From Inquisition to Tortuga – Interview with Valerio Evangelisti Part II

Here you can find the conclusion of the long interview that Valerio Evangelisti, with delightful willingness, accepted to yield us. The first part can be read on Inkroci 4.

Note: different fonts have been used to distinguish the interventions of two interviewers: those by Caimi are in bold, those by Gregori are in bold italic.

Even though you don’t have many connections with the literary community, you are really involved in our cultural life and  often analyze it.

Yes, I do. I try to keep myself up to date. Even though I am a historian, I did not study History in an Arts Faculty, but as a course in Political Science. And so I approached History as we used to do back in those days, definitely preferring Contemporary History with a strong sociological perspective. It was Social Sciences combined with History. This means that I like to keep on top of what is going on. Not actual politics but fundamental events. So I have strong opinions on matters such as war, racism, and so on. If, for example, you ask me to name the mayor of Bologna, yes, I can, but it takes me a minute to remember. But the greater themes of life are important to me and they are the ones I try to include in all my books: I can relate to even the most outlandish ones, in a way.

Among other things, you contributed to May tears flow, said the Sheriff, an anthology against the municipality of Bologna being run by mayor Cofferati, former head of the CGIL labor union.

I was the organizer of the anthology. And that small volume riled the publisher Fanucci, who holds the rights to Philip K. Dick, and thought that we copied him. He got really angry about this and wrote a wrathful article against me, without even reading the book, which is really just a booklet, and you can tell that he didn’t read it.

Which looks, moreover, like an issue of Urania, just on different paper…

Look, that was funny. On that occasion it was also a question of a different style of writing. I mean, my piece from that anthology was distributed around Bologna as a flier. That doesn’t happen often. So I felt a bit like a cross between Jack London and Gorky… (laughs).

Do you think that we are actually experiencing a worrying cultural dumbing down?

Yes I do, but it is due more to a standardization of other mass media than to literature. Today it’s not literature, or more generically, fiction that influences the minds and values of people. It may influence minorities. The phenomena of standardization come from other sources. Added to that, there’s a tendency towards imitation where we have examples of fiction that imitate other media, instead of being an inspiration to them. For instance, a genre I am really fond of is science fiction. Once the literature  was hugely ahead of television and cinema. While in a science fiction novel you could read about the problems of a world in the distant future but that also reflected  our present, in the movies you were still watching invasions by giant insects. Nowadays some science fiction series – Lost, Battlestar Galactica, etc. – are much more sophisticated than books, books which indeed struggle to imitate them. The connection has been reversed. I think, by the way, that complexity and intelligence have to be hallmarks of literature, no matter what the genre. I don’t have any preconceptions about genres. Sometimes I might proclaim somewhere that genre fiction is the best, but I actually do this because I find myself in a defensive position: when people attack you, you answer “no, I’m stronger than you”, but I don’t discriminate. Furthermore, perhaps the fiction I like most is not genre fiction. Anyway yes, there is a standardization, but you can find it in everything we are doing, it’s unavoidable.

In filmmaking as well. To say nothing of Italian cinema.

I rarely happen to see Italian movies but, besides the fact that I usually forget them, I have to admit that I like some of them, they are amusing; but it’s not in Italy that filmmaking is today at its  cultural best.

What do you think of movies like Il Divo and Gomorra?

Neither of them inspired enough enthusiasm in me to make me shout “they are great!” Rather, I found them interesting, especially Il Divo, because it’s a kind of stylization, a strange way of telling a story. I mean, everything is almost hyper realistic, even the framing is not “cinema framing”. I can’t say if the character is portrayed well. I think the original has more of a sense of humour than the movie character.
Gomorra, however, is more complex. It actually left me feeling quite odd (and just me, I hope): rather than for the two young guys, I was definitely rooting for the Camorra, because you have to admit that those two were real pains in the ass! I hated them. I almost clapped when they were eventually murdered. Besides that (I’m only half joking), this is also an interesting movie. I think it’s unique, it won’t generate a current. There won’t be other films like that.

In spite of its commercial success?

