Archive

Tag Archives: Italy

Giulia Po

“Ma cosa c’è di così bello dentro a un libro?” Cica è perplessa. “C’è tutto, bambina. C’è tutto” dice Carmelina. “Ciascuno di noi ha una vita soltanto. Tu sei piccola, ma passa veloce. Te lo posso giurare io, che mi sembra ieri che avevo vent’anni e mi dovevo sposare. Invece le persone che leggono i libri hanno tante vite, una per ogni libro. E tutte diverse. Puoi andare nella giungla, alla corte del re, in Cina. Puoi essere una ballerina, un capitano, un indiano. Quando leggi ti puoi pigliare la vita delle persone del libro, i loro amori, le loro feste, i loro vestiti, i loro cuori. Chi legge ha cento vite” (167).

“But what is so great in a book?” Cica is confused. “There is everything, little girl. Everything.” Carmelina replies. “Each of us has one life only. You are young, but time passes quickly. I can guarantee you, it seems yesterday that I was twenty and had to get married. But those who read books have many lives, one for each book. And they are all different. You can go to the jungle, a kingdom, China. You can be a ballerina, a captain, an Indian. When you read, you can take the life of those in the book, their love, their celebrations, their dresses, their hearts. Those who read have a hundred lives.” (167)

–       from Il negativo dell’amore  (The Negative of Love)

by Maria Paola Colombo

The lives we encounter in Maria Paola Colombo’s excellent debut novel Il negativo dell’amore (The Negative of Love) are those of Cica, a girl who lives in Novara, in the north of Italy, and Walker, a boy from Ostuni, in the southern Italian region of Puglia. They don’t know each other, and live very distinctive lives, but are both very sensitive and unique: Cica has survived her mother’s attempt to drown herself and the daughter (Cica’s nickname is the abbreviation of the word “cicatrice”, the scar that recently marks her back after the incident,); Walker has Down Syndrome (and gets his nickname from Walker Texas Ranger, the TV character that he worships to the point of wearing his ranger clothes even when he goes to a hot beach).

Colombo’s story was initially inspired by a suicide reported in a local newspaper, along with her desire to imagine a different ending to that real tragedy. Walker was envisioned as a character that could counterbalance Cica: he is a boy, he comes from a rich and loving family in the south, but he also has a chromosome that makes him different. The protagonists’ existence runs parallel almost until the very end of the book, and their encounter, after Cica and her father have moved to Ostuni, is more of a collision than a harmless presentation, when the boy and the girl unexpectedly bump into each other and save themselves from a car that is carelessly speeding.

Cica and Walker belong to two different worlds, but the construction of their emotional and genetic disabilities gave the author the space to investigate the individual’s search for happiness.  Cica and Walker are two vulnerable souls, but they are also very brave and willing to turn the negative of a black and white picture into a color photograph.  Colombo plays with the words of the title throughout the novel: the negative of love refers to the negative aspects that this feeling might cause, but she also uses the idea of the negative of a picture, which shows you the black and white image of our human bones. Cica’s scars mark her back with signs that symbolize the mother’s negativity, but also become a metaphor: a sort of black and white picture of the figure of the mother whom she misses and, by the end of the novel, understands better. Both Cica and Walker know about the black and white aspects of life; they both have emotional or genetic wounds that makes them weaker than others, but they never resign themselves to this fate, instead deciding to make their lives better, to give their life a full-color frame. Colombo’s optimism for the future is undeniable, but her novel isn’t built on a simple and easy positive message. The author, in fact, vividly depicts the frailty, and some of the problems of contemporary Italian society, with her entertaining and intense writing style.

The first two sections of the novel, North and South, respectively dedicated to each protagonist, immediately reveal the differences that characterize their lives. Cica is sent to a summer camp run by nuns near Misano Adriatico. After the tragic suicide of her mother, her father wants some time for himself to move to a new house in the same city of Novara; he wants to avoid the gossip of the neighbors and the difficulties of finding a new job. Cica is reticent and scared, especially of the water: “Cica non ha paura dell’acqua. Dell’acqua ha morte” (Cica is not afraid of the water; water is death”) (19), the narrator explains; she doesn’t swim in the sea, and cleverly hides in the toilet to stay away from the showers. In the south, Walker spends his summer days on the beach as well, but he is not alone: all of his family is there to watch him and his siblings play. The tourists’ mixed feelings of uneasiness and indifference on the beach emphasize the emblematic behavior of those who are unfamiliar with disability (when a lady on the beach, for instance, meets Walker’s eyes, “abbassa lei la faccia, con l’espressione di uno che ha visto qualcosa come una cacca di cane sul marciapiede” – “she looks down, with the expression of someone who has just seen a dog’s poop on the sidewalk” (41)), but this also stresses the effort of the parents who are trying to give Walker a life that is as normal as possible.

Cica finds some affection when she moves to the new house. At the cemetery where she believes her mother is buried she meets Tomba, the dog that will become her inseparable friend, while the new next door neighbor Carmelina, is the kind old woman who will be a new mother figure in Cica’s life, and will open her old son’s bedroom to give her a new space to play and read.

While Walker rides his horse named Fulmine (Lightning), falls in love, and starts looking for a job, Cica’s independence grows. There has never been room for love and affection in her life; her father has always been cold and distant, so worried about revealing his feelings and the truth about Cica’s mother that he has been hiding his sadness and depression in his daily routine at the office or behind the newspaper at the dinner table. When ten years later he decides to retire and moves to Ostuni, where his grandmother had left him a house, things won’t change; father and daughter still remain a separate dyad, but a final truth about the mother will be unveiled, together with the final revelation of Cica and Walker’s real names. It is a new beginning for the two protagonists that can finally be called by their real names.

The choice of the two settings, Novara and Ostuni, partially reflects the life experience of the writer who lived in the north of Italy, but also spent her adolescence in the south. The two cities, then, become symbols of her autobiographical emotional understanding of the north and the south of the peninsula: the cold soul of the north of Italy is represented by Cica’s mother’s inability to live, her father’s aloofness, and a pedophile who threatens her childhood for a second time, while the warm dimension of the south is embodied by Walker’s family, the parties, the first crushes among teenagers, the hot temperature that animates the characters. The strike and the occupation of the Liceo of Ostuni that Cica and Walker’s brother attend, then, stress the weak condition of the Italian school system, and a desire to change and improve that somehow clashes with the low level of education that characterize the students – Cica excluded.

The characterization of the split between the two geographical spaces through the idea of the cold north and the warm south is not a novelty, but Colombo’s narrative is not meant simply to reinforce common stereotypes. North and south emerge as a convincing construction of two coexistent and dissimilar spaces, and the creation of an original plot, innovative characters, and witty dialogues give the readers the chance to appreciate the unpredictable aspects of her work. Carmelina, the old lady who awakens Cica’s love for reading when she is a little girl in Novara, is a discrepancy in the two realms depicted by Colombo, but her figure also becomes super partes in her significant role of inspiring Cica’s desire to enter the world of books and culture. Her intervention seems to be at the origins of the protagonist’s scholastic success in Ostuni, and to respond to the narrator’s wish to see talented and well educated people guiding the Italian nation.

I spoke with Maria Paola Colombo just prior to the announcement that she had won the prestigious Flaiano Prize for Il negative dell’amore. We spoke about the novel, some of her life experiences, her ideas about north and south, and the writing process.

Maria Paola Colombo

GP: I read that you were born in the north of Italy, but that you also spent some of your adolescence in the south. Can you tell us about your movements throughout Italy?

 

MPC: I was born near Milano, half of my blood is from Brianza, a quarter is Venetian, and the last quarter is Sicilian. I lived in the north until the age of thirteen. Then my father decided to change our lives, and he took my mother and his five children to Ostuni. Ostuni is the land of my adolescence, with olive trees and a winterless countryside. The sea is nearby. I celebrated my eighteenth birthday in Piedmont. And since then I moved from one province to another, without passing the regional border. But in the future, I would like to live…well that is a different story…

Please, continue, where would you choose to live?

Maybe in a very small village in the mountain or near the sea, or maybe in a big city like Turin or Rome: a place that has its own greatness in terms of natural and human geography.

Were you able to experience any social and economic differences between north and south, or better stated, did you become aware of the “questione meridionale” (“the southern question”) that has characterized Italy since its Unification? Can you provide any examples?

 The answer is yes. It is such a wide and complex question. I can tell you that almost all of my classmates from the Liceo of Ostuni moved to the center or north of Italy to attend the university, and almost all of them found a job far away from their motherland, with their hearts full of nostalgia, but the awareness that they had no other option. The south is depriving itself of talented people and entrepreneurial capacity in a sad vicious circle.

North and South are the settings of your novel and the spaces in which the two protagonists, Cica and Walker, live or move. What made you choose both of these two different environments? Does it derive from your personal experience, or is there a deeper and more symbolic meaning behind your choice?

 

The two scenarios are definitely part of my personal story, but also part of my soul. Cica, the girl from the north, hurt by the lack of parental affection, stigmatizes the cold soul of the north of Italy; Walker, the boy from the south, expresses the colorful and intensely relational dimension of the south. Saying that north and south are respectively inhabited by cold and warm people is clearly a way to simplify things, but it becomes my way to portray a northern dimension that is more rational and self-centered and a southern dimension that is more impulsive and collectivist.

Cica is lonely, but also very independent and mature: what makes her so strong? The lack of a maternal figure? The distant paternal figure? Necessity?

 

Her biological instinct to survive. Cica is able to develop what in psychology is known as “negative capacity”: she manages to survive the uncertainties of her life, she finds solutions through logical understanding, but also and primarily on an emotional level. It is an ability that kids have, and only few adults manage to preserve.

In the novel, the strike and the occupation organized by the students of the Liceo in Puglia offer some considerations on social issues such as the school system and education. According to Geco (Walker’s brother) the malfunction of the school is marked by the lack of simple things such as the toilet paper. On the contrary, Cica believes it is idiotic to organize a strike because the toilet paper is missing. These types of excuses to skip school were very frequent in my Liceo in Modena as well, in the early 90’s. In your opinion, why do so many young people underestimate the importance of education?

 

The lack of a real collective and political (and I say political, not “politicized”) awareness in the adults that surround them. But things are changing. I see that the attention and the understanding of the role of school and education are growing among youth and within the schools. The gravity of the moment we are living is helping them to seriously think about their future and the future of their country.

Cica finds a very significant slogan to use during the strike/occupation of the school: “We’re going to wipe our asses with your promises because you didn’t even give us money for toilet paper” (200). She also reflects on the uselessness of a fake occupation that will not change their reality. But rebelling seems to her the right thing to do: “It starts from one. From me” (298), she affirms. Since you define yourself a “possibilist”, do you think that there will ever be “well educated, talented, coherent people” (298) who will work together for the improvement of our school system and the Italian society?

 

Yes. I believe in people. Not in the general concept of people, but in each individual. It is important to move the problem from a general and abstract dimension (society), which is unachievable, to a smaller, individual, daily reality. I know many committed people, and feel the strength of a collective desire to change, a desire to maximize their courage.

Disability is still an uncomfortable matter that is not frequently discussed, but you address this theme through Walker, the protagonist affected by Down Syndrome. Why did you choose to create such a character?

