I have to make a confession. Though I treasure the belief that I am open of mind and heart, that I have traveled and loved more than one culture, I am inherently patriotic in certain respects. I know that sometimes I am unreasonable about my fierce loyalty to Italy, though I vent about its failings daily, generally quite loudly, especially at the Ostiense train station in the fairly early morning of any given weekday, where the trains are like unicorns in that you want to believe in them but it’s hard when you never see one.
As an Italian who has lived abroad, I often fear that my people are largely misunderstood, stereotyped into a well-wrapped box and left there, never to be taken seriously unless they are holding a nice dish of amatriciana. Some of the first to believe in and perpetuate these stereotypes are the Italians themselves. There are many times when I hear people make very broad, general statements about Italians and Italian culture, and I admit that this never fails to put me in a litigious mood. The fear of this is what caused me to circle The Italians for the better part of a week before finally flipping the cover to the first page of this journey into Italy through the eyes of foreign correspondent and author, John Hooper.
I should have just done it earlier. You know a book is holding on to you when you wake up half an hour before your alarm in the morning and instead of curling up on your other side and going back to sleep, you fumble for the copy you had closed the previous night so you can finish the chapter before making coffee. The Italians is not an easy read, by which I mean that it isn’t the kind of book that you can flip open at the end of a long day and lazily scan before tucking yourself in. It is, instead, the type of book that will make you think, deeply, will have your shoulders aching from being hunched over it the night before, will pop into your head in the middle of the day while you’re on the metro to Lepanto and make you miss your stop. Not that that happened to me.
Hooper takes you almost step by step. We go all the way back to Charlemagne to begin the discussion of Italy’s political, economic, and social fragmentation, and soar all the way to the present day, touching all sorts of (occasionally unexpected) topics along the way. Hooper does this with grace, thoughtfulness, and, most importantly, with thoroughly researched facts; and he does it without boring his reader. The Italians covers not just Italy cloaked in all of its historical glory, but its transition from the Italy (Italies…) of yesterday to the Italy (still Italies?) of today. He dissects well-worn subjects, but also many that have long been swept under the rug or that have rarely been considered (check out the first two names in the title of this review, for example). You’ll read about it all, from the potential effects of amoral familism (the concept that loyalty to your family supersedes all other loyalties) on the development of the country, to the contradiction between Italian gregariousness and, on the other end, tendency towards deep mistrust. From the LGBT community to the convoluted business culture to the love of calcio and its deep ties to politics, Hooper ties history in with Italian concepts and cultural identity, presenting thoughts and backing them with facts, ending occasionally with more than one conclusion. Though he may sometimes surprise you, it is clear that he is not trying to make up your mind for you.
Some of the truths in this book make me cringe and make me angry – not at Hooper, but at the reality of what he is discussing. I sometimes find these realities to be harsh, but I also find it incredibly important that we square up to them. Acknowledgment, black ink on white paper, is the first step to real resolution. But The Italians also sings, weaves a melody about the savage beauty of this nation, of these people and the land and everything that has happened here, and more than once I found myself reading out loud, my voice wavering, because I was so proud. There is something to be learned here, for everyone, be you Italian/not Italian/an awesome hybrid (heh!).
In my personal opinion (which probably doesn’t matter, but bear with me), the best books are like the best love stories. You start out as one person, and when it’s over, although you are still you, your mind is a little more open, your everyday tinged with a new color, with your experience. You’re still thinking about it. And although the world around you is blaring on just like before, your perception of it has expanded. And so Hooper’s book is a love story of sorts, one that is educated, and not blind. The best kind. I hope you read it, and if you do, I hope you let me know what you thought of it.
As always, happy reading, YiR-ers.