Tuesday, 30 April 2013

De Luca Versus Italian History



The history of Italian detective fiction is no doubt very interesting, and different than the traditional conventions and outcomes of the genre. I think it has to do with the country’s turbulent history in the 20th century. The uncovering of the Mafia, the Fascist era, the post-war purges, the recrudescence of neo-fascism and its infiltration in national institutions, the explosive period known as the years of lead, the infamous Operation Gladio – NATO’s secret plan to halt communism in Europe – the connections between organised crime and government. Italy is a corrupt, secretive society with wounds still open dating back to many generations, but at the same a society that forgets quickly. Italian detective fiction therefore acts not is not just escapist fiction but often as a form of memory, a repository of the country’s seediest episodes.

Although I wish this were the introduction to my latest review of a Leonardo Sciascia novel, today I’m writing about Carlo Lucarelli and his Commissioner De Luca trilogy. Published between 1990 and 1996, the trilogy follows the travails of an honest, diligent, objective policeman from the final years of World War II to the landmark general elections of 1948.

My edition, an Italian collection of the three volumes, is barely longer than 300 pages. It can safely be said that the first two books – Carte Blanche and The Damned Season – are but novellas, Via delle Oche being the only one long enough to constitute a novel, barely. None of these books does a disservice to the genre. They’re gripping reads, even if pared down to the point one thinks they could have been better developed. This wasn’t the first time I had read Lucarelli. A few years ago I read his Almost Blue, another detective novel, about a woman detective and a young blind man searching for a serial killer in Bologna. I barely understood it so it’s meaningless to say I didn’t enjoy it, I was just learning Italian. What I have retained from it is the conviction that, had it been written in the ‘70s, filmmaker extraordinaire Dario Argento could have made a great giallo out of it. But anyway, a few years later my Italian is much better, and it was much easier to appreciate this trilogy.

Like most detectives, Commissioner De Luca is a bit bland. There are certain things he can’t help being: curious, upright, a workaholic, lacking a social life. These are the conventions, we accept them without passing judgement. Then there are the details that distinguish him from other detectives. De Luca was a venttotista, that is a man who enlisted in the force in 1928, when candidates needn’t have a degree, only pass the exams, which he did with excellent marks. In 1929 he solved the case of Filippo Matera, the Monster of Orvieto. (I googled him to know if he existed, but he appears to be an invention of Lucarelli) Mussolini himself sent him a note of commendation. De Luca was also the youngest agent to become a commissioner. Ironically the fact that he’s not a dottore is something that’s constantly being rubbed in his face in the third volume. In Carte Blanche, chronicling his final days as a cop in the Fascist regime, his colleagues show no class prejudice about his lacking a college degree. De Luca’s having joined the force during the ventennio, that is, the 20 years of the Fascist regime, is a matter that keeps coming back to haunt him. It’s not just that he was a cop during the regime, he was also a member of the Ettore Muti Brigade, a special unit of the Political Police, composed of black shirts and named after a World War I aviator and Fascist hero. This unit was responsible for torturing and killing political opponents, although De Luca vehemently repeats throughout the trilogy that he only did investigative work for there. As Carte Blanche starts, he’s been transferred back to Homicides.

It’s April 1945, De Luca is in Milan, the Northern redoubt of the Fascist regime after the Allied invasion. With his assistant, Pugliese, he investigates the murder of Rehinard Vittorio, a rich citizen and member of the Fascist Republican Party since 1944. He’s found castrated in his apartment. Preliminary investigations show that he had many connections to many influential people, for instance Sonia Tedesco, daughter of Count Tedesco, member of the Diplomatic Corps. Understandably cautious, De Luca is assured by his superiors that he will have no impediments to his investigation, since it must be shown that the law is respected in Fascist Italy.

Of course it’s not that simple. Witnesses disappear only to show up dead in SS headquarters, the Allies are bombing the city, and De Luca discovers that his name is on the list of the National Liberation Committee to be captured and tried for his complicity in Fascist crimes. On top of that, the ruling power, which promised De Luca not to interfere, is really using the investigation to get rid of some political opponents in a power struggle between factions within the party. The mystery, a bit dull and simplistic, is nowhere near as intriguing and exciting as the circumstances surrounding De Luca. Every action he makes serves only to show that he navigates in an environment hostile to the truth. The twist at the end, with its bittersweet irony, more than redeems the book’s weakest parts, and prepares the ground for part two.

In The Damned Season, De Luca is travelling in the Romagna countryside under a false alias. The Fascists have been taken down, but law and order haven’t reached all parts of Italy yet, there are still many pockets of partisans who’ve appointed themselves as the local authority and treat their villages as their own fiefdoms, free to do whatever they want, provided they don’t upset the Allies, the only power they fear. Because of his Fascist ties, De Luca is a wanted man. When a partisan confiscates his papers on the road, he thinks he’s done for. But instead the partisan, called Leonardo, takes him to the site of a mass murder, where a whole family was butchered. De Luca tries to feign indifference and amazement, but instinctively his old curiosity drives him to start asking questions, and he unmasks himself. Leonardo had recognised from the days when he had studied to join the Carabinieri. The partisan policeman is still anxious to be a real policeman one day, so he wants De Luca to help him solve the murder. Unfortunately their investigation leads them into other partisans, war heroes, local bosses, and secrets the partisans want to hide from the Allies.

The murder, again, is not very interesting: someone killed a whole family. At first they think it was to steal something, but later De Luca thinks it was to kill a specific person who had witnessed something dangerous, and he’s sure it has something to do with the execution of a local Count who cavorted with the Fascists. What makes the book interesting is the way the post-war is contrasted with the final days of the regime. And the differences aren’t many, which is what is so provocative. Although De Luca is determined to see the case through, Leonardo starts feeling conflicted when the blame starts pointing in the direction of his fellow partisans and particularly a local war hero called Carnera. The partisans are shown as an unruly and corrupted group, interested only in settling old scores and profiting from dead Fascists. People are already starting to forget the recent past and going back to post-war normalcy, rebuilding their lives and taking advantage of new opportunities. The new era already seems as corrupt as the Fascist one, and if De Luca could at least trust his colleagues in the force, he’s totally alone here.

In the final volume, Via delle Oche, it’s April 1948 and De Luca is back on the police force, seemingly rehabilitated of his past, having survived the Fascists purges. But instead of Homicide he’s put on Vice. Reunited with Pugliese, he investigates the death of a communist homosexual in a brothel that everyone wants to consider was suicide but that De Luca believes was a murder. Shortly after a photographer with communist ties shows up murdered, and De Luca tries to prove the two deaths are connected.

De Luca’s problem is that he’s perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time. Italy is having general elections in a few days, crucial elections which will decide Italy’s role in the new Cold War world. Either is turns socialist or goes conservative. The Christian Democrats and the Communists are vying for power in post-war Italy, mounting extensive propaganda campaigns and using terrorism even. A revolution is imminent. The Americans are watching, ready to intervene should Italy go red. So when De Luca discovers a sexual scandal involving a famous conservative and a prostitute, he’s ordered to back away. “This country is in need of rebuilding and not destroying,” De Luca’s superior explains to him. But since he didn’t back away for the fascists and the partisans, he’s not going to back away for democratic Italy either. No doubt to make a contrast with the power struggle of the first novel, here De Luca is caught between a power struggle between right and left, one side wanting to hush the scandal, the other wanting to use it to discredit its political opponents in the elections.

Once again the novel ends with an ironic twist for De Luca, who continues to pay a heavy price for being the only person with convictions in the whole of Italy. Or perhaps it’s his lack of conventions that makes him so dangerous. De Luca doesn’t follow any ideology that makes him sympathetic to a specific group, which is a current theme in the trilogy. He’s concerned only with the truth. In this he’s very similar to Inspector Amerigo Rogas, from Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger. I don’t think Lucarelli is as good as Sciascia, but their indignation obviously stems from the same sources that make Italian detective fiction so fascinating.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

I like Italian people. I like this bastard, dirty, wonderful people.



