"PAROLE, PAROLE, PAROLE"
The Latin is attentive, sensitive to the perfection of form. Italian lit- erature is, from this point of view, exemplary for its academic, for- mal character, concerned with the perfection of expression and of language. Italian life, particularly political life, is difficult to un- derstand if one overlooks this point. The declarations of political men, and parliamentary debate, are invariably aimed not towards the setting out and resolution of concrete problems, the reaching of useful ends, but towards creating images ... and Ciceronian rheto- ric, its formal perfection, its taste for the elaborate, its dream of a universe made up of perfect equilibrium, accompanies the entirety of Italian literature like a shadow.
I arrived in Parma knowing only a few Italian words culled from classical music and from menus (adagio, allegro, prosciutto, and so on), and I found myself in the infantile position of trying to understand my surroundings at the same time as I learnt how to describe them. At the beginning, not knowing what was being said, I only heard the noise of the language, which sounds like coins fired out of a machine-gun: quick clinks, long, long words made up of short, rhythmic syllables. Conversations were also visual: words were underlined by hands which worked overtime, the fingers moving into strange shapes as if the speaker were working on some invisible origami creation in his palms.
When you do begin to understand the words, you quickly appreciate the beauty of the language. Every worthy person or object or place is given an evocative nickname. Football players, the princes of society, are called "the Swan" (the tall Marco van Basten) or "the Little Pendulum" (the Brazilian Cafu, who races up and down Roma's right wing). Venice is La Serenissima. The south of the country is il mezzogiorno, the "midday." The road which leads there is called the Autostrada del Sole, "the Motorway of the Sun." The little pleasures of daily life have suggestive names. A cappuccino, with its frothy milk and cocoa powder, is so called because it resembles the brown hood of a Capuchin friar. A hair-drier is called a fon because the warm wind which blows over northern Italy from the Austrian Alps is called the föhn. Even words relating to sexual matters seem more imaginative, more amusing: "to key," "to sweep," "to saw," and, my favourite, "to trombone."
Another difference is simply the decibel level. Italians, I didn't need to be told, are loud. The palazzo in which I live is a square medieval building. It is now divided into flats, each with windows and crumbling balconies onto our little courtyard. It's hard to explain the implications of that simple architecture. I had always seen Italian paintings of sun-drenched courtyards lined with laundry and loggias but never quite realised what they're like to live in. It's not that there's particularly a sense of community (most of the flats are now legal offices, since the courtroom is only a few hundred metres away; there's a restaurant on one side, a gymnasium on another). It's that you live in very close proximity to your neighbours and, above all, to their noise. Instead of answering the modern speaker-phones which double as doorbells, most lean out the open windows and shout to their friends four floors below. The whole palazzo, naturally, hears the conversation. I frequently hear arguments from the lawyers'offices. There's pop music permanently blaring out of the gym, and twice a week an aggressive aerobics instructor rolls up to bark instructions which can be heard at the other end of the building. At precisely five every evening the lady in the flat opposite mine, on the west wing of the building, starts singing her arpeggios and arias. The noise, always mingled with the roar of a nearby moped, takes some getting used to, but after a while other countries begin to seem eerily quiet, even dull.
The next, obvious difference from English was that conversations sometimes sounded like excerpts from intelligent discussions in a museum. It's hard to explain, but the past seemed ever present: not just in the endless ancient buildings, but also in conversation. Even in cheery chats at the pub, people started heated arguments about some incident from the seicento (the seventeenth century) or began discussing the merits of some baron or artist from the Middle Ages. It was never done boastfully, but rather casually, as if they were gossiping about a neighbour: just sitting in a pub, people would explain the history of the Farnese family (the dukes of Parma, who produced their own Pope) or the importance of Maria Luigia, Napoleon's widow who was Duchess here for three decades. They would explain the origin of the word "Parma" (the name for the circular Roman shield), and since the city is the epicentre of Italian cuisine and opera (home to Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini), conversation often revolved around food or opera. That intelligence, an intelligence which never verged on arrogance, was astonishing. Listen to the old men in the squares who swig wine and play cards all day, and you sense that same easy familiarity with subjects which would, in England, appear effete: prosciutto, opera, grapes, and so on. And they're discussed in the most earthy terms: "I swear it, when I heard the orchestra my balls rolled out of the auditorium."
The blissful creativity of the language is most obvious in the insults and arguments. The humbling effects of one-liners and put-downs were incredible, and in the course of time I received my fair share: "Holy pig!" screamed one old woman as I inadvertently blocked her exit from a parking space. "If you screw like you park, don't be surprised when you become a cuckold!" All that verbal jousting is hard to take at first, but once you can respond in kind, arguing becomes a normal, enjoyable pastime, a refreshing burst of sincerity.
Those, at least, were my early impressions: the happy noise and creativity of the language, the intelligence, and the carefree chaos. Gradually, though, something very different became obvious. Having read E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence, I had always imagined Italy as a place where reserve and reticence fall away, and where the polite hypocrisies of Britain could be thrown off. For those Edwardian writers, Italy was a country so vivacious and sensuous that it became a theatre for sexual awakening and for carnal knowledge. It's what Lawrence called the Italians' "blood-knowledge":
My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true ... That is why I like to live in Italy. The people are so unconscious. They only feel and want: they don't know.1
The more words I learnt, though, and the more I understood their origins, the more the country seemed not chaotic but incredibly hierarchical and formal. Even ciao was a greeting, I discovered, derived from the word schiavo, "slave." The cheery ciao, Italian's most famous word, originally implied subservience and order, as in "I am your slave." (In the Veneto, when you go into a shop, you're often greeted with comandi, which is again rigidly hierarchical: saying comandi isa plea by the shop assistant to "be commanded.") In Italy one endlessly has to obtain "permission": all foreigners--even those from the European Union--have to have a permesso, a "permit," to stay in the country. It's also the word used when crossing the threshold of someone else's house: "permission" to enter?
