John Hooper is a supremely able and experienced foreign correspondent who has mastered a particular subgenre of his craft: the detailed and comprehensive study of individual countries – in his case, Spain and now Italy. His book The Spaniards has gone through successive editions and has become more or less obligatory reading for students of contemporary Spain; The Italians may well do the same for Italy.
The Italians is an example of the kind of reportage pioneered, I think, by the American John Gunther in the 1940s. In its way it is a sort of travel book, but without evocative pretensions. It is dependent for its arguments upon facts and statistics, but is characterised nevertheless by a strong personal presence. The result is rather like the sort of long dispatch that I imagine a literate and imaginative British ambassador might send to the Foreign Office towards the end of his posting.
The Italians does not for a moment presume to be conclusive – inclusive, perhaps, because the whole Italian essence is presented and discussed here, but always with reservations, doubts, personal preferences and entertaining asides. It is an admirable piece of work, unassuming but authoritative. If Hooper really were a diplomat instead of a reporter, it would surely earn him his knighthood.
What does it tell us? The book is divided into nineteen chapters, each in effect an essay upon one facet of the Matter of Italy. The first discusses the effects of the peninsula’s geography upon the national identity, the last discusses the present meaning of Italianness in a state that Metternich famously defined as being merely ‘a geographical expression’. All too many of us think we ‘know’ Italy; Hooper does not disabuse us, but he makes the subject infinitely more complex and demanding than we think. What Italy are we talking about? The Italy of the Veneto or the Mezzogiorno? The Mafia or the Vatican? Berlusconi or the Court of Cassation? AC Milan or La Scala? Little by little, with infinite care, Hooper tries to tease out particularities and generalities from a wilderness of exceptions.
I choose these four examples as illustrations because in each case they lead us into unexpected territory. Did we know, for instance, that not until 2005 did the Italian Republic have a legally confirmed national anthem? How many of us realise that there is not just one Mafia, but three – the Camorra in Naples, which is the oldest of them, Cosa Nostra in Sicily, which has more or less appropriated the title, and the ’Ndrangheta in Calabria, which most of us have never heard of? And what about the Italian judicial system? We generally think of it as stiflingly rigid, but Hooper tells us that the Court of Cassation, the supreme court of the system, is empowered with three statutory grades of leniency or forgiveness – the amnistia (amnesty), the indulto (pardon) and the condono (remission of sentence). And who would have guessed that the manager of AC Milan, the greatest Italian football club of them all, is still habitually addressed as ‘Mister’, because the club was founded by Britons in the century before last?
Singularities, surprises and anomalies, though, are not the bedrock of this book. There is hardly an aspect of Italian life that is not keenly analysed somewhere in these nineteen chapters. To illustrate the diversity of the place, for instance, Hooper tells us that Italians have twelve different words for coat hanger, while on the general fuzziness of Italian political life, he maintains that imprecision is actually highly prized – ‘for things to remain flexible, they need to be complicated or vague, and preferably both.’ Even so, since the four layers of government (local, provincial, regional and central) are seldom all of the same political persuasion, any big project can hardly be completed quickly: it took one company twenty-three years and some four hundred bureaucratic authorisations to get a new oilfield working.
Often Hooper brings culture into his analysis. In Italy, he says, what you get is seldom what you see. ‘The use of symbols and metaphors; the endless interplay between illusion and reality; the difficulty of getting at a common accepted truth: these are all things that make Italy both frustrating and endlessly intriguing.’ This leads him on to gestures, appearances, the fondness for masks, a Shakespearean quotation about Italian fashions and the overpowering Italian preoccupation – for better and for worse – with the idea of bella figura.
And so to the place of women in society. Here he notes the high rates of cosmetic surgery in Italy, the emphasis on show (the world’s biggest maker of sunglasses is Italian) and, of course, the prevalence of mummy’s boys in Italian family life. Since the 1950s, it seems, this phenomenon has even spawned an abstract noun, mammismo, and in an intriguingly complex way it leads Hooper on to the statistics that one in every twenty prostitutes in Italy is either transvestite or transsexual and that a quarter of respondents in a recent survey believed homosexuality to be an illness.
Contemporary government in Italy, it seems, is much as it always was. Mussolini once said it was ‘simply pointless’, and it still sounds daunting to a degree. The national weaknesses for nepotism and favouritism, the interference of those mafias, sometimes the deadweight of tradition and what Hooper calls ‘ideological ambiguity’ all make running the place hard going. In 2012 an international survey ranked Italy 72nd in the world for probity – six places behind Romania.
And yet, and yet… What a glorious old place it is! Hooper knows it, and so do we. There is its persistent innate holiness, quite aside from whatever the Vatican does – ‘wreathed in incense’, as Hooper says of everyday vocabulary. There is its general sense of kindness. There is its charm. And there is that intoxicating Italian preoccupation with bella figura – the cutting of a fine figure, an admirable figure, both for yourself and for others.
My own conclusion, drawn from this fascinating book, is that Italy in 2015 will be much as we have always thought of it, only a little less so as the world’s contagions creep in. And I must add, from personal experience, that the concept of bella figura is not only alive, but infectious as well. Coming home from Venice once I was required by the Heathrow customs officers to show them what was inside a slim red metal case nestling among my baggage. With a flourish I opened it for them, and out of it slid a lovely paragon of Italian style, the latest Olivettti portable typewriter of the day (immortalised now in museums of modern art and design around the world). So delightful was that everyday object, so inspired was my panache in displaying it, that the customs men actually clapped their appreciation. Just for a moment the bella figura of Italy had transfigured us all with pleasure, and they waved me graciously through.