There’s a brutal realization at the end of Edoardo Nesi’s Story of My People, one of the most haunting accounts of cultural collapse I have encountered in many years—not in the non-Western world where we are accustomed to read about such stories but in Italy, as Nesi remarks, “But isn’t there anyone that owes us an apology for having condemned us to be the first generation in centuries that’s worse off than our parents’ generation? For having brought us into the world and built our sacrosanct dreams of prosperity and then having left us penniless and unemployed when the time came to live those dreams?”
There’s a young generation in the United States fearing the same dilemma—namely that their lives will never be as good as their parents’. Many of them are educated yet unemployed or more likely working in jobs that do not depend on their education. This is nothing, however, like the situation in Italy today where the latest unemployment rate is 11.5% but the inactivity figure is 36.3%. Unemployment of youths (age 15 to 24 years) is 38.4%. These figures are worse than similar ones for the United States, though the cause of the collapse—according to Nesi—is globalization which has ended so many industries in Italy, especially in the weaving/fabric industry, specifically family manufacturing.
Nesi’s story concentrates on his own family in Prato, in Tuscany, a center for weaving for centuries. The author/narrator was born into a family of opulence in 1964. As an adolescent, he was accustomed to spending his time in the United States, attending American universities (usually Ivy League), reading American literature. Then suddenly, he discovered that he’d turned into a young man “who’d read a hundred or so books but had never worked an hour in his life….” This was quickly corrected by work in the family’s mill, and what he provides as context is the way his family and others had to rebuild their mills after World War II when the Nazis had blown them up. Those mills produced the finest fabrics in the world and year after year the owners (and the workers) lived well.
Then the competition from Asia began, and repeatedly prices had to be lowered because they couldn’t afford to lose an order. By the end of the 20th century, no one was making a profit. Ergo, “with no one making profits, the textile industry no longer had a future.” Global corporations still respected their products with huge orders but were “throttling them to death on the unit price.” Clothing was assembled in disparate corners of the world where labor (and working condition) were different. More and more Italian workers had to be laid off. Here’s the clincher:
“And there is no one, no one, no one at all willing to utter a single word to point out how wrong and stupid and false it is that fabric—by far the most important component of any article of clothing, apparel’s very substance and essence, its material form and its dominant image, the first thing a person sees and touches, the principal reason why you decide whether or not to buy—should be so deeply devalued that it constitutes only a minimum part of the cost of any given article of clothing, while the decidedly preponderant portion of that cost is represented by the profits enjoyed by the manufacturer with cruel hands and the costs of the advertisement with the smiling young people!”
Nesi had an escape of sorts. After he and his father sold the family mill in 2005, he began writing novels (some of them quite successful) and translating (mostly American writers into Italian). He had a new career. Not so the millions of Italians who simply worked in the mills—who didn’t own them. But his soul was with the family tradition of manufacturing exquisite fabric. “The Chinese didn’t rush out to buy Italian style, they hurried out and produced it themselves.” And the politicians abided them, making no attempt to save Italian jobs. Could they have done so? Probably not. Globalization marches on. Thus, Nesi’s prognosis for Italy’s future is nothing less than bleak. It’s not simply the textile districts that declined, but also industries producing lighting, furniture, jewelry, eyeglasses, footwear. All in the same situation. Hence, the increasing numbers of unemployed workers—and the owners of the industries, who didn’t foresee the collapse of their businesses.
Story of My People is no ordinary account of a country’s industrial collapse. The brilliance of this depressing story (winner of Italy’s Strega Prize) is Edoardo Nesi’s imaginative fusion of history and autobiography, infused with vignettes of the lives of individual workers who have suffered. Yes, this is also the author’s account of how he became a successful writer. But most of all it is the depiction of an era that is just about over, at the end of its collapse. Thus, after the first quotation above where Nesi bemoans a generation that will never know the stability of the previous one, he echoes one of his favorite American writers: “We go on walking, clutching tight our endless tricolor banner, me and my people, all of us smiling, all of us determined, all of us arrayed compact in the face of malicious fortune—and with every step I take I feel a little better. Now I know that I will never again live in the dazzling Fitzgeraldian splendor in which I thought I luxuriated when I was eighteen and my dreams were boundless and the future was a bright and generous gift and life was glistening and weightless like silk, and all around me wherever I looked anyone could try to become a businessman and feel they were masters of their fate, even me.”
Edoardo Nesi: Story of My People
Trans. by Antony Shugaar
Other Press, 163 pp., $19.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.