The next word which recurred again and again was vaguely related: sistemare, which means to order or sort out. A situation was invariably sistemato, "systematised," be it a bill, a problem, a relationship. It can also mean a murderous "sorting out," as in lui è stato sistemato, "he's been sorted." The rigidity, the search for orderliness, was everywhere. "All's well" is tutt'a posto: "everything in its place." Randomness is a recent, imported concept (the English is used, as in the neologism randomizzare). Rules are, at least on the surface, very important in Italy. Since eccentricity is frowned upon, one of the most frequent phrases one hears is non si fa, "it's not the done thing" (which invariably refers to dietary habits or dress codes, where the rules are most rigid). Other words which sent shivers down my spine were in regola and le norme. Rather than excitingly chaotic, Italy began to appear incredibly conservative and obedient.
I had moved to Italy because I was in love, and I thought that a relationship would be, if not casual, then at least outside cast-iron conformity. But this, too, came as a rude shock. It was an example of "systematisation" which I had never expected. About three or four months after I had arrived in Parma, friends (from southern Italy, where things are even more formal) started talking about someone called my fidanzata. Until that time they had usually referred to the person in question as my ragazza, my "girl." Then, almost overnight, this new word was apparently more apt. I went to the dictionary and found fidanzata translated as "betrothed." Strange, I thought, I'm sure I would have remembered if Ihad proposed to her, or even discussed an engagement with her family or our friends.
"No, no," I said, wagging my finger in imitation of their usual admonition, "she's my ragazza." The amused faces were unforgettable. My friends slapped me on the back, enjoying having to explain exactly why I was now "betrothed." "And you've done it all so quickly," Ciccio said with a laugh.
There was something else, though. When I went into shops, people would call me giovanotto or ragazzino. Even though they mean "young man" and "little boy," respectively, I heard the descriptions used to refer to people who looked like forty-year-olds. Maybe it was a compliment, I didn't know; to me, it instinctively felt very condescending. The attitude towards twenty-year-olds, even thirty- or forty-year-olds, was incredibly patronising. It's hard to describe, but in Britain someone who's, say, twenty-five has probably bought his own house, lives on his own or with friends, has a job. If anyone calls you "young boy" in Britain, you think it's almost an insult. Here, though, it seemed that one is "young" for a very, very long time. Until you're thirty-five, your career doesn't really start. It's unlikely you'll have a real promotion until you're fifty.
I had begun listening to the gravelly voice of a stunning singer-songwriter, the man the Italians call their Bob Dylan: Fabrizio De Andre. One of his interviews summed up precisely the excruciating geriatric structure of the country: "We're living in a society built for rich, old people, not for willing youngsters," he wrote. There was no "generational change-over," he said, because old people remained
clinging until death to any type of activity which could be better executed by young people. The young remain unemployed, facing the impossibility of being able to form and maintain a family: and to those few who manage to findwork, it's absolutely forbidden even to think about buying a house ... if all goes well, they'll buy it towards the age of fifty, on the edge of old age.2
Interestingly, the word for hierarchy in Italian is gerarchia; the etymologial root is the same (from the Greek hieros, implying sacred or divine), but the Italian contains an implicit sense that superiority is based upon age.
Thus, after a few months, I saw that the country wasn't only happily chaotic but also rather "systematised" and rigidly hierarchical. Any approach towards authority had to involve a startling degree of grovelling. Garbo, I was told, was a quality which even an Englishman would need to work on. It means "courtesy," or the ability to smooth over contradiction, betrayal, or rudeness. The other quality required of an Italian speaker, and especially a journalist, is salamelecco, which implies obsequiousness and flattery (from the Arabic salaam aleikum). As I spent weeks and then months in police stations and post offices trying to get the correct "permission" to live or work in Italy, I realised that it wasn't enough to bluster in and demand the necessary form. I had to deploy a contorted, formal language full of svolazzi (embellishments), or else the sun-glassed officer reviewing my case might be offended and want to flex his bureaucratic muscles. To request interviews, I had to write sentences of such sycophancy it was almost embarrassing: "Given one's noted fame as a political thinker, and notwithstanding the busy timetable which one has, I would be honoured if one felt able to consent to a courteous interview."
Then, the more I watched and understood TV, I realised that credibility in Italian is often based upon la parlantina (pomposity). Nowhere else are words so often spoken just for their idyllic sound rather than their meaning. To be logorroico, "incredibly wordy," is esteemed more than anything that'sactually being said. Accademico doesn't have the pejorative meaning which it does in English, the sense that "academic" is precipitously close to irrelevance. Invariably, the only way to get a conversational look-in was to interrupt. The only way to be taken seriously (especially as a journalist) was to hold forth with contorted clauses and forget any pretence of concision. There was one song which, for me, came to appear like Italy's alternative anthem (partly because it's so often aired, and also because it's so appropriate): Mina's "Parole, parole, parole" (Words, words, words). It's beautifully sung with resignation at all the yakking, all the inconsequential talk.
