Italian crime novelists write well about the atmosphere of 1968, but they are only just beginning to tackle the `years of lead’ – the grim decade that followed, with its leftwing protest and ensuing rightwing repression.
Italian crime fiction is in robust health, judging by its sales. Italians see it as a genre that allows effective engagement in social critique and so you might expect it to have registered the wave of revolutionary political and social change that swept Italy between the late 1960s and the late 70s, which came to be known as the "anni di piombo" (years of lead).
This label was media shorthand, a way of making the period easier to forget. It helped Italians forget that the bloodiest, most indiscriminate attacks were the work of fascists with links to the secret services and the authorities, and that neither the perpetrators nor their masters have ever been brought to justice (1). It made it possible to forget the repressive force of the law brought to bear on the far left: in the late 1970s there were thousands of arrests, tens of thousands of denunciations, publications seized, and charges against lawyers, journalists, and intellectuals. And it allowed Italians to forget that thousands, if not millions, lived for years in radical opposition to the state:
The period left a profound mark on Italian history, but mainstream literature hasn’t found a way to express that (2). Has the crime novel done better? In 1968 crime fiction was still a sub-genre under the influence of restrictions imposed during the fascist era: in Mussolini’s day the culprit in a crime story couldn’t be Italian and stories weren’t allowed to reflect everyday life too closely. It was clear in 1968 that there was a change when Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-69) received recognition – the Grand Prix de la littérature policière – for Traditori di tutti (Betrayers of All). He broke new ground in setting his books among the everyday lives of working-class Milanese. His subtle portrayal of ambiguity and moral dilemmas showed empathy with those left behind by the economic boom.
A metaphor for the period
According to Luca Crovi, a specialist in contemporary crime fiction, his novel I ragazzi
Scerbanenco, the son of a Ukrainian killed by the Bolsheviks, was, according to his daughter, "a 19th-century intellectual, an individualist who felt a deep aversion to dictatorial regimes, but also to consumerism and the world dominated by money which was just beginning to appear then". But the homophobic, misogynistic language of his novel shows that the genre wasn’t able to deal with the new wave of change.
Some writers did rise to the challenge afterwards. Andrea Camilleri’s enormous success is the main reason that Italian crime fiction has gained international recognition (3). But even though he has adopted positions at odds with the orthodoxies of the institutional left (4), allusions to the 1970s in his books are limited to denunciations of former leftist leaders who’ve gone over to the right and become media proprietors or politicians.
Loriano Macchiavelli was 34 in 1968. He ran a political theatre group in
Before becoming one of
A bomb killed 17 and injured 80 on 12 December 1969 in the Piazza Fontana in
L’ultimo sparo (The Last Bullets) by Cesare Battisti (born 1954) is mostly autobiographical. It tells the story of a small-time hoodlum involved in politics through his contact with anarchist groups. It evokes the ideological tensions and the atmosphere of the period, which was both euphoric and despairing, and the defeat of the armed groups. Rarely has the volatile character of the events been captured so well: "How many of you are there? Yes, I mean… of us, the group. How can I know? One day there are two of us, another twenty. And sometimes a hundred thousand." Battisti was widely disliked because he was against the repression of memories of the years after ’68.
Other than the authors mentioned and a few more, Italian crime fiction hasn’t broken with this collective amnesia. Nostalgic, wry recollections of 1968 and the protesters have obscured memories of the years that followed, of the complexity of events and the suffering caused by the "return to calm". A few voices in
He accused the entire Roma community after a Roma man had murdered a local woman, and he sent bulldozers into shantytowns. Politicians on all sides joined in. Those who opposed this, who are also those few who oppose triumphant Berlusconism, did so on a website (carmillaonline.com) dedicated to genre literature – crime and science fiction – and the culture of opposition. On this site the role of the roman noir as social critique is kept alive.
New authors show the capacity of the genre to tackle socio-political complexities. Giancarlo De Cataldo is a middle-aged magistrate and prolific crime novelist. His Romanzo criminale decribes the corridors of power in
Serge Quadruppani is a writer and editor of the Bibliothèque italienne published by Métailié
(1) See Valerio Evangelisti, "
(2) Apart from the work of Nanni Balestrini (born 1935) and Erri de Luca (born 1950). Balestrini, one of
(3) Many of his novels are available in English from Picador in the
(4) In an interview he said: "Neither the red brigades nor the state… friends who were wrong were still friends, and the state was what it was then".
(5) His books are published in English by Europa Editions.
(6) His In the Name of Ishmael is available in English (Atlantic Books,
Translated by George Miller