Friday, October 10, 2014

John Hooper's "The Italians": Book Review

Hooper, a correspondent for both the Guardian and The Economist, reports as other English journalists have from Italy, guiding us into its fabled history, abundant culture, and its current predicament. As he cites Luigi Barzini's book of the same simple title, written a half-century ago about a far poorer and more rural country, John Hooper repeats Barzini's gambit. Both wrote to inquire why a territory so rich in art, design, literature, ideas, and innovations for so long remained divided into regional factions, bitter rivalries, and left itself open to coups, slavery, and invasion.

This heritage casts a long shadow; "sudden breaks with the past have rarely been for the better," he concludes, after introducing us to the geographical diversity and historical legacy which attract so many to visit Italy's dramatic setting and splendid landmarks. Underneath this charm, as with other British male observers, as Beppe Severgnini's "La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind" has noted (2005), Hooper tends to promote wise skepticism about the ability of Italians to cope, given their slippery nature to evade the truth or to multiply its meanings as deemed fit.

"The real truth will remain unresolved, and may well even be different"; this observation by the presiding judge at the Amanda Knox murder trial could be inscribed in marble, Hooper avers, memorialized in the center of Rome. Truth is relative, and all the players in the Italian game have their own version to peddle. Politics, a system of nepotism, a preference to hire one's own, a delay in leaving home by children in their late twenties, and a reliance on cheap immigrant labor to do tasks the natives do not wish to carry out all weaken, Hooper reveals with care and statistics and anecdotes, the Italian power nowadays to cope and to carry on in staying ahead in a difficult European economy.

He finds meaning in the small quirks of its culture. A SIM card that allows two phone numbers both to be used reveals Vodafone's app Alter Ego as an Italian "local market initiative." One can switch numbers, or identities, to ease cheating. Masks appear as models of how people portray themselves.

Mixing "menefreghismo" with "furbizia," a "toxic blend" of mistrust brews. People deliberately try to run you down, look through you, and don't give a damn. When children are called "ragazzi" (kids) and addressed in the familiar "tu" form continues to about the age of 27 in his estimate, we can see how the close-knit family comes first, while the rest of us may be treated disdainfully and amorally.

Chapters roam around sport (the odd influence of the English endures as soccer coaches are called "Mister"; we learn why the Azzurri wear blue), language, customs, food, and the crucial "furbi" (the pushy, ballsy schlemiel who is despised but also grudgingly admired) and the "fessi," (the put-upon schlimazel maybe, the one who never gets any respect, the one plagued by bad luck and line-jumpers). This dichotomy of characters, for Hooper, forms a "vincolo esterno" or "external constraint" needed if Italy can rule itself effectively, given the tension of those who turn too cleverly to force their own way forward at whatever cost. Bureaucracies and evasions, meanwhile proliferate.

All wish to defend their own turf, and get under the counter what they hide from the authorities. While the "bella figura" endures as the epitome of how one should act no matter what, the "brutta" figura reminds Italians of their complicated past, when dictators and despots deluded many of them.

Hooper demonstrates how "il tavolo" stands for the table, but "la tavola" for all the abundant food heaped upon it, and the Mediterranean contexts old and new contributing to its cuisine and kitchens. "Gnocchi on Thursday" as stubborn habit reminds Italians of a tendency to find comfort in such food.

Other traditions, as with religion, may be fading as secular and consumer identities crowd out piety. But as with the tricky impact of feminism and sexual liberation, Hooper finds Italians still juggling habits as well as novelties in an attempt to integrate them. Meanwhile, as he shows poignantly, the suburbs encroach and the classic landscapes recede as retail stores overshadow steeples and towers.

Less romantic traditions also persist. Corruption, patronage, graft permeate society. Everyone can be bought. Justice is open to suasion. National identity itself breaks into a north-south division as dialects fade, but as other tendencies harden, while unhappiness seems to spread around the nation.

"Pinocchio is not just a moral tale about the perils of lying. It is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of innocence." Hooper shows how foreigners are often misled, by the seemingly casual nature of exchanges outwardly, to use "Ciao" without understanding the informality of this and the intimacy meant, as opposed to more respectful and formal terms of address, and for the time of day. And that in turn shifts, as outsiders give away their lack of knowledge, for regional differences endure here as in many aspects of life. Social boundaries remain in place, to keep titles firmly established, and to perpetuate class distinctions and honorific forms of address by status or degree.

This book conveys a lot of information and supports Hooper's reflections with many current sources. It reads often as if extended features from the press for which he writes, and it may have had some of its origins, I suspect, in his day job in journalism. But it updates Barzini's attempt to explain his people to the rest of us; it fills the need for a book of general interest which can serve as a reference, about a richer nation joined to Europe and to Africa more tightly than it had been fifty years ago.

He ends with an explication of the 2014 Oscar-winning film "La grande bellezza," which may be about Rome's decline as well as life's lack of purpose. While it speaks to today's subdued mood there, Hooper suggests a sly moral in its last scene, where the monologue admits: "Beyond, there is what lies beyond. I don't deal with what lies beyond." Life promotes itself, even if it all ends in death. This is a lesson applicable to a global audience, certainly, far beyond its setting on a rocky Italian shore. (Amazon US 2-1-15; reviewed by e-galley).


Tony Bailie said...

Hooper did a similar take on the Spanish

although I much preferred Giles Tremlett's (annother Guardian and Ecoonmoist journo) Ghosts of Spain.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Yes, Tony, although I left that out of this review, Hooper in a few asides refers to his Spanish stint. I have not read much about Spain lately, although you and I may have both found Cees Nooteboom's "Journey to Santiago" perhaps enjoyable? (I even have an Irish-language guidebook to that pilgrimage...) Thanks for the head's up on the Tremlett book, as I surely will wander through Spanish pages soon. I may (fingers crossed) see Italy for the first time in June 2016, so I am learning about it, after a long lapse, for the last time I read up on Italian lit + culture was back in grad school on the side, in the wake of Umberto Eco's breakthrough onto bestsellers' lists, and as medievalism lingered, mingled with Joycean themes, to my delight.