Italy in the Years of Lead.
In the Italy I first knew, the Italy of the midseventies, political debate seemed to constitute the molten core of every dramatic conversation. My Italian was good and improving, but it never really got good enough to penetrate the mist of political verbiage. “Compagni, cioè, nella misura in cui” was the standard Italian catchphrase, mocking the loopy revolutionary discourse of the time: “Comrades, I mean, to the extent to which…” If the militant jargon was eye-glazing, the newspapers printed a language that can only be compared to the incense-clouded Latin of the Catholic Mass, a series of hieratic shibboleths that resembled Abstract Expressionist dance, the high holies and sacred mysteries of a Kabuki facade behind which deals were being cut.
But one aspect of the political debate became dazzlingly clear to me on a July afternoon in 1977 when my flatmate Angela burst into the small apartment we shared; she had the day’s newspaper and sat down to read it at the kitchen table. Angela was tall, with a crazed serpent’s nest of curly, hennaed red hair, intensely exorbital brown eyes, stunningly uneven buckteeth, and a dangerous temper. She dressed in the uniform of leftist Italian students: vest over peasant blouse, long embroidered skirt, Dr. Scholl’s clogs, oversize velvet purse riding at hip height.
As she read one article, something broke in her usually impetuous demeanor. “Oh, mamma mia, quanto mi dispiace,” she keened softly, expressing her sorrow. A NAP militant—Antonio Lo Muscio—had been shot and killed by police on a piazza in Rome, and two female comrades were shot and wounded. Angela was openly mourning the death of people who had killed policemen and hoped to overthrow the state. I was already afraid of her temper and her glare, but I was now aware that her political beliefs went to a place much more glamorous and romantic, and far scarier, than I had guessed.
That scary, romantic Italy is at the center of Francesco Piccolo’s remarkable novel Il desiderio di essere come tutti (The Desire to Be Like Everyone), published last year, which received this year’s prestigious Strega Prize. It’s a sincere personal account of two looming personalities: Enrico Berlinguer and Silvio Berlusconi, respectively the beloved leader of the Italian Communist Party in the seventies and early eighties and—well, Silvio Berlusconi needs no introduction. Francesco Piccolo is fifty years old, and he’s spent his life working between those two figures; he’s a screenwriter and author and the artistic director of Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival—as comfortable with populism as with pop culture. The book’s two parts, “The Pure Life—Berlinguer and Me” and “The Impure Life—Berlusconi and Me,” imply a simplistic portrayal of the past forty years of Italian life, but the novel isn’t as easy as that dichotomy might suggest; it’s a beautiful, subtle evocation of the life of a single person and a whole country.
Piccolo’s is one of a number of recent books exploring the Years of Lead, the tumultuous period in Italian life that stretched from roughly the late sixties to the early eighties. He stitches together a history from his experiences in those years, at the center of which is the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the former prime minister. Moro’s murder resides at the core of the Italian psyche in the way that the JFK assassination once did for us: this and many other books and movies are coming out in Italy at a distance roughly comparable to the lapse from Dallas 1963 to the making of Oliver Stone’s JFK and the publication of Don DeLillo’s Libra.
It can be hard for an American reader to follow some of the currents of solidarity, hatred, frustration, and dashed hopes in this very political book. Piccolo is a gifted explainer, but nothing explains his ultimate embrace of the calm and superficial—his willingness to accept “human beings we’d never even known existed,” as he refers to Berlusconi and his ilk—the way that an episode from his family life does. He finds that his father has a complete collection of every article he’s written, most of them political anathema to the elder Piccolo, and yet dear to him because of their author. Family, in the end, trumps philosophy; the dangerous creatures of the political depths cannot swim in the shallows of love.
* * *
“I was born on a day in early summer in 1973, at the age of nine,” the novel begins; its opening scene is set in the late afternoon, in the deserted park of the Reggia di Caserta, an enormous royal palace a few miles outside of Naples. A local kid offers to show the narrator—Francesco Piccolo keeps himself studiedly anonymous, in keeping perhaps with the rules of autofiction, where the narrator may or may not be factually accurate—and a friend a secret place in the park of the beautiful royal palace, an unguarded freezer where they’ll be able to steal all the ice cream they can carry. The other two kids, laden with stolen ice-cream sandwiches and Algida cornetti, climb over the wall, but the narrator stays behind, maneuvering to be left absolutely alone in this immense place of majestic beauty:
It seemed to me, for one hallucinatory instant, that all the walks and lawns were completely overrun by hundreds of thousands of people, millions of them, striding from the palace uphill toward the waterfall, and these were all the human beings that had ever set foot in the palace grounds from when they’d been built until this very afternoon. And I was there too, in their midst.
