From reality to fiction and back to reality. Tell History has been working together with author Davide Rubini, whose recent novel Il fischio finale is set in the aftermath of Tangentopoli, to collect the stories of Italy during this tumultuous time. Together, the largest archive of oral histories regarding 1990s Italy has been built and this important landmark in inclusive history telling has become a vital resource to understand those times.
On April 1, Il fischio finale was shortlisted for the Strega Prize in Italy, we interviewed Davide about why the Tell History cooperation, the ongoing results and about his latest success.
TH: First of all, congratulations on making the shortlist. This is your latest novel – what was your inspiration behind it, and why set it in this time?
My novels are always an effort to answer a question. In this case it was a while I had been struggling with the enigma: what went wrong after Tangentopoli? However, the novel is much more than a reflection on a political and social situation, if nothing else because I am convinced that the core of the reasons behind what happened are to be found in some deeper element that constitutes Italian identity.
At one point one of the main characters, Ugo Carminati, says that Italy is a country dominated by two forces: a total mistrust towards the ruling class and an uncontrollable fascination for incredible stories. The first determines that it does not really matter who seizes power, the second makes it inevitable that the winner is the most fabulous storyteller. Now, if you think of it and if you believe this is true, you must conclude that Italians are affected by some sort of “immaturity” virus. Normally it is teenagers that behave like this.
And this is how it started. It started as a reflection on the ability, or inability, that Italians seems to have to take responsibility for their own future. In other moments the inertia of history makes the consequences of such weakness less dramatic. After Tangentopoli there was no inertia because the past was gone and the future not even imaginable and therefore the feeling of a “missed opportunity” became more evident. Il re era nudo, we say. And I think that here resides one of the reasons why the political force that first took advantage of the situation was Lega Nord, a party whose creed was Roma Ladrona and whose goal was the independence of the North. Like kids many Italians said “io con te non gioco più” [“I don’t want to play with you anymore”]. Quite ironic considering that most of Mani Pulite’s plots have Italians from the North as protagonists.
Why Tangentopoli though? That is when it all started for me. When a bald man stood up in the Parliament and said those words “allora gran parte del sistema sarebbe un sistema criminale” [then much of the system would be a criminal system]. Bettino Craxi was in my family’s kitchen (on TV) and he was telling Italy that stealing was part of the political system the country relied on. I was a boy and I was in shock and I promised myself that I would demonstrate that what that man was saying was true for some but not for all. Tangentopoli gave me a political consciousness.
TH: The tone of this novel is deliberately different from your other novels, with a different kind of language. Also, the way we have set about to collect these histories is also a change and different in terms of making the historical process more accessible – do you think that there are echoes and synergies here between the two?
In the past I might have made the mistake or the choice of indulging in over sophisticated narrative structures and I have used a more refined language and, to some extent, even a deeper characterization of the protagonists. This time I wanted to be simple and to some extent simplistic. Il fischio finale was going to be an attempt to to create a microuniverse of accessible women and men that the reader could easily identify with or that could remind the reader of somebody she or he knew. Il fischio finale had to be this way to reach the reader and it had to have no filters. It had to be easy because it is a story about everyone.
Tell History got my attention for the same reason. Here I found an opportunity to make people the protagonists of the history they belong to. Tell History gets people close to their past and in this way it gives them the opportunity to touch and feel the role they can play in the future, no matter how little influential they can be. I have tried to record some of my memories and, man, I can tell you, it is tough. To tell your impressions of the past in front of a camera is incredibly difficult, however I think that little shock is key to gain conscious ownership of what has had an impact on your life.
Both Il fischio finale and Tell History assume that the process of accessible and unfiltered identification is essential to gain awareness. Il fischio finale may not be a masterpiece and Tell History may not give a scientific objective historical account but that is ok because it is not their job.
TH: Davide, together we are building the largest oral history archive about this time in Italy. We’re covering stories from politicians to singers, judges to academics, entrepreneurs to educations. What benefit do you think this is bringing? Why do you think it is important?
Honestly it is not entirely clear to me yet. I know it is important. I know it will be useful to the people that share their memories, but it may well be useful to future historians. Really, we have to wait and see and for now focus on getting more and more stories.
What we are doing is a progressive accumulation of perspectives on a moment of Italian history when everything seemed to be a bit off, a bit tilted, when people seemed unable to read the surrounding political and social reality. I have plenty of examples to prove it. And yet what strikes me is the consistency of the accounts we have put together so far. Despite the different political views I know the different Citizen Historians have, there is an element of consistency. People knew that something had to happen after Tangentopoli, they knew there was an opportunity to seize… but years after they also realised it had been missed.
I am a firm believer of collective intelligence otherwise I would have not founded with a few friends www.progetto-rena.it. Collective memory has an equally enlightening power.
TH: Pietro has been an integral part of this process, born in 1992 this is really a snapshot of he was born into in his infancy. For you, this relationship of discovery for him was very important – why was that?
The first 3 years of his life. Tell History is an opportunity to plug into his brain stories from his unconscious past. There is an epistemological point in doing this. It is about pointing at the responsibility that we all have towards future generations. When a new girl or a new boy is born, she or he enters the world with no defences. If that world is rotten, that will stay with her or him. Running Post Tangentopoli Tell History venture Pietro is discovering what he could not defend himself from.
I am convinced this will stay as a powerful experience to him and I am already dreaming of projects in schools where students are asked to do the same: go around and collect videos about the social, cultural and political worlds they were born in. We could call it The world I was born in and make a self-standing project supported by Tell History. When do we start, guys? I am already excited about it!
TH: From listening to these histories, is there anything that has struck you that you didn’t realise before? Is there anything new that you have learnt or perhaps spurred a new pattern of thought?
I think I have said it already. It is the confirmation that those years have been a missed opportunity, the surprise of the strong homogeneity of the emotions attached to the period, at different levels, or degrees, always seen as a missed opportunity. But then I ask myself: if everyone feels that way, what is everyone waiting for?
I try to explain. Brando Adelmi, the football player protagonist of Il fischio finale, at one point says that he is convinced that there is nothing he can do to change the situation he has found himself trapped in. All he has is feeling deeply and honestly guilty and all he can do is wait until what he personally feels will transform itself into a collective passion. And here they are, all these Italian Citizen Historians telling themselves and others that something could have been done after Tangentopoli and yet observing that very little has changed since then, still unable to come together and join forces into a genuine civic dream that does it away once for all with all the stories about the chronic and systemic corruption and conflicts of interest my country seems to be fuelled by.
Am I too pessimistic? In www.ilfischiofinale.org there is a section where I collect news from today that resemble those told in the novel. Please, prove me wrong and I will delete that section. I would not want this more.
TH: Finally, how could someone order your novel… and for those of us with more limited Italian, will there be an English translation available?
God knows if there will be a translation but surely the more copies I sell the more likely it will be. So, yes, please go out and buy it. Il fischio finale is on amazon, ibs, and tons of other online shops.
The novel can be purchased from the publisher.