The stereotype of German speakers in Britain, that they're brutally to the point, is exactly what Italians think of English speakers, and especially journalists. "You can't be so direct," said my girlfriend, correcting my idiosyncratic style of writing Italian; "you need to dress it up a bit." So each time I wrote a letter (usually a letter of complaint to Telecom Italia), I had to have my prose turned into an august essay, as if it were written by a rather cocky, over-erudite schoolboy. Every letter is opened by the word egregio, which in English implies flagrant or foolish (egregious), but in Italian is an honorific, as in "Egregio Signor Jones." And honorifics are the all-important sweeteners of the language--every graduate is called "doctor," the football manager of the national side is called a "technical commissioner," a weather forecaster has to be at least a lieutenant colonel.
I became fascinated by the different registers within Italian, by the way in which the same people could be beautifully expressive one moment, then painfully baroque and Byzantine the next. The latter is what Italo Calvino called the antilingua, a sort of bureaucratic, formulaic language which creates "semantic terror." It was, he wrote, a "mortal contagion" in which the actual meaning gets lost along the way: "In the anti-language the meanings are constantly distanced, relegatedto the background of the words, which in themselves don't mean anything or mean something vague and elusive."3 I used to read four or five newspapers a day to brush up on my slowly improving Italian. At the end of hours of diligent reading, with a doorstop dictionary at my elbow, I knew nothing more about current affairs at lunch than I had before breakfast. I had been informed about absolutely nothing. It was a case not of incomprehension but of bewilderment. There were so many words, pages and pages of comment and opinion and surveys, which said absolutely nothing. Everything had to be qualified and contradicted. It was, I was told, a famous rhetorical device called anacoluto (anacoluthon), inconsistency of grammar or argument.
All of this does, strangely, have an important bearing on political discourse. There is, as Calvino wrote, a different Italian which is used to control and command. The political importance of that smokescreen of words is that no one can ever penetrate to the core of an issue or fully understand what's going on. More important, there was an obvious, dangerous divergence between the everyday and the official modes of linguistic communication. On the one hand, the country appeared serenely alla mano, which is to say entirely unpretentious: noisy, vivacious, never pulling its linguistic punches. But when confronted by any incarnation of authority, that directness gave way to deference, chaos gave way to conformity. I had seen friends who, in their homes, were the epitome of the carefree; when they had to go to the post office, though, they would put aside a whole morning to practise the long, imploring speeches they would have to use.
Whilst I was trying to learn Italian, everybody else was desperate to speak English. It became very obvious that the chic thing to do in Italian is to drop in English words--rather likeshowing savoir faire in English. Almost all the advertising slogans, on TV or on billboards, are in English. Many DJs speak half in English, or have American interns who do various chat shows. Sometimes the news on radio stations is read in both languages. Even though Italy's fashion industry is superior to all others, if you walk down any street, you will see dozens of Italians wearing clothes covered in English writing, often superimposed on a Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes. It's called esterofilia, a liking for all things foreign.
Even football, which like food and classical music is one of the bastions of Italian pride, has been thoroughly anglicised, such as "corner di Totti, dribbling di Delvecchio, cross, però Montella è in offside"; a football manager is also il mister. The importations are often hilariously inaccurate. The many billboards for sex-shops on the ring roads around cities advertise what are called sexy shops. I've often tried--and always failed--to explain wh it's so funny: it would mean that the actual bricks and mortar of the shop are provocative, "you know, maybe in a G-string." Victimisation in the workplace is called mobbing. A morning suit is called il tight. A tuxedo is lo smoking. Petting, it's as well to know, doesn't mean petting in the English sense, but a type of foreplay at the extremely advanced stages. Flirting means flirting. Slip means "slip" only in the Y-front sense, not as in "slip-up." Politicians, too, are keen to show that they're cosmopolitan and drop in all sorts of English words, even titling their rallies Security Day or their conferences I Care.
Sometimes that importation of English is nothing other than snobismo, a bit of easy showing off when an Italian phrase could just as well have been used. At other times, though, there are fissures in the Italian, conceptual cracks where there is no alternative to an English notion. Soon after I arrived, I spent an enjoyable night sampling a friend's grandmother's home-made nocino, walnut liqueur. (Anythingdella nonna, "of the granny," be it a restaurant dessert or a fiery liqueur, implies family and therefore bontà, "goodness.") The following morning I discovered that "hangover" simply has no equivalent in Italian. (Drinking habits are infinitely more civilised than in Britain, and even when they're not, it's a transgression to which no one's going to admit.) There's no word to express "condescending" or "patronising," which are, I suppose, the flip sides of subservience. "Self-control" is also absent in Italian, so the English is used.
Esterofilia, the liking for all things foreign, extends to names. Friends despair of my taste, but one of my favourite Italian actors is Bud Spencer, a bullish former Olympic swimmer whose real name is Carlo Pedersoli. During the 1970s he went to America with Terence Hill to make B movies which pretended to be American but starred Italians mouthing English; the films were then dubbed into Italian for Italian audiences. Slapstick but touching, these films deliberately put a bit of hamburger beef into the spaghetti western, thus catering to the yearning for all things American. Christian names often follow the lead. I had found a job teaching English at Parma University, and in my classes, next to Maria Immacolata (Mary Immaculate) and Gian Battista (John the Baptist), there were a William, a Tommy, and a Gladys. Other favourites are Jessica, JR (thanks to Dallas), and Deborah. Italy's most famous televisual personalities are called Gerry and Mike.
More surprising was that Russia has also been--especially for those from "red" Parma or the Communist bastion of Reggio Emilia--the inspiration for non-Italian names. Amongst people my age (those born during the anni di piombo, the "years of lead" of the Cold War), Yuri is certainly more common than Tobia, and much less laughed at. (The first of many nicknames I was given was Zio Tobia, Uncle Tobias, which is the Italian for that famous farmer Old MacDonald.)
