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Hercules wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion
In Italy and the Italian diaspora, Heracles wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion has become the symbol of link the debate on the New Italian Epic. The beast, whose skin could not be pierced by any weapon, was the child of Typhon and Echidna. For a long time the lion had gone around Argolis, terrorising and killing people, devouring sheep and cows, and filling the air with roars. That fight was the first of Heracles' Twelve Labours. During the struggle the hero lost a finger, but in the end he managed to strangle the beast. After that, he wore the skin as an armour. This image comes from an Attic amphora, ca. 525-500 B.C.
The London Speech

by Wu Ming 1
Opening talk @ the conference"The Italian Perspective on Metahistorical Fiction: The New Italian Epic", Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London, UK, October 2nd, 2008.

On New Year's Eve of 2005 I received a phone call from a colleague of mine, an Italian writer called Giuseppe Genna, born and living in Milan. He called me in the late afternoon and asked me what I was going to do to celebrate the new year. I told him that my daughter was only a few months old, my partner needed some respite, so I decided to stay home while she went out with some friends. It would be the first time in more than 20 years that I would stay home on New Year's Eve, and I planned to re-read The Count of Montecristo while watching over the sleeping baby. I asked Giuseppe what he was going to do. He said he'd go to a party, albeit reluctantly. He'd just had a phone conversation with his father, and was worried about him.
For some years, his father Vito had been fighting against cancer. His doctors had recently told the family that there was nothing left to be done. It was a matter of months.
Vito lived alone, many of his friends had passed away, and he planned to stay home for the night. He was adamant about that: he would stay home. He told his son that he was tired and wanted to go to bed early.
The thought of this old, lonely, dying man spending New Year's Eve all alone in his apartment nearly broke my heart. I strongly identified with him. Now I was a father myself, and I would spend New Year's Eve at home for the first time in my adult life. Giuseppe and I were both 35 years old. I thought: what will be of me 35 years from now?
Anyway, it was a pleasant night, the baby's snore was soothening and the book was great. The Count of Montecristo is always great.

Twenty-four hours later my cell-phone rang. Giuseppe's name showed up on the screen again. I answered the call and he went:
- I'm at my dad's right now. My sister and I tried to call him all day, but he never answered. I just broke the door down. He's on the floor, in his pyjamas. He's dead. His hands are dark blue. I think he had a heart attack while he was going to bed.
The heart attack saved Vito Genna from the agony of cancer.
I lived in another city, couldn't be of any help, and I wasn't even one of Giuseppe's closest friends. Why was I one of the very first people he called when he found his father's body? At first I thought that, in his mind, Giuseppe made the same association I had done: I was a father, like Vito was. I'd spent New Year's Eve at home, like Vito wanted to do. Later on, I understood there was something more than that, and he confirmed it to me. He needed to call another writer, because he was living an overwhelmingly allegorical experience. Of course, every time a parent dies there are strong metaphors and allegories potentially involved, but this death had particular connotations.

Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party Vito Genna had been a staunch activist of the Italian Communist Party, the biggest and most peculiar communist party in the western world, able to gain 33% of votes at national elections and mobilize millions and millions of people. The party ceased to exist in 1991, that's too long a story to tell, suffice it to say that in the past twenty years the whole Italian Left has suffered a long crisis and now is all but disappeared, at least in its strictly political articulations. The whole political Left gradually lost any bearings on what to be and what to do, until it committed mass suicide. After the last election, for the first time since the fall of the Fascist regime, there is no parliamentary group having socialism as a reference. The Socialist International, a worldwide organization having members in 170 countries, has no representatives in the Italian parliament anymore. No representatives at all. It's a cultural earthquake, and it was announced by countless foreshocks.
Milan is currently one of the most right-wing cities in Italy. Not only it's the symbolic capital of the xenophobic movement known as Lega Nord, but it's a city with aggressive far-right groups. A few years ago a Leftist activist called Davide Cesare was stabbed to death by neo-nazis.
Less than two weeks ago there was a racist murder in broad daylight, a 19-years-old black guy named Abdoul Guibré was beaten up to death by two barkeepers - father and son - for stealing a packet of cookies. They ran after him shouting: - Negro di merda! (more or less: "Fucking nigger"), and killed him in the street, in front of witnesses, with no restraint and no shame at all. Racism is eating up Italy like a very aggressive cancer, and Milan is clearly in the forefront. In Milan, anyone who believes in solidarity may feel frustrated and a little lonely, once in a while.
Genna's father had devoted most of his life to a party that didn't exist anymore, hoping for a revolution that never came, in the context of a political Left that was metaphorically dying, and this father was literally diying: he was dying of cancer in a lonely apartment of a lonely city taken over by the right-wing long before. A sudden heart attack saved him from months of pain. His son had mixed feelings: of course he was heartbroken, but he also felt relief. The son knew that the death of the father was symbolical of the death of an era, the death of a world. Mourning the father meant mourning that era. Elaboration of mourning would be tough.

