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Turning the Page: Italian Literature, Fabulism and the Giro

From issue 86 • Words by Paul Maunder with illustrations from Matthew Burton

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Before Strava art, there was Harry Kipper. Tragically, while engaged in the act of tracing the word “Art” across Europe by bike in the early 1990s, Kipper, an English artist, went missing. And despite the best efforts of an investigative Italian television program, he was never found. However, Harry Kipper never existed. He was a hoax intended to show up the lazy journalism and arrogance of a right-wing television station. The perpetrators? A group of writers based in the Italian city of Bologna who preserved their anonymity by using the collective name Luther Blissett (the name of an England soccer player who briefly played for AC Milan in the ’80s).


Bologna, where this year’s Giro d’Italia starts, has long been home to radical counterculture and intellectuals. But Luther Blissett was not just a group of trouble-making cultural guerrillas. Together they produced the novel “Q” that was published in 1999 to widespread acclaim. A spy thriller set in the 16th century, Reformation-era Europe, the book was an allegory for the decline of the protest movement in the second half of the 20th century; and in its use of an amended copyright clause that allowed for free non-commercial reproductions, the book itself was rebellious.

Since “Q” was published, the collective has renamed itself Wu Ming, a Chinese term for anonymous, and continues to produce novels that use historical stories as metaphors for more recent history. In their 2007 novel “Manituana” the five writers created an alternative history for the American War of Independence, though the rhetorical target was really President George W. Bush’s nationalism. The writers have also taken aim at the corruption and greed of Italian politicians. And though their mode of production and publication challenges the traditional publishing model, Wu Ming is actually working within some well-established directions of Italian literature—because in books, as in cycling, there is a constant reflection upon and remodeling of the past. Italians love conspiracy theories and never believe the official version of events—haven’t we seen this with the death of Marco Pantani? Hence the Italians’ attraction of alternative histories. Finally, there is a tension between realism and fabulism.

That Italian writers are obsessed with the past is not surprising when one considers the relative youth of Italy as a country and Italian as a language. Modern Italy was created in 1860, when Giuseppe Garibaldi landed in Sicily and marched north to meet the Piedmontese Army, unifying the diverse regions of the peninsula under one flag. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and that moment, Italy had existed without a capital city, without a national language and with considerable interference from other European powers, particularly Austria and France.

Until 1860, Italian was not spoken nationally while every region had its own dialect. Indeed, even a century later, much of the country still spoke in regional dialects. In the 19th century, and those preceding it, Italian was a written language, formal and abstract, more suited to writing epic poetry or making a speech than buying pasta at the local shop. It was born in Tuscany in the 14th century to three fathers: the “three crowns” of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. The work of these three writers is the bedrock of the canon of Italian literature and has shaped not only every novel or poem that came after them, but the nation’s (future) language itself. It was a scenario that made literary development difficult. How to try new styles when one was so constrained by a stiff, archaic language? And how to reach a wide audience when much of the population didn’t even speak the language you were writing in?

The writer credited with breaking through this barrier is Alessandro Manzoni. A Milanese who was more comfortable speaking French than Italian, Manzoni’s novel “I Promessi Sposi” (“The Betrothed”), published in 1840, is a landmark in Italian literature because it acted as a catalyst for other writers to begin trying to reflect the reality of how Italians communicated. In the late 19th century, the Sicilian Giovanni Verga began using dialogue to develop characters, reflecting the working men and women of his native island. And in the early years of the 20th century Italo Svevo and Luigi Pirandello, then Carlo Emilio Gadda and Pier Paolo Pasolini, all helped to build a modern written version of Italian.

Still, the strongly regional nature of Italian literary life continued. Also, the literary scene was prone to navel-gazing. That is to say, the writers liked to produce critical works outlining their own aesthetic positions (even Wu Ming did this), and so most literary criticism was related to style and the use of language. Svevo’s 1923 novel “Zeno’s Conscience” is a modernist masterpiece, but the Italian literary establishment was too inward-looking to see it. The Trieste writer was rejected by every publishing house. As a result, he self-published his book and it was only discovered by James Joyce, who helped Svevo get a French translation published. Embarrassingly, it was only after the French began celebrating this comic book about a self-serving bourgeois that the Italians saw its quality.

Meanwhile, every spring since 1909, the Giro d’Italia was cavorting around this young nation, its heroes inspiring the peasants to come to the roadside, read newspaper stories and listen to radio reports. The race may have been started to increase newspaper sales, but it quickly became a symbol of national unity. Cycling as a pastime was more popular in the wealthy and industrialized north, partly because few in the rural south could afford bicycles and the roads were rougher. Yet from its inception the Giro has always carved out slender loops from north to south and back again.

The race’s rebirth in 1946 is emblematic of the way in which sport can attempt to heal the divisions of war. Against a landscape scarred by bombing, with the memory of a vicious civil war still painfully fresh, the Giro rolled out of Milan and tentatively began rebuilding the emotional attachment that Italians had to the great race that Costante Girardengo and Alfredo Binda had dominated between the two World Wars.

