Books

TO TURIN WITH MOUNTIES

Canadian literature—with a little help from Ottawa—is sizzling hot in Italy

Brian Bethune June 2 2003
Books

TO TURIN WITH MOUNTIES

Canadian literature—with a little help from Ottawa—is sizzling hot in Italy

Brian Bethune June 2 2003

TO TURIN WITH MOUNTIES

Books

Canadian literature—with a little help from Ottawa—is sizzling hot in Italy

BRIAN BETHUNE

CANADA IS a dangerous place in the collective memory of Turin. Stylized Mohawk warriors loom menacingly over the front windows of the northern Italian city’s 300-year-old Palazzo Carignano. Formed in solid brick, they represent the vivid recollections of Turinese soldiers who fought in New France’s 17th-century Iroquois wars. Plus ça change. For the 50-odd Canadian writers, publishers, public servants and journalists who went to Italy in mid-May to see Canada honoured at Turin’s annual international book fair, it seemed a toss-up—for the Toronto contingent, at least—whether they’d be welcomed as literary ambassadors or shunned as lethal invaders. At the airport men in protective suits that seemed designed for handling plutonium greeted passengers from Ontario with electronic thermometers and searching gazes. Even a protestor clad in a giant condom who briefly seized the microphone at the fair’s opening—the better to yell family planning slogans at Cardinal Severino Poletto, archbishop of Turin—also wore a SARS mask, presumably because he knew there were Canadians present. Thank God the mad cow news wasn’t out yet.

But it’s doubtful even the bubonic plague could have derailed the CanLit express in Turin. Canadian writing, its way paved by a decade of Ottawa’s promotion abroad, is sizzling hot in Italy. At the Canada booth, Italians were excited by the personal appearance of nearly two dozen Canadian authors—especially Yann Martel, Alistair MacLeod and Noah Richler (representing the still-potent ghost of his father, Mordecai)—and the not-to-be-disparaged presence of two scarlet-clad Mounties. RCMP officers Yves Morin and François Lebel drew what can only be called groupies in large clusters—readers and gawkers alike—many of them members of the various Italian police forces. The steady stream crested with two park rangers in equally red coats. “So you too are mountain police,” one said in lightly accented English. “Mounted,” replied Lebel after a beat. “We ride horses.”

Turin bookseller Gianfranco Fontana,

who had the concession at the Canada booth, was delighted with his sales. “Everything is going, twice as much as at my own booth,” he beamed. “I was not expecting such a success.” Particularly not after his bad experience the last time he tried to sell books from the fair’s featured nation. “Two years ago the Dutch books didn’t move well at all. But this year all 2,000 books I brought in went, even children’s titles—which are not big sellers in Italy—not just the big names like Atwood and Doody.” Most Canadians would be puzzled by Fontana’s second “big name,” but Margaret Doody, a Canadian academic who teaches at University of Notre Dame in Indiana, is an enormous success in Italy— and Fontana’s personal favourite—for her three mystery novels set in ancient Greece and featuring Aristotle as her detective.

Why Canada—literary quality and Mo un-

tie drawing power aside—is such a hit is a tale of converging agendas. One factor is the cult of Barney, an ongoing love affair with Barney’s Version. Mordecai Richler’s last novel has been heavily promoted by II Foglio, a conservative newspaper that heartily approves of Richler’s politically incorrect hero. And there is, according to many Italian critics, a weariness with the highly formalized national literature. “Historically, Italian writers dwelt at the court of the prince,” remarks Ernesto Ferrero, the fair’s editorial director. “And that has remained: fiction is communication addressed to an elite. The best Canadian books are necessary books—you understand what I mean? They have something to say. In Italy most books are unnecessary; they’re about the author’s ego.” Maybe so, but in practical terms, nothing beats Ottawa’s seed money, which has been astonishingly successful for a modest cost. About $50,000 a year has fostered a network of Canadian studies departments at seven Italian universities. There are now dozens of academics interested in the country, according to University of Milan professor Luigi Bruti Liberati. The co-author of a history of Canada that has sold 5,000 copies in Italy, Bruti Liberati says his countrymen are increasingly intrigued by Canada because of what he delicately calls “our situation.”

By that he means Italy’s combination of a shrinking birth rate and increased immigration from Muslim North Africa. The question of integration is becoming critical, he acknowledges, and Canada represents one possible future. “Your society is so complicated,” says Bruti Liberati. “So many different cultures co-existing without real conflict.” And then there is the endless tide of U.S. pop culture—John Grisham is as popular in Italy as he is in North America. “We know that Canada is always particularly susceptible to being Americanized, and we appreciate the effort it makes to prevent it.” Bruti Liberati’s wife, Elisabetta Burba, a journalist at Panorama, Italy’s largest circulation (650,000) weekly magazine, is more impressed with the Canadian government’s efforts abroad. Those include subsidies that pay half the costs of foreign translations. Italy is the biggest beneficiary, receiving about a fifth of the annual $400,000 budget supplied by the Canada Council and Foreign Affairs. “There’s nothing like the Canada Council here,” she says wistfully. “In Italy all sponsorship is political, but to us outsiders Canada is like a dream, a culture that offers a chance to any writer to express himself or herself, that promotes solely on merit.”

It can be acutely embarrassing to hear Italian commentators ascribe virtues to Canada that we don’t actually possess. (The official welcome to Canada extolled “multicultural literature from a land that has never known slavery or racism.”) But there is malice in the honey too, though not directed toward us. It appeals to the Italian left’s anti-Americanism to portray Canada as the “other” North America, the kinder, gentler one. And Ferrero hardly troubles to hide the fact that one motive behind celebrating Canada—and Ottawa’s support for CanLit— is to lobby his own government for more money for writers and publishers. “Canada is a model for the world.”

But that model is export-driven. The

money is for Canadians to attain global reach, not the reverse. One of the ironic outcomes is that Canadians—whose fiction is lauded for its openness to the world—do not share European readers’ familiarity with foreign literature. That’s something that bothers Alistair MacLeod, one of the most feted writers at Turin. “Here I am,” he says, “in constant contact with writers who know my work very well, and say very nice things about it, and I can’t get translated copies of their books. I feel bad about that.”

And it’s hard to imagine any small Canadian community creating something like the extraordinary literary prize offered by the Italian town of Castel Goffredo (population 10,000). Every year for the past decade, a local committee has picked a country,

named five of its books and rounded up 135 copies of each. Then the citizens start reading; at summer’s end they award the Acerbi prize, named for 19th-century diplomat and writer Giuseppe Acerbi, Castel Goffredo’s most eminent native son. In 2001 it was Canada’s turn, and Joe Fiorito won a special prize for The Closer We are to Dying. It’s not a lucrative honour—US$750 and a trip to Italy—but it’s one Fiorito values. “It’s an extraordinary thing to go into a town, in a foreign country, one you’d hardly be likely to stumble over yourself, and find everyone there has read your damn book.”

Over the past decade Canadian literature has been celebrated and welcomed with open arms around the world. Perhaps it’s time Canadians returned the favour. fiil