The Skin does for Naples what Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt previously did for Europe. Only the subject changes, Malaparte continues to paint a repugnant and satirical picture of moral, physical and intellectual decay, of abject squalor and of a pervasive gloom that hindered Europe’s regeneration in World War II’s aftermath. He does it very well so I have no complaints about the formula. Malaparte clearly wrote the novel to upset readers. He sets the tone of confrontation and polemic even before the first page, when he dedicates the novel to his friends the “honest American soldiers, my companions in arms between 1943 and 1945, uselessly killed for the liberation of Europe.”

At the end of Kaputt Malaparte has arrived in Naples and is preparing to leave to the isle of Capri, where he built his house years before. The Skin finds him back in Naples, serving as a liaison officer to the American army. In the company of American soldiers he walks the streets of the city, observing the people in their heroic struggle to keep misery at bay day by day. Half novel half memoirs, and what is real and fictional isn’t clear, this book is as much a panegyric to Malaparte’s adoptive city as it is a chronicle of the Neapolitan people’s war-inflicted dehumanization. Malaparte remains ambivalent about the citizens throughout the novel, torn between praise for their resourcefulness and censure of their depravity. Malaparte’s feelings are verbalized in Colonel Jack Hamilton’s patronizing encomium. “I like Italian people. I like this bastard, dirty, wonderful people.”

Malaparte is in one of his better days when Colonel Hamilton says this, so he humours the officer. “I know, Jack, that you wish well to this poor, unhappy, wonderful people. No other people on earth have ever suffered as much as the Neapolitans have. It has suffered famine and slavery for twenty centuries, and doesn’t complain. It doesn’t speak ill of anyone, it doesn’t hate anything: not even its misery. Christ was Neapolitan.”

Malaparte is ironic and detached at times, at others very sentimental and unable to disguise his hurting at seeing his people subjugated and humiliated. “If it’s never an honour to lose a war, it was certainly a great honour, for the Neapolitans, and for all the other vanquished people of Europe, to have lost the war against soldiers so courteous, elegant, beautiful, so good and generous.”

There isn’t a plot to speak of. The novel is divided in twelve chapters, each one focusing on a theme or situation or set of characters. Most of the situations serve to illustrate the points, over and over again. Malaparte and his American friends visit Naples’ slums, observing and commenting on the squalor of the Neapolitan people, amidst digressions on European art, culture and history, and differences between America and Europe. These digressions are wholly intentional and essential; they’re there to make a powerful contrast with the pictures of misery. Naples in 1943 was, for a brief time, hell on earth. People are starving, and everything is for sale. For instance, women rent underage children to the soldiers. “Two dollars the boys, three dollars the girls!” the women shout, probably their mothers. Prostitution and human trafficking is a theme the author keeps coming back to as the lowest condition the people have sunk to. At the times the novelist gives room to the journalist with his objective recording of facts:

The prices for the girls and boys, for some weeks now, had fallen, and continued to fall. While the prices for sugar, olive oil, flour, meat, bread, had increased, and continued to go up, the price of human flesh lowered day by day. A girl between twenty and twenty-five years, who a week ago was worth up to ten dollars, now was worth only four dollars, bones included. The reason for such a drop in the price of human flesh on the Neapolitan market was due perhaps to the fact that women arrived to Naples from all parts of middle Italy.

Only the clever, wicked and resourceful succeeded in these circumstances. Everything was acceptable in order to survive, and duping American soldiers was considered fair play. A common scheme used was pushing daughters onto American soldiers and forcing an engagement, making the soldier responsible for taking care of the family and supplying it with goods. This was just another form of prostitution. A different method, for those with the courage and the means, was to steal provisions from the American army. Malaparte, jokingly or not, relates how one night an entire Liberty ship was stolen, it simply vanished from the dock, never to be seen again. Everything had value on the black market.

Malaparte observes without fierce judgments. He says with irony that he’d likely be as corrupt as his countrymen. “Who knows? If I had a boy, perhaps I’d sell him to be able to buy American cigarettes. We have to be a man of our times. When you’re vile, you must be vile all the way.”

Malaparte doesn’t overlook the intelligentsia, a class for which he had a lot of loathing. The novel Kaputt juxtaposed the horrors of the several war fronts and Jewish ghettos with parties attended by important guests, from intellectuals to high-ranking officers. Here he tries to do the same. My immediate impression is that Malaparte raised the bar too high in the previous novel when he used Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, as a character, and there’s nothing in The Skin in that league. If any of the literati Malaparte lambasts is real, or a real person in disguise, I’m unaware. The sections with the literati are bizarre, and because of the unforeseeable changes of history, may be the most upsetting pages of the book nowadays. Malaparte didn’t take kindly to homosexuals and according to him the whole intellectual class was nothing but a bunch of nihilistic pederasts who took advantage of generalised underage prostitution to sate their lust. It really must be read to be fully taken in. I have no tolerance for intolerance, but in Malaparte’s defence – he was a Fascist sympathiser, it’s not like he has much of a reputation to protect – he was a Christian, with all the cultural strictness of the age. Since, however, I always try to be generous to writers, there’s a passage that I think of interest. This is Malaparte talking with Jean-Louis, one of his despised nihilists:

   “It’s always the same story, after a war. The young react to heroism, to the rhetoric of sacrifice, of heroic death, and react always in the same way. Out of disgust with heroism, with noble ideals, with heroic ideals, do you know what young men like you do? They always choose the easiest revolt, that of vileness, of moral indifference, of narcissism. They think themselves rebels, blasés, affranchis, nihilists, and are nothing but whores.”
   “You don’t have the right to call us whores,” shouted Jean-Louis, “the young deserve respect. You don’t have the right to insult them!”
   “It’s a matter of words. I met thousands like you after the other war, who thought they were Dadaists and surrealists and were nothing but whores. You’ll see, after this war, how many young men will believe to be communists. When the Allies have liberated all Europe, do you know what they’ll find? A mass of disillusioned young men, corrupted, desperate, who’ll play at pederasts as if they were playing at tennis. It’s always the same story after a war. ”

I think this is a very acute observation. The rhetoric of war always looks back to traditional values like heroism, nationalism, sacrifice, and after the war there always tends to be a backlash against its strictness. It leads to developments in the arts, like the dada and surrealism that Malaparte did not approve, and to civil rights movements, but also leads to a disenchantment with life, the feeling that life is meaningless.

To Malaparte, there’s a ‘moral plague’ hovering above Naples, against which there is no defence. In an appendix I discovered that he originally intended to name the novel The Plague, to make a connection with the ancient Greek tragedies, which use plagues to indicate moral decay or guilt over a character. This, of course, makes think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play The Flies, which also used the plague metaphor. So we have a series of works of literature in the 1940s that had the same idea. Malaparte, however, came up with a different metaphor for his vision of decay. And, I presume, as the Christian he was, he saw the question in terms of matter versus spirit, saving one’s skin versus saving one’s soul:

“You can’t even imagine what a man is capable of, of what infamy and what heroism he’s capable of, to save his skin. This, this filthy skin, see? (And saying that I pinched the skin of the back of my hand between two fingers, and pulled it here and there.) In the past one suffered hunger, torture the most horrible sufferings, one killed and died, one suffered and made one suffer, to save the soul, to save one’s own soul and the soul of others. One was capable of every greatness and every infamy, to save the soul. Not just one’s soul but others’. Nowadays one suffers and makes one to suffer, one kills and dies, one accomplishes wonderful and horrible things, not anymore to save the soul but to save the skin. One believes to be fighting and suffering for the soul itself, but in reality one fights and suffers for the skin, only for one’s own skin. Everything else doesn’t matter. Nowadays one’s a hero for a very poor thing! Look. It’s a disgusting thing. And to think the world is full of heroes ready to sacrifice their own lives for such a similar thing!”

Before the Allies arrived in Naples, the population fought to push the German army out of Naples. Now it’s fighting just to survive:

“It’s a humiliating, horrible thing, it’s a shameful necessity, fighting to live. Only to live. Only to save one’s own skin. It’s no longer the fight against slavery, the fight for freedom, for human dignity, for honour. It’s the fight against hunger. It’s the fight for a piece of bread, for a bit of fire, for a rag with which to cover the kids, for a bit of straw on which to lay down. When men fight to live, everything, even an empty can, a cigar butt, an orange peel, a crumb of dry bread picked up from filth, a stripped bone, everything has for them an enormous value, decisive. Men are capable of any vileness to live: of every infamy, of every felony, to live. For a piece of bread any of us is ready to sell his own wife, his own daughters, to smear his own mother, to sell his brothers and friends, to prostitute himself to another man.”

