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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller


Mario Fortunato
Traduction de Bettina Gabbe

Texte intégral

No. Ancora una volta: nessuna patria. Non in Patria, né
in Europa e neppure Altrove. (Anche perché, detto per
inciso, l’Altrove non si trovava più da nessuna parte:
tutto uguale, tutto uniformato al basso.)

1I was born in the south of Italy. Cirò, province of Crotone, Calabria. A middle-class family, agnostics for many generations, with a little Jewish blood hidden in there somewhere. The landscape — not yet sullied by eight-story buildings right there on the water’s edge, but on the contrary, still well-preserved by poverty — suggested, in every sense, silence and sobriety. It was a rugged, rather harsh, and unenticing landscape. The sea (the Ionian Sea) possessed the same characteristics: to reach it, tremendous odysseys of a few kilometers on dirt roads, real, heavily sweated excursions under an overhead sun; on the beach not even a shadow of a bar, or dancing, or beach huts. The village: works in progress everywhere, which made it seem like the most ill-fated banlieu of Tripoli. And all Catholic, ever so Catholic: with the habit, very typical of these parts, of embarking on great discourses and world systems, while the roof of the house, look here, it’s falling in, or while the neighbors (“but how’s it possible?”) literally wander about with proverbial patches on the seats of their pants. Few young people: those who could fled, or better, emigrated. Whereas a lot old folk awaiting other worlds.

2But if the context (in every sense) prompted silence if one wanted to make a quick getaway, the family did not. The family, (a blessing, given the atmosphere) spoke mostly the language of irony and discretion. At the time this language seemed to me, in sum, to be that of all refugees, which one can be — and how — without even leaving one’s own country.

3Well then: a very liberal and witty lawyer father, a housewife mother with a sincere passion for hypochondria, brothers and sisters already adult, flown off to study or marry. And long, memorable afternoons reading everything at the advice of this same family. But for the most part with a preference for the literature of other countries: the French, the English, the Germans ... and with the complicity of a centenarian grandfather of vast European culture, tall, somewhat a snob, I made plans: shall I live in Paris, Heidelberg, or London? (Budapest and Prague, given the times, seemed decidedly inaccessible: I was already on the Left, but within reason).

4There you have it: Europe was still a mental space. A space in which to travel far and wide in one’s imagination. Rapidly and with great desire.

5But what do I mean by that? That in the period of childhood and adolescence, both by origin and descent, I really knew very little about the concept of fatherland, and I didn’t care. Or rather, to tell it all, every time I heard it being mentioned, I thought there was definitely some swindle involved. Or again: the fatherland was the thing with a capital F in whose name, at eighteen years old, you were quite possibly flung to the other end of Italy, to Trent or to Aosta, for twelve months, all expenses paid, to “serve the fatherland” of all things. Or again: the fatherland (but here it shaded off into that somewhat more diabolical concept of State) was what imposed, at least once a year, the payment of taxes and surtaxes, scots and imposts, while they could also boast of: widespread unemployment, with proportionate emigration (to the North or to Germany), prehistoric public services, school attendance au degré zéro, highly dangerous hospitals, and a jolly, well-organized criminal underworld on a first-name basis with the politicos, then mostly Christian Democrats.

6In short: as a boy, I did not like the very concept of fatherland. It was something alien and suspect. And I continued to think of it like this as the years went on.

7I wasn’t living in the poor and deep south anymore, but had taken a step this way, towards Europe. Rome was large and tepid — not only because of the climate. Advantageously anonymous. But then, looked at carefully from the privileged observatories of university dining halls or from the ever-so-pleasant student dormitories, Rome didn’t comfort me a great deal. Nothing worked decently here either. Not a show or a concert to see at all costs (making sacrifices, but useful and profitable ones). Not a lecture at the university that began on time and with enough seats. And also outside the lecture halls: a city barbarized by terrorism, where everyone took his own, wretched faults out on to his dumbest neighbor.

8Meanwhile, I heard it being said around me, the era of television had been born. The medium had existed for some time, but only now was it unfolding in all of its geometric potency. Television was the true social glue of Italians. The new twelve-inch Fatherland.

