On his recent visit to Florence to promote his new book, The Italians, The Florentine had the pleasure of chatting with John Hooper. Southern Europe editor of the Guardian and Italy and Vatican correspondent for the Economist, Hooper’s many years of experience as a journalist and observer of Italian culture make him the perfect person to field questions about the people we all know and love, yet rarely completely understand.
Helen Farrell: The title of your book, The Italians, refers to a classic of the same name, by Luigi Barzini, published back in 1964.
John Hooper: Yes, Barzini poses a question in his book that he never really answers: ‘Why did Italy, a land notoriously teeming with vigorous, wide-awake, and intelligent people, always behave so feebly?’ So, I took that as my cue to get into the book. Having said that, I think I developed some different ideas along the way. What happened when I started planning the book was that I would take things that I felt were characteristic or paradoxes, and I would put both sides of the paradox down and then set about trying to find causes. The lines started to lead backwards into Italy’s history. Barzini does get to that, but he doesn’t make the explicit link… Societies change and some of what Barzini says is outdated. You can’t write one book that says this is the way this people will be forever.
HF: So, why did you feel that a book that portrays Italians as a people was necessary now?
JH: I would turn that question round and say, ‘Why on earth didn’t I write it back in the Nineties, when I first came to Italy?’ I had written a book about the Spanish and it seemed natural to repeat the trick. But there was a moment when I thought I was coming into the same situation in Spain in the Seventies: tangentopoli was still raging, Berlusconi was coming into power. Italy seemed to be coming into a transition similar to that in Spain in the Seventies after Franco. And then, two years later, Romano Prodi took tangentopoli and threw it into the wastepaper bin. The book was supposed to stop there. At that point I realised I couldn’t do a book like The Spaniards or The New Spaniards, which were quite factual books.
HF: So, was it the case that you had to do a more interpretative book?
JH: Yes, something more along the lines of what Luigi Barzini had written. For a long time, I just didn’t feel I knew Italy well enough. I was based here in the Nineties, but I wasn’t living here all the time. I was travelling everywhere, from Turkey to Portugal. I left at the end of the Nineties, thinking, ‘Well, I couldn’t have done it. So, no regrets.’ I went on to Germany and I thought maybe after three years there, I’d move on somewhere else because correspondents rarely come back. In fact, pure chance brought me back here and gradually I began to feel more confident about my ability to tackle the book.
HF: You call Italy ‘both frustrating and endlessly intriguing.’ The longer we expats spend in Italy, the more we realise we understand the country more and less in equal measure. We get it, but we don’t. Do even Italians understand their own country?
JH: Well, that’s a really good point. I think Italians themselves often have great difficulty reading the country and understanding why things are the way they are. But I think that feeling whereby you haven’t understood is something that I had for a long time. Once I went out for coffee with a Corriere della Sera colleague and, to his utter astonishment, I completely misread something that had gone on in the news between Berlusconi and footballer Francesco Totti. For as long as I kept having experiences like that, I felt like I shouldn’t start on the book.
HF: Let’s cut to the chase. I’ve been here for 13 years. How long is it going to take me to figure Italy out?
JH: You’re close. I’ve been here 15 years in total. Part of it is that a lot is not said or it’s said in a roundabout way. Then there are the regional variations, which are very great of course. I don’t think Italy is a disunited country, but it is immensely diverse, possibly more so than any other country in Europe. Italians who have read my book have actually shown great tolerance towards it because they themselves are not absolutely sure sometimes that what I say isn’t true for most of the country, although it may not be the case for the part where they are.
Alexandra Korey: One thing that we found really interesting is your discussion of foreigners and mistrust of all things foreign in Italy. Where does this distrust come from?
JH: This mistrust is symptomatic of deep social conservatism and reluctance to change because doing things the way they’ve been done for years gives comfort. It seems to me that one of the constants in Italian society is a search for comfort, reassurance, which I think traces back to Italy’s violent history. If you think about Italian food, it is the ultimate comfort eating. The family embraces and reassures. The Catholic Church, ditto. You’ve made your comforting world: why step outside it? All of a sudden, there is a new generation, which has been outside, tried foreign food, found it’s not actually actively poisonous; which has found that, in some cases, maybe it’s a better way to do things than in Italy.
AK: The most common negative response to your book that we’ve seen from Italians is the accusation of stereotyping. How can we, as writers and observers on Italian culture, explain what we’ve learned—and continue to learn—without resorting to generalisation?
JH: You can’t write a book like this without generalising. For a while, I introduced lots of qualifications. I found myself saying things like, ‘except in Sardinia’ or ‘but this doesn’t apply generally to people under the age of 20.’ Then I just thought this is going to become unreadable. I had to hold my nose and jump. Knowing that some people would not identify with it, but, if anything, I am much more surprised by the fact that so few Italians haven’t commented more. I am very conscious that there are exceptions to everything of course. For example, I see the comfort thing as a general trend, but there are Italians whom I know who holiday in Yemen.
AK: If the exceptions to the trends are mostly from the younger generation, could you say that your book might be out of date in ten years’ time?
JH: I feel very firmly that the idea of an unchanging national character is completely untrue. Some characteristics do persist for remarkably long periods. You can go back even to Roman times and you can find descriptions [of them].
I remember, years ago, coming across a reference in Latin to how Celts become querulous after a few drinks and you think, ‘This does ring a bell.’ But there are other things that change and all you can say with things like this is that it’s like a photograph. It’s an attempt to take a snapshot of one moment in time. If I go back to it ten years from now, maybe things will have changed, yes.