For a long time, I was fascinated by Italian bookshops. I used to go into them and wander around, dreaming of the time when my Italian would be good enough to read and fully understand the works that lined their shelves.
Many of the books I saw were translations. Italians, like most non-Anglophone Europeans, seem far happier to read foreign books than Brits are. (The same applies to music, films and pretty much everything else, but all of that is another rant for another day.) These were not the books, however, that I wanted to read.
The ones I wanted to read were written by Italians, in Italian, and they were all about Italy. Not tourism and travel books, but books about politics, books about the mafia and books about recent Italian history. The section of the shop devoted to these books always seemed to be disproportionately large. I wanted to understand Italy and I wanted to understand it from an Italian point of view, so eventually, with a long summer holiday and lots of travelling ahead of me, I bought one of these books.
I bought FAQ Italia, by Francesco Merlo. It comes from a series called “FAQ Books: domande che danno risposte” (questions which provide answers). Examples of the “questions” range from “Are we the land of the Mafia?” to “Are Italians mummy's boys?” These were questions to which I wanted not just any answer, but the Italian answer.
At first I quite enjoyed the book. Gradually, however, it wore me down. The “answers” to the questions were too short, too unbalanced and too irrelevant. After a while, I put FAQ Italia down and started on something else. I was staying with Italian friends at the time, and when I showed my friend the book and explained my disappointment, she sighed and said, “Yes, everything in Italy is polemical.”
For a long time I thought that the fact that Italian bookshops were so full of critical works on the country was to do with the fact that all the newspapers and television channels were under the control of Berlusconi and his ilk. Such writing was much less evident in the Mondadori bookshops, owned by the Berlusconi family, than in others. Books, I thought, were perhaps the last remaining outlet for free (or free-er) speech. There were certainly more politically oriented works in the Feltrinelli shop, which was my Mondadori's closest rival.
Recently, however, I discovered from Tobias' Jones' The Dark Heart of Italy (which is an incredibly gripping book in itself) that the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, owner of the aforementioned publishing house, was a communist and the founder of GAP, one of Italy's main terrorist organisations of the anni di piombo.
And so I learned that in Italy, not only does everyone in the media have an axe to grind, but they are heavy and destructive axes indeed.