Sunday, 1 April 2012

Tobias Jones: The Dark Heart of Italy

Stendhal wrote that the feeling one gets from living in Italy is 'akin to that of being in love'.   I know what he means, and so does Tobias Jones (no relation!).  I read this book to try to understand otherwise incomprehensible Italian politics - the Berlusconi phenomenon in particular - and I wasn't disappointed.  After a couple of weeks of reading and re-reading, I can't get my hair to lie down.  The book didn't tell me anything I didn't suspect (after 12 years of coming and going) but it still shocked me by the extent of the revelations. 

 Tobias moved to Italy because he had an Italian girlfriend, fell in love with the place and didn't want to leave.  His work as a journalist, exposing the dark side of Italian political affairs, took him into areas of Italian life few dare to venture.  He researched the terrorist attacks of the 'Anni di Piombi' (the years of lead, 1970s and 80s) - bombs, shootings, mass terror, the deaths of magistrates, judges and politicians, the 'suicides' of suspects and even the abduction and assassination of an Italian prime minister (Aldo Moro in 1978).   The repercussions of these events and the failure of the Italian systems of politics and justice to deal with them, still shape Italian politics today.  Watch the film 'Il Divo' - Sorrentino's beautifully researched, corruscating account of what happened.

Tobias Jones's story of the 1990s fiasco of the 'Clean Hands' campaign that led to the election of Silvio Berlusconi makes interesting reading.  The UK expenses scandal, the fact that our prime minister was friends with a Murdoch employee, cash for peerages, widespread phone hacking, all seem like nursery school squabbles in comparison to the daily dealings of the Italian state.   And when he gets to the world of football and finance (yes they're all connected here), you finally realise what your Italian friends are up against and why most of them are so cynical about all aspects of public life.

Some of you may remember an Italian banker, linked to the Vatican, who was found hanged under a London bridge.  Roberto Calvi was head of the Ambrosio bank in Milan and in partnership with a man called Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, head of the Vatican Bank, in a scheme to launder huge amounts of money into off-shore accounts, assisted by a Sicilian tax expert called Sindona.   All, except Marcinkus,  died mysteriously once investigations got under way.  Calvi died in London in a faked suicide.  Calvi's secretary died - apparently another suicide.  Sindora was arrested, but given a poisoned coffee in prison as he awaited questioning.  The two men assigned to investigate the fraud were both murdered and Pope John Paul was shot in an attempted assassination.  Although the US federal dept had large amounts of evidence connecting him with international fraud, Marcinkus was never charged with anything.

Tobias Jones sums up what was a tortuous investigation where the name of a man called Gelli kept recurring and the trail led to a Masonic lodge of which Gelli was head - 'P2' -  whose membership included 52 senior caribiniere, 50 army officers, 37 high ranking tax police, 38 MPs (including Berlusconi), 14 judges, 10 bank presidents and senior media professionals.   An extreme right-wing document, the 'Plan for the Re-Birth of Democracy'  was found in Gelli's secretary's briefcase at the airport.  A Parliamentary enquiry wrote that P2 had 'ongoing links with subversive groups and organisations instigating and countenancing their criminal purposes' - including terrorism.  If Dan Brown had written this as a novel, we wouldn't believe it.

'Behind the surface of Italian democracy,' Tobias Jones writes,'lies a secret history, made up of hidden associations, contacts and even conspiracies, some farcical, others more serious'.  There is a 'white mafia of financial scams, money-laundering and international investment rackets'.   No wonder Italy is in the financial shit.

But even with all this knowledge, Tobias Jones is still in love with Italy - with its people, food, wine, landscape and way of life.  Now that I'm living here I know exactly how he feels.  I love it too.  There is a dark side, but there is also another - the warm friendship and family life, the aesthetics of food and architecture, that keeps Italians sane and enables them to live with their murky political backdrop. 

Originally published by Faber and Faber Tobias Jones has recently up-dated this book with a new chapter on recent events and released it as an e-book.   The original publication had consistently four and five star reviews - 52 of them - and it earned every one.  I particularly loved the chapter that asked why the nation that once created the greatest art in the world now has the worst television!


  1. I enjoyed the book too, if "enjoy" is the right word. What is so dumbfounding is the brazenness of the perpetrators' reaction to much of what is uncovered(I am thinking primarily of Berlusconi, but he is following a long line of masters with Craxi and Andreotti just among the most recent). This refusal to feel shame or penitence robs ordinary folk of their legitimate response and makes them cynical.

    Of course Italians can point to goings-on in Britain with similar incredulity. Funny how incremental developments in news stories can lead us gradually to a position where totally appalling situations are only a small next step which we have become so familiar with that we do not respond with the same moral outrage as we would without the build-up. Perhaps that is why when reading about other countries we are perplexed by how they accept certain things. In Britain we are not subject to the Mafia, not because we are more moral than the Italians but for complex socio-political reasons over many centuries. They say you get the politicians that you deserve. Do Italians deserve theirs? Enough voted for Berlusconi and his coalition partners for him to gain power, so I suppose the saying is correct, but you don't get a vote on the Mafia.

  2. I just got my copy and I'm going to read it soon and will comment here after, most likely.