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Inferno bound

The timelessness of great art is not just a matter of it still being around every time you happen to look. It’s also that the work, whatever it is, and no matter how venerable, strikes you suddenly with a pointed and surprising contemporary import.

Take Dante, for instance: ‘Midway along the journey of our life/I woke to find myself in a dark wood/for I had wandered off from the straight path’. Rich with metaphoric reverberations certainly, but in its third line this famous opening of Canto I of The Inferno uncannily prefigures the modern Italian motorist. He drives as if he has just woken up, he spears towards any daylight between cars as if he’s emerging gratefully from a dark wood, and exhibits an exultant penchant for wandering from the straight path. But wait, I am ahead of myself …

It is a shining May morning in the small southern Italian fishing village of Santa Maria di Castellabate—a region more or less despised by sophisticated Bolognese, Milanese and Venetians, and probably unimaginable to the exiled Florentine, Dante. Such northern loftiness, however, neither impresses nor concerns me. From where I am sitting, which is in the sun outside a bar by the beach, life in Santa Maria looks hard to beat, rough hewn though it may be here and there.

I’ve been in the village long enough to know the bar staff, Maria, Teresa and Costabile; and Angelina at the Paneteria, who advises me on the day’s bread; the swarthy, unshaven blokes who, from the back of their trucks, sell their sturdy vegetables, dug that morning, the earth still clinging to the roots; Guido at the Pesceria who likes to talk about Australian fish; and Massimo, sitting in the sun on the steps of his Salone, where I have my hair cut—una spuntatina, non troppo corto—an instruction which never ceases to amuse him: ‘Just a treem,’ he tries in English, ‘non too shorta.’

This morning every one is out talking and bustling and calling across the narrow, pedestrians-only street, because spring—la primavera—has settled in.

Springtime—which in Australian lore ‘brings on the shearing’, and in England was once the ‘only pretty ring time’ and induced outbreaks of ‘hey nonny no’ and other medieval ejaculations—still loosens inhibitions and changes stodgy routines. People don’t go on pilgrimages any more, but the gusts of new perfumes, the sudden warmth of the air, the seductive budding and leafing, the wanton and suggestive profusions induce Londoners, for example, to take their pints and stand in groups on the footpaths outside the pubs. In Paris, these vernal vibrations bring beautiful young couples on to the streets like colourful teams bursting on to green ovals. And in Italy, drivers wind down the windows of their cars and hang the left arm out to feel the rushing air.

Trailing along behind and already insecure about being on the wrong side, the cautious foreign tourist takes this quixotic salute to mean that a left turn may be imminent, but not inevitable. Well, the driver may be going to turn. Or he may be rejoicing in the warm air. Or he may be about to add a cigarette butt to the dance of spring. But let’s not complicate things.

Depending on your mood, general state of health and temperamental equilibrium, driving in Italy is a grand adventure no matter what the season, a nerve-wracking test of courage, wits and imagination. Which brings me back to Dante.

Italian drivers do not ‘wander from the straight path’ because they are suicidal, although it can sometimes look that way. On the contrary, they are often joyous, full of life. A zest, a sense of enormous possibility seems to engulf the Italian male when he settles behind the wheel. Even the mundane and often infuriating business of parking is carried out with an inventiveness and elan worthier of higher tasks, which is why so many cars appear to have been abandoned not parked, not angled into a gap, but flung there.

Observing at the head of a crocodiling convoy of cars three semi-trailers, two international tour buses and a swaying truckload of hay, your red-blooded Italian does not sigh, swear or resign himself in the Anglo-Saxon manner. He sees a challenge and begins a long series of experimental swoops over to the opposite side of the road looking for a break, tucking himself back into line if a head-on collision looms. Much of this will be done one-handed (the left arm is cleaving the breeze, remember) and in the midst of animated conversation intermittently requiring gestures with the other hand. As Dante puts it in the last stanza of Canto VI, lines 112-113, ‘We circled round that curving road while talking/of more than I shall mention at this time …’

And so, when spring came to Santa Maria di Castellabate, and the fishing boats threaded their wakes into the blue waters and the nets were run out and the Saturday market started up again and the young men took to their cars and Vespas on the narrow sun-drenched roads, ‘a demon taking possession of the body/controlling its manoeuvres’ (Canto XXXIII, lines 130-131), I left my car in its garage, lay on the beach and read Dante, enjoying, even that far south of his beloved Florence, ‘the lovely things the heavens hold’ (Canto XXXIV, line 138). 

Brian Matthews is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Victoria University.



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