Live from Italy
In this month’s “International Corner”, author Timothy Williams takes us to Italy to