Malaparte, thanks to his connection with the American army, was spared these deprivations. But what do you do when you survive the war to witness the rest of your people subjugated and humiliated? How do you cope with that? I wonder to what extent his dark humour isn’t a way of masking his shame. Perhaps The Skin is his hymn to his people as a way of making amends with his consciousness. I’m merely speculating, of course. But for whatever motives he wrote this book, it’s one of the most remarkable, gut-wrenching and heartbreaking war novels I’ve ever read.

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Dino Buzzati: An Overview






When you least expect it, you discover that you’ve read more by a writer than you previously imagined. Upon finishing Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip I started making a list of all the books I’ve read by this Italian writer, and to my surprise it’s eight already, making him one of the most repeated writers in my library. His books have been too pleasurable for me to even notice the time and effort I’ve devoted to them. Outside Italy, where he is very beloved, he’s not well known and it’s doubtable that he’ll ever gain the worldwide status he and his work deserve, even though he was championed by the likes of Jorge Luis Borges. “We can know the ancients, we can know the classics, we can know the writers of the 19th century and the ones from the beginning of our own, which is ending already,” wrote the Argentinean master. “Far harder is knowing the contemporaries. They’re too many and time hasn’t yet revealed to us its anthology. There are, however, names that future generations will not accept to forget. One of them is, surely, the one of Dino Buzzati.”

Yes and no.

In the English-speaking world Buzzati’s fame rests mainly on his 1940 novel The Tartar Steppe, which Borges included in his list A Personal Library. Here in Portugal, a few years ago, there was a short-lived reawakening of interest in his work that resulted in a series of excellent translations. But apparently the sales weren’t very good. There hasn’t been a new translation since 2010. Although this was the period when I really delved into his work, I had already come across it a few years before at the university, when I was trying to learn Italian. The first book I read was called The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily (1945), a children’s book about a war between men and bears, and a political allegory about the abuse of power, complemented by Buzzati’s wonderfully colourful and cute pictures like this:

Tremble before the Bear King!
Next came the haunting war novel The Tartar Steppe. A young lieutenant, Giovanni Drogo, is assigned to the old Bastiani Fortress, built on the edge of the Tartar desert, which spreads for miles into the horizon until disappearing inside a thick mist. Young Drogo is disheartened because he’s full of ambition and years for action, military glory, and the proverbial heroic death on the battlefield, and yet Bastiani has never seen any action and it’s unlikely an enemy should attack from the desert’s side. Old officers, who have lived their careers in the austere fortress, try to cheer him up with: many years ago the desert had Tartar tribes, they tell, and some believe they’re still there, preparing for war. So they advise Drogo to wait, wait, wait. But perhaps the Tartars are just a fable concocted by officers and soldiers who need something to believe in, to believe that their lives, as the years go by, aren’t being pointlessly wasted. Perhaps nothing will happen in Bastiani at all, ever.

I won’t ruin anyone’s enjoyment of this brilliant novel by saying that this is basically the whole plot of the novel. Not a lot seems to happen in the novel, decades in the characters’ lives go by, and everything remains the same. There’s a constant ebbing and flowing of expectations and doubts and disappointments, and the story happens between Drogo’s dreams and disappointments. In spite of that it’s a very fascinating novel. Buzzati used the army to craft a parable about the squandering of one’s life chasing chimeras. Comparisons with Franz Kafka’s The Castle are not out of place. Whereas Kafka writes in the form of a nightmare, Buzzati writes in the tone of an exuberant elegy. What the novel lacks in action it has in intimate character moments and in pertinent observations about life. Drogo is a vivid creation: like other young officers, he wants to be stationed in the capital, to attend parties and flirt with women. Some veterans even advise him to seek transfer as quickly as possible, lest the desert exert its mysterious influence on him like it does on everyone else after a while. Drogo is confident that won’t happen, but as the years go by, he sinks deeper and deeper into an inextricable routine. The ending is as ironic as it is heartbreaking, and the reader won’t know whether to cheer of lament Drogo’s fate.

After this great novel I discovered Dino Buzzati the short-story writer. I Sette Messaggeri (1942) and Paura alla Scala (1949) are a challenge to categorise. Comedy, existential horror, magical realism, allegories, fables, science-fiction, echoes of Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe, all written in a clear, concise and objective prose that almost banalizes the supernatural in the stories, or perhaps enhances the mundane. It works either way.

In one story, a prince travels for years without ever reaching the limits of his kingdom. There are parodies of old myths: a modern-day group of hunters sets out to kill the last dragon, but all they find is a decrepit creature that can barely defend itself anymore. In another story a man finds mysterious apples in an attic and becomes enchanted by them. A little boy lies when he’s confessing his sins before first communion: when he dies he’s made to wait in dreaded anxiety of not knowing whether he’s going to Heaven or Hell. A guest insults a bizarre pet, with horrible consequences. The quality ratio is quite high for a collection of short-stories.

I read other novels. An early one, Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio (1935), by its simplicity better aimed at young readers. The novel includes anthropomorphic creatures like the talking wind and trees and animals making it a sort of allegorical fable. It’s about Benvenuto, a young boy who lives in a magical forest, and his transition from childhood into adulthood. As a work of children’s literature it’s very good.

Reading Il grande ritratto (1960) was the only time Buzzati’s writing disappointed me. It’s a science-fantasy novel about a group of scientists working on a secret experiment for the government in the middle of nowhere, namely the creation of artificial intelligence; but one of them has programmed the gigantic computer, resting atop a mountain, with his dead wife’s personality. I don’t remember a lot more save for the negative impression it left me with. Most of the novel was told in dialogue, and it all felt superficial and pointless.

So it was a pleasure to read the short-stories of Il Crollo della Baliverna (1954). As great as The Tartar Steppe may be, I believe Buzzati is a better short-story writer than novelist. The humour, the fantasy and irony work better in these small doses. Like in the two other collections, Buzzati slowly peels away the layers of reality from an ordinary object or situation to reveal its irrational and bizarre, or even macabre, side. Other stories give the fantastic an aura of normalcy that convinces the reader of the most unreal of situations. More importantly, Buzzati is such a fine raconteur the reader is inclined to believe anything he narrates.

This collection is one of his best. In the first story, during a family picnic an ordinary man decides to climb the Baliverna, a tower fragilely standing up and harbouring inside the homeless and poor families. Its precarious existence is maintained by a series of iron bolts rammed through its walls, giving it stability. When the man starts climbing the tower and using the bolts for support, he brings down the whole tower, brick by brick, crushing several people inside it. An investigation is started to ascertain responsibilities, and the culprit, hoping that no one saw him climbing but tormented by guilt, starts hallucinating that everyone can see his blame. The other tales equally show how circumstances can swiftly change and doom a man’s life or alter reality. In “The Dog Who Saw God,” a whole corrupt town is coerced to reform its immoral behaviour when a dog, belonging to a dead hermit, is believed to have seen the face of God. In his sad eyes the townspeople constantly see a moral judgment upon them, as if the dog were evaluating their souls. So people slowly change their ways. No one has the courage to kill the mutt, and when it dies no one has the courage to return to their previous vices, for that would akin to admitting that their lives, the entire town, had been changed by a dog.

In the fascinating “Meeting With Einstein,” the famous scientist is visited, still at the beginning of his career, by a mysterious figure that claims to be Death. The scientist, believing that he still has a lot to offer to Mankind, asks Death to delay the sending of his soul to the afterlife, for he’s on the brink of a great discovery. The figure grants him another month, which becomes more months, while it patiently waits for the scientist to finish his discoveries. When the young Einstein finally concludes his grand work, he discovers that the figure isn’t Death after all but a demon sent by the Devil to fool him. Einstein innocently wonders why the Devil would be interested in his scientific breakthroughs. A question for history to answer.

In “Rats,” a husband and wife slowly lose an unequal battle against the thousands of rats living underneath their house’s floorboard, until they become their slaves. The last story in the book uses science-fiction to parody religion: in “The Saucer Has Landed,” a priest receives the unexpected and disconcerting visit of an extraterrestrial saucer, containing – amazing surprise! – the inhabitants of a planet where no one ate from the Tree of Knowledge. The priest, faced with the annoying and smug perfection of these creatures, realizes he much prefers the imperfect humans to them.