9Now it was proclaimed that everything was spectacle, fiction, unreality: the same thin soup warmed up again for the consumption of a new public of users who, thanks to commercial TV, could now democratically bring on their own misfortunes before footlights and “open the debate.” While the imperious popularity ratings and audience-share only made one regret the passing of the time when aunts did not wander about television studios outlining the sociocultural causes for the screwing they’d done in their younger days, when grandparents, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins did not yet tear each other apart live from Studio 5, but washed their dirty linen with dignity in their own homes. And if it wasn’t long-time drug addicts explaining twice a day “what we are not, what we do not want,” it was intellectuals and critics making a fine display of obscene language, stupidities, and insults learned in the course of so many years of study. Or else it was ministers and politicians appearing on the small screen, omnipresent, with their inanities, ever more wondrously esoteric and vapid.

10This then was the Fatherland: a cock-up (metaphorical) between a put-down and a set-up.

11I convinced myself that there was a great disaster all around me, but well-publicized on the hour by newspapers and journalists, without there being even one who, now and again, absent mindedly, would stand up and say: you build a subway like this, you manage a museum like that, and you make a hospital function like so. Nothing. One became ever more confused and out-of-it from the painfully detailed stupidities of behavior and economic crises resolved by firing people and deregulation. So, thanks also to the odd good book, I adjusted myself to living in a “Country without,” as a title of those years put it, and also maybe without a Country. From which I fled as often as possible and whenever I could: by air, by train, hitchhiking. In any case, away: a lover of abroad as all true provincials are, and discovering with some horror that our “model of development” was spreading, flooding all over Europe.

12So, after my early infatuation with efficiently run subways and competent bureaucracies, while running left and right in an attempt to escape from the Fatherland, I began to come to grips with the sinister and threatening London of the fearsome Mrs. Thatcher, with Berlin unified and economically devastated, with Paris lecturing everyone and then voting for Le Pen, with the medium- and small-sized cities which, on the glorious American model, exalt blacks who beat you up to the sound of rap because you’re white, and vice-versa.

13And certainly the Maastricht Parameters weren’t enough to soothe me. Perhaps I was still too young, but honestly I didn’t see the benefits.

14Already faded by the passing of a few, regretted seasons, a time of going to seek and make up new homelands almost everywhere in Europe, I found myself trapped, always and everywhere. Always uncomfortable. Everywhere: as Christopher Isherwood and a whole pack of books had warned.

15No. Yet again: no homeland. Not in the Fatherland, not in Europe, nor Elsewhere either. (Not least of all because, to make it quite clear, Elsewhere was no longer to be found anywhere: everything the same, everything homogenized and shrunk).

16And even during the Gulf War, where I went among the ruins and the tragedies, among journalists who frequently refused to leave their hotels, where they fattened themselves on their expense accounts, this sense of planetary homogeneity, of creeping cynicism, struck me, when between one bombardment and another one only heard discussions about going on live television and of: “Is war a just or unjust instrument? Pre-emptive or therapeutic?” As if they were all at a communal meeting. Still the same, even today.

17Uprooting, therefore. And a certain prejudice against sayings of the type: “My fatherland is writing,” followed by dreariness and mockery. Those little frigid, freezing, schoolmarmy squeaks, so very modern, never convinced me. And then I never gave a fig for “the text-as-listening,” or for “fictional-space,” or for “the word-whichdwells-in-silence.” Taken over by more sordid tasks (bills, rent, dermatitis, and South-American prices), I was looking instead for the strength to ask myself, with sincerity: but why replace one rhetoric with another? To go and join the queue of status-symbol literature, of intellectual pret-à-porter? My God, no. So as not to have to listen to conversations of that kind, I felt driven to seek the company of dentists, real estate agents, lawyers, office-workers, hairdressers. At least instead of the usual generic, empty nonsense, I could hear more scintillating and secular discussions about pooh and pee.

18So, by now, living in London, the doubt finally comes to me that it is not in search of homelands that one should go, but of a little good and simple civility — not much of it about. And I began, as in the old days, to see it in some trusted friend, from whatever point of the compass. In fact belonging is nothing more than this: the affection binding us to persons, or to things.

19In the meanwhile, economic Europe is born. The euro is born. But in England it’s not a done deal. I still need exchange rates, banks, even my passport. It will seem strange and unfriendly to say so, but I don’t mind it. It’s like an antidote to the prevailing rhetoric. It reminds me that Europe is something more than a simple coin.

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Born in Cirò, Calabria in 1958, Mario Fortunato studied philosophy in Rome. He is the author of poems, short stories, and novels. He has worked for radio and has contributed to several screenplays. Since 2000 he has been director of the Italian Cultural Institute in London. Authors such as Doris Lessing and Salman Rushdie signed an appeal against his planned removal by the Italian government. Mario Fortunato publishes regularly in the weekly magazine L’Espresso and the daily newspaper La Stampa.

Bettina Gabbe (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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