Listening to Italy
THE ITALIANS, by John Hooper – A review
During Italy’s 2008–12 legislature well over 100 of the 630 deputies ended up in a parliamentary group different to the one which they had belonged at the outset. Contrast this with the period 2005-10 in the UK where only one single parliamentarian crossed the floor. Ten more resigned their party whip, but, as John Hooper explains in his recently published The Italians, “this was mostly to pre-empt expulsion …after becoming involved in some kind of scandal”. Hooper’s book uses such examples to illustrate and contrast national character differences that could, he suggests, explain the volatile political climate in Italy.
Hooper’s often amusing observations were mentioned in last month’s article. Are Italians Different?. Particularly, the almost universal admiration for the chancer, political or otherwise. A brazenly outrageous political figure such as Berlusconi (the English press sees this in Nicola Sturgeon) who works with a personal courage and conviction that, to generalise, has been seen by the English press as shockingly dangerous brass-necked cheek. This is the operator with furbo (plural: furbi). Hooper recounts a conversation with a woman in her late thirties at a party. She was surprised that he criticised Berlusconi calling him a crook. “ ‘But I don’t want my politicians to be honest,’ she replied. ‘If they were honest, it would mean they were stupid. I want my country to be run by people who are furbi.’ “
This is relevant as the UK moves into a period of political uncertainty peppered with novel political alliances and options. At the same time the UK has two major parties which have offered the voting public an almost content-free and dull prospectus. And how interminably long the UK election campaign has been. In contrast, the sparks and exuberance of Italian politics are almost welcome.
John Hooper’s entertaining book was written with his experience of 25 years journalistic work in Southern Europe. He is currently The Economist’s Italian correspondent and South Europe correspondent for the Guardian. He has also written two similar books about Spain, where he first reported immediately after the end of the Franco period. Hooper’s website says that the US edition of The Italians was nominated for the prestigious American 2014 Kirkus Literary Award, worth $50,00. It wasn’t shortlisted and didn’t win, but is a wide-ranging and easily read piece of social commentary with many historical and contemporary references and fascinating anecdotes.
Try this: Hooper talks about the importance of il look. Italians look at the surface, the way someone dresses, and then believe that they can search beneath this to discern the series of choices that will show the person’s true character. Hooper saw a comparative piece of journalism that took a full page to examine and contrast the outfits worn by Silvio Berlusconi and Romano Prodi. The exploration continued through the obvious suits, shirts, cuffs, ties “…and progressed by stages to their choice of underpants. Prodi apparently wore roomy boxer shorts, while Berlusconi favoured clingy briefs. The source of this information about the underwear was not disclosed”.
Hooper is interesting for his coverage of the Church, family, love, fixed customs, football, food and very much more from the daily life. And for comment on the many contradictions such as widespread corruption, nepotism and patronage but an otherwise low crime rate. Or, for his ambitious attempt to explain the incomprehensible legal system. He starts that aptly with a quote from the Sicilian dramatist and writer of tragic farces, Luigi Pirandello.
Hooper necessarily generalises while writing about the contradictions and differences that he sees in the Italian national character. We would feel that it was simplistic to disregard UK regional differences by lumping everyone under a single explanatory heading. To, for example, see an inhabitant of Belfast behaving in a similar way to say, someone from Southend. Italians obviously also exhibit considerable regional differences, and even speak separate languages in some areas, but a central general truth remains. And that truth – that verità? Every Italian has their very own version of that – while the northern European culture views truth as immutable. Hooper explains it this way: perhaps the prime minister gets up in the house to say that Italian schools receive the best funding in the whole of Europe. A northern European journalist would check facts, discover that the prime minister was wrong, exaggerating perhaps, and would excoriate them in the press. Generally in Italy this wouldn’t happen. “It is not the norm. It would be considered a bit disrespectful. The prime minister, like everybody else, should be allowed his verità.”
To digress slightly, John Hooper’s own sense of verità, is evident in the chapter: Of Mafias and Mafiosi. His account of the historical development of the mafia is woolly, and crucially misses any mention of their connection with the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943. There are different versions of the importance of the mafia involvement but what is not in dispute is that the contacts and information from various Mafia figures, including Lucky Luciano, informed the invasion. Indeed in Denis Mack Smith’s immensely detailed and excellent: Modern Italy, A Political History, he writes succinctly, “What was almost worse, The Anglo-American military administration in 1943, having more urgent problems to deal with, permitted mafiosi to reacquire their former authority over many areas of Sicilian society” . A very important point missed or possibly avoided by Hooper.
Returning finally to what the UK refers to as crossing the floor, Hooper mentions one man as being instrumental in developing this tactic of trasformismo. He expresses surprise that Agostino Depretis is “less well remembered”, in fact he is almost totally ignored by having very few piazzas or streets named after him. Even though, as Hooper explains, his development of trasformismo has made a significant and lasting contribution to Italy’s politics. He explains clearly that trasformismo “means the building of parliamentary majorities by means of encouraging defection:” Depretis was politically active during the 1870s and 80s and at that time, and even well before under Cavour, it can be said that the influential centrist parties had no clear agendas. Depretis continued to capitalise on this and is described by a quotation in Mack Smith’s book as someone “who never embarrassed himself with principles or convictions” . Or in Hooper by a quotation saying that, he was “born a political malefactor in the way others are born poets or thieves” . Depretis’s imperative was simple – to gain or stay in power.
How familiar. How, as Hooper explains the ability of Italians to tolerate ambiguity, this goes some way towards accounting for what makes Italian and UK politics so different. Yet the UK political scene of today is now unrecognisable compared with that of 50 or even 5 years ago. I was struck by a quote in Hooper from Shakespeare’s Richard II that is food for thought:-
Report of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manners still our tardy-apish nation
Limps after in base imitation.
THE ITALIANS, John Hooper, published by Allen Lane, 2015