Buzzati’s stories tend to converge towards an ambiguous and unsettling ending, not just because of his refusal to pass judgement on the characters but also because of the abrupt interruption of the action when it starts to reach a climax, leaving fates unresolved and inviting the reader to use his imagination to complete them. This is how his stories are, unpredictable and full of ironic humour, founded on a sharp sense of observation and a powerful creativity. I think he is his own category, but in the 20th century there are no doubt affinities with G. K. Chesterton, Jorge Luis Borges, Giovanni Papini and Italo Calvino.

The latest book I read by him, Poem Strip (1969), shows yet another facet of this talented author: comic books. Well, it’s not really a comic book in the sense of the term as I know it. It’s half picture book half comic book. For me in a comic book the art and words are integrated into a whole. In most of the book’s pages, however, the text is separated from the words, making it more of an illustrated story. Once we get past this caveat, it’s one of his most curious books. Buzzati reinterprets the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a pop singer, Orfi, teen idol, chasing his beloved, Eura, into the land of the dead to bring her back. Orfi, who lives in a palace that overlooks a mysterious abandoned house, one night sees a taxi stopping in front of it; Eura walks out and passes through its door:

The mysterious house is rumored to change shapes.
Orfi later learns the abandoned house is one of millions that leads into the underworld. Orfi gains access to the underworld and meets an empty coat, the current manager of the underworld:

The Coat. From the English edition.
 
The coat tries to tempt him away from his beloved, but Orfi remains loyal to his Eura:


So the coat promises to help him if he sings a song about all the things the dead miss. He sings the song and is granted twenty-four hours to leave the underworld with Eura. It’s well worth reading if only because of Buzzati’s excellent drawings – he also did the covers for his own books – and because there’s not a lot more available in English. It’s a mystery to me why Buzzati is so badly served by translations. It’s always hard to understand why some writers succeed and others don’t. Why, for instance, Italo Calvino, his contemporary but not his superior, is so well known whereas Buzzati is an oddity. I fear more than talent must be involved in these vicissitudes. Circumstances, timing and no doubt luck play a role, perhaps an even more important role than talent.

Monday, 15 April 2013

That’s the way some of us Westerners are: the politically incorrect Paul Bowles



In 1931 the American writer and composer Paul Bowles visited Tangier for the first time, beginning a love affair with Africa that expanded into a life-long predilection for world travelling. He permanently settled on this Moroccan city in 1947 and by the time he died in 1999, he had travelled extensively in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Ceylon, India, South America and more. His experiences in some of these regions of the globe are collected in the book Their Heads Are Green and Their Heads Are Blue.

Bowles believed that it was “natural for a traveller to seek diversity,” and his powers of observation allowed him to retain much of the picturesque, the anecdotic and the marvellous in his travels. The reader will find much to entertain and delight him: panegyrics to parrots, who, enhanced by Bowles’ descriptive grace, came across as the best pets in the world after cats; his travails in the worst hotel in the world (according to a staff member, not him); the life on the oases; the contemplative solitude of the Sahara; curious facts like the camel not being native of Africa but an importation from Asia around the time the Roman Empire was on its death throes. He was always on the move, registering and relishing the differences around him, and Bowles more than once makes it clear he’s especially fascinated by these parts of the world’s exuding the feeling of a bygone, primitive era. It is not surprising that Edmund White, in the book’s dull and dispensable introduction, had to give Bowles a dressing down for his old-fashioned racism, quarantining him in that group of other extraordinary writers – Conrad, Kipling, etc. – who can’t be enjoyed nowadays unless this caveat is overtly visible somewhere in the book. Concomitantly White had to play his role as an up-to-date literary critic by evoking the authority of Edward Said, author of Orientalism, that bizarre lynchpin of modern intellectual and cultural life that instead of opening up dialogue, as becomes books, successfully managed to stifle it by making it nearly impossible for any white Westerner to write about Africa and the Middle East, except in laudatory terms, without being immediately criticised for serving a sinister neo-colonialist socio-political agenda.

Bowles didn’t do anything more nefarious than recording the things that interested him but that he also found negative. In simple words, Bowles was interested by everything that was traditional and non-Western about North Africa and the Middle East; and everything that smacked of modernisation or artificiality he frowned upon in displeasure. Bowles vision of these regions was formed before “the twentieth century’s gangrene set in,” true. But this is far from White’s accusation that Bowles “insist[ed] on the static, non-historical nature of an “Oriental” country” or that he bemoaned its political and social development.

Bowles had many good things to say, and several bad ones, about the regions he visited. That shouldn’t shock anyone, a place with human beings having negative aspects. Human societies are only perfect in the bad anthropology books of Margaret Mead.

Bowles didn’t hide that he was drawn to these regions’ differences with the west. At the same time he realized that changes in these societies were inevitable and had been going on at the same time he was recording his observations. “The concept of the status quo is a purely theoretical one; modifications occur hourly. It would be an absurdity to expect any group of people to maintain its present characteristic or manner of living. But the visitor to a place whose charm is a result of its backwardness is inclined to hope it will remain that way, regardless of how its inhabitants may feel. The seeker of the picturesque sees the spread of technology as an unalloyed abomination. Still, there are much worse things.”

Bowles’ concern about this part of the world abandoning its former ways of living was that they were replacing them with counterfeit Western models. “My own belief is that the people of the alien cultures are being ravaged not so much by the by-products of our civilization, as by the irrational longing on the part of members of their own educated minorities to cease being themselves and become Westerners.” In the article “The Rif, to Music,” the chronicle of his effort to record traditional Moroccan music, Bowles details how the Moroccan government refused to help him, and in fact tried to sabotage him, since they considered their traditional folk music embarrassing and backward and not a cultural treasure worthy of preservation. “I suppose it is natural for them to want to see themselves presented to the outside world in the most ‘advanced’ light possible. They find it perverse of a Westerner to be interested only in the dissimilarities between their culture and his. However, that’s the way some of us Westerners are.” Bowles, carrying out this mission on behalf of the US Library of Congress, didn’t give up and travelled around Morocco, recording as many folk songs as he could. They currently sit in the archives of the US Library of Congress. A major victory for the evil forces of Orientalism.

Bowles didn’t just record the music, he wrote admiringly about its vital role in Moroccan culture and history. “The most important single element in Morocco’s folk culture is its music. In a land like this, where almost total illiteracy has been the rule, the production of written literature is of course negligible. On the other hand, like the Negroes of West Africa the Moroccans have a magnificent and highly evolved sense of rhythm which manifests itself in the twin arts of music and the dance. Islam, however, does not look with favour upon any sort of dancing, and thus the art of the dance, while being the natural mode of religious expression of the native population, has not been encouraged here since the arrival of the Moslem conquerors. At the same time, the very illiteracy which through the centuries has precluded the possibility of literature has abetted the development of music; the entire history and mythology of the people is clothed in song. Instrumentalists and singers have come into being in lieu of chroniclers and poets (…)” To anyone reading this passage in its proper context, there isn’t any doubt that Bowles is interested in Moroccan music because he likes it. It shouldn’t also surprise anyone that a man trained in musical composition would be interested in musical styles different than those found in his country. Man is a naturally curious creature and his attention is best captured by what is new and strange. But this is anathema to Edmund White, who writes that Bowles, “[f]or whatever political reasons, conservative or progressive, he is willing to study the music of his adopted country.” How fascinatingly worded. What does Bowles’ interest in Moroccan music have to do with his political beliefs? Why does politics have to be an issue at all? Why can’t a Westerner simply love a foreign culture? It’s appalling that White seems to have forgotten what it means to have a purely aesthetic, disinterested love for art, but that’s the only path Said left open: loving art has stopped being a pure endeavour; it’s now totally wrapped up in vested interests, political motives, and power dynamics between conquerors and conquered.