Giuseppe Genna elaborated the mourning by writing a very strange book entitled Medium. I regard this work as one of the most representative of what I call New Italian Epic. Not necessarily one of the best, but certainly one of the most emblematic. In spite of being a decently famous author, whose books are in print by the biggest publishers and often translated in other languages, Genna chose not to give Medium to any publishing house. The book is available as a hypertext link on the author's website, and as a proper bound book link on, a print-on-demand online publiser. Genna explained that he wanted a more private and personal and tender relationship with readers. He thought that reading the book on the author's website, just one click away from sending him a comment, and/or having a copy printed just for you would create more intimacy. And he was right. A few days after Medium was made available, he started to receive e-mails by readers who'd recently lost a parent and wanted to share their grief and their experience with him. Some of those readers commented upon the historical and political aspect of Vito's death with great perspicacity.
MediumThe first 39 pages of the book tell in minute detail the night and day Genna spent besides the corpse of his father. After he found the body, Genna was thrown in a bureaucratic nightmare. On the first of January, in the whole Milan area, there was no necroscopic physician available to come and sign a death certificate. Without a death certificate, the undertaker's staff couldn't take the body away. Genna stayed in that room with his dead father for a long time. He talked with the undertaker about death. He received the visits of kindred and friends. He wildly fantasized on his father, on the past, the future, the shattered dreams of socialism, the legacy of the twentieth century and so on. Medium was entirely thought up in those hours.
After the funeral, Medium gradually shifts toward an entirely different register. From the second chapter, the narrative starts to deviate. A trip to East Germany that Vito Genna really made in 1981 becomes the pivotal moment in the discovery of an alternative reality, an alternative history, an alternative life of the father, an alternative chance to elaborate the mourning. Everything takes place on the backdrop of the Cold War. There's an undefinable and yet extremely important role played by the late Peter Kolosimo, a guy who wrote many bestseller essays during the 1970's. To put it simply, Kolosimo stated that all human civilizations since the dawn of times have extraterrestrial origins, that our planet was originally colonized by aliens and all the cultures in the world bear signs of that colonization. He was a very popular character when Genna and I were kids.
The fact that Kolosimo was a self-professed communist and openly cultivated relationships with the Eastern Bloc is used by Genna to make a connection to his father's 1981 trip to East Germany. He then plays the role of Telemachus and goes to Germany himself, looking for traces of his father. He meets some very gloomy characters. Each one of them offers an interpretation of the twentieth
century, the Cold War and the illusions of communism. Each one of them tells him something he didn't know about his father. A strong connection is established between Vito Genna's life and the way the future was imagined in the past, in the age that Giuseppe Genna is exploring in retrospect.
In the end, an even stronger connection is established between Vito Genna's death and our difficulty to figure out the future. Our view of the future is obstructed by too many emotional blocks, and we need to focus on what may be beyond, we need to
force our gaze (lo sguardo) into bypassing those blocks.
ends with an appendix of what Genna calls "visualisation reports". These documents were supposedly written during the 1970's by a committee of communist psychics, of which Vito Genna was a member. The secret committee was set up by East Germany's communist government. Their task was to foresee the future, but the extrasensory gaze captures both an extremely remote past and an extremely remote future. The reports' appearance on the pages is unexpected by the reader, who is alternately shocked, amused, depressed and galvanized. Here's an example:

Far is near and near is far. There is no light. I can see a spire, it was built by a species that is not our species. I see other galaxies, a cosmic patch surrounded by black wings. Here is a procession of deformed beings with sticky skins, they are tripods, they walk in the darkness toward the immense tower that culminates in the spire I just saw. [...] This is happening two million years before the befinning of life on earth. The scattered procession goes on. I see a rocky desert, no star to illuminate the night. They call the planet Nglah, "The Always". The tower seems so close but it is hundreds of kilometres away. It will take six rotations of the planet to arrive. They sing a ritual chant: "Sideral wing, food made of fog / Living mineral, stony rose. / Buried caravan, stony source. / Mysterious ark, stony light. / Square of the equinox, stony steam / Final geometry, stony thought."