The difficulties of learning the language were compounded by the fact that Italian still hasn't entirely percolated into Italy's city-states. Until the advent of radio and then TV, few people spoke correct Italian as their first language. Children of Italians who emigrated in the first half of the century often return to Italy thinking that they know Italian, only to discover that their parents only spoke and taught them their dialect. The results are still obvious today. When I asked students to translate an English word into Italian, I was normally offered a dozen alternatives, and long arguments ensued amongst the Sicilian, Venetian, and Lombard students as to what was the proper Italian translation. TV and radio are dominated by quiz shows which ask contestants what a fairly ordinary Italian word means, or question them about some long-forgotten piece of grammar. I would occasionally ask a simple linguistic question at the dinner table (the "remote past," say, of a particular verb), only to be offered three or four alternatives before my fellow diners started laughing and admitted they weren't quite sure.
It was, I was informed, a problem of the piazza. Piazza, which I had always assumed meant simply "square," had other connotations, as in "the team should start playing better soon because Reggio is una piazza calda" ("a hot square," which, it was explained, implies volatile fans or a politically engaged population). The piazza is the "city," its symbolic centre where people (for political or footballing reasons) "descend" to celebrate or protest. The piazza is the soul of local pride, a concept which is close to campanilismo (the affection for one's own bell-tower). It's also, sometimes, the place of resistance to outside, even Italian national, influence. If Italians spend much time deriding Italy, doing the same to their (truly) beautiful home town is unthinkable. There's a provincialism (in the proudest, least pejorative sense) in Italy which is unthinkable elsewhere. The word for "country"--paese--even doubles as the word for "town," suggesting that solidarity exists as much on a local as on a national level. City-states are still city-states, with their own cuisine, culture, and dialect.
It became very obvious that Italy and Italian were notions which had been somewhat superimposed on city-states, and which still hadn't been entirely accepted or absorbed. The country was really what Carlo Levi called "thousands of countries," in which inhabitants enjoy the best of both worlds: the cosiness of provincialism mixed with urbane cosmopolitanism. The result is the most beautiful aspect of Italian life. People invariably live and work where they were born rather than flocking to some far-off capital. Cousins and uncles and grandparents live in the same town, and very often under the same roof. (Although the following figures are from 1988-89, they have changed little in the last decade: 15.2 per cent of married Italian children live either in the same house or in the same palazzo as their mother; 50.3 per cent live in the same comune; only 13.2 per cent live farther than fifty kilometres from the maternal nest.)
The notion of community, of society's cement, had become something which interested me because it seemed to describe all the differences between Britain and Italy. "Here it's just so civilised," I would say to Italian friends. "In Britain, many nights, a lot of people will be drunk, fighting, and shouting. The country's rude and rushed. Here, well, it's just so much more civilised." And I meant it: Italy really is much, much more civilised than Britain. At sunset, young men will walk arm in arm through the city with their grandmothers. Lunches last for hours, and the conversation, without ever being pretentious, will always be amazingly sophisticated. The politeness, the gentility of Italians, is astonishing. But civility in Italy is always understood in private terms: house, family, community, campanile. In Britain, it'sthe opposite: it may be the result of exaggerated patriotism, but "belonging" in Britain is conceived in public terms: the state, the Crown, the Commons, and so on.
In Italy, that notion of citizenship is entirely absent. Here, the notion of the state is almost always pejorative. The word stato, referring to the state at a national level, is almost always used as a criticism. The stato is the cause of all complaints and grudges. There is, as is well known, no patriotism in Italy. Nobody feels much affection for anything national (the only exception being the azzurri, the national football team). The unification of Italy was so recent that many people still feel that the Italian flag is only a "heraldic symbol ... crude and out-of-place--the red shameless and the green absurd."4 Every Italian I met spoke about his country, at the national level, as exactly the opposite of what I had been told in Britain: instead of describing a land of pastoral bliss, Italians told me, with disparaging sneers, that their country was "a mess," "a nightmare," and, most often, "a brothel." Italy, they said, was a "banana republic" or, since the advent of Berlusconi, a "banana dictatorship." Everyone was very welcoming, but there was always, after a few hours, a warning. No one could understand why I had left Britain. A few told me to go back as soon as possible. They all, without exception, said Italy was bella, before explaining to me why it's not at all what it seems.
There was an obvious, inexplicable inferiority complex about being Italian. The first time I went to browse through a bookshop, a host of indignant titles were on display: Italy, the Country We Don't Like, The Italian Disaster, The Abnormal Country. Watching TV, I realised that a large percentage of the Italian film industry seemed to rely on the "indignant" genre. Countless films have honest men taking on the dark, unknown forces of Italy and meeting their inevitable, early death: An Everyday Hero, The Honest Man, A Good Man. If Ilistened to musicians, I would hear them singing songs like "Non mi sento Italiano" (I don't feel Italian) or "You Wanna Be Americano." I would sit down and watch films--especially those starring Alberto Sordi--and see that same sense of unease about Italian identity (though Sordi, of course, satirised the obsession with America and made the esterofilo appear much more daft than the Italian underneath).
The discrepancy between my drooling friends in Britain and the dismayed locals was even more evident reading Italian classics. One metaphor was always used to describe Italy: "whore," "harlot," "brothel." For Dante, Italy was an "inn of woe, slavish and base ... a brothel's space." For Boccaccio, it was "the woman of the world," once regal but now fallen ( "fuggit'è ogni virtù) spent'è il valore"). Italy was, for Machiavelli, a woman disfigured and nude: "without head, without order, beaten undressed, lacerated, coarse." So much for the sunny, celestial land I had, having read Shelley and Byron, been expecting: "a plane of light between two heavens of azure," or a place "whose ever-golden fields" were "ploughed by the sunbeams solely."
