Five great books set in VALENCIA
Notes from an Italian hermitage – despatches from BOLOGNA #3
4th April 2020
Notes from an Italian hermitage
A despatch from Bologna-based author Tom Benjamin at the end of a fourth week in lockdown
Most novelists live in one form of self-isolation or another – it goes with the territory. You can jot down as many plot ideas, dream up as much snappy dialogue as you like, but at some point you will actually have to write around 80,000 publishable words early in the morning, late at night, during the weekend or, if you’re really lucky, over the working day, cut off from the rest of the world. In this era of quick technological fixes, it remains a laborious, solitary, almost medieval vocation. The author is like a modern day hermit, albeit their cave is likely to have a sofa rather than straw, is walled by books instead of moss, and their spring water almost certainly comes out of a plastic bottle.
So on the face of it the current restrictions should change little for me except, of course, all Italy is now a hermitage. In my case, having given up my office to allow my wife to replicate her place of work, I am left to roam the wilderness of our apartment looking for another sacred spot. Distracted by the unreality of the ordinary world, it is a challenge to create my ordinary unreality. Like everyone else, I wonder when it will end. Here, the rate of infections appears to be ‘flattening’ – we are perhaps four to six weeks away from the beginnings of a return to normality, yet for now we remain in the throes of a trauma I think our society will only begin to truly comprehend once it has drawn to a close.
For now, each of us is one of those poor souls fighting for breath in a Bergamo hospital corridor, shoulder-to-shoulder with the family looking on as loved ones are loaded onto a military truck bound for the crematorium. For a society with the family at its heart and where the departed are scrupulously remembered, this has hit particularly hard. Hence from the outset the overwhelming support and compliance for the strictest government measures – concepts like ‘herd immunity’ or ‘prioritising the economy’ would have been, literally, unthinkable here. As a recently naturalised Italian citizen, I am so proud of how my adopted country, for all its initial errors, did not hesitate to place the lives of its most vulnerable first. It has shown a unity, discipline, and clarity of purpose that obliterates the usual lazy foreign stereotypes.
I have also been reminded of how to be Italian is to be loved. I had a taste of this years ago crossing the border between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. When my wife showed her Italian passport to the Israeli guards they exclaimed ‘Italian! Azzurri!’ then when we arrived at the Palestinian side, the guard said: ‘Viva Italia!’ Another time, in Jordan when I was playing translator from Italian to English for a group of tourists, the shopkeeper, thinking I was one of them, told me: ‘I love Italians!’
‘And how do you feel about the British?’ I asked.
‘Oh,’ his voice dropped. ‘I can’t stand the British.’
Now the Russians, Chinese, even hard-up Cubans and Albanians are sending us medical assistance. Shamefully, however, when Italy made an emergency appeal to the European Union at the start of the crisis, no one responded. The Germans and French even blocked exports of facemasks. Belatedly, German hospitals have begun to take a handful of Italian patients, but the hurt felt here by that initial rejection, along with the continued, cloth-eared rebuffs to requests for financial aid, bode ill for the future. The nation of Machiavelli and the Medici might have a reputation for cynicism, but this belies an abiding sentimentality. Italians proudly display the tricolour and European flag side-by-side and are deeply attached to the European ideal, albeit that recent economic hardship may have tarnished its image. There was the clear expectation, bluster aside, that ‘Europe’ would demonstrate solidarity during Italy’s time of need. Yet if ‘Europe’ can’t help now, one can easily envisage separatists arguing, then when? The bean counters of the Hague and Berlin would be most unwise to believe Italian attachment to the EU begins and ends at the balance sheet.
The evening bells begin to chime. Although outdoor exercise has been severely restricted and the parks closed, this hermit has devised a new routine – a minimum of five times up and down the three palazzo floors. Arriving at the bottom, I come across a pair of students with their books open, enjoying the last licks of sunlight to reach the courtyard. Although there would have once been a well at the centre of our cortile, little else can have changed here in perhaps half a millennia. Ours is a hidden world, defended by a duo of gates – the outer wood, the inner spiked iron – a reminder of the other plagues that have visited this city, and worse. Yet ordinary life has eventually returned, Bologna has endured, and the healing has begun.
Tom Benjamin’s debut novel A Quiet Death in Italy featuring Bologna-based detective Daniel Leicester, is due out this May and available for pre-order on the TripFiction DATABASE from you favourite bookseller.