Once the sick man of Europe, Italy's woes have been overlooked of late by all but the nation's liberal literati
As shorthand for rampant political scandal, the phrase "bunga bunga" has achieved all the resonance of "Profumo". London even has a nightclub in awestruck tribute to the peculiar excesses of former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's career. Fast-forward to summer 2012, and Italy's economy is in such a mess it can't even get into the recession the rest of Europe is trying to exit; Flavio Briatore has wisely announced plans to sell his infamous Billionaire nightclub; and Berlusconi has let it be known that he feels the time is right for a comeback.
In The Dark Heart Of Italy, 2003's travel classic, which was revised to take in the full tragicomedy of Il Cavaliere, ex-pat writer Tobias Jones explains that spregiudicatezza - a word often used of Berlusconi, meaning "openmindedness" yet also "unscrupulousness" - "implies both something admirable and something much less so: both someone who ploughs their own furrow, who bravely goes their own way; but also someone who recognises no moral boundaries".
The confusion of the two qualities brings to mind many Italian (or would-be Italian) antiheroes, from poet Robert Browning's cast of flamboyant murderers, forgers and philanderers, to Henry James' fortune hunter Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait Of A Lady, to another American abroad, Patricia Highsmith's talented Mr Ripley, who feels most at home in someone else's stolen palazzo, and who takes open-mindedness as far as assuming another man's identity.
To this cast we can add the perfectly named antihero of Italian film-maker Paolo Sorrentino's first novel, Everybody's Right, Tony Pagoda: the sack artist, talentless Neapolitan crooner and piazza philosopher who - without revealing too much of the plot - possesses spregiudicatezza in spades.
"The most I ever received by way of homage," Pagoda recalls of his glory days, "was four sex-mad slappers coming to the dressing room to f*** me. But only because at the time f***ing me was fashionable."
Forget Nick "no more than 30" Clegg or that Warren Beatty of the North, William "1,000" Roache - Sorrentino's ageing hipster puts the figure at a cool 7,000, bedding students, writers, accountants and "red armies of hotel chambermaids" anywhere, anyhow, like "a plane dropping cluster bombs", casual as an "usherette tearing tickets at the cinema".
Though fame and power often feature in Sorrentino's films (2008's Il Divo gave a Quentin Tarantino-esque account of the seven terms in office of corrupt prime minister Giulio Andreotti) politics is only ever at the edge of his novel. In its place is Pagoda, his visceral first-person account of himself and his fantastically unreliable narration brilliantly capturing the brand of modern-day Italy that Berlusconi exported.
The cheap fame of the kind promised to Berlusconi's young friends - the aspiring newscasters, dancing girls and weather girls - is the currency of Everybody's Right. Pagoda looks at his fat ageing band members, clutching at 19-year-olds, "like hot chestnuts that don't burn".
While the rest of us fall about at Berlusconi's exploits as a kind of glorious Italian reality show (where else would the PM take a leave of absence for a face-lift?), liberal Italians have long soul-searched about the all-too-real electoral appeal of the man. How did this man stay in power for so long? After Ruby "the heart stealer" and friends, how can there possibly be talk of his return to politics? In Everybody's Right, they may have found some of the answers.
Lack of talent doesn't worry Sorrentino's hero. In fact, he maintains, it's really the point: "Only those that nobody wants to listen to have careers. It's more convenient. That way the people, the public, who haven't achieved much in their lives, can feel better about their own failure by seeing themselves reflected in the fellow up there on stage, just a few metres higher than them."
But before you laugh too hard at Sorrentino's sly take on his homeland, make no mistake that it's a novel of bleak gallows humour. The other voice dominating the bestseller charts in Italy is that of Roberto Saviano, the La Repubblica journalist persecuted after the publication of his book on the Mafia, Gomorrah (the film won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2008 and, in Toni Servillo, shares a leading man with Sorrentino's Il Divo). Saviano has been in hiding since 2006 and, although it's hard to imagine of Italy, his story is comparable with that of Salman Rushdie.
"In my country, where censorship does not exist, oversight and indifference take its place: background noise muffles the potential power of the media," Saviano writes in his superb collection of essays, Beauty And The Inferno.
"I often ask myself: how did I become obsessed with blood and violence?" he writes. "Talking about the contradictions is a form of resistance. It's a way of paying respect to the healthy part of my country. It is an act of hope and it offers people a chance to make things better. The story is never the teller's responsibility. I did not create the contradictions I write about." Consolation, perhaps, for readers wondering why it's so hard to resist a great book about the dark side of your summer "paradiso".
- Olivia Cole, GQ