I tried to find the origin of the use of "whore" as a metaphor, and found that it was coined because of the perception that Italy had, as it were, been through so many hands. Bourbons, Habsburgs, rival popes, and other external dynasties had so regularly conquered and "possessed" her that a weary, common expression became "O Franza o Spagna, purchè se magna"--it didn't matter who the political "pimp" was as long as there was food to eat. Since Italy wasn't united until 1861, it remained for centuries a sort of bargaining chip in the balance of European power. Long before imperialism reached the East and West Indies, Italy was a colonised country, becoming rather like what India would be for the British: a "jewel" in the imperial crown, esteemed for its age and cultural inheritance. There were, of course, indigenousdukedoms and independent republics on the peninsula, but they remained squeezed between strongholds of Habsburgs and Bourbons in the "race for Italy." (Even the "mythological conception" of Italy was thanks to outside influence: Saturn, ousted from Olympia by his son Jupiter, became the first of Latium's many "foreign rulers.") As a result, even now the metaphor of prostitution is endlessly invoked and reiterated. It's become like Albion for the English: an intuitive image of what, for Italians, Italy has been (with the difference that it is invariably a negative image, and one which hints at the uncertainty about what "Italy" really is or whom it belongs to).
The metaphor is also used because the word for brothel (casino) also means "mess" or "confusion." The very modus operandi of Italy is confusion. That's how Italy's power and secrecy work. Any investigator simply gets tied up in knots with all the facts and words and documents, with the convictions and contradictions. As a result, their investigations invariably end up with such an unbelievable story that, even if it's true, people are already bewildered beyond the point of no return. By far the most common expression heard to describe Italy is bel casino, which is rather like Laurel and Hardy's "fine mess." It means "beautiful confusion" or (originally) "beautiful brothel."
I quickly understood the reason for Italians' dismay about their state. Italy isn't a religious country; it's a clerical one. The fourth estate isn't really the press but a power which is much slower, more ponderous, and invariably faceless: bureaucracy. Its clerics are the modern incarnations of priests. They are the people who classify and authorise, the people whose signature or stamp is vital to survival. Like priests, they're the intermediaries who usher you along the yellow-brick road towards the blessed paradise of "legitimacy."
Here post offices and banks are like large, emptied churches. They're sacred, communal places with the same shafts of oblique sunlight falling from high windows. There's a sense of people meekly approaching authority as they queue like communicants--waiting not to receive the Eucharist but to impart large portions of their earnings to one faceless monopoly or another. Hours pass and you get closer to the counter, closer to your brush with institutionalised usury. Then, because nothing--but for driving--is done with anything resembling speed, and because the queuing system is unorthodox, you will find yourself further back than you were an hour ago. I used to get infuriated in such situations when I first arrived, but now I rather enjoy them. I've realised that, as the British go to the pub, the Italians go to the post office. You meet and make friends, read a paper, or just pass the time.
"Bureaucracy" means "office power" (bureau-kratos), and nowhere are offices as "powerful" as in Italy. One recent study suggested that two weeks of every working year are lost to Italians in queues and bureaucratic procedures.5 The calculation went that since Italians need, on average, twenty-five visits to various offices each year, the equivalent of almost seven thousand minutes each year is spent queuing. That would be in a normal year; if you want to apply for a job, it's best to put aside a week or ten days in order to gather the correct documents, pay for them to be stamped, and so on. It's like trying to catch confetti: racing from one office to another, filling in forms and requests, trying to grab pieces of paper which always just elude your grasp. As much as 2,000 billion lire ($1 billion) is spent annually by Italians just to "certify" their status (car owner, divorced, resident at a particular address, and so on). It's not just expensive; it's exceptionally slow. It's been nicknamed the lentocrazia, the "slowocracy."
For many reasons, the importance of the bureaucracy lies in its politicisation. The civil service has often been so slow to implement laws and legislation that they are superseded before they're in place. Funds offered by the government often, in the past, never arrived, and they became residui passivi (funds beyond their application date) which were duly returned to the Treasury. Time-wasting, the greatest skill of a politicised civil servant, became in the postwar period an art form, whereby civil servants could delay reforms through their obstinate slowness. Endless historians have written of the clerical class as a shadow Parliament: hostile to change, servile only to its insider clientele. The bureaucracy is also acutely politicised because "clerical" jobs are so precious that thousands, millions, of Italians compete for a posto, a "place." The jobs are particularly precious because they offer contracts for tempo indeterminato, "time immemorial." Thus politicians are lobbied by ambitious parents who long for their child to enjoy the comfortable, cosy world of a clerical job. When I went to buy my morning newspapers, I would see the little pavilions which sold papers covered with magazines dedicated to advertising the latest important competition for public-sector jobs. It's an example of another keyword of Italian politics: clientelismo, the culture of looking after your friends and family and thereby keeping outsiders and unknowns out of the loop. I'm told the whole set-up is much more meritocratic than it was a few years ago, especially in the north, but it's still unlikely that you'll ever get a job without "contacts"; you need to know the right local politician, or have the backing, the raccomandazione, of--a phrase you frequently hear--a famiglia importante.
If you're outside the clerical class, though, you begin to understand the contempt Italians feel for their own state. You have to be painfully deferential to the clerics; you have to plead or lobby for the simplest things in the most wordy,sycophantic way. Or you have to have conoscenze, "acquaintances," have to know people "with their hands in the pasta." It all comes with wonderful opportunities and dangers: everything works brilliantly on a personal, private footing; but from anything institutional you can expect only headaches and queues.
