Reggina at home, from A Season with Verona


The game is at 8 pm. I wait out the last hour in the bar Bentegodi where a particularly heavy-weight thug whom I have never seen before is drinking heavily. “Where are they hiding those five thousand filthy terroni?” he demands. His pretty girlfriend hangs uncertainly on his arm. “Wait till I get my hands on them.”
Standing right beside him, I remark: “Bet there won’t be more than a thousand.”
At once he picks up my accent, but is too drunk to place it.
“De che rassa sito?” he demands in dialect. What race are you? It’s the urgent question that underlies the game, the season, everything. “De che rassa sito?” he repeats, belligerent.
“Do I look Calabrian?” I ask.
His girlfriend pulls him away. Already, shamefully, I’m hoping Reggina will not be fielding any blacks. Despite the ban on bottled drinks, I pick up two bottles of beer from the fridge.
As the game kicks off, the evening is scorching, the sun still fierce and blindingly low. The sud is milling with flags, booming with noise. The ritual insults are exchanged with the Reggina fans, who apparently pulled the emergency cord on their train and tried to load their pockets with stones from between the sleepers. Someone has a banner “DIO NON SALVI LA REGGINA.” God, don’t save the Queen. Continue reading

A Chorus of Cruelty, on Giovanni Verga

‘Cruelty,’ wrote Emil Cioran, ‘is a sign of election, at least in literature. The more talented a writer is, the more ingeni¬ously he puts his characters in situations from which there is no escape; he persecutes them, he tyrannizes them, he traps them in dead ends, he forces them to run the whole gamut of their agony.’
Of no writer could this provocative intuition be more true than the great Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga. Yet eighty years after his death the author of the Cavalleria rusticana continues to be presented to the public as first and foremost a humanist worthily celebrating the passions of the ordinary man and drawing attention to his difficult lot through well-documented description of changing social conditions. G. H. McWilliam concludes the introduction to his new translation of Verga’s Sicilian novellas thus:

‘Verga’s great merit lies in his ability to arouse compassion whilst avoiding completely all traces of sentimentality, and this is because he presents life as it is, free from the distortions of idealistic perspec¬tives. His narratives are an unfailing source of interest, not only to those who care about good literature, but also to the historian, for whom his novels and short stories provide an invaluable record of social conditions at a critical stage of modern Italian history.’

Reading such reassuring words one is bound to ask whether there mightn’t be some taboo that prevents us from saying what it really is that draws us so powerfully to this man’s violent and irretrievably pessimistic stories. Continue reading

Art and Eschatology

Eschatology is enjoying a heyday.
Global warming, global terrorism, food crises, water crises, oil conflicts, culture wars, have all intensified the impression that human ‘civilization’ is accelerating towards self destruction. These are circumstances in which art and artists tend to get political or, alternatively, resign themselves to insignificance.
In literature, the phenomenon is exacerbated by the difficulty many people have reading for anything beyond content and immediately communicated emotion. As Borges once remarked, since most critics have little sense of the aesthetic, they have to find other criteria for judging a book, political persuasion being the most obvious; it is almost a rule that the big literary prizes go to those writers involved in a political struggle or simply siding with the victims in the world’s upheavals. Indeed, a political ‘alibi’ of this kind seems almost essential for a ‘serious’ novelist nowadays.
At such a moment, it may be worth looking at the work of a man who had a rather unusual take on the relationship between art and politics, who saw the two as intimately related and mutually conditioning, art being allowed a certain, perhaps even pervasive influence, but not in the crass sense of grinding a political axe, or even exploring controversial situations; on the contrary, art might be most ‘useful’ when, to all intents and purposes, most ‘irrelevant’. Continue reading


Prajapati was alone. He didn’t even know whether he existed or not.