Bowles, of course, wasn’t ignorant of the changes and tensions in these countries’ societies. For him, who loved the way they were, change was inevitable and the Europeans’ attempts to retain their power over them doomed to failure. For him decolonization was a reality he could sense, and did see, around him, and he doesn’t spare the Europeans about how poorly they behaved themselves during it. “The Europeans always have been guilty of massive neglects with regard to schools for Moslems in their North African possessions. In time, their shortsighted policy is likely to prove the heaviest handicap of all in the desperate attempt of the present rulers to keep the region within the Western sphere of influence.” Elsewhere he writes: “If you live long enough in a place where the question of colonialism versus self-government is constantly being discussed, you are bound to find yourself having a very definite opinion on the subject. The difficulty is that some of your co-residents feel one way and some the other, but all feel strongly. Those in favour of colonialism argue that you can’t “give” (quotes mine) an almost totally illiterate people political power and expect them to create a democracy, and that is doubtless true; but the point is that since they are inevitably going to take the power sooner or later, it is only reasonable to help them take it while they still have at least some measure of good will toward their erstwhile masters.” Bowles didn’t doubt the triumph of decolonization. There is nowhere in the book where one can infer Bowles is upset the West’s grip on the region has relaxed. But for him the West isn’t its greatest enemy; instead he worries about the new class of autochthonous intellectuals coming into existence within its borders.  “The attainment of political independence is only one of the facets of their problem. The North African knows that when it comes to appreciating his culture, the average tourist cannot go much closer toward understanding it than a certain condescending curiosity. He realizes that, at best, to the European he is merely picturesque. Therefore, he reasons, to be taken seriously he must cease being picturesque. Traditional customs, clothing and behaviour must be replaced by something unequivocally European. In this he is fanatical. It does not occur to him that what he is rejecting is authentic and valid, and that what he is taking on is meaningless imitation. And if it did occur to him, it wouldn’t matter in the least. This total indifference to cultural heritage appears to be a necessary adjunct to the early stages of nationalism.” I must say I find the last sentence awkward: nationalism, we’re taught in school, dates back to the late 18th century, and if anything, one of its symptoms is exactly being overly defensive of one’s cultural heritage, real and imagined. It was with this defensive zeal that European scholars and philologists started collecting folk ballads, songs, poems, fairy tales and legends from the lower and rural classes of their countries, for they were considered more authentic and less corrupted and thus the true soul of their nations’ culture. Bowles witnesses the opposite of this operation: intellectuals actively suppressing their folk culture and trying to be as modern as possible. For Bowles, though, they make a mistake in abandoning their traditional life rhythms to catch up with the West. You can praise him for standing up for Morocco’s traditional culture, or you can accuse him of wanting it stay stuck in time. But if wanting to preserve the past is a sign of backwardness, there is so much about us (I speak mainly as a white citizen of the Western world) that is bizarre. The Irish government would have to stop funding programs to artificially keep the Irish language alive. Countless World Heritage Sites could be demolished to rise luxurious tenement buildings or drowned to build far more profitable dams. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We believe these things matter enough to be protected. With the exception of a few deranged individuals, no one wants to be ‘absolutely modern’ at the expense of the past. Sane, healthy people know the past matters, that it must be preserved. That people like things to stay the same is a universal characteristic of man, not just of Westerners visiting underdeveloped countries. Humans are wary of change, and even most good innovations are met with resistance before they’re fully accepted. Is it really strange that Bowles liked the way these countries were and felt sad the magic he saw in them disappear to be replaced by things he could find back in the USA?

Another risible accusation in White’s introduction is that Bowles failed to ‘foresee the rise of Moslem fundamentalism,’ as if Bowles, besides being a writer, had the duty of being a futurologist to boot. Bowles was observing everyday details, situations, scenes, habits, not writing prophecy. As such he writes what sees around him, but even this gets criticised by White because it’s not what he wants Bowles to observe. One of the articles that gets White especially upset, and which I thought was one of the book’s best and funniest, is “Mustapha and his friends,” a satirical portrait of small hypocrisies Muslims practice in their quotidian. He comes up with Mustapha, a generic name for a generic figure, the typical Muslim according to Bowles. Mustapha isn’t a bad person, he’s a true believer but doesn’t strictly adhere to the teachings of the Koran, he likes to lie and get things without paying for them, he’s sexist and likes to smoke kif, etc. I figured no one with a sense of humour would be offended by this harmless send-up, but White is appalled at the barrage of stereotypes, as he calls them, against Muslims. For me it was a delicious piece of satire in the grand tradition of Jonathan Swift, a name I presume even White must have heard of. I’m pretty sure that if Bowles had written of Giacomo, the typical Italian Christian believer who doesn’t attend Sunday mass and never read the Bible, steals stationary from work, likes to be drunk on beer, and tells sexist jokes about women in the company of friends, White wouldn’t have been so offended. This is one of the most pernicious effects of Said’s book, that now we have to believe huge segments of mankind are perfect lest we be accused of stereotyping.

More troubling is Bowles’ thoughts about Muslim countries embracing democracy. Bowles is pessimistic about it. In conclusion to a conversation he has about democracy with a Muslim friend, he writes the following: “To Abdeslam, who is a traditionally minded Moslem, the very idea of democracy is meaningless. It is impossible to explain it to him; he will not listen. If an idea is not explicitly formulated in the Koran, it is wrong; it came either directly from Satan or via the Jews, and there is no need to discuss it further.” In 2012 Morocco held protests and rallies in order to instate reforms and reduce the King’s powers, so he got that wrong. It would be interesting to know what Bowles would have thought of the Arab Spring. Bowles didn’t think changes were impossible, but he was cautious about them, and he insisted that any social changes had to happen from within without foreign interference, an opinion more people are coming after the Iraqi debacle. Writing about women’s socially inferior status, he sensibly predicted: “The campaign for feminine liberation will inevitably come, but it must come from within, from the women themselves, at the time and in the way they feel the need for it.”

There are, however, countless passages that attest to Bowles’ love for this people, its history and culture. Perhaps Bowles’ regretted the modernisation of Morocco not so much because he feared losing its picturesque beauty, but because he was a deeply spiritual man who was drawn to the harmony according to him people still maintained with the absolute. Bowles himself was deeply spiritual and retained the old bond between man and Nature. “In North Africa the earth becomes the less important part of the landscape because you find yourself constantly raising your eyes to look at the sky. In the arid landscape the sky is the final arbiter. When you have understood that, not intellectually but emotionally, you have also understood why it is that the great trinity of monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which removed the source of power from the earth itself to the space outside the earth – were evolved in desert regions. And of the three, Islam, perhaps because it is the most recently evolved, operates the most directly and with the greatest strength upon the daily actions of those who embrace it.”

Bowles was also immersed in the culture deep enough to identify its many nuances. He was fully aware that the region of North Africa was linguistically, culturally, socially, religiously diverse and he revelled in those internal differences. Writing about the Barbers, a people he esteemed, he writes: “It is scarcely fair to refer to these proud people as Touareg. The word is a term of opprobrium meaning “lost souls,” given them by their traditional enemies the Arabs, but one which, in the outside world, has stuck. They call themselves imochagh, the free ones.” More than once Bowles remembers the reader than that the Arabs, rather than being natural from that region of the world, entered it as conquerors. But he also doesn’t ignore their role in developing the region. “In the Sahara the oasis – which is to say, the forest of date palms – is primarily a man-made affair and can continue its existence only if the work of irrigating its terrain is kept up unrelentingly. When the Arabs arrived in Africa twelve centuries ago, they began a project of land reclamation which, if the Europeans continue it with the aid of modern machinery, will transform much of the Sahara into a great, fertile garden. Wherever there was a sign of vegetation, the water was there not far below; it merely needed to be brought to the surface. The Arabs set to work digging wells, constructing reservoirs, building networks of canals along the surface of the ground and systems of subterranean water-galleries deep in the earth.” These don’t look like the words of a man who ignored the history of the region, as White would have the reader believe.