 

The first character that I imagined was Cica, with her hurt feelings. Walker was created as a counter alter: he has the warm and rich family that she is lacking, he has everything a kid needs, and something more: that gene that makes him different. Cica’s emotional disability and Walker’s genetic disability allowed me to focus on the individual possibility of happiness. When I wrote the novel, I also met many kids with Down Syndrome, and I was often surprised by their vital joy.

The initial black and white “negative” that symbolizes Cica’s life becomes a color picture near the end of the book. Cica’s mother was living her life with lots of difficulties, but Cica and Walker show that the possibilities of surviving the pain and living through the diversity are both achievable. What do you think about their behavior?

 

Cica and Walker embody the words of my heart. Their diversity represents, in reality, the little differences that each of us possess: we all are differently abled in our attempts to find our place in the world, each life has its own difficulties and limits. But the strong certainty that the sea might come after the next turn allows us to move forward and grow up without giving up.

When did you get interested in writing?

 

Writing is a dimension that has always belonged to me. It is a look before it becomes a gesture, and it is a way to read the world.

I know that you work in a bank. How does this activity affect your writing?

 

Initially it almost killed it. I entered the bank when I turned twenty: I was heartbroken, but it was a necessity. Then, little by little, I realized that a bank doesn’t simply work with numbers, but with people. In our times, money is a vehicle for all the important knots of everyone’s life: you fall in love and you go to the bank for a mortgage; you find a job and you open a bank account to set up direct deposit; you lose it and …  You know…I don’t talk about these stories, but my job is a continuous training in humanity.

What do you like to do when you’re not working or writing?

 

I read and read and read. I like spending time outside when it’s not raining too much. And I hug the people I love.

_________________________________________________________________

Giulia Po earned a Ph.D in Comparative Literature with a specialization in Italian Literature from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.  She teaches courses of Italian language and culture at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and lives in Boston. Her monographic study of Clara Sereni’s work has been recently published by the Franco Cesati publishing house in Italy.

Advertisements

K. W. Oxnard

The Tiber is a long, snaking cauldron, a ribbon of thick black oil bubbling into boils and eddies, the sweat of three thousand years, the liquid, visceral manifestation of eons of thought, labor, love and war.

It is the legs you see first as you walk along Viale di Trastevere.  Spindly, sockless, dangling inside rust-colored jeans and splayed out from underneath the mud-brown curtain.  It is after eight o’clock at night, late May, the plane trees on the avenue sloughing off their fluff in billowy gusts from the river, just two blocks away.  Sounds are intermittent: silence for stretches, then the throaty, rumbling-from-the-center-of-the-earth roar of the diesel buses as they heave their way along their route, punctured by the high whine of motorini ferrying young women in platform shoes and movie star sunglasses to jobs as barmaids, switchboard operators, coat-check girls, to trysts and to informal gatherings in pizzerie and video arcades.

The photo booth spills light like corn oil onto the cast iron sidewalk.  Inside he drones on into his telefonino.  If you drew aside the curtain you’d see a kid like any other.  Maybe a bit thinner.  He wears his hair long and tied back, but neatly—it’s brushed, not scraggly.  He observes himself in the glass, next to a sign that says ALTEZZA DEGLI OCCHI.  He stands up, talking as he spins the stool until he’s sure that his eyes will line up with the arrow.  The fluorescent bulb renders his skin a decadent and glamorous green above the black sweater.  Long fingers stroke the telefonino as though it were an oversized insect which he holds to his ear, the better to hear its unique, high-pitched chirp.

He has all his gear with him: rubber tubing, syringe, needle.  The bag containing the white Asian dust he gets from an exiled Karen tribe member, on the run from Thai and Burmese authorities.  He has always enjoyed the ritual of buying the stuff from that silken man, with his nut-brown skin and his backwards intonation in Italian, always inflecting up where he should be going down.  His Asian eyebrows discreet little sine curves arcing expressively over his huge, half-moon eyes.  It makes the rush that much more exotic, doesn’t it?  It makes it international.

The boy slouches, chatting with a girl on the little cellular phone, the one his parents gave him after he graduated from liceo.  He received a lot of gifts, cazzo, wasn’t that a long time ago? It has only been a year, but it has stretched out oddly, like a wet sweater left too long on the line.  He has spent most of his time researching obscure facts on the Internet about Michael Jackson and butterflies, gossiping in virtual chat rooms with Italians in San Francisco and Rio.  He lingers on this way for hours, between fixes, his friends slipping easily from his consciousness.  Even food interests him so little.  Nothing like it used to be at ginnasio, when he played half back in soccer and ate like a priest.

"Olivia," oil on canvas by Colleen Corradi Brannigan

The tubing, in particular, he finds very attractive.  He bought it special from a store near the university in San Lorenzo that sells chic rubber and plastic casalinghi: wastebaskets and pencil holders and trivets, in crazy, psychedelic colors, all the rage in Rome.  Most customers use it to spice up their hand-held showers.  He wraps it around his left forearm, the electric chartreuse deepening to a kelly green against his skin.  He is left-handed, but the veins in his right arm have all collapsed, so he’s become quite proficient at using his right hand these days.  As he extracts the syringe out of the shiny satin bag, he hears the click of high heels approaching the booth.  He waits for the woman to see his legs.  She does see them.  She has a telefonino too, and she’s trying to get through to her children.  As she dials home again, she observes the boy’s legs as though they were something severed from a body, as though they made no sense being there at all.  She shakes her head and walks away.

He continues to guide the needle into the plastic syringe.  His girlfriend complains about how her parents are driving her crazy, that she wishes she had her own apartment, that her sister always borrows her clothes and never asks.  The booth provides a neat little metal ledge underneath the glass, and there he places the gear while her voice flutters in and out, and he heats the heroin in the spoon with a little lighter in the shape of a Marlboro cigarette.  A gust of wind riffles the curtain.  It feels delicious against his naked ankles, sends shivers up his legs and to his crotch.

The needle is in now and he plunges the syringe down toward his flesh.  He watches himself in the mirrored glass as the stuff begins to bathe him, to soak him in its delicious sensual glue, like the come of the heavens, ah, so much better than mere sex.  And isn’t that why he prefers the portable phone? That feeling of proximity and distance in one fell swoop.  He can sit and coo with his girlfriend yet experience no need to watch her face as it traverses the mountainous ridge of her complaints.  She who is busy chattering away about going to Porto Santo Stefano this weekend, and wouldn’t it be nice if they could get out of their parents’ houses for just a few days—maybe they could even stay in a hotel?  Merda, non è giusto, their parents lived together when they were young, so why don’t they let them stay in the same room, instead of making do with his tiny Fiat Panda or getting together when their parents are out?

He pumps the stuff into him, and the fuzz on the phone grows more beguiling.  Even the fluorescent glare of the booth takes on a honeyed, romantic glow as he heats up from the drug.  The conversation grows ever more one-sided, though she hardly notices.  He slides down further onto the stool and observes himself in the dark mirror, adjusting a strand of hair here, a corner of his sweater there.  He turns to the right, sees the metal placard showing a profile of a hairless human head and the words POSIZIONE DELLA TESTA.  He is like that sign.  Ageless.  Ancient, cynical mouth, the corners turned down in a crotchety frown, the eyes, though bloodshot, mimicking the youthful umbrellas of the eyebrows, the silvery coating on the cornea so much drizzle on the windowpanes.

Faccio una foto adesso.

Taking his cue from the flashing LED sign above, he feeds 5,000 lire into the machine and presses the big red button on the right of the glass.  He smoothes his hair, stretches his lips, tries out various expressions.  The first flash goes off.

Really?  Hai sbrocato, ragazzo.  You’re so crazy.  Will you give me one for my wallet?

Certo.  There are four.

Silence, another flash.  The boy grins absurdly at his image.

Listen, cara.  Listen to the sounds of the street.  I wish you could be in here with me, it’s so cool.

Yeah?

Another flash pops.  He has slumped further down, his eyes nowhere near the correct spot.  The photo will show his eyes only, those silvery slits.

Can you hear the traffic?  There was an ambulance about four minutes ago.  Did you hear it?

Yeah.  My mom wants me to take English lessons.

Mmmmmnnn.

He has forgotten to take off the chartreuse hosing, and his arm is falling asleep.  But the stuff is powerful in him now.  The last flash goes, finding him wedged into the corner.

But I hate them.  You know that uncle of mine—the one who works for RAI Due?

Yeah.  I think so.

This teacher looks like him.  You know, with that stupid hair he pulls over the top of his head to cover the bald spot?

He struggles to see this image, looks into the black glass covering the camera’s lens in front of him.  His own hair has come out of its elastic and fallen into his eyes.  It is thick, wavy stuff, and he pulls at one of the walnut-colored locks, only to release it, and it springs back into place.  Hair is fun.  A beautiful thing.  All that dead cell matter sprouting like so much fresh vegetation in his grandmother’s kitchen garden.  His hair will continue to grow for a good while after he dies.  This comforts him.  Growth without life.  Images with no photographer.  Another breeze wafts the curtain against his cheek as the photos drop into their little slot on the outside of the booth.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

K.W. Oxnard‘s fiction has appeared in literary journals across the U.S., including StoryReedTatlinsTower.comMediphors, and Sniper Logic.  Her non-fiction essays and articles show up in magazines and newspapers such as SavannahThe SouthWomen OutsideMaineBizCanoe & Kayak and Hooked on the Outdoors!, and she writes a regular op-ed column for the Savannah Morning News on topics ranging from national politics and environmental issues to pop culture and her own family history.  Oxnard has taught fiction and composition writing at New York University; the Harvard Extension School and the Radcliffe Seminars in Cambridge, MA; University of Southern Maine in Portland; and Armstrong Atlantic State University near Savannah.  In 2004, she returned to her hometown of Savannah, GA, where she lives with her husband, two wonderful stepchildren and a crazy nine-year-old Pomeranian named Penny Lane.

Virginia Agostinelli 

The spaces of Italy provide a unique vantage point for an investigation of postmodern geographies, insofar as Italian space is subject simultaneously to the deformations of the new “global space” and to the “inertia” of an urban space overloaded with traces of the past.[i]

Contemporary critical studies have recently emphasized and redefined the role of space and more specifically, the spatiality of human life as a fundamental existential dimension which interweaves with the traditional historical-social modes of epistemological interpretation. Focusing on the city of Los Angeles as a case study, the political geographer Edward Soja (1940- ) draws upon the simplistic traditional dualism of historicality and sociality and elaborates a new radical postmodern way of thinking about real-and-imagined places. With the introduction to the notion of “thirdspace,” a term that is purposely provisional, Soja challenges the modernist either/or logic (Soja, 1996: 5)[ii] and contemplates instead (the possibility of) the existence of a new place of critical exchange. This innovative “strategic location,” as Soja puts it, combines and transcends the dialectics of conceived/lived and center/periphery, ultimately allowing for “a radically different way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the embracing spatiality of human life” (Soja, 1996: 29). Henri Lefebvre, whose conception of representational space has had a diverse interpretation by different scholars, had already started to question the rigidity and effectiveness of a categorical conceptual dualism. In this regard, while “travel[ling] through Lefebvre’s biography as a geographical expedition” (Soja, 1996: 29), Soja notices:

…the construction of compelling binary oppositions…[is] categorically closed to new, unanticipated possibilities. Two terms are never enough, [Lefebvre] would repeatedly write. Il y a toujours l’Autre. There is always the Other, a third term that disrupts, disorders, and begins to reconstitute the conventional binary opposition into an-Other that comprehends but is more than just the sum of two parts. (Soja, 1996: 30-1)

Accordingly, Soja’s concept of thirdspace combines spatiality, historicality and sociality. It is “an-Other” way of (politically) understanding and possibly modifying the spatiality of human life through the critical awareness generated by a re-balanced/restructured “‘cumulative’ trialectics that is radically open to additional otherness, and to a continuing expansion of spatial knowledge” (Soja, 1996: 61). Soja’s innovative perspective of “thirding-as-othering” opens up a new real-and-imaginary critical space where issues of race, class and gender can be addressed concurrently.

