So Nineties (driven by death)
1984 is the Orwellian year par excellence. Maybe that’s why, due to a series of coincidences and circumstances, some big Italian publishers gave room to some sci-fi and fantastic authors in their general collections. So, books like La casa sul lago della luna by Francesca Duranti (Rizzoli), Dio e il computer by Roberto Vacca (Bompiani), Cercando L’imperatore by Roberto Pazzi (Marietti), Concerto Rosso by Pier Luigi Berbotto (Mondadori), Palladion by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (Mondadori), Partiranno by Luce D’ Eramo (Mondadori), Di bestia in bestia by Michele Mari (Longanesi) popped up on library and bookshop shelves. After 1985 the publishers seemed to backtrack to the so-called literature of mimesis, realism, leaving fantastic fiction to sci-fi dedicated collections or to minor publishers who however didn’t seem at all interested in publishing Italians until 1989 when Urania announced a contest dedicated to Italian authors: the winner was to be published in the collection alongside the biggest international names, so entering into the houses of eight – ten thousand loyal readers. The first book that won the Urania prize was Gli universi di Moras by Vittorio Catani, a novel about parallel worlds in which the real novelty was the origin of the protagonist, Antonio Moras, a dimensional traveler from the Southern Italian city of Bari, forced to jump between universes, and who after “losing his bearings” contracts Necro, a disease that manifests itself as a rejection of the native universe, and that forces Moras to slip continuously between dimensions causing a catastrophic paradox… The writing was flowing with some psychological components. The sales of Cattani’s novel seemed encouraging, perhaps on account of the novelty for Urania readers to read an Italian novel, but the winners of the two later editions of the prize (1990 and 1991), Luna di fuoco, a classic adventure set in space, by Virginio Marafante and Ai due lati del muro, a claustrophobic cyberpunk by Francesco Grasso, didn’t repeat the success of Gli universi di Moras. The subjects and settings, even if the characters are Italian, were not so different from those of Anglo-Saxons novels, and we had to wait until 1992 for Nicoletta Vallerani’s Il cuore finto di DR to glimpse a glimmer of originality. The standard, however, which causes more than one Philip Dick style déjà vu, was a typically cyberpunk one. Although the novel had a certain verve and style and presented a nice reversal of the protagonist’s role (the detective à la Blade Runner’s Dekart was a fat synthetic female junkie), the novel never attempted to go beyond the genre and explore the psychological and social aspects of the human soul. As the author herself said «we need to use Science Fiction as a crowbar to get in where you are not allowed to».2 The poetics of Vallorani seemed to been caught telepathically, just as in Il cuore finto di DR, by Valerio Evangelisti who replaced the crowbar with a plasma bazooka and shot in the dark a straw that shook all the combat ships off the shoulder of Orion, setting them on fire near the Tannhäuser Gate: all things that Italian readers couldn’t believe they were about to read. It was 1994 and on the cover of Urania that a Dominican friar stood facing a giant liquid creature resembling Artemis, the pagan goddess.3 The prized novel was Nicolas Eymerich, inquisitore. What did a Dominican friar have to do with forty years of covers based on aliens, astronauts, robots, spaceships, and metaphysical or surrealist landscapes. The astonished readers could not understand it until they began to read the story of how the ruthless Nicolas Eymerich4 plotted his ascension to the role of Inquistor General of Aragon while investigating a mysterious pagan secret society of Artemis worshipers who had infiltrated the court and set in train a series of paranormal events. The medieval parts of the story were explained and interwoven with two futures: one close to ours where the physicist Marcus Frullifer elaborated a theory that opened up the possibility of interstellar travel; and another one, set two hundred years from now, when the spaceship Malpertuis travels to a forgotten planet on which the goddess Artemis has revealed herself.