By imagining an alternative reality in which his father lived a secret life, and by asking himself how he would have elaborated the mourning in that reality, Genna pays tribute to the father, his beliefs and dreams and illusions. By depicting his father as a psychic, Genna pays tribute to him in this reality, he pays tribute to him for having at least imagined a future, a task that the latest generations find very difficult to accomplish. In this way, Genna elaborates the mourning, and makes the elaboration important for all of us. The allegory lying deep beneath Vito's death has now come to the surface. The mourning has become a quest, a chivalrous ride in space and time, and an initiatory journey. The gaze was forced, the point of view was made unexpected. An individual matter has become a meditation on the destiny of our species, our planet, our cosmos. As above, so below. And, of course, the other way around.

This is what I call the New Italian Epic. Its main characteristics are:
1. Ethical commitment to writing and storytelling, which means: a deep trust in the healing power of language and stories.
2. A sense of political necessity -- and you can choose between the broader and the stricter sense of the adjective "political".
3. The choice of stories that have a complex allegorical value. The initial choice may not even be intentional: the author may feel compelled to tell the story and later on understand what he was trying to say.
4. An explicit preoccupation for the loss of the future, with a propensity to use alternative history and alternative realities to force our gaze into imagining the future.
5. A subtle subversion of registers and language. "Subtle" because what's important is not language experimentation in and of itself; what's important is telling your story in what you feel is the best possible way.
6. A way of blending fiction and non-fiction that's different from the ones we've gotten used to (e.g. Hunter S. Thompson's "gonzo journalism"), a manner that I dare describe as "distinctly Italian", which produces "unidentified narrative objects".
7. Last but certainly not least, a "communitarian" use of the Internet to - as Genna himself put it - "share a hug with the reader".
Several books published in Italy in the past few years share all or many of these features. Each one is peculiar, and sometimes, if we judge by immediate appearances, a novel doesn't resemble the next in the slightest: different styles, different plots, different historical backdrops, seemingly different genres. And yet, if we go down deep enough, we'll see that all these books are in resonance with each other.

The most famous and successful of these works is of course Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah, which sold about a million and a half copies and triumphantly entered Italian popular culture. In Gomorrah the synthesis of non-fiction and auto-fiction is so subtle that it reaches uncanny heights. It looks like a powerful report on Naples' organized crime and the way it operates in the globalized economy, and certainly the state of things it describes is painfully real, but this is no ordinary piece of journalism. There are also autobiographical, introspective chapters. In many passages the prose is rather visionary. The "narrating I" frequently hallucinates and "hijacks" the points of view of other people, intentionally playing on the confusion between the author, the narrator and a "narrating I" that doesn't belong to any of them. Alessandro Vicenzi summarized this matter in the most simple and effective way:

Saviano indifferently uses police reports, judicial documents and personal experience, and describes the camorra adopting a first-person narrative, but the "I" of the novel isn't always the real Roberto Saviano. The book oscillates between objective accounts and literary renditions of facts. [...] If Saviano uses the first person to describe things he didn't actually witness it's because that is the most effective way of telling them, the most communicative one, the most absorbing one. [...] Saviano doesn't only jump over the barriers between fiction and non-fiction: he utterly ignores them. I don't know on what shelves bookshop clerks are putting Gomorrah now. I suspect that the success of the book allows them to overcome embarrassment and put the book in those displays of best-sellers at the entrance, where there are no particular genre distinctions.

