Barely had the brouhaha of the Jaipur Literary Festival subsided, when a literary tamasha of another kind began elsewhere. The Kolkata Book Fair, one of the oldest in the country, was preparing its Milan Mela in honour of its guest country, Italy. And while signboards and pavilions were still being constructed, an Italian journalist and writer, Beppe Severgnini, who has written a column for the Corriere del Serra for 12 years, and has 1,70,000 followers on Twitter, opened the fair with a beaming Mamata didi by his side.
Beppe’s areas of interest as a journalist are wide-ranging — from football (he’s a fervent supporter of Inter Milan) to politics (his most recent book is Mamma Mia! — Berlusconi’s Italy Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad). But his real subject, he confesses, has always been Italy and Italians. This obsessive investigation into his own culture has led to a series of books — Around the World in 80 Pizzas, An Italian in Britain, An Italian in America, and perhaps the most insightful, An Italian in Italy — where he meticulously unmasks the layers of the Italian psyche in a Bill Bryson-meets-Roland Barthes kind of way.
In Kolkata I helped Beppe launch the Bengali translation of this book, along with another Italian writer, Carlo Pizzati, and we had a spirited conversation about the many similarities between our respective peninsular ‘I’ countries. India and Italy share kindred obsessions for food, the mother, God, and chaos. But perhaps it really is as Salman Rushdie writes, (what would a literary festival be nowadays without Salman Rushdie?), “Sometimes Indians, when looking upon Italian visitors, feel that we are looking into a sort of mirror, as if we were seeing ourselves in translation.”
I certainly shared this view while reading Beppe’s book. So much of what he said was applicable to India. For instance, he writes about the Italian paradox of collective individualism. How Italians are the Mount Everest of formality, yet prefer an a la carte approach to morality. And how the Italian soccer stadium is the summary of who they are (replace with cricket).
Perhaps the most important concept of his book, the one that truly defines Italy, is that of la Bella Figura. This is the underpinning of Italian life — the desire to cut a good figure, to be seen as bella (beautiful), as opposed to brutta (ugly). It’s what upholds a certain graciousness, but is also the cause for occasional disaster, as in the recent episode of the sinking of the Concordia off the coast of the Island of Giglio. I asked Beppe whether that sinking ship could be applied as a metaphor for Italy’s current economic and political situation. He explained that it goes deeper than that, but when the captain, in an effort to “bow” to the islanders got too close, he was trying to make a bella figura, just like Berlusconi tried to do for years, not admitting the dire economic situation Italy was going through. Both the captain of the Concordia and Berlusconi abandoned ship, but Italy has not sunk yet.
Beppe is optimistic that the situation is still salvageable, and that Italians have the resourcefulness to get back on track. Whatever happens to the Italian Republic, you can be sure that Beppe Severgnini, with his trademark white fringe and unflinching eye, will be there to report and document his Italiani.