Chapter 9 – Vignette
‘Everything else in Italy’: A journalist in Rome
Melbourne-born Desmond O’Grady, author of 14 books of fiction and non-fiction, writes from Rome for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and other publications, including some in the United States and Italy. He examined Italo-Australian connections in his Correggio Jones and the Runaways (1995). An Italian edition of Stages of the Revolution (2004), his biography of the Eureka Stockade’s Raffaello Carboni, was published in Italy in 2008 as Raffaello Carboni, garibaldino d’Australia (Roma, Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato). He has lectured in universities in Australia, Europe and the United States. According to historian and author Robert Pascoe, ‘Desmond O’Grady has had more influence than any other person in shaping Australian images of contemporary Italy’.
I did not plan to live in Italy. After Melbourne University I set out with a friend, Jim Griffin, to see the world. Naples was our first European port-of-call. To every remark made to me I replied with the only two Italian words I could string together: ‘poco dopo’ – ‘a bit later’. I was impressed with the vivid street life, particularly in the Spanish quarter. All life was lived in the streets, partly because the apartments were so small. Everything was mixed with everything else, according to the spaghetti principle. There was little division between the public and the private. Later I was to find there was no Italian word for privacy. I had a spurt of religious chauvinism when I attracted hostile stares and comments while attending mass at Naples Cathedral wearing shorts. My reaction was that I was just as much a Catholic as the Neapolitans, if not more so. This experience introduced me to the jealously guarded religious customs of Italy; a land where, as Martin Boyd (1958) wrote perceptively in Much Else in Italy, the Christian God has redeemed the pagan gods, whereas the spiritual world has been destroyed wherever puritans and materialists rule the roost.
While waiting to hitch a ride to Rome, I was edified by the comments of a Neapolitan, sitting in front of his apartment block, when we discussed the wartime German occupation in a melange of languages. He was forgiving and broad-minded: it was all ‘war is war’, ‘exceptional circumstances’, ‘the Germans were under pressure’. But when he talked about his English mother-in-law who was living with him, this man became so vitriolic that it seemed she was worse than the Gestapo. This was a fine example of the particular having prime importance for Italians. In Rome I found work and a Roman wife. We married two years after my arrival, and returned to live in Australia where I entered journalism. I became foreign editor of The Bulletin‚ then Douglas Stewart’s successor as its literary editor. After five years, for family reasons, we returned to Rome where I have lived since, writing for a crust and returning to Australia whenever I get a chance – which usually means an invitation for a launch of one of my books, or to give lectures.
Fast forward to the present. First impressions of Italy may be clear-cut, and those who follow from afar can make firm judgments about the country. But the longer one lives in Italy, the less assured the observer becomes. As they say in Sicily, those who seek truth are presumptuous. It is not that the facts are hidden, it is the context and connections which are often obscure. As John Cheever (1958) described splendidly in his story ‘The bella lingua’, all arrangements are so complicated that lucidity and scepticism give way when we try to follow the description of a scene in court, the negotiation of a lease, a lunch or anything else. Each fact or detail breeds more questions than it answers, and in the end we lose sight of the truth, as we were meant to. Here comes Cardinal Micara with the True Finger of the Doubting Thomas – that much is clear – but is the man behind us in church asleep or dead, and what are all the elephants doing in Piazza Venezia?
I arrived in Italy when the economic boom was getting underway. The country was being transformed from one that was largely agricultural, and badly damaged by the Second World War, to one of the world’s major industrial economies. Now it is stagnant in many spheres, from the demographic to the economic. Some industries cannot compete in the international market, and little has been invested in research or innovation. It is not all gloom but there is a feeling that the stuffing has fallen out of Italy quite recently, and at surprising speed. The only consolation is that there is a sharp awareness now that prospects are anything but rosy. Not all the blame lies with Silvio Berlusconi, but the hope that as prime minister he would bring Italy the success he enjoyed as a businessman, and as president of the Milan soccer club, has been disappointed. Italy has woken late to the effects of globalisation. Many of its smaller firms have no hope against similar firms in China and India which pay a fiftieth of Italian salaries. While it was on a Cold War frontier, Italy drew support from both the United States and the Soviet Union; that has ended now, and industries for which it was more important to receive political support than to strive to create better products have been left gasping, while the remittances from millions of its emigrants no longer arrive.
Such is the kind of assessment you can find in newspapers but I am more interested in deeper currents. I fear that the religious-based culture Martin Boyd appreciated is sliding from the sensuous to the hedonistic, while civil culture is being undermined because people are increasingly treated as consumers rather than citizens. Italy has become the land of the trendy: what is new is true. Much of Italian public life now is tacky. A sense of community is eroded by the tendency to view everything in political terms, and by a delight in setting people in opposition to one another, which may add spice to life but means that there is no acknowledgement of a common ground. The witless polemics which mark much of Italian public life are a reminder of the Florence described by Dante: sometimes I think that if southern Italy had remained of the Byzantine rite, it could be another Balkans.
Does anyone care? Italy attracts less interest than, say, 30 years ago, when it boasted artistic figures such as Federico Fellini and Eugenio Montale, and an industrialist such as Gianni Agnelli, while possessing notorious underworld bosses such as Toto Riina. There are fewer such figures today and, at the same time, Australian newspapers have less space for analytical articles. These days the Australian press seems to want frothy pieces about Italy – something warm and human – but does not regard the country as interesting, as well it might, on the grounds that it is grappling with the problems of modernity in its own way.
At times contemporary Italy seems uncertain of its identity, almost bent on collective suicide, and shaky about what constitutes the essentials of a human society. Compared to those of Australia, I find Italian institutions such as the political system, the magistrature and education amazingly shaky. Political considerations have led to magistrates becoming protagonists, while trials are so cumbersome that justice is rarely seen to be done, and laws and regulations often verge on the ridiculous. Most countries ask arriving air travellers to fill in a disembarkation card. This is not the case for Italy, and yet new arrivals are obliged to report to the police within eight days to request a permit to stay in the country. In Italy, it is said, nothing is planned and nothing decided. One of the unplanned aspects is the continual arrival of large numbers of illegal immigrants. Little attention is paid to these arrivals. Some are sent back to their country of origin; many are accommodated in temporary centres. Eventually, however, it seems that most such immigrants are absorbed into local society. Is the Italian lack of planning in this matter preferable to the rigidities evident in the Australian treatment of the Tampa refugees? I do not have the answer. To have clear ideas about Italy, one has to see it briefly, or from afar.
Boyd, Martin. 1958. Much Else in Italy: A Subjective Travel Book. London: Macmillan.
Cheever, John. 1958. ‘The bella lingua’. The New Yorker (1 March).
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.