Well Before the Pandemic
Some time back, well before the pandemic, the screenwriter and director Giovanni Veronesi, who had a show on TV called Maledetti amici miei (Damned friends of mine), reached out to ask me if I’d like to write “something about friendship,” which would then be read on air by the actress Valeria Solarino.
I had only recently finished writing La mia ombra è tua (My shadow is yours), and I felt drained, but Giovanni and I have been friends since high school, and I didn’t want to tell him no, so I tried writing it, this thing about friendship. Try as I might, though, it wouldn’t take form, and just as I was about to tell him that I couldn’t do it, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I might be able to write something for my father, my babbo, disguising it as a message for a friend, because I couldn’t stand to think about him anymore. I’d stopped dreaming about him, I couldn’t even bring myself to cry about him.
I gave that a try, and it worked like a charm. Anyone who knew me realized that I wasn’t writing to a friend.
Those who love me understood and mercifully said nothing, and so, that evening—it was late, past midnight—I watched Valeria step on stage, lovely as the noon sun, and transmit my first message to my father since what had happened.
Oh, ciao, listen, I wanted to tell you something.
Yesterday I thought back to that interview with Muhammad Ali you read me a long time ago.
Where he says that Earnie Shavers hit him with such a powerful right it shook his kinfolk back in Africa. It was such a hard punch that Ali’s legs folded beneath him, and he was forced to cling to the ropes to keep from falling. Muhammad Ali, the greatest, explained that if he had been knocked to the canvas, he’ d never have had the strength to get back up.
So he stayed up, wasn’t knocked to the canvas, and somehow managed to survive to the end of that round and indeed went on to win the fight.
So, I thought maybe you read it to me because you wanted me to be like him in my life. Like Muhammad Ali. That you wanted me to refuse to hit the canvas, no matter how hard I might get punched.
But he was Muhammad Ali, and I’m just me. And I hit the canvas hard that day. And I stayed down.
For months on end, I stayed down.
I’m only now starting to get back up on my feet. That’s what I wanted to tell you.
That I’m getting back on my feet, and that I miss you. I miss you so much. I’ d give my right arm to be able to hug you once again. Just once, that would be enough. But I know it’s not possible, so I send you my best wishes.
And when you see him—Muhammad Ali—please tell him that I miss him too.
Taking Another Step
And then the world goes crazy. “Today we’ve decided to take another step,” says Giuseppe Conte on TV. “The administration has decided to shut down all business and manufacturing operations nationwide, except for those that are strictly necessary, crucial, and indispensable to ensuring a reliable supply of essential goods and services.”
The date is March 21, 2020, and the prime minister of the Italian Republic is once again addressing the nation live, this time alongside a woman who’s signing his words for the hard of hearing.
“We’ve worked all afternoon with the trade unions and the manufacturers’ and professional associations to draw up a detailed list setting forth the manufacturing sectors, categories of production, and public utility services, the ones that are most vital to the continued operation of the state in this phase of the emergency.”
We’ve worked all afternoon.
“All supermarkets will continue to remain open, as well as all stores selling foodstuffs and other basic necessities. So let me point this out: we expect no restrictions on the days that supermarkets can remain open to the public. There is no reason for any runs on stores. There is no reason we should see long lines, which would be entirely unjustified at this time. Pharmacies and other retail outlets selling pharmaceutical goods will also remain open. Likewise, banking, postal, insurance, and financial services will continue to be provided. We will ensure all essential public services, such as transportation. We will of course further ensure all related ancillary services that are necessary for those permitted essential services.”
That was Conte, the university professor from Puglia who taught law in Florence and was elevated from complete anonymity only to be parachuted, unbelievably, into the office of prime minister, summoned by the populists of the Five Star Movement to govern Italy, in a coalition with the racists of Matteo Salvini’s Northern League.
“The People’s Lawyer,” as he announced that he wished to be called and thought of when he took office, Conte visited the White House and loudly stated that his administration was a change government, exactly like Trump’s government. Trump, in return, thanked Conte and called him “my new friend,” going so far as to endorse him in a tweet, though he misspelled his first name as “Giuseppi.”
