A few years ago, I was walking with my wife and daughter up a steep narrow cobblestone street in the medieval center of Viterbo, a town just north of Rome that for many centuries was a papal summer capital. I noticed a tall man dressed aggressively for success, his clothing put together impeccably with a ferocity that struck me as uniquely Italian. He surveyed the passing strollers with an air of command from the doorway of a storefront papered with posters for Silvio Berlusconi’s political party, Forza Italia, a movement named after a soccer cheer. I nudged my wife and pointed to the man: she nodded, but I sensed she hadn’t seen what I had. I think you have to live in a country for a decade to see it through local eyes. Even today it’s hard to convey just what Berlusconi and his followers represent in Italy, unless you’ve lived through it.
A close friend who came to visit us during that stay in northern Lazio had been in Tuscany just before heading south to see us. Combining a dry wit with genuine and comfortable erudition, John was immediately able to put his finger on what centuries of papal rule had done to the landscape and even the air that one breathes at the northern border of what had once been a vast secular power, the Papal State. “Coming here from Tuscany was very much like entering Mordor,” John told me. And the rule of Silvio Berlusconi has certainly been a fraught national grasping for the One Ring of Power.
Forza Italia is often translated as “Go, Italy,” but really it amounts to a bizarre linguistic blend of “Yay, Team!” and “political tool” (in Italian, a political movement, viewed in utilitarian terms, is a “forza politica”). And utilitarian is what the foundation of Forza Italia was. Until forced to go into politics on his own, Berlusconi relied on his own pet prime minister, the long-forgotten Bettino Craxi. Craxi, who was regularly depicted in political cartoons in La Repubblica as a black-shirted latter-day Mussolini, defended Berlusconi, catered to him, vacationed with him (in Sardinia), and even stood up with him as best man at his second wedding. But then Craxi got in trouble with the law (for corruption and illegal arms sale) and finally died in exile, on the run from the law, at a beachfront resort in Tunisia.
The great and powerful Bettino Craxi dying alone on the North African shore necessarily evokes the death of Pompey the Great—his throat slit on an ancient Egyptian beach—and indeed the past thirty years have been a time in Italy comparable to the bloody civil wars and the death of the old Roman Republic. Welcome to Mordor indeed.
Berlusconi and Italian political history, ranging from the Aldo Moro kidnapping and murder to the grim atmosphere set by Berlusconi’s forced jollity, make regular appearances in Italian literature. Giorgio Vasta’s “Time on My Hands,” published in English by Faber and Faber last year, tells the story of three Palermo schoolboys during the 64-day kidnapping in 1978 that culminated in the former prime minister’s murder. The youthful trio decide to kidnap a schoolmate and reenact the Red Brigades’s exploit on a smaller, local scale.
From murder to bunga bunga is a long way, but the transition in Italy from the Years of Lead to the Years of Pop Jingles has felt like a shift from the bloody strife of revolution to the gray languors of a Stepford society. One Italian writer and intellectual—Michela Murgia, who went from selling time shares and working in a call center to bestselling novelist and candidate for the governor of Sardinia—has been experiencing the nature of political discourse in Italy in her campaign against a Berlusconi ally, Forza Italia’s incumbent governor Ugo Cappellacci.
Michela Murgia is a Sardinian author, and Sardinia is not exactly part of Italy. It’s a rough and tumble place, with a stunningly beautiful coastline and millennia of isolation and fierce independence. If the Tyrrhenian Sea’s three big islands are three island nations, the northernmost one, Corsica, has ties to France (it’s where Napoleon came from), the southernmost one, Sicily, has mixed ties to southern Italy (“the continent,” the Sicilians call it), while the middle one, Sardinia, has if anything ties to the industrial and financial north. The Kingdom of Piedmont was originally the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia. Its capital, Turin, was the first capital of a united Italy, and the kings of Piedmont and Sardinia became the kings of Italy. Disastrous, terrible kings, but kings they were.
Sardinia’s centuries-old tradition of fierce independence—think Gavino Ledda and his memoir, turned into the classic movie Padre Padrone by the Taviani brothers—has been tamed in the past thirty years by huge forces of real estate speculation and resort development. One major operator behind those forces has been Silvio Berlusconi who is indeed a media tycoon but was a real estate magnate long before that.
Murgia has found that her first love is politics, her second love writing (I was told this, sadly, by her book editor, Paola Gallo). Her books, in fact, are only novelistic in part.
The first book, Il mondo deve sapere (The World Needs to Know) developed out of a blog she wrote about her experiences working in a Sardinian call center for an American corporation. It was made into a movie by noted director Paolo Virzì, with a different title: Tutta la vita davanti (Your Whole Life Ahead of You). It is a book with a strong focus on issues of contemporary working lives and issues of alienation and equality.