The three stories were linked: the scientific discoveries of Frullifer allowed the journey of the Malpertuis and the end of the space travel coincides with the defeat of the pagan secret society by Eymerich (because the spaceship’s travel coincides with time travel). It was neither the original plot, nor the setting, nor the medieval context that shook readers’ minds. The work of Evangelisti had a never seen before psychoanalytic, sociological and political side. Until that time, Italian science fiction had nearly always retraced the steps of the Anglo-Saxon model (with a few exceptions such as Giorgio Scerbanenco, Lino Aldani and Renato Pestriniero)5 or was simply a “postmodern” pretext to write ironic and humorous stories, even though with a high literary value as in the case of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomiche or smart and funny as in the case of Stefano Benni’s Terra!, a book that was definitely in the wake of Douglas Adams and Fredric Brown. Hence it was only with Nicolas Eymerich, inqusitore that the genre exploded powerfully. The left-wing critics, who had always looked smugly at science fiction and fantasy as a prerogative of right-wing writers and movements, with Eymerich were in trouble and not only thanks to the contents of his novel but even for its author’s biography. Indeed, before starting his a career as a novelist, Evangelisti was a respected historian of Italian and international socialist and radical movements, who openly sided with the left (during the elections in Bologna he was a candidate of the Communist Party). The Nineties hailed the emergence and rise of Italian noir, a tense, ruthless, politicized noir that dealt with the recent Italian history, a history that even history itself or journalism, and even less the system of justice, were not able to deal with, because reality, it is corny—but true– to say, usually outstrips imagination. In May 1990, Rizzoli, one of the largest Italian publishing houses, published Strage by Loriano Macchiavelli, a noir light years away from classic crime novels, a book that that wove its plot from the official documents, data and inquires into the Bologna massacre, a bombing at the Railway Station in Bologna, the city in which I live, carried out by neo-fascist terrorists on the morning of 2 August 1980,. The bomb killed 85 people and wounded more than 200. The Bologna massacre pushed to its climax the so-called strategy of tension,6 which had developed during the Years of Lead from a murky plot between extra-parliamentary groups, Italian and foreign intelligence services, political parties, police forces, Masonic lodges, criminal gangs and the Mafia: a team of players, a Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, that even the wildest imagination of a pulp writer could not put together … Strage remained in the bookstores less than a week, but not because of its success… In response to a complaint by one of the indicted in the massacre trial, the court of Milan ordered the immediate seizure of the copies of the novel, which disappeared from circulation. Loriano Macchiavelli, who wrote the book under a pseudonym had to deal with a legal charge: Macchiavelli was acquitted, but only in 2010, on the thirtieth anniversary of the explosion, and the novel was able to return to the bookshelves published by Einaudi. Noir from that point on proved not only to be able to tell the tale of the reality of post WWII Italian history, a reality that today, even after three decades of trials, is still largely unknown. What noir did was to narrate with such power that it made reality waver. It all hangs together somehow with the publication of Gomorra by Roberto Saviano, an Unidentified Narrative Object (as it was defined in 2007 by Roberto Bui aka Wu Ming 1 in the New Italian Epic7
essay), that shocked Italy with the strength of its writing that neither newspapers nor acts of any trial or essays were able to achieve. In Italy, a country of mysteries, political plots and monkey business, the noir has over the last years become a genre that could be called hyperrealistic: it describes reality and the dark folds of history through fiction but nevertheless somehow affects the perception of reality and history, raising through the pathos of the stories ethical issues that prompt the reader’s ethos. So after reading Strage or Gomorra the point of view on the Bologna massacre, on the plots of the Years of Lead or on the current Camorra and political intrigues will change; but there’s more than that. It’s not only the ethical and the political issues to be putted into play. The depth of noir, compared to crime novels, or the pulp fiction and thrillers s licks the surface of the unconscious. The Bologna massacre for example, is no longer only a historic fact or, using a term beloved to philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badieu, an event8, something metaphysical. It is a historical fact that for what it was, what it has become, what it represents and how it was metabolized, has become part of the nations’ consciousness, but a blood encrusted rock (one of many) thrown into the waters of the collective unconscious. Noir fiction photographs and repaints the picture just as hyperrealist artists did kickstarting the machine that Freud called the Unheimlich, the uncanny9. Reading some noir from the last two decades was like watching the sculptures of the Californian John De Andrea, who sculpted good looking nude women with such extreme precision as to trigger in the observer a natural attraction to the shapes of the subjects, which soon turned into