Following the neorealist tradition, Italian cinema has always bestowed a particularly attentive gaze on urban and non urban landscapes, in an attempt to explore ethnographic and anthropological questions as well as the theme of national identity.[iii]

In his films, Italian director Carlo Mazzacurati (1956- ), a native of Padua in the Veneto region, draws attention to the profound socio-economic, architectural and cultural transformations in contemporary Italy (Vesna va veloce [1996]; La Lingua del Santo, [2000]). This essay focuses on Mazzacurati’s La Giusta Distanza (2008). Therein, the director urges critics and spectators alike to revision space and social spatiality while redefining a mode of practical and theoretical understanding of the outsider. Ultimately, Mazzacurati articulates a meta-theoretical discourse which also incorporates, but is not limited to, a socio-historical analysis of the retrograde condition in the Italian province, where prejudices and bigotry based on race, class and gender are everyday occurrences. The concept of the right distance, in fact, recalls that of the good distance (la bonne distance) epitomized by the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss according to which one ought to have the right detachment from a phenomenon in order to conduct an objective, scientific examination. Through the character of Giovanni, a teenage cub reporter who used to work incognito for a local newspaper at the time of the events and who is narrating the story in retrospective, Mazzacurati explores the role of the director himself, proving the relativity of an objectively proper distance between the original intuition and its reproduction by the artist.

"Tamara," oil on canvas by Colleen Corradi Brannigan

The movie is set in a small town in the north-east region of the Veneto, where time stands still. In the main street in front of the only coffee shop in town, old men sit outside, chatting and playing cards; women stand behind the windows waiting for their husbands and their children to come back for lunch. Hassan and Mara are the only two outsiders at whom the attention of the village is directed. The former is a Tunisian immigrant who speaks Italian quite fluently; he is handsome, honest, wise and well-educated. Hassan works as a garage mechanic on the outskirts of the village and is initially very well-respected by the locals. Mara, on the other hand, is the new primary school teacher, a young and independent woman who hopes to leave for a humanitarian mission in Brazil as soon as the school year is over.

The protagonist of the story is Giovanni who will be able to solve the mysterious murder of Mara and ultimately prove Hassan’s innocence precisely because he refuses to keep the right distance which, he has been told, is the fundamental rule of journalism. “If you really want to do this job,” Giovanni’s editor warns “there is one thing you need to know and that is the rule of the right distance: the detachment that you must have between you as a writer and those involved in the events. Not too distant otherwise there is no pathos; but not too close, because if the journalist becomes emotional he is done!”[iv] Giovanni has an obvious crush on Mara even though he is cognizant of the fact that his attraction is unilateral and can only be platonic. After all, he is still a teenager who needs to ask for permission before he can have his motorcycle repaired (at Hassan’s garage) and who still squabbles with his younger brother over using the computer. But nothing prevents Giovanni from being jealous, and that is why he will initially refuse to write about Mara’s murder as per the rule of the right distance.

When Mara’s corpse is found floating in the river, Giovanni will doubt Hassan’s honesty and he will feel tormented by the fact that he had seen Hassan spying on Mara. Giovanni recalls: “I couldn’t forgive myself for not having intervened, not having told anyone…I didn’t follow the trial, I didn’t even read the articles published in my newspaper. I erased Hassan from my life, as he had erased Mara’s.”  Hassan is automatically labeled as a killer by the whole community that finds it absurd to accept the idea that such a gruesome event was generated by one of its own members. Only an outsider, more specifically an immigrant, could have/must have committed the crime.

Despite his efforts to integrate, Hassan can only deceive himself into thinking that he is one of the citizens of Concadalbero. He is promptly outcast on mere hypothetical accusations and is convicted with hardly any evidence and for sticking to his ridiculous, but true, version of the matter. Giovanni, who not only had spied on Mara (just like Hassan), but had also hacked into her laptop and read her emails for the sake of mere curiosity, refuses to deal with the episode; instead, he prefers to write about brawls at the dance club and love affairs of the local politicians. Giovanni is starting to understand that the readers/consumers would rather read about giant tuna being caught in the area than about the insightful analysis of a social crisis. In this regard, talking about his editor and mentor, Giovanni states: “He really liked the piece…I could already picture the first page with my article: ‘Clandestine lab with enslaved Asians workers discovered’ …Instead, only a few lines came out and not even a picture. But success came unexpectedly thanks to Amos, the tobacconist. The article that I wrote about the giant yellow fin tuna was in every local paper. The picture that I took was published everywhere: a scoop!” Mara’s story is the kind of news that lasts only a few days; there is a priori no question about who the killer must have been: the outsider, the foreigner, the immigrant Hassan; his final incarceration has brought about an automatic restoration of law and order. Given Giovanni’s interest in the victim and his consequent inability to keep the right distance, he opts for a total detachment from the event up until the moment Hassan commits suicide and leaves a note in which he proclaims his innocence. At this point, Giovanni feels compelled to investigate further and eventually exculpate Hassan, who, he is now convinced, has been a victim in his own right.

Hassan’s lawyer is convinced that what condemned the Tunisian was his very own stubbornness: “He killed the woman!” he confirms to Giovanni “Had he done as I told him, he would be out right now…five, six years at most and he would be out. But he wanted to do it his own way” (i.e. sticking to the truth) “as all Arabs do. Albanians are slyer. Do you see that guy? He is a client of mine. You can’t even imagine what he has done and he is already free!” The justice system is unveiled in all of its intrinsic corruption. Ultimately, the truth is a relative notion; it can be to the advantage or disadvantage of an individual, according to temporal, logistic and sociological variables. The lawyer’s reaction ultimately functions as a further incentive for Giovanni to find the real killer, exculpate Hassan and, consequently, denounce the entire village. Concadalbero is thus revealed as a microcosm of a larger, distorted space. “So, you judge people based on their ethnicity? …Do you know what the truth is?” utters Giovanni. “And what is ‘the truth’?” replies the lawyer, emphasizing the last term with a sarcastic tone. “The truth is that you, all of you, had already decided that Hassan was guilty; even you, his lawyer.” Looking down on Giovanni, as if amused by his innocent idealistic beliefs, the lawyer states: “Lucky you, you don’t have shit else to do!”

Giovanni’s investigation disrupts the social equilibrium which had been promptly reestablished when the immigrant was arrested. The events did take place as the prosecution hypothesized. However, the audience will learn that the murderer is Guido, the bus driver, a shy-looking local boy. This revelation is unsettling to the villagers because they had already been pacified by the narrative that the immigrant had killed the school teacher.

Giovanni’s discovery of the real assassin is his big break as a journalist: four of his articles are published in a national edition and by the end of the movie he is moving to Milan to work for a major newspaper. Everyone has congratulated him, with the exception of the locals for they claim that Giovanni “did it for his career.” But what is it that he did exactly? He infringed on the rule of the right distance and dared to question the official truth dictated and assimilated as irrefutable realty. Giovanni may or may not have done “it” for his career, but in either case there is no reason he should be blamed for having reconstructed the facts and then having written about them.

Concadalbero, Mara writes to her girlfriend back in Tuscany, is characterized by a strong sense of solitude and whereas it is true that she does not dislike living in such a quiet place (she is renting a converted farm building outside the village), it is also true that she is dealing with a temporary stay, which will allow her to save money for her trip to Brazil. To Hassan and his sister’s family, instead, Concadalbero is their new home for all effects and purposes, since they have no intention of returning to Tunisia. Integration has been a difficult process and they are still subject to racial discrimination, as we learn from Mohammed, Hassan’s brother-in-law. As Mohammed was closing up the restaurant which he owns, an Italian came in and asked for a beer, claiming that he did not care whether the shop was closed or not: in Italy one must do what Italians tell you to do. When Hassan learns about this episode that Mohammed embarrassingly narrates, he is not surprised but rather deeply saddened as he wonders whether his nephews, even if born in Italy (which doesn’t necessarily provide citizenship or equal status), will also be subject to discriminations of this kind.

On her first date with Hassan, Mara visits Mohammed’s restaurant and she will point out that they have the most delicious flat bread she has ever eaten, and therefore she concludes they must be from Romagna. Mara’s observation is poignant for two reasons: firstly, her assumption follows an obtuse logic according to which a particularly good product is most likely made by a native Italian (which can certainly be true, but is not an absolute statement as she seems to imply); secondly, it demonstrates that even in “modern” Tuscany, where life unwinds among trendy wine bars, Ralph Lauren shops and wine tasting, one is still “deeply impressed” (Mara’s terms) when one finds out that a Moroccan can make flat bread just as well as if he were Italian. But let us return to Concadalbero which exemplifies the stereotypical Italian rural village: it is a town that has never really changed, both in terms of urban architecture and in terms of cultural development, and it is Giovanni himself who points that out in the initial sequence: “Can you believe it that at one point there was nothing but countryside here!” argues the telephone technician; “well, it’s still just countryside” Giovanni replies. “Ah, you also noticed it, didn’t you?” At most, if one can afford it (as is the case for the richest man in town, the tobacconist), one can now choose a wife through a very exclusive and discrete online catalogue or make an honorable living by managing a phone sex service. Hassan has attempted to integrate himself completely in this rural universe by even forgetting the most traditional recipe from his birth country: “What about couscous?” Asks Mara, clearly bewildered. “No” says Hassan. “Come on! It’s as if I had forgotten the recipe for spaghetti marinara! ” At this point, Hassan’s brother-in-law interrupts the conversation with a line that purposely recalls Renato Carosone’s lyrics. He claims: “But he [Hassan] wants to play the part of an Italian and he has forgotten everything.” Interestingly enough, just as he criticizes Hassan for his exaggerated effort to mingle with the local culture and traditions, Mohammed utters a sentence with a very thick accent from Vicenza in which he uses the lexeme “sghei,” a dialectal term for “money.” For Hassan, one ought to act like an Italian and remove, temporarily or not, those traditions that seem irreconcilable with the tradition to be modeled. To Mara, this is an unacceptable concept. Her trip abroad is a humanitarian project of cooperation which she will be living with the perspective of a young Western European woman, who sees an adventure in a developing country as a momentary parenthesis in her life, of personal and professional growth, while at the same time contributing (or hoping to contribute) to enhancing the living conditions of the local population. When Mara draws a parallel between her having to leave the country and Hassan’s similar (as she sees it) situation, she sets off a harsh reaction from Hassan, who points out, and righteously so, that it is not quite the same situation since he was forced to leave Tunisia at the age of eleven, when his father died and his four brothers needed to eat. “E-A-T,” he articulates more clearly “Do you understand this word?” No, Mara cannot understand and what is more she refuses to understand by blaming it on Hassan who, she claims, is uttering those words with the mere purpose of hurting her. Shortly after this quarrel Mara will be killed and Hassan sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

