Thursday, 17 December 2009

86 & 87 - 'The World from Italy' by George Negus & 'Also Sprach Bellavista' by Luciano De Crescenzo

Follow me, dear reader, to Italy if you will (metaphorically, of course - I'm not offering to pay for your air fare). Today's bumper post is discussing life, love and philosophy in the land of the Caesars as seen by two authors with very different backgrounds. There is also a little tale to tell about how I came to be in possession of these works and what connection they have with my life. Intrigued? Settle back with a plate of pasta and a nice Chianti, and I'll tell you a story...

I stumbled across the first of these books, George Negus' 'The World from Italy', in a second-hand bookshop in the Victorian country town of Daylesford a few years back. Old George, for the non-Australians among you, is a fairly well-known journalist and television personality with a background in political and current affairs reporting, and his book dates from his year's 'sabbatical' in Italy around the turn of the century. Far from being a travel book, however, 'The World from Italy' promotes Italy as an example for the rest of the world to follow when it comes to lifestyle and concentrates on three main areas in which it excels: football, food and politics. Bear with me...

According to Mr. Negus, the reason that Italy is such a popular destination for tourists and immigrants alike is its people's ability to enjoy the finer things in life. Football and food are probably self-explanatory, but the politics angle is based on the way Italians actively engage in discussing the running of their country, unlike the apathetic Anglo-Saxon approach to what should be a concern of everyone. This Latin involvement in daily political discussion, long lunches with the family and the Sunday evening ritual of calcio are apparently what makes life in Italy worth living.

It's an interesting book, but it would definitely be better were it not for the writer himself. Negus comes across as a bit of a smug know-it-all, never content to let ideas speak for themselves when he can hammer the point home (with a reinforced-steel sledgehammer). You get the impression that Negus sees anyone with a different view to his as a little deficient in the brains department, and he's going to let you know about it too. As for his discussions on football... Well, as a lifelong player and fan, I really don't need his patronising ill-informed views on the 'Beautiful Game' to tell me why it's so important.

To be fair, although he does bang on a bit, Negus can articulate some interesting ideas, and the political section of the book is probably the best. His discussion of the Italian origins of 'The Third Way' of politics is fascinating and a good wake-up call for those who thought Tony Blair came up with the idea all by himself. Italy's system of politics, with most areas of the political spectrum represented, may seem strange to those of us accustomed to a predictable two-party system (as is virtually the case in Australia), but it certainly makes life interesting. How interesting? Well, when I turned on the computer this morning, one of the first stories I saw was about Silvio Berlusconi's bad day (smashed in the face with a statue) - now that does not happen back home...

This discussion of 'The Third Way' leads me neatly on to the second of my reviews, 'Also Sprach Bellavista' ('Thus spake Bellavista'), a wondeful book which I picked up when I was living in Germany just over ten years ago. I was teaching English at a private language school, and every Monday night after my class, I stayed behind to join in an Italian class (which consisted of five or six Italiophile German women and yours truly). Anyway, one week one of my fellow students was raving about a book she'd read by an Italian author and, somehow, persuaded us all to buy it too. Very glad she did actually.

Where Negus spoke of Italian lifestyle and how the rest of the world could take a leaf out their book, De Crescenzo, Neapolitan by birth, wrote (and still writes) of the differences in philosophy between not only Italy and the world, but also between his beloved Napoli (Naples) and the rest of Italy (especially the North). The name, of course, evokes Nietzche's classic 'Also sprach Zarathustra', and this book is, at heart, philosophical. Don't be put off though; this is not philosophy as you know it...

The book is divided into two alternating strands. In the first, we follow enjoyable philosophical discussions on the nature of Love, Freedom and Power, and where Naples stands in the world; in the second, De Crescenzo relates funny, poignant and (amazingly) true stories from the streets of Naples, which illustrate some of the more abstract truths outlined in the discussion chapters. The parables about ingenious football fans who will do anything to avoid paying for a ticket - not because of the cost but because of the principle -, normal people obsessed with the lottery to the extent of consulting psychics and gurus, and arguments on buses which attract a (participative) crowd, who then need to jump off the bus quickly before it goes (they only got on to join in the discussion): all of these stories help to give us that insight into the Neapolitan psyche that De Crescenzo outlines in the first strand.

The discussions on Love, Power and Freedom, in which the fictional (but highly autobiographical) Professor Gennaro Bellavista expounds his views in the presence of his friends are superbly structured and by no means one sided. The other characters give as good as they get, whether it's Doctor Palluoto, the emigrant living in Milan who has a more objective view of Naples and its failings, the first-person narrator, an emigrant engineer who has returned for the holidays, or Salavatore and Saverio, two working-class men (although not working that much...) providing comic asides and putting away the Professor's excellent wine.

Bellavista's main point is the contrasting urges of Love and Freedom, the importance of balancing your behaviour between the two ideals, and the need to avoid Hate (the opposite of Love) and Power (the opposite of Freedom). This middle way (or even Third Way) leads to a healthier, more balanced style of life, even if the majority of people lean either towards Love (like our Neapolitan friends) or Freedom (apparently, where Naples is the centre of the realm of Love, London is the capital of the empire of Freedom- make of that what you will...) to differing extents.

It's fascinating reading, written in a style which both entertains and makes you take stock of where you would stand in Bellavista's description of people's characters. Having had a brief dalliance with Power (didn't care for it), I'm back in the area of Freedom trying to balance my desire to be left alone with the need for human contact. Of course, if I had more money then it would be a lot easier; however, Bellavista has the answer to this one too. It's not a matter of earning more money, but lowering my expectations of my living standards. Glad that's sorted then...

However involved the discussions get, humour is never far from the surface though, and that is what makes this book (and Italians?) so entertaining. Let me leave you with an example (my translation) of an extract from a discussion between Salvatore Coppola, Deputy Replacement Caretaker of 58 Via Petrarca, and Doctor Passalacqua, one of the residents, on the subject of statistics.

Passalacqua - Do you know what that is, statistics?

Salavatore - Just vaguely, I was never much good at school. But, if I've understood it correctly, I might be wrong, correct me if I am, well, if someone put my backside in an oven and my head in a fridge, then, statistically speaking, I should be feeling pretty comfortable.

There's more to life than economics :)