Novelist pays a bitter price for popularity

Susanna Tamaro's success provokes the literati to pick up poison pens, writes Andrew Gumbel in Rome
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Susanna Tamaro is exactly the sort of author the Italian literary establishment hates. She doesn't go to the right parties (in fact, she doesn't go to parties at all). She doesn't have modish left-wing views (worse still - she is a practising Catholic). She isn't part of the creaky academic gerontocracy (she is not yet 40, and lives in the country with a girlfriend and a dog).

Most unforgivable of all, she is wildly popular. Her 1993 novel Follow Your Heart, a tender tale of love and betrayal stretching over three generations of women, has sold 5 million copies world-wide, making her a household name not only in her own country, but also in Germany, France and Spain.

That's more books than the entire literary establishment, Umberto Eco excepted, could ever dream of shifting. For four long years the literati have been fuming with jealous indignation. Now, with the publication of Tamaro's latest novel, Anima Mundi, they have seen their chance for revenge and they are taking it with gusto.

The critics have not just panned Anima Mundi, a reflection on the evils of the 20th century as seen through the parallel stories of two childhood friends; they have set about a wholesale character assassination of its author. Picking up on the book's clear anti-communist strain, particularly in its depiction of Tito's prison camps near Trieste in the late Forties, they have tarred Tamaro as a talentless reactionary. Some have even accused her of taking inspiration from a notorious Fascist ideologue called Julius Evola, whose name appears in the book in connection with a clearly disturbed character, and conclude she must be some kind of Fascist herself.

Nobody would make great claims about the literary quality of Anima Mundi, which has quickly departed from the top of the best-seller lists, but the level of debate has plumbed the very worst depths of carping mediocrity. Many of the reviews, having no truck with the unfashionable themes of evil and redemption that Tamaro tackles, have made gratuitous jibes about "Our Lady of the Bestsellers" and complained that her anti-communism is as outdated as the religious pilgrimages of the Middle Ages.

One critic, Cesare Segre, could just about swallow her implied criticism of the Italian left for failing to condemn Tito's repressive behaviour near Trieste, but wondered why Tamaro had not given space to "more positive" aspects of Italy's left-wing culture, such as the defeat of Fascism or the referendum that legalised divorce in the Seventies (the answer is that neither of these issues has anything to do with her story).

Some felt sufficiently sure of their opinions to dismiss the book without actually opening it. "When you're dealing with trash you don't have to read it to pass judgement," said Silvia Ronchey, host of a farcically precious television book programme, who described Anima Mundi as "two- bit spiritualism straight out of a New Age wholewheat pasta shop".

This week, after six solid months of abuse, Tamaro finally answered her critics. "Why do they call me a Fascist? Just because I said in an interview that communism had destroyed, morally, economically and socially, those countries where it has held sway? Isn't that the sad truth we can see everywhere from Albania to Russia?" she wrote. "To say that someone who no longer believes in the communist system is a Fascist seems to me an infantile simplification."

Infantile, but nevertheless a mantra of Italian cultural life, over which a certain self-satisfied strain of left-wing academics and critics has exerted a stranglehold over the past half-century. "By raising the issue of anti-communism, she has violated one of the golden rules of left-wing cultural good manners," the magazine Panorama commented.

The whole affair has left Tamaro bitterly disillusioned. She now avoids journalists and says she won't write another book for 20 years. The only episode in the whole affair to put a smile on her face was a rogue news report a few weeks ago - typical of the poisonous atmosphere - that she had tried to commit suicide. "This is the sort of story that will make me live for another hundred years," she crowed.