In 2015, the French novelist Laurent Binet followed up on his award-winning “HHhH” with “The Seventh Function of Language”—in which conspiracy theories, radical politics (including a depiction of the real-life 1980 bombing of Bologna train station) and semiotics combine to make an unlikely page-turner. The book’s protagonists are investigating the death of Roland Barthes, who, Binet imagines, may have been murdered. Barthes actually died in an accident and in the final years of his life made several deeply insightful studies of popular culture, including the role of sport, specifically cycling.

Barthes made the argument that sport was the spectacle that brought the people together—he focused on the hero-worship of the riders, while the Futurists, with their maniacal obsession about machinery, focused on the bicycles themselves. Barthes argued that sport filled the role that theatre had played during ancient times. The advent of global television audiences and mass consumerism only heightened this spectacle. In Italy, many serious journalists and writers, including Dino Buzzati and Vasco Pratolini, also wrote about cycling. The tifosi devoured their books and newspaper reports in an age when the written word portrayed cycling’s actions more consistently, and more elegantly, than television images. These writers paid homage to the riders’ bravery and endurance, but also described for their readers the Italy that they were seeing as they bounced along behind the race.

Under Mussolini, Italy’s industries became ever more state-owned—and foundered. After World War II, free of the National Fascist Party’s control, Italy experienced a prolonged period of strong economic growth, known as the Economic Miracle, from 1950 to 1963. This established the country as a major economic player, in turn raising standards of living—something that Il Duce had failed to do. While the powerhouse cities of the north—Milan, Turin, Bologna and Genoa—reaped the biggest rewards, the poor south also benefited. Workers, including writers, could travel north in search of work and a better life. So, in a relatively short period, Italy became much more urbanized and more detached from its rural roots. Nostalgia for the old ways was inevitable, and the Giro’s role was as a kind of lyrical travel guide, showing the city dwellers the idyllic hills and fields they’d left behind. So the Giro acted as a bridge between the past and the present. It was a subject that the country’s most influential novelist was also grappling with.

Cesare Pavese was born in 1908 and died by suicide in a Turin hotel room in 1950. Something of an intellectual outsider, Pavese was an anti-fascist. He spent some time exiled to southern Italy for associating with political prisoners, but once back in his native Piedmont he witnessed firsthand the fierce battles between Italian partisans and German troops. Though, inevitably, the tumult of the time made a lasting impression on his work, as Pavese grew older his novels—he wrote six, plus novellas, stories, poems and criticism—became more abstract in their symbolism. The Langhe area of Piedmont, with its hills and vineyards, was where Pavese had grown up and it came to represent the innocence and wildness of childhood for him. Philosophically, he believed that humans were fundamentally divided between the primitive childhood self, from which all imagination flows (even in later life), and the rational and civilized nature that takes over in adulthood. Both were important and the challenge was maintaining a balance between the two.

In Pavese’s final and most celebrated work, the short novel “The Moon and the Bonfires,” a man returns to the Piedmont countryside where he grew up, having spent time at sea and in America. His old life is gone, he feels estranged from the place he once called home. Having escaped the primitive past and traveled so far, he has become civilized, but what has he lost? If “The Moon and the Bonfires” was a mirror for Italian post-war society, coverage of the Giro d’Italia offered a rather superficial connection between past and present, town and country.

Other post-war Italian novelists had stronger political leanings, but in a country deeply divided along religious, political and geographical lines it was hard to maintain a single political position and be true to literature’s aims. After fighting as a partisan during World War II, Italo Calvino settled in Turin, where he met and was guided in his early work by Pavese. Calvino was a committed and active communist but, artistically, his work was not progressing. He wrote several realist novels, following the neorealist movement of the time, but it was only when he had the revelation that he should simply write the sort of stories that he would have enjoyed as a boy that Calvino found his true position in the literary world. He wrote fabulist tales such as “Il Visconte Dimezzato” (“The Cloven Viscount”), in which a 17th century viscount is torn in two by a cannonball and goes on living as two people. At the time of writing, 1951, Calvino’s political certainty was wavering and the world was beginning to understand the Manichean division of the Cold War.

Division, remaking the past, nostalgia and politics—these are all hallmarks of Italian literature throughout the 20th century. Having solved the problem of their archaic language by inventing a new, modern version, Italy’s literature became playful, fabulist and purposefully detached from the sectarian politics of Italian life. Calvino wrote a novel in 1957 titled “Il Barone Rampante” (“The Baron in the Trees”) about (yet another) historical nobleman who decided to climb a tree and live there ad infinitum. What better image is there of the modern artist—sitting above the world, observing, recording.

And today? Division seems more common than ever; the old political certainties have vanished. The Giro d’Italia is now an expression of Italy’s confidence, going out and conquering foreign nations, developing its own swaggering identity. In literature, the stranglehold of the academic male establishment has been thrown off. The most famous Italian author is a woman, the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, while journalist Roberto Saviano’s explosive nonfiction writing about organized crime in Naples has been held up (by Wu Ming among others) as a shining example of the power of the word.

Perhaps one day Calvino’s baron will hear the swish of tires on tarmac, the grumbling motorcycles and frenetic announcers, and will watch the Giro d’Italia come past his tree. It is a spectacle for the whole world, but the land it traverses, reflected in its absorbing literature, is complex, beautiful and not without scars.

From issue 86. Buy it here.