From constant earthquakes to a Borges short story, Giorgio Vasta’s dispatch for PEN Atlas offers an original, honest and illuminating take on the current state of Italy and its politics

Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt

From time to time I ask myself why I wrote my first book. Because I wanted to tell a story of ineffectual love, I answer my own question. Because I wanted that story of ineffectual love to have a precise historical setting, I add. Because that precise historical setting, Italy in the 1970s, coincides with my own childhood and pre-adolescence, I think on. Because there’s a curious affinity, to my mind at least, between the febrile intensity of pre-adolescence and that of 1970s Italy. The phase of personal development and the historical period are both pervaded, it seems to me, by a kind of restlessness, a constant succession of almost imperceptible physical upheavals. But whereas the pre-adolescent body changes as it grows, the body of Italian society changed without ever growing.

Thirty-five years after 1978 (the year in which the story I wrote is set), although the socio-cultural reality of the country has undoubtedly altered, it still seems like an organism that’s constitutionally incapable of reaching adulthood. It’s as though the bodily functions, which ought to ensure that change leads to development, have atrophied.

And yet, if you look at the outward, the most conspicuous, phenomena, the appearance of change is very marked.

Let’s consider the events of the past few months, after a fleeting glance at that mass of social and anthropological metamorphoses – the twenty-year Berlusconian period – which was both the effect of what had happened in previous decades (following the end of the Second World War) and the cause of what has happened since: an intermediate period which serves as a magnifying glass for examining what happened (and did not happen) in Italy during the final years of the twentieth century and the early years of the new one.

To understand what the past few months in Italy have been like, you have to imagine an earthquake. The ground starts to quiver, the shaking grows stronger and stronger, but then, when it ought to subside and die away, when this pathology of the earth’s crust ought to give space and time back to physiology, it does not subside and die away; it continues, it remains.

In Italy an earthquake is in progress.

But the constant shocks are not greeted by panic, or even fear. At most a fine dust of anxiety hangs in the air, condensing, when evening comes, into a well-worn set of rhetorical modes (diatribe, invective, pathos, sarcasm) on political chat shows on television. The overriding feeling you get is that the earthquake is being institutionalized.

After the shock of February 24th and 25th, the dates of our latest national elections, a picture emerged that is almost unparalleled. It became clear that in generating what was in effect a three-way tie (the Partito Democratico, the Popolo della Libertà, and the Movimento 5 Stelle) the Italians had voted for instability. They had done so by revealing the existence – in some cases the persistence – of three distinct electorates, and therefore of three distinct cultural physiognomies, within the nation. That is to say, in brutal synthesis:  a perennially irresolute centre-left which, through a constant fear of making radical decisions, ends up losing the trust of its own electors; a centre-right which for years has appealed to the gut instincts and fears of millions of citizens with whom it shares a desire for an ever more simplified political grammar; and lastly, the Movimento 5 Stelle, which claims to be the only true political alternative, speaks in quasi-religious terms of an apocalypse and a new birth in Italian politics, and deploys a rhetorical system dominated by callow protest and delusions of self-evident purity.

This inconclusive equilibrium has led on the one hand to the re-election of Giorgio Napolitano as President of the Republic, a kind of political déjà vu or persistence of vision; and on the other to the appointment of Enrico Letta to lead a government resembling those little green salads that are served up as a side dish to whatever main course you choose, the insipid sustenance of a regime that seems able to function only through conditions and compromises (not too much salt, not too much oil), again lacking the natural courage of decisiveness. A method – a peculiarly Italian one, it would seem – for maintaining the system of pressures and counter-pressures, balances and imperceptible imbalances that underlies our never-ending earthquake, our irremediable fever.

Italy, then – both in its 1978 and in its 2013 versions – is an ominous, uncomfortable presence in the centre of Europe, a drunken country, a socio-cultural body that shudders, seethes and quakes. Its borders quiver with tremors and aftershocks.

Just as Jorge Luis Borges describes in Deutsches Requiem, through the confession of a Nazi officer under sentence of death, what the Germany of the first half of the twentieth century gives to Europe (a ‘circular, perfect gift’), so Italy – minus the tragic circumstances of war and the holocaust (slipping, rather, from national tragedy into national tragi-comedy) – offers itself to Europe as a symbol of seemingly unfathomable processes that can be summed up in a question: what happens when a nation’s history has failed to build a self-sustaining democratic culture (I don’t mean a democracy in perfect health, but at least one with an adequate immune system), and the nation is faced with the challenges and ambiguities of the present*?


*I note in passing that the word ‘present’, as well as indicating the time in which we live, also denotes a gift. In short, Italy bestows, on itself and on Europe, the ‘circular, perfect gift’ of a precise, pitiless perception of the time in which we are immersed.


About the Author

Giorgio Vasta was born in Palermo in 1970 and now lives and works in Turin. A former editor at the publishing house Einaudi, his stories have been published in various anthologies. Time on My Hands is his first novel.

About the Translator

Jonathan Hunt divides his time between Italy and the UK. His translations from the Italian include Niccolò Ammaniti’s I’m Not Scared (Canongate, 2003) and Luca Rastello’s I Am the Market: How to Smuggle Cocaine by the Ton and Live Happily (Granta, 2010).