Saturday, March 15, 2008

Vignettes: Outside The Trains Don't Run On Time

Although to do so is almost certainly to slip into a kind of Orientalism of Italy, I rather liked, even if in retrospect I am somewhat discomforted by having done so, both of these incidental pieces of what I take to be reportage on Italian national character. They provide what seems to me, despite superficial differences, appropriate companion pieces, two sides of the same coin. First, from an Anglo-American who married into the Italian nobility's account of the latter period of the Second World War in the Tuscan countryside, a prayer apparently given by Sardinians whilst being bombed by the Allies:

Ave Maria, gratia plena
Fa' che non suoni la sirena,
Fa' che non vengano gli aeroplani,
Fa' che si dorma fino a domani.
Se qualche bomba cade giu
Madre pietosa, pensaci tu.
Gesu, Giuseppe, Maria,
Fate che gli inglesi perdano la via.
Dolce cuore del mio Gesu
Fa' che gli inglesi non vengano piu.

In translation (ineptly, obviously):

Mary, full of grace,
Make it that the siren does not sound
Make it that the aeroplanes do not come
Make it that our sleep finishes tomorrow.
If some bomb falls down
Pitying mother, think of us.
Jesus, Joseph, Mary,
Make it that the English lose the way.
Sweet heart of my Jesus
Make it that the English do not come again.

The writer says of it that "[a] less bitter war prayer can hardly be imagined", and it indeed is not angry. That lack of anger, though, is part and parcel of its total fatalism: there's no defiance, or hope that anything other than the direct intervention of heaven might prevent the bombs or the threats they bring. It's not even as if Mary is being called upon to assist the Italian airforce, or make the weather change so as to prevent the planes from taking off. Unmediated supernatural help is all that can save those making the prayer. Thankfully, I've never been bombed, but this almost innocent incapacity in response to having been bombed seems, whilst charming in a certain way, disturbingly hopeless. Although I know I shouldn't, I find it difficult to avoid thinking of this as somehow typically Italian: it's not only a stereotype, whose generalizations I well know cannot be applied particularly, but a particularly offensive one, given the way that it strips those to whom it is applied of their agency, turns them into the passive subjects of violence. Nonetheless, no doubt spurred on by various episodes of British national myth-making, I cannot totally shift the sense that Italians are particularly vulnerable to this sort of fatalism, which makes me think it might have some basis.

Second, from Tim Parks' piece in last weekend's Guardian on Bertolucci's The Conformist. I haven't seen the film, although reading Parks' piece makes me want to, but apparently, at one point, one character is urged by another to complete the assassination he has been tasked with by being told that:

Chi non fotte e fottuto

Parks objects to the way the subtitles translate this, as 'You must fight, or be beaten', and indeed that's not right at all: as he says, it totally misses the way that it combines the sexual and the threat of physical violence. Despite the fact that his Italian must be better than mine, I'm not entirely happy with Parks' translation either though: he has it as 'If you don't fuck, you'll get fucked over', but I think I prefer the more literal (I think) and elegantly aphoristic 'Those who don't fuck are fucked'. The sense in which this is a hopefully interesting counterpoint to the Sardinian prayer is in its disavowal of responsibility: just as no worldly power can prevent those who give up the prayer from being bombed, the only alternative to participating in the brutal exercise of power is to be its victim and be humiliated, lose one's masculinity. Surely no-one could be blamed for, however reluctantly, stepping into that cycle of violence. Both are pieces of resignation.

All that said though, I was quite incidentally listening to Billy Bragg's rather elegiac The Home Front. Having first described a world in which men

reflec[t] upon the violent times that we are living in
While chatting with the wife beater next door

it ends, and ends the album it's on, with the lines:

Our place in history is as
clock-watchers, old-timers, window-shoppers.

I suppose we just do our resignation differently here.


Phil said...

I'm a bit surprised at a Sardinian prayer being written in toscano.

On the attitude, dunno - I think there's something about the experience of being bombed that shrinks the imaginative horizon to "please God let me wake up tomorrow morning". Even so, the frankness of that prayer is a bit surprising.

Rob Jubb said...

Yeah, I didn't think that looked like Sardinian. Presumably the author got it from the press in Italy when they were writing, which might have translated it. It might even be totally made up, I suppose.

I agree with you about the prayer, obviously.