Crooning through the cappuccino revolution

Italy: The Unfinished Revolution by Matt Frei Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 20 Sleaze, singalongs and sentimentality still dominate Italian politics , says Harriet Paterson

Who'd be an Italian politician? Just as you're busy trying to reassure the world - with the help of a brand new prime minister - that you are sufficiently competent to run the EU, along comes yet another book exposing your political culture as a disastrous fiasco.

Having kicked out its old ruling elite - in theory - Italy is struggling to find anything durable to replace it. Silvio Berlusconi and his uneasy allies only worsened the country's state of political flux, and the latest shotgun accord between left and right under Prime Minister Antonio Maccanico has already broken down after only 12 days.

Books about Italy by foreign correspondents have proliferated over these troubled years; the difficulty for a writer lies in selecting and organising these gripping events. Like others before him, Frei dubs his endeavour an "idiosyncratic portrait", a catch-all title allowing for much non-essential "colour" endemic to this kind of book: cosy diversions on bureacracy, drinking cappuccino, living with la famiglia and so on. This is old ground and Frei doesn't need it to make his book readable or indeed entertaining. He has more than enough good material in the fall of the First Republic and the faltering beginnings of the Second.

His forte lies in his blackly humorous portraits of politicians old and now. An interview with the disgraced Socialist leader Bettino Craxi provides a seedy tableau of the old regime. Sprawled in a hotel lobby, ash spilling down his shirtfront, Craxi is a deflated, blustering puffball:

"I still have many friends, many more than you think." He is full of bombastic accusations, entirely without self-irony: "There are so many liars, so many hypocrites today.''

Craxi is depicted as a somewhat ludicrous and squalid figure but it would be a mistake to underestimate his power and continuing ability to exert influence. His campaign, directed from exile, to discredit the Milanese judges who are investigating him has been vociferous, amplified by the Berlusconi camp, who have their own reasons to fear a strong magistracy. There is a stirring portrait here of the main target, the anti-corruption magistrate Antonio di Pietro; it is a pity that his curious resignation - a political hot potato if ever there was one - is rushed over.

Frei enjoys himself most with his expose of Silvio Berlusconi as political arriviste. A former cruise ship crooner who took his pianist and drummer to eminent positions within his Fininvest empire, Berlusconi rewards loyalty to the point of guaranteeing places in his private family mausoleum. (When he came to power in March, 1994, Italian humourists complained that the function of satire had been usurped, now that reality itself was so absurd.)

''Cruise ship entertainment has provided him with a deep well of inspiration," writes Frei, describing the 1994 election campaign with its giant video screens and party anthem singalongs: ''This was Big Brother meets Max Bygraves." Nevertheless, it worked, and millions of Italians unaccountably forgot that Berlusconi was just as much a product of the old regime as Craxi. Not until the former had committed a mesmeric series of political faux pas did the truth begin to dawn. As a chapter called "Own Goals" says: Berlusconi's blunders have become textbook material for any tycoon contemplating a life in politics.

Berlusconi makes a good target, but meanwhile events on the left are neglected, something that Frei apologises for in a foreword. His light remark that Italian politics can ''inspire, frustrate, amaze or entertain" skims over deeper emotions such as the shock and anger felt by many at the threat posed to Italian democracy by Berlusconi's conflict of business and political interests, to name but one example. Neither is any of Frei's verbs an adequate reaction to seeing Giulio Andreotti on trial for mafia association and complicity in murder.

The book is dogged by sliding tenses, buzz-words and mixed metaphors - can a poltergeist burst from a lunatic fringe? - and the journalistic reflex makes Frei label everyone each time they appear, referring compulsively to "the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi". Certain concepts are explained repeatedly, often with identical wording: the principle of preventive custody is reiterated at least five times, and Italian solecisms and misspellings abound.

However, the subject matter - the ever-widening abyss between the Italian states and its citizens - is more important than these concerns. Matt Frei's book is well worth reading for anyone who wonders why Italy, despite all the upheaval of recent years, is a country still incapable of real revolution.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
Angel Di Maria is shown the red card
Roger Federer after his win over Tomas Berdych
Life and Style
News in briefs: big pants in 'Bridget Jones's Diary'
fashionBig knickers are back
James Milner is set to sign for Liverpool this week despite rival interest from Arsenal
sportReds baulk at Benteke £32.5m release clause
The controversial Motor Neurone Disease Association poster, featuring sufferer Michael Smith, has drawn a series of angry complaints
newsThis one has been criticised for its 'threatening tone'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Account Executive - Graduate / Entry Level

    £22000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital advertising infras...

    Recruitment Genius: European Sales Director - Aerospace Cable & Wire

    £100000 - £125000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Project Manager

    £17100 - £22900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

    £20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an intermediate help de...

    Day In a Page

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral