- - Sunday, April 19, 2015



By John Hooper

Viking,$28.95, 316 pages

It is unlikely that anyone will ever write a better book about Italy and the Italians than my late friend, Luigi Barzini. Originally published in 1964, Luigi’s “The Italians: A Full-Length Portrait” remains the classic in the field, an impassioned, erudite love/hate letter by an Italian about Italians and the problematic land they live in, a country that always seems to add up to less than the sum of its brilliant parts. Luigi had spent time as a young man in Depression-era America so he was able to contrast the buoyant optimism and institutional strengths that united Americans from so many different faiths, ethnicities and regions to the fragmented and conflicting strands of Italian history. Why was it, he would write, that Italy, “a land notoriously teeming with vigorous, wide-awake and intelligent people, always behave[d] so feebly? Why was she invaded, ravaged, sacked, humiliated in every century, and yet failed to do the simple things necessary to defend herself?”

About the only thing Luigi gave Italy better marks for than America was its vanilla ice cream, made from vanilla beans rather than a processed vanilla extract, and with a much fuller, deeper flavor than its bland American cousin. Since I last spoke with Luigi, who died in 1984, American ice cream has improved a great deal; Italy, alas, has not.

All the more reason for taking a second look, which is exactly what John Hooper, a veteran British journalist who covers Italy for The Economist, has done. It is fitting that the dust jacket on his version of “The Italians” features a graphic depiction of a cup of espresso; like the beverage, his book is brisk, bracing and to the point. While it stands up well enough as an independent work, it is even more useful as a kind of updated appendix to the Barzini original, taking in subsequent economic, social and political developments such as the collapse of traditional Italian communism, integration into the euro bloc and the rise of the flamboyant right-wing demagogue Silvio Berlusconi, which Luigi did not live to see.

Mr. Hooper is both a serious number cruncher and a cultivated observer. In 19 chapters and an epilogue, he covers everything from organized crime and corruption to Italian culture, local loyalties, religion (what’s left of it), wine, cuisine and evolving sexual mores. You couldn’t ask for a more entertaining, knowledgeable tour guide.

Among many other things, Mr. Hooper observes that the flood of foreign immigrants, legal and illegal, in recent decades has injected new variations into old themes. Thus, the traditional prejudice of the more prosperous, economically developed Northern Italians against their Sicilian and Calabrian southern cousins is now trumped by a shared aversion to ethnic and racial “outsiders.” When Cecile Kyenge, a naturalized Italian born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, became Italy’s first black Cabinet minister, “she had to put up with a barrage of insults from members of the Northern League,” including the deputy speaker of the Senate who “said that she reminded him of an orangutan.”

“Long before that,” Mr. Hooper notes, “it was common for black soccer players on visiting — and even sometimes home teams to be greeted with banana throwing and outbreaks of monkey noises from the terraces where the ultras hung out. But the footballing authorities have cracked down with growing severity on fan racism, and the brilliant if erratic performance on the field of Italy’s first black striker, Mario Balotelli, has done much to draw the sting of race hate in Italian soccer” — yet another demonstration of how racism is sometimes defeated on the even ground of the playing field before it is vanquished in general society.

The only real disappointment is in Mr. Hooper’s epilogue where, instead of tying things together and reaching solid conclusions, he juggles conflicting scenarios and ends with a rather lame quote from “La grande bellezza,” a recent avant-garde film that took Italy’s chattering classes by storm and ends with a verbal shrug: “After all, it’s just a trick. Yes, it’s just a trick.”

He could have borrowed a more suitable ending from a fellow Briton who knew and loved Italy well, the author and poet Eric Linklater. In his 1946 novel, “Private Angelo,” Linklater follows the picaresque adventures of his eponymous hero — an inspired, Italianate mixture of Voltaire’s “Candide” and Jarolslav Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Schweik” — through the disasters of World War II. On its last page, as Italians start to dig themselves out from the ruins of fascism, Angelo reassures his worried wife, Lucrezia: “We have stood up to a great deal, we can stand what is still to come, whether it’s poverty or plenty. For we have learnt the most useful of all accomplishments, which is to survive!”

That’s one lesson Italians never seem to forget.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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