After about a year in Italy, I was queuing at the post office; I was furious because I had to pay the former state monopoly Telecom Italia vast amounts of money for two phone lines which, for complicated reasons, hadn't been operative for months. I met one of my middle-aged students, "Lucky" Luciano, and started grumbling to him. He laughed and shook his head as if that were nothing. He was, he said, still waiting for a 28-million-lira refund from the state because he had paid too much tax back in the 1980s. Most of his friends had dodged the tax because they knew it was about to be revoked; he, having been honest, had paid a hefty price. Then someone next to us in the queue began listing her woes, which went back to a rip-off she had suffered at the hands of the state during the 1970s. Within minutes, three parallel queues were all complaining, each person coming out with a horror story of governmental avarice and bureaucratic incompetence.
Attempting to reason, of course, is as futile as Canute's defying the tide. "We're not citizens," the mother of my "betrothed" explained, "but subjects." That distance between government and its people, and the them-and-us mentality it breeds, are central to any understanding of Italy. Because everyone feels so badly treated, because everything is so legalistic, people feel justified in being a little lawless. "Impotence in front of a blocked political system, incapable of change ... the negation of democratic logic," was even offered in the 1970s as a central reason for Italian terrorism.6 Italians, the argument went, felt it a "metaphysical curse" to be Italian, to be subjected to those grinding, inefficient, but very powerful "offices."
The political consequences of Italians' disdain for the Italian state are that the sense of community and of the common weal is minimal. That distancing from anything statale breeds individualism and an unusual attitude towards law-abiding. I have never lived in a country in which so many people think the state so criminal and in which, therefore, breaking that state's laws was so often, and so indulgently, smiled upon. Few other countries have citizens with such an "each to his own" mentality or so much menefreghismo, "I don't carism" (signalled with the back of the fingers thrown forwards from the throat to the chin). It often seems as if everyone were trying to beat the system instead of trying to uphold it. "Fatta la legge trovato l'inganno" goes a common proverb: no sooner is a law made than someone will find a way round it.
Next to the description of Italians as brava gente (good people), I started hearing another, less complimentary one: furba gente (cunning people). A furbo, it was explained, watches his money, and probably casts a wistful eye on his neighbours'; he doesn't worry unduly about the rules. It's a vaguely attractive trait (unless the cunning is at your own expense). Its opposite, ingenuità, implies gullibility. It's much better, of course, to be furbo, mildly dodgy, than ingenuo, naive (which originally implied virtue, because an ingenuo was one "born free" rather than into slavery).
In Italy there's a morality unlike anything I had ever come across before. It's best summed up by Jacob Burckhardt in his Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy:
Machiavelli ... said openly, "We Italians are irreligious and corrupt above others." Another man would have perhaps said, "We are individually highly developed; we have outgrown the limits of morality and religion which were natural to us in our undeveloped state, and we despise outward law, because our rulers are illegitimate, and their judges and officers wickedmen." Machiavelli adds, "because the Church and her representatives set us the worst example."7
Therein lies the irony. Wrongdoing is invariably excused by the fact that political or Church leaders are, rightly or wrongly, thought to be up to much worse things and a little tax dodging or bribery by us lesser beings really isn't that important. This, of course, continues the vicious circle: everyone's up to something, and you're stupid if you're not, too. Judgements are, in fact, rarely moral. Linguistically, as in so much else, the country is based upon aesthetics rather than ethics. The judgement words most used are not "good" or "bad" but "beautiful" (bello) or "ugly" (brutto). The adjective bello is trotted out with such regularity that it entirely obscures a concept like "good"; it can then be trumped by troppo bello when something is overwhelmingly "too beautiful." Thus immorality is less frowned upon than inelegance; to be beautiful, or to be somewhere beautiful or with someone beautiful, is more of an achievement than righteousness. This obsession with outward appearance is at the root of the word figura, which implies the "figure" you've achieved not only physically but in the sense of creating an attractive or ugly impression. Fare una figura, to make a bad impression, is an error not necessarily of morals but of presentation.
Strangely, the immorality is culturally related to the Catholic Church. There's a confessionalism in which it doesn't matter what you do, whether you're good or bad, as long as you remain "in the ranks," as long as you profess your intention to be better. Catholicism is all-embracing (the origin of the word, katholikos, implies exactly that): everyone is included, which means that everyone's forgiven, pardoned. There's nothing that a humble nod towards the purple cassocks or judicial "togas" can't resolve. Politicians may be criminals, everyone may even acknowledge as much, but itdoesn't matter: everything is whitewashed. History, personal or political, is quickly forgotten.
I met one journalist who had very strong views on the subject. "OK," he said one night as he tried to explain it to me, "imagine you've got a country which has always, throughout its entire history, said: 'These are the rules: don't break them. If I catch you, well, you'll be let off, just don't do it again.' Obviously it's not the best recipe for law-abiding. You know what the Duc de La Rochefoucauld said? 'Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue.' Very few Italians are hypocrites. Half of them are noble, heroic, and virtuous, and the other half are so outside any moral orbit that they don't even understand the definition of 'vice' or of 'virtue.'" It sounded a bit extreme, but it certainly aroused my interest.
It's probably not related to the a-legality or amorality, but I found the attitudes towards obligation completely different from those in Britain. "Stop saying 'I must' all the time," friends said to me, nicknaming me il calvinista. Red lights and speed limits and no-smoking signs and queues are all fairly slavishly obeyed in Britain; here, it was obvious, they were merely suggestions. The advantage, I realised, was that life here is simply more enjoyable. The longer I stayed here, the more obvious it became that life was not lazy, just more leisurely. I noticed during the skiing season that my favourite barman had left a note outside his bar, handwritten on cardboard: "Closed because of illness. I've gone to recuperate in the Dolomites. I will be better on Monday 18." Protestantism and bad weather speed things up in Britain; here, everything seems more relaxed, including certain rules.
The more I enjoyed the leisurely beauty, the bellezza, of Italy, the more sophisticated (in both senses) it seemed. The purpose, I was told, of beauty in Italy, quite apart from simply "being beautiful," is that it's a form of fancy dress: an opportunity to seduce or sedate observers. Italy was a country, Iread, "peerless in the art of illusionism." "Bisogna far buon viso a cattivo gioco" goes a proverb: appearances are important, and it's therefore "necessary to disguise a bad game with a good face." In English we say "stiff upper lip," which implies stoicism. This was subtly different: it implies not stoicism but presentation. Everything is dressed up, beautified, and embellished. An Italian writer once described that peacock syndrome in which everything becomes part of a great show and subtle disguise:
[D]ull and insignificant moments in life must be made decorous and agreeable with suitable decorations and rituals. Ugly things must be hidden, unpleasant and tragic facts swept under the carpet whenever possible. Everything must be made to sparkle, a simple meal, an ordinary transaction, a dreary speech, a cowardly capitulation must be embellished and ennobled with euphemisms, adornments and pathos ... [S]how is as important as, many times more important than, reality.8
On two occasions I began to realise how different everything was, or at least was thought to be. One Sunday afternoon I was sitting on the terrace of a house in the Apennines. A friend put on the coffee, which came to the boil like an aircraft, arriving from nowhere with a growl and receding with a hiss and a vapour trail. "You see," said the friend, smiling, "this says everything about the differences between English and Italian." He was pointing at the icing sugar on his croissant. "You call that icing 'sugar,' right? We call it 'veil sugar.' Apart from the fact that our term," he was nodding, smiling because he knew he was right, "is infinitely more elegant than yours, it's also much more subtle. 'Icing on the cake' implies ostentation, right? Ours is a veil, romantic, beautiful, concealing something within."
Then, a little later, I was in Parma's football stadiumwatching a match. Everyone was sitting on personalised blue-and-yellow cushions, until the ref made a bad decision and the fans were on their feet, insinuating that he was being cheated on by his wife: "Arbitro cornuto! Arbitro cornuto!" It's an amusing and apt insult (in Britain the referee is just an onanist): apart from the fact that it sounds Shakespearean when translated into English, it implies that even the black shirt of authority, controlling the game, doesn't know quite what's going on (be it in the match itself or in his marital bed).
Receiving street directions in Parma is rather like leafing through a calendar at random: go down 22 July, turn left, and then right onto 20 March. All over the city there are plaques, memorials, and statues of partisans from the Resistance, guns in hand, who are sculpted to look suspiciously as if they've been shot in the back. On street corners, copies of the Socialist or Communist papers are pinned up on public boards. Often you see graffiti imploring, "Barricade Yourselves!," though I'm never sure whether it's politicking or just an advert for a nearby restaurant, The Barricades.
Before living in Italy, I had never really heard the words "Fascist" and "Communist" used. In England, such political labels are only used as critical hyperbole, or for historical debates about the early part of the last century. Here, although they are thinner on the ground than a few years ago, many politicians still earnestly and proudly describe themselves as "Fascists," "post-Fascists," or "Communists." Even the flags of the political parties maintain insignia relevant to their Fascist or Communist origins, and graffiti artists follow suit. In Parma, hammers and sickles are standard fare; elsewhere, especially in Rome, there are swastikas or Celtic crosses. "There must be a reason," an Italian academic wrote recently, "whyItaly was the fatherland of Fascism and of the largest Communist party in the Western world, why the two most important secular religions of the twentieth century had their greatest success in Italy."9 His explanation was that Italian politics is quasi-religious, expressing the "hopes and fears" of its people. Whatever the reason, Fascism and Communism are bedded in the Italian soul, and their collision was the cause of the country's guerra civile, its "civil war."
The concept of civil war has been increasingly (and controversially) used to describe phases of Italian history since 1943. Two books published on the war between Italian Fascists and partisans between 1943 and 1945 are called Una guerra civile and Storia della guerra civile in Italia. Recently, though, it's come to be used also for the period of political terrorism from the late 1960s to the early 1980s: "a low-intensity civil war," a period in which there were almost fifteen thousand "terrorist attacks" and in which 491 people were killed. It was, I was told, one of the enduring features of Italian history, a sort of ongoing, costly conflict between civilians. The country has always been divided into warring halves. I was pointed towards Dante, who (having experienced another Italian "civil war"--the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict) wrote of Italy:
... the living cannot, without shame Of war reside in you, and man wounds man Though guarded by one wall, one moat, the same.10
The more I became interested in those "civil" and "civilian" wars, in the "Fascists" and the "Communists" who were aligned against each other, the more I came across another elegant phrase: the muro di gomma, the impenetrable "rubber wall" off which all investigations bounce. Any research, I was told, would be futile. Nothing ever comes out into the open. There may be intrecci and trame, threads and tracks, whichcriss-cross the peninsula, linking politicians to the Mafia or terrorist groups, but they are all buried by omissis (omission) and omertà (the silence of the Mafioso). Investigations go on for years, sometimes decades. When someone is finally brought to court, it seems almost de rigueur that if he's been condemned in primo grado, he will be absolved in secondo grado (on appeal) or else in the Corte di Cassazione (the Supreme Court). No one is ever entirely guilty, no one ever simply innocent. It's part of the rewiring process of living in Italy that you can never say, even about the most crooked criminal, that he is factually, legally guilty: there's always the qualifier that he's "both innocent and guilty." Sooner or later the accusation will be dropped anyway, because the deadline for a judicial decision has been superseded.