a feeling of sinister unsettledness. The extreme realism of the subject, the sensuality of its forms, and its stillness create the impression of being in front of a corpse. The hyper-realism of De Andrea, like noir’s, in other words, crosses into the delicate area of knowledge in which desires and instincts collide with the anguished mystery of death: the lands in which the eyes get close to the waters of the unconscious and seek a glimpse of that bloody rock. What about Italian sci-fi? What does the science fiction have to do with the supposed hyper-realism of the noir and with the Freudian uncanny? Until the arrival of Evangelisti, almost nothing. The interlocutor desired by Evangelisti, as he himself said in an interview with Urania’s editor in chief Giuseppe Lippi,10 is not the reader, but the reader’s unconscious. The ruthless Nicolas Eymerich is not just a character, he is a dark reflection of its author and readers (and indeed, despite his cold cruelty, Eymerich is so human that the reader easily identifies with him and “roots for” him as perhaps never happened with any other literary “villain”11). The Inquisitor is the personification of the death drive that crosses the boundaries of time, brushes up against the present and the future and fits perfectly the Inquisitions of the Dark Ages and Christianity.12 His is a male Weltanschauung
that stands in opposition to life, instinct, libido and the female dimension (the Artemis cult) as well as the wars conducted by the Free World or the cold cruelty of the financial markets. Eymerich is the evil that fights evil. He subverts absolute values in the name of absolute values. He kills, tortures, manipulates, plots, has no doubt, he never hesitates; he does it all for a greater indisputable good. Eymerich acts, in other words, as the Western world has always acted: as the defender and exporter of democracy, doubt and skepticism of which seem to be mortal sins; the West for which the Other is always the other and which has never stopped to think that it could be, indeed is, the Other for most of the world. Evangelisti’s slipstream science fiction goes in search of the fantastic element that in the past were part of everyday life. Starting here, the author creates an unprecedented cosmogony that, on the one hand, draws quickness and freshness from Anglo-Saxon sci-fi , the Lovecraftian fantastic and Salgari’s adventure, and on the other, metaphysical and psychoanalytic depth from the writings of Plotinus, Hermes Trismegistus, Carl Gustav Jung and Wilhelm Reich.13 Evangelisti succeeds in putting together outer space and innerspace, using as protagonist of a gripping adventure story a shadowy figure who embodies the contradictions and the horror that push the Occident to put to sleep the reason producing monsters. Monsters are symbols, like the gods, and arise from the unconscious (and what is the forgotten planet on which we see the goddess Artemis in the first novel of the saga but a manifestation of the collective unconscious?). As Evangelisti has said14: «once upon a time the production of these symbols required centuries and millennia, today this production is continuous and deliberate. From it came a state of collective loss, due to the inability to interpret reality through common reference points. The perception of reality is manipulated […] but the worst is that the unconscious is manipulated too. The risk is the loss of the ego, also called schizophrenia. I see today’s society as even more schizogenic and this is why Eymerich, the death drive (A/N), reigns uncontested.» So for once, fantascienza seems to draw strength from the prefix fanta. Fantastic indeed is the genre that more than any other fiction manipulates symbols naturally. If noir observes the surface of the murky waters of the unconscious, the fantastic could lower its head and peer into the darkness, exactly what Evangelisti did with Eymerich. To the hyper-realism of noir, Evangelisti prefers what we might call, once again stealing the term from art, super-realism, seeking to explore the super real: a mental dimension which starts from a representation of reality that is artistically reworked with great emotional and impressive magical-realist-fantastic or macabre depictions. The range of Evangelisti’s superrealistic science fiction is not only emotional or sociological, it also has a political element15. It is the mixture of these ingredients, intuitions and intentions that makes the work of Evangelisti a watershed, as well as the first true example of exportable Italian science fiction.16 When Evangelisti gave birth to his inquisitor it seemed that an Italian way to science fiction was possible. It was like when you find out that you can eat a kiwi without peeling it with a knife and a spoon: enlightening … If noir was struggling with the hyperreal and science fiction and fantasy with the superreal, what was reality doing? Well, between 1991 and 1995 it was giving serious headaches to Europe in the form of a conflict that had been unleashed by economic reasons, nationalism and ethnic issues, all of which forcefully raised the philosophical question of alterity, otherness: the Yugoslav wars. Such savagery had not raged in Europe since WWII, and here at the gates of the “civilized” and under construction European Community. The range of that totally out of control, savage, brutal and cruel event was not only political, social and militaristic, but also highly psychic: it was pure death drive. The shadow of Eymerich, the Doppelgänger, the dark passenger that each of us carry inside turned into flesh, metal and blood.