I too am alone. It’s fairly early in the morning. About 8.30. I am translating a book by an Italian writer called Roberto Calasso. The book is called Ka and amounts to a creative reconstruction of Indian mythology. The lines above are the first lines of the second chapter. This chapter deals with the god Prajapati, the oldest and first god, the Progenitor, and what is worrying me is that the Italian says, ‘Non sapeva neppure se esisteva o non esisteva.’ Should I have written: ‘He didn’t even know whether he existed or didn’t exist’? Why does that sound rather odd to me in English, but not in Italian? Was the repetition of a key verb like ‘exist’ important? How far does the English auxiliary ‘didn’t’ truly recall the verb it picks up? I can’t decide. And frankly, although alone, I am very aware of existing. I tend to fidget when there’s a problem, right hand thrust in my hair, toes twitching in sandals, because the day is hot, promises to be hotter. For a moment my body gets in the way of my mind. Then I decide that the best thing you can do with an intuition is go with it. Continue reading

Hell & Back

“Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” the rich man asks Jesus. “Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor,” is the reply, “and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” At which the rich man is sorrowful and turns away. “It is easier,” Jesus remarks to his disciples, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Some 1300 years later, banished from his native Florence and thus largely bereft of this world’s goods, Dante Alighieri, politician, poet, and philosopher, was nevertheless still having trouble threading the eye of that needle. It seems there are other attachments aside from wealth that make it difficult for us to turn our backs on this world. Passion for one: Dante had loved a woman who rejected him, married someone else, then compounded the affront by dying young and thus remaining forever desirable. Ambition was another: aside from a cycle of secular love poems, Dante had written a provocative work of political philosophy suggesting the kind of state in which man would be free to pursue perfection. It was not a scenario in which divine grace appeared to be very important. Now, quite suddenly, he found himself confused, disoriented:

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

So begins the Inferno. It’s a feeling that many approach¬ing forty, as Dante was when he wrote the lines, will recognise. How to proceed? As daylight breaks in the dark wood, the poet sees a mountain before him. It is Purgatory, it is the way to Paradise. All is well. But suddenly three ferocious beasts are blocking his path. The needle’s eye is defended by a wolf, a leopard, a lion. They are lust pride and avarice, say some commentators. They are incontinence malice and mad brutishness say others. They are Dante’s Florentine enemies the French monarchy and the papacy, say yet others. Whatever or whoever, they are insuperable. Continue reading

Action Please!

The ancients loved action in their stories, and above all violent conflict, which was the testing ground of heroes. Here’s Homer:

Then royal Aias in his turn launched his long-shadowed spear. The heavy weapon struck the round shield of Priam’s son. It pierced the gleaming shield, forced its way through the ornate cuirass, and pressing straight on, tore the tunic on Hector’s flank. But he had swerved, and so avoided death. And now the pair, when each had pulled his long spear out, fell on each other like flesh-eating lions, or like wild boars, whose strength is not to be despised… Continue reading


In the autumn of 2004, shortly after his memorable interview with the President of the United States and following the publication of his elder son’s novelised autobiography, cruelly entitled Under His Shadow, celebrity journalist, broadcaster and documentary film-maker Harold Cleaver boarded a British Airways flight from London Gatwick to Milan Malpensa, proceeded by Italian railways as far as Bruneck in the South Tyrol and thence by taxi, northwards, to the village of Luttach only a few kilometres from the Austrian border, from whence he hoped to find some remote mountain habitation in which to spend the next, if not necessarily the last, years of his life. Ratting on your responsibilities, had been Amanda’s inter¬preta¬tion. She is the mother of his children. The responsibilities of a man at my time of life, the eminent and overweight Cleaver told his partner of thirty years, can be no more than financial, and, acting on a decision taken only hours before, he signed over to her a very considerable sum of money of which neither she nor their three surviving children could possibly have any immediate need, with the exception perhaps of the younger son Phillip who was always in need, but never accepted anything. Continue reading

