Luciana Castellina, Discovery of the World: A Political Awakening in the Shadow of Mussolini

(London and New York: Verso, 2014)

The political life of Luciana Castellina, one of the most prominent voices of the Italian Left for many decades, is a magnificent portrait, satiated with courageous shades of red, always with an uncompromising commitment to proletarian internationalism and causes of mass workers’ movements. Born in 1929 in Rome, Castellina joined the Italian Communist Party in 1947 but was expelled in 1969, for differences over 1) the PCI’s political line with regard to the USSR, especially after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 2) the party’s lack of proper attention to the changing nature of Italian society and non-traditional anti-capitalist mass movements, and 3) nondemocratic elements in the structure of the Party. She was one of the founding members of the radical communist newspaper, Il Manifesto, founded in 1969, whose members later took part in the formation of the Partito d’Unità Proletaria [PDUP] in 1974. In 1984, the PDUP was dissolved and the majority of its members, including Castellina, (re)joined the PCI. Castellina also served in the Italian Chamber of Deputies and in the European Parliament (1979-99), where she chaired the Committee of Culture, Youth, Education, and Media from 1994 to 1997, and the Commission for External Economic Relations from 1997 to 1999.

Given Castellina’s life-long commitment to politics, it is difficult to imagine a beginning before which she was not a political person. Inspired by an innocent question that her grandson put to her, albeit with an accusing glare, asking, “grandma, is it true that you are a Communist?”, Castellina took upon herself to narrate her political awakening by revisiting the journal diaries that she wrote as a teenager between 1943 and 1948.

Discovery of the World, a 2011 finalist in Italy’s most prestigious literary award the Premio Strega, recounts the political awakening of not only Luciana Castellina but of many other Italians who decided to become communists. The style is demystifying and earthly. It views history not retrospectively, from the privileged standpoint of the future, but as it was conceived (and sometimes misconceived) and created (and sometimes destroyed) by those who lived it. Precisely because it is written from a brutally honest subjective point of view, one that delivers the temporal ambiguity of any present moment as the often accidental unfolding of infinite possibilities, it transcends its own time and becomes relevant to anyone who wonders what it takes for someone to become politicized. Within the largely apolitical atmosphere of the United States and Canada, psychological and existential discussions about the political awakening of young minds is vital for the survival of the Left.

The diary begins on the day Mussolini was arrested, when a whole generation born in 1920s and 30s, felt both a sudden rush of joy, as a ray of peace and freedom lit up the horizon, and a bewildering sense of loss, as the shadow of Fascism, which in all its bitterness provided a socio-political and even moral frame of reference, started to withdraw apace. Just as a miner, whose eyes have grown accustomed to the uncharitable darkness of the underground, needs some time to adjust to the lavish brightness of the day upon arrival to the surface, many youngsters in Castellina’s generation felt a jubilant unease about this political opening and sought a new moral compass to help them discover the world. Italy as a whole and Castellina as an individual both entered into an onerous path of adolescence. Many, including Castellina, initially clung to a patriotic notion of a now-unprotected Fatherland that needs to be guarded. This immediately demanded a difficult answer as to who the Fatherland can trust: the English, who bombarded Italy, or the Germans, who occupied it?

Her political formation up to 1943 had followed two rather contradictory yet parallel lines: her ideologically pro-Fascist elementary school and her liberally anti-Fascist, yet patriotic, half-Jewish family. Between 1943 and 1945, her family had to move from one city to another to stay away from the calamitous war, unleashed by external and internal forces. One of the curiously powerful aspects of Castellina’s account of this period is her ability and courage to personalize and report these historical events as she experienced them. For example, even though the rapidly growing anti-Semitism eventually affected her life in important ways, requiring political analysis to disclose larger collective truths, her diary in 1943 reads that racial persecution “was serious above all because it had deprived Aunt Vittorina of the right to have a domestic servant” (20), and that, for her, “the most serious injury of the war” (62) was the bombardment of the Verano cemetery where her grandfather was buried.

Art was central in her journey to discover a world that was larger than her own. Painting had such a deep influence in her political awareness that she claims that she “came to politics through exhibitions of new artists, both foreign and Italian” (78). Cinema, which she was exposed to both under Fascism and after 1943, provided her with a window to realize the complexity of the world. It was at the movies that she first heard the words ‘Soviet Union’ and ‘Communists’.

Once the world entices us to inscribe its elusive horizons, we are its captives forever. We seek knowledge, but the more we know the more inexhaustible the world becomes. Castellina developed a quenchless thirst for knowledge about the world. She attended Communist meanings, read poetry, discussed modern paining, visited galleries, watched movies, and began to leave her teenage self-centeredness behind. This consciousness came at the cost of realizing her own class position as a bourgeois, a label that she struggled to shed. As she says, “that is also why I rushed headlong into politics militancy: to gain forgiveness for myself” (67).

Abstract knowledge was not enough for her. In 1947, she visited the outskirts of Rome, where she saw poverty firsthand, travelled to Paris, where she first came in direct contact with left-wing intellectuals, and went to Prague, where she realized that Communism “is the only possible key … to understand the new map of the world” (145). Castellina’s path to political awakening was nonlinear, non-rational, and often accidental. She repeatedly points out that her choice of joining the PCI was more a matter of chance and coincidences than ideological and conscious decision. It was in Prague that she enrolled to help build the destroyed railway in Yugoslavia. This project opened the path for her to meet students from different countries and discover the world through their narratives. “There”, she wrote, “I acquired nearly the whole of my basic store of knowledge … the world suddenly appeared vast…We would gather around a fire, where everyone would talk about their own country” (169).

That trip changed her forever. Upon her return, the enthusiasm for sharing her discoveries with her friends and family was quenched by the bitter realization that “their world was no longer mine” (177). The world she used to live in was now shattered for her, and she felt an overwhelming estrangement. The final thrust that ejected her from her childhood world came with the defeat of the Popular Front (a coalition between the PCI and PSI) in 1948 election, which caused a deep split between those for whom the PCI was a “threatening spectre” and those who saw working in the PCI as “an investment in the future, a duty that we thought history had entrusted to us” (181).

Discovery of the World was written not as a nostalgic remembrance of things past, but as a path to understanding the failure of the contemporary Left to bring the younger generation under its umbrella. Castellina has accomplished this task not by way of blaming particular policies and decisions of left parties, but by means of a historical narrative of the politicization of an ordinary teenager in an extraordinary time and how the PCI provided the space and the means for her to discover the world and engage in “real politics,” that is, the fight against injustice. If, as Pablo Picasso once said, “art is the lie that enables us to realize truth,” perhaps politics is the potion which makes that truth real.

Reviewed by Babak Amini
York University, Toronto
b.amini86@gmail.com

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