In spite of commercial success, but it’s a unique movie in the same way as maybe the book is a unique book. And in that sense it’s perfect; it’s a movie that I gladly watched, despite it conveying a terrible sense of squalor. But that’s its power. These are examples (but almost two in a million) of great Italian cinema nowadays.

But we are far from the movies like the ones directed by Petri, Germi…

No, they don’t exist anymore! And if they did, those directors wouldn’t be allowed to work. Because then there was a whole generation of them. Nowadays, even if there is a plethora of writers –let’s get back to the writers– who are more or less on the same wavelength, in a way, there is absolutely no contact between them, in the way there once was, there is no exchange. Even between me and my closest friends, there’s not this kind of relationship. But now there are other things, like the Web, that are an interesting way of meeting new interlocutors. But just as there is no Italian school of literature, so there is none of cinema. Italian filmmaking is also completely subordinate to television. Who manages to make independent movies here? A product financed by television is destined to be broadcast on television, so it has to obey several criteria and to distance itself from an “excess of problematic material”. That is how I see it.

And in Italy we make low quality TV serials, in spite of the unmerciful comparison with American series, which could be a great example to us.

Yes, but here the intelligence of the audience has always been underestimated. Anyway, the audience is not without blame, because it confirms how successful for instance, the Christmas movies will be and there’s no doubt that people go and see that stuff. So then the producer, who is essentially a businessman, either wants that kind of film, or makes it for television.

Maybe there was also a different mentality; that is to say in the past a filmmaker gained prestige by financing an art film; nowadays they gain no prestige anymore: they simply fail.

Well, the ones I have met – and I have met a lot of them – with some exceptions, were people with no money, and basically they relied on public loans. I don’t want to knock public financing, but filmmakers started out with  that particular idea: now I’m  planning  a movie, I can’t finance it, but television maybe can, so I’ll present it to television. The filmmaker who thinks like that no longer really takes part in an artistic activity; he is trying, rather, to lower the bar. Except for the really eminent ones, who can allow themselves to make truly experimental movies that do not pander to the tastes of the masses. The filmmakers I’ve met were not frauds, but they were definitely businessmen. And the biggest ones are the most commercial. They have made their fortune from commercial products and they will keep on producing them.

But back in the day, Dino De Laurentis used to produce good quality movies, as well as  many merely commercial ones.

But they were movies specifically for the cinema. And then they were made in order to be sold abroad. Those were the years when Tarantino was watching  Italian movies in the States. Now he would only be able to watch them in some art-house cinema. The situation is very different in countries such as France or Spain. In Spain, since there are a lot of independent communities, each of them has enough funds to finance movies for cinema. Nowadays, for instance, all the best horror movies come from Spain. In France there is kind of a public loan, so an amount of money is lent to a filmmaker, who is then supposed to give it back. In any case, there is a sort of  control of the quality of films made.

In France, moreover, art-house clubs are really popular. In Italy, if you manage to find 20 people at one you are lucky.

In Italy, who was it up to not so long ago that decided whether to give  money to the motion picture industry or not? The same guy who then received instructions from Berlusconi: “give me this dancer, that showgirl”… It’s a shame because while in other countries you have directors, people from the world of cinema, experts, who manage specific authorities, here you end up in the movies on other merits. I have always been astonished by the fact that, for instance, they put someone who has nothing to do with television in charge of television. I would appoint, I don’t know, Renzo Arbore, or Freccero, Marco Giusti, people like that… Here it does not work like that. So then cinema is connected to television, and what does television hinge on? On these people. The situation is hopeless, hopeless.

Do you think there is a way to repossess  culture …?

By making it, making it. By that I mean self-producing it. I do believe so. A while ago, the most important Arci society [i.e. Italian Cultural and Recreational Association] in Bologna, which had its own film library, was changing address, and threw away 16mm film cans in a dustbin and, since there was not enough room in the bin, next to it. A friend and I  went there with some sacks and took all we could. They were so-called “political” movies, produced in ’68. They were experimental, and they were extraordinary, with actors like GianMaria Volonté, Giulio Brogi and others who lent themselves to this kind of counter-information  cinema. But they did everything themselves, they distributed their works themselves, they created networks. I think this is the way to bring about a renaissance of culture. For instance, that pamphlet we made against Cofferati sold more than five thousand copies. And in Bologna it was distributed only in two bookshops, as a favor. The rest were carried by community centres throughout Italy.

