Oct 1 2013

Story of My People by Edoardo Nesi

Jessica Loudis

web exclusive


Edoardo Nesi never wanted to run a textile factory, but he didn't have much choice in the matter. Nesi thought of himself primarily as a writer, but since the 1920s, his family had operated a weaving mill in the Tuscan city of Prato, and working at the mill was a rite of passage. So after flunking out of law school and rotating through a series of factory-floor positions as "assistant foreman in charge of raw materials, assistant technician in charge of mixing and blending fibers, assistant warehouseman … assistant everything, once all was said and done," Nesi finally became the boss. He balanced spreadsheets, estimated stock values, caught early flights to Munich to meet with buyers, and, eventually, after several years of operating as a businessman (and finishing novels in his spare time), he sold the company. That wasn't really his choice, either.

Story of My People is Nesi's eyewitness account of the decline of a once-robust mercantile sector in the era of globalization. As recently as two decades ago, Prato was the seat of Italy's high-end textile industry, the name a shorthand for designers like Armani, Valentino, Versace. It was home to factories that kept nearly 45,000 people employed and brought in almost four billion dollars a year. But the city's fortunes began to change in the early 2000s, when tens of thousands of Chinese immigrant laborers settled there, and, exploiting weak regulatory policies, began importing fabrics from China and slapping "Made in Italy" labels on their finished products. By 2010, Prato was transformed into a hub for low-end clothes manufacturing, and the industry had begun to spiral into what Nesi calls a "demented race to the bottom in terms of prices." Established companies were declaring bankruptcy left and right, and businessmen, once possessed of what Nesi calls a "feral clairvoyance" for new opportunities, turned into "a herd of pants-wetters, prisoners of an accountant's mindset."

Nesi's book—an extended essay, really—is at once a memoir, a requiem, and a work of social and literary criticism about the toll this shift took on his city and psyche. It's nostalgic, self-aggrandizing, fiercely angry, conflicted, and often beautifully written. For Nesi, Prato's politics are nothing if not personal, and his outrage towards EU policies and their effects on Italy bleed through the book. He remarks that there's "no reason to feel any shame about sending a special trainload of thugs to Brussels, now and again, and turning them out into the streets." He has recurring nightmares about an unemployed factory worker beating up the son of a wealthy Chinese immigrant. He keeps a heavy steel bar under the front seat of his car.

Nesi, who was recently elected to the Italian parliament on a center-right ticket, is aware of how he might come off to more liberal readers. Describing himself as "perhaps the last and youngest of Italy's conservatives," he anticipates being cast as "yet another of the countless spoiled brats," an elite "determined to defy history and defend an anachronistic and protectionistic position toward an age-old system of textile production." And indeed, he is an elite, and that's precisely what he does. Early chapters depict him enjoying the fruits of his and his family's labor: there are mentions of seaside vacations and recollections of heady teenage summers spent at Harvard and Berkeley. At moments like these, Nesi's righteousness can be vexing: while Story of My People mourns the loss of a world that has allowed working-class Italians to enter the ranks of stable wealth, it also reads like the cri de couer of a dying elite, a book that rallies against a new economic equation because it happens to not favor some of those at the top.

Even so, Nesi generally comes across as genuine and sympathetic. Before going into politics, he was best known in Italy as the translator of David Foster Wallace, and the imprint of that voice— prolix, neurotic, openly troubled and swellingly brilliant—is palpable when Nesi channels the rage and hopelessness spreading through Italy. And beneath Nesi's political rants stir personal conflicts: That of the writer who never wanted to run a business, and of the businessman whose future was suddenly derailed. To ameliorate his anger, Nesi takes solace in literature. He meditates on writers from Fitzgerald (whose The Love of the Last Tycoon lends this book its title) to Joan Didion and Richard Ford, who once told Nesi that "the economy will succumb to an act of the imagination."

What such an act might be is still unclear (though movements like Occupy Wall Street are a fittingly poetic start), but one hopes that when it comes, whatever follows will accommodate both the Edoardo Nesis of the world as well as the new generation of workers who are trying to achieve what Nesi's ancestors did in a country thousands of miles away from their own.

Jessica Loudis is on staff at Bookforum.

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