It’s a small world, as the boat’s captain explained to me between puffs on one of the Antico Toscanos that my friends had been thoughtful enough to bring aboard, seeing I’m too poor to buy cigars, even the cheap Tuscan kind. The African continental shelf, said the captain, is in continual movement toward Europe, and consequent tension is responsible for the seismic uncertainty that is our lot in Palermo. The epicenter of tectonic instability was right here in the “Aeolian Arc,” extending for 100 square miles of the Tyrrhenian Sea and dotted by the Aeolian Islands, though the general area of instability is much larger, encompassing all of Sicily, Calabria and Campania on Italy’s mainland, together with parts of Greece and the Aegean Islands.
We anchored for a quick swim in the dazzlingly cold May sea within view of the Carasco Hotel on Lipari, the largest of the eight islands of which the Aeolian archipelago is composed. The hotel, one of the first on these islands, was built by the parents of a London acquaintance of mine, Luca Del Bono, an erstwhile professional gentleman who is now a force for the good, building as he is a new club in St. James’s with a roof terrace for recalcitrant smokers. As one who resigned from a venerable St. James’s club with an open letter in The Spectator that ridiculed the board’s bureaucratic unwillingness to acknowledge tobacco as essential nourishment of the soul, I appreciate such high-mindedness. Not coincidentally, Luca is also the man behind London’s first Russian restaurant, where a smoking room likewise awaits key-holding members. A Russian-speaking Canadian friend of mine—there are some cultured Canadians out there, not just David Frum—is helping him find his bearings in an open sea of Slavic caprices. Yes, it’s a small world, gentlemen, once you’ve got an Antico Toscano between your teeth.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I have no doubt that every islander on Lipari hates Marco and Hermione Del Bono. Myriam Beltrami, sole proprietor of the Raya Hotel on Panarea since the passing of her partner, the painter and architect Paolo Tilche, is thus hated, and not a day passes without some local villain going to the magistrates, the building authorities, or the tax people to bring some imaginary grievance against her. The Raya, a breathtakingly beautiful cascade of bungalows drenched in bougainvillea descending to the sapphire sea, is where we were staying, so I’ve had ample opportunity to observe the insidious process at work.
Myriam and Paolo came to Panarea in the misty-eyed 1960’s and fell in love with the island, a lava stone’s throw from the smoking volcano on Stromboli and the snoozing one on Vulcano. They built their hotel from scratch, oblivious to the stark truth that they were single-handedly creating a tourist industry in the Aeolian Islands to rival that of all Sicily. What does the foreigner know of Sicily—today as 50 years ago—apart from a “holiday destination” called Taormina? Nothing. Yet today, 50 years after the launch of Raya and thanks to the lifelong love of two foreigners, Panarea is no less a yachting man’s heaven than Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda. Which makes Myriam Beltrami the unacknowledged Aga Khan of the Aeolian.
The Doctor Zhivago meets Cherry Orchard dimension of the tragedy is revealed when one contrasts the history of benign civic improvement in the Russian Empire from Alexander II onward with the brutal ingratitude of the populace, and of the intelligentsia in particular. Two of Russia’s three last czars died a violent death at the hands of the people they tried to lead to a civilized life under a constitutional monarchy. Myriam and Paolo did not build a Holiday Inn, nor did they introduce motorcars and fast-food restaurants to the island; they brought fresh water, a sympathetic architecture, and well-heeled or, rather, well-keeled visitors. They did not exploit labor, they created jobs—some 30 gardeners now tend that bougainvillea—and, quite literally, an island of absolute peace in a perennially crisis-ravaged Europe. Their enduring reward is universal hatred and a new safety, fire, or tax inspector on the doorstep on the first day of every month.
It occurred to me on that trip to the Aeolian Islands that Marx did not invent communism; he simply gave voice to the politics of envy dormant in every man’s bosom. The two volcanoes I saw from the deck at sunset and at sunrise, Vulcano and Stromboli, have come to represent for me the dual hypostasis of the soul, of the Russian soul in particular. Vulcano, the dormant one, is the underhand resentment that has now given us the United States of Europe, with its inspectors, busybodies, and denunciations. One day, when Europe collides with Africa, the volcano will awaken, blowing our civilization to kingdom come and burying beneath its ash all the good that has been done here since Rome planted the first vine in Gaul.
And Stromboli? Well, Stromboli’s just smoking. How like a man who wears his sins on his sleeve! All one wants is to pat him on the back and offer him an Antico Toscano.