Thus when I talk politics with Italian friends, they are always astonished by, and envious of, the way in which British politicians are held accountable. "He just took money to help a friend get a passport, and for that he's in the political wilderness? Incredible." "You mean he lied in court to protect his wife from the knowledge of his infidelity, and he's gone to prison?" After one recent British political scandal, a newspaper wrote on its front page that "if the same were to happen in Italy, there would be no parliamentarians left." The amazement of Italians is twofold: first, astonishment that such paltry infringements represent political wrongdoing and, second, incredulity and envy that powerful men (they are only ever men) can be held to account for their actions, can ever be given a conclusive "guilty" stamp.
"Think of politics like this," said Maurino one night as we were playing the Italian version of pool. "You Brits play pool where balls go down and stay down. Here, anything you knock down gets put back up again. There are no pockets. You just keep playing." He was laughing rather bitterly.
As I began studying postwar Italian history, it became obviousthat surrounding any crime or political event, there are always confusion, suspicion, and "the bacillus of secrecy." So much so that dietrologia has become a sort of national pastime. It means literally "behindology," or the attempt to trump even the most fanciful and contorted conspiracy theory. Dietrologia is the "critical analysis of events in an effort to detect, behind the apparent causes, true and hidden designs." 11 La Stampa has called it "the science of imagination, the culture of suspicion, the philosophy of mistrust, the technique of the double, triple, quadruple hypothesis."12 It's an indispensable sport for a society in which appearance very rarely begets reality. Stendhal wrote about it in The Charterhouse of Parma: "Italian hearts are much more tormented than ours by the suspicions and the wild ideas which a burning imagination presents to them."13 As a result of the conspiracy theorising, probably the largest genre in publishing is the misteri d'Italia industry. Whole publishing houses, as well as film production companies, survive solely by revisiting the epic mysteries of Italian postwar history.
And the more I read, the more Italy's recent history seemed dark and intriguing. Leonardo Sciascia and his literary mentor, Luigi Pirandello, both wrote of their native Sicily and Italy as places of illusionism and secrecy where nothing can ever be understood. For Sciascia, Italy was so plagued by sophistry and deceit that it had become "a country without truth ... there's not a criminal episode which, having some relationship with politics, has had a rational explanation or just punishment."14 Many history books on modern Italy open with a resigned apology, suggesting that the whole thing is unfathomable. It's the same story with Pirandello's plays, which mock anyone's attempt to work out what is going on in the world. Players become puppets, pushed and pulled by unseen forces. Everything is so confusing that searching for evidence, the famous "document," becomes entirely futile:
Granted, this document you talk about might serve your purpose--that is, to relieve you of this stupid curiosity of yours. But you don't have it, and so here you are, damned to the marvellous torment of finding here before your eyes on the one hand a world of fantasy and on the other a world of reality, and you are unable to distinguish one from the other.15
It was this side of Italy which, I slowly realised, was at the root of those worried warnings I had received when I arrived. Nothing, I was repeatedly assured, would ever become clear. "If you're a journalist, forget it," they seemed to be saying.
"You can guess at what has been going on, but no one will ever get close to the truth." One Italian historian, for example, has written of Italy's postwar history as "partly submerged, dark, not revealed because perhaps not revealable, not mentionable, as if it were the history of a grim divinity."16
I realised that it was, as Pirandello wrote, impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality. The words "history" and "story" are the same in Italian (storia). Unless it's defined, or given a definite article, storia could be a tale from true life or simply make-believe. You wouldn't know unless you asked. Even if you do, it's often hard to believe. The deeper I delved, the more Italy's postwar history seemed a sort of magic realism, full of symbolism and surreal touches. "Italy," wrote Pier Paolo Pasolini, "is a ridiculous and sinister country. Its powers are comic masks, vaguely stained with blood."17 Even today, given the levels of intrigue and drama, real-life crimes are always called gialli (literally "yellows," or "thrillers"). Newscasters often excitedly introduce news of a murder or kidnapping as un giallo incredible. That's probably why, despite the huge success of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, there are barely any other (comparatively recent) historical novels in Italy: the factual, true-life version simply couldn't be bettered. The best writers on Italy in thepostwar period have been well aware of that "thrilling" side to Italian life in which the divide between fact and fiction appears paper-thin. Leonardo Sciascia wrote about the "untouchable, literary perfection" of one tragic Italian "thriller" (the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro);18 Umberto Eco wrote about the same event: "This would be a joke if the novel were not written with blood."19 One British historian, commenting on another postwar giallo, wrote that it seemed "to come straight from a best-selling novel."20
As I began trying to distinguish "histories" from "stories," one image of voluptuous secrecy stuck in my mind: "Italy is really like a great, mythological artichoke ... A single flower, green and purple, where each leaf hides another, each layer covers another layer, jealousy hidden. He who knows how to take off the outside leaves will discover unimaginable things, in a difficult voyage in time and space."21 Despite the warnings, I decided to make that "difficult voyage," to travel "in time and space" across the country.
Copyright © 2003 by Tobias Jones All rights reserved Originally published in 2003 by Faber and Faber Ltd, London Published in 2004 in the United States by North Point Press First North Point Press paperback edition, 2005