Untranslated: Un weekend postmoderno by Pier Vittorio Tondelli — Francesco Tenaglia

I write this from Italy, a country at the forefront of a ghastly form of seamless nostalgia that overshadows local cultural production—let alone mainstream cultural exports—like a long neorealist tail made of plastic. The pages of the book I’m holding are not made of plastic: they are turning into that peculiar brownish shade which subtly pervades second-hand bookshops. One of these shops, in my beloved neighbourhood around Paolo Sarpi Street in Milan, is about to close down: because of the above-mentioned tendency to revel in nostalgia, the event has been making news in my social media timelines, stirring conversations with local acquaintances. Although I was tempted to buy a copy of Un weekend postmoderno (A Postmodern Weekend) in that bookshop, eventually I didn’t: when I was asked to write about it for Minor Literature[s] I waited instead for the vacation I had planned to spend at my parents’ in the Abruzzo region, to get my hands on the copy I first bought in the early 90s as a teenager. The idea of reading this imposing book (600+ pages) once again in the small room where I grew up—mainly used by my parents nowadays as storage for old clothes—felt so cheesy and pathetic that it generated a gravitational pull of its own.

The latest book I had read by Pier Vittorio Tondelli was Camere Separate (1989) (you can find it in English as Separate Rooms). As a younger and self-appointed edgier subject, I viewed it as an exercise in what the trenchant music press would call ‘miserabilism’: a predisposition to rely on contemplation and melancholy as an antidote to the enthusiasm that marked the emotional tone of media production in the 80s, adopting uneasiness as a tactical, implicitly political countermeasure. The protagonist of Camere Separate is called Leo. He’s left alone after the death of his younger lover Thomas, a talented German musician who dies of a big disease with a little name (never spelled out in the arc the story, as far as I can remember, no matter how short). A series of flashbacks pull the reader back through the two characters’ love, their voyages and fear of commitment, and Thomas’ ultimate decision to choose a woman over Leo just before dying. Leo broods over the world before revealing, in a conference in Canada about Jack Kerouac, that he has fallen ill too. Camere Separate is an autobiographical book: Tondelli would die of AIDS only a couple of years after it was published. It is a history of absent-minded mourning, not an allegory.

On the other hand, Tondelli’s words in Un weekend postmoderno (1990)—a collection of writings commissioned to him by various magazines during the 80s—feel like bites from a pit of snakes, as situations are rendered in a vivid procession of vignettes and piercing details: they read like an ingenuous version of Italian bourgeois literature über-master Alberto Arbasino who, as an editor-at-large for the weekly (and moderately conservative) magazine Il Mondo reported from Paris, with spirited prose, his encounters with Jean Cocteau, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and the rest of the lot. Unlike Arbasino though, Pier Vittorio wasn’t interested in the cultural jet-set or in ‘high-culture’.

He was provincial, perhaps militant, certainly an anthropological researcher of the province: one of the strongest and most persistent themes in the book—unrecognisable as postmodern—is Tondelli’s unflinching belief in the fact that every small town or minuscule borough he visited owned a unique posture and was the expression of unique, avant-garde or vernacular fashions, theatres, discos and artistic groups that neither Rome nor Milan (even though he elected the latter as his home for a big chunk of the 80s) were confident with, or could have foreshadowed.

He was much more interested, for example, in a gang of youngsters experimenting with technology and theatre in the middle of nowhere, ready to fade away when the next vogue would have happened, than in the cultural establishment. He documented these undercurrents, micro-scenes, and apparently forgettable encounters, with the gentleness and the distance of a shy lover.

For years Pier Vittorio was received by his Italian readership as a rebellious, restless soul: mostly because of his first novel Altri Libertini (Other Libertines, 1980) which featured more sex and hard drugs (sometimes together: see the notorious scene of a heroin fix directly injected in a penis) than the country could handle at that stage, with the result of himself being incriminated for obscenity by L’Aquila courthouse. Tondelli was perceived as part of the counterculture because he occupied and often wrote enthusiastically about those liminal spaces within the Bolognese milieu that harboured Autonomia, Radio Alice, and the heroes of Italian comics such as Tanino Liberatore, Andrea Pazienza and Stefano Tamburini. During his university days at DAMS (University of Drama, Art and Music) in Bologna he shared their looks, faded blue jeans, and long hair, although in later pictures he looked increasingly like a shy pet. Un weekend postmoderno likewise reflects Italy’s cultural transition from a creative period to a phase known as ‘riflusso’, when the dreams of a more equal, spontaneous, welcoming society held by extra-parliamentary left-wing groups were suddenly wiped off by the exacerbation of their conflicts against the state. At the time, Italian society suffered from an abrupt de-politicization when hippie-ish, post-1977 Indiani Metropolitani (Metropolitan Indians) tribes left room to the ‘lotta armata’ (‘armed struggle’) and to kidnapping and killing by the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades); many moved inwards towards self-centred forms of fulfilment, ‘spiritual schools’, and yuppification as a form of exorcism of, and detachment from the infantile self which had been day-dreaming for a decade, or so it felt.