This visionary experience marks the moment in which the narrator becomes aware of the outside world. He bookends his childhood with two major events of the Italian 1970s: the cholera outbreak of 1973 and the terrible Irpinia earthquake of 1980. Cholera is a terrifying disease, a medieval one, and the fact that a modern city should have fallen victim to it says all that needs to be said about the failures of the Italian postwar political class. Piccolo describes the terror of being a child in a cholera outbreak:
Vibrio. That was the word. Before, there had been no such thing, I could have gone a lifetime without ever hearing it. The cholera vibrio … It takes root in the small intestine and destroys the entire epithelium. But that’s not the way it was explained to me … what I understood, or had been told, is that the way you could tell you had cholera was that at some point you felt a stabbing pain in your belly, just overpowering, and then you went to the bathroom and what came out was this white stuff. That’s right: white. And this white diarrhea started gushing out, and it never stopped, ten or even fifteen times a day. Until all you were expelling was water, and you couldn’t hold it in. And then, in the end, you died…
The narrator spends weeks waiting for that stab of pain, dreading it, having nightmares about it. And then one day, at a movie theater, it comes. He sits out the movie, thinking in his nine-year-old mind that every minute he doesn’t go to the bathroom is another minute left to live. When he finally gets home, he goes straight to the bathroom and: it isn’t white. Turns out, as she does every summer, the narrator’s mother has secretly administered a purgative, part of the generally medieval Neapolitan health regimen. And he hates her for it. Hates her for superficiality. For persisting in ordinary life in the midst of an overpowering disaster.
As he gets older, our narrator falls in with a radical crowd, though he’s careful to explain that the turning point was a soccer victory by the East German team; like many of the time, he’s in the thrall of Enrico Berlinguer, who from 1972 until his death was head of the Italian Communist Party—a Christ-like Communist leader who embodies decency, human respect, a lack of superficiality. The narrator even pines for one of his communist classmates, Elena, his equivalent of Angela. But when Moro is kidnapped by the Red Brigades, he begins to question his orthodoxy:
I saw, as I walked out the front gate and went practically running the length of the school’s green metal fence, that Elena and the others were hugging. You couldn’t say they were happy, considering that terror was unmistakably painted on their faces too, but they knew, and conveyed to each other—this was the meaning of those hugs—that they weren’t sorry that the Red Brigades had kidnapped Moro. I stopped to watch them for a moment … I watched them, I envied them; and at the same time, my stomach ached with nausea.
Later, after the Irpinia earthquake, his conscience clouds even further, as the superficiality he once witnessed in his mother takes a political form; in the eighties, the moral stature of the Italian Communist Party made way for the profiteering hustle of the Italian Socialist Party and its slick leader, Bettino Craxi. In his Milan mansion, Craxi, to give you some idea, kept a pet lion that had been given to him by a Mafia hit man. It’s hard to overemphasize the corruption that pervaded the Italy of the eighties—and Craxi was a close ally of, yes, Silvio Berlusconi, the best man at his wedding, a loyal guardian of Berlusconi’s political interests. Craxi finally fled Italy, dying of cancer in exile, a fugitive from the law on a resort island in Algeria like a latter day Pompey the Great. With Craxi gone, Berlusconi went looking for a replacement. He decided the best candidate was himself.
So the crucial thing to understand is that Craxi and Berlusconi are largely a single entity, operating in lockstep in Italy’s political history. One of the cruelest and most buffoonish moments of that history came in 1984, when Enrico Berlinguer was invited to speak at the Socialist party congress. It’s a tradition, this invitation of the colleague-rival to come and address the party rank and file, but this congress was different. This was a party of profiteers and connivers, a party that sensed its opportunity was at hand—a party that scorned Berlinguer’s old-fashioned attachment to the good of the people, the principles of social justice, the idea of economic equality. The narrator describes how Berlinguer made his way into the sports arena where the congress was being held, how a chorus of “sce-e-e-emo,” or “i-i-id-i-i-o-ot,” echoed overhead, accompanied by a shrill symphony of derisive whistles, the most profound insult an Italian crowd can offer, the equivalent of the shoes waved overhead during the Arab Spring. And how Craxi, the next day, addressed his followers, now slightly abashed but still defiant, and declared, “I didn’t whistle. But that’s only because I don’t know how to.”
