The book on perplexing Italians

By Elisabetta Povoledo International Herald Tribune

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 29, 2005

MILAN Being Italian, says the columnist Beppe Severgnini, is a full-time job. "We never forget who we are, and we take pleasure in confounding those who observe us," he notes.
As a matter of fact, Italians are so profoundly perplexing that trying to explain – and demystify – what it means to be Italian to those who (regrettably?) aren’t has practically become Severgnini’s full-time job.
He has a daily online forum called, predictably, "Italians" on the Web site of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, www.corriere.it, and he has written several books on the subject.
This month, Rizzoli published "La Testa degli Italiani" (The Italian Mind), Severgnini’s most systematic probe of the national psyche yet, currently at the top of best-seller lists. From the back cover it teases: Are you ready for the Italian jungle?
Gingerly guiding the reader through a hypothetical 10-day obstacle course in and around airports, roads, trains, hotels and condominiums, painstakingly decoding centuries’ worth of unwritten rules and regulations, Severgnini seems to conclude that Italy may be one joyous muddle that no foreigner can ever really be ready for.
"Italy intoxicates. I’ve seen it. Foreigners come, they become inebriated, but then after a while delusion sets in," Severgnini said during a lively interview in a downtown Milan café.
The book, he explained, doesn’t encourage the gaga phase but wants people to see Italy for its good things, without using these assets as an alibi to justify the country’s shortcomings.
Severgnini also wants to knock down literary stereotypes about Italy, which, he said, basically fall into two categories: Italy as heaven (romanticized by American women who fall in love with brawny suntanned plumbers) or Italy as hell (vilified by British male authors who see only Mafia and intrigue under every cobblestone).
Truth, for the author, is somewhere in between. "I say Italy is a sort of unusual purgatory, full of proud and curious lost souls," he said.
His American publisher, Doubleday, commissioned the book, which will come out in English next year, as a sort of update on Luigi Barzini’s classic study of the Italian character, "The Italians," first published in 1964.
Severgnini had warned his editors at Doubleday that he wasn’t going write another "watercolor about the quirkiness of Italy."
Taking the hard line now has him a little worried. "People have constructed a sort of Tuscany of the mind, and some may not want to muck up that watercolor," he said. But a watered-down version of reality, he said, would have made him guilty of perpetuating the very myths he’s trying to expose.
That’s why laugh-out-loud-funny ruminations on, say, Italians and traffic lights (red lights, he writes, are a pretense for interpretation and deliberations of the sort: What kind of red is it? A not quite red; red or a quasi-red; or a relative red? "We think about it a little and then we pass") are tinged with subtle recriminations on the moral relativity applied in many situations (when it involves fiscal issues à la carte, morality is practically a national sport).
Severgnini is a keen observer of human nature, a talent he honed as a correspondent for the daily Il Giornale and then at the Corriere. Years spent abroad, mostly in Britain and the United States, and a seven-year stint as the Italian correspondent for the Economist (from 1996 to 2003) helped give him the distance to watch his compatriots with amused insight.
He clearly loves the country he describes as a place that can "drive you mad and send you into ecstasy in the range of 100 meters and 10 minutes," and he’s clearly besotted with the locals and their struggle to survive the pleasurable chaos.
But he’s also worried about his country’s future, fretting that Italy’s pluses may turn into long-term minuses. Overindulgence should not become a sort of defection to excuse bad behavior, he says. "The sensuality of people, the good food and wine, the beauty in which we are soaked should be a complement to a sober life," he said, peering through dark-framed glasses that give the silver-haired 48-year-old a vaguely professorial air. "But the side dish is now becoming the main course."
After pages of wry observations – having cappuccino after 10 a.m. "might even be illegal"; "the Italian family is an unemployment office"; "when you hear an Italian invoke legality be sure he has something illegal in mind" – the book ends on a rather bitter note.
The Italy at the dawn of the 21st century, he claims, very much resembles Venice at the end of the 18th, "a continuous party, an interminable carnival."
Historians will recall that Venice’s giddy self-absorption at the time preceded a hasty capitulation to Napoleon and the end of a legendary 1,000-year-old republic. Severgnini reads similar warning signs in the present.
"Our sunset may be playful and sumptuous, but it is still a sunset," he writes, laying a certain amount of blame for Italy’s decline on its lackluster political class, which he seems to find deficient across the political spectrum. His most pungent barbs are directed against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who he says "promised to be a captain that would invert the route, but he worried mostly about the comfort of his cabin and ran aground.")
After Severgnini’s very funny "An Italian in Britain" (1990) and "Ciao America" (2003), the new book comes off as a more mature work, one that should force Italians who read it to become at least a little introspective because the nation’s future is at stake.
Changing Italy’s downward spiral "will only depend on us," he said, describing the nation as an "intelligent, beautiful, elegant, sociable but undisciplined girl." The point, he writes, is to convince ourselves that "the Italian mind is a jewel, not an alibi."

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