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.

The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope – A Review

The Wrong Blood
Maunel de Lope
Other Press, 2010, 288 pg

What strikes one when reading The Wrong Blood, Spanish writer Manuel de Lope’s first book to be translated into English, is the movement through time. It is a book that reveals itself if in concurrent glimpses of the past and the future, where even as the underlying story is revealed, Lope is constantly seeding the pages with little moments of the future that explain just enough lured you on. It is a difficult balancing act that can easily descend into over powered winks at the reader: you see what I know. It is a fitting style, though, for what has become the emblematic topic of Spanish writing over the last few decades—the Spanish Civil War—and the slow, confused, uncertain mystery of remembrance that often doesn’t completely explain what happened to the participants. The question for readers, though, is does the book work with the materials of history to get at something that addresses the Civil War, or does it just use the past as a backdrop for a well told story?

Most of the action of The Wrong Blood takes place in a small section of the Basque country on the border with Spain and follows two women, Maria, a poor, uneducated girl of 17 whose family owns a rural inn, and Isabel, an upper class woman who lives in a large home and is the young bride of an army captain. The story begins just as the Spanish Civil War starts and the two sides are rushing to put together armies and militias. It is a confusing time and the geography of the war is changing quickly. The young girl is abandoned at the inn when her parents run away from advancing fascist soldiers. The soldiers move into the inn and she works as a servant. Most of them are young militia men and have an ominousness presence. However, it is the sargent, separated his wife during their wedding anniversary, who rapes her. It isn’t a violent moment, he just expects her to because she understands she has no choice. The soldiers will move on and she will live the inn, but the rape, the third one in her short life, marks her with a great distrust and mixed with a rural sensibility, she is becomes a secretive woman.

Marrying on the eve of the war, Isabel has but just a brief honeymoon with her husband before the war starts. It is a moment of great hope, and like many novels that open with a wedding it is doomed from the start. From the beginning de Lope juxtaposes the wedding with the war:

It was the month of may, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out, although nobody knew this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway. And so it was the month of May, or the month of June, in wedding season.

It is an inauspicious moment, as one of the wedding guests has a stroke in the bathroom of Maria’s inn during a stop on the way to the wedding. From there the problems only continue. The region they live in is initially Republican (anti-fascist) but quickly falls and Hondarribia, the small town where she lives which is tantalizingly across the river from France, becomes occupied territory, filled with soldiers guarding every town, summary executions, and privation. And her husband, the only one of his army comrades to join the Republican forces, is captured and executed just months after the war begins.

But even before he describes much of the war, he moves into the future, sometime in the 1960s, when the grandson of Isabel comes to stay at the family home. Yet the house is no longer in the family. Instead, Isabel had willed in to Maria, who is now an old woman. It is unclear why an upper class woman would give a home to a poor country girl, and even more, why the country girl would let the woman’s grandson stay at the family home for a few months. It is the first of many mysteries that begin permeate the story. The above history of the war is not even clear at this point, yet de Lope leaves a feeling that something dark has happened. He is a master at revealing the mystery slowly. Even though the old doctor who lives in the house next door knows the whole story, his hesitation, his doubts about what to reveal and to who, only add to the tension.

Despite the the well written nature of the novel, the strange relationship between the doctor and the grandson, where the doctor wants to reveal all, and the grandson wants to escape the pesky only man, provides the only interesting commentary on the passage of the time and who owns the right to secrets. Is the doctor right to want to explain what happened, or does he just want to make himself feel better? These kinds of questions swirl around the doctor. De Lope is obviously interested in the way ideas are transmitted. For example, in this representative sample of his style, the kind of intra-sentence refinement that works out its ideas through constant use of counter images.

But nobody appeared to be paying any attention to this enigmatic vision, and with the passage of the years, when recalling a wedding celebrated so long ago, it may all seem grotesque, strange, or simply unread–a memory of playing with figures decked out in wedding finery amid flowers and balustrades, or ow wandering in a labyrinth of bushes, or of seeing the bust of a horseman above a garden wall as he rode by during the magic moments when twilight was galling–for real life had offered one of those sequences that would never be repeated except in the theaters where what were then still called talkies were shown. In the end, memory adopts images that originated in films.

When getting at memory he is at his best. He has a good eye for the images that make up a moment and a way of describing them that is concrete and lush at the same time. Reading this book will surely overwhelm one with images and sensations that seem to pop off the page.

Yet, I can’t help but return to the question first asked: are his ample skills at evoking the time, simply used to dress up a mystery? I ask this because the central mystery of the book, which I’m not going to spoil, doesn’t seem far fetched, but feels as if it isn’t explored as well as it could be. Instead, de Lope seems to sidestep the central issue, the real pain it would have caused. And in describing the emotions of that pain he obscures with such strong descriptions, what should by its very weight, its existence, be powerful and reveal the depths of the character’s thoughts that would bring to life the past.

The Wrong Blood is a solid book, well written, and it is not for nothing that Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende give him high praise of the book jacket. Considering how little from Spain is translated into English, it is worth a read. However, despite the perfection of the story and the writing, I think he could have reached just a little father and found something even more humanly revealing in his characters.

FTC note: The publisher sent me this book. For that I thank them.