In his notes, Mazzacurati states that in this movie “he attempted to take a picture, or better an X-ray of the nervous system of a town in today’s difficult moments.”[v] By encapsulating this prototypical village into an innovative dimension with the initial and final aerial tracking shots that guide us in and out of Concadalbero on the Southern blues note by Tin Hat, the director encourages us to think differently about the meanings and significance of space and about the spatiality of human life (Soja 1). He suggests that by opening up a critical spatial imagination, one will subsequently induce an innovative and necessary socio-historical and political consciousness. I would like to conclude with a quote from Soja’s text, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real and Imagined Places (1996), from which my analysis arose:

I am not suggesting that you discard your old and familiar ways of thinking about space and spatiality but rather that you question them in new ways that are aimed at…expanding the critical sensibility of your already established spatial and geographical imagination…Perhaps more than ever before, a strategic awareness of this collectively created spatiality and its social consequences, has become a vital part of making both theoretical and practical sense of our contemporary life-worlds at all scales, from the most intimate to the most global….I only ask that the radical challenge to think differently…is retained and not recast to pour old wine into new barrels, no matter how tasty the vintage has been in the past. (Soja, 1996: 2).


[i] Restivo, Angelo. The Cinema of Economic Miracles.Durham,London: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 5.

[ii] Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Cambridge,Mass.: Blackwell, 1996.

[iii] On the role of the landscape in Italian cinema and the question of identity see Sandro Bernardi, Il paesaggio nel cinema italiano. (Venice: Marsilio, 2002); Wendy Everett, ‘A Sense of Place. European Cinema and the Shifting Geographies of Identity’ in Schermi della dispersione: Cinema, storia e identità nazionale, ed. by G. Elisa Bussi and Patrick Leech (Turin: Lindau, 2003), pp. 27-45; and Ernesto Galli Della Loggia, L’identità italiana (Milano: Il Mulino, 1998).

[iv] All translations from the film are my own.

[v] http://secure.ocf.berkeley.edu/~iisa/CIAC/2008/giusta_distanza.html

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Virginia Agostinelli is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Italian literature and cinema, modernism and postmodernism, film and media studies. This article is based on a paper given at the Symposium on Modern and Contemporary Italian Cinema at Indiana University, Bloomington, in April 2010.

A short story by Moira Adriana Pulino

Translated from Italian by Giulia Po

I am blindfolded, but the fabric is a little worn out and I discern something: a tea-colored room, with no windows, a door in the back corner with a tiny grid that drips a sallow light.  I don’t know if it is day or night. I am cold, and scared, or both, because I am trembling, naked, my hands tied with a nylon stocking behind my back. I could untie them, but I do not move a muscle and my attempts to become invisible are in vain. I smell like urine. My mouth is a desert. I make myself small, small, looking for the peeling paint on the wall to disappear into the cement. Suddenly, I hear some steps, those steps. I breathe with difficulty, and the door starts opening, and that rusty sound makes me scream and scream…

I wake, my heart a drum. A silent glance over my soft, banal bed, my body naked but clean and young, with no scars.

That dream has devoured what is left of my sleep; I take a shower and walk outside. The night seems a deep empty basket. It’s two o’clock in the morning.

Dear Soledad, it is Buenos Aires’s fault if I like to walk at night, or  at first light.  People don’t often walk here, at least not for pleasure. But even when we wander aimlessly, we find ourselves in very precise locations. Here I am again at the milonga. Every place in the world, you know, has a milonga, even if people don’t necessarily dance the tango; for some it is the waltz, while for others it might be rap. Places to forget your solitude.

"Free Parking - LA River" - Photo by John Nyboer

She is on the dance floor, her long legs moving. It is a warm night, she is not wearing stockings. But I tired of her stocking games a while ago. Or maybe I am just tired of her obtuseness.  It is true, women come here looking to meet someone, but they all are superficial, satisfied to grab the Argentinean, the good dancer, a trophy to take to the milonga.  And then? None of them has ever looked at me till now. None of them – I am sure – has seen me. In the end, there is always and only you, Soledad.

I burn through my night in embraces and circular trajectories. You come here to forget: a dream, pain, daily life. Even when you think you come for a different reason.

When the night ends, and the nightmare has quieted, I start walking again.

Someone offers me a ride, but I prefer talking with my feet and with you, Soledad.

Outside, the night is still full of empty spaces. Sitting on a step, a guy who is probably my age shoots up. I avert my eyes to protect the intimacy of his disgrace, another possible destiny. Rubén’s face, with his eyes half-closed from the smoke of his joint, appears like a ghost and I smile at him, remembering my first puff and his amusement  at my novice smoker’s cough.

Rubén’s memory brings me back at the time when I still dreamt of wolves and flying carpets. My father would teach me how to play chess at home, while mom would sing and sew on her rocking chair. Her death surprised us as an unexpected and genial move, while the absence of those slightly off-key songs filled our hearts with rhythmic silences. At the beginning we would turn the radio on, seeking an echo of her presence. But ultimately, we preferred the silences that allowed us to find those musical whispers surprisingly wrapped around the teacup, embroidered on the chessboard, or twisted in the toothbrush.

Dad was doing his best, but was only comfortable with me in front of the chessboard, and those mute games became our conversations.

Rubén’s mom saved us. She was alone as well, and maybe looking for a new life. And dad wasn’t so old, even if I thought he was ancient. Anyway, after mom’s death, I gained a brother. He was two years older than me and always seemed to know the right thing to do. He was never afraid. He took me around the neighborhood, and I would watch his joyrides as a silent little journalist.

It was Rubén, Soledad, who prevented you from kidnapping me, giving me an almost sunny childhood. We came up with dreams and stunts under the grapes of Don Rodrigo, who let us come and go in his backyard as we pleased.  He was lame and had hundreds of versions about what happened to his leg, though our favorite was the impossible one about how he had participated in the Conquest of the Desert against the Indians. When he would tell this variant, we would surround him, dancing as if we were part of a tribe, hurling what we thought were terrifying shrieks, anticipating his defeat. Afterwards, the prisoner, the torturers and the cripple leg made peace over a good snack.

Now all this seems like a beautiful dream, Soledad. Not like the strange dreams that I have had since I was a little boy and never told anybody about, not even my mom. In school, I became fascinated by the stories of men who resembled the ones in my visions: prisoners, warriors, men who suffer. Rubén, who didn’t enjoy history, could not understand my obsession with the past, something he considered a morbid fixation. He was interested in the present and, maybe, the future. And yet he has neither anymore.

Yesterday, I tried to escape you, but I met you at Adrián’s and Martina’s. We drank some yerba mate, passing the bombilla from mouth to mouth, delighting in that archaic ritual of bitter brotherhood. Being Argentinean means being spontaneous, in love with friendship and solidarity; and to fear torture, the legalized abuse of power, violence, detesting the cunning lying in wait in the corners of the everyday.

Like Adrián, many feel constricted, re-educated: they have learned to arrive on time, avoid the ironic jokes regularly misunderstood, speak a little bit more softly, not to touch others or ask “invasive” questions. But from their distance, they have minimized the worst defects of their lovers.  No, I have no patience for those who lament the distance. If I feel close to you, Soledad, it is not because I am far from my country.

Sure, it might take a century to receive a lunch invitation from someone here, but who prevents us from importing our best customs? Giving an unexpected hug, asking spontaneous and intrusive questions, breaking and filling with graffiti the wall of “good manners,” dispensing pills of irony! Here, Soledad, if you started an import-export business of customs and traditions, you could find yourself again.

The night accompanies my steps, and a dog, with his slow breath, shadows me and comes closer to sniff me. He might feel your presence, or I might not be of any interest to his nose, because he moves on almost immediately. A little farther away an old man digs through a trashcan while two young people kiss under the porch next door. At night, like in a dream, it seems to me that all the countries are similar.

My feet are tired, from the dancing, the long walk, and the thoughts that chase them. Three friends pass me laughing, and I look back to the time when I was like them. The memory that we feel is intimately ours, it is nothing but a foreign land that sometimes hosts us. Mine is made up of out-of-tune songs, chess, fragrant grapes, and you. But also the winds that the night brings me: men who boarded a boat, fastening their luggage with string and hope; men imprisoned and tortured by someone’s arrogance; men who went to war without knowing why, with their eyes on the front and their hearts at home; women who daily wait for someone to return. And the most recent ones: my father’s broken heart when the government had decided to keep his savings, Rubén’s illogical death when he did not want to give his new sneakers to someone with a gun and nothing to lose.

The city is awakening, the lamps are fading. The aroma of bread caresses me, almost as if to comfort me. But you hold me tight, Soledad, and in that aroma, I find Don Ramón’s snacks, and the cookies prepared by the goodness of my mother’s hands many years ago.

Thank goodness I am not like that poor devil who Borges made remember everything since birth, and maybe even earlier. An immense and unbearable burden. I only suffer from some memories and someone else’s nostalgia. Maybe it is because my dreams take me to different places, Soledad, and I am never home completely. Or maybe because I am part of the immigrants’ backwash brought by the sky and not the sea to discover the wonder of the places praised by our grandparents.  To find that even their memory was full of holes.

Many nights, I wake up sweaty and trembling, my skin saturated with remote visions. I suffer a little, but I cannot help wondering: if everybody dreamed about being someone else sometimes, in some other place, suffering injustice, making love, praying to another God, wouldn’t we all, travelers of the night, finally be citizens of the world? If everybody had that little pinch of nostalgia for others, maybe you would be the one to be forgotten, Soledad.

Breakfast at dawn. I go through an exercise in finding similarities, on a bustling street and in a bar that resembles the old “Britannico” in Buenos Aires as much as an elephant resembles a mouse. On the opposite side, the man who runs the newspaper kiosk unfolds his paper kingdom, positioning travel magazines to the left, glossy geography distant from the dusty images of memories. It is true, I sometimes miss the finite and empty horizon of the morning’s cleaned sidewalks or those chalked by kids for hopscotch, on which I would happily challenge my balance. But if I chased those past afternoons spent under the grapes, I know that I would not find them where I left them, even if I looked a hundred times. You are right, Soledad, you can’t go home again, and that is fine.

The geography of memory is nothing but a route with imperfect coordinates, a drawing that you can only watch: the closed window of Peter Pan. Though he knew how to fly, nonetheless.


Moira Adriana Pulino was born in Argentina and currently lives in Bologna, Italy, where she works as a translator.

Giulia Po earned a Ph.D in Comparative Literature with a specialization in Italian Literature from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.  She works as an Italian lecturer and lives in Boston.


