By Chiara Comito
ROME: Edoardo Nesi is a writer, intellectual and, as of February, a politician — member of the Italian Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies, representing ex-Italian PM Mario Monti’s moderate right wing political party for Tuscany. Suffice it to say, he’s a busy man.
Nesi is perhaps best known elsewhere as the translator of David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel Infinite Jest into Italian and the author of several highly-regarded novels. More recently, he’s gaining international acclaim for his Strega Prize-winning book, Story of My People ( translated into English by Antony Shugaar and published by Other Press), the chronicle of the dissolution of his family’s textile business in the face of globalized competition. It was the first nonfiction book to garner Italy’s top book prize.
Publishing Perspectives spoke to him recently in Rome, in a coffee bar close to the Parliament, where he was taking a break from a heated (when is it not in Italy) debate among his fellow legislators.
Story of My People was recently published in the United States, the birthplace of globalization and the most aggressive driver of capitalism. How do you think the US public will react to what is, basically, a very Italian story that is highly critical of capitalism.
If initial reactions are any indication, the US public seems very interested in this kind of story. We must not forget that US used to have their own manufacturing industry and that the “Made in USA” brand has been affected by the crisis as much as the “Made in Italy” brand, if not worse. When we talk about globalization, we must consider that there are many different sensitivities in the US. I think that after an article I wrote appeared in the New York Times (What Periwinkle Looked Like), many people started to understand that as a result of globalization we have lost that great quality delivered by those workers who have been developing their skills over decades. And now we have those shops where the “Armani-like-garment” may look elegant, classy and well-made, but actually they are not. It is a mere imitation, like an optical illusion. They have, in fact, destroyed quality.
Reading your book, it seems that you blame the globalization, the Italian politicians and economists for the closing of many small companies. What did they not do to prevent the crisis?
I wish someone would have told me what was going to happen. I think somebody should have simulated globalization and its outcome, before opening the economic frontiers. The economists thought that we were going to enter in a wonderful world. On the other side, from the point of view of a consumer, globalization works: while a Zara dress costs 70 euros, the same model made by Armani or Chanel can cost up to 700 euros. But Italy cannot survive only on the luxury industry. We must also produce normal goods otherwise we will not make it. It is true that luxury is still at the top but at the same time it is not made only in Italy. Only few great firms have kept their production in Italy. The Chinese have made great progress in this sector, for example.
As for the politicians, they should have prioritized their own citizens’ interests. In the EU, for example, there are many different countries: Italy is a manufacturing country, where more than 80% of the companies are small or family-owned. It is quite obvious that every measure taken at European level had a huge impact on us: statistics on unemployment reveal that once a small company closes down, it’s unlikely it will be replaced and those jobs are permanently lost.
Do you see globalization exclusively as a negative force or are there some advantages?
I am not against globalization, at all. However I would have liked it to be controlled. The laissez-faire/free trade dogma has told us for years that opening the markets and the customs would benefit all. They told us that we would have gained from it. But, if you read my book, you realize that my story is the story of everyone who does not agree with this dogma. Let’s look at the textile industry: still today if I export in the US I have to pay a duty of 2-4 %, depending on the composition of the material used. With China, for example, they have demanded that every imported material must have a neutral ph, which is complete nonsense. Many textile processes affect the ph, hence imposing something like this is nothing but an obstacle to the importation of a specific type of fabric. Looking at the situation, one realizes that we have all been slightly played.
Moreover, I think a world slightly closed can have some advantages. A world entirely open brings the competition to a global level. How many of us can take it? In Italy we seem to surrender to it.
Story of My People is a nostalgic tale of a country that does not exist anymore. Do you miss that period and think it will never come back?
I live in a sort of “Great Gatsby” universe. I love that book so much that is has ended up affecting me a lot. There is a point when Gasby tells Nick that “you can make the past come back.” This has always been one of the leading lights in my life. I have always found attractive the idea of correcting your mistakes, your faults. Though I know it is not possible in the real world. But in the books you can, actually. My books are my place of refuge because sometimes reality can be harsh. If you watch one of the Italian movies of the ’60s, you realize that film-makers and intellectuals had not understood the Italian economic boom of those years. They did not give it much credit and the entrepreneur was always depicted as nothing but a no-good bum. At that time Italy was really a wonderful place to live in. Italians were happy, even though they owned much less than we do now, and nobody thought things would get worse. Today we have lost the chance to live like that.
In the book you ask Richard Ford a solution for the future of Italy and he answers that “economy will surrender to an act of imagination.” What do you think he was trying to say?
This is a nice story. When I first heard it, I thought it was so meaningful and beautiful, and the public also burst into applause. But I must say it: I do not know if I have understood it. Indeed, every time someone asks me about it I say: I do not know what it means! But still it is a beautiful idea and it may turn into reality. What I mean is that often the economy is based on things difficult that are difficult to understand in a logical way. Maybe in ten years we will figure out what Ford wanted to say.
You sold your family’s textile company in 2004, but the book was not published until 2012: did it take some time to process the loss?
