Tuesday, April 11, 2006

La vita é bella

As the Italians tot up their ballots and ponder, no doubt with relish, the vista of a potential recount, The Midnight Court takes the opportunity to treat readers to the following perspicacious exerpts from Luigi Barzini’s explanation of how to succeed on the Latin peninsula. Having recommended his book, The Italians: A Full-length Portrait, in Sunday’s post, I decided I’d better form a closer acquaintanceship with it myself. And I’m glad I did. Luigi’s voice is a compelling one; liberal, pragmatic, generous, wholly in tune with the condition of being human, not to mention scholarly and mature. One instinctively trusts his menchly, measured tone, which is reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s better moments but without the postmodern tics, even while suspecting that some of his strokes are that little bit broad. My only caveat is that The Italians was first published in 1964. Still the Italy it depicts is recognisably the one on which Silvio Berlusconi and his henchme…, er, political allies are fighting to maintain their grasp. (Lest Irish readers in the uber-modern Tygger polity dare to feel insufferably smug about those crazy eyeties and their impossibly opaque politics, they should note the following example of our own facility with obscurantist power broking. Reading an interesting article on some aspect of the legislative process recently, I googled, as one does, its impressive barrister author, a former official in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, Mr. Brian Hunt, and found his informative profile page at Mason Hayes & Curran. He is the consultant at the firm who “advises clients who have concerns about proposed and existing legislation, and the various ways in which they can seek to contribute to the shaping of that legislation.” To seek to contribute to the shaping of legislation sure sounds like a noble, thankless task; the patrician practice of succeeding generations of gentle plutocrats and not remotely a euphemistic description for special interest lobbying and an engagement with influence peddlers. I hasten to add that Mr. Hunt is certainly not doing anything wrong here, either morally or legally. He’s applying his hard-won knowledge for the benefit of his clients and employer. But the choice of language is interesting, to say the least.) Starting with a brief survey of la famiglia, the most immediate of the ever-increasing circles to which the wily Italian belongs, Barzini considers the pattern of competing, inter-leaved groups in that society, not least - but then again not the greatest - of which is the State itself. And there are wheels within that wheel too of course:
In Italy, powerful groups know no other limit to their power than the power of rival groups. They play a free-for-all game practically without rules and referee. Of course, the law is allegedly supreme; the apparatus of a quasi-modern State is visibly omnipresent, with its props, cast of characters, costumes, titles and institutions, but there are important differences between such dignitaries and organisations and what they are elsewhere. Each branch of the State machinery in Italy is in reality a mighty independent power which must struggle sometimes for its existence, and usually for the prosperity of its protégés and subjects against all other rival branches of the State machinery: they fight savagely at times, but more often surreptitiously, exactly like private pressure groups, for a larger place in the sun, a bigger cut of the budget, more employees, a higher rank and wider prerogatives for their leaders.
The reference to costumes reminds me of the Italian railway station and the impact on it of the important concept of the bella figura. Maintaining the bella figura goes far beyond the bourgeois English notion of keeping up appearances and makes it next to impossible to distinguish an Italian platform steward from an admiral in command of an entire naval fleet. festooned, as such an officer must be, with epaulets and dripping in gold braid. As both Berlusconi and Prodi will be well aware:
The Prime Minister himself must have private backing of his own if he wants his orders to be obeyed, backing within his own party, within the bureaucracy, and within the Church (if he is a Christian Democrat) as he can scarcely depend on his constitutional authority alone.
The law in Italy is notoriously complex and contingent, more often used as just another weapon in the armoury of power than as an instrument of justice and deployed not so much with a view to achieving the immediate end of a litigious battle, but of tying up one’s opponent, shackling his resources and distracting his attention:
Some sort of protection is therefore necessary for everybody. Even the little men with no ambition need ample help merely to be left alone.
And so:
[A] man must choose what group to join. The range is rarely very wide; nobody is entirely free; his background, tastes, class, talents, character, ambitions will narrow the field still further. There often is, however, a moment in a man’s life in which he must take a chance and make up his mind. Some associations he can join are old, powerful and nation-wide. Some are village groups. Within the vast associations, there are again other cliques, one inside the other like Chinese ivory balls, among which a man must skilfully find his way.
In Ireland, we call this Fianna Fáil. As with the average cumann member:
When dealing with an Italian it is always prudent to know exactly where his loyalties lie, to what clique, association or party he belongs, who protects him, who are his friends, and from whom he derives his power. Naturally, there are no handbooks listing such indispensible information. The man will often hotly deny his allegiance.
In Italy, it is never a good idea to be too conspicuous. One should avoid standard bearing and stick to secondary positions. One should always leave doors open behind one and cultivate friends among one’s opponents. This leads us to perhaps the most interesting insight of all and a rule Silvio seems – as with those just listed - to have broken in the most unItalianly obvious manner in the run up to polling day:
When in April 1940, a commisario di polizia arrested me for being a dangerous enemy of the Fascist régime, he was inordinately polite. While I waited at the Questura to be interrogated, he sent for a good dinner from the nearest trattoria, sent to my house for clean shirts, a change of clothes, and some money and warned me veiledly about what was best to say and not to say when questioned. He courteously drove me in his car to the Regina Coeli prison. I thanked him and asked why he had been so kind. He frankly said: ‘One never knows. Maybe you’ll be able to do the same for me some day’. (The régime was still very powerful and unchallenged at the time. Italy was still neutral. Germany looked like winning the war. The commissario was carefully buying insurance against a most improbable event).
Silvio is a conundrum. I find it difficult to buy him as a self-made, successful businessman, but that may just be my bourgeois, northern prejudice. He has all the characteristics of a classic front man and he seems to be misstepping badly at the prospect of ejection from power. It’s interesting to note as he teeters on the verge of loss of office - and in light of the foregoing - that some group somewhere has decided to arrest or have arrested after 45 years “on the run” the head of the Sicilian Mafia. I used the word “decided” advisedly. Bernardo Provenzano may have chosen to be arrested himself and that choice may or may not have something to do with the election. If he didn’t choose to be arrested, the move against him too may or may not have something to do with the election. Still, prudent capi-Mafia have long found it useful for a variety of reasons to retire to Palermo prison with its less than strict regime when the balance of power has shifted within that organisation or in general. At any rate, more than one registered resident at the gaol has turned out in the past not have let his official situation dictate his actual whereabouts. It will be interesting to see what happens next. Readers might like to note that Provelone’s predecessor, the notorious Salvatore "Toto, the Beast" Riina, was arrested at his home address in Palermo after 20 years in “hiding”. The authorities must have thought it was the last place he’d go. Like his pal, Provezano doesn’t seem to have stirred far beyond Corleone, his home town and the approximate scene of today’s arrest, in over 40 years on the run.


Anonymous Frank Neary said...


This has turned out to be an excellent blog to which I relish returning.

I hope you won't feel impelled to stop writing lengthy pieces, and will continue to take all the space you need to express your wel-informed thoughts on a range of contemporary issues.

4/16/2006 07:11:00 AM  
Blogger Copernicus said...

thanks Frank. Expect the missives from Topsy Turvey Land to continue once the summer exams are over.

4/18/2006 03:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Franks said...

:-) Good luck with the exams.

4/18/2006 10:40:00 AM  
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3/06/2007 05:20:00 AM  

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