I have asked a friend, writer Giulia Cavaliere, to tell me something about Tondelli on the sole basis of a picture of her choice, without giving her many explanations of what I was writing: I was interested in seeing what points of contact might arise in our parallel thinking about the same writer, without further guidance. She came back to me with the following telling words, in response to a promo picture for Tondelli’s book Rimini (1985): “I was born on the fake cliffs of a real Rimini, enveloped by the oversized, Naj-Oleari patterned shirt worn by Pier Vittorio Tondelli in this picture. His glasses became fashionable again as I entered my 30s, and an Instagram filter whose name we will never remember could replicate the warm colours of this ad. We are used to seeing Tondelli, this hyper-icon of Emilia Romagna, as a post-‘68, post-‘77 figure. A cultivated one, belonging to that very subset of political struggling reader, Italian but with traces of French Nouvelle Vague (à la Jean Eustache), with a university degree, lots of books, a ballpoint pen in the breast pocket of his velvet jacket, second-hand tweed, a mother full of sweetness, an old car running through provincial roads, a solely physical love hidden behind a solely legit love, the scent of lavender, excellent musical taste (eclectic and misunderstood), layered backdrops of tenderness, the face of a smalltown boy with many secrets that made him interesting. But in this Rimini promo picture, Pier Vittorio is something else. A face with an almost yuppie air—even if no, we’re not really allowed to say it—printed on a billboard heading toward Milan, Campari Sodas, Martinis. His little hair is now shorter, the jacket has become serious, his gaze is painful, something has gone wrong, something will go wrong, the overt dirtiness of things, the result of the “riflusso” in a future about to come. He embodies all of this in a sneer, in a pose made to be laminated on the back cover of the novel that will be received as a subdued important work, that is, the minor one. In the upside-down buoy that is the year 1985: safety behind, death ahead, death of all the icons of the struggle. The face is wrinkled, the lips are large, America, a floral shirt or, more easily, colourful sailing boats hitting artificial cliffs in the Adriatic sea but dreaming of Miami or more, another exotic dimension, no longer India but a small island in the Pacific. There it is: the courage of a fight, standing on a land which has been completely lost, while behind the cliffs there is emptiness, the large abyssal void away from the chains of the Movimento, of the communes, of Emilia Paranoica.’

One of my favourite chapters in Un weekend postmoderno is called ‘Tie Society’. It starts with a long description of Richard Mapplethorpe’s series of portraits of skinny, androgynous Patti Smith, from which the picture for Horses was chosen. Pier Vittorio notes that the previous generation would have regretted the tie as a sign of subjugation to tradition and conservationism, or at best, an antiquated waste of time. By contrast, the people in the postmodern era could play with every symbolic facet of a tie: the dancing crowd at Heaven in London used them as belts, in Florence—‘the Italian capital of the 80s’—ties were worn over shirt collars, whereas Tondelli himself would wear colourful regimentals with his uniform when he was invited out for lunch during conscription, as he didn’t have the time to get changed but didn’t want to look boring. Such formal freedom, he notes without a hint of judgement, came at the cost of losing a sense of collective among the youth: ‘The last great gigs of the Seventies represent a rite of passage: there is still a trend to want to feel part of a group, but the heroes we celebrate—think of Patti Smith or Bob Marley—are solitary. Poetic because solitary.’

Another beautiful chapter recounts a hitchhiking odyssey heading home: most drivers would pass Pier Vittorio by, even some who knew him. He had spent eight hours on the train and had already walked two kilometres, from the railways station in Reggio Emilia, to reach the ring road. He probably looked weird, or on drugs. The selfless hero who will take him home is a retired old country gentleman who used to work as a peasant. He talks the young writer into the story of his life: a soldier of the Italian Regal Army who fought in Africa, and was made captive by the American troops who took him to New York as a prisoner. And what did a countryman, who had never even seen the town of Reggio Emilia, make of the skyscrapers of Manhattan? He had affectionate recollections of the Americans, who treated him nicely and later sent him money for the work he’d done for them on the other side of the ocean. The story was a prompt for Tondelli to address themes such as ‘city and country’, ‘capitalism and farmers’ society’, ‘industrialisation and protection of the terroir’, ‘repressive institutions and punishment’, ‘fascism, antifascism and personal revenge’, without the snobbery attached to the cultural establishment.

