Reviews / June 2015 (Issue 28)

Reclaiming the Past: Andrea Berrini's A Far Better Thing I Do

by Emily Chow


Andrea Berrini (Author), Joan Rundo (Translator), A Far Better Thing I Do, Ethos Books, 2013. 238 pgs.


Most of the works published by Andrea Berrini are engaged in the account of historical events. In A Far Better Thing I Do, he embarks on an investigation of the heart-breaking journey of 2000 Italian shipyard workers. In early 1947, the workers, in some cases with their families, travelled from Monfalcone to the city of Fiume in Yugoslavia with a Communist utopian dream—to build a better socialist society by sharing their professional skills with the workers of Fiume. Yet despite their initial hopes, what they ended up enduring was nothing more than suffering.

He notes that this suffering was largely the result of the conflict between the Cominform and the local Communist Party of Yugoslavia:

In 1948, the Cominform, the association of all the Communist Parties in the world which Stalin controlled with an iron fist, had excommunicated Tito and the leaders of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. In Fiume, many of the Monfalcone men, active in the Italian Communist Party, publicly sided in favour of Stalin. The most militant of them were arrested and held for years in Yugoslavian detention camps, facing ordeals that are difficult only to describe.

Some of the workers had to wait many years to go home, while others never had the opportunity. By 1948, however, many had returned to Italy, defeated, devastated and disillusioned. Labelled as traitors, they often had great difficulty earning a living.

Instead of investigating what happened from a macro-historical point of view, Berrini uses letters and first-hand interviews with the workers and their children to provide a detailed account of what the migrants went through. The book begins with anonymous testimony given to the Cominform:

We left our families, convinced that we would be making a technical contribution to building Socialism in that country […] it was with great enthusiasm that we began to work […] It was the 1948 Resolution by the Cominform that put an end to our enthusiasm. […] Even today, thirty years later, I still get the shivers when I think back to those events.

From this simple, chilling start, Berrini goes on to offer the reader more details by contextualising the workers' departure within the Italian political landscape before and after the Second World War. Nevertheless, he soon reveals that the focus of his investigation lies beyond political conflicts and clashes—instead he is interested in what drove the workers to leave their home. For example, in another anonymous letter, one of the workers writes that "[o]ne thing I will say again: it was our independent choice as workers through our political conscience." This letter seems to have caught Berrini's attention and leads him to explore the role that the "conscience of the masses" played in their decision to depart Italy. However, it turns out that most of the workers were hesitant to talk about their motivations for leaving. Berrini recalls the resistance he encounters: "But if you ask: how did you decide to leave? What did you think at that time? What were you expecting to find in Yugoslavia? Nobody says a word, they always change the subject."

To me, Berrini offers his readers a very honest and real answer to the question he raises in his book—the reasons the workers left the country are manifold. Berrini quotes Fioravante, one of his interviewees: "In this part of the world, we do not feel very Italian, so we go to the other side more easily […] In short, Italy came in 1918. For us, Fascism represented a colonial oppression." Disillusionment with the political situation in Italy was certainly one of the reasons for the move to Fiume, but the workers also had more practical motivations for leaving, such as better jobs and more opportunities.

I found the interview with Pinio Petean the most mind-blowing of all. Petean claims, "[w]e hoped for a more solid and more humane future. But the words were always the same, those of Communist rhetoric. A new model of state, of life, of brotherhood. We were convinced about this type of achievement, for us, Italy was absurd." Yet despite admitting to having been seduced by Communist ideals, he also stresses that he should ultimately be the one held responsible for his own choices: "I let myself be indoctrinated. The land of the working class: it's all a utopia." It might have been politics that offered the workers the utopian vision of Communism, but Berrini underlines Petean's bravery and honesty in pointing out that perhaps it was the workers themselves who made their own way to that disappointing dream.

The 2000 workers endured much bitterness and suffering during their time in Yugoslavia and in the subsequent decades, but detailing their miseries is not Berrini's central focus. Nonetheless, I think Berrini captures the brutality the workers underwent in an implicit manner. Instead of writing out the conversations between him and the workers in the form of dialogues, he opts for a more prose-like style, in which he offers direct quotations from the workers while still recording their distrust, struggles and fear of recalling the past in his own words. For example, Berrini describes one of the interviews with Fioravante and his relatives as follows:

They rattle out admissions like suppressive fire: they should never have followed Stalin, who was disavowed after his death. They were wrong to have believed in Communism, which no longer exists today and then they launch into a lecture that lasts 20 minutes. There is no stopping Fioravante and every time I say something, he again stretches out his hands: 'Sorry, let me finish. Because really, if here you do not understand that we were in a certain situation … Fascism had caused thousands of deaths … think of the Nazi massacres, whole villages taken to be shot …' He is standing next to the teacher's desk, an old man with white hair and a child's face, and for him, I am the teacher who will give him a mark.

Berrini writes with a strong sense of immediacy, allowing his readers to feel as if they are actually sitting next to Fioravante and listening to his accounts. This description is not as objective as, say, an official report, but it captures the emotions and the atmosphere of the interviews in a very precise manner.

Considering that Berrini begins with the explicit motivation of uncovering the reasons why the 2000 Italian shipyard workers were willing to leave with their families, the book ends in a rather surprising manner. Berrini at last comes to the realisation that no one manipulated the workers but instead that they chose their own way. By the very end of the book, Berrini, in a self-reflexive moment, asks:

Does the precise historical reconstruction of the events of those years make sense? Where does the need to reconstruct point by point, day after day, conflicts between Communist parties, and leaders, that led to the Counter-exodus, come from? Without any doubt, the individual adventures of all the splendid people I met and I heard about have as their background the conflict between the superpowers, the terrible battles and settling of scores in each of the two opposing sides.

It seems that after talking to and interacting with his interviewees, Berrini realises that retrieving an historical account of what happened is not very significant, and that there is no way to have a solid, precise report of what occurred decades ago. Instead, he is illuminated by his interviewees. It was the people that mattered most: "When these elderly characters speak, they are radiant. It is their past that is more radiant than the future. They are wonderful for their disillusions and wisdom, yet they still want to remember and make their claims." In this sense, Berrini actually succeeds in retrieving a moment from the past, not from a general historical and political point of view, but from a microscopic one—the eyes of each different individual.

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