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Labour – Voices

Talking labour in Italian literature: young writers’ modes and Massimo Carlotto’s Nordest

by Enrichetta Frezzato (University of Oxford)

«La verità industriale risiede nella catena di effetti che il mondo delle fabbriche mette in moto»[1]. In the 1960s this “world of factories” had only just started to become Italy’s actuality, with the “economic miracle” of the 1950s setting off the first intense phase of economic development in the country after WWII and gradually transforming Italy into an overall – if not homogenously – urbanized and industrialised country. As this new reality began to impose itself, a heated literary debate originated from Elio Vittorini’s introductory essay to the 1961 issue of the «Menabò», which carried the theme of Industria e letteratura. Since the country met industrialisation relatively late and, at least at the beginning, in a rather localised form, Italy lacked a strong tradition of labour literature. This debate represented a first and powerful stimulus for intellectuals to reflect on the matter of the transformation of work in a newly industrialised world, its mutated relationship to the individual and the relationship between literature and this new context. This new interest hence fostered the growth of a number of writers who would dedicate their attention to the world of factories and labour (Volponi, Bianciardi, Mastronardi, Balestrini, Parise and Ottieri to name a few), as well as encouraging the updating of a dominant cultural scheme in the conception of literature that would consider such literature as unworthy of attention because of its essentially documentative nature.

Although never completely abandoned (suffice it to think of Primo Levi’s La chiave a stella, which was published in 1979 and gives a perspective on labour as a challenge, an adventure, an activity that is not necessarily alienating and that can instead integrate the relationship between man and nature), the subject gained fresh and enriched popularity in the last few decades, especially from the 2000s, with the world economic crisis and temporary employment becoming a serious problem affecting a large part of Italian population. Writers started giving new space to the relationship between the individual and work, as happens for instance in Michela Murgia’s Il mondo deve sapere (Isbn, 2006): originally written in the form of a blog, the book gives an account on life as a telephone operator, the temporary job par excellence. Yet another example is La dismissione by Ermanno Rea (BUR, 2006) which tells of the dismantlement of Ilva steelworks in Bagnoli from the viewpoint of one of its technicians. When addressing this topic, writers in recent years seem to frequently turn to a hybrid kind of literature that blends fiction and non-fiction to generate “enquiry-novels” that sometimes almost replace the journalistic enquiry. This responds to both the necessity of reflecting on their social and work environment and that of engaging with it at a political and ethical level. Some of these authors have also interestingly adopted different regional perspectives in their engagement and confrontation with highly topical issues, focusing on specific local realities that in most cases are emblematic of more generalised dynamics.

All these elements, i.e. the use of typically fictional structures to tackle non-fictional matters and the interest in a specific local context, belong for example to Massimo Carlotto’s writing. Born in 1956 in Padova, in the highly industrialised context of Veneto, Carlotto debuted as a writer with the autobiographical work Il fuggiasco (e/o, 1995), but then turned to the noir genre in the same year, when his La verità dell’alligatore (e/o, 1995) gave start to the Alligatore series[2]. Since then he chose to utilise this genre as a filter to deal with issues that go well beyond the happening and solution of a crime. Although not exclusive, the interest in his territory is fundamental to his work and brought him to investigate and explore the transformation that the specific economic reality of Veneto underwent after the intensive and unusually fast growth that began in the region in the 1970s and utterly transformed its territory, turning it from a rural and agriculture-based one to a diffusedly industrialised one. In his Nordest (e/o, 2005), for example, the investigation around the murder of a beautiful bride-to-be young lawyer is the pretext to dig deep into the unveiled side of the economic upturn of the region and the more recent phase of steady downturn: as much as the plot is fictional, the economic facts on north-eastern reality are harshly true, involving an often unsettling reflection on cultural transformations, degradation of the territory, incommunicability and contradictory relationships between generations, as well as intertwining of legal and illegal doing, international mafias and reckless capitalism. Diffused industrialisation in the 1970s was undeniably the source of economic development in Veneto and the origin of the ensuing welfare of its society (to such an extent in fact, that the peculiar model of “diffused industrialisation” in Veneto has been taken as a successful example of economic development in the post-Fordist era). Nonetheless, what Carlotto focuses on is the cultural and sociological impact of a radical transformation in the economy and territory of a region, his main interest lying in exploring the obscure sides of a particular process of development as well as the social mechanisms that allow its existence.

Far from being an isolated case, Carlotto’s work seems to be symptomatic of the reborn interest that a number of contemporary Italian writers belonging to the post-war generations share for the social reality they live in, which originates from the need to understand and deal with the critical and stagnating shape their times have taken.

[1] The quotation comes from the essay mentioned below: Elio Vittorini, Industria e letteratura, «Il Menabò», III, 4, 1961, pp. 13-20.

[2] This is a series of six novels written between 1995 and 2009. All except one (Il mistero di Mangiabarche, for which the setting is instead Sardinia) are set in the provinces of the North-East and see Marco Buratti (also known as “Alligatore”) as the protagonist and leading detective. The novels in the cycle are: La verità dell’Alligatore (1995), Il mistero di Mangiabarche (1997), Nessuna cortesia all’uscita (1999), Il corriere colombiano (2000), Il maestro di nodi (2002), L’amore del bandito (2009), all published by e/o.

Enrichetta Frezzato is a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Oxford. She is researching the relationship between literature and socio-economic transformations in a specific territory, focusing on the case of Veneto.


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This entry was posted on October 30, 2012 by in Voices.
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