Garibaldi – The Fighter

Suddenly you are looking in his eyes. Officially they’re brown, but for you they’ll always be blue. He is speaking in a soft, seductive voice. Glory if you follow, eternal shame if you don’t. Rome or Death. In a moment your destiny shifts. Incredibly, you have volunteered. You are given a red shirt an obsolete rifle, a bayonet. You are taught to sing a hymn full of antique rhetoric recalling a magnificent past, foreseeing a triumphant future. You learn to march at night under all weathers over the most rugged terrain, to sleep on the bare ground, to forget regular meals, to charge under fire at disciplined men in uniform. You learn to kill with your bayonet. You see your friends killed. You grow familiar with the shrieks of the wounded, the stench of corpses. If you turn tail in battle, you will be shot. Those are his orders. If you loot you will be shot. You write enthusiastic letters home. You have discovered patriotism and comradeship. You have been welcomed by cheering crowds, kissed by admiring young women. Italy will be restored to greatness. From Sicily to the Alps your country will be free. Then, with no warning, it’s over. A politician has not kept faith. An armistice has been signed. Your leader is furious. You hardly understand. Rome is still a dream. Disbanded, you receive nothing: no money, no respect, no help to find work. But years later when he calls again, you go. You will follow him to your death.
Such was the experience of many thousands of Italians who volunteered to fight with the insurgent, adventurer and patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi in the series of uprisings, battles and full-scale wars that finally brought about a unified and independent Italy in 1860. The long and mountainous peninsula had been broken up into a dozen and more states after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Through the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance these had at least been run by Italians, but around 1500 French, Spanish and later Austrians armies moved in to place client monarchs on Italian thrones and in some cases to annex territory directly. Continue reading

Latin Lover Meets Lazio

Is there any more subtle relief than when, opening your wallet to pay some miserable bill, you find between the bank-notes a ticket for a big match: “Lazio vs Verona, Stadio Olimpico Roma. Settore ospiti.” Future pleasures assured, strong emotions guaranteed, it no longer seems so bad shelling out for some ridiculous request of the wife’s, some expensive necessity of your kids’ education.
And can there be any finer feeling than that moment, walking north along the Tiber out of Rome, when the casual Sunday passers-by are all at once transformed into a purposeful crowd, the lads with their flags, the old men with their scarves and seat cushions? People are headed for the stadium. Only an hour and a half to go before kick off.
Beer and sandwich beside me, I sat on the parapet of the Ponte Duca D’Aosta to soak up the scene and see what the local paper had to say about the game. After yet another defeat, the Hellas boys are in disarray. Their big Danish central defender Martin Laursen has accused his team-mates of not trying. Perhaps the team is about to go to pieces.
But Il Messaggero had nothing to say about the explosive situation in Verona’s dressing room. Instead the paper was concentrating all its attention on another dysfunctional family: in the small northern town of Novi Ligure a sixteen year old girl and her boyfriend had stabbed to death the girl’s mother and younger brother. “She was a completely normal and very charming girl,” says the next door neighbour. Continue reading

Night Walk

The Ston’ench, so-called, or so pronounced, closed a while back, robbing us of our only local. Now it has reopened as Il Ranch Roccie Rosse and late on a Saturday evening, under considerable pressure from a bored twelve-year-old, I and my wife Rita are being pushed out of the house to go and investigate. “At least a Coke,” she demands.
That’s the Stonehenge, for those unfamiliar with an Italian take on English names, and the Red Rock Ranch. The place is just over a mile to the south following one of the steep ridges that run down from the Alps into the north Italian plain.
“Only if you walk it,” I tell Lucia.
It’s a condition that will usually stymie any proposal coming from a daughter who is sloth incarnate. But the girl is immediately on her feet rummaging for torches. A night walk is different; especially cross-country in pitch dark or starlight. We’ll have to pass the Witches’ Fountain, the Pilotòn, the Castello di Montorio. Lucia loves horror films. She loves being safely scared. “But Dad can walk ahead,” she says slamming the door behind us, “to break the cobwebs across the path.” She hates cobwebs. Continue reading