by Peter Byrne
"I cannot disentangle myself from society with the Other..."
—Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity
(Swans - March 12, 2012) I felt foolish planning my trip to Naples with so much fuss. I'd been there before and found that among the big European cities it left the most room for improvisation. You could do more or less what you wanted in Naples, including nothing, if it pleased you. But while it seemed quite all right to saunter around London or Paris or even Rome on your own, you felt like a pervert doing so in Naples. The city didn't even believe in solitude for the dead. Burial grounds echoed with one-way conversations full of hot family news.
But forget that threadbare view of Naples. My intention on the trip was to see the city plain, devoid all such stuff that has turned it into a caricature. I resolved to scrub my eyes and look anew in the company of a friend and resident. I'll call him Genn, because his Christian name is Gennaro, a confusingly popular name for boys thereabouts. It also features in the grandfather of all Naples stories. Who hasn't heard of the weird yearly ceremony when a scrap of Saint Gennaro's Fourth Century blood is urged to liquify by the unholy hullabaloo of the faithful? My plan for the trip took care to miss that raucous event.
Genn had so much free time that I'd always been wary of asking him what in fact he did for a living. Recent reports say fifty percent of Naples' commerce is in the hands of a local leisure class called the Camorra, a confraternity that inexact translators refer to as the Mafia. I left it that Genn was simply a "professional Neapolitan," in the sense of, say, a Dubliner making out in New York on the strength of his brogue or a Parisian in Montreal cashing in on his Faubourg Saint-Germain lisp. Genn was different only in that he never left Naples.
The Camorra-under-the-bed was an example of a knee-jerk association with Naples I was going to ignore on this trip. After all, there was organized crime everywhere. The wind could blow strong on the seven continents, so why dub Chicago the Windy City? Amsterdam was mainly dry land so it was silly to call it the City of Canals when in Venice you could find yourself wading in canal overflow several months of the year. And what about Bangkok? My fuss just now was about focusing on brand new turns in the Naples story. That the city was more marginalized than ever in the Italian national set-up was no old wives' tale. Neither were those piles of garbage in its streets seen world-wide on TV. I'd get Genn to do some explaining.
The Central Train Station was not abuzz, which it should have been in a city like a hive where a million people buzzed nonstop. I went over the reasons as I got into a cab. The Bourbon Kingdom of Naples had built the first railroad in Italy. But when the Turin Monarchy took over in the 1860s it put Naples in quarantine. A former capital, rich, the third most populous city in Europe, surpassed only by London and Paris, Naples should have been the center of the new nation. But the Turin Savoys were afraid its strength would prove untamable. They built a railway line that did contortions to make Naples difficult to reach and used tariffs and taxes to curb its growth.
All of a sudden I realized that the cab driver was speaking to me. It wasn't going to be easy keeping received ideas at bay in Naples. His was double-barreled. He displayed the locals' crafty illegality by proposing to turn the meter off and take 15 euros for a 10-euro ride. He then did the too familiar gabby-cabby act, and dragged me into a conversation. Where was I from?
"A lot of different places."
"But which one do you feel homesick for?"
"Three or four of them," I said, already feeling sorry I couldn't oblige him.
"But there's one that makes you heartsick."
"They were big and impersonal, industrial cities, modern..."
I trailed off. I was trying to say the places I'd lived weren't Naples. But I could see he'd given up on me. We moved on to football and the Naples' team, which to everyone's surprise was doing well.
I remembered the films called sceneggate that the Neapolitans living in Milan used to go to see behind that city's train station. I'd sampled one. It was full of songs that wept into Naples' vaunted gulf while the sun and the moon did their duet. You saw a son of the city exiled in Buenos Aires. He worked and sang hard, but his songs were sad so far from Naples and his family, which were somehow one and the same thing. Then I forget what plot device got him back to Naples on a visit. A long table was spread in the sunshine with a stunning view high over the bay. Vesuvius in the distance marked the center of the universe. Our man gloated over his pleasure. But what I've never forgotten was that as guest of honor he sat next to his mother, two places away from his wife.
Was this the tax-dodging cabby's world? Or did he simply like the idea of a world like that? In any case no other city in Europe offered such fertile ground for a similar daydream. Naples was still a kingdom whose children felt that what they wished the city to be was like nothing else under the sun's "fiery gold." As I put 15 euros into the "submerged" economy that tops the legal one up and down Italy, the driver congratulated me. My hotel was in a "safe" spot because it was flanked by a police station.
I took the funicular cable car up to the Vomero to meet Genn. He wasn't a rampant leftist, like the Italian intellectuals who were probably his neighbors. So I never questioned his residence in this upmarket hilltop quarter that seemed to breathe easier for being walled off by geology from the free-for-all below. I'd never been able to decide whether Genn was simply a sourpuss or a sad sack. I'd thought he straddled the two until, high on another Naples' hill in the Capodimonte Museum, he'd shown me Pieter Bruegel's painting The Misanthrope. It pictured an aloof monk absorbed in hypocrisy, having his purse stolen by a ragamuffin.