Story reproduced with the kind permission of the Eks&Tra Association.

The original story (in Italian) available here.


David Sharp

In recent decades, Italy has experienced a massive and radical shift in its migration pattern; whereas historically a massive emigration movement sent millions upon millions of Italians to all corners of the world, there is currently a major influx of foreigners pouring into the nation in hopes of increased opportunities and better lives.  Currently, an estimated four to five million immigrants live in Italy, or approximately seven percent of the entire population.[1] This change has occurred swiftly, and, not surprisingly, opposition has surfaced through xenophobic reactions and attitudes.  Immigration is rapidly changing the fabric of a largely Catholic and traditional society, and this has not necessarily been embraced by the Italian populace as an evolution in the nation’s history or as the inevitable consequence of an increasingly diasporic and globalized world.

Indeed, there have been ongoing and extreme measures to limit the rights of immigrants which seem astonishingly xenophobic and intolerant.  Some notable efforts to thwart multiculturalism include attempts to illegalize the wearing of face-covering veils by Muslim women,[2] the deliberate profanation of a future mosque site in Bologna by parading pigs on the land,[3] and a drive to identify and expel as many non-Europeans as possible from Italian towns during the Christmas season.[4] Some initiatives have attempted to make illegal immigration punishable by up to four years imprisonment, requiring doctors to denounce patients who are in Italy illegally to the police, and establishing separate classrooms for Italian and immigrant children.[5] These proposals apparently have the support of many Italian citizens.  Still, they are even more alarming because they are movements officially sanctioned by different municipal governments and political parties, including those that influence and decide on national policies for the entire country as part of Italy’s current center-right government.  As a case in point, the current government’s Minister for Institutional Reforms, Umberto Bossi, is also the long-time secretary of the prominent and notoriously anti-immigration political party, the Northern League, which has spearheaded many of these particular efforts and more.  Moreover, several other prominent positions of power in the nation are held by party members, including the Italian Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni, and the presidents of two Italian provinces.

"Guess Who's Last?" A Northern League poster that uses racist imagery to promote its agenda.

The Northern League draws its support, and certainly due criticism as well, for its unyielding stance towards immigration. Yet its intolerant stance towards immigration and immigrants is undergirded and supported by a fundamentally alarmist fear of immigrants as a threat to the nation’s stability and security.[6] Certainly the Italian word used to refer to foreigners, extracomunitario,[7] itself conjures the idea of something alien, almost extraterrestrial, while denoting a sense of both political and social exclusion.  It is a word commonly used throughout Italy to denote those who are within the European community and those who are without, or more bluntly, those who belong there and those who do not.  The country has one of the most restrictive citizenship laws in the West[8], and with such prevalent attitudes and restrictive legislation, it is impossible to predict whether initiatives against immigrants will ultimately abate or continue in the future.  It is clear that Italy is currently not an overly hospitable society to its immigrant population.

The 2002 novel Involuntary Witness by Italian judge and author Gianrico Carofiglio takes this society as its basis in a legal thriller exploring the reaches of such pervasive bigotry and anti-immigrant hostility.  Carofiglio’s novel keenly dissects the racist attitudes of a predominantly monocultural society to detail how these hostile anti-immigrant attitudes infiltrate the nation’s official institutions, or more specifically, its legal system.  Involuntary Witness depicts the plight of a rather helpless immigrant, Abdou Thiam, a 31 year-old Senegalese peddler living in the southern Italian city of Bari.  He is accused of barbarically murdering a boy and then throwing his body down a well.  While he is entitled to a trial and representation by an attorney, an antagonistic society appears disposed to condemn him to a life in prison well before the case is even brought to court.  The carabinieri and public prosecutor’s office have asserted that he is the definitive culprit, and his first state-appointed attorney demonstrates utter disinterest and detachment from the case from the onset.  Thiam’s girlfriend, an Egyptian, thus appeals to the attorney Guido Guerrieri in desperation.

 

Avvocato Guerrieri has a reputation for representing an array of objectionable clients, including known drug dealers and crime bosses in Bari and the surrounding provinces.  As the narrator of the entire story, Guerrieri initially appears indifferent about the innocence or guilt of his clients; he approaches his career with disinterest, a mere job to be completed, but never as a vocation or a mission. With Thiam, however, Guerrieri immediately takes a special interest in both the client and in the suit.  Guerrieri’s interest in the case is inexplicable even to himself, as he sees it as a lost cause ab initio, and it is in no way financially lucrative.  Girded only by intuition – a mere impression – Guerrieri nonetheless has a genuine perception that his client is innocent.  While he never articulates any such notion overtly, Guerrieri seems to empathize with Thiam’s desperation and dejection.  The attorney has recently endured a debilitating nervous breakdown following an unsolicited separation from his wife, and his own life has been tumultuous for months.  Thiam’s case comes to Guerrieri at the brink of intense personal uncertainty and during a moment of continual introspection and possible transformation, and the trial may represent an opportunity to fill a personal void, to emerge from an emotional abyss, and to compensate for crippling insecurities.  Guerrieri is compelled to defend Abdou Thiam, and he determines to represent the defendant against all reasonable expectations.

Indeed, Guerrieri is piercingly aware of the weight of impressions in his society.  He begins by confronting his own prejudices as he approaches the case and meets his client.  Consequently, he describes his preliminary impressions and then scrutinizes their soundness.  Initially Guerrieri is surprised by the poise and beauty of the woman, Abajaje, who appeals to him on behalf of the accused.  He considers her with wonder as she addresses him, observing “[t]hat face of a Nubian princess contracted with the effort of fighting back tears.”[9] He concedes that she is beautiful, aristocratic, austere and imposing and moreover disarming because she breaks his stereotypical perception of an African.  He notes his own wonder and surprise as she conforms to and counters his expectations:

With foreign clients I was always in doubt as to whether to use tu or lei. From the way this woman said “Thank you, Avvocato” I knew I could address her as lei without any fear of not being understood.  When I asked her what the problem was she handed me some stapled sheets…Drugs, was my immediate thought.  Her man was a pusher… We all of us go by stereotypes.  Anyone who denies it is a liar.  The first stereotype had suggested the following sequence: African, precautionary detention, drugs.  It is usually for this reason that Africans get arrested.  But straight away the second stereotype came into play.  The woman had an aristocratic look and didn’t seem like a drug-pusher’s moll. [10]

As Guerrieri acknowledges, stereotypes and racist impressions have preconfigured his meeting with Abajaje, and he believes that these same prejudices exist universally.  When he actually encounters Abdou Thiam, he is also confronted with a mélange of expected stereotypes and surprising contrasts to his own perceptions.  Indeed, Guerrieri is struck by the fact that, like Abajaje, Thiam is attractive.  He remarks that Thiam is “a strikingly handsome man, with the face of a film star and liquid eyes.”[11] It is a frank description that the Italian narrator admits without reticence.  Yet more interestingly, it suggests that Guerrieri views Thiam through a lens that renders him as distant; like a movie star, there is something that makes him flat or perhaps inert, and ultimately unapproachable.

While Thiam’s appearance surprises Guerrieri, the attorney is likewise struck by Thiam’s fluid command of Italian; while he remarks that it does not equal Abajaje’s, it is still indicative of his intelligence and an ability to adapt to his environment.  Moreover, as Guerrieri prepares Thiam for his trial, he notes Thiam’s keen comprehension and ability to follow his explicit instructions, and even marvels that he “didn’t need things said twice.”[12] Like the reader, Guerrieri is repeatedly surprised by Thiam’s multidimensionality.  He was a school teacher in Senegal, although in Italy he is reduced to hawking illegal, counterfeit items to tourists on the beach.  During the defense hearing it emerges that Thiam and his African friends purchase and consume hashish acquired in mass in Naples; yet they never distribute it to others.  Most surprisingly, it is revealed that Thiam has a residency permit in his possession.  Though he lives on the margins of this society, he is not an illegal alien living clandestinely within the country. Thiam thus comes across as a multifaceted individual and not a mere stereotype; crossing between the boundaries of legality and illegality, he embodies contradictions as do real individuals, and accordingly conforms to and simultaneously shatters the narrator’s assumptions about an immigrant.

Guerrieri’s own impressions and expectations when meeting these clients reveals that even a sympathetic individual has racist principles underlying his perception of African immigrants.  In addition, the highly-educated Guerrieri never acknowledges that his own ideas distill an entire continent into a single embodiment, that of dark-skinned individuals, and effectively raze considerable differences in the various countries’ histories, cultures and languages, not to neglect religions.  Indeed, in a nation where Islam is often viewed as suspect, it is astonishing, and perhaps providential, that Thiam’s probable religious beliefs or background never enters the discussion whatsoever for Guerrieri or during the trial.[13] If Guerrieri has a reductively generic idea of Africa, then less educated citizens certainly can be expected to hold similar views.  Not surprisingly, there is literally no mention whatsoever by the narrator, and evidently in society’s purview, that Italy endeavored to profit from and colonize different African nations within the lifetime of many of those still alive today.  Thus Italy’s own recent political history and the consequences this could have yielded on its current demographic are completely elided in the text.

 

Avvocato Guerrieri at least demonstrates a willingness to confront his perceptions and beliefs, yet he describes a society where the operative perception of immigrants, and particularly Africans, is one of scorn, dismissal and hatred.  When initially discussing the case with Cervellati, the public prosecutor, Guerrieri attempts to introduce his client using the honorific “Signor.” He states, “Mr. Prosecutor, I have been appointed by Signor Thiam, whom you will certainly remember …” Yet the powerful and educated public prosecutor abruptly interrupts him with “You mean the nigger who killed the boy in Monopoli.”[14] Cervellati reduces Thiam to a position he sees as inferior to them both with his vitriolic use of language.  Throughout his narrative Guerrieri notes that both the most educated and the most vulgar strata of society rampantly use this epithet when referring to Africans.  Yet the use of such derogatory language is symptomatic of profound and operative racism that permeates the perception and treatment of immigrants; Guerrieri immediately recognizes this racism tinges all the evidence assembled against his client by the prosecution.  As Guerrieri undertakes to defend Thiam, he quickly concludes that the Cervellati has no directly incriminating evidence against Thiam, but instead considerable decontextualized circumstantial evidence and conjectures which are being exhibited as incontrovertible facts.  Nonetheless the public prosecutor has mounted a solid case against Thiam implicating him as the only suspect based on these distorted facts and testimonies.

Guerrieri relies on this premise in preparing his defense for Thiam, for he has literally no tangible evidence to assemble otherwise; due to the itinerant lives of other Africans, nobody can attest to Thiam’s whereabouts on the day of the murder a year after it has occurred, and there is ostensibly no witness to bring to Thiam’s defense.  Even his girlfriend, Abajaje, has left him behind and returned home hurriedly since employing Guerrieri.  The only prospect for acquittal is to assault the prosecution’s case for its flaws and to change the mindset of those who will judge the case.  Yet the public prosecutor unequivocally discourages Guerrieri from attempting to exonerate Thiam Guerrieri.  He even urges Guerrieri to opt for a shortened trial that will not qualify for an acquittal but instead bargain for a shortened sentence. When Guerrieri unexpectedly does request a full trial, he is instantly met with undisguised irritation and aggression by the prosecutor and other members of the judiciary who will attack him repeatedly throughout the trial.  Guerrieri’s decision to defend Thiam is thus seen as divisive, and makes him a pariah among his colleagues and superiors.  Guerrieri knows that both he and his client will meet with redoubled antagonism and derision as he attempts to demonstrate that that there is reasonable doubt about the accuracy and objectivity of the evidence, and Thiam’s freedom hinges on his ability to expose the evidence as skewed, and to dispel the fable of objectivity.  This involves keenly examining the evidence from different angles and approaching the opposing witnesses in ways that will evince their bias.  More challenging for Guerrieri will be influencing the jury to reconsider their notions, which likely maintains similar or identical beliefs and opinions about the immigrant defendant.