I sold my company in 2004. After a few months, my novel The Golden Age was released: in it I tell the story of the failure of a 70-year-old entrepreneur. With Story of My People I wanted to reproduce the same setting, but in nonfiction. In the beginning I wanted to write a book about economics which resembled an essay, but later I found out that I did not have the capacity, the willingness, nor the interest to write an essay. When I write a book I always need to tell a story and also, if you write a sad story, you have to put in a character who suffers a bit. This book did not work out without me and so in the end I had to put myself in it.
Story of My People seemed to me a painful journey into your own story and that of your family. Was that so?
Yes, it was. I bared myself and my family. It was very complicated.
In the end was it a cathartic experience?
It was but not entirely. I have been having tough days even until today. But somehow, writing this book liberated me.
When you were an entrepreneur you wanted to become a writer. After you became a writer you decided to enter politics. After 4 months since your election in the Chamber of Deputies, do you regret that choice or do you defend it?
It is a complex question because I entered politics as many of my readers…you see, this is not a normal book, it narrates a big problem…and many of my readers asked me “And now what? We read your book and we loved it but now, what do we do?” And then I thought that I wanted to do this experience. In my life, I have always needed a mission to accomplish. There are still many things I would like to try to understand and politics was one of them. Now I’m in and believe me: I am living it humbly. This is a job that requires a lot of patience. And after two months I had a breakdown.
You are talking about the article appeared in La Repubblica in April…
Yes, exactly. That was the worst moment of all. I kept asking myself, “What am I doing here? We do not have a government, we do not have anything.” We would come to the Parliament every Tuesday morning but in the afternoon we were told to return the next week. It was horrible.
As for now, I am just trying to understand if I did the right thing. I still have not figured it out. But at the same time it is a stimulating experience: I am learning a lot on the decision-making process and I must say it is a really weird mechanism.
Now that you are a member of the Parliament, what do you intend to do to change things?
I am trying to look out for the interests of the small companies. To be more concrete, I have proposed that industrial plants no longer be responsible for paying the “IMU” (the very unpopular Italian property tax), but my proposal went against the interests of the Italian government, which needs to make money and quickly.
Do you think literature and politics have something in common?
I think literature could be the perfect instrument to narrate politics, to understand it better. Many colleagues in the Parliament used to say that I am observing them and that, after this experience, I will badmouth them, which is something I really don’t rule out!
You have also worked as publishing director at Fandango publishing house: how do you see the Italian publishing sector today?
Fandando is a very peculiar publishing house created by the intuition of a mad genius like Domenico Procacci. Our idea was to produce the most beautiful and interesting books ever, but the market does not always reward the brilliant ideas. I think we did a great job at the beginning, when for example, the US market was still new and less known. We bought the rights of David Foster Wallace books and I personally translated Infinite Jest. It was a must read, but I had a hard time translating it.
But now, it is getting even harder: selling books has become more and more difficult, especially for the small publishing houses who struggle to find the next great writer among the hundreds of proposals they receive daily. And when a writer gets to sell 2,000 copies, then a bigger publishing houses comes and convinces him/her to sign with them. Take the Premio Strega, recently awarded: the small publishing houses find it hard to make the shortlist. Many books I personally liked this year have been left out, like the book by [Gaetano] Cappelli or the one by Amurri, for which I voted. Anyway, I think it was a good shortlist and I really like the Premio Strega; it is like a mirror of Italian society. What I like the most is the amazing atmosphere behind it, since it is like being in a Medicean court, with all the lies, the fake compliments in public, the stabbings behind the back. I love this atmosphere, were it for me, I would participate in it again.
As for book sales market, I think that we must see this as a temporary phase. This is not the future, it cannot be.
Talking about books…are you currently writing a book? How do you manage to find the time to write?
I started writing my new book the way I used to write stories when I was a young boy— at night or on the weekends, and I must say that I like it. Having less time does not bother me, nor affect my writing. This is a book I have been thinking about for a long time. We can say that somehow, it was conceived before Story of My People. Because you know, books sometimes are like short stories who grow and become chapters and in the end, it comes out that you have written an entire book. This book was born like that: it gathers many good things I have written previously which, all of a sudden, have found a reason to stay together. And the story will be set in the ’80s because I want to write about those years. Were they maybe the last happy years of our time…?
In Story of my people you wrote that “you were promised the entire world” but instead what happened is that the world did not maintain that promise. What kind of world do you dream for your two children?
Beautiful but difficult question. I dream a world that values the capacity of the individual, but from what I see today, out world does not work the way it should. I see many talented young women and men doing ridiculous and unsatisfying jobs. In the past, when you would work in [the city of] Prato with a young and skilled garment designer, whose garments sold, the next year he would earn twice his salary. It is of fundamental importance to award the capability and the intuition of the people you work with. Because if you don’t, we all become the same thing and we all lose. And Italy is losing now. Let me tell you this: I think Italy has some kind of uniqueness but it is losing it. We can be unique or we are nothing. And today, the latter is unfortunately prevailing.