Bonfire of the Realities
Tim Parks · Italian Book Burnings
‘I invite anyone who has a copy of this book to bring it into Piazza Bra for a public burning.’ The man speaking purported to be a priest. He was phoning a local radio station in Verona. The book in question was my exploration of Italy through football, A Season with Verona (2002), translated as Questa pazza fede (‘This Mad Faith’). But the priest wasn’t concerned about heresy. Italian football fans constantly refer to their ‘faith’. The first chapter, an account of an all-night bus trip from Verona to Bari, offered examples of the fans’ obsessive use of blasphemy to establish their credentials as bad boys, their opposition to a mood of political correctness that was seeking to ‘clean up football’.
‘These words should never be printed,’ the priest insisted. The book must be burned. Meanwhile, I was receiving emails from fans thanking me for having the courage to depict how they really spoke. There had been no courage at all. Even after twenty years in Italy I simply hadn’t appreciated the intensity of Catholic loathing for blasphemy, or reflected that a standard Italian response to any report of circumstances or opinions that disturb them is simply to deny it reality. If you have the power, censor it or, better still, burn it; if you don’t have the power, ignore it and try to make sure everybody else does the same. Much of what may seem mysterious to foreigners about Italian politics can be explained, at least partly, by this trait.
Example: the assessore alla cultura (councillor for culture) in the province of Venice has asked local libraries not to stock books by any writer who, in 2004, signed a petition in defence of Cesare Battisti. Born in 1954, Battisti was a member of PAC (Proletari Armati per il Comunismo) who served time in the 1970s for armed robbery, was eventually charged with four murders and condemned in his absence in 1985. He lived in exile first in France and later in Brazil where he continues to fight extradition. To sign a petition in Battisti’s favour one must believe that the Italian courts which have now passed sentence on him at every level are biased Fascist sympathisers out to demonise a Communist and that the evidence against him was concocted. Writers who seem to believe as much include Daniel Pennac, Nanni Balestrini, Tiziano Scarpa and many others. Whatever one thinks about that, the decision to ban these writers’ books from public libraries is a lunatic, repressive response, suggesting a desire that people who see the world differently from oneself shouldn’t be allowed to exist, and certainly not to express themselves.
All this has to be seen in the context of the interminable struggle in Italy to determine the narrative of the nation’s history, particularly as described in school history books. Right and left both try to impose their contrasting versions of, for example, the partisan struggle in the last years of the Second World War, often simply ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit their version of events (the continuing denial by some that the admired Communist writer Ignazio Silone was, as has recently emerged, for much of his life a Fascist informer is a case in point). John Foot’s book Italy’s Divided Memory offers a fascinating account of the sometimes grotesque battles to honour or dishonour this or that Fascist or Communist, with politicians on both sides putting up or tearing down plaques and monuments, naming and renaming streets, to suit their version of events.
Regardless of the details of each case, the energy of those who engage in the debate seems always to be directed at suppressing and, crucially, demonstrating their power to suppress the evidence of their opponents – never to arrive at a consensus. Indeed, there is no figure I can think of in modern Italian history who is not an object of dissent between opposing factions, each deaf to the other’s arguments. In the year of the 150th anniversary of Italian unity even the hugely charismatic Garibaldi is accused by regional movements of having been a mere bandit who united the peninsula against the will of its inhabitants, while he has always been criticised by the left for handing over his territorial victories to a king rather than a republican government. As Giacomo Leopardi observed in 1826, ‘all Italians are more or less equally honoured and dishonoured.’
This brings me to a closing remark on Berlusconi. Non-Italians I speak to are often bewildered that the prime minister has not resigned or been forced to resign. The evidence that he has been favouring prostitution, using his power to interfere in police activities and engaging in sexual relations with a minor is overwhelming. But here is the point: this scenario gives Berlusconi the change to assert his ‘reality’ (as the Italians say) in the teeth of that evidence and to demand that parliament and the electorate support him, even suggesting that he will pursue and silence those who have dared to ‘concoct’ the case against him. For their part, the magistrates are clearly out of line in having released into the public domain a huge amount of information that should have been sub judice, with the implication that some of them may be more interested in asserting their version in the media than, eventually, in the courts. What is about to play out is not a trial of Berlusconi, and least of all an attempt to arrive at ‘the truth’, but a clash of opposing powers, opposing versions.
When I wrote A Season with Verona, Hellas Verona were the city’s dominant team. Just a few years later that role had been taken over by their hitherto lowly rivals Chievo Verona. I remember asking one of the leaders of the curva what he thought about this. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he replied. ‘For me Chievo doesn’t exist. They have no history.’