October 1, 2008 / 10:15 AM / 10 years ago

Italy's Veltroni on fiction, politics and Obama

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Italian opposition leader Walter Veltroni says it seems like a contradiction in terms for a politician to write a novel, but he did so anyway and it made him a better politician.

Italian opposition leader Walter Veltroni is seen here in this undated handout picture released to Reuters October 1, 2008. REUTERS/Handout

Veltroni, 53, who lost a general election to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in April, visited New York to mark the publication of an English translation of his novel “The Discovery of Dawn.”

Veltroni, a former editor of left-wing daily L’Unita, started his political career in the now defunct Italian Communist Party. He now heads the Democratic Party, Italy’s main opposition party.

The former mayor of Rome and author of a string of non-fiction books, Veltroni wrote the preface for the Italian edition of Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope.”

He spoke to Reuters about literature and politics.

Q: Why did you write a novel?

A: “The book was written during a summer in which I had stayed in Rome, when I was the mayor of Rome, because it was the summer after the attacks on the subway in London. My family had gone on vacation so I was in Rome alone in August.

“I wrote it starting from this idea at the center of the book which is the idea of this phone call from the protagonist to himself as a child, which is a form of magical realism, a twilight zone thing.

“Inventing stories, inventing people, is a fascinating experience. To be able to draw the lives of these characters, to make them pleasant or unpleasant, to make them different from what they seemed at a certain point in the book, is fascinating. It’s something similar to creation.”

Q: What is the book about?

A: “This is a book about the relationship with absence, the absence in this case of a father, a father who has disappeared, we don’t know how, a father who is not dead but disappeared, which is perhaps even worse.

“One of the things I like most is the job of the protagonist. He is a curator at the State Archive of these little books — I don’t know if they have this custom in the United States too — of these people who reach a certain point in life and write their story and have it published by a private publisher.

“These are very beautiful books, there’s a collective memory that is made up of these stories. His job is to salvage memories that are at risk of disappearing.

“Then it’s a book against terrorism, a book that declares its hatred for terrorism, which is the most cowardly form of war that could exist.”

Q: From journalist, to mayor, to politician to novelist — why such a varied career?

A: “It’s the life of a curious man. Apart from my political engagement, I’ve always liked to put colors in my life. The colors were above all music, cinema, art, literature, etc.

“I came to write a novel gradually. First I wrote a book of stories, before that a biography of an Italian musician who committed suicide very young, before that a diary of a trip to Africa. So I came gradually to the point of writing a novel.

“The thing that struck me is the success it’s had in Italy because a novel by a politician seems like a contradiction in terms. But in fact the book was top of the best seller list for a long time and we’ve printed 220,000 copies. Probably they will make a film.

“So it’s another dimension, but I think it also allows me to do politics better because one has a relationship with politics that is less morbid. Instead of politics being one’s whole life, it’s just an important part.”

Q: How well do you know Obama?

A: “I read Obama’s book, I liked it. His story is a beautiful one. It was published in Italy two years ago when Obama was not yet the future candidate for the president of the United States.

“We met a few years ago. I had a great impression. He’s a person of great charm and great human warmth and very competent. I heard him at the convention in 2004 and his speech made a big impression on me. Then I met him and we published his book.

“I’m convinced that if he wins the election America would recover that role of moral leadership in the world that the world needs so much.”

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