Their Heads Are Green and Their Heads Are Blue is a remarkable, entertaining book that will please the fan of travel books with its many rich insights into foreign cultures. And the lover of elegant prose will also relish at Bowles carefully-worded sentences. Although Bowles was no stranger to me, The Spider-House had struck me as slow and dull novel, and The Stories, although exhibiting many moments of greatness, was as uneven as you expect a collection of short-stories to be. But this was a book that I loved from start to finish and that immediately became one of my favourite reads of 2013. For me the book is only harmed by the apologetic introduction. Paul Bowles was an adult and an intelligent man, I’m certain he was conscious of what he was writing. I’m sure if he wanted apologies to his work, he would have written them himself within his books’ pages. I’m also not so sycophantic to think all his views are correct, I more than expect writers to have their share of contradictions, but I don’t hide the fact I prefer the opinions of someone who chose to live in that region of the world and learns its music, culture and language, to the pronouncements of someone with truly vested interests like Edward Said, or of intellectual sheep like Edmund White who, without first-hand experience of the world Bowles lived in for half a century, swallow the newest academic fads lock, stock, and barrel in order to remain relevant within the decreasingly irrelevant circles of academe.

Corrigenda: the always watchful Tom from Wuthering Heights has just corrected me that the introduction could not have been written by Edmund Wilson, who died before Orientalism was published. I just checked, and indeed I confused Edmund Wilson with Edmund White. Although I've amended the text, I'm leaving this note here as a reminder to myself of my crass error, and a warning to readers not to trust too much anything I write.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Mario Vargas Llosa in 10 Books



My first encounter with Mario Vargas Llosa dates back to 2010. Just to make it clear, I did not read him because of the Nobel Prize – I’m not that shallow a reader. Just a few months before the announcement I read The Bad Girl, at the time the latest novel he had finished, and thoroughly enjoyed. Later I was told by better-read fans of Vargas Llosa that this wasn’t one of his best novels, and nowadays I agree with that, but for me it was a solid, gripping and well written introduction. The novel follows Ricardo Somocurcio, a Peruvian expatriate and translator, in his decades-long chance meetings with a woman he met in Lima when they were teenagers and who became the true love of his life, even though she never reciprocated his feelings. As a study of the follies of love I thought it was quite good, and in spite of the naysayers I recommend it. Then for my second reading I got The Time of the Hero, the first novel he had written. And this is more in tune with his usual work: mixed storylines, carefully-controlled shifts from third to first person narrative, a delicate manipulation from temporal events. In his first novel Vargas Llosa laid down the blueprint for most of his future novels. The story itself follows the lives of several cadets in the Military College Leoncio Prado, where young men are supposedly educated to become heroes for the fatherland but in fact is a den of drinking, gambling and vice. When a cadet dies during a training, Lieutenant Gamboa is led to believe the boy may have been murdered by a classmate and starts slowly unravelling the corruption running rampart under the lax attention of the authorities. This novel was a more complicated and not as immediately-satisfying read than The Bad Girl but with time I’ve come to appreciate it more.

Then Vargas Llosa received the Nobel Prize, and I joined an online reading group of The War of the End of the World, whose review is posted on St. Orberose. A 700-page historical novel about the Brazilian civil war of Canudos, to me it’s the author’s masterpiece and my favourite work by him. Before the end of the year I still found time to read The Dream of the Celt, another historical novel about Roger Casement, a civil rights pioneer who headed investigations into the rubber plantation crimes in Congo and Peru. Casement was also an Irish nationalist and was executed after a botched rebellion. With this novel, which was good but no exceptional, I started seeing another pattern in Vargas Llosa’s fiction: his fascination with history and real-life figures.

The reading order starts becoming fuzzy. I think next I read The Feast of the Goat, another historical novel about the assassination of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. It’s another masterpiece and on the level of The War of the End of the World. The novel interweaves three different storylines: the return of Urania, an expatriate living in the USA, to the Dominican Republic decades after the assassination of Trujillo; the days preceding Trujillo’s car ambush that ended in his death; and the chapters exploring the lives of the conspirators before and after the assassination. This was a dark, violent novel that laid bare the regime’s abuses of power and sadism. The punishment meted out to the conspirators involves some of the most horrible things I’ve ever read. And the secret Urania carries with her, the revelation of which is elegantly postponed by the author until the end, turns her into a metaphor for what Trujillo did to the country.

Next came, I think, The Storyteller. And this was the novel that started opening fissures in my admiration of Vargas Llosa. The novel, like all others, combines different storylines, in this case just two: one is told by the novel’s narrator, who once knew a man who may have become a storyteller in an Amazonian tribe; and the second narrative corresponds to the tales told by this storyteller. I absolutely hated the storyteller’s sections.

Things improved with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which revealed yet another facet of Vargas Llosa’s work: his talent for comedy. Autobiographical, the novel is about Varguitas, an aspiring writer working for a radio station, and his infatuation with his older aunt, Julia. Fighting against poverty, family and society, the two lovers get themselves involved in a long series of hilarious travails to get married. It’s one of the funniest and sweetest books by him. But like in The Storyteller, I only appreciated the half about the lovers. The other half is about a hack writer of soap operas, Pedro Camacho. Half the novel is descriptions of episodes from his soap operas, and they’re genuinely awful. There’s something admirable, insanely heroic even, about Vargas Llosa deliberately writing bad fiction for purposes of satire, but the problem of satire is that you end up becoming the thing you satirise. And so half the novel is unreadable garbage.

The two books I read next didn’t reconcile me with Vargas Llosa. The Cubs and other stories is arguably the weakest book I’ve read by him. It’s the first book he published and you can see the young but serious writer trying very hard to impress with opaque prose and nihilistic sentiments. Fortunately he learned to relax. The Green House is undeniably a superior example of writing, the archetypical Vargas Llosa novel: abrupt shifts of perspective, dense stream-of-consciousness, non-linear storylines. I admire the execution but I didn’t feel anything for it. I was getting worried I was never going to enjoy his novels again.

Reading Conversations in the Cathedral has therefore been a balm. It’s the sort of intricate, perfectly-constructed, polyphonic novel I encountered in my early experiences with the author.

Santiago Zavala, journalist for a sleazy newspaper, unexpectedly finds an old acquaintance in a dog pound while looking for his missing dog. Ambrosio, living an abject existence killing dogs in the dog pound, was once chauffer of Zavalita’s father, a businessman already dead at the time of this meeting. For many years Zavalita has been haunted by the suspicion that his father, Don Fermín, was implicated in the murder of an underworld figure, a cabaret singer called Hortensia. Sitting down with Ambrosio in a bar called The Cathedral, they start reminiscing about the fifties, when Peru was under the rule of dictator Manuel A. Odría.

Don Fermín, in spite of his ties with the regime, loves his son and envisions a successful future as lawyer for him. Zavalita, however, resents him and enrols in the National University of San Marcos, a hotbed of left-wing activity, where he briefly flirts with the activist group Cahuide, just to spite his father. He experiences initial insecurities about integrating the group because of his bourgeois background. “The best revolutionaries came out from the bourgeoisie,” one of the Cahuide reassures Zavalita when declares in a meeting that he’s the son of Fermín Zavala. But his revolutionary career is interrupted when authorities detain him and his friends, and his father has to his influence with Cayo Bermúdez, the violent minister of police, to release him. Embarassed and anodyne, Santiago chooses to leave an independent life cultivating mediocrity, neglecting his studies and becoming more and more involved in his journalistic work for La Crónica, a second-rate newspaper. Zavalita’s lack of willpower becomes a metaphor for Peru itself. “The truth is I’m disoriented. I know what I don’t want to be, but not what I would like to be. I don’t want to be a lawyer, or rich, or important, uncle. I don’t want to be at fifty what my father is, what my father’s friends are,” he says to his uncle, who fails to convince him to go back to studies. As journalist, Zavalita starts sleeping during the day and living a bohemian life during the night, settling into the cosy insignificance of his job. Later he marries a nurse from the lower class, breaking his mother’s heart.

Although he spends years trying to ignore his family, it is his job at La Crónica that reunites him with his father. One day a woman named Hortensia shows up dead. The ex-lover of Cayo Bermúdez, the minister in charge of political repression in Peru, she falls into poverty when the fearful minister loses favour with Odría and is forced to travel abroad. A former businessman until his friend Colonel Espina invites him to work for the government, Cayo quickly rises in the government’s ranks and becomes a symbol of torture, arrests and abuse of power in the dictatorship. Like in The Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa triumphs in showing the complex inner workings of a dictatorship and its many-sided effects on society.