As Luca Somigli from the University of Toronto has written:
«Eymerich’s statement encapsulates not only the ideology of the church he represents but also of every grand narrative which has shaped human culture. What Evangelisti intends to show by juxtaposing one of the most brutally repressive grand narratives of history with its future counterparts (Reverend Mallory’s racially pure and religiously homogeneous Confederation of Free America, the RACHE’s ethnically cleansed Eastern Europe, the post-capitalist European bloc of Eurobank) is the tenuousness of the post-modern celebration of difference, local narratives, and language games. Seen from this fanta-historical perspective, the present is a historical “deviation, ” and in it we can observe the signs of the return of its barely repressed other, a new age of intolerance, ethnic, religious and nationalist fanaticism, of, in other words, competing and mutually destructive ways to impose order upon our post-modern condition. Not surprisingly, the former Yugoslavia has become the testing ground of the difficulties of multiculturalism, as the end of the grand narrative of Communism (or Titoism, the difference, in practical terms, is moot) has seen the resurgence of other forms of strong identities, of totalizing discourses, and has turned the “local” narratives of, say, Serbian identity into the grand narrative of a nation and the source of yet another violent encounter with a constructed other. Definitions are inescapable, and definitions kill, symbolically and sometimes literally. »17 It is no coincidence that one of the first embryos of the Eymerich saga had been a short story entitled O Gorica, tu sei maledetta18, which was a foray into a catastrophic and disturbing future in which ethnic cleansing, moral terror and mercantile interests collapse and trigger an unbearable feeling of the uncanny. The super-realism of a writing that mercilessly crossbreeds Lovecraft, Heinlein, Ballard (the relationship between flesh and metal) and JRR Tolkien (the hordes of mutant soldiers, real cannon fodder, recalls the Lord of the Rings’ black hordes) seemed to be the only way left to tell the horror of reality. History, as well as the future of humanity, became (as in noir) one of the fields of existence that demanded to be explored by the new band of writers that were struggling with Sci-fi in the Nineties. To imagine what mankind will be, it seemed necessary to imagine and understand its “was”, as well as its “now,” its “is.” In 1994 the winner of the Urania Prize was the novel Miraggi di Silicio by Massimo Pietroselli, a dystopian tale that hybridized the paranoia and the visions of Philip K. Dick with Orwell’s 1984. Also in that case fiction anticipated issues the Matrix would take up. But it was only during 1995 that Urania gave space to a novel bound for an unexpected success that went over the legions of fans of the genre: I biplani di D’ Annunzio by Luca Masali, an example of made in Italy sci-fi set and strongly influenced by the Italian context and history as well as by what was happening in the Balkans.19 I biplani di D’ Annunzio, La perla alla fine del mondo and La balena del cielo, were parts of a trilogy20 set during a World War I that doesn’t end in 1918 but, due to interference from the future, continues during the Twenties. Through the expedient of time paradox, the trilogy deals with issues of contemporary politics such as pan-Slav ideology and the relations between Islam and the west. The plot of I biplani di D’ Annunzio, less complex and disturbing than those written by Evangelisti, was nonetheless notable for its originality: World War I, it’s night over the skies of Venice, an Austrian bomber is shot down over the lagoon. The only survivor is the pilot, Matteo Campini, who knows well that he is in a mess: Italians are not tender with Trieste officers who fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Rescued by a charming and
