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Francesco Piccolo: Il desiderio di essere come tutti [The Desire to be Like Everyone]

I have long had a fascination for Italian politics, not least because it is somewhat different from British or US politics, with its perennial coalitions and, in the past, its electorally fairly successful Communist party and political terrorism and assassination and, more recently, the Berlusconi factor. This book gives a detailed perspective on Italian politics, albeit from one perspective. Indeed, if you know or care little about Italian politics, know nothing about Berlinguer, Craxi or Leone or find the Italian political situation uninteresting, this book is not for you. The book has not yet been translated into any other language and, despite winning the Strega Prize, the top Italian literary prize, I do not imagine it will be translated into English. However, I found it fascinating even if, at times, overblown, as Piccolo gets carried away with some of the details of key events. So if you do read Italian and have an interest in and some knowledge of Italian politics, then this is a worthwhile book.

It is, I assume, essentially autobiographical, telling of the development primarily, though certainly not exclusively, political, of an Italian man aged fifty in 2014, who comes from the town of Caserta. The general tenor of the book is the unnamed narrator telling his story, against the background of political events in Italy, from a left-wing perspective – he is a member of the Italian Communist party – and how these events shaped him and shaped Italy, ending, of course, with the rise and imminent fall of Berlusconi. There are two additional story-telling techniques worth mentioning Firstly, he makes considerable comparisons with his life and views and those of other books and films. Indeed, he goes into great detail into the plot of some of these and shows how they relate to his life and how he might have reacted if the events of the story had happened to him. Two stand out in particular: Raymond Carver’s So Much Water So Close to Home and the film The Way We Were. Both are described in great detail and he agonises over their meanings and relevance to his own life. The second device is to use key events – both those in his life and those in Italian political life – which have had a profound influence on him and made him the man he is today.

Much of the book consists of these major events. For example, when a boy, he and a couple of friends manage to sneak into the grounds of the Palace of Caserta. They have it all to themselves. The other two boys have been before and they lead him to a gigantic fridge which is padlocked, though they easily pick the lock and help themselves to the contents (drinks and ice creams). The other two boys wander off but our hero stays and is suddenly overcome by a strange feeling, a feeling that he, the boys, his family, his city, are all part of something much bigger which he cannot really explain but which makes him feel not alone, as he has done, but part of a huge mass of people who were there, present, in the empty grounds of the palace. It gives him a sense of euphoria.

Our hero wants to fit in, things to be normal. There is the story of cholera in Italy and all of them are warned of the dangers of it and to be careful of hygiene and what they eat. He is very worried about this. When they get back from their summer holidays, it had been the practice of their mother to give them guttalax, a purgative, to clean them out. He had forgotten about this. One day he goes to the cinema with a friend and suddenly gets stomach ache. He is very worried that he has cholera and spends several hours agonising over this. When he finally mentions it to his mother, she tells him that she has put guttalax in his milk, without telling him, as the children had been reluctant to take it and she seems wholly indifferent to his fear. He equates this behaviour with the behaviour of Stuart in Raymond Carver’s So Much Water So Close to Home, who delays reporting the finding of the girl’s body to the police. It was, he felt, her role, to keep external threats at bay and, in this case, she seemed to have forgotten about the external threat of the cholera and, as he says, this has a destabilising effect on him. Another but somewhat different example is the story of Giovanni Leone. Giovanni Leone is not well known outside Italy. He was prime minister and president of the country. While president, he was subject to considerable criticism and attacks for alleged corruption. Camilla Cederna, a journalist for the magazine L’Espresso, in particular, attacked him and wrote a book, in which she dammed not only Leone but his family. He was prevented from responding even though the book became a best-seller and he later resigned the presidency. However, his family could not be constrained and they sued. They won on all counts and Cederna was heavily fined and all copies of the book were pulped. Our hero follows the case in great detail. Though politically very much opposed to Leone and his politics, he very much feels that the attacks on his family are completely unwarranted and he vacillates between the polarised views of Italians – that of supporting Leone and that of condemning him. These differing views are reflected in his family and he wishes to share both sides.

However, one of the key events of his life was provided by Jürgen Sparwasser, an East German footballer. During the 1974 World Cup, West Germany were clear favourites. Once Italy was knocked out our hero loses interest (he is still only ten years old). However, his father gets him up to watch the match that he (the father) calls Germany versus East Germany, i.e. West Germany versus East Germany. West Germany dominated the game and looked as though they were going to win the game but in the seventy-eighth minute Sparwasser scored the only goal of the game. West Germany went on to win the tournament but our hero was converted, in that seventy-eighth minute, to communism. He is somewhat concerned about his decision, not least because he wants to conform, but the members of his family are divided on this so he goes his own way.

From this point on, he gives his support to the communists and its successors (now The Democrats of theLeft (Democratici di Sinistra). We follow the key events of his life and Italian political life. These include his love for Elena (not reciprocated), his classmate and also a communist, and his relations with his aunt and uncle, on opposite sides of the political spectrum from each other, as well as key events, such as the fall of Allende, Berlinguer‘s alliances, the kidnapping and death of Aldo Moro, the Irpinia earthquake of 1980 which killed nearly 3000 people and which was felt in nearby Caserta, the imprisonment in Caserta of Sophia Loren for tax evasion and, of course, the rise of Berlusconi. All of these are examined in excruciating detail both for what happened as well as the effect they had on him.

It is a fascinating account of the intellectual apprenticeship of an Italian man as well as an interesting examination of Italian politics over the last forty or so years, which may not be always interesting to everyone but which, I must say, I very much enjoyed. Piccolo does not hold back. He spends pages and pages, for example, on Berlinguer’s subtle political shifts and his alliances with the traditional political enemies of his party but I never found it boring and now consider myself something of an expert on the subject! Using books and films, again described in great detail, is an interesting approach which works most of the time, though it does sometime require a good knowledge of Italian cinema. In other words, without a knowledge of Italian politics and culture, some of this book would certainly be lost on non-Italians though, as it is unlikely to make it into English, that might not be a concern. But if you do read Italian, I do recommend it.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 2013 by Einaudi
No English translation