Sunday, April 09, 2006

Midnight at the Dark Heart of Silvio

As Dick O’Brien of the back seat drivers pointed out this week and Sky News has been eager to inform viewers all day, Silvio Berlusconi has delivered himself of some pretty choice remarks lately. With opponents characterised as morons and bollockses and phone-sex girls turned to in the lonely watches of the night for, er, polling data, the bould Silvio would appear to be feeling the pressure. Hardly surprising for a man who arguably turned to electoral politics to steer the agents of the state away from the murkier corners of his commerical empire. With the Italians going to the polls today and tomorrow, the Midnight Court expects Irish bloggers will be taking an interest in Europe’s most boot-shaped nation state and to forestall any bewilderment has decided to come to the rescue with a modest reading list. My own slight familiarity with the place has its origins post-graduation in the mid '90s when I followed a good chum to the Mezzogiorno to teach English amid the sassi di Matera, the caves and limestone grottos of Basilicata which represent Europe’s oldest continuous habitation. As long-haired, beardy Celts we achieved instant fame across at least 50 square miles of the rural south as the “barbaroni Irlandesi”. Nice. Living in Italy is demanding stuff. The Irish smoker’s biological clock, for instance, must be realigned on arrival to avoid running out of cigarettes afternoon after afternoon, just as the horrific longeurs of the siesta kicks off and he finds himself wandering streets devoid of all life but creepily wolf-like wild dogs, making forlorn encounter with firmly-shuttered tobacco shop after firmly-shuttered tobacco shop. Dealing with a certain cast of Italian employer is a constant headache too, as it will be more important to him – this type will always be a "him" – to establish that he is furbo (the fox) while you are fesso (the fool), maintain his bella figura, and pursue a policy of divide and conquer among his employees than to encourage the creation of a productive atmosphere in which happy workers are eager to meet challenges and bask in the rewarding glow of a job well done. As he reaps, so shall he sow when it comes to his bottom line alas. So what is going on over there at all at all? Why is the Italian economy in the toilet, its dependants bobbing about down there waiting with appalled trepidation for someone (the Chinese they reckon) to yank the chain and send them spiralling down the U-bend of socio-economic oblivion? If you’d like to know, you could do a lot worse and spend far more unproductive hours than to read the following tomes. The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones is a useful, easy-to-read and relatively up-to-date introduction to Berlusconi’s polity in the period leading up to the Parmalat scandal, on which the book’s various insights throw prescient light. Toby’s most pertinent insight is that in the post-war period until quite recently, there existed in Italy a state of near civil war between left and right which almost reached its apotheosis in a military coup behind which lay a shadowy freemasonry. You couldn’t make it up. Appetite whetted, you’ll want to get a bit deeper into the origins of the mystery and so your eyes must turn to the south and the detailed, wonderfully rendered observations of superlative travel writer, Norman Lewis. Lewis was an intelligence officer during the Second World War and his diary of a year in the Italian south in the midst of the conflict, Naples ’44, will be one of the finest, most interesting books you ever read. Lewis returned to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies after the war to produce perhaps the definitive work on Cosa Nostra in The Honoured Society, a book which continues to go a long way towards explaining modern Italian electoral politics and which will horrify along with Jones’ book on the proportion of economic activity in the state which is controlled by the Mafia. That statistic in turn explains a great deal of the dysfunction in the Italian political economy. It’s a bit of a nightmare. Among The Honoured Society's more delightful episodes is the almost incredible tale of the Mafia monks of Mazzarino, whose Franciscan abbey was the base of operations for prostitution, murder, extortion, orgies and other refinements of a less than Christian nature. And a bonus for bibliophiles who pick up the Lewis books is that they are published in the most beautiful paperback editions of all time by the Eland travel imprint:
All our books are printed on fine, pliable, cream-coloured paper. They are still gathered in sections by our printer and sewn as well as glued, almost unheard of for a paperback book these days. This gives larger margins in the gutter, as well as making the books stronger.
Having read the foregoing, your tongue will be hanging out to know how the Mafia and mainstream Italian politics continued to interact to the detriment of the plain people of Italy throughout the 70s and 80s. Football fans will also find out what happened to Diego Maradonna during the Napoli years. Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb contains all this and much more as he surveys art, food, history, travel and Cosa Nostra. Readers will have noticed that the books set out thus far are all written by non-natives. Fret not, I have two more recommendations for the Midnight Court faithful, The Italians, by Luigi Barzini and The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The first is a book to which Robb and Jones refer and which is regularly spoken of as the definitive work on the subject. While it’s in my library, I still haven’t gotten around to doing anything more than dip in and out of it. I can tell you that it has an utterly charming and informal, chatty style. The Leopard is one of the great works of world literature. A posthumous publication, it was written by a Sicilian nobleman, the Duke of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa, who laboured on it quietly as his House finally gave way to entropy. And it rocks. It chronicles the decline of the Sicilian nobility and one particular form of feudalism only to see it replaced with the different patriarchy of the Honoured Society. For the benighted inhabitants of Sicily, it is the mere trading of one yoke for another. Irish readers of these books will, I think, be struck quite forcibly by the parallels between our own little island and Sicily and between the Mafia and the republican movement, which are both instructive and cautionary. As Lewis points out:
No mafioso sees himself as a criminal, and the Mafia has always been the enemy of petty crime – and therefore, to a limited extent, the ally of the police, both in Sicily and the United States…It can be regarded as a form of primitive human society that has somehow survived in the modern Western world; its cruel laws are those of tribesmen exposed to continual danger who can only hope to survive by submitting to the discipline of terrible chieftains. The capo-Mafia considers himself a lawgiver, concerned with the welfare of his people, and prides himself on watching over the advancement of deserving juniors in the organisation with the assiduousness of the master of novices of a relgious order…He is self-righteous and full of justifications.
Which is a polite way of saying "full of shit". Recognise anyone? Of course, the Mafia has moved on since the 60s and 70s, with the vast fortunes of the heroin trade finally breaking the “bonds of honour” among this particular set of theives. Still it’s useful to remember that throughout its history, the Honoured Society has numbered among its brothers doctors, lawyers, politicians, noblemen, priests and shepherds. In fact, it has been eminently respectable and thoroughly corrupt and corrupting. We’d do well to remember the lesson as we continue to normalise various relationships within and without certain bands of brothers here at home. Italy is a wonderful place, of course. Napoli is magical, Pompeii awe-inspiring, the Greek ruins of Sicily breath-taking, magnificent and transporting while up and down the length of the boot are museums and churches filled with important and beautiful art. Its people can be inutterably charming and, my God, the ice cream! But boy does it have its problems.