mysterious girl, Flavia Manin, Campini soon discovers he is in the middle of a sinister plan from the future. From Bosnia and Herzegovina, the spawn of the ethnic massacres of the Nineties, someone is trying to turn the tide of World War I, playing dirty and moving men and armies like pawns on a chessboard. Campini not only struggles to save his life, but comes to realize that the entire fate of Europe is in his hands. He will fight Hermann Göring in person, at a time when the future Nazi was still a fighter pilot in the Red Baron’s squadron. But in the fight against the evil forces Campini is not alone, the poet soldier Gabriele D’Annunzio will help him as will the girl who wears an enigmatic gold brooch in the shape of an hourglass. In 1996-97 some interesting things happened. The Urania prize went to Massimo Mongai’s Memorie di un cuoco d’astronave, a funny but not uncanny novel in the wake of Douglas Adams, but with a slight humanist, liberal, anti-racist and anti-prohibitionist political component. At the same time in the world of letters a non-organized movement of writers which imported from the USA the Avant Pop phenomenon found its space. It wasn’t noir, it wasn’t politically and socially active, and despite the content of the stories, it wasn’t perturbing at all: it was the Italian way to pulp fiction, which counted among its ranks some of what are now mainstream writers like Nicolò Ammaniti and Tiziano Scarpa. At that time they were called cannibals , the name of an anthology, Gioventù Cannibale (Cannibal youth), published by Einaudi. Critics, especially, the left wing ones, tried to find in them what they should have been looking for in Sci-Fi and Fantastic writers. The fact is that the so- called cannibal youth was a transitory phenomenon that borrowed the form, but not the substance, from American Avant Pop à la Chuck Palahniuk, Poppy Z. Brite and Bret Easton Ellis. Literary instances and, why not, the ethical responsibilities of the writer were sacrificed in the name of a sparkling fiction made of hyperbole and exaggeration, extremism and the search for the shock effect similar to music videoclips or advertising. It was a fiction made of irony at all costs, a fast draw. The issue is that when you shoot randomly, you may not kill anyone; or—and this is worse–you could shoot the wrong target. It was little more than Much Ado About Nothing. Yet, in 1997, Evangelisti was hired by Mondadori (the owner of Einaudi) to support Giuseppe Lippi, the editor in chief of the Urania collection, with the curatorship of an anthology that was supposed to celebrate the 45 years of Urania. It was, then, a hybrid that put together different authors, from severals backgrounds like noir, sci-fi, the fantastic, and so the cannibals phenomenon was born. The book contained 14 stories, with a introduction by film director Mario Monicelli in memory of his brother Giorgio, the first editor in chief of Urania, a critical afterword by neo-fascist critic Gianfranco de Turris and a strange postmodern metatextual short story which today we could define as bizzarro fiction or new weird by Michele Mari (Le copertine di Urania [The covers of Urania]). The title of the anthology was: Tutti i denti del mostro sono perfetti (All the monster’s teeth are perfect). The problem was they weren’t: most of the stories had some quality, although despite the authors involved21, the volume did not live up to expectations. The anthology seemed to be just a bad managed marketing strategy by the management of Urania which, instead of taking the chance to put the genre under the spotlight, sank it miserably down to the standards of the worst pulp magazines. In some way, Tutti i denti del mostro sono perfetti ended those Nineties that had seemed so promising for sci-fi, the fantastic and fantasy and left the Urania prize to writers who simply retraced, some for the better, some for the worse, the routes already drawn by Anglo-Saxon science fiction. *** Notes:
2 Cfr. http://www.trax.it/nicoletta_vallorani.htm 3 An ugly cover for a book that now worth five times its price. On the second edition’s cover Eymerich was depicted in the foreground with the features of Clint Eastwood (!) and an undressed Artemis stood in the background. 4 Nicholas Eymerich (1316 – 1399) was a theologian and Inquisitor General of the Inquisition of the Crown of Aragon. He is best known for authoring the Directorium Inquisitorum.