This is one of the specific traits in Un weekend postmoderno: the discovery of the author’s eagerness for stories blossoming from minimal details and peripheries: Correggio, Bologna, Carpi, Reggio Emilia, Salsomaggiore, Rimini, Rimini, and Rimini.

The beach, Pasolini, students protesting, music videos, his own military service (a lot of it), performance and visual arts, comics, fashion, radios and new wave, fanzines, and finally Under 25, the project he launched on Linus, the monthly magazine—still alive and kicking—dedicated to comics, culture and politics. In an open letter Tondelli invited Italian youngsters with literary ambitions to send him their creations, which he later edited and published in three volumes: Giovani Blues (Blues Youth), Belli & Perversi (Beautiful & Perverted), and the wonderfully named Papergang. The desire to discover more and more tales written by the Italian youth was the final proof of his insatiable longing for stories.

Some of the writers involved with Under 25 stayed in business; nonetheless it’s hard to find an heir of Tondelli, and almost impossible to point at an heir to the Un weekend postmoderno project. Last year I happened to visit the Quadriennale d’Arte in Rome, a periodical art exhibition whose latest instalment was titled Altri tempi, altri miti (Other Times, Other Myths): a direct homage to Un Weekend Postmoderno and its will to ‘narrate Italy via fragments, in a vertiginous sarabande through the peninsula, recording the most hidden vibrations just as well as the most evident features’, according to the Press Release of the show. I thought I’d finally found a legacy, albeit outside of the literary domain. On visiting the exhibition I felt that the only curator who seemed to share some traits with the work of Tondelli was Michele D’Aurizio: his section of the show featured some form of contemplation on the cult of youth, formation cliques, elective affinities, multiple aspects of self-portrait. There was something both generous and detached in his project, so I decided to have a chat with him.

I listened back to the recording of the conversation we had a few days ago, while walking back home through the Milanese Chinatown. In the recording he sounds articulated and sharp while my delivery is a slow, drunken drawl. Michele tells me about Le Petit Jeu, a polyphonic novel he is writing with friends and artists that gravitated around his art space, Gasconade: ‘Indeed it has similarities with the Weekend postmoderno project. Every chapter is the report of a night out, an encounter, or a scenario. My contribution, for example, is based around a number of parties, each held in a different Milanese club, to examine a community and the way I relate to it: I chose Glitter to recount a particular homosexual scene in the city, the Girls Love Beyoncé night to recount a group of so-called creative and emerging fashionable people, Plastic to analyse my own friends, a party abroad to talk about the art community, and the last one I wrote is a big solitary trip in which, at Dogs, I analyse myself, alone. Maybe this approach means to say something about an artistic production that is strongly generational, in the same way as in Tondelli’s book. However, I’m not interested in the province: although I come from there, in my stories it only appears as a starting point that leads to the city, because I don’t see it as a place where anything relevant can happen anymore.”

See? We were almost there, but no. No heirs. Un Weekend Postmoderno feels like an overexcited report of a long-gone era: a world that, like my room in my parents’ house, still exists in all his elements, but has another function. A form of recognition, from way too close. Tondelli didn’t foresee that the linguistic freedom, local diversity, and peculiarities of the tribes he met—authentic, local interpretations or reactions to what we would shortly after call ‘globalization’—would eventually mitigate, or dissolve. He shared the rush of a beginning that, like most beginnings, is made of expectations and hopes. And what mostly touches me as I re-read this book, is that he does so with a levity which leaves no space for analysis or cruelty. He is not a critic, he is a visitor of that world: halfway detached from life, and halfway in empathy with the motivations of everyone else. Like the two robots kissing in that Björk video: all is full of love.

Pier Vittorio Tondelli (September 14, 1955 – December 16, 1991) was an Italian writer and the author of novels such as Altri Libertini (1980), Rimini (1985), Camere Separate (1989), Pao Pao (1989) as well as essays and journalism.

Francesco Tenaglia lives in Milan and works for contemporary art magazine and publishing house Mousse. His writings have appeared on Rolling Stone, Noisey, Rivista Letteraria, among other publications. Twitter: @francescoten

All translations by the reviewer.