As I said a few minutes ago, these works are different from the"non-fiction novels" and hyper-subjective news stories in the tradition of so-called "New Journalism" or "gonzo journalism". That kind of writing is now quite familiar, while these works are more disquieting. I believe that the most appropriate adjective is "uncanny". When the book was published in the English-speaking countries (unfortunately in a poor translation), reviewers got puzzled about it. Here's a passage from Rachel Donadio's review in The New York Times:

Far more problematic is the difficulty in pinning this book down. In Italy, Gomorrah was described as a "docufiction," suggesting that Saviano took liberties with his first-person accounts. [The American publisher] calls it a work of "investigative writing," a phrase that suggests careful lawyering. Some anecdotes are suspiciously perfect — the tailor who quits his job after seeing Angelina Jolie on television at the Oscars wearing a white suit he made in a Camorra sweatshop; the man who loves his AK-47 so much he makes a pilgrimage to Russia to visit its creator, Mikhail Kalashnikov. Did the author change any names? If so, readers aren’t informed. These are ot small matters, and should have been disclosed. But the emotional truth of Saviano’s account is unassailable. I could not get this brave book out of my head.

I guess Donadio never had such perplexities in reading a book by Hunter S. Thompson. Nobody ever cared about what was true and what was fictional in Thompson's writing. What's the difference here?
The difference is that Gomorrah is far from being an ironic piece of work. Gomorrah is d-e-a-d-l-y serious.

As you all probably know, "uncanny" is the way we translate into English a word Sigmund Freud used: "Unheimliche". Unheimliche is used for things that look repulsively strange and attractively familiar at the same time.
As happens in Genna's Medium, in Gomorrah too a troublesome relationship between the narrator and his father becomes strongly symbolic of something bigger. It casts light on the ambiguous "double-consciousness" several Southern Italians are painfully aware of. The narrator is the child of a culture that he cannot really renounce, and although he deeply despises the mafia and fights against it, he knows that the mafia is part of that culture, that it is consistent with that culture. In fact the nàrrator shares some deep conceptual frames with the people he denounces, and he admits it by sharing with us memories from his childhood, conversations with his father. To the narrator's eyes, the camorra is uncanny, it's repulsively strange and attractively familiar at the same time. Gomorrah is an unidentified narrative object about an unidentified feeling. The readers read their way through an "uncanny valley", and Saviano walks through another "uncanny valley": a larger one, a social one, an anthropological one.

"Uncanny valley" is a phrase coined by Japanese engineer Mori Masahiro in 1970. Mori's hypothesis is that when a robot looks and acts almost like a human being, this will cause a response of horror and rejection among humans. According to Mori, it's a case of the night being darker just before dawn, because as soon as the robot will look and act exactly like a human being, reactions among humans will be positive. He calls this period of revulsion "the uncanny valley", because it's a dip in a graph.
Now, forget about robots. I think this is a useful metaphor to describe the way an unidentified narrative object is perceived by attentive readers. There's a phase in which you start asking yourself: how is it possible that Saviano witnessed a scene like this? Mobsters using heroin addicts as guinea pigs to test newly arrived stuff, junkies collapsing after they shot up, people left to die? Where the hell was Saviano to see anything like this? Who's the narrating I? If this is undercover journalism, what is Saviano's cover? Where is he hidden? Is the narrator Saviano? Am I reading a piece of journalism or am I reading a novel disguised as a piece of journalism? You just entered the "uncanny valley" of the unidentified narrative object. Less attentive readers may never experience this, because they take everything for granted.
Anyway, it's just a dip in the graph, because you go on reading the book and gradually understand what Saviano is trying to do, and you not only accept it: you're moved by it, because this thing does the job very well, and doubts and revulsion are replaced by admiration.
My hypothesis is that many of those who criticized Gomorrah for its "ambiguity" and accused Saviano of "having confused things", never got over the dip, they stopped reading right in the middle of the "uncanny valley", and never got out of it.
Every "unidentified narrative object" has its "uncanny valley". In Medium, for example, it is located at the beginning of the second chapter, right after the funeral.

One of the most impressive things in Gomorrah is the scope, the scale of the book: the journey begins at the docks of Naples and in the destitute outskirts of that city, but then Saviano takes us to Russia, Bélarùs, Scotland, the United States, Spain, the Middle East, Hollywood, Colombia... Saviano's gaze makes incursions all over the world, because Italian organized crime makes business all over the world.
Nothing to be patriotic about.

