Book review: John Hooper's The Italians - Italy's contradictions explored
by John Hooper
Our houses are less clean than his grandmother's poultry cage. Our diet is deplorable, while fish and chips is a dish that "makes you want to wash it with detergent before eating". So said a Portuguese writer named João Magueijo in a recent book lamenting the worst of Britain.
The "fancy that" school of expat mockery is a long tiresome tradition. And yet there is a requirement on the foreign correspondent to simplify and amplify for the reader.
John Hooper refuses to succumb to easy cliché while explaining the best and worst of Italy in The Italians. Mixing the amusing titbit (in Rome, gnocchi is to be found in restaurants only on Thursday) with the big picture, he provides context for the question that perplexes the occasional visitor: how come a country that has produced Berlusconi, "bunga bunga" parties, the mafia and an extraordinary bureaucracy is still so attractive?
Hooper, the Guardian's man in Rome, divides his analysis into a useful set of subject headings - the judicial system, geography, love, sex and the family, religion. If there is a single unifying theme, it is suspicion. Italians, it seems, are reluctant to believe anyone and certainly no home-grown institution.
Thus we learn that Vodafone has made a mint from a service called Alter Ego, which allows subscribers two phone numbers on the same sim card - one presumably for the spouse, the other for the lover. Cheating in exams is rife, regarded as something between inevitable and laudable. Small wonder, the author notes, that even aspiring school teachers have been caught out. The head of the employers' federation boasted that he was a "world champion" at copiatura.
Hooper contends that in spite of their reputation for gregariousness, Italians often conceal what they think. Hand gestures are a device of obfuscation. Such is their restraint that Italians are not as prone to dancing as other Mediterranean societies and they rarely get drunk.
Distrust lies at the heart of the judicial system. Truth is relative. The difficulty in getting to the truth, and in achieving convictions, underlies Italians' obsession with wiretapping and other forms of "provable" surveillance. For journalists, lawyers and politicians, the right to bug a phone is regarded as inviolable.
Yet, Hooper points out that when Italians decide, en masse, to abide by a particular stricture they will. He notes: "Italians will not obey laws, yet they will adhere - and with steely rigidity - to conventions." Nobody predicted that when the smoking ban was introduced in 2005 it would be obeyed. But it was. "By some semi-miraculous process, a law had turned into a convention and everyone was ready to respect it."
Italians are more likely to show faith in foreign institutions. Hooper dwells on a side of public life since the second world war: the staunch Atlanticism and anti-communism of the many Christian Democrat-led governments. Since the end of the cold war, that allegiance has been transferred to Brussels.
Hooper is less confident about the future. His book was published after the election of Matteo Renzi, a young Florentine, as prime minister. No Italy-watcher would vest in an individual the ability to reform a moribund politics or declining economy. However, perhaps something fresh may just be stirring.
Guardian News & Media