The Story of My People by Edoardo Nesi – A Review

The Story of My People
Edoardo Nesi
Opther Press, 2012, pg 163

Edoardo Nesi’s family owned a small textile factory in the Italian city of Prato in Tuscany. In September 2004 he had to sell it because there was no way to keep it running. In a world of global and free trade it was loosing money and he could not afford to keep it running, no mater how much he wanted. It was a sad moment for the Nesi family and one of many of the symbols of change that have come to the post war boom in Italy. No longer would Italy’s industrial resurgence after World War II be able to support the country. The world had changed too much and his act was one of many that ended the dreams of the post war generation.

What Nesi describes is an Italy of small manufacturers, often family run, that sprang up after World War II. Like his family, the owners of the textile mills in Prato were all small businesses that sold to countries like Germany and whose businesses relied on personal relations between the buyer and the seller. All of this was protected by the trade barriers and supports that supported not only Italian, but European manufacturers. Then came competition from China, but worse, as Nesi describes it, the Italian government lowered trade barriers without understanding the fundamental nature of the Italian economy, leaving the manufacturers without any defense against global competition. Even more irritating to Nesi, self proclaimed economic experts in leading papers spout pat phrases about learning to compete or the need to reinvest all the while having no idea how the businesses of Prato are supposed to do it. Germany, as he points out, was much more careful about its entry into world markets. Italy? They just threw away what they had and the small businesses had no time to change course. I think it was even harder for Nesi because from what he says, he leans conservative. In one of many of his attacks he says,

A world governed by the dogmas and the intellectual arrogance of economists, who on a daily basis set out to predict the future like so many shamans, or gurus, or prophets (and still, incredibly, continue to do so). Like seers, card readers, people possessed. Like sorcerers and wizards and haruspicies, these gentleman were predicting the future, evidently ignorant of the age-old lesson imparted by Francesco Guicciardini, from Resaissance Florence: he warned that de’ futuri contingenti non v’é scienza (there is no way to foretell the details of the future).

The Story of My People is not just an economic analysis of Italy. It is an analysis of all the assumptions that underlay the post war boom, both economic and cultural. In one particularly fascinating section he asks, what is Italy and can it survive on its reputation alone: a reputation for the finer things, as if everyone could be an Armani, and a reputation for culture. The idea of Italy the purveyor of style is silly. Not enough can live on that. And to live on culture (which I also think means the glories of the past as a kind of land for tourists only)?

Because all of us need beauty–we need it desperately. But I can’t bring myself to use the word desperately. Not is front of my daughter, not even after my second martini. So I take her hand and, with the tune of Dylan’s song in the background, ask whether she wouldn’t like to inhabit a world where everyone could live on culture alone, a wonderful world where you could pay the butcher with a short story, the barkeep with a poem, or even build a house for yourself with a novel–and she laughs and says what beautiful fairy tale that would be, indeed, and tells me I ought to put it all in a book, this whole thing about a world that runs on culture.

From this critique of culture as its own product, he moves towards the impacts on the workers. In a the chapter he calls Nightmare, he describes the imaginary confrontation between a laid off middle aged worker, Fabio, and a rich Chinese emigrant (it would be helpful to point out that Prato has the second largest number of Chinese in Italy). Through a series of accidents and frustrations the Italian beats up the Chinese man. It is unfocused anger. The Italian worker does not belong to a right wing party, he just snaps at a gas station, his feelings of uselessness (this is when the British term redundancy is the most evocative) getting the best of him. He captures brilliantly the phenomenon that is going on all over the Europe and America:

Jenny Holzer once said, in one of those very elegant truisms that she put on LEDs in the eighties, “there is a resentment at growing up at the end of an era of plenty,” but Fabio would be happy to tell her that there is an even greater resentment at growing old at the end of an era of plenty.

In one of the most poignant pieces he returns with the police to one of the old work shops he had sold. It has been converted into a sweat shop where Chinese emigrants work in dangerous conditions, both in terms of fire and sanitation. His description of it shows his skill as a writer. In the visit he finds all the contradictions of the new global economy: Chinese imported just so that when they sew the garments together they can say they were made in Italy. It is an ugly scene, and he captures details that are at once beautiful and sad:

It starts to get hot, and you perspire. All the windows are closed, to make sure that no one can look in from outside. In the barrel roof of the industrial shed, way up high, there’s a sort of porthole and through it you can see a single star twinkling, ridiculously alone.

