Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 8, 2017

Vogliamo tutto (We Want Everything) by Nanni Balestrini, translated by Matt Holden

When I picked this up from the New Books shelf at the library, I had no idea what I was getting into – it was a simple case of being attracted by its unusual cover and its Italian title. It turned out to be a kind of novelistic call-to-arms for economic reform, and it’s the first book of just two that have been issued by Melbourne micro publisher, Telephone Publishing.  But it’s a book that made quite a splash: there is an enthusiastic review by Chris Deti at Readings and it was Cameron Woodhead’s Pick of the Week at the SMH.  The reason for this turns out to be that Nanni Balestrini is an author of some considerable literary significance, and although the book is decades old (though only just translated into English) it is right now of political significance too.

All those people who think that Booker shortlistee Lincoln in the Bardo is innovative because it consists of a collage of historical sources, well, no, that technique was done before by Balestrini in this novel nearly half a century ago in 1971.  In the foreword, Franco Berardi explains that Balestrini’s genius lies in the way he has dealt with the tensions between content and form within postwar Italian writing. His content depicts not individuals but rather social classes in turmoil, as manifested in this novel in protests on the streets of the city.  What is unique, Berardi says, is that Balestrini combines this content with a form usually kept separate: his language and style keeps time with the rhythm of the industrial city of this period, and he achieves this by creating a collage from interviews with workers, from flyers and bulletins, and from minutes of workers’ meetings.

Balestrini is the first poet who has never written a single word of his own, because for him words are material to recombine.  The poet’s gesture consists in gathering words from the boundless verbal territory, in arranging their function, their rhythm and therefore their emotional power. (p.xiv)

So much for George Saunders being ‘experimental’, eh?  (And I said so in my review at Goodreads when I abandoned Lincoln in the Bardo, back in August, before ever I read Balestrini.  I had, after all, read Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, who also predates Saunders’ use of the technique in her ‘novels’.)

In Vogliamo Tutto, Balestrini’s technique comes in for a little bit of criticism at Goodreads, which is worth responding to, IMO.  Amongst the enthusiasts for its political message (bear with me, I’m coming to that) a reader complains of repetition of the content, and it is certainly true that there is a great deal of repetition especially in the second part of the book, yes, to the point of tedium.  But Berardi says that this repetition arises from the author’s deliberate process:

…the rhythmic emotion that issues from the flux: surges, retreats, eddies, interruptions, jumps.  Balestrini’s work is all concentrated on the rhythm.  Words are nothing more than blocks of elemental material to collect directly from reality. (p.xiv)

So, ok, what’s this book with its significant form about, and why is it so relevant now? Sonya Jeffrey (who, from inference, I take to be one of the principals at Telephone Publishing though there’s nothing in the book to explain who she is) says in the Introduction that

… of all Balestrini’s novels, Vogliamo Tutto resonates most with the post-war history of migration and work in Australia.  The need to complete this project and publish the book became more pressing as contemporary experiences of work in the global economy made it more relevant than ever.  At the same time the protagonists of Vogliamo Tutto migrated north to find work, tens of thousands of southern Italians were migrating to Australia to work…

They came here to Melbourne to work in the same sort of jobs: the jobs that no one else wanted to do, in textile and footwear factories and in car manufacturing.  And they made the same kind of transition from peasant economy to consumer capitalist economy and they experienced the same discrimination and exploitation.  It’s true as Jeffrey says that Australian cities didn’t erupt into industrial mayhem and violence as they did in postwar Italy, but she thinks that the protagonist of Balestrini’s book is rather like the mythical Aussie larrikin, (what we call a ‘stirrer’) who is indifferent to authority, ambition, and job security.  The difference is that

Balestrini’s protagonist is not an individualist: he recognises what he has in common with others and wants to involve them in his rebellion too. (p.x)

He’s actually, according to the author himself in his preface, a collective character, typifying what he calls the mass worker, who in Italy rose up in defiance of the economic system that replaced the skilled workers of the past with unskilled, interchangeable, mobile workers who worked long, boring, meaningless hours in factories like Fiat and were estranged from any work or professional ethic.  The only reason for them to go to work is to get money so that they can participate in the consumer society and buy things, but because their pay is tied to productivity, and the employer is always demanding more of that, their pay and conditions get squeezed so it’s hard to survive.  The Autonomia Movement was a response to this and it led to massive strikes and violence, but it was different to communism in that it was not led by cadres or workers’ councils, but was a grass roots movement.  In fact, in Vogliamo Tutto, the protagonist is actively hostile to the union movement and the Italian Communist Party.

The narrator is an exaggeration: he has an extreme antipathy to work; he is profligate with what money he has; he manipulates the system and threatens violence to bully his bosses; he takes sick leave when he’s not sick and he wangles redundancies so that he can spend the summer on the beach.  When he’s wasted all his money he couch-surfs at his friends’ places and when he’s worn out his welcome  he disappears into another city while abandoning his debts to them.  He’s not meant to be a solid, upright, decent sort of fellow, he’s a symbol of the corruption of an economy that exploits people and gives them no hope of advancement. His amoral behaviour is a logical response to the way he and thousands like him are treated.