The most significant element of evidence in the case is the eyewitness testimony from the owner of a bar located on the beach where the child had last been seen playing.  This onlooker, Antonio Renna, is utterly loathsome to Guerrieri from the start as he intuits that Renna views all immigrants indistinctly and with resentment.  Guerrieri describes him with thinly-veiled disgust, applying yet another pre-existing filter in his assessment, that of a sordid and corrupt boor, stating: “[Renna] crossed the courtroom looking at [Guerrieri] with a cocksure air.  He had the look of a peasant.  A stumpy figure, checkered shirt with a 70s-style collar, swarthy complexion and crafty eyes.  Not at all an engaging craftiness either, rather suggesting first chance I get, I’ll cheat you.”[15] Guerrieri detests Renna’s inflated confidence and contempt for him as a lawyer, but must expose his unreliability as a witness as impersonally as possible.  When Guerrieri examines him, he wisely masks any personal antipathy in his questioning.  He knows that assaulting his character or branding him as a racist will not sway the judges or the jury in considering the validity of his testimony.  Moreover, Renna does not even consider censoring his bigotry as something to disguise; when first asked to name the nationalities of his bar patrons he states, “I don’t know.  They’re all niggers.”[16] Guerrieri recognizes that he must demonstrate that this innate racist perspective has rendered Renna an unreliable witness.

Consequently, Guerrieri resorts to a rather unexpected tactic based on a somewhat providential intuition that enables him to demonstrate that Renna is an unintentionally, not deliberately, disreputable witness in the case.  He consequently presents Renna with a series of ten photographs with images of black immigrants and simply asks him: “Do you recognize anyone in these photographs?”  Renna is certain not to know anybody, and notes “I don’t think I do.  There are so many of them who come by my bar.” Guerrieri continues, stating “…you remembered Signor Thiam perfectly well, did you not? …If you saw him, in person or in a photograph, you would recognize him, wouldn’t you?”  Renna never vacillates and instead answers affirmatively.  It is at this moment that Guerrieri unveils the piece de resistance in his own arsenal, stating: “You know, Signor Renna, I put that last question to you because, of the ten photographs you looked at, two show the face of Signor Thiam, the defendant.”  Renna never reconsiders, but instead provides Guerrieri with more armament in his case, becoming more virulent and stating: “Why they’re all the same, these niggers.  How can I tell, after a year…?”[17]

"Immigrants, please don't leave us alone with the Italians"

During this incident, Guerrieri demonstrates incontrovertibly that the key witness Renna begrudges the immigrants who frequent his bar, and that he uniformly considers them a nuisance.  Thiam is merely one of many he resents.  His tirade waxes in the face of the attorney’s ploy, and he rages: “They [immigrants] interfere, they interfere, and how! I call [the municipal police], but d’you think they come?”[18] Renna can no longer maintain the semblance of composure during the questioning; as he vents his annoyance and misgivings about the police in general, he does more to destabilize his own solidity as a witness than Guerrieri ever could have done by attacking his character.  Renna’s inability to correctly identify the suspect in two photos while in his very presence weakens the credence of his testimony considerably.  In addition, it erodes the prosecution’s very foundation since his statement was the primary and most damning evidence against Thiam.  Guerrieri, reviled for his defense of Thiam by the entire judiciary, is suddenly extolled in the newspapers for his acuity, and his confidence and surety too increases.

With this success, Guerrieri proceeds with his defense.  He summarizes the significance of this event and concludes his argument by attempting to convince the jury and judges that, like Albert Einstein suggested, “It is the theory that determines what we observe.”[19] He also resorts to a Chinese adage to make his point asserting, “Two-thirds of what we see is behind our eyes.”[20] Guerrieri compellingly argues that a schema is necessary for stringing together and interpreting evidence; it is also an ironic reversal that Guido introduces both a Chinese proverb and a theory by a prominent Jew – both non-Italian sources – to sway the court and impugn the prosecution’s evidence as completely circumstantial.[21] Guerrieri adroitly explains that the prosecution, the witnesses, the family of the victims, – essentially everybody – in the courtroom wanted to find the perpetrator quickly and definitively.  He describes how this “unintentionally” created a schema which enabled Abdou Thiam to be inserted as the likely culprit.  Guerrieri thereby uncovers gaps in the evidence, including the omission of relevant or mitigating information, inconsistencies in the reports taken by investigators (including extremely stilted  and artificial official language in statements purportedly provided to the letter by  coarse witnesses or suspects), and ultimately reveals various ways that facts were skewed in favor of a particular outcome or theory.  Guerrieri concludes by presenting a persuasive theory of an “involuntary, false witness,” or quite simply one who did not intentionally lie, but nonetheless failed to tell the truth.  Guerrieri instead introduces a “… possibility which the public prosecutor did not take into consideration, but which you [the jury] must take into very close consideration.  That of a witness who gives a certain version of the facts in the erroneous conviction that it is true.”[22] As such, Renna’s once influential account suddenly loses its authority and the case against Thiam becomes more assailable.

Assuredly, Guerrieri is persuasive and he continually chips away at the solidity of the prosecution’s case, the opposing council’s nerves, and likewise at the prejudices of those who are judging his client.  Nevertheless, the pending outcome of the trial remains uncertain and suspenseful.  From the onset, the attorney reiterates the virtual impossibility of acquittal as the unlikely odds are continually mentioned.  At one point they are even quantified numerically as a “5 or 10 percent chance at best”[23] and knowing the disposition of those judging the case, Thiam’s guilt appears as a fait accompli.  Tension builds continually as Guerrieri observes and frets about minute details within the courtroom; he constantly reads the judges’ and jury’s body language, observes their faces, imagines the content of their murmurs and surmises a priori what this portends for Thiam.  Moreover, Guerrieri invariably presents his own efforts as somewhat underprepared and unreflective.  While his arguments are analytical and rational, Guerrieri often seems to be guided by faith in the righteousness of his position.  His own position that Thiam is innocent is merely an intuition, and dismantling the prosecution’s case is only intended to posit reasonable doubt about guilt, not to provide hard evidence of innocence.  Consequently, the reader also teeters between optimism and pessimism, hoping that Thiam will be exonerated but expecting this fantasy to be shattered.  Indeed, to believe that Guerrieri’s argument is sufficient to overcome adversity, annihilate the sway of racism and save Thiam from a perpetual jail sentence seems impossibly naïve.  Yet the indisputability and logic of Guerrieri’s argument provides more than a glimmer of hope and promise.

Accordingly, when a verdict of innocence is ultimately pronounced, it is astonishing.  Guerrieri and Thiam rejoice together, “face to face, very close, the bars between us.”  Guerrieri describes Thiam’s reaction, stating:  “His eyes were moist, his jaw set, the corners of his mouth trembling.  My own face was not very different, I think.”[24] Guerrieri’s words here are both literal and symbolic.  Indeed, it is the second reference to their similarity, as he shortly before admits to a friend that he “recognizes something of [himself]”[25] in Thiam, and thus admits an affinity for him.  With vastly different consequences on their lives, both had recently been abandoned by their companions, became alienated from their peers and society and became desperate and suicidal; Guerrieri does not state so, but he likely recognizes the very humanness of Thiam through familiarity.  During the trial, they have separately and individually endured the most hopeless and darkest hours of their lives; yet each has needed the other to embrace unlikely hope and promise future for the future.  Guido’s investment in Abdou Thiam has brought him some relief from his own situation, and enabled him to reassess his own worth and values.  Consequently, for Guerrieri the victory is a culmination in the process of reassembling a fragmented identity and becoming holistic again.  The trial has enabled him to find strength and to redress errors from his past, including reconciling with his ex-wife.  Meanwhile Thiam stands at the threshold of an uncertain future that, at least for the moment, guarantees his liberty.

With this conclusion, the lingering question remains concerning Thiam’s actual innocence or guilt. Whether or not Thiam represents a threat to the nation’s security is a matter that quickly becomes less prominent or even relevant in Involuntary Witness. While it is reassuring that his trial presents hope that a national mindset is evolving, Carofiglio instead emphasizes an important point from his standpoint as a judge.  In guaranteeing the accused a right to a fair trial, that is, by allowing the judiciary process to unfold as it is legally designed to, justice has indeed been served.  Carofiglio suggests that as Italy’s population changes, entrenched prejudices must be subverted and cast aside in order to ensure the fairness and objectivity of its most important institutions.  It still remains to be seen if the Italy outside the pages of the novel will rise to the challenge.


[1] See “Immigrants Forced to Margins of Italian Society” available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99255579&sc=emaf

[3] See “Italian Far-Right Uses Pig to ‘Desecrate’ Future Mosque Site”  available at http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2007/11/14/italian-far-right-uses-pig-to-desecrate-future-mosque-site/

[4] See “Italy’s Northern League in ‘White Christmas’ Immigrant Purge”  available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/italys-northern-league-in-white-christmas-immigrant-purge-1823231.html

[5] See “Immigrants Forced to Margins of Italian Society” available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99255579&sc=emaf

[6] As noted in a recent NPR news series, Jean-Leonard Touadi, a native of the Republic of the Congo and the first black member of the Italian parliament, has asserted that “insensitive language” has incremented Italians’ fear of immigrants.  He asserts that migrants in Italy are perceived as criminals or as potential criminals and are central to an overwhelming sense of Italians’ insecurity in Italy.  See “Immigrants Forced to Margins of Italian Society” available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99255579&sc=emaf for entire story.

[7] On the RAI Italica website, Francesco Bruni explains that the recently coined adjective “extracomunitario” literally denotes things and people that belong or come from outside of the EEC.  In common parlance, it frequently is applied to those coming from outside of the Western European nations or even outside of Italy itself.  See http://www.italica.rai.it/principali/lingua/bruni/schede/extra.htm

[8] See “Immigrants Forced to Margins of Italian Society” available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99255579&sc=emaf

[9] Carofiglio, Gianrico. Involuntary Witness. Translated by Patrick Creagh. London, Bitter Lemon Press, 2005. 37.  It is worth nothing that the attorney’s impressions of an African woman are exoticized and seen through a filter that V.Y. Mudimbe describes as “alterity” or otherness in his The Invention of Africa.  Abajaje is seen not as a real person, but instead as a figure or image, with the possible models being high royalty, a Nubian queen of yore, or pure vulgarity, a prostitute clinging to a drug dealer.  This binary perception guides Guerrieri when he meets the defendant, Abdou Thiam, as well.

