Monday, April 13, 2009


Living through or learning about the history of post-war Italy has always involved the painful cognisance of two sets of intertwining dates, of natural disasters and acts of mass murder. It goes something like this. 1947: Salvatore Giuliano's men open fire on a group of marchers celebrating workers' day at Portella della Ginestra, killing eleven people, including two children. 1963: a massive overflow from the basin of the Vajont dam floods the valley below, killing 2,000 people. 1969: sixteen people are killed by a bomb planted at the Banca dell'Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana, Milan. 1976: the Friuli earthquake kills nearly one thousand people. 1980: a bomb kills 85 people at the railway station in Bologna. 1980: the Irpinia earthquake kills over 2,500 people. 1993: in two separate bombings the mafia kills judges Falcone and Borsellino, along with their police escorts, for a total of eleven victims. 2009: the earthquake in Abruzzo. Those familiar with the history will know just how many dates I left out in order to get to the events of this last week in reasonably short order.

The toll of the earthquake that hit L'Aquila and its surroundings stands currently at 294. The Italian word for toll is bilancio, as in the balance of a ledger, and has in common with its English counterpart the sense that in such events humanity pays a price that needs to be accounted for. It's the cost of modernity, of living vertically, of occupying shaky grounds, in the same way that the road toll is the cost of the most convenient means of personal transportation ever designed. It gets factored in, and whether you or any of yours will fall one day on the wrong side of the ledger, is a largely if not entirely a matter of fate. That is why it is an elementary matter of respect that people don't seek to apportion blame in the aftermath of such disasters, but rather unite in mourning and expressions of solidarity.

Or at least that is what eminent columnist Indro Montanelli and others wrote in the days after the tragedy of the Vajont dam, fulminating against the local activists and journalists who had told the rest of the country of the many warnings gone unheeded about the instability of the mountain sides surrounding that great public work, pride of our construction industry. Warnings to which Sade-ENEL, the partly state owned company in charge of the project, responded by accelerating the filling of the reservoir. And it was during the filling that a block of approximately 270 million cubic metres of rock detached from one wall of Monte Toc and slid into the lake at velocities of up to 110 kilometres per hour, causing a 250-metre high wall of water that came crashing down the opposite side of the dam, burying Longarone and its surrounding villages under a river of mud. "Everybody Knew", ran the headline in the opposition paper L'Unità. "Vultures", responded Montanelli, soon echoed by the electoral posters of the ruling Christian Democratic party.

"Jackals! [that is to say, vultures]
On the tragedy of the Vajont the Communist Party has woven a despicable political speculation.

I shall not bore you (nor, alternatively, outrage you) with the history of the criminal trials that were to follow, except to note that by cruel coincidence at one point the proceedings, in order to shield the judges and investigators from political pressure, were moved from Rome to L'Aquila and to the very buildings - the court, the public prosecutor's office - that today lie in ruins. So even as I write this the L'Aquila investigators are forced to work in public squares, or in their cars, to write up a new inquest and pin down other culprits, the builders of modern hospitals, public works and apartment buildings that had no business crumbling the way they did in an earthquake of that magnitude, and that caused much of the loss of life of this past week. Early examinations speak of smooth steel, of concrete reinforced in name only, or mixed in with beach sand to cut costs (but beach sand contains sodium chloride, and in time will corrode the nearby iron). Some of these practices, no doubt, will turn out to be barely illegal, or not illegal enough. Some of the firms will have ceased to exist, or their owners will be dead or impossible to find. Should anybody be brought to trial, it will be years from now, and their sentences inadequate. It is how these things work in a country where even disasters have very little that is natural about them.

And that is in fact one thing the items on the list at the top of this post have in common: the sense of justice denied, not only to the victims of calculated murder by also those who died so that the country could produce more energy, or the cities expand more quickly and cheaply. A justice that arrives too late, or not at all, while the State watches from the sidelines or connives with organised crime in order to profit from the reconstruction funds, leading to the disaster in Irpinia being eventually renamed "the never-ending earthquake". All in the name of the country that we aspired to be, the Italy of the economic miracle. And here's another thing that the items in the list have in common: for the cowardly, premeditated killings aimed at spreading fear and quelling social unrest ultimately served the same narrative as the unregulated construction of mega-dams or unsafe buildings. Let Italy be a modern country, a rich country. Let us embrace progress. Let us be creative and hard-working, not rebellious or backward looking. So that we can finally cease to be our atypical, folkloristic, lovable and more than a little laughable selves and be more like them.

They, them, the others, the modern free-market democracies Italy has looked up to for quite some time. There is a sense in which the crumbling ruins our frantic and unsustainable development become inscribed into a greater phenomenon, the international crisis of political and economic institutions. It is from this broader perspective that it becomes difficult not to read the images from L'Aquila also as an allegory of a shaken faith in the core engines of economic progress such as real estate, obviously, but also the car industry,

fashion and advertising,

as well as the state of our governing institutions.

Italo Calvino saw all this in 1957, and turned it into a novel entitled La speculazione edilizia. This most Italian of phrases for the phenomenon of uncontrolled and unregulated building has no equivalent in English (just like its cousin cementificazione selvaggia), and was abysmally translated as A Plunge into Real Estate. The novel remains very much a lesser known work, departing from Calvino's previous journeys into the imaginary to tell the very ordinary story of two business partners in a booming seaside town in Liguria, and of a wretched real estate project, but also the story of the price that the country was being asked to pay to belong, to be forward-looking and enterprising, and of the difficulties in articulating an effective opposition when the ideals of progress and work were so cherished on both sides of the political divide.

What I have always taken the book to mean was that la speculazione edilizia was the real article one of our constitution, the way out of poverty and into affluence for a country that couldn't possibly afford it. We wanted to own the land, and the land has been reminding us of the true order of things ever since.