Ultimately, Nesi has no one particular solution. The best he can hope for, perhaps the most realistic, is that the people of Italy begun to understand what is happening. How the politicians sold them out and changed the rules without thinking about the workers of Italy. To symbolize the need for a more communal action, one that eschews the selfishness of the post boom affluence he describes a rally the workers of Prato has. He is reluctant to join. But he knows the affluent times are over. The “Fitzgeraldian splendor”is over. He’s just going to be an observer at the rally, but it the last moment he takes hold of the great flag, the longest one ever made, one made in Prato with pride, and begins the journey towards a different future, one that will not be passive.

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Javier Marías Has Won the Italian Premio Nonino

Javier Marías Has Won the Italian Premio Nonino (8,000 euros). I’ve never heard about it, but the jury is filled with famous names so apparently it must be important, or so says the author of the announcement in El Pais.

El acto de entrega tendrá lugar en Ronchi di Percoto, en la región de Friuli-Venezia Giulia, al noreste de Italia. Nonino es una de las grandes marcas de grappa (el aguardiente italiano), de ahí que la ceremonia tenga lugar en la sede de su destilería. Javier Marías y el arquitecto Renzo Piano, otro de los premiados este año, pasan a engrosar un palmarés del que también forman parte Claude Lévi-Strauss, Norbert Elias, Jorge Amado, Henry Roth, Edward Said y Leonardo Sciascia. Entre los autores hispanos galardonados anteriormente están Álvaro Mutis, Jorge Semprún, Raimon Panikkar y Julio Llamazares.

The Dylan Dog Case Files – A Review

The Dylan Dog Case Files
Bonelli Comics, 2009, 680 pg

The Dylan Dog Case Files are the most ridiculous and ludicrous comics I’ve read in ages. In some ways, because they are so silly, it was refreshing to read a comic that doesn’t take it self so seriously like those countless super hero comics that are filled with mopey teen age anxiety and cry about having super powers. On the other had, Dylan Dog is a repetitive joke that gets old. The Italians love them, 56 million copies of worth of love, but after the first story, which was actually funny, they slid into the realm of tiresome who done-its. Fortunately, it takes little time to read each story, so I don’t feel I lost wasted time reading them. You might be asking yourself why I read them in the first place as they really aren’t my kind of thing? It was the jacket blurb (yes, they do work): I can read the Bible, Homer, or Dylan Dog for days on end without every feeling bored–Umberto Eco. All I can say is his idea of boredom and mine are two different things.

Dylan Dog is an investigator of strange cases, kind of a paranormal Sherlock Holmes. Typically the cases revolve around beautiful women who he manages to seduce in each episode. Like hard boiled novels, he is outside the law and often in trouble, but in the end always the one who figures out the problems. His cases range from zombies to serial killers and as in any detective story he usually gets something wrong–falls for the wrong woman, believes the wrong man–before he solves the case, often with his superior fighting skills. Accompanying him is his trusty helper and Groucho Marx clone, who loves to tell Goucho like jokes: I gave my cat lemons to eat and now I have a sour puss. (I’d love to know what the original was, because that joke can only work in English.) In the first story when the Groucho had more of a role, it was funny, but as the stories went on and he disappeared into the background, the humor abated.

There is certainly a charm to the Dylan Dog character. The wise cracking loner has so many possibilities, but the repetitive and predictable nature of the stories quickly grows tiresome after a while.

Il Divo – A Review

Il Divo
Il Divo

The Italian film Il Divo is one of those films where not knowing the history behind the story makes it difficult to understand what is going on. The need for background knowledge makes an already cryptic movie even more cryptic and though not impossible to understand it leaves one, despite the informative title cards interspersed through out the story, puzzled at best.

Il Divo is the story of Giulio Andreotti who was the Italian Prime Minister several times between the 70’s and the early 90’s and whose links to corruption and organized crime lead to his mafia trial in 1992, where he was found not guilty. The film covers all of those things, but in atemporal snipits so that it is hard to know what happened when and why. Il Divo is not a movie that tries to explain what he did, but suggest what he did. It is a movie that looks on the events from the outside, as might a reporter. Events, then, if unknown, stay unknown. For the outsider to Italian history the collection of characters who meet, but don’t seem to incriminate themselves leaves one uncertain as to the point of showing the characters. While the technique of showing what is only known make reportorial sense, that when it comes with so few explanations, the film looses some of its impact. Which is not to say the film is bad, just that without the backgrounding one is bound to be confused.

