Monday, April 2, 2012

Garibaldi's Statue

When they start a new town in Romagna, they first throw up a monument to Garibaldi and then build a church, because there's no fun in a civil funeral unless it spites the parish priest. The whole history of the province is concerned with spite of this kind.

(Giovanni Guareschi, Don Camillo and His Flock)

This week is all about the announcement that I have a new blog over at the revamped Overland, in a large and frankly intimidating company that includes – to my utter delight – a well-known person to readers of this blog. It’s an exciting development for me personally and one of its challenges will be thinking about what to write where as I go about addressing two largely distinct set of readers.

I don’t have a terribly clear idea at this stage of what the eventual demarcations will look like, but by launching the new blog with the translation of a column that Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote nearly forty years ago I wanted to pre-emptively deal with the pressure I know I am going to feel to be more topical over there than I am over here, where as far as growing an audience is concerned I have been answerable to no-one but myself. Because I am still not a great predictor of what readers will like and respond to, but this much I have figured out: that the issue of perceived relevance has little to do with the topic of the day, and that people who read stuff online, to a greater degree than consumers of print publications, have come to expect the instant response to developing stories or the review of the latest book alongside all manner of anachronisms, and that they know they can glean something useful from both. It is a situation I have critiqued in the past, for it leads to a flattening of temporality that is far from unproblematic, but so long as it reflects a bias of the medium – and I think it does – then the bias needs to be understood and, if possible, turned against itself or used to one’s advantage.

Monuments, too, are large, immovable anachronisms, concrete markers of memory and history that seek to assert the past over the present, or more precisely over the future present of successive generations. Famously in Italy every town has a street or a square named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, and more often than not a statue as well. In my native Milan, the statue of Garibaldi sits atop a colossal plinth in the square outside the city’s castle, and it is traditionally around this statue that political marches have assembled. But Garibaldi is also to this day a living symbol, and so his statues are periodically clothed with red shirts or wrapped in red mantles as if to signify the continued relevance and presence of the old revolutionary leader.

There is a story that circulates about the statue in Milan: that one morning in 1944, during the Nazi occupation of the city, a sign was put up on the monument. It read ‘Peppin, vegn giò de lì ch’i en anmò chi.’ Giuseppe, come down, they’re still here.

I like that image a lot, of Garibaldi dismounting from his great big plinth and coming down to join the partisans and liberate my hometown. As I like that story by Giovanni Guareschi in which a citizen of Don Camillo’s village makes a donation to the church inside an old wooden statue of Garibaldi modified with stucco to look like Saint Anthony. ‘Here,’ writes Guareschi,
‘the ferocity of the trick consisted not so much in bringing Garibaldi into the church and having him worshipped as a saint, but rather in filling up Garibaldi's chest with gold napoleons accompanied by this sarcastic note:
Dear priest (yes, priest, for there is gold here and only priests can detect gold, being so greedy for it!): Contrary to what you say, there is no devil in the heart of Garibaldi. Instead, there is a precious treasure which you will certainly not refuse. Priest, if Masses are still being celebrated by the time you read this letter (and I doubt they will be), do celebrate a Mass for the repose of the soul of the anticlerical Garibaldian soldier Alberto Ferrazza, and use the napoleons to buy yourself a few nice banquets and toast the everlasting glory of Giuseppe Garibaldi!’

There are so many layers to this small episode, so much to learn about the persistence of symbols, both religious and secular, both metaphysical and political. The rabid anticleric (in Italian mangiapreti, literally ‘priest-eater’) who makes a spiteful donation to the church – but a donation nonetheless, and a large one at that – personifies the paradox of a culture clinging on to its traditions even as it sought to embrace radical renewal and progress in the form of socialism. The need to smuggle the likeness of Garibaldi into a church, made to look like a saint and carrying gold coins as safe-conduct, strikes me even now as the perfect allegory of our cursed political history. Did we ever seriously expect to be able to quietly leave those monumental contradictions behind?

Few writers embodied and articulated these issues as sharply as Giovanni Guareschi and Pier Paolo Pasolini. But this story from my country, this literary story, is also the story of my own family. So where do I think I am going?

Overland operates out of Australia both as a print journal and as an online publication, and whilst it depends on its subscribers it also benefits from an impressive roll of institutional backers. The editors first approached me at the end of last year to write a piece about the eurozone crisis that I am quite sure I wouldn’t have had the nerve to embark upon if it hadn’t been commissioned to me. (I can now see that ‘I am not an economist’ was a very poor excuse.) Subsequently the article got me invited to discuss those issues on Media 7, which was another personal highlight – by which I mean not the being on television as such (although, yes, that too), but being able to engage with a broader audience in a manner that felt consistent with what I’ve been trying to do here.

That remains the most pleasing aspect of the work that I’ve picked up and the connections I’ve made through this business of blogging, including those that didn’t quite come to fruition: that they developed out of a personal project, which made them thinkable in a way that a more traditional apprenticeship in journalism or print media wouldn’t have. In all of this, the value of amateur practice cannot be overestimated, but neither can the need to eventually find other outlets, which necessitates at least some form of organization but most often actual institutions.

I say this because the channel that runs Media 7 is facing liquidation, whilst writing for a publication backed by the institutions of another country amounts for me to a second, smaller migration, made more complicated by the fact that I know so little about the place. It is tempting to underestimate geography on the web, to contend that audiences are increasingly deterritorialised and so are their writers, and perhaps even celebrate this, as in part no doubt it should: but it’s also true that the greater centres exert a far greater influence on what is relevant and topical. Stories about American society or politics have an almost universal currency, at least amongst readers of English. British and Australian stories a little less so, they make you work a little harder. But writing about New Zealand in the way that I do is only something I could do from here, which, even if it only matters to me, will always be a very strong reason to keep this blog going.

However things are both simpler and more complicated than this: because the problem of origins and of the essence of one’s belonging is rather like the statue of Garibaldi that is transformed via the application of stucco into a statue of Saint Anthony, at which point you can no longer say with any certainty which is true: if it is a statue of Garibaldi (for after all that semblance came first) or a statue of Saint Anthony (by virtue of its being placed in a church) or both. To this idea, of being an immigrant writer who increasingly feels that he is from here, but isn’t, I am turning my mind to more and more. Time therefore to get transplanted again. We’ll see how it goes.