I live in Italy—in Venice, which I have on occasion described as Italy’s Italy—for the deceptively simple reason that it is the only place in the world where I do not feel the urge to play roulette after dinner. I have actually thought long and hard about this opening sentence of mine, trying to decide whether a gambler’s confession would make for a suitable literary gambit when addressing Chronicles‘ readers. And I have come to the conclusion that yes, actually, this is a perfectly reasonable wav of getting at whatever it is I want to say about Italy, and about my reasons for settling here.
In the totalitarian Russia where I spent my childhood, it seemed that chance had been abolished by decree, or, as the famous phrase went, “liquidated as a class.” If you did not pass the university entrance examinations, you were drafted into the army for three years, with consequences for the remainder of your adult life that were as brutal as they were predictable. If you circulated a typewritten letter among your friends, lamenting a social reality or sharing a political dream, you were hauled off to jail. Again, there was no chance about it; it was going to happen as inevitably as one day follows another in the life of Solomon Grundy. Everybody knew the minutiae of chancelessness that attached to university placement, to army conscription, to unemployment, to dissidence, to crime. Everybody knew exactly what was going to happen next at every conceivable juncture.
Hence, at some later point in life, I was doomed to discover within myself the demonic attractions of roulette, that chanciest of all the games of hazard. It is as though the oxygen of the unpredictable that I had been denied throughout my youth became a kind of drug, a kind of over-priced placebo, a kind of hope that there, on the table covered in green baize, some meaningful revenge could be had on a mechanistic, godless universe where obedience and cowardice were automatically rewarded, even as thought and risk were the known and certain losers—revenge on a world that worked like a clock, with Swiss precision.
Switzerland has not produced much literature, and this is hardly a coincidence. If we think back on the famous novels we found so exciting when we first read them in adolescence—Scott, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Manzoni—we may notice that chance, coincidence, confluence of circumstances, and accident are their lifeblood. But if we look deeper, beneath the skin of the genre, we see that another and better name for what makes these novels come to life is relationships—between men, between men and women, men and places, men and God—relationships that, in the real world reflecting itself in the minds of their authors, seem to have a great and natural sweep.
Returning to my childhood in Russia, I now see that this litmus test, too, is working. Because under totalitarianism all relationships, like all chance, are at an end. What sort of intimacy can there be between a man and a woman in Orwell’s world? What kind of loving son is born to them in Kafka’s? What sort of loyal friend do they have in Zamyatin’s? What city can they love and call their own in Huxley’s? Oh, certainly, as a matter of practical convenience there were, in the world of my youth, those called husbands and wives, there were children and family friends, there were even some conurbations called cities, and one or two genuine dreamers in them. But there was no waiter in the cafe whom you saw every morning, there was no cabdriver with whom you exchanged momentary confidences, there was no little seamstress girl to whom you could take your trousers to be hemmed, and then fall in love with and run away to Rio. Challenging as it is for a writer, I do not want to dilate unnecessarily on these random situations, each of them merely one of the countless cells that make up the whole miraculous organism we know as freedom. It ought to be clear by now that life in freedom, as well as the literature that reflects it, is made up of billions upon billions of such trifles, which are actually relationships.
My nearly 30 years of expatriate existence, first in America, then in England, and finally in Italy, have shown me that the world we think of as free—or at least non-totalitarian—is totalitarianizing itself at air ever-increasing pace. The oasis is being blown over by sandstorms, and one feels the harshness of the sirocco even in Venice. The other day, the waiters at the bar I go to every morning had to put on identical hair-covering caps as a matter of European Community law. A week before, the gondoliers got into a nasty fistfight with some Malays selling electric toys outside a traghetto station by the Rialto. And the little seamstress girl from Burano now wants to go and study computer programming, as though the combined populations of Melbourne, Liverpool, and Delhi could not be trusted to provide the major airlines with an adequate number of clerks.
Our world is not standing still; it is moving in the direction of totalitarian sameness. The old political institutions, such as the House of Lords, are falling, while the political institutions that are now emerging, such as the European Commission, are designed both to catalyze the trend and to consolidate it.
For the last thousand years, Europe has lived between two political tendencies, one centrifugal, with fragmentation as a possible result, and the other centripetal, toward likely consolidation. The first was known historically as feudalism; the second, as absolutism. But in our own lifetime, and that of our fathers and grandfathers, the stakes, as a gambler would say, have been upped. Absolutism now means something more radical than it did to the authors of the Magna Charta—it means totalitarianism. Feudalism now means something less drastic than it did to William Morris. It means the life I still find in Italy, although it is vanishing here, too, even in Venice. Whatever in life is worth living for—that is to say, whatever there is in life that bears any relation to the genitive forces that produced European civilization, and our literature in particular—can be described as vestigial feudalism.
Connected to its last vestiges by potential relationships, by actual places and place names, by natural beauty, and by the still living history of every stone, I am cured of the gambling impulse. I can live my life in a city square, and feel the adrenaline of the unknown and the unexpected coursing through my veins as if I were part of a game for the highest stakes imaginable. But a short airplane flight and I’m in London, sitting with friends in a fashionable Japanese restaurant in an equally pricey American hotel, and the evening stretching before me is like one of those dead certainties of my youth, and I can tell in advance whether the blonde in Voyage is, or is not, going to sleep with my Lebanese friend that night, and whether the brunette in Prada is going to get her cocaine in the end.
You may say: Andrei, you mix with the wrong people. Not so, because the whole ethos of a totalitarian—or, in this case, totalitarianizing—society is that everybody is more or less after the same thing. The thing may shroud itself in proclamations of liberty; espouse equal rights, sexual freedom, and Japanese food; redefine itself first as McDonald’s hamburgers, then as ten ounces of bread, and finally as nine grams of lead. What is important here is that its very sameness be, as it were, always the same. Thus, everybody in New York would like to live on Fifth Avenue, and those who don’t are those who can’t afford to. Full stop. Can you imagine how eccentric, how criminally eccentric, a very rich New Yorker would have to be to decide to move to Queens?
Yet, when I first came to London 15 years ago, there was not one single book everybody felt obliged to buy, not one restaurant where everybody wanted to go, not one place everybody wished to have as the return address on their letters in the way Kensington and Chelsea are now. People lived everywhere, rich and poor, fashionable or not. The drunk whom I used to ask to wash the windows of my first house in London had been born in May fair, next door to Winston Churchill. And this is, of course, exactly what you still find in Italy, that social and physical jumble of 1630’s Milan as described by Manzoni, that whole carousel of life all of a sudden knocked down by the plague. The grocer is next to the great palazzo, the gondola repair shop is next to the great church, the poor carpenter is next to Gucci, and the consequence is that relationships flourish still.
I have no space to talk politics here, to persuade my readers that my conviction that totalitarianism is the destiny of Europe and of all mankind is not based merely on my observation of casinos and cafés, but rather on my analysis of the future of Russia and China on the one hand, and on the West’s almost total blindness to that future on the other. The creeping advance of global totalitarianism is the modern equivalent of the great plague described in I Promessi Sposi. What it promises is, above all, the total unraveling of the absurdly rich and indescribably beautiful texture of life created by Christian Europe during the last millennium. It promises the disappearance of the human relationship—as well as of the relationship between people and things, and eventually of the people and of the things themselves—as the blood of life, the substance without which neither thought, nor conscience, nor literature are possible in any meaningful sense. It promises a world populated at best by automatons and at worst by scavengers, by the corpse-removing monatti described by Manzoni, minus, perhaps, the distinctive bells they wore on their feet.
If the hero of I Promessi Sposi had not come across one of those bells in the road by accident, the novel’s denouement might have been very different: Renzo might not have found his beloved Lucia. In 1630, in a world scourged by an old-fashioned plague, there was still room for chance. I fear that 30 years hence, in the year 2050, there may be no room for that at all, not even in the unpredictably crooked streets of my beloved Venice.
I do not want to live in that world. Until the plague turns pandemic, I am determined to seek out the places least affected by the contagion of totalitarianism, which many in the West mistakenly think of as progress. I can afford to do this, with the money I save by not gambling.