Less than a month later, a broken Berlinguer collapsed while addressing a public assembly and died, a month to the day after being whistled into silence. His funeral in Rome was a momentous occasion—two million people gathered, and the communist newspaper, L’Unità, ran a banner headline: TUTTI. “Everyone.” But when this moment comes in Il desiderio, the narrator stays home, alone, afraid to become part of “everyone,” certain that he’s not really the communist he pretends to be. He was, after all, a communist who would later become a successful novelist and screenwriter, a communist with plenty of money, a communist who is actually published by a publishing company owned by Berlusconi. And a communist who, like all Italians of his generation, lived through something very close to a civil war. Still, as the coffin moves through the throng on the tiny television he watches, he bows his head, tears streaming, and holds his left fist high in solidarity.
That opening scene at the Reggia di Caserta—the narrator’s intellectual awakening—pairs neatly with the start of the second part of the book, when the narrator, now thirty and a longtime member of the Italian Communist Party, describes the advent of Silvio Berlusconi, at a 1994 G7 meeting held, of all places, at the Reggia di Caserta.
Berlusconi spent a long time admiring the fountain … I can’t say that the people who were with him were his friends, but he too was inside the Reggia which was closed to the public, and he hadn’t even had to climb over a wall. It was already dark, but for the first time the entire park had been illuminated at night—and it was empty.
Listening to the splashing water and looking down at the lit-up, empty grounds, Berlusconi announces to his fellow statesmen that this is a very romantic place. “Look out,” he says, “or tonight we’ll be increasing the population.”
To the narrator, seeing Berlusconi
there, in that exact spot—where I belonged—and hearing him utter a lascivious and awkward phrase—and especially to older people, in all likelihood too old now ever to have children again—[…] such an unseemly phrase, dripping with a demented, ruinous libido, tantamount to a broad and knowing wink of the eye, at the level of jokes out of weekly puzzle magazines—gave me an exact perception of the time that had passed; it gave me an exact perception of what had come with Berlusconi’s election.
He describes the wave of despair that had come over his fellow Italian Communists as they watched the election results: “We would all have to go live in another country, more civilized, more in tune with us, because Italy had fallen into the hands of human beings we’d never even known existed.”
The second half of the book is an intelligent meditation on living in—and through—twenty years of Berlusconi, but it also contains a deeper and wiser exploration of the importance of superficiality: Better Living through Shallowness. True political depth requires hatred, or the ability to hate, but think of Piccolo’s father, still collecting clippings of his son’s radical articles. Or think of Piccolo himself, in his capacity as artistic director for the Sanremo Music Festival. What could be more vacuous, more politically empty, than a national pop-music extravaganza? And yet Sanremo brought much of the sound track to the radical, troubled, happy-sad Years of Lead.
Throughout the book, a chorus of fellow communists says it’s time to leave Italy, that it’s impossible to live in an Italy run by Berlusconi. But what if you love Italy? What if you love the Italians, in all their relentless maddening idiosyncrasy? And this is how Piccolo ends: “Those who say they want to leave this country, or simply spend their whole lives saying they want to leave, do so because they want to save themselves. Well, I’m staying here. Because I don’t want to be saved.”
The last time I saw Angela was on a blustery fall day in Perugia. I had finished my course in Italian and was heading back to college in California at UCLA, which I still mentally pronounce ooklah, in the Italian style. She was in a blind panic, rushing to the hospital where her boyfriend Michele, the third occupant of our apartment, was struggling for life after his third or perhaps fourth overdose. This was where a great deal of the energy of that generation finally dissipated, and every left-wing screed you read from those years theorizes an unholy alliance between a conservative government and the Mafia. There was so much death in those years, so much misery and so much loss. If the shallows of love and family are what Italy finally comes up with to salve those wounds, if the Sanremo song festival can provide some balm, who can call that wrong?
Antony Shugaar is a writer and a translator from the Italian and the French. He is a contributing editor to Asymptote Journal. Among his recent translations are Walter Siti’s Resistance Is Futile (which won the Strega Prize in 2013), Viola Di Grado’s Hollow Heart, and the Nobel laureate Dario Fo’s The Pope’s Daughter. He has published articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and The New York Review of Books.