A 'classic' and 'classist' novel on an odd corner of Tuscany
It hurts me when I hear Piombino defined as the ugliest corner of Tuscany – even if being the ugliest corner of Tuscany might well be compatible with being quite a beautiful place for other countries’ or regions’ standards. But indeed it is the contrast with the immediate surroundings that harms Piombino. Right in front, just 10 minutes of ferry away, is the splendid Elba Island, with its beaches, its picturesque villages, its mountain and Napoleonic residence. At the back, the calendar Tuscan hills, with the Sasiccaia wine, the woods and the wild boars. To the North, just behind the hill, the idyllic Baratti beach with its Etruscan ruins. When you arrive by train from the North, you see in rapid succession the beaches, the pine forest, the hills... and then suddenly, unexpected, completely ill-suited, Piombino. With its gigantic steelworks, its four blast furnaces (only one still active), its noise and pollution, its blocks of flats for workers. The Welsh know the same contrast between the Gower peninsula and its spectacular beaches and Port Talbot – but Piombino and Baratti are just one behind the other, separated by only a green promontory of 4km, instead of a 15km gulf.
It makes me particularly angry when I hear tourists, who cross the city as fast as possible to get to the port and escape to the Elba, make the most stupid of comments on the factories: ‘but why did they build that here?’. It’s like the American tourists asking why the queen built Windsor castle so close to the airport. Because metal production in Piombino is two thousand year older than tourism, thanks to the local iron mine. The steelworks themselves are one hundred year old. Indeed, they were destroyed, together with the whole town, by the withdrawing German army at the end of the war. But the local population, immediately, spontaneously, rebuilt them, and took control of them. Piombino became then one of the main sites of Italian state industry, until it was privatised to Lucchini in 1992, not before a tough two-month strike that marked the town.
I spent a few pleasant weeks in Piombino in 1998, mostly in the Fiom (metalworker union) offices, for my doctoral research comparing the Lucchini steelworks in Piombino with those in Warsaw – the local union officer started to call me ‘the Pole’, something exotic for the local community. Few years later, Lucchini was taken over by the Russian Severstal.
It is with mixed feelings, then, that I have read this successful Italian novel dedicated to this most unsung of Tuscan towns and its 35,000 inhabitants. There is some tradition of Italian novels on the working class, but this stands out. It is about the provincial, peripheral working class, not the classic one of Turin, Milan or Naples. And it is written from a different gender and generation perspective. Silvia Avallone is only 26.
The novel tells the story of the families of two steelworkers, neighbours in the ugly council blocks of Via Stalingrado, in front of the local, dirty and crowded beach. However, the heroes are not the steelworkers, but their fourteen-year old daughters, who spend the summer on the beach, despite their fathers controlling behaviour and monitoring from the balcony. Anna and Francesca are classmates; one is doing well at school, the other is not, but they are best mates and share, among others, a strong resentment against their fathers. Anna’s is dismissed by Lucchini for stealing, while her mother is politically militant and her older brother, equally steelworker, is the most popular bloke among local girls. Francesca’s one is semi-illiterate and violent, her mother is a completely submissive Southern immigrant. In the summer of 2001, they dream to get a scooter and escape, swearing loyalty to each other.
But there comes September 2001. Not so much 9/11, which the local youth watches on a bar TV wondering if it is a movie and getting bored very soon when they realise it is just the news on a far away place. But the fact that Anna and Francesca will go to different secondary schools, given their different academic results, and will grow apart because of diverging interests, loves and sexual orientations. Although their parallel personal wars with their respective fathers continue...
If on one level this seems just another teenager story, with the usual ingredients of generational conflict, sexual discovery, drugs experimentation and irresponsible behaviour, there is more to this book. It is a sharp portrayal of a disappearing world, the compact steel working class of Piombino, once united by a 70% union membership and 70% vote for the communists, immortalised by Gramsci monuments. Anna’s brother Alessio at the 2001 elections voted for Berlusconi, because 'at least he is not a loser like the Fiom unionists', and finds individual ways to find the necessary money for Saturday night and for a new car. The moral conservatism of their parents is contrasted with the sexual liberation of teen-agers – which however, in this isolated setting, takes the form of miming TV showgirls and the appeal of the strippers clubs in the hinterland. Avallone manages to provide an intimate portrait of both generations, with respect but without any sentimentalism and glorification of either the young or the old. In particular, there is no discount for the traditional machismo and for domestic violence. I imagine the Fiom comrades to be a bit angry about the book, but in fact I remember that when twenty years ago the experiment was made to appoint a few dozen women as manual workers in the steelworks, they all quickly resigned, not so much because of the working conditions, but because of the intolerable sexist culture.
In fact both old and new suffer from social isolation. The council houses, the pollution, the separation from the nearby touristic spots are physical, symbolic and cultural. One wonders why the youth spend the time on the dirty Piombino’s beach with the view of chimneys, instead of moving just 4km North to Baratti beach (one of the most beautiful in Italy), or take the ferry to the Elba – where most of them have never been. But then one of the boys suggests to go to Baratti – to nick valuables from posh tourists. Even more, one wonders why the internet is never mentioned – in 2001-02!. But while mobile phones’ use has become widespread in Italy sooner than elsewhere, internet access has long remained limited to certain social groups. Overall, Piombino’s working class experiences are made of social rejection on one side, and of political or media paternalism – as symbolised by the impossible relationship between Alessio and Elena, the middle-class girl becoming factory’s human resource manager. A rejection that in Italy may be less violent then the one lived by the English working class described by Own Jones in ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’ or by Shaw's Tile Hill paintings– but that it is true nonetheless.
There is a good deal of exaggeration in all this, and, in a way, of additional, unnecessary demonisation. Avallone is not from Piombino and has never lived there. Via Stalingrado in Piombino does not exist (although there are still a few Vie Stalingrado in Italy), nor a beach like that. While there is deprivation in Piombino, I can say from experience that it still is much better than, say, Port Talbot; that it is clean and not that smelly; that Fiom members are not that losers; and that steelworkers' pay is not that bad nor employment prospects so restricted to steel. In the novel there is basically no positive figure, except maybe Anna’s mother, but most people I met in Piombino were actually positive. No mention in the book of the 'heroic defeat' of the 1992 2-month strike. Accidents in the huge plant do occur a lot (I remember the day a worker died in the steelworks during my research and the immediate strike and demonstration that were called), but the one told in Acciaio sounds implausible.
These may be forgivable licences in a novel. The descriptions, whether of the plant, of the desolated country roads around it, of the council houses and the humble city centre are spot on. The dialogue is very fresh, without indulging in artificial slang as many young Italian authors do, although the author also avoids any Tuscan speak, whether for her ignorance or for a clear choice of depicting the Italian province rather than simply an Italian province. The social crisis in the background of two girls’ crisis is vividly accounted within an orderly, 'classic' novel: industrial restructuring is painful, just like growing up for two girls in a very sexist environment. In a way, Italy has found, with this book on generations, class identity and gender identity, its sourer sort of Billy Elliott – and a female one to it. In 2010 it achieved the second place in the main Italian contest, the Premio Strega, and it is already translated into German and French – a healthy balance to all the various disgustingly soppy ‘Houses in the Tuscan sun’.