Conte, Giuseppe Conte, who just one year after that day in Washington spectacularly switched his alliance, becoming the prime minister of a new coalition government of a diametrically opposed persuasion. In this new administration, the Five Star Movement replaced the right-wing Northern League with the left-wing Italian Democratic Party. “We will slow down the country’s productive engine, but we will not stop it,” he says, and then he continues, dressed as sharply as a dance hall Romeo, making a special effort to appear solemn and heartfelt: “The state is here.”
I cradle my face in both hands, I slowly start shaking my head while muttering under my breath that it’s unbelievable, but then I lurch upright from the sofa and stride outside to my garden, where I begin watering the already-damp soil around my camellia tree, even though it’s pitch-dark. As I spray the base of the tree, I snarl to myself, because I know that the obscene closing of ranks between industry and labor I’ve just witnessed is an extreme, last-ditch effort to stem the rise of infections, seeing that every day brings nearly a thousand new deaths, and outside the main hospital in Bergamo army trucks are idling, ready to haul off loads of coffins—I know it, and I expected it, like everyone else had. Still, this announcement disturbs me much more than the other, actually more terrible, announcement with which, only a few days previous, the lawyer of the Italian people had ordered us all to remain at home, doors locked and windows shut, allowing us out only to tend to documented work-related necessities, situations of urgent need, or issues involving our health.
What will happen tomorrow?
What will all these people do when their work is shut down—for the moment, shut down indefinitely, by the way?
There are millions of them. Where will they get their income, if no income is being produced anywhere?
And what is the meaning, anyway, of those three terrifying adjectives that Conte has just uttered, if and when they are applied to labor, which in the opening words of the Italian Constitution is boldly declared to be the foundation of the republic? (That is to say, of course, if no one has changed those opening words, in the still of the night, without alerting the rest of us, in compliance with some new and stupid iconoclastic furor.)
What types of work, after all, are now to be considered unnecessary, not crucial, and dispensable, if the work in question allows a people to survive?
What jobs can we dispense with and still hope not to derail, in the first place, the economy itself, and after that the very fabric of the state, civil coexistence, and society at large?
And come to think of it, who makes that decision, anyway, people who worked on it for a whole afternoon? Who are they and what have they done, their whole life long, so as to be ready and able to make such a scalding, immense decision that is clearly destined to dig a ditch—no, make that a yawning trench—between the Italians, dividing them on the basis of some presumed necessity of their occupations, rewarding some and condemning others?
I snarl, of course I snarl, because I clearly understand that the death knell is tolling for the larger manufacturing sector once again, and especially for textiles, my beloved textile industry, but also for business and trade in general, for shops, for all stores, for bookstores, cafés, restaurants, and hotels. They’ll go the way of the museums and movie houses and theaters and discotheques and concert halls and stadiums and sports arenas that have already been shut down, and the churches, because you can’t even go to Mass anymore, or for that matter to public parks, and you’re not allowed to walk on beaches or hike in the mountains.
How do you go on living without the unnecessary and the noncrucial and the non-indispensable? Hadn’t we always said that those were what made life worth living, ennobling our existence, the pillars of what makes Italian style what it is, the things we stamp made in italy, the flowers in our nation’s buttonhole, symbols of the wonderful history of the special communion between art and craft and artisanry and industry and culture and environment and food and wine and tourism, this story that we told to an enthralled world, a world that had believed it, decreeing Italy to be the land of style and fine taste, the best country you could ever hope to live in? Ah, this must be the ache of the phantom limb, because it’s hurting as if I still owned it, our old factory, instead of having sold it fifteen years ago; as if my father were still here, still alive, and tomorrow morning I was going to have to muster the courage to pick up the phone and call him to work out which of the two of us would be the one to go down and padlock the front gate of our woolen mill, the Lanificio T. O. Nesi & Figli, because things are never really entirely gone, not even when they’re over and done with, and neither are people, not even when they’re dead—and Faulkner was right when he said that the past is never dead, it’s not even past.