Genn, grinning widely, had pointed to the painting and given me a big wink. For no place is better known than Naples for lo scippo or handbag and jewelry grab in the streets by helmeted specialists on motor scooters. The fact that a 16th century Netherlandish painter had foreseen the future and furnished the city an emblem was worth a laugh and Genn did after all have a sense of humor.
I thought of all this as I looked for his face in the nearest bars to the San Martino Museum. He wouldn't be smiling. For unlike Northern Europeans, the Latins of the South don't confront the world with facial sunshine. They have to have a definite reason for saying cheese and could be quite upset by a pointless smile. In mixed European Union company, Italian friends were always whispering questions in my ear about why exactly so-and-so's pink face was all teeth and sparkle.
Just to derail expectations, Genn met me with a grin. Maybe it was because he commanded the only table in the bar, which is one more table than usual in Naples where drinking is done standing so as to leave plenty of room for gestures. Once seated we agreed that the San Martino Museum would be for another day.
I told Genn about my being snuggly installed up against a police station. He pointed to the front page of the Mattino that he'd been reading. A former police chief, known as "Supercop" for having collared a noted Camorra boss, had been arrested for involvement in some dirty work with smugglers and tainted entrepreneurs. This raised the suspicion that the boss, no longer useful, had been removed on orders from the organization. It was Genn's little joke and gave rise to a wide gesture, hands spreading like saws in profile, that meant anything can happen here.
My joke was that I'd taken the funicular up and not the metro out of respect for the old song Funiculì, Funiculà. It was just something to say, but Genn thought it better unsaid. The song, he explained, referred to the funicular built in 1880 to go up Vesuvius and that had been neatly liquidated by the volcano in an eruption of 1944.
"Mario Lanza brightened my youth with that song."
I was in a genial mood. Genn wasn't.
"You were easily pleased," he said. "That Philadelphia Wop gargled too many detergent jingles."
"You think Hollywood dulled his Italian edge?"
"He never had the edge of a feather duster. His parents crawled out of some crevice in the Abruzzi Mountains."
"I remember his movie The Great Caruso."
"You should try to forget it. I'll show you where Caruso was born, number 7 in Via San Giovannello agli Ottocalli, next to the church."
"Still, Funiculì," I started to sing, a mistake, and cut short. "It was kind of catchy."
"That song!" said Genn. "I can't blame Turco and Denza for making a buck with it in 1880, but afterwards."
"Afterwards it boomed, didn't it?"
"In lands of the pale face. Some Englishman re-wrote the lyrics to his taste and since his name was Oxenford you can imagine what that was."
"Was that the version Lanza sang?"
"He and everyone else in places remote from Italy. It was Chico Marx recast as the noble savage. Peppino Turco wrote in our dialect about a young worker urging his squeeze to reach the point of volcanic eruption. She holds out for wedding bells and he's in such a hurry he agrees. Period. That the ditty dripped sperm upset old Oxenford. In English poor Chico had to sing lines like 'Harken! Harken! Music sounds a-far.' He'd been sedated with abstract joy. According to the new subtitle, this ball-less existence was 'A Merry Life'."
"So the ignoramuses took the song for genuine folklore?"
"They and the mandarins as well. Arnold Schoenberg set a version for string quartet. Richard Strauss put the music in a tone poem, Aus Italien. Can you beat it? Luigi Denza had to sue him. They say Neapolitans are wily. They simply aren't dumb."
I prevaricated on the visit to Caruso's birthplace. Listening to his scratchy records was enough proof of his existence for me. I didn't care to dip into his baptismal fount. We skipped a bar encounter the following day and met up at the ticket counter of the San Martino Museum. The place vibrated with a cliché-alert. The visitors, as usual in these parts, scoffed at lining up. They swarmed. The feisty young woman behind the counter welcomed combat. She stood her ground and gave as good as she got. Conflict was a perk of her job.
We proceeded through the splendid ensemble that began as a monastery and has been extended and enriched since the 1300s with an opulence that was anything but monkish. It was hard at the same time to appreciate and walk on the patterned marble. More so because my mind was still on Naples and just how it was different. I told Genn that San Martino was as rich as any museum in Europe but had a strange side to it. In most museums attendants play at being invisible. They sit solitary at one with their chair, part of the dull background that leaves the limelight to the works of art on display. If you behave yourself and don't bother them they leave you alone. But if you need to know where the john is or how to get from here to there they emerge from their coma and tell you in as few words as possible. Then they glide back into twilight land till the end of their shift
Genn defended the San Martino museum workers.
"Why should they act like robots? They're alive so naturally they exchange views with their colleagues. If you only want the bare facts you can wear a what's-it, one of those audio guides."