[10] Involuntary Witness 32-33.

[11] Involuntary Witness 40.

[12] Involuntary Witness 201.

[13] Figures from the U.S. State Department website state 95% of Senegalese citizens are Muslim.  It is indeed interesting in view of the general distrust towards Islam in Italy, no mention is ever made in the novel about the religion of the immigrants, but instead only to their skin color and their provenance.   See figures at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2862.htm.

[14] Involuntary Witness 50.

[15] Involuntary Witness 180.

[16] Ibid 181.

[17] Ibid 180-184.

[18] Ibid 182.

[19] Ibid 249.

[20] Ibid 249.

[21] This is also an unexpected reversal for Guerrieri, who employs Chinese proverbs as reinforcement for his own arguments.  Earlier in the novel Guerrieri instead makes a facile observation about stereotypical Chinese pronunciation of the letter “r” in the telephone greeting “pronto [hello]”, that someone Chinese might utter as “plonto.”  He acknowledges, “It wasn’t a very brilliant thought, but it was precisely what passed through my mind at that moment” (165).

[22] Ibid 247.

[23] Ibid 74.

[24] Ibid 266.

[25] Ibid 156.

A Review of Amara Lakhous’s Divorzio all’islamica a viale Marconi

Monica Hanna

During the past week or so, an increased stream of boats carrying Tunisians fleeing their North African country as a result of the uprisings has deposited those migrants onto the Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies about halfway between Tunisia and Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea (for more information about current plans in reaction to the situation, see this New York Times article).  Because of Lampedusa’s strategic location, the island has become the point of disembarkation for many seafaring vessels transporting undocumented immigrants; the island is often seen as an African gateway to the rest of Europe. This fact has been covered and debated for years in the Italian media, politics, and streets.  It is an issue that has taken on an even greater sense of urgency since September 11, 2001 and March 11, 2004.

Amara Lakhous’s new Italian novel, Divorzio all’islamica a viale Marconi (Edizioni E/O, 2010), enters into the discussion about the role of immigrants in Italy today with an incredible comic flair and keen insight into Italian culture and history.  The novel, which is due out in English translation through Europa Editions later this year, is set in “Little Cairo,” an international phone center in the Marconi neighborhood of Rome.  Our protagonist is Christian, a Sicilian who, until a few days ago, was a court interpreter who earned his living by translating for Arabic speakers, a skill he acquired by way of his family’s connection to Tunisia (his grandfather was an Italian Tunisian, born and raised in Tunisia before moving back to Sicily) and his years of Arabic study in college.  Divorzio all’islamica a viale Marconi, which might be translated as Divorce Islamic Style on Marconi Boulevard, begins with Christian’s own migration from Sicily to Rome, where he becomes “Issa.”  This transformation takes place at the request of SISMI, the Italian secret service.  The Captain, Giuda [Judas], seeks out Christian for his language skills, and appeals to his sense of patriotic duty to infiltrate a terrorist cell.  According to the captain, this cell operates in the Egyptian community that congregates at the phone center and is spearheaded by its owner, Akram, a large Egyptian man who resembles John Belushi.

Issa “passes” in this environment not by pretending to be Egyptian like most of the international phone center patrons, but by inhabiting an elaborately constructed Tunisian identity, complete with a Tunisian “mother” who answers his phone calls “home” from the phone center.  In fact, to his friends at the phone center, Christian/Issa becomes known as “The Tunisian.” He is thus similar enough (Arab, Muslim) to be accepted by the Egyptians but also different enough not to have his authenticity questioned.  This play of multiple identities permeates the novel; almost every character has more than one name and more than one identity.  The novel has two narrators—Issa and Sofia—who take turns telling their interwoven stories in alternating chapters.  Sofia, like Issa, also has a dual identity.  On the one hand, she is Safia, the good Egyptian wife her husband wants her to be, faithfully wearing her head scarf and dutifully rearing their daughter Aida.  Yet at the same time, she is Sofia, a woman who resents having to cover her most prized possession—her hair—and works as an extremely skilled but clandestine hairdresser, idolizing bombshells like Marilyn Monroe and forging friendships among Italians and fellow migrants alike.  She also reads Nawal Saadawi and has very strong feelings against female genital mutilation.

The duality of Issa and Sofia allows each to provide both insider and outsider perspectives on various identities.  These characters are not ideologically bound because they can acknowledge differing points of view.  Issa is Italian, but he also experiences Rome as an outsider, commenting on his experiences in a Sicilian-inflected Italian.  And of course, along with his Italian nationality, he has a familial and cultural link to Tunisia.  Sofia’s covert political ideas make her an outsider in the Muslim community insofar as she reflects critical opinions of the role of women in Islam.  At the same time, she is an outsider in Italy as a foreign woman who wears a headscarf.  Indeed, she meets Issa when she is caught in a harrowing position at the open-air market as a xenophobic Italian berates her.  In this scene, Issa appears to be a well-educated Arab man who speaks Italian perfectly and thus is able to defend Sofia, becoming the Arab Marcello Mastroianni in her daydreams.

Amara Lakhous in Rome

The love story between Sofia and Issa takes some of its cues from the inimitable and hilarious 1961 Pietro Germi film Divorce, Italian Style.  The film starred Marcello Mastroianni as a bored Sicilian baron who can no longer stand his domineering (and unibrowed) wife and must find a way to get rid of her in an Italy in which divorce is still illegal (and would be until 1971) but murder to protect one’s honor is not.  The film is also one of the most important of the commedia all’italiana genre, a type of darkly comedic film that takes on some of the nation’s social ills.  Germi’s film, for example, playfully (and often darkly) attacks the illegality of divorce along with issues of class as well as the Northern Italy/Southern Italy divide.  The “comedy Italian style” films were extremely popular during the period of Italy’s economic miracle (“Il Boom” of the early 1960s), which was one of intense change that brought many social problems into relief.  In this sense, Lakhous’s invocation of the commedia all’italiana is quite fitting, in that it deals with an Italy that is undergoing another period of intense and rapid change.[1] As David Sharp notes in his article in this issue, in the past few decades, Italy has gone from a country of emigration to one of immigration.  Lakhous’s comedic style is able to hold a powerful mirror to Italian society in part by adopting its cultural references.  He also did this in his previous novel, Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio.  His 2006 novel (originally published as Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio by Edizioni e/o) featured another interloper, Ahmed/Amedeo, and was partially structured based on the model of Italian postmodernist writer Carlo Emilio Gadda.  In Algerian-born Lakhous’s novelistic play on the Germi film, however, the author attacks not just Italian conventions, but also Islamic ones.  The novel offers equally unflattering evaluations of characters belonging to both groups, like Teresa (alias “Vacanza” or “Vacation”) who rents to foreigners,[2] but at abusive rates that finance her luxurious cruises, or Safia’s ignorant and insensitive husband, who forces her to wear a veil (against which she rebels by fashioning it in her own way, in bright colors and high fashion).

As with many commedie all’italiana, the novel ends with a happy resolution—of sorts.  The moment of extreme tension at the end, when Issa is forced to decide whether or not to sell out his lover, is smoothed over with a conclusion that looks similar to an “it was all a dream” resolution.  Yet at the same time, the relief that the reader feels is quickly supplanted by dismay at the fact that s/he might have given credence to the same doubts and suspicions planted in Issa’s head, as well as in the overall Italian psyche.

Links

Lakhous’s website: http://www.amaralakhous.com/

Lakhous interview in Words without Borders: http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/scheherazade-cest-moi-an-interview-with-amara-lakhous/

WWB excerpt from Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio: http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/the-truth-according-to-parviz-mansoor-samadi/

AnsaMed article on Lakhous, calling him “the new face of Italian fiction”: http://www.ansamed.info/en/libano/news/ME.XEF28959.html

Lakhous interview in World Literature Today: http://www.ou.edu/worldlit/onlinemagazine/2008september/Lakhous.htm


[1] Another author who writes about the situation of immigrants and invokes the commedia all’italiana is Igiaba Scego, including her short story “Salsicce” (“Sausages”), which includes references to comic genius Alberto Sordi.

[2] While googling in order to find more information on the Roman neighborhood surrounding viale Marconi, I found some apartment rental listings which actually state things like “no stranieri no studenti” [“no foreigners and no students” allowed].    Here’s one:

David Sharp

In 1929, the Milanese Mondadori publishing house launched a line of books in yellow covers to promote tales of mystery and detection. Since then, the “giallo”, or the detective novel, has found a vast and receptive audience throughout Italy.  The detective or mystery genre ensures a pleasurable participatory and hermeneutic experience; as the narrative unfolds, the process of uncovering clues and attempting to resolve the mystery at hand becomes the active work of both the protagonist and reader. Because of the genre’s popularity and the innately interpretive mode of reading involved therein, many Italian writers have identified it as a readymade platform to present their ideas to a broad and eager audience.

Indeed, Italian authors such as Carlo Emilio Gadda, Leonardo Sciascia, Antonio Tabucchi, Andrea Camilleri, and Dacia Maraini, have employed and reconfigured the original features of the detective form to generate awareness about social and political issues. Their works have even initiated vital dialogs about events and predicaments that may otherwise have only been broached with trepidation.  In exploring the most troubling quandaries of Italian history and society, these writers elected to eschew the tangible and immediate inquiries of the conventional giallo -a murder, a theft, a disappearance- in favor of more abstract and charged pursuits.  By refocusing the detective’s magnifying glass, they have capitalized on the probative nature of detective literature, frequently using it as a pointed tool to systematically investigate and critique the most enigmatic events of history, as well as their lingering effects and the forces operating behind them.  While securing their own enduring literary renown, these authors’ adaptations and transformations of the genre attest to the value they ascribe to literature as a serious field of inquiry.  They also set a precedent for successive stylistic and formal innovations within this genre.

The mystery genre is again the vogue in Italy, and accordingly, interesting and fresh embodiments are at the fore of the media.  From Giancarlo De Cataldo’s acclaimed 2002 novel Romanzo Criminale, to Carlo Lucarelli’s popular RAI television series Blu Notte to the controversial investigative reporting of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra, crime fiction in Italy continues to captivate the public’s interest as it evolves beyond its traditional embodiments and audiences. Though rather varied, these modern exemplars are nonetheless linked by an overarching problematic: each delves deeply into both past and recent historical and political events in Italy in order to suggest that institutionalized explanations of them are inadequate or unsatisfactory.  The mystery genre is here outstanding in that it readily frames prolonged intellectual inquisitions and offers a compelling structure for protracted analysis and evaluation of events and eras in order to shed some light on the past and the effects it continues to wield on the present.

Simone Sarasso began writing noir fiction for television, film and comics in 2004.[i] His 2007 novel Confine di stato, roughly translatable as “State Limits,” is a particularly noteworthy example of an innovative and contemporary embodiment of the mystery form.  The narrative begins as a conventional giallo. Yet it quickly loses its purely detective filament and then evolves into a political thriller, depicting espionage and intricate conspiracies operating within the ranks of Italy’s government.  Pivoting around national enigmas that have not been adequately resolved, Confine di stato presents an alternate and rather unsettling version of seminal events in modern Italian history.  Focusing on the violent years of the Anni di piombo in Italy, Confine di stato primarily seeks to discredit facile or official solutions to the 1969 Piazza di Fontana bombings in Milan. The novel aims to reexamine the forces which deliberately produced this national tragedy, and to concurrently awaken a new generation’s interest in investigating the country’s perplexing and dubious history in the wake of World War II up to the present.  Sarasso’s novel suggests that these affairs must not be relegated to historical oblivion or dismissed with the passing of time.

