Letter From thernArgentariornby Andrei NavrozovrnLocal ColorrnThe promontory of Monte Argentario,rnbillowing on the clothes line of thernTyrrhenian coast of Italy like an Hermesrnshirt held in place by three pins of land,rnis famous for its summer resort towns ofrnPorto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano.rnThe shirt, which has been lost so suddenlyrnby so many here in the recent politicalrnupheavals, is a suitable symbol ofrnall the historic beachheads of luxury inrnthat furious sea of imprisonments, confiscations,rnand fines in whose legal depthsrnthe betridented tax man has been playingrnNeptune. As the Italians do everythingrntogether, including shopping atrnHermes and going to jail, the Argentario’srnrivals for his judicious attentionsrnare not many, and all too easy to rumble.rnBasically, apart from the moneybags encampmentrnon the Emerald Coast of Sardinia,rnthere is only Positano and the restrnof the Capri playground to the south,rnand Portofino, on the Italian Riviera, tornthe north. The Argentario is somewherernin between, halfway between Genoa andrnNaples, and the house I am in is perchedrnon a rocky slope across a small bay fromrnPort Ercole.rnFormally I am in Tuscany, yet thernolive and the vine of Chiantishire seemrnto belong to an altogether different, farrnless exotic universe. A few minutes inlandrnby car begin the forests and marshesrnof the Maremma region, “frontier territoryrnthroughout history,” a local guidebookrnsays. “It was here that the last Etruscanrnstrongholds of the Vulci and Volsini metrnwith the advancing Roman legions. Itrnwas Maremma that marked the confinesrnof the Byzantine and Longobard statesrnand it was here that the border betweenrnthe Papal State and the Grand Duchy ofrnTuscany was drawn. Today, the samernland marks the boundary between Tuscanyrnand Lazio.” What this means, inrntranslation from historical euphemismrninto social topography, is that this is still arnrefuge for enterprising individualists denouncedrnas brigands, contrabandists, pirates,rnand thieves. Half an hour away, inrnthe mountain fortress of Capalbio, visitorsrnwith a romantic craving for roastrnwild boar are greeted by an effig)’ of thernbandit Tiburzi, who ruled the Maremmarnuntil the turn of the century andrnknew how to eat well. There are conflictingrnaccounts of who betrayed himrnand why, but lately I think I’m beginningrnto get the picture.rnOur village is ruled by a man calledrnFranco, whose father opened the onlyrnbar and restaurant here when grand villasrnwere still being built by the Romansrnand the Milanese to accommodate thernoptimism born of Italy’s burgeoningrnblack economy. He is a handsome man,rnwith eyes just blue enough to pick up therncolors of the sea from the restaurant’s terrace,rnwho may be observed sliding a pizzarninto the oven one minute and talkingrninto one of the three mobile telephonesrnon his corner table the next. Just whenrnhe arrives for work is a bit of a myster)’,rnbecause obviously I’m still asleep, but hernnever leaves the restaurant before 2:30rnin the morning, when we drink our lastrnAverna together. Here I must announcernthat in the course of the last two years,rnsince I first met him, I have come to therninescapable conclusion that he is the onlyrnman in Italy endowed with what a Russian,rnan Englishman, and an Americanrncould all agree is a sense of humor.rnHence he is the only Italian I always takernseriously, even when he isn’t joking.rnMine is not, I hasten to add, an hystericalrncase of hero worship, a kind of PatriciarnHearst fascination for her own captorsrnor a Soviet housewife’s belief thatrnMolotov is sexually irresistible. Yet therntiuth is that all the summer rentals in thernvillage are handled by Franco on commission,rnand the quer}’ most often overheardrnat the beach, second only to “Cosarnmangiate?” or “Dove andate stasera?”rn(we get very few foreigners here), isrnthe vital question of why the wife ofrnthis pharmaceutical company presidentrnfrom Bologna or the mistress of thatrnchewing-gum magnate from Turinrnhad been reckless enough to make herrnown arrangements, instead of “rentingrnthrough Franco,” only to be reduced to arnquivering bundle of nerves even beforernthe season started. This evidence of power,rnnaked enough to make captains of industryrnand their spouses tremble, has twornnotable consequences.rnOne of these is best observed in thernMediterranean sun of the early afternoon.rnIt is difficult to get local colorrnright, of course. That burning whiternhole in the cool blue enamel, inappropriately,rnalways reminds me of a Russianrnpoet who wrote that he was lonely “as thernlast good eye / of the man who has gonernto live among the blind.”rnAnyway, come early afternoon. Francornsits under the canopied entrance ofrnthe bar surrounded by past, present, andrnfuture clients, dispensing advice and succorrnin the manner of some medicinernman or scribe in the shade of a baobabrntree, or a mango grove, or . . . well, yournknow what I mean. Think the East,rnthink the nexus of India and Africa, thinkrnSomerset Maugham, think Asprey ofrnLondon. Yes, it is notoriously difficult tornget local color right. I note, for instance,rnin a copy of the New York Times Magazinernthat has floated by me on the beachrnlike a letter in a bottle, that the recipe forrnBalinese Tuna Salad calls for one and arnhalf teaspoons of kosher salt. Now, thatrncannot be right. What I am trying to say,rnI suppose, is that all the prattle of thernbaobab and the mango is here to suggestrnthat there are some fundamental ways inrnwhich Italy is closer to Borneo than tornManhattan.rnA pomegranate grove, perhaps? Suchrntrees do grow here, so that is right, butrnthe real point is that those who did notrn”rent through Franco” shall never enterrnthe pomegranate grove. At least until it isrndinner time, while the sun is still highrnoverhead and they are still in their sporty’rnshorts and natty slippers, Italian men arernhypochondriac, melancholic, and easyrnprey for some of the pettiest householdrnparanoias. If their sewer is backing up,rnthey immediately blame their wives forrnnot having “rented through Franco.”rnTheir wives are not far behind when itrncomes to being suggestible, and if the cisternrnsuddenly has no water one can bernsure that the husband will be excoriated,rnby both the wife and the mother-in-lawrnon the premises, for his characteristic obstinacyrnin supposing that he knew bestrnwhen he dealt with the owner directly insteadrnof “renting through Franco.” Andrnso it happens that those who believedrnthey did good, those arrogant men ofrnworldly influence in distant Milan orrnBologna, those bejeweled women withrnperfect blond highlights in perfect blondrnhair, are now outcasts, pariahs withoutrnprotection from the vagaries of naturernand fate, social flotsam without access tornFranco, condemned to the outer reachesrnof the bar while the meek inherit andrnhave their refrigerators promptly fixed.rnThe revolutionary, retributive, or atrn40/CHRONICLESrnrnrn