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.’


  • 20 January 2011 at 7:17pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Wu Ming, are you on to this? Your last paragraph explains a lot about Italian politics, but what about the Italians? Does Italy exist?

  • 21 January 2011 at 11:00am
    peterpoe says:
    An important clarification: the information released into the public is only a small part of the overall material of the investigation, and was in all likelihood made public by some Italian Member of Parliament, not by the judiciary.
    That material was sent by the prosecutors to the Italian Parliament as grounds for a request for perquisition of an office of Berlusconi's, which is required under Italian law, since B. is also a MP.
    Framing what happened as a struggle where B. and the right are opposed to the judiciary and the left, is exactly the kind of framing that B. has successfully imposed on the public to stay in power and avoid prosecution.
    You know, there IS an objective point of view sometimes. What one thinks of Garibaldi depends on what one values. What one thinks of B. depends on what one believes true...

    • 21 January 2011 at 2:54pm
      outofdate says: @ peterpoe
      'Twouldn't be a point of view if it were objective though, would it? It would just be The Truth -- which admittedly is that Berlusconi threw bunga-bunga parties with teenage whores at his delightful home, and why not?

      I really just wanted to write 'bunga bunga' [exit, pursued by a Strip-o-gram].

  • 21 January 2011 at 11:35am
    outofdate says:
    A badge of honour, surely.

    When I was young my parents would occasionally get worked up about the Church putting some book or other on the Index, which was understood to be a terrible thing even though the book sat calmly on our shelf and didn't give the impression that it would spontaneously combust any time soon. Just goes to show: for me the Church does not exist.

  • 21 January 2011 at 7:47pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    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.

    Both parts of this sentence strike me as tendentious misreadings of the petition. From which (translating on the fly)

    "It's as well to remember that Cesare Battisti was not granted political asylum [in France] until a judge had weighed up the evidence against him and judged it to be inconsistent and 'worthy of a court martial'. Battisti's charge sheet had been loaded with all the killings carried out by a clandestine organisation to which he belonged in the 1970s, including those which took place at times or in places where he could not have been present."


    "Certainly, there are some who have an interest in silencing voices like that of Cesare Battisti forever. For example, those people who contributed to the tragedies of the 1970s as members of neo-fascist groups, or of organisations named Gladio and P2 - which were just as clandestine as Proletari Armati per il Comunismo and have been linked to an impressive number of crimes; or those people who today make a political cause out of xenophobia. In other words, a large part of the current Italian government."

    I find both of those arguments considerably more persuasive than Parks's caricature. In any case, signing the petition in favour of freeing Battisti surely doesn't commit the signatory to every detail of the supporting argument. The real question is whether the politico-judicial crackdown of 1979-80 can now be looked at as history, to be analysed and learnt from, or whether the battles are still being fought. Pursuing an ex-member of a relatively insignificant group like PAC, twenty years after the fact, seems the height of vindictiveness to me. The idea that Battisti's being targeted to shut him up - to silence his own, unusually authoritative reading of the years of lead - seems a bit paranoid, but you wouldn't want to rule it out; this is Italy, after all.

    PAC really was small fry, incidentally. The group was active for a couple of years, in a few cities in the north of Italy; its exact membership is unknown, in the nature of things, but only 60 people have ever been charged with membership. They rate a couple of sentences in my book (any chance of a review, btw?):

    "the repression of Autonomia and the movement of 1977 encouraged the adoption of armed struggle repertoires by new and smaller groups ... Some represented the militancy of the ‘hard’ autonomists in clandestine form; a typical group in this category was Proletari Armati per il Comunismo (PAC; ‘Armed Proletarians for Communism’), a Milanese group which formed at the end of 1977. PAC’s victims included prison officials and shopkeepers who had killed burglars. The rapid recourse to high levels of violence was typical of groups formed at this stage; PAC’s first murder was carried out in June 1978, a month after its first action"

    Not nice guys, by any means, but the British government has swallowed worse in the name of peace and reconciliation - and, as the petition says, Berlusconi and his allies (some now ex-allies) haven't got much to boast about where the 1970s are concerned.

  • 22 January 2011 at 10:37pm
    Lello Voce says:
    Other from Italy, on the same topic; here...

    with English translation,

    • 24 January 2011 at 10:23pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Lello Voce
      Hi Lello,

      Good post. I was interested to read you were a former Metropolitan Indian. That group fascinated me, although I could never work out what happened to them. I asked Olivier Turquet about this once; he said that Gandalf the Violet had never been born and would never die, which I suppose is fair enough.

    • 27 January 2011 at 2:44pm
      Lello Voce says: @ Phil Edwards
      Hi Phil

      sorry 4 my delete anwering you. I'm back here just now

      I agree Olivier ;-)

      in any case if u want my mail is lello [at[

      my best


Read more