5 “The most interesting publishing initiative was Interplanet (1962-65), a series of seven volumes that gather together the most sophisticated authors of the period. Courageously, Primo Levi, Ennio Flaiano, Tommaso Landolfi had their works featured side by side those of Lino Aldani and Renato Pestriniero, the only two decidedly science fiction authors of any literary depth. Not by chance, Lino Aldani would then direct Futuro, a magazine dedicated exclusively to Italian authors. Lino Aldani and his writing represent the difficulties and the contradictions of an entire generation. The novel Quando le radici (La Tribuna, Piacenza, 1977) embodies the anti-technological and catastrophist vision of critical Marxism. Technological society separates the individual from his or her identity, alienating the individual by thwarting any possibility of liberation. Rural existence, though realistically destined to extinction, is represented in opposition to this alienating society as a memory and a refuge an interpretation that recalls Pasolini.” (op. cit.: La fantascienza italiana dal 1952 a oggi / Italian Science Fiction from 1952 to the present by Domenico Gallo and Valerio Evangelisti) 6 The strategy of tension (strategia della tensione) was a tactic that aims to manipulate public opinion using fear, disinformation, psychological warfare, agents provocateurs, and false flag terrorist actions. The theory began with allegations that the US government supported far-right terrorist groups in Italy, where communism was growing in popularity, to spread panic among the population who would in turn demand stronger governments.
7 Cfr. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Italian_Epic
8 According to french philosopher Alain Badieu, the event is a power born by a breaking point, it generates the unthinkable and unimaginable, and makes a man a subject capable of truth. The event for Badiou indeed is something that happens but it is not produced by a given context, it’s not a party or that and it’s already there, nor of what is possible, but something radically different, therefore not predictable nor feasible with conceptual resources or knowledge given by the situation, that breaks in and start something really new. For making this happen, however, it is be needed a person or a group of persons to be faithful to this event (we speak about faith, because there is no way to know something about the event), thus putting in place a procedure of truth. Žižek does not endorse everything that was said by Badiou, but the logical ground is common (they both are lacanians), as well as for Jacques Derrida. Žižek uses less the idea of event, but also for him the event is something that breaks the given symbolic horizon.
9 The uncanny (Das Unheimliche) is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange or uncomfortably familiar. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize.
10 Cfr. Nicolas Eymerich, Inquisitore, 2nd Edition, Classici di Urania, Mondadori, Milan, 2000.
11 With the exception of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter 12 At the end of the day, Christian religion is the only one that use a symbol of death as a symbol.
13 Who acts as a character in the Eymerich saga as well. 14 Ibidem 15 Evangelisti on the political issue more or less ironically said: «My political ideas? I am on the side of libido, Orgone energy, life instinct. Give libido to the proletariat.» (ibid.)
16 The Eymerich saga has been translated in France, Germany, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic.
17 Luca Somigli, History and the iquisitor: notes on the science fiction of Valerio Evangelisti. http://www.eymerich.com/pareri_en.htm 18 Gorica is the Slovenian name of the city of Gorizia, such as Berlin it was divided by a wall that separate the Italian side from the Yugoslav one, Nova Gorica, until the entry of Slovenia into the Schengen Treaty on free movement of goods in 2007 and in Europe in 2010. 19 Italy and the Balkans have a common historical, social and political life more intertwined than we might suspect. 20 The first of three novels won also the Belgian Prix Bob Morane in 2013 and has been translated into French and Japanese. The second novel won the Premio Italia in 1999 and was translated into French and Spanish.
21 Nicolò Ammaniti, Daniele Brolli, Enzo Fileno Carabba, Sandrone Dazieri, Valerio Evangelisti, Franco Forte, Barbara Garlaschelli, Mario Giorgi, Michele Mari, Luca Masali, Silverio Novelli, Tiziano Scarpa, Nicoletta Vallorani, Dario Voltolini