The early chapters are the most interesting.  The reader learns how the narrator’s peasant parents had ambitions for their son and sent him to trade school, only for him to find that the only jobs being generated are for the teachers.  We read about Andrea who came back to the village in fine clothes and money to splash about and how the narrator yearns to have jeans, and money for pizzas and dancing, and maybe even a motor scooter.  And we follow his journey to disillusionment and finally to taking action when he realises that his country’s economy is never going to make it possible for him to have a satisfying life.  What is particularly vivid is the narrator’s description of working on the assembly line, day in and day out and always under pressure to do more.  Reading it, knowing that this life being described is a reality for millions of people in developing countries, churning out cheap consumer goods that we mostly don’t need, in awful working conditions.

While I have to admit that I learned more about what the author was on about from the Introduction, the Foreword and the Preface than I gleaned from the novel, Balestrini’s point in this thought-provoking book is that as automation causes a decline in the number of workers who are needed, why shouldn’t everyone benefit from the wealth that is generated and enjoy freedom from work?  He says in the 2013 preface that a lot of work is actually unnecessary and it’s only created so that money can be distributed.  (Writing in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis though he doesn’t mention it specifically), he notes signs of crisis – overproduction, and the collapse of consumption because of unemployment and poverty.  He says that capitalism is trying to save itself with criminal games of financial speculation. 

I don’t know enough about economics to know if the idealism that underlies this book is viable.  What I do know is that our economy has become less and less fair, and that job insecurity and low wages make it especially hard for young people starting out and older people being retrenched from manufacturing.  But I don’t think this is grounds for disillusionment with democracy; it’s grounds for people around the globe getting involved in the democratic process to develop policies that resolve these problems.

Update, later the same day: In a masterpiece of good timing, the ABC has today republished an article from The Conversation, entitled ‘Whatever happened to the 15-hour work week?

Author:  Nanni Balestrini
Title: Vogliamo  tutto (We Want Everything)
Translated from the Italian by Matt Holden
Publisher: Telephone Publishing Melbourne, 2014, first published by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 1971
ISBN: 9780992458706
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Vogliamo Tutto (We Want Everything)

 


Responses

  1. I’m interested that you got.more from the explanatory material than from the novel itself. Like you I am sympathetic to the politics of the novel – they were reflected at the time in the films of Lina Wertmuller which I used to consume avidly – though I am increasingly of the belief that the problem with democracy is the tendency of its practitioners to increasing centralisation.

    • Well, if we’re going to call it a novel at all, it’s a novella really…. it’s what conveys the context of the protagonist’s life and the protests, and above all the emotion, but while it conveys the political/economic idea that C20th factory work is soul-destroying, for me anyway, it’s the introductions etc that clarified what he was on about. And I don’t think I would have recognised what Balestrini was doing from a literary PoV if I hadn’t read about. I mean, how could you know that the words came from somewhere if you weren’t told?
      Re centralisation: you may be right about that or any other problem of democracy – it is a flawed system and always will be – but apathy and disillusionment play right into the hands of people who would like to get rid of it. The solution to any problem of democracy is for people who care to get involved in it.

  2. Hey there,
    That’s a really great review of Vogliamo Tutto – it’s great to see someone read it and really get it. Where did you pick it up?
    Matt

    • Hello Matt, congratulations on this exciting translation!
      I found it at Kingston Library – and checking out which libraries have it is an interesting exercise in itself. Some libraries are more inclusive of translations than others… mine is, but used not to be and in those days I had more luck at Casey-Cardinia in the outer suburbs where I used to work. I used Z-portal a.k.a. Library Link which searches all the libraries in Victoria (https://llv.net.au/) and found 10 hits: it’s at Yarra, Greater Dandenong, Booroondara, Port Phillip, Geelong, Whitehorse, Goldfields and (mine) Kingston. These are all metro libraries except for Geelong and Goldfields. *chuckle* Why does it not surprise me that Brighton doesn’t have a copy?

      • PS Apropos Carmel’s helpful URL for your website… I see there that you teach advanced editing and publishing… are you anything to do with Grattan St Press and The Forger’s Wife, which I’ve just bought, courtesy of UniMelb’s Pursuit (via Facebook)? .

        • I teach in the same program that Grattan Street Press is part of – the master of publishing and communications. But I teach magazine editing and writing, so I wasn’t involved in that book.
          Carmel’s Sonya Jeffrey is not Sonya Jeffery (different spelling). The closest you’ll get to Sonya Jeffery is here:
          http://www.manic.com.au
          We are partners in life as well as publishing.
          Here is some other news about Vogliamo Tutto:
          https://literarytranslators.wordpress.com/2017/08/21/announcing-the-2017-italian-prose-in-translation-award-shortlist/

          • Wow, congratulations on the shortlisting! That’s great news:)
            The reason I fossicked around to find out more about Telephone is that *sigh* I’m quite often approached to review books by authors trying to sidestep my aversion to self-published books. Their book, they tell me, is published by so-and-so publishers – which (after my internet search) turns out to be a name they have given to their own self-publishing enterprise (which rarely includes an editor, hence my aversion).
            So *chuckle* I was wondering if Telephone was a one-off self-published effort by an anarchist group. (In her intro, Sonya refers to we/our without saying who the others are).

  3. This is a fascinating piece of Australian publishing. And yes Sonya Jeffrey is part of Telephone. The only likely Sonya Jeffrey I could find online was http://www.ingan.com.au/file/30 However Matt Holden is easier to find: https://mattlholden.com/home/

    • Well done, Carmel, your search came up better than mine! (Tags, you see? To be found online, you need tags!)


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