26 March 2009

The Sands of Time: Two books on Italy

This week I celebrated another birthday (in Italian it’s called a “compleanno” or “completed year”). According to the Beatles, when I’m 64 I’m “old.” Not so fast, say the Medicare bureaucrats.

On a sunny, chilly morning in March, Big River Beach below the town of Mendocino qualifies as one of the wonders of the world.

As I imprinted EarthShoe-like heel prints in soft sand down where river meets ocean and dogs go crazy to get off leash, I happened to ponder the phrase “sands of time,” Thanks to Google, I later discovered that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used the words in his poem “A Psalm of Life.”

It’s one of those rhymes that gave 19th century poetry a reputation for being way too uplifting and sincere. Longfellow wrote:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime.
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

I’ve been reading two books this week, one that had been sitting on a shelf for at least five years when I happened to take a closer look, the other to be published in May.

“The Dark Heart of Italy” by Tobias Jones is subtitled “An incisive portrait of Europe’s most beautiful, most disconcerting country.” That would be Italy, of course.

Jones begins his take on contemporary Italy by describing his early encounter with the language, how it reveals character. The first chapter is titled Words, Words, Words.

“The more words I learnt... the more the country seemed not chaotic but incredibly hierarchical and formal. Even ‘ciao’ was a greeting, I discovered, derived from the word ‘schiavo,’ ‘slave.’ The cheery ‘ciao,’ Italy’s most famous word, originally implied subservience and order, as in ‘I am your slave.’”

Jones discusses political Italy, held in thrall by the much maligned but extremely powerful Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who, the saying goes, owns everything from Padre Nostro (Our Father, the Pope) to Cosa Nostra (Our Thing, the Mafia).

A much gentler but no less incisive portrait of Italy emerges from “La Bella Lingua” by Californian Dianne Hales. La Bella Lingua, or The Beautiful Language, was her ticket to the real Italy.

“... unlike Italophiles who trek through frescoed churches or restore rustic farmhouses, I chose to inhabit the language, as bawdy as it is beautiful, as zesty a linguistic stew as the peppery puttanesca sauce named for Italy’s notorious ladies of the night.”

Where Tobias Jones discovers the Italians’ undying cynicism about government and the rule of law, Dianna Hales finds a people trying to survive: “Through centuries of often brutal foreign domination, words remained all that Italy’s people could claim as their own” she says.

Art, music and poetry are on every Italian’s tongue. Hales tells the wartime story of an (anti-fascist) shepherd in Tuscany who “was ordered to shoot anyone who couldn’t identify himself without doubt as an Italian. One night he stopped a professor... after curfew without any identification documents. The (shepherd) asked the scholar to prove his identity by reciting the 17th canto of the ‘Inferno.’ (The professor) got to line 117 but couldn’t remember the rest.

“The shepherd finished the canto for him.”

The background of both writers is journalism. Each conducts interviews and research to find deeper layers of Italian culture customarily hidden from visitors. Taken together their visions, one much brighter than the other, paint a realistic and revealing portrait.

Tobias Jones quotes an Italian columnist: “In Italy, as in chemistry, nothing is created, nothing is destroyed, everything is transformed.”

Jones adds, “It seems there’s no crime or conviction sufficient to end an Italian politician’s career, no historical event which can’t be ‘smemorizzato,’ conveniently forgotten.”

At one poignant moment Jones encounters a former student. Learning about this forthcoming book, the student exclaims “You foreign journalists are so facetious and condescending. You only write about how terrible our country is.”

“But I’m only repeating what you all tell me. And it’s true, it is terrible.” The two sat in silence.

“He caught me looking at him and began to apologise. ‘Excuse me, Tobia,’ he said finally. ‘Excuse me. It’s just that Berlusconi brings so much shame upon our country, and you mustn’t add to that. You must write about the other sides of the country.’

“I will. I promise, Marco, that’s what I’ll write about next. And I didn’t mean it’s all terrible here. I love it here, it’s just that....

“ ‘It’s terrible.’ He nodded, smiling.”


“Sands of Time” from "A Psalm of Life," 1839, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807 - 1882.

The sands of time are running out. - "Time is getting short; there will be little opportunity to do what you have to do unless you take the chance now. The phrase is often used with reference to one who has not much longer to live. The allusion is to the hourglass." From "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition).

“The Dark Heart of Italy” by Tobias Jones. North Point Press paperback $15. ISBN 0865477248.

Jones does not have his own web site, but GoodReads describes some of his books.

A Wikipedia stub on Jones.

“La Bella Lingua, My Love Affair with Italian, The World’s Most Enchanting Language” by Dianne Hales. Broadway Books hard cover $24.95. ISBN 9780767927697.

Dianne Hales’ website.

I’m friends with Dianne on Facebook, and she has a group there named La Bella Lingua. You could join and look her up, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please let me hear from you. It is easy to post your thoughts here. Due to spammers, I now am moderating the comments. If you are a human, you are in, but you may have to wait a few hours until I OK your pending comment. Thank you!