While the novel derives from an actual historical donnée, the plotline of Confine di stato toggles back and forth between the last five decades to narratize an intricate and extensive right-wing conspiracy to seize power of the nation. Sarasso has incorporated and liberally fictionalized certain dimensions of four momentous events in Italian history in order to eventually concatenate the series of events.  Some directly invoke an actual occurrence, while others are thinly- veneered allegories or analogies which the reader must decipher and identify.  The novel thus commences with the actual Piazza Fontana bombings on December 12, 1969 in Milan, a reference which is cited unequivocally: the place, the time, the date and the information about the bombings unambiguously correspond to extra-textual realities.  Other episodes are presented obliquely: consequently, the narrative immediately dives into the controversial 1953 Wilma Montesi affair as detective Giorgio Valenti investigates the mysterious drowning of the fictional Ester Conti in Ostia.  Likewise, a private plane later crashes, killing an American journalist and the fictitious Fabio Riviera, the public administrator who actively seeks to dismantle the oil oligopoly of the “seven sisters” and to negotiate oil concessions that do not benefit these corporations.  Indeed, this fictionalizes the fate of AGIP commissary Enrico Mattei in 1962.  Finally, a prominent publisher and left-wing activist simply called “L’editore” (“the Editor”) is killed during an explosion in a clandestine operative placing him in combat with neo-fascist agents.  An invested and astute reader here recognizes the figure of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in the attempt to locate extratextual correlatives corresponding to the incidents giving substance to the novel.

While the substance of the novel converts facts into fiction, Sarasso subtitles Confine di stato as “an Insane Sketch”.  This designation takes on a double meaning throughout the work:  after abandoning the detective filament a quarter of the way into the text, the novel proceeds to unfold through the actions of Andrea Sterling, a formerly institutionalized patient in a mental asylum moving amongst clandestine segments of society.  Significant portions of the text thoroughly document and follow his institutionalization.  Upon his subsequent release from an asylum, Sterling is seen operating within the ranks of the government, mingling with members of the Democrazia Cristiana, and is occasionally brought into direct contact with the highest ranks of the Cosa Nostra. Sterling is oblivious to the actual influence of the nefarious rings he represents, yet he willingly executes the work of a hired bravo. Sarasso suggests Sterling’s lack of conscience, a blind hatred of socialists and his unquenchable thirst for blood is clearly hallmark of a sociopath.  Moreover, the reader inevitably draws a parallel between the insane individual’s actions and the maniacal will to power of the neo-fascists that he unreflectively supports in their quest to subvert the influence of the political left from the national terrain.  Sarasso’s “insane sketch” thus takes aim at an enduring legacy of corruption and outrageous political machinations, all which have resulted in instances of extreme violence against individuals and an inexcusable and irrational lack of progress in Italy.

In addition to the subject matter, the style of Confine di stato is of particular interest in this discussion of unique manifestations of the giallo. Confine di Stato incorporates some of the most salient features of the noir or hardboiled form, but does not sustain them as the narrative progresses.  Whereas Sarasso initially introduces a detective in his novel honing in on the investigation of Ester Conti’s drowning, the investigator’s presence is fleeting.  At this point, the novel becomes a protracted exploration of a larger conspiracy and evolves into a political thriller or a spy novel and becomes less of a traditional giallo. As a result, perfunctory attempts to definitively locate Confine di stato within the parameters of a singular genre are fruitless.  The novel resists such confines and defies a definitive taxonomy, and even presents useful questions about the relevance of such classifications. Incorporating elements of cinema, graphic novels, comics and invented documentation, Sarasso operates at the interstices of genre. He robustly intermingles various media in his literary form, attesting to a hybridity that fashions something completely unorthodox from the familiar and conventional.

Confine di stato is constructed on two distinct levels which render it stylistically unique: the literal, and the visual.  The reliance on visual narrative as another modus operandi is apparent throughout the text, and immediately structures the reader’s entrance into the work.


The very cover of Confine di stato quickly prefigures the extent to which an unconventionally cinematic dimension lurks within this text.  Replicating elements associated with the conventions of cinema noir, the cover depicts a man wearing a fedora hat.  Silhouetted in black and white, enveloped in shadows, it is a particularly nuanced aesthetic, immediately associated with the style of private detectives, gangsters, or other ruffians in Hollywood films during the 1940s and 1950s.  Moreover, the cover presents the author, illustrators, the publishing house, and a cast of the work’s characters through a billing of opening credits; the “Insane Sketch” is not merely written, but instead “written and directed by Simone Sarasso.”  Applied to a literary work, such cinematic conventions are decontextualized, unexpected and appear to be quite innovative.  Indeed, a reliance on the conventions of film permeates the content of the text itself.  The initial bombing of Piazza Fontana is conveyed textually by invoking the visual and technical elements of a film, stating: “La camera è a volo d’uccello sulla città […] La camera è ad altezza uomo […] Ruota di 180 º […] Allarga sulla facciata del palazzo.  Zooma sull’insegna: ‘Rinascente.’” (“The camera gives a bird’s eye view of the city […] The camera is at eye level […] It rotates 180º […] It moves in on the building’s facade.  Zoom to the sign: ‘Rinascente.’”) This shot-by-shot analysis initiates the narrative, indicating both the novel’s symbiotic reliance on the conventions of film as well as a presumed familiarity with cinematic direction and screenplays on the reader’s behalf.  Meanwhile, this technique depersonalizes and objectifies the scene being staged. In a view ascribed to no character or personage involved, the reader is placed at Piazza Fontana without any sentimentality or emotions.  It is an impartial and detached introduction to the disturbing world which will immediately unfold in the pages of the text.[ii]

This technique then reappears throughout various episodes of the work, but Sarasso “directs” this novel with other visual components as well.  In addition to the cinematic element, Confine di stato also incorporates highly-stylized graphics and illustrations within the novel which visually supplement or retell the substance of the plot.

Consequently, there is a “titoli di testa” or opening credits segment, and a “trailer” which frame the main story arc.  In these visual sequences, the reader is presented with black and white drawings, reminiscent of comics or the signature features of a graphic narrative. The sequences present various characters and events that either will later be or were already introduced throughout the novel.  Additionally, one memorable scene in the novel unfolds between Mago, a Cosa Nostra boss, and Andrea Sterling, in which a parable of American ruthlessness and power is presented as a comic strip involving Superman and a young boy. Yet even this is juxtaposed: the customary visual medium of comic strips is translated into text and narrated only through language, completely forsaking any illustrations.

Such references to popular culture, as well as the inclusion of sketches, comics and other similar pixilated graphics, are further indications that Sarasso may be appealing to a young and contemporary audience, one that is largely unacquainted with the remote and past events of their national history.  Unlike previous generations, this audience may not necessarily be attracted to literature, but instead drawn to the intimacies of television and film.  The somewhat recognizable form and style of the narrative may thus serve to further attract and foment their interest in literature. This is a compelling hypothesis, given the unconventional method of advertising the book prior to its publication; a cinematic book trailer diffused via the internet announced the work’s 2007 “release,” suggesting that visual media might better attract Sarasso’s intended audience as he himself sought to move beyond traditional literary forms.

The insertion of graphics in the novel, however, performs another crucial function: it deliberately fractures the narrative and thwarts a linear development. Confine di stato frequently interrupts narrative progression by creating intermittent breaks between story sequences and the frequent presentation of other media.  This is particularly evident in the recourse to “documentation” as a way to create a different perspective of events.  Such documentation includes interpersonal and institutional correspondence describing conditions in a mental asylum, fictitious newspaper clippings reporting events, lengthy reports from police investigations, and transcripts of televised news reports.  While there is a caveat at the onset of the novel stating that all pieces of documentation are invented, Sarasso has explicitly stated elsewhere that his own research for the novel was almost entirely based on archival documentation.  Yet by interspersing these various invented “documents” amidst scenes, Sarasso breathes life into what he has deemed the static and dispassionate “language of bureaucracy”[iii] that formed his research.  By altering and providing these documents with a subjective narrative, Sarasso has translated facts into fiction.  They are now imbued with a context and supply the reader with an interpretative principle for digesting the facts contained therein.

In tandem with the formal language of these invented documents, Confine di stato unfolds through decidedly colloquial and nonliterary language. Trafficking in popular culture references, vulgarities, vernacular and slang from both the present and eras past, Sarasso’s prose sharply contrasts with the often erudite works of other Italian mystery writers like Sciascia, Gadda, Maraini and Tabucchi. His work is decidedly devoid of literary allusions, metaphysical concerns or philosophical meditations.   Nonetheless, the text is complex as it employs a range of dialects and registers to a very crucial purpose.  Language in Confine di stato vividly depicts distinct classes and social strata in Italy, and it evokes particular historical periods as well. The various linguistic ranges and the language of his characters often create atmosphere in the novel.  From the brusque and vibrant Romanesco of the urban dweller, the parolacce of the Mafiosi and drug lords,  to the clinical and institutional language of doctors and politicians, Sarasso conveys language as a unique schematization and understanding of the world, and the ability to employ one code over another quickly positions characters within or outside of communities.  As Sarasso himself states with regards to this aspect of the novel, “language [is used] to stigmatize characters [and to] render them as bidimensional as much as possible.”[iv] Sarasso thus manipulates different linguistic registers to establish a clear and simple dichotomy between the “good” and “bad” characters appearing in the story.  Sarasso concedes that it is an “unreal” language, one which exists only in cinema.[v] Yet in this “insane sketch”, the polarized use of language also enables the reader to quickly identify and classify the sort of character presented within a narrative that deliberately and constantly flutters from one protagonist to another.   While this shift from one character to another provides narrative valence,[vi] it also has a profoundly destabilizing effect on the reader.  Yet it is only one way that Sarasso has elected to propel forth his narrative.

Ultimately, any absence of reference points[vii] caused by the narrative shift and intentional breaks in its progression are unified when the polarized languages, invented documents, visual narrative, and distinct episodic divisions are viewed holistically.  The reader synthesizes them, and recognizes that the pastiche of divergent and fragmented components blends into a cohesive and wholly original narrative. While writing within the confines of the giallo, Simone Sarasso simultaneously innovates and reconfigures the genre to reflect his unique aesthetic sensibilities. Confine di stato boldly tackles the elusive mysteries of Italy’s past, expands the scope of readership, and ultimately rouses an interest in history for a new generation of Italian readers.



[i] Sarasso discusses his development and sensibilities as a writer in an interview available at Liquid Magazine at http://magazine.liquida.it/2009/03/26/intervista-a-simone-sarasso-di-confine-di-statocom.

[ii] Sarasso considers this and other aspects of his novel Confine di stato in detail in an interview available at Blackmailmag at http://www.blackmailmag.com/Intervista_a_Simone_Sarasso.htm.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid