luxuriant escapism where there is no need for any logic. And even though the most famous fairy tales are almost irritatingly pleasant, the greater number are dark, even disquietingly so, and often more imaginative. THE WAGER definitely falls into this latter group. It is both bizarre and clever, and makes some worthy statements on good and evil and on the remarkable strength of the human will. It’s one of the finest fairy tales I’ve ever encountered, though it’s not for the squeamish or for those looking for a sugary tale.   

The story focuses on a wager between the Devil and a noble of Sicily --- and the resultant misfortunes he must be endure. The eruption of Mount Etna in the year 1169 has brought a level of devastation that none on the isle of Sicily are prepared for. Following the initial lava flow, the clash of lava with the cool ocean waters brings forth a giant tsunami that razes the homes of Messina's peasants. Many die horribly, but Don Giovanni is concerned about the loss of his servants and what they do for him. Since the catastrophe, none have come to work, and upon visiting a friend's home, Giovanni discovers that they will not be returning. He has run out of money to pay them, and his "friend" who loaned him funds before intends to repossess Giovanni's things. Destitute, Giovanni is as devastated as others who have sustained minor losses. Emptied of his furniture and his servants, the extravagant manor is of little use. So Giovanni leaves, humiliated, but comforted in the idea that at least he has enough mettle to survive by his own two hands.

Giovanni takes to begging when he must, but prefers to live off the land or to work. He loathes his status, but, almost against his nature, enjoys himself as he travels. He notices the wildflowers and people living freely around him. He eats anything and does so without squeamishness. But once winter hits, there is no food to be had and the streets are lined with beggars. Giovanni, who had only just been happy, is frightened and cheerless again. This lasts until All Saints Day and All Souls Day, when he discovers a menacing man in a stable who relays a tempting offer. He'll make Giovanni extravagantly rich if he's only willing to give up one thing: his beauty. Giovanni knows he's dealing with the Devil but is starving and desperate, and so he accepts the wager anyway. He receives the Devil's satchel in return for three years, three months and three days without bathing. He cannot groom himself or change his clothes. As Giovanni whispers softly to the satchel, it fills with coins. Of course, it is only a matter of time before he will regret this.

In weeks, Giovanni's stench is repulsive. After months, he must seclude himself from everyone.  In a year, his skin festers and rots, and he's covered in painful boils and parasites. He's become a mass of putrid filth that barely looks human. No one will come near him save for a stray dog. He may die in this condition, but whenever he's tempted to break the deal, the Devil returns to warn him of what is on the line and to beguile him into giving up. Meanwhile, Giovanni struggles to remain sane in a world that hates him. But as he does this, something amazing happens: Living in misery, he finds friendship with a stray he calls Cani, and learns to see the suffering of others and to think of how he might ease it. He finds that what he wants most now is simple, friendly company. But he can also see that it will be a rare soul who's capable of giving him this.

THE WAGER reads like an old fairy tale, and author Donna Jo Napoli's writing is brilliantly descriptive and rhythmical. What begins as a miserable man's story within the dark, gray drizzle of his life becomes more and more hopeful until the mood finally lifts to become purely triumphant. As Giovanni evolves into a repulsive, hideous creature on the outside, his inner self becomes a beautiful thing to behold. What is so amazing about this is that the change is so gradual as to be almost imperceptible for a while. The book and its messages are cleverly written, and I truly appreciate what Napoli did with what had originally been a bleak ending. Any readers who enjoy fairy tales and can handle the darker variety should really appreciate this amazing, original story.

Reviewed by Melanie Smith on April 27, 2010

The Wager
by Donna Jo Napoli

  • Publication Date: April 27, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
  • ISBN-10: 0805087818
  • ISBN-13: 9780805087819