Medium and Gomorrah are two examples of New Italian Epic. In using the word "epic" I'm trying to convey a synthesis of its several meanings and connotations. I chose it because it's the word many readers and reviewers used to describe this literature, it popped up here and there on the Internet, on blogs and forums. What did those people mean? Certainly they weren't referring to Bertolt Brecht's "epic theatre", they weren't using the term in any sophisticate or obscure way. I went back to the basic definitions, the common rock bottom on which we all stand. I grabbed the dictionary. Look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, you'll find that "epic" is used for

1. a long poem about the deeds of great men and women, or about a nation's past history;
2. a long film, story etc dealing with brave deeds and exciting adventures;
3. a task, activity, etc. that takes a long time, is full of difficulties and deserves notice and admiration when successfully completed;
4. something worthy of notice and admiration because of the scale and nature of the diffficulties involved;
5. something huge, that happens on a grand scale.

Let's take a close look.
"Great men and women". To be great, one hasn't necessarily to be famous. There are great human beings whose greatness is recognized only by their friends. You don't need Napoleon, Cromwell or Florence Nightingale to write an epic novel. If you put them into your writing, it's because you feel like doing it, but there's no obligation.
"A nation's past history". Which doesn't mean that you have to kiss arse and write patriotic propaganda, as nations usually have histories of moral corruption, genocide, exploitation etc. And you don't necessarily have to write a historical novel to deal with past history. For example, Medium is not a historical novel.
"A task full of difficulties". Trying to force your gaze and reappropriate a sense of the future is quite an endeavour, and the books I'm talking about are all very ambitious in scope...
...which takes us to the last two definitions, where the stress is laid upon scale. "Something that happens on a grand scale". Certainly these narratives are not of the minimalistic kind. Any individual matter becomes symbolic of such matters as the state of the planet etc.

This was just the beginning of my reflection on the "epic" tonality in recent Italian literature. Actually this reflection is not only mine, because many people are giving contributions. In the expanded version of the memorandum [The text that sparkled the debate on the NIE in April 2008] things got much more complex, precisely because I could make use of those contributions. I describe epic itself as a particular work on connotations, but delving into this would take me too far now.

Now I'd like to take one step back, because I mentioned the state of the planet. Let's briefly talk about it because it's the crucial point.

Dead zoneWe all come from the sea. We came out of the sea a long time ago, evolved on dry land and became what we are, human beings. We come from the sea, but the sea is dying. The sea suffers from "hypoxia", a shortage of dissolved oxygen. Salt water becomes "anoxic", without oxygen, and fish die, all aquatic life dies. The areas where this happens are called "dead zones". Last summer, researchers counted 146 of them, and some are huge, for example the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is about 300 miles wide and stretches across 8,000 square miles -- which is the surface of Wales. Try to imagine it: an area as big as Wales with no oxygen at all and no form of life. And it isn't even the largest "dead zone" in the world: the sea floor of the entire Black Sea has become a "dead zone", with extremely low oxygen concentration and no fish, no plancton, no seaweed, nothing alive, nothing, and we're talking about an area of nearly 170,000 square miles.
What are the causes? It's a chain reaction triggered by the nitrogen fertilizers we use in agriculture. These substances end up in rivers, and rivers carry them into the sea, and the sea dies little by little. "Dead zones" are just one of the many causes of the extinction of salt-water fish. There's also overfishing, there are other kinds of pollution, and there are the consequences of climate change. Some scientists have predicted the complete extinction - complete extinction - of saltwater fish by 2050 if no-one intervenes to slow down or reverse the current trends. A little more than forty years from now, no more fish. Waters empty of life and full of death. And if the sea dies, the dry land will follow soon. If the sea ceases to be an ecosystem, no other place will be an ecosystem anymore.

Something new under the sun.

Every act of literary and artistic creation, every work of art, every novel bears the signs of what happens around, in a way or another. The times we're living in are affected by the death of the founders, the "progenitors", the parents that passed away and left us with enormous problems. We are the heirs of their delusions, by now we're becoming aware that GROWTH, development, consumerism, the gross domestic product, all this keeps us running on a dead track, and we ask ourselves if there's any railroad switch and who's going to pull the lever.
We're trying to figure out what to do, but our thoughts are still prisoner of the old conceptual frames, which means our words are prisoner too. Think of the movements demanding a decrease of production and consumption. They call this process "de-growth" -- "décroissance" in French, "decrescita" in Italian. "Degrowth" isn't even an antonym, it's a mere negation of the other concept, which means it is dependent on the other concept, and in fact every time you say "degrowth" you're also saying "growth", and "growth" is perceived as a good word, we instinctively associate it with good things, with processes that are necessary and benign, like the growing of our children, or the growing of plants we can eat. "Degrowth" is not an effective word, it doesn't do the job.
Our thoughts and words are still prisoner. For years we've been enunciating the concepts we believed in simply by adding prefixes like "de-", or "post-" as in postmodern - adding prefixes to the concepts we didn't believe in anymore. We only knew that we were "post-"something.
[In Italy this has gone through ridiculous lengths, as everybody is a "post-fascist", or a "post-communist", or a "post-Christian Democrat" etc.]

