As she reflects on the current political situation in her home, Claudia Durastanti elegantly dispatches with the idea of the ‘ghost of fascism’ that supposedly haunts Italy
I’ve just landed in Fiumicino when I see a video for the forthcoming European elections play on a loop. Matteo Salvini, Deputy Prime Minister, is advising me to ‘eat Italian, drink Italian, buy Italian’. As I stare at him, I feel transported back to a place I visited in primary school, Italia in miniature: a theme park near Rimini, where you can walk around a country made of tiny replicas of important cities. You can jump from Florence to Pisa to Venice in a matter of a few steps, you can pretend to crush iconic landmarks. It used to be fun and creepy. The miniatures retained the same melancholy of Luigi Ghirri’s photos. I would discover his photographs very much later – faded commercials, deserted playgrounds, scattered atlases –, but I would feel the same uneasiness: the artificial proportions, a fairground version of a homeland. What we lose with a loss of scale.
Silvio Berlusconi won the elections that year. I didn’t know much about politics at ten, but I felt echoes of it, in that park. A shrunk governable country, to be sold as an attraction.
Twenty-five years later, in the airport back home, I stare at Matteo Salvini and I ask myself what he reminds me of. I know he should remind me of someone like Mussolini, but he doesn’t. Behind the despotic aura, the fetishization of para-fascist gear, and his close ties with far-right movements, he reminds me of what it felt like to be a child, then a teenager and then a young woman under Silvio Berlusconi’s rule and influence. He reminds me of how Berlusconi used to sell products all the time, all those broke anchormen who moved to commercial TV channels where they promoted bikes and pans and polishing products. He, Salvini, is trying to sell me my country as a brand. Add the crucifix and rosary he’s been kissing in front of the cameras for a while now, and it’s really hard to separate him from a preacher or a tarot reader. If we were in America he’d be wearing a purple tuxedo in a parking lot full of junk cars, screaming in a bullhorn. That’s how cheap it feels, and, still, dangerous.
For most of my life, I’ve heard the same thing about Italy: there’s something tragically unhip in the Italian approach to contemporaneity, a quick falling in love and reluctance to discard it when contemporaneity reveals its brokenness.
Italy turns everything into ruins that cannot be replaced, for fear that replacing them would mean identity loss. The fear of identity loss plagues far-right movements, but not only them: I’ve seen it in the Left I belong to as well. I came to see it as an extended disease, a reluctant nostalgia seeping through our pores even when we are disgusted by it.
It takes a specific kind of faith to believe in the past. We are encouraged to believe that certain processes, ideas and forms of violence are constant in time, that their core is preserved under very different circumstances. As I consider this, I try to go back to the practice of translation: should we carry the past into the present, or translate the memory of it into another language, based on different metaphors?
Over time, I’ve grown resentful of metaphors tying fascism to spectres. The ghosts of fascism. Il fantasma del fascismo. I hate the immateriality and elegance ghosts suggest, the haunted house charm, the starkness of period videos, where blood is always expressionist black and never what it should be, a vivid and squalid red. I hate the contrast between the involuntary aristocracy of these ghosts and the brutality and suffering fascism has caused.
So to make things really ugly, I say we live in the age of zombies, immersed in a sickly liminality. ‘You mean zombies ‘cause fascists never died. They are undead so they can’t be ghosts,’ people say when I suggest this figurative switch. But that’s not what I mean: a zombie is not dead, but it’s not exactly alive either. Unless we feed it morsels of our skin and conscience.
The zombies of fascism are in our streets, neighbourhoods, and public spaces; they are colonising our lives more and more. They are not an army; instead they have become a banal daily sight.
We need to remember how it was, we’ve always been told, but memory can’t just be long term, can’t just be about the worst thing to ever happen to the country. If we need to have faith in history, we also need to have faith in a more recent past. Twenty years of Berlusconi were not a much better enemy. He facilitated and encouraged the national craving for a new strong leader. This has led us to where we are today. Salvini might be wearing black clothes soon, but his darkness comes from somewhere very close in time, much closer than the 1920s. It originates in a time when power became laughable and, falsely, belonged to everyone.
When I was a child I believed that power was hidden. I believed authority was strictly dependent on invisibility, rulers had to be opaque. Politics was a land of dark rooms, crowded with men behind the curtains. But then Silvio Berlusconi made everything visible through the TV channels he owned, and now Matteo Salvini is making everything visible through the social media we think we own, when we actually don’t.
The invisible power I believed in as a child never really existed. Power was never a series of dark rooms, but a house made of mirrors: we walk blindly in it, we hurt ourselves and we wonder where the cut came from. As I walk away from Salvini’s video in the airport I feel the same uneasiness I felt in Rimini when all I wanted was to step out of the miniature park, where everything was so ready to be crushed.
Claudia Durastanti (Brooklyn, 1984) is a writer and literary translator, and author of four prize-winning novels. Her novel Cleopatra va in prigione (Cleopatra Goes to Prison) will be published in the UK by Dedalus in July 2019. The translation of her latest book, La straniera (The Stranger), will be published by Fitzcarraldo in the UK and Riverhead Books in the United States. In 2017 she started the Festival of Italian Literature in London with fellow writers and journalists based in the UK. She lives in London.
Image credit: Sarah Lucas Agutoli