Interview with Giovanni di Lorenzo “The concept of flawless persons is the last utopia”

Big reader Giovanni di Lorenzo: “Hardly anybody described Italy as vividly as Goethe”
Big reader Giovanni di Lorenzo: “Hardly anybody described Italy as vividly as Goethe” | Foto: Radio Bremen / Frank Pusch

It is book fair time in Turin. This year’s guest country in Germany. The fair will be opened Giovanni di Lorenzo. In our interview, the German-Italian journalist speaks about literature, the mafia, melancholy and why we have an absurd image of humanity today.

Mr. di Lorenzo, the theme of the Turin Book Fair is “The Wonders of Italy.” What does that call to mind for you?

What I keep seeing as the greatest wonders of Italy are those moments of moral courage against all odds. Italy has a great culture of family cohesion, but very little in terms of common sense. The fact that there will always be some businessman, judge or journalist who stands up against organized crime is one of those Italian wonders to me. Some of them have paid with their lives.

The author Roberto Saviano, for example, has been a hunted man since his Mafia book “Gomorrha”. The Camorra wants him dead.

Saviano is a personal friend of mine. He came to see me while I was on holiday last year. I would have wished so much for him to just take one dip in the ocean. We were only able to have one dinner guarded by the police. However he did not fear the Mafia, he feared the culture of denunciation: that someone could take his picture with a smartphone and write, see how Saviano is enjoying the good life at the expense of the taxpayer. Some absurd culture of egotism, of propaganda and of concealing one’s true interests has been rampant since the Berlusconi era. That’s what actually is destroying this country.

Is Saviano a hero to you?

I don’t want to inflict that on him because he fights the reputation of a hero tooth and nail. Heroes are not allowed to makes mistakes, he says, but he is young and has the right to go through the trials and tribulations of this world without being blamed for it. But he is a role model for me. Although I must add that I always only consider someone a role model for a certain time and under a certain aspect. Anything else would be asking too much of someone, no matter how exemplary they are.

Saviano will meet investigative journalist Günter Wallraff in Turin. Does his appearance at the fair mean taking risks? Even on a normal day, he has ten body guards.

Someone who is hunted like him will be hunted everywhere. The actual question is whether the Camorra would want to get up to an attack or whether the government’s repression in the wake of an attack would not be much worse than any danger posed by Saviano.

Speaking of literature: Can you tell me a book that you love?

My favourite book ever is probably The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. I first read the novel at age 17 or 18 and then from time to time again. Rarely has a novel described an epochal upheaval – the demise of the feudal class – with as much skill. It has this incredible art of description, a novel of the century.

The most important sentence in it?

Of course, the famous statement by the prince. It goes along the lines of “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same”. A sentence with a universal truth that survives all vicissitudes. I think it is meant rather in a melancholic than in a cynical way.

The title of your new interview book sounds melancholic, too: “On Progress and Other Defeats” – what fascinates you about defeat?

I asked myself by which criteria do you select interviews from 33 years? The most important criterion was that it should still be exciting today. It wasn’t obvious until I started making my selections that the common thread were people who had often experienced severe trauma or a severe defeat. Others spoke about their fears of suffering defeat. There was always this strange link between triumph and defeat.

Are those the stories we readers also like to read most?

Of course, that’s what popular journalism thrives on, not only upmarket popular literature. If you like, it’s what life is about. By reading about defeat we exorcise some of our own fears of failure. The spirit of our time currently follows the utopia of faultless humans. Today, you will be pilloried much quicker after a defeat than in the past. We should return to a culture of encouragement, as everyone suffers defeats and commits errors. Everything else cements an absurd image of humanity.

Have you experienced this fine line yourself?

Compared to the extreme defeats and blows of fate dealt with in the book, a comparison with my mistakes would be downright presumptuous. On the contrary, I have been very lucky in my professional life. I think we need to return to a concept of humanity that does us justice. People can be a role model for a certain time or in certain areas. Now that we have reached the end of all utopias, the concept of flawless persons is the last utopia, I think, but it will also fail.

Back to Italy. Does Italy still have an exciting intellectual voice at all?

Italy is not as intellectually finished as the German media claim. But it is also true that Italy was a magical magnet for Europe’s cultural public in the 1960s and 1970s. This has unfortunately been lost. But Nanni Moretti, Matteo Garrone and Paolo Sorrentino, for instance, are all magnificent directors. Italy does, after all, have an inexhaustible reservoir of creativity and talent.

When and how do you read?

My day begins at eight o’clock at home reading and it also ends with a read. At the end it’s usually a book, I do not want to fall asleep over magazines and newspapers.

Your book last night?

Last night I read Helmut Schmidt’s new book and actually discovered things that I didn’t know of him. Before that, the travel diary of Montesquieu. The first thing I devoured were his diary entries on Hanover where I, too, arrived at the age of eleven. He was fascinated by a machine for a water fountain. I guess travelling Europe must have been an incredibly beautiful experience for an alert mind up until the early 20th century...

Which is true in particular for Italy.

Hardly anybody described Italy as vividly as Goethe. He actually captured Italy pretty well. Of course also with wit: Goethe deeply lamented the disfigurement of Italy by modern architecture, and he was referring to the baroque architecture that we love so much today. Goethe actually once asked an Italian innkeeper where he could relieve himself. “Where you please, sir.”

Günter Grass also travelled Italy…

Yes, and he actually mentioned that during our last meeting. I once clashed with Grass because I did not want to publish his Israel poem. He resented that very much. We were fortunately able to talk once more just before his death. He held a very impressive critique of our paper with us. I am happy that this reconciliation took place. We also had the last interview with him in Zeit in which he says that pain is what drives his writing.

What drives you? Is there a book that you really want to write?

As journalists, we describe at most the status quo of a great hope – to make a difference. But, yes, there’s actually an idea for a book that even has to do with Italy. But I’d better leave it at that: my Italian roots made me superstitious.

Do you have writing rituals?

I actually find it difficult to write wherever I am. The concept of agony is no stranger to me.

An anecdote about Turin?

An uncle of mine worked as a manager for Olivetti near Turin. Unfortunately, this is a part of Italy that I know too little. I am looking forward to the short visit to the book fair and a meeting with my friend Saviano. And I hope that Juventus Turin, my favourite team, will also have won the second leg against Real by then.

Stefanie Maeck conducted the interview.