Peter Popham: A godfather Italy can be proud of


Monday 11 April 2011 00:00 BST

An old man on a mountain top summons his only son to hear his last words before he dies.

The son comes, the words are spoken, the old man dies, the son scatters his ashes on the wind. This is the simple synopsis of a wonderful film called La Fine e il Mio Inizio ("The End is My Beginning") which has gained warm reviews and is playing to large houses around Italy this month. It is based very closely on the collaboration between the celebrated Florentine foreign correspondent Tiziano Terzani, longtime Asia correspondent for Der Spiegel, who died in 2004, and his son Folco, which resulted in Terzani's last, posthumous book of the same title.

Terzani, who looked as old as the hills in his last years though he was only in his sixties, was dying of cancer. But what was remarkable was the way, after a lifetime of war, revolution, big name interviews and exotic Asian encounters, he confronted his death as if it were another fabulous assignment – "The only new thing that could happen to me," as he put it. He had spent his working life crawling over the surface of Asia, enthusing over the victory of the Vietcong, lamenting the trashing of traditional Chinese culture by Mao, despising the robot-obsessed modernism of the Japanese.

Now, just in time, he found Asia also had the wisdom he needed to reconcile himself to dying. His outsize personality relished being downsized to Anam, "the nameless one". At the start of the film he talks in conventional terms about his soul leaving his corrupted body. But by the end that consolation has been shucked off along with all the others, as he attains a sort of enlightenment: soon he will be nobody – how strange! – but at the same time he, whatever "he" means, is not separate from anything else in the universe: "there is not one piece separate from another".

I was curious to see the film because I was friendly with Tiziano for decades, and in Delhi the Der Spiegel office he gave up after his cancer was diagnosed became our family home when I was The Independent's correspondent there.

In his prime he was a handsome, intensely charismatic figure but it was only when I came to live in Rome that I discovered how famous he was in Italy: every book he wrote was a best-seller. When, in his last years, he grew a long white beard, affected the rough white kurta-pajama of an Indian sage and wrote a book against the Afghan war, he became a cult hero for Italy's pacifist youth. His fame was deserved. He was not an intellectual, as he himself admitted, but he wrote with captivating directness, as if talking straight into one's face. His spiritual insights rang true; and his courage at the end was inspirational.

Hacking phones is such an Italian job

News International's apology for hacking into celebrities' voicemail, and Hugh Grant's very funny encounter with one of the News of the World's expert buggers, resonate curiously here in Italy, where for years much the most delectable stuff in the newspapers has consisted of the transcribed buggings of famous people's phone conversations.

The difference from Britain is that the people doing the bugging are not rogue hacks but public prosecutors, acting in the interests of justice. I have always been a bit hazy about the basis on which they leak reams of the stuff – about Berlusconi's so-called harem, his bunga-bunga parties and so on – to the papers: public interest, I suppose, in the broadest sense of the term, in other words the same justification Paul McMullan used to Hugh Grant. Last year Berlusconi, despite his parliamentary majority, tried and failed to get a bill into law sharply reducing prosecutors' bugging rights.

The idea of anything being sub judice is laughed off here, but I think the prosecutors' license to smear those they target ahead of any trial is a weapon that regularly backfires on them. Thanks to this practice, we know far more than we need to about what Berlusconi gets up to in his time off, but in the process it is we who feel dirty and tainted, like NOTW readers dipping into the latest seedy celebrity gossip.

We become voyeurs to the prime minister's pathetic pastimes, which makes us somehow complicit in them. And this makes it much easier for him to laugh off these misdemeanours, if that's what they are, as harmless foibles, and to stigmatise the prosecutors as politically motivated witch-hunters. It's the prosecutors' excesses that enable Berlusconi to survive scandal after scandal with his vote bank intact.

This xenophobia is nothing new

In his new book, The Pursuit of Italy, the British historian David Gilmour explains how Italy's 4,500 kms of coastline and its proximity to the Balkans and north Africa have always rendered the peninsula easy prey for invaders: he names 29 tribes, armies and foreign powers that have poured in over the centuries.

This accessibility helps to explain why, in the past few years, Italians have become so uncharacteristically horrid about migrants arriving on the shores of Lampedusa from Libya, and why Berlusconi's government was prepared to do a very dirty deal with Gaddafi – basically asking the tyrant to throw would-be arrivals in jail – to shut off the flow.

Now, as Tunisians and others stream in, home minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the racist Northern League and the architect of that squalid deal, is looking the most uncomfortable man in Italian politics. But this is no time for schadenfreude: Italy's humanitarian crisis is Europe's, too. It is shameful that the rest of the EU shows so little appetite for accepting that fact.

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