Chronicles of Comedy and Corruption

Berlinguer and the Professor: Chronicles of the Next Italy by Anonymous Viking Press, 117 pp., $6.95

ITALIAN POLITICS have been considered a joke since the days of that leader who, as they say, made the trains run on time. After all--a government which professes to fall every three months or so, but gets back on its feet after some portfolio shuffling; a system so corrupt and inefficient that postal employees sell mail to pulp mills, and civil servants use chauffeur-driven limousines (paid for by the rare person naive enough not to cheat on his taxes) to drive their relatives across the country; and economy in such chaos that major cities have been officially bankrupt for almost two years--how can anyone take such a country seriously?

Even Italians approach this chaos in a comic spirit. Perhaps they have no choice; a purge of the Italian government a la Watergate would leave the country without a single official or institution. Except for the very rich, no one can continue to ignore an inflation rate of 30 per cent, prices that prevent some 10 per cent of the population from eating meat, or an unemployment rate that does not allow eight per cent of the labor force to earn a living. The ordinary citizen seems to have two alternatives: satirical laughter, or despair.

The anonymous author of Berlinguer and the Professor (published last October as Berlinguer e il Professore and recently translated into English by John Shepley) has chosen to laugh. The novel, wildly acclaimed even before publication, describes the "historic compromise" that is imminent in the actual elections to be held in Italy in June--the formation of a government in which the communists have a share of power.

But the "compromise," in the book, does not occur until 1980, and it takes the form of a communist coup, instigated by Henry Kissinger, with the support of Moscow and the Vatican. In this Machiavellian satire of an Italy just prior to 1984, the Prince and his courtiers are actual political figures: the head of the Partito Communista Enrico Berlinguer, "the Professor," Giovanni Leone, current president of Italy, and a host of others. By using these Italian politicians for characters, the author sharpens the point of his wit--the more so since, like a good cartoonist, he draws caricatures which are not so exaggerated as to be unimaginable, and whose features are distorted so as to feed his audience's already-formulated perceptions and biases.

Staying just far enough away from reality to parody it, Berliguer and the Professor mocks the present in its vision of the future. The irony lies heavy from the first chapter. Milan is referred to as "the natural shelter for all American, German and Swiss capital drawn by the stability of our currency." The "I" of the book, a secretary of Fanfani (the former head of the Christian Democrat party) who decides to write the history of the "compromise" finds it "impossible to view with indifference the achievement of a sixteenth subway line, which, together with eleven elevated highways and twelve helicopter pads, has finally brought fluidity to the traffic of our metropolis." Some miracle has cleary occurred, by the time this "chronicle of the next Italy" is written, in the year 2000 and in the Italy of the "Second Republic." The devaluation of the lira has been solved; it is possible to move in Rome--where in today's reality a second subway line has been in lentitudinous progress for over a decade. The sarcasm peels off in layers. The phrases of the book, the pompous, eulogistic style, ridicule bureaucratic rhetoric, while the content, in its flagrant incredibility, attacks the chaos of the existing system and simultaneously mocks the faith that a communist future would be better ordered. And Roman traffic, fluid? Anyone who has ever heard those cliched cracks about the traffic jams of Rome will get that joke.

The political satire of the book is also clever and facile. The portrait of Giovanni Leone (whom the author envisions as still president of the Italy of 1980 in which the coup occurs) is condescending but sympathetic. The bite of the satire is playful; Leone is irritated by the noise of electric guitars because he "was himself . . . a great connoisseur of Neapolitan songs." Reactionary forms of music, Neapolitan songs have all the melodrama "Italy" suggests.

The serious thrusts at Leone and at Christian Democrats in general remain vague, unpointed. At the beginning of the story, "the execration index when it came to him (Leone) had risen to eighty-two per cent, as against thirteen per cent for those who hated him and five per cent for those who merely loathed him. . . The parties on the Left considered the Professor the symbol of the arrogance of power. His Christian Democrat friends by now found him an irritating and conceited old man. But the former did not judge it convenient to overthrow him, convinced as they were that without him it would be hard to find another single objective at which to direct popular rage. The latter, all of whom would have liked to oust him, were unable to agree on who should take his place."