When La Crónica starts investigating the murder of Hortensia, Zavalitas is loaned to Becerrita, the editor of the crime section, to help him out in the macabre investigation in order to crank out more lurid details and keep the story alive to sell more newspapers. But they investigate so thoroughly, surpassing even the cops, that Zavalita discovers ties to his father. During this part of the novel the tension grew to gut-wrenching heights I hadn’t experienced in years, at least not since re-reading James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. Although the investigation runs into a dead end, the case continues to torment him for years. The mystery is too interesting to reveal it. I’ll just repeat that for a hundred pages or so it becomes one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read.

Although Zavalita abandoned political activism after his college years, and withdrew into his own world, even stopping to read newspapers, he never makes peace with his father. Ironically only Ambrosio defends his former master, insisting that he had a kinder nature than his son thought. Indeed Don Fermín, like all the characters in the novel, is multi-layered. Although he originally has ties with the regime he loses his contracts and nearly ruins his family when he joins a coup that is later stopped. And regardless of his political connections, his love for Zavalita is never put into question.

Conversations in the Cathedral is one of Mario Vargas Llosa’s best novels. It’s the kind of novel I needed to restore my faith in this great novelist. It showcases all his tricks in their most refined instances: non-linear storylines, multiple narratives, a wide array of voices, irony, humour, incisive social commentary and extraordinary gifts for creating a captivating story.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

And Now, Franca Rame!



Whoever has been following my blog since the beginning knows of my admiration for Dario Fo, the Italian playwright who received the Nobel Prize in 1997. Since starting this blog I’ve written extensively about Fo. In fact I find him such an irresistible figure I’ve dusted off my mouldy Italian skills to read him in the original. It’s been a journey of discovery. Part of that journey included gaining a greater understanding of and sympathy for the role France Rame, Fo’s wife, plays in his life and work. Since the ‘50s, when they married, Fo’s female roles have been written for her. And Franca, who began her theatrical career as an actress in a travelling company, has, since marrying him, gone on to become a respected playwright in her own right. The one collection of her plays in English, A Woman Alone, attests to her talent and versatility.

Today, however, I’m here to write about her life rather than work. I’ve been meaning to write about Franca for a long time. In the book-long interview, Il Mondo Secondo Fo, the Nobel Laureate was very candid about her importance in his life, as working partner, moral support, friend and muse. He never understates his love for her. That perhaps explains why he isn’t afraid of her own success. Many male writers have tried to suppress the voices of their wives and partners, afraid their success would eclipse their own, but in Fo’s case it’s the opposite. A few years ago he encouraged Franca to write her autobiography, which she did. True to her identity as a playwright, the book was written as a series of monologues in a stage play. Dario, who wrote the illustrations for the books, pops in once in a while to fill in some parts of the story, but Una Vita All’Improvvisa (2009) is mostly Franca’s turn under the spotlight.

All’improvvisa is a theatre expression that comes from the commedia dell’arte tradition and means performing the subject outside the text, to improvise without diverging from the plot. Franca grew up in a family of itinerant actors who still used the traditional techniques of Italian theatre. The Rame company was composed of two brothers’ families: there was Domenico, Franca’s father and leader, and Tommaso, her uncle. Domenico Rame was an important man and respected actor, “who besides that fulfilled in Italy the role of president of every itinerant mime company, of the circuses, of the funfairs, and outdoor shows.” Thanks to “interventions in the several competent ministries he had succeeded in making the whole class of circus workers and itinerant comedians accepted into a professional category, which could finally enjoy tax deductions, bureaucratic recognition and, even if only slightly, subsidies and royalties on authors’ rights.” Franca’s mother, in turn, was called Emilia, and was an elementary school teacher in Bobbio before meeting Domenico. Emilia’s father was a land surveyor, her mother a housewife. A job as teacher was a social conquest for the time, and like her sisters she was supposed to have married respectable husbands who could secure their future. Instead one day arrived in Bobbio Domenico, a “travelling puppeteer,” with his siblings Tommaso and Stella, and the patriarch, Pio, a man who admired Garibaldi so much he wore a beard and hat just like the famous general.

Emilia and Domenico first met during Carnival. They fell in love but after a brief stay in Bobbio he left with the company to set up a show elsewhere. Over a year they exchanged love letters, and then Domenico returned to marry her, much to Emilia’s shame. Leaving Bobbio, the school teacher applied all her energies in being accepted in the Rame company. Although she knew nothing of puppetry, she helped create a new wardrobe for the wooden marionettes. This was happening at the end of World War I. Italy was undergoing many social changes, unemployment was high, the working class was adhering to socialism and fight for a better life. Tommaso was a socialist and managed to change the traditional puppet shows to incorporate themes of the class struggle. Because of this the company was constantly harassed by the police, which threatened to confiscate the puppets and close down their show. (It is darkly ironic that Franca and Fo would run into the same problems with the police in the decades after World War II; disturbing how little changed.)

Then with the rise of cinema as popular entertainment, Domenico predicted that the puppet theatre was on its death throes, and so the company decided to hang up the puppets and start performing the texts themselves. According to Franca, these puppets can now be seen at La Scala Theatre Museum, in Milan, relics of the history of Italian theatre. With the new changes, Emilia, who had never acted before, became the company’s first actress:

An actress who by day took care of her kids, helped them study, tidied the house, administered the company as if it were a normal family enterprise. And at night, going up the stage, she transformed into Juliette and Tosca, and Suora Bianca from I figli di nessuno, and Fantine from Les Miserables, all roles that gradually we daughters and cousins, one after another, also later performed.

In their transition to real life acting they achieved great success, Franca owes it to Domenico’s idea “to recapture all the stage tricks of the puppet show and apply them to the theatre of actors,” using ‘techniques from the Sixteenth century’ belonging to traditional theatre. Their success was unexpected but immense and they became one of the most popular companies in Italy, ‘forced’ to work 363 days a year. “On Sundays the company split into two and made two shows, afternoon and evening.” They toured all across Italy, inside La Balorda, a bus that was considered part of the family.

How did we move about? For instance we arrived in a small town or village like Parabiago, we rented a house for the family, we made a visit to the authorities to pay our respects, explain our intentions, our work, in sum we made ourselves known. We met also the owners of theatres, whether they be priests or managers, and we made our debut. My father immediately got in touch with the many mayors or priests of the surrounding counties, in order to have the possibility of working every day. We only rested on the Good Friday and the 2, day of the dead. (Rame means November 2, celebrated in Italy as the Day of the Dead).

In the company Emilia had the title of regiora, or “the one who runs the community.” There was clear separation of tasks according to sex. The women “took care of the costumes and worked together finding stage props; furthermore, they worried about choosing and managing the several places to rent; my mother, in particular, oversaw the education of us children and introduced us to show-business, teaching us the roles.” As for the men, they “organized the tours, chose the texts, dealt with the managers and theatre owners, took care of advertising the shows, loaded our little bus, La Balorda, drove it, set up the stages, the lights and everything related to the production.”

Regarding the plays they staged, there was an incredible freedom in their choices. “Like all travelling companies, ours also showed a bill vast and varied in repertoire: comedies, historical dramas, modern works and even scripts taken from successful novels.” When the show exceeded the members of the company, they hired actors for the male roles and also involved amateurs. The company had more women than men and that made things complicated since, as Franca observes, theatre has more roles for men than women and they couldn’t keep performing only “works like Three Sisters by Chekov, The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare or Lysistrata by Aristophanes.”

Censorship by the local priests was a constant menace. A significant detail is that they administered the local theatres where the plays were performed and could stop companies from working in them. Domenico solved this matter once and for all. During Mussolini’s regime, after a priest interrupted a performance of Giordano Bruno, Franca’s father decided to create their own moving theatre, fully dismountable, so that no one could tell them anymore where they could perform their plays.

Franca was born in 1929 and made her stage debut at the age of three, playing an angel in a play about Judas, during the Good Friday. Her role was to say to Judas, “Repent treacherous Judas, who for thirty silver coins you have sold your Master! Repent! Repent!” Of course on the day of the show she made a total mess of it. Judas was being played by Tommaso. Still too young to understand what a performance was, when she saw her uncle shouting and crying in distress, rather than stay in character she jumps into his arms and hugs him, the only way she, a child, knew to make him feel better. Although at first no one knew what to do, Tommaso improvised with a great reply: “God, you are great! To this horrible sinner you have sent consolation… a little angel… you stretch out your hand to me… No, no, I don’t deserve it!” Then trying to untangle himself from Franca’s hug, he ran into the backstage looking for a tree to hang himself. The audience burst into applause at the new twist on the story. This is theatre all’improvvisa.