Postmodernist literature has long focused on the "hangover" that followed modernist intoxication. Postmodern authors developed a kind of irony that had a critical relevance at first -- and I'm glad that those books were written, I love some of that stuff. I think we have to keep what was good and carry it along with us in our journey, discarding what is no longer useful. Or, if you prefer another metaphor, we have to re-build on those foundations, but to re-build on those foundations you have to demolish the crooked house that was built before. The trouble with postmodernism is that postmodernism begot an army of followers and imitators and quickly became intoxicated of itself, intoxicated with its own irony and sarcasm and disenchantment. Irony became ever more cold and unaffectionate, which perfectly suited the new zeitgeist. Disenchantment invaded and impregnated the whole artistic and media landscape until at a certain point, probably during the 1980's, it became the dominant feeling in western culture. Nothing was to be taken seriously anymore. If you took things seriously, you sounded like a bore.

I'd like to quote the late David Foster Wallace. This is an excerpt from a famous, classical interview with Larry McCaffery from the "Review of Contemporary Fiction," Summer 1993. It's the very last answer, and it's very interesting:

For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you're in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it's great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat's-away-let's-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody's got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there's cigarette burn on the couch, and you're the host and it's your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It's not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it's 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody's thrown up in the umbrella stand and we're wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders' patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We're kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we're uneasy about the fact that we wish they'd come back--I mean, what's wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren't ever coming back--which means we're going to have to be the parents.

DFWFifteen long years have passed since that interview, Wallace is not with us anymore and finally we understand how right he was. We're going to have to be the parents, the progenitors, the new founders. We need to reappropriate a sense of the future, as something radically new is taking place under the sun. It's an unprecedented kind of danger, there's a BIG problem and disenchantment is not the best solution.
My opinion is that the despotic rule of irony caused a social syndrome similar to PAIN ASYMBOLIA.
Pain asymbolia is a neurological syndrome. It is caused by some damage close to the brain's insular cortex. It makes you laugh when you experience pain. You don't respond emotionally to that pain, or rather, you give the wrong emotional response.
We laugh because laughter is useful from an evolutionary standpoint. Laughing has to do with relief after a false alarm.
When somebody tells you a joke, tension increases as you're curious to know the end. The best jokes keep you on the edge for what feels like a really long time, thus your brain becomes suspicious and you find yourself on the defensive, but then the punch-line gives the story an unexpected twist, the tension is released and you laugh.
That's also why tickling makes you laugh: suddenly another person lays your hand on you, and you instantly get on the defensive, in fact you harden your muscles, but then the offender doesn't really hurt you, s/he only touches you and stimulates you in an unusual place, thus your brain goes: "It was a false alarm!", and you start laughing.
A laughter signals that everything's ok, it means: "Don't worry". Most likely it evolved from some rhythmic grunt our ancestors uttered out of relief after a false alarm. The rest of the pack heard it and felt relieved too, there was no need to flee or fight. Of course when the danger was real and someone or something inflicted real pain, the brain gave the correct emotional response, there was no relief, nobody laughed, everybody would flee or fight.
But when you suffer from pain asymbolia, that part of your brain doesn't work anymore, the circuit doesn't close, nothing tells you that this time it's real, that it isn't a false alarm, and you end up giving the wrong emotional response. You laugh. I kick your face in with my boot, and you laugh.