Indeed, I bought it in a community center in Brescia.

That’s what I mean. Which one was it?

Magazzino 47, which is connected to Radio Onda d’Urto.

I have been to their parties twice. The last time I was there to introduce that booklet, and there were no fewer than five thousand young people. It was more than at the one held by  Radio Sherwood and, what’s more, it was not as commercial. So, I think we can take culture back  by involvement from the grassroots. Or by multifaceted cultural initiatives which should, however always be managed by their members. There are initiatives that are started by enthusiasts  and in the end they manage to survive and to find new spaces. In the long run, the same can hold true for  books, in my opinion.

And to what extent can the Web help? I ask because I consider the Web to be a double-edged sword in all this.

On the one hand the Web can be dangerous. One of the hazards is that, since everybody can express an opinion, it slides down to the lowest level. There is one self-styled literary critic who now and then spends time writing about me, persistently saying that I am homosexual. Besides the fact that nowadays it’s not a big deal, it’s not true. But how can you prove someone like that wrong? People sink to these depths. .
On the other hand, a lot of people without a voice have begun to find fame thanks to the Web. I have discovered a girl from Palermo who specializes in very short and striking stories. Her name is Alessandra Daniele. If you check on Carmilla, and you look for short stories, you’ll find them: they are very short and cruel. Being published online means not just that Alessandra is now famous everywhere, that she is now practically an idol, but also that she is about to have her own anthology published. So the Web has been useful. But one has to make works which are suited to the  Web. For instance, why do we – and we have been criticized for doing so  – publish novels online in serial form? Because we know very well that our readers do not read more than two pages at a time. Often they are connecting from the office and have little time to read everything. If I put up a fifty-page work, they won’t read it. But if it is serialized they will.

Also because long reads  are not suited to the computer. Generally if someone is really interested, they download a file, and if it is very long, they print it.

All these people have never understood a thing. Umberto Eco compiled his encyclopedias on CDs. But who on earth has time to waste on a CD? Make something online, hyper textual, where you can skip from one thing to another.

Yes, through concept maps, so that you can have a look and if you are interested, you can refer to the bibliography or look something up… That is how internet works. In-depth analysis is always made from the written text, because it is impossible sit in front of a video and read for hours and hours.

For some people, who are by now cyborgs, it is possible. But, for instance, a book published online can be useful for those doing research about that text, but nobody would read a whole book. Who would read a book on television? It’s crazy. They have not yet understood a pretty basic concept: when we went from manuscripts to printing, content did not remain the same, the content of manuscripts was not merely copied out into printed form. It changed. So, I must change the content along with the medium. Internet cannot completely take over what was the heritage of literature. Even e-books (as we are seeing) are not very marketable: I sell five or six copies per year.

I think that he so-called crisis in literature, or more in general, crisis in culture, is actually stagnation. “Crisis” would even be a nice way to describe it; we would already be making progress.. Crisis indicates something bursting or, in any case,  a break with what went before.

A Crisis in any case produces literature. And literature is culture. But stagnation does not produce anything.

Do you think art – literature, specifically – can still have a revolutionary power?

No. It can raise awareness, but art has never had a real revolutionary power. It can be a trigger, though, it can spark consciousness; it can do that. And maybe, in times like these, that is a revolutionary power. I don’t believe that much in lectures in literature or in other art forms. Usually those who lecture do not convince. The thing they can do, instead, is to raise doubts, stimulate questions. They can do that. And genre fiction can do that too, we could say.

When it wants to, it manages to do so.

Actually, it has the advantage of not always being scrutinized by critics, always censored. Usually they let you write what you want. I know that from my own experience.

Does the development of an identity, in the sense of a  real identity, contribute to strengthening and so embracing culture, and therefore to  enrichment?