Franca was a happy child, save for difficulties in mixing with other girls in school. There was a social stigma against theatre people, and to make it worse Franca was squint-eyed, the kind of thing kids love to pick on. She relates a time, however, during Easter, when she made up with her classmates by offering them hand-made gifts. Much like Emilia had earned her role in the company.

The Rame company continued to perform during World War II, and Franca witnessed the arrival of the Allies in Italy, in 1943. She remembers with shame the fact she, like other multitudes, ran to the American soldiers in hopes of receiving cigarettes and chocolates. On top of all the problems the war caused them, they had been separated from Enrico, who had been sent to a concentration camp, and had to walk hundreds of kilometres back to his family at the end of the war.

Franca defines herself as one of the last survivors of the theatre all’Italiana. When she was passing these memoirs into paper, the world of the itinerant actors was beginning to disappear, so this book is not just autobiography but history and elegy. She herself made a break with her family’s tradition when, in 1950, she tried her luck in revues. Moving to Milan, this is the time in her life when she became interested in news and contemporary events and started developing a social and political consciousness. Prior to this, she writes, she didn’t have the habit of reading newspapers. It was also in Milan that she met Dario Fo. Like it happened with Domenico and Emilia, after falling in love each went his own way before meeting again to marry. Prior to marrying, Franca had an abortion because, brought up as a Catholic, she was afraid of the shame to her family and especially her mother, a devout Catholic. To make her happy, they had a church service. Ironically Emilia was opposed to Franca marrying an actor, even though she herself had married a travelling puppeteer. Married in 1954, their son, Jacopo, would be born in 1955.

At this point the book overlaps a lot with the material in Il Mondo Secondo Fo. In the fifties the two start working together and not long after they have their first clashes with censorship and police authorities. These early plays were satires about contemporary politics and class struggle. At the time in Italy plays were heavily censored: the companies had to submit the texts to receive approval before staging it, and after the approval nothing in the text could be changed. In the crowds inspectors followed the lines of the actors while perusing copies of the approved texts, making sure they were followed to a tee. Franca explains how Fo drove the inspectors mad because his improvisational style eschewed words in favour of body language to express ideas and situations.

Franca and Fo never showed interest in having film careers, but in 1956 starred in a movie together, a comedy called Lo Svitato. The movie wasn’t well-received at the time and the couple decided to stick to theatre. However the movie led to an enthusiastic theatre manager inviting Fo to writing a play for his theatre, L’Odeon, in Milan. And so he wrote what is considered his first great play, Archangels don’t play pinball. (I have yet to read it.) The play’s success in turn led to their being invited, in 1962, to perform in the RAI TV show Canzonissima. A revue show that combined comical sketches with dancing and singing, it was one of Italy’s most popular TV shows. But Fo and Franca decided to use it to discuss contemporary topics and poke fun at businessmen, industrialists, and capitalists. Much to the chagrin of the powers that be, the show was an instant hit with the working classes and absorbed into the quotidian, becoming the kind of stuff office employees and factory workers talked about around the water cooler. In their episodes they tackled work-related accidents, the dehumanization of modern labour, and the Mafia (which the government at the time still refused to admit existed). In the seventh and final episode, they brought to the fore the lack of safety regulation in construction sites and the high rate of work-related deadly accidents, and that was the final straw. The government pressured the channel to cancelling the show, and the couple was banned from TV for almost twenty years.

So in 1963 they were back in the Odeon, performing their plays, but according to Franca “suddenly we were aware that our audience had extraordinarily increased in size and enthusiasm.” Although TV was off limits to them, they were going to prove they didn’t need the conventional channels to reach an audience. Instead they stopped catering to the bourgeois people and to the “enlightened that remained strangers to the world of the subjugated.” They went on the road and started performing in the Case del Popolo, left-wing institutions that promoted popular culture, and other unusual places like factories and parking lots. One of the shows they performed during this time was called Grande pantomima con bandiere e pupazzi piccolo e medi (Great pantomime with flags and small- and medium-sized puppets), complete with a giant head of Mussolini from whose mouth several other figures burst out, the insane forefather of one of the best segments in Federico Fellini’s Amarcord.

Although they also started working closer with the Italian Communist Party, soon they became personae non gratae because the IPC didn’t like the plays making the workers think too much for themselves, since that was the exclusive purview of the Party. After the performances Fo and Franca always invited the audience to discuss the plays and the workers voiced their ideas and experiences, which they in turn transformed into new plays. The communists frequently tried to sabotage their work. The powers that be weren’t happy either and police harassment continued.

This was also the period when they became international stars, attracting with their Italian tour the attention of American magazines, and being visited by Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s The Living Theatre company. TLT was touring in Europe at the time, after they had run, in New York, into many of the problems Franca and Dario were running into in Italy. (Incidentally, The Living Theatre, of which I knew nothing about until reading this book, seems fascinating in its own right.) Academia was also becoming critically interested in their work.

Many of the plays Franca discusses during this period, going from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, have been reviewed by me before. One did catch my attention: Guerra di popolo in Cile (The People’s War in Chile, 1973), written in support of President Allende and an invective against Pinochet’s regime. The play started with Fo being on stage, doing his usual comical routines. Then he moved to the situation in Chile, and cops started harassing him. Anxiety slowly grew in the room as policemen produced a list of people who had to go the precinct. More worryingly a radio on the stage began transmitting news that a coup was underway in Italy. When tension reached its peak, Fo revealed that the policemen on the stage were just actors. The play was less a play than a happening. Considering that Italy at the time was a powder-keg and many feared that at any moment a coup could well overthrow the government, this hoax was easier to pull off than if it had been performed, for instance, in New York.

Not long after this stunt, though, Fo was arrested by real cops. This was the price he was willing to pay for his political engagement. Still the worst was reserved for Franca. One day in 1973 she was kidnapped and raped by a right-wing group. The episode is described at length in the book, and she later turned it into a monologue titled The Rape, included in A Woman Alone. The seventies were particularly hard for the couple. Persecuted by the fascists, Jacopo had to go school under police protection. And because landlords feared bombings, no one dared rent them rooms in Milan.

In the ‘80s they travelled across the world, and even visited the USA, and their work gained greater recognition. In 1997 Dario Fo received the Nobel Prize. Franca reveals that he donated the money to associations working with handicapped people.

The book concludes with Franca describing her misadventures as a senator of a short-lived term between 2006 and 2008, representing the party Italy of Values, a centrist anti-corruption party. Everything you’ve heard about Italian politics is true, in fact it’s impossible for gross misrepresentations to be worse than reality. Italian politics is its own caricature at the same time it’s chillingly real. Franca’s memoirs of the Italian Senate won’t change anyone’s opinions of a country where politicians like Silvio Berlusconi and Giulio Andreotti have been key players for decades: it’s as corrupt and alienated from the quotidian as it is said, a group of self-serving arrivistes who use politics to attain money and influence, a discredited institution where scandals don’t destroy one’s chances of always returning to power, over and over again. Franca felt deeply miserable and useless amidst these people who sole interest was to preserve their power rather than serve Italy. In her resignation letter she wrote:

Moreover, I felt temporarily loaned to institutionalized politics, while I have spent my entire life in the cultural and also social battle, in the political one made of movements, as a citizen and a committed woman. And this was and is the term I feel the electors invested upon me: to lend a contribution, a voice, a hope, an experience, which coming from society would be heard and perhaps at times accepted by the parliamentary institutions.

After 19 months I must state, with respect, but also with bitterness, that those institutions have seemed to me impenetrable and indifferent to any look, proposal, and external solicitation, that is, not coming from someone who’s an organic expression of a party or of a group of organized interests.

Franca felt like an outsider in the Senate, and I think her unhappy experience with real politics serves as a good example of why artists should never mix too closely with the conventional political institutions, but should work instead with grass-root movements and as engaged citizens rather than professional politicians.

At the age of 83, Franca Rame continues to work in the theatre with Dario Fo and to be involved in several social causes and movements. 

This book was read for the Women Challenge.