During the 1980's and 1990's a big chunk of western culture gradually became unable to tell pain from tickling. Little by little we lost this faculty of telling a real danger from an unreal one, we experienced or witnessed severe pain and reacted by giggling. Irony was everywhere. In the meanwhile, the Berlin Wall had fallen down, the West had won, someone even went around saying that history was over, and during the 1990's everybody giggled even more. Ok, certainly not in the former Yugoslavia, or in Rwanda, but in the heart of Empire most people, especially artists, were sooo cool and ironic and giggling and winking at each other.
Our fellow humans are neurally wired to associate laughters with false alarms, so they assumed that there was no danger around...
...then came the big burst of the "new economy" bubble, and immediately after came September 11th, then the so-called "War on terror" and the invasion of Irak, then came kamikaze bombers in Madrid and in the London Tube, and now the global economy is tumbling down, and even now many people don't realize yet how dangerous the situation is, and the sea is dying, the ice caps are melting, petroleum extraction is reaching its peak sooner than expected, and there's also the exhaustion of metal resources. In a few decades no more copper, no more iron, no more cadmium, and so on.
There's something new under the sun, and we find ourselves with a culture that's become more used to toying with the past than imagining the future. It's due time to go beyond that.

Of course, being a novelist and being in love with literature (the two things don't always go together), I'm interested in seeing how my trade can evolve in face of this danger. What I'm interested in finding out in the current literature is a different ethical approach to writing, beyond yesterday's disenchantment. A full assumption of responsibility in face of what's happening on a global scale.
Being an Italian novelist, I'm even more interested in seeing what happens in the literature of that country. You always start from where you are, and Italy is always an interesting place to start from, a remarkable laboratory (just to use an euphemism). Recently I've been detecting many interesting signs in Italian literature, I've been writing and talking about them, there's a debate going on and that's why I'm here.
A very common phrase in Italy is "l'anomalia italiana", the Italian Anomaly. There are serious historical reasons why Italy is so different from the rest of Europe and the logic of its social life seems impenetrable or even non-existent. I'll pretend that everyone in this room knows what those reasons are, at least some of them. Let's just say that soon after the Berlin Wall came down, Italy was thrown in a turmoil that lasts to this day. In 1993 the old political establishment collapsed, the biggest parties disbanded and there was a sudden release of uncontrollable energies. Not even in their wildest daydreaming had 1970's revolutionary leftists foreseen anything like that, although the eventual outcome looked more like a counter-revolution. Since those days, the political spectrum of Italian society has shifted ever more to to the right.
What happened in the meantime?

Goliarda SapienzaIn the realm of literature, this turmoil caused a return to fiction writing and the novel form as the favourite means of expression, creation and communication.
During the 1960's the Neoavanguardia had waged an intellectual war against what they perceived as "ordinary", "traditional" fiction writing. That had some serious consequences in the following decade, as during the 1970's serious writers were not supposed to write "conventional" novels and care about narrative fiction. In the late Seventies such a masterpiece as L'arte della gioia [The Art of Joy] by Goliarda Sapienza was rejected by many of the most important publishers in the country because that kind of novel - a historical, epic, multitudinarian and moving novel whose author didn't even distance herself from what she was writing by means of ironical winking - was considered cozy and out of fashion. It wasn't serious culture. This was only a few years before the astounding success of The Name Of The Rose.

During the 1980's a new generation of Italian authors started to write novels again, although their influences were not in genre fiction and popular culture. But after 1993 there was an eruption of narrative fiction that took inspiration from popular genres, especially crime novels of the so-called "hard-boiled" tradition, and in some cases science-fiction novels.
These new authors were not children of the avantgarde, they couldn't care less about what was appropriate or not appropriate. Carlo Lucarelli, Valerio Evangelisti, Giancarlo De Cataldo, us (Luther Blissett) and many more, we were problem children of popular culture. We'd grown up on a steady diet of genre fiction, rock music - and it is interesting to notice that several of us played in punk-rock bands -, movies, role play games and the earliest examples of videogames. We were already using the Internet, and even before that we used Bulletin Board Systems, pre-web electronic communication. In 1994 some of us already had their own websites.
We were not interested in appropriate highbrow behaviour or snubbish tirades against the culture industry. We wanted to give our contribution to popular culture, we wanted to bring conflict and contradictions into it, not condemn it from the outside looking in, or even refusing to look in. When our debut novel Q was published, we explicitly stated that we wanted to fight our battle in popular culture and bring our practices into the culture industry.
Ten-fifteen years later the situation has evolved, radically evolved. There have been many twists and turns, many influences have merged and given way to new practices, and the process is going on.
Many things are happening in Italian literature, the New Italian Epic is just one of those things, but it's the one I'm most interested in, it's the one I feel compelled to explore.

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