By Edoardo Nesi. ( English translation of “Storia della mia gente”, tr. by Antony Shugaar ) . Other Press, New York, 2012. 163 pp. ISBN 978-I-59051-554-9.
Fascinating, sad, lyrical and yet hopeful book about the rise and decline of modern Italy, a decline due to an open embrace of globalization by governments and ideologues who did not care about Italy or care to understand the race to the bottom and their fantasy of greed. Surely, Italy is an exemplar of what is happening everywhere due to globalization.
From the unique perspective of a reflective writer who also is the last owner/manager of a family weaving mill in the Tuscan town of Prato, Nesi writes of his early literary development and in parallel of his experiences as a factory owner in a sad period of Italian history.
In the chapters concerning writing and writers, Nesi shares his love of F. Scott Fitzgerald, of whom he remarks:
“[ . . . Fitzgerald ] managed to put into words the elusive and nebulous material that so often makes up our finest and most crystalline thoughts, the ones of which we’re proudest, the sacred ones, the ones we feel are ours and ours alone, private and inexpressible, and inexpressible precisely because they are private: the very essence of our understanding and sensibilities, as well as any author’s Holy Grail, because their understanding lasts only the duration of a spark, and then vanishes, incredibly delicate and as fragile as a tropical plant of thought, inevitably leaving behind it a stab of regret that we’ve lost something crucial” [ pp 34-35]
Nesi also translated David Foster Wallace’s book: Infinite Jest into Italian, and is a devoted reader of Joan Didion.
In regard to the heady days of Italy after WWII, there is a beautiful passage about his father-in-law Sergio Carpini – designer and producer of many fine Italian fabrics, a proud man, yet one whose work as a fabric creator was essentially marginalized into a footnote – perhaps symbolic of what has happened to much of Italy itself. [ pp. 76-79 ]
We come to share his deep concern about the future of this beautiful country and also feel a nobility and honour always present in her people. At one point, Nesi writes about accompanying authorities on a ‘raid’ on a sweatshop in Prato. These places often employ illegal Chinese immigrants, as in this case, and are often run by Chinese owners. Working and living conditions are terrible – yet these conditions may be better than in China. In one section he writes of the Italian fire inspectors, health inspectors and police:
“Instead, what you seem to see is that they are working with something that closely resembles pride, walking tall in the knowledge that they are the last link in a system of values that commands respect and should be fiercely defended, which ultimately takes concrete form in one of the few principles concerning which we all agree in unison, a principle that therefore defines us, we Westerners: our adherence to the deep-seated sense of justice that underlies the ideas that helped shape our body of labour laws, that old and tattered piece of equipment, still gleaming after all these years, a mechanism that was crafted precisely in reaction to the kind of monstrous exploitation of human beings that I see right here before my eyes, [ . . . ]” [ p. 111 ]
Nesi has only scorn for economists ( such as Francesco Giavazzi ) who touted the so-called “Systema Italia” as a path to a golden future, and who worked with weak governments to sell out the country to rapacious free-trade deals. For example he says at one point:
“Evidently the economists didn’t know that our small-scale industrialists, manufacturers of fabrics and shoes, bathroom fixtures and household appliances and ceramic tiles and son on, had neither the money nor the lines of credit from banks, nor the ambition nor the luxury, neither the personnel nor the talent, nor the courage nor the recklessness, and neither the vision nor the faith in the future to risk everything they’d built up until that moment, having started out with so little and having been blessed by such great good fortune, that it was ridiculous even to think that an industrial system of small manufacturers could board a plane and move to the opposite side of the planet [China] and shoot up in size over the course of just a few short years . . .” [ p. 136 ]
The book ends with his reflections on a stirring mass protest in Prato – a protest whose giant ( locally made ) banner read: Don’t shut Prato Down”. There is no tidy solution to everything in this book. The author walks a thin line between despair and some kind of redemptive fortitude. We do read of several people commenting to him and thanking him for his insights from an earlier book of a similar theme: Age of Gold.
It is hoped that through his writing he is helping his compatriots ( and us all ) to realize and share what has been lost and what we still have of value in this Wal-Mart world.