But the truth was the attendants could have been staging a debate. They weren't talking about the museum. We visitors could have been the audience for some public meeting they were holding on the eve of the next election. Genn went on about how museum attendants in Naples were specialists in linking works on display to the larger world.
I let it ride and we had a look at the 17th Century Christmas cribs. These fleshed out with gusto the old saw about Naples being fixated on food, or not having enough of it. Baby Jesus began life in a period supermarket that was stocked to the rafters.
It wasn't until we got out into the ex-monastery cloister that I could pin Genn down. What about the smelly local color of those heaps of uncollected garbage bags in the streets? Whose fault were they? He wasn't taken aback. Nobody caught him short of words. Southern criminals had been working with Northern Italian industrialists for years dumping toxic waste around the South. The businessmen up there couldn't resist a good deal and the Camorra and Mafia, not to speak of the Calabrian 'ndrangheta, bypassed all regulations and gave them the best rate per pound of refuse. Now Neapolitans were being asked to put up with more dumps and incinerators and they said no because they couldn't believe organized crime wasn't still in charge. So the bags stayed in the streets.
I let it go. In any case our attention went to a middle-aged man pacing like a metronome under the cloister arches. He could have been on the floor of some stock exchange. You felt sorry for the ear at the other end of the cell phone that he held in his right hand. His left gripped a thick briefcase but fought against being tied down with that run-of-the-mill task when it could have been gesturing like a semaphore.
All the same, the crunch had to come. I led with Pier Paolo Pasolini, a writer I knew Genn loved.
"Remember that passage where he says the Neapolitans were right to stand up against history and refuse modernity?"
Now Genn had a specific reason to smile and did so. That remark was right up his alley, however many garbage bags filled it. He finished the quote:
"The last Neapolitan might be doomed but would remain intact to the end, unrepeatable, irreducible, incorruptible."
"Of course you agree with the poet. We all agree with the poet. But..."
"But nothing," said Genn.
No longer smiling, he cocked his chin in his to-hell-with-policemen way.
"But, if we translate Pasolini's poetry into prose, what he's glorifying is collective suicide."
"Wait a minute. Come back to the day to day. We thumbed our nose at modernity and you, here and now, are enjoying our refusal. Think of those clinically restored towns up there, Mantua, Vicenza, Pisa," he gave a dismissive wave northwards. "Everything within the city limits has been turned into a museum. Mithra the fertility god has a ring in his nose. Try to find a decent argument in those places. They'll send you to a therapist."
I let him rave. The man with the phone had given us the eye and I didn't want him to join the conversation and up the sound level. When we moved on to a sumptuous chapel where you had to revise your idea of the Carthusian vow of poverty, I wiggled back to my point.
"There's a problem with being outside modernity. Because after all, you and these sociable museum workers are modern people, Neapolitans or not."
That evoked what was pretty much a set piece from Genn. He warmed: Whose modernity were we talking about? War with clones and a half hour for lunch? A tax on the spoken word except for tattoos on your backside? Then the final clunker:
"We refused their history just as they refused ours."
His riffs were always good to hear and I wanted to agree. But I was still thinking about those black garbage bags and the pyrotechnic bombs with which joyful locals blew their hands off to celebrate holidays. I couldn't forget the time my pocket was being picked on a Naples' bus. The artist, on being interrupted, begged me to forgive his "moment of distraction." But there I went again, letting cliché trip me up.
We returned to the exhibits. Genn was put out by the fact that some were closed. We couldn't see the showcases of majolica or the display about the theatre of Pulchinella. To find out why, Genn broke into a conference of attendants. They all buzzed together for a while and Genn came back disgruntled to report that staff was insufficient to keep everything open at the same time. Refusniks or not, they also had the new European downsizing in Naples.
Genn wasn't happy. When we finished our tour we went out by the way we'd come in hours before. The scrappy young woman was still there at her ticket counter. She was calling to order the oddments spread before her, stacking stray pamphlets, squashing a plastic cup some miscreant had disrespectfully left there.
Genn took a formal tone with her:
"When I bought my ticket I was not informed that certain exhibits were not viewable."
She opened a drawer, put something in and pushed it closed with a bang.
Genn went on, again speaking like some kind of official inspector:
"I didn't see any signage indicating partial closure."
The young woman had ignored him. Now she said with something like a sneer,
"We don't do signage here."
For some reason this enraged Genn, who dropped his formality and got loud,
"What do you mean by here?"
Her sneer took a smug turn. She'd succeeded in annoying him. He looked at me and said,
"I can't believe this. She's saying Neapolitans are incapable of modern museum practice."
I edged my way toward the exit while their exchange hotted up. The young woman fighting on her own patch couldn't be beaten. The last I heard Genn bellow was that she was not to speak to him as if he were some Milanese polenta-eater, because he was more of a Neapolitan than she was and he believed in signs.
[Continue to the second part of this essay.]
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