This does not describe and attack Leone, but rather the attitudes and behavior of both his own party and the leftists. The author accuses the Christian Democrats of fragmentation and the left of being unwilling to assume the responsibilities that accompany official power. Such a simultaneous attack on the center and the left would seem to put the author's own perspective somewhere in between, in the realm of intellectual liberalism.

"Anonymous's" politics definitely tend toward the center, however, despite any appearance of universal skepticism and total detachment. This hidden political bias becomes clearer when one compares the portrait of Leone, where the satire is deflected from its supposed object and diffused over undefined groups, with the caricature of Berlinguer.

Berlinguer shows his "true," Stalinist colors at the end of the book: "You see," he says, announcing the coup to the Professor, "any truly revolutionary uprising . . . requires a brutal and painful rendering of the social fabric . . . Stalin, whom we no longer honor but have never forgotten . . . was merely a surgeon of history."

BERLINGUER AND THE PROFESSOR has been translated into American not merely because it involves our secretary of state, but because it is designed for American intellectual "liberals" of the sort that have been following Italian politics with Joseph Kraft in The New York Times. The book caters to those who can laugh sarcastically at a description of Kissinger "seeing red" when he hears from the CIA that the communists are gaining in popularity, but who fear the reality of the communists' growing power. It caters to those who themselves have the stereotyped "Italian" view of politics: no illusions as to the nature of the power structure--but no ideas for its improvement, no ideals except opportunism. Above all, the book reflects the attitude expressed in a recent Washington Post editorial: "If Italy were poor again, the United States could help."

Help--the way it has since World War II? The vast American loans, which the author of Berlinguer and the Professor, along with most Americans, envision as the mainstay of the Italian economy, have indeed contributed to an economic boom; one which has served only to widen the gap between rich and poor in Italy. The greatest amount of American "aid" has probably been CIA payoffs, Lockheed graft, or similar bribes to the ruling political structure, the Christian Democrats. This money promptly crossed the frontier into Swiss banks. Italy is still poor, though the politicians who populate the pages of Berlinguer and the Professor are rich. Including Berlinguer.

The real irony of Italian politics, not expressed in the book, is that the PCI is gaining a share in the government only as they stop being agents of reform, as they make backstairs compromises and become corrupt--in short, as they become part of the bourgeois machine they might once have envisioned changing. The communist leader of the metal workers union, Harvard educated Bruno Trentin, proposes rationing meat as a partial solution to the economic crisis--not a reform that would really hit the rich, who can and will get meat anyway. Giorgio Napolitano, vice-secretary of the PCI said recently: "We have changed our policy on NATO." (Previously the PCI slogan was "Italy out of NATO and NATO out of Italy.") "We see that keeping a military balance is essential . . . so we support the defense budget and favour continued Italian membership in NATO." Even apart from larger questions of morality, there is a petty irony in the communist position. Italy's NATO forces are the epitome of corrupt bureaucratic inefficiency; it has been calculated that there is one general per kilometer of frontier.

The author of Berlinguer and the Professor is not unaware of the many-faced nature of Italian politics. But if he has a sincere attitude (and in the introductory note he claims to be giving "free rein to the sincerity of my imagination") the message is lost in a sarcasm as confusing as the shifting allegiances of the political situation it mocks. The overtly cardboard characters of the book fight battles that are all sham; the only thing left dead onstage is belief. Laughing at this skeptical satire is too easy an escape from the complex problems of reality, too condescending a way to refuse to take Italy seriously. Politics is not opera.

In its sarcastic exaggeration and parody, Berlinguer and the Professor makes Italian politics funny. But in so doing, it masks a reality which is more subtle, more unbelievable, and more ironic.