Literary radicals, revolutionary acts

The Unseen
Nanni Balestrini (translated by Liz Heron)
The Years of Lead (Anni di piombo) is the title given to a period of political upheaval and explosive urban unrest in recent Italian history. Charged with the spirit of earlier autonomist and workerist actions, and energised by the global upsurge in rebellion and subversion in the late 1960s, a myriad of far-left factions, supporters and other radicals took to the streets of major Italian cities during the 70s. Some took up arms against the capitalist state and its neo-fascist accomplices in a series of violent, at times deadly, confrontations, provoked, in many instances, by excessive state repression. It is thought that about 2000 lives were lost during these events, with the most recent incident of related violence being the 2003 assassination of a policeman in Tuscany, attributed to the remnants of the infamous Red Brigades.

With much of the most recent acts of political violence in Western societies committed by the Far Right–Islamists, Christianists, ultra-nationalists, etc, it is quite difficult to imagine a time when it was the vision of a classless society or the utopia of the dictatorship of the proletariat that inspired groups and individuals to risk their lives and, in some cases, take the lives of their opponents. And while, since the 2008 global financial meltdown, the world has witnessed large-scale anti-capitalist protests and movements, a renewed interest in the writings of Marx and conferences dedicated to the ‘Idea of Communism’, it seems – at least for the time being – quite unlikely that the zeitgeist would accommodate a popular insurrection in the West in the name of equality and socio-economic justice.

Yet, reading the new and updated English edition of Italian poet Nanni Balestrini’s extraordinary 1987 account of the Years of Lead, The Unseen (Gli Invisibili), one can’t help but recognise the urgency and immediacy of the situations brought to life in the book’s intense, compact prose-poetic passages. Oscillating between accounts of imprisonment and prison riots, occupations, camaraderie among the militants and clashes with the police – or what the scholar Clodina Gubbiotti has described in her article on the book as ‘the non-linear succession of fractured events’ – Balestrini’s voice is direct, resolute and immensely compelling. Here is one of the paragraphs that constitute this book, in its entirety:

the carabinieri are standing to one side watching the police have formed tight ranks and advance on us and come so close they’re nearly touching us we stare at one another insultingly and start pushing body to body for the moment we don’t push with our hands we just press with our bodies against theirs at the front our formation we hold the poles of the banners horizontally and we push with the poles to stop the police from getting nearer then the police catch hold of the banners too and they push against us there’s pushing from both directions and the horizontal line of the banners is what divides our bodies from theirs it looks like a game of tug-of-war the wrong way round and there’s even some fun being had with this game that goes on for a while

Balestrini himself was politically active during the period described in The Unseen, to the extent that he was accused of belonging to a far-left armed organisation in the late 1970s. (He was later acquitted of the charges.) He was also one of the key members of the avant-gardist movement neoavanguardia, a group of writers devoted to revolutionising Italian literature. As the above passage demonstrates, Balestrini’s aesthetics is influenced by modernist iconoclasm – of, for example, the Futurists’ synthetic lyricism – and has little regard for conventional syntax, punctuation and rhetorical devices. The book as a whole traverses the boundaries between memoir, fiction and poetry with bravado and zestfulness.

The main question, however, is whether Balestrini’s literary inventiveness goes beyond faddish experimentalisms that, far from unsettling the cultural logic of capitalism, augment hegemony with playfulness and cosmetic renovation. And I am delighted to agree with the philosopher Antonio Negri’s view, as stated in this English translation’s foreword, that The Unseen manifests ‘the language of the multitude’. Although much of the text in the book is protagonist-driven, Balestrini’s speaker is neither a heroic (bourgeois) individual nor a self-consciously detached (late bourgeois/postmodern) non-subject. The fragments, incidents and discourses articulated in this book are written in the voice of a committed, first-person subject who, at every opportunity, merges with a universal, fraternal community of radicals so that the speaking I becomes one among many voices of a united we.

Consider, for example, the book’s final passage, in which the imprisoned speaker and other political prisoners take part in an act of luminous, symbolic collectively:

we made holes in all the wire mesh grilles and then we made the torches the torches were made with bits of sheets tied tightly together and then soaked in oil and for this too we agreed a time in the middle of the night we all lit the oil of the torches and we pushed these brands through the holes in the grilles but there was no one there to see this either the torches burned for a long time it must have been a beautiful sight from outside all those torches flickering against the black wall of the prison in the middle of that boundless plain

Balestrini’s The Unseen is itself a radiant torch flickering against the black wall of so much banality and mediocrity in contemporary literature. Here is hoping that more of this exceptional contemporary writer’s works will be translated into English.

Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh's latest books are Towards the End and Marx and Art. He's a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.

More by Ali Alizadeh ›

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