Toni Servillo who plays Andreotti is one of the bright spots of the movie, even for one who knows nothing about Italy. He walks like a nerdy Nosferatu, shoulders hunched, taking small gliding steps, backing out of rooms and turning on his heals to change direction. Apparently this is an accurate portrayal of Andreotti and it is fascinating to watch him inhabit the character. The way he speaks, too, is strange: not a dominator, but strategizer.

What one comes away with after watching the film is a complete amazement that Italy functions at all. There is scene after scene of corrupt meetings, politicians giving away things to voters, and, of course, assignations. You don’t have to know Andreotti to know something is wrong with all of that.

Il Divo is a mixed movie, one that doesn’t require a specialist’s knowledge to enjoy, but it sure will help.

Gomorrah – A Review

Gomorrah is not glamorous; it is the opposite of almost everything that one has come to expect from a gangster film. Gomorrah has one goal: point out that the mafia is anything but good, glamorous or culturally redeeming. And it does succeed quite well. Yet the opposite of glamor—poverty, the mundane, fear—are harder to make compelling and whereas the flashy crime life that is so common in films—Scar Face, Good Fellas, The Godfather—though ending in violence so often, have an allure that is hard to beat. What makes Gomorrah a good antidote to those films, is also what makes it less thrilling to watch. Simply said, problems aren’t as fun to watch as unrestrained luxury.

Gomorrah follows six characters whose lives are affected by the Naples mafia: a tailor who works for a mafia financed dress manufacturer; a man who delivers weekly money to the families of the mafia who have a family member in prison; a young boy who is just coming of age and wants to join the mafia; two boys who want to start their own mafia; a young man who has joined up with a Don who buys toxic waste and dumps it illegally. It is not obvious at first what is happening. The film is a series of interwoven stories and it cuts between each of the protagonists. For half the film the film is a series of snippets from the lives each and if you don’t know exactly what is happening, it is clear that the life they lead is not a good one. If the men are not dead or in jail they hang around the huge tenement on the outskirts of Naples that functions like a mafia housing complex. The tenement is not beautiful (although the architecture is so strange it worth it to see the movie just so you can see the building) and looks more like an Eastern Block apartment complex.

As the movie progresses the stories of the protagonists begin to take shape and if the confusion and seediness of the early part of the film served to undercut in glamor, the lives the protagonists actually live undercut any glamor one might find. It is obvious that those who join the mafia are destined to live at the edge of violence and the wealth they seek may exists for some, but it can disappear so quickly and isn’t that much anyways—€10,000 to kill someone, won’t last more than a week. Swirling through the film is an ever present war. It is not clear who is waring against who, and that, again, undercuts the glamor. All one knows is that someone could get killed at any time and the reasons are completely unknown. For the viewer there isn’t any one or group to bond to. Instead the arbitrariness makes the threat real and anxiety producing. The film is not about the audience bonding with characters, but pushing them away.

Some of the protagonists will survive, others will be killed; some will leave the mafia, some will become even more entrenched within it. Each, though, will find that they will loose something precious. Yet what they loose is in so many ways nothing worth having. One of the characters, Maria, when her husband joins the other side, refuses to leave the apartment the mafia has been paying for. She gets to keep it, but looses all her friends and lives in perpetual fear, and what does she have? An apartment in a decaying tenement that is surrounded by mafia lookouts where gunfire can start at a moments notice.

Gomorrah, as the end credits makes clear, wants to be everything a gangster film isn’t: cold, depressing, sad, fear inducing. It succeeds, yet that success comes at the price of a pleasing narrative, one that pulls you along in narrative bliss. Instead, it is more of a documentary full of uncertainties and the grim realities. While Gomorrah may be the best gangster film ever as our ticket taker said, it is not the most exhilarating one. That is the way it should be, but in a world where Tony Montana is someone to idolize, as the two boys do in the film, Gomorrah may only collect dust. I would hope, as the author seems to, that writing the book and making the movie helps deflate more of those mafia myths that continue to exist.