Her second book, Accabadora (published in English by Quercus with the same title, translation by Silvester Mazzarella) explored equally timely issues. The main character, Bonaria, becomes an accabadora in her small village, using her knowledge and herbs and folk medicine to administer euthanasia to the dying and the hopeless. Shunned as a ministering angel of death, she adopts an unloved child of a widow, and tries to shield her adopted daughter from the nature of the work she does. When the child, Maria, discovers Bonaria’s true calling, she flees to Turin where she lives a rudderless life, devoid of community. Her third book, Ave Mary, is a collection of essays exploring one of Murgia’s areas of interest, theology.
She also publishes prolifically in magazines and newspapers.
It came as little surprise, then, when she chose to run for governor of her home province. The election will be held this Sunday, February 16th—tomorrow.
The party she represents is called Sardegna Possibile: A Possible Sardinia. She is a hard-working, serious candidate, and she has won high marks in political surveys in terms of voter trust. But she is outspent and up against the higher name recognition of her opponents: one the incumbent governor, the other the candidate of the Democratic Party, Italy’s major center-left party.
It was an exchange with the incumbent governor, Ugo Cappellacci, that garnered the greatest national attention of the entire election. In a sharply worded Facebook post, Murgia denounced Cappellacci as the “Schettino” of Italian politics. That would be Mario Schettino, the Lord Jim-like captain of the Costa Concordia, who abandoned ship and is now facing trial. Schettino’s sorry performance caught international attention when recordings surfaced of Italian Coast Guard Captain Gregorio Maria De Falco telling Schettino to “get the **** back aboard” the ship.
Cappellacci’s response came a few days later, during an interview on a radio program. “Odd that she, the Costa Concordia of politics, should call me Schettino,” he tells the two political shock-jock hosts. Prompted to explain his meaning, Cappellacci launches into a fairly good imitation of his political leader’s oratorical style. In perfect Berlusconian form, he says: “Well, first of all, in terms of tonnage, she’s certainly got it all.” Second, he says, she’s bound to shipwreck. And third—in a reference to a political controversy that has hounded his administration and that he has turned to his own good use: “She does her fair share of bowing to shipowners.” This is a reference to a running debate over ferry service and fare pricing.
Though it’s a radio show, there’s video footage, and immediately after the governor’s response two female musicians in the background do almost simultaneous head-rolls and grimaces. Italy at large had much the same reaction: Il Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s largest papers, referred to a political atmosphere that was “decisamente non oxfordiano”—certainly not the climate of an Oxford debate.
It is hard for an American to see just what the role of Berlusconi is in Italian life. We tend to laugh at certain Italian phenomena: Tony Soprano is both funny and frightening. The idea of a “No Time for Sergeants” approach to the Mafia in Italy is less plausible, because living under the Mafia has all the funny of life under Nazi occupation, something the country experienced from 1943 to 1945.
Similarly, life under a bunga bunga buffoon is not funny, anymore than Cappellacci’s jest was. It’s subtly and pervasively oppressive. Princeton professor Maurizio Viroli explored this issue in his book The Liberty of Servants. Berlusconi’s rule, Viroli says, “is a combination of the three forms of corrupt government: demagoguery, tyranny, and oligarchy.” Calling it “a remarkable example of Italian political creativity,” he adds that it is also a distressingly recurrent feature of Italian political history, “namely, the failure to preserve liberty.” Living under Berlusconi, in other words, doesn’t improve your manners. Just take a look at AJ Soprano.
In his book, Viroli refers to the subtle chilling effect of what he calls Berlusconi’s princely court, a court in the Renaissance tradition, where what is shaped is the manners and mindset of every courtier. Berlusconi’s court, he clarifies, counts at least one million courtiers, and perhaps more, since its boundaries are so diffuse. Like the Medici, who were great patrons of the arts but also plutocrats and dictators, Berlusconi does a great deal of his political business out of his homes, one of which is outside Milan, and one—an opulent vacation place—is on Sardinia. And it is this promiscuous mixing of personal and political power that is so subtly subversive. If Cappellacci wins and Berlusconi is confined to house arrest, as seems very likely, will the governor of Sardinia become the former prime minister’s accommodating prison warden? A prison warden whose idea of dialectical debate is to call his opponent fat.
To come back to Murgia, the idealistic politician who is very likely to lose in this Sunday’s election. She is a serious reformer. She follows in the political and literary footsteps of two major Sardinian forerunners—Antonio Gramsci and Grazia Deledda, the second woman to win the Nobel prize for literature. The comparisons are not idle, and while Michela Murgia may not receive a Nobel prize, her attitude to her literary success was very much like that of her illustrious forerunner and compatriot. Informed she had won in 1927, after a decade of rumors and speculation, she simply said, “Già” (what a British person might render as “right”) and got back to work.
Video courtesy of UN GIORNO DA PECORA—RAI RADIO2.