Sure, it contributes a lot, but this happens more on a social level, through social life. A book that is not an essay usually does not persuade, does not manage to make somebody change their opinions. But it can give them clearer ideas on existence and so strengthen or change some of their opinions. From this point of view, a book is rarely totally useless, even if there are some useless books, as there is some useless music or there are some useless movies. But hey, we are not talking about those.

Is awareness of the present founded on comprehension of the past?

Let’s say that there is a reciprocal exchange. I mean, nobody knows history. We know it in a general way, but we cannot live in the middle of it.  Countless details are almost impossible to reconstruct. This is easy to notice when reading a medieval novel: we notice, if the novel reflects the way of speaking of the time, that they spoke in a different way compared to nowadays. If we read a more modern novel like, for instance, The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, we notice that dialogues are somewhat different compared to nowadays. The same is true of everything. So we never manage to entirely reconstruct history: we can just reconstruct the parts we are more interested in. But those parts are usually prescribed by the present. It’s the present that directs not so much historical reconstruction, but the choice of events to be given privileged status. Otherwise we would just be chronicling events. On the other hand, nobody can interpret the present without some knowledge of problems faced in the past. Faced, and either solved or not solved, but that cropped up in the past. So it’s a constant dialectical relationship.

Sometimes it’s enough to be silent in order not to convey information. In my opinion, this also seems to happen with a lot of published books which could have a high social impact, but nobody talks about them.

Yes, there are some forms of censorship that deal with certain topics. Basically nowadays we are dominated by choices from different sources. In my opinion, the importance that was once held by the universities, has been displaced nowadays by a kind of lower-level intellectual, such as the columnist, the television pundit, and so on, who are themselves pretty restricted by politics. So, if they decide that a topic is out-of-date, they don’t debate it. Newspapers don’t debate it and, although the influence of newspapers on society is diminishing, since newspapers don’t debate it, others  don’t debate it. It’s all a chain, and results in some topics being hidden, and taboos being created.  We can’t talk about this or we can talk about it but just in a certain way, and so on. This is undeniable, in my opinion.

Yashar Kemal wrote: “If the people of a country choose to live like human beings, choose happiness and beauty, their way lies first through universal human rights and unlimited freedom of thought. The cultural wealth of our country is in our hands”.

Yes, I would agree, more or less. Freedom of thought is always a thorny topic, because I think a kind of totally infamous and criminal thought also exists, to which I would not allow any freedom at all. Unfortunately nowadays I see that it is being allowed, and it has been like shaking a bottle of sparkling wine and suddenly uncorking it: everything comes out. So we can see people who, metaphorically speaking, puke everywhere. This should not happen, in my opinion. There should be strict discipline in the selection of topics, because it is obvious that everything can be debated, but some topics should be debated at an appropriate distance. I am definitely adverse, for example, to the censorship in Italy regarding a book by Celine, Trifles for a Massacre, a really savagely anti-Semitic book. I disagreed with the idea of outlawing it; but I would publish it with an introduction that places it in a historical context. But I don’t have an answer to the question, because I largely agree.

In your opinion which contemporary Italian writers are worth reading?

There are several. I like Ammanniti, ex-Pulp writer Scarpa, definitely Genna, even if he is hard to read, Wu Ming and, if you are really patient, Moresco. There are many of them. I think the criterion for choosing what to read is curiosity. Curiosity about the present. I have happened to read books at a time when they did not coincide with my interests or my sensitivity and I had an awful impression of them, which was unfair. I would trust curiosity.

Why do you write? Why writing?

Because it lets me live other lives. To me it is really entertainment. Painful entertainment, but still entertainment, because I can go where I wouldn’t be able to go otherwise. The first part of my life was pretty dynamic; then from a certain point it was not like that anymore, and I have always regretted it. So I live my adventures by writing them. Basically that is the way it is. I like writing, I love even the gesture of writing, but in itself it would be insufficient. That other element is essential.

by Heiko H. Caimi and Lara Gregori

You can read the first part of the interview here: From Inquisition to Tortuga – part I

Translation by Irene Lami (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)