Blogger Dick O'Brien said...

Great post. Can I also recommend a film, La Meglio Gioventu, or The Best of Youth a seven hour epic covering thirty years of Italian history through the eyes of one family.

4/09/2006 09:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Diana said...

Very cool post.

I read 'The Leopard' recently and was blown away by the beauty of the prose. The Visconti film is quite cool too.

Dick is right (of course!): 'The Best of Youth' is a very good intro to contemporary Italian politics, and powerful drama in its own right.

Italy though has always been a reliable source of news to boost a Spaniard's political self-esteem. No matter how fucked up things get in Spain, Italy can be counted on to provide some major embarrassment that will make Spanish politicians look as diginified as Periclean Athenians. And that takes some embarrassment!

Why! Aznar seems "almost" sensible by comparison to Berlusconi. Though perhaps we can tempt Berlusconi to become mayor of Marbella now that there seems to be a vacancy on the off? He is the only European "politician" that could fill Jesús Gil's (trampling) boots.

4/09/2006 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger Copernicus said...

Thanks guys. I had to rush off to the IFI after lashing the post in on a 12" Mac screen. On my return I notice many spelling and grammar typos, most of which should by now be tidied up.

Wierdly a copy of The Leopard featured prominently in one of the scenes in the movie I just saw, The Whale and the Squid - highly recommended. I'll be pottering down to the Laser on George's Street to check out Dick's recommendation too.

I came to The Leopard through the Peter Robb book - he couldn't stress its importance enough - and I was also totally blown away by the beauty of the language and Lampedusa's incredible control over pace and detail. Supoib.

It's true that the Spanish are in the ha'penny place when it comes to intriguing. Jesús though gives the Italians a run for their money all right.

In a way it's quite amazing the rest of Europe didn't become like Italy in the immediate post-war period. As anyone who grew up reading cold war mercenary novels will know, the continent's battlefields were awash with discarded weaponry and ammunition, but only the Itlians seem to have scavenged it to continue to pursue their leftist/rightist war aims far into the future.

On that note, I wonder if the Irish people had known what the Italian church was up to in the period whether they'd have put up with half as much guff off their priests.

4/09/2006 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Diana said...

"On my return I notice many spelling and grammar typos..."

Damn! I could have nailed your ass on those...

4/09/2006 03:37:00 PM  
Blogger Copernicus said...

I'm sure there are plenty left for the sedulous reader to hammer me on. Next time I'll stick in a bit more Italian or other romance language for you to grade!

4/09/2006 03:49:00 PM  
Blogger Dick O'Brien said...

Actually, I think it's been only released on region 1 DVD to date, which means having to order it from America.

4/09/2006 04:44:00 PM  
Blogger Copernicus said...

It also means buying a multi-region dvd player, which I have yet to do.


4/09/2006 05:01:00 PM  
Blogger Dick O'Brien said...

Dude, get with the programme! You also got to get one with a hard disk. Get one of those babies and you'll never look back.

4/09/2006 05:16:00 PM  
Blogger Copernicus said...

Curse you Dick. My secret shame exposed. Soi-disant movie buff lacks multi-region capability and hard-disc recording facility!

4/09/2006 05:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Very cool post. Was in Italy in Jan and it's close to my heart! Won't mind seeing the back of Berlisconi if the exit polls are to be believed.

Have you ever read Calvino? I love him, and he certainly encapulates Italian sensibility...

4/10/2006 11:27:00 AM  
Blogger Copernicus said...

I'm sure there's an Italo Calvino book around here somewhere Kieran, but I haven't read it yet. I'll add him to my TBR pile and see if I can get around to him during those languid summer days on the Dingle peninsula.

4/10/2006 12:30:00 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

Copernicus looks like we have to disagree again. I really don't like italy been there twice not sure I will return

4/10/2006 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger Copernicus said...

Well, I can understand your frustration, but given its incredible history, it's a source of endless facination and things to do. And the ice cream, man. The ice cream!

4/10/2006 01:17:00 PM  
Anonymous fústar said...

Well, I've yet to read The Leopard, but I HAVE seen Visconti's film adaptation a couple of times. It's utterly marvellous (as far as I recall).

I’ve never been to Italy (to be corrected soon) but I do own a multi-region DVD player…so there!

4/10/2006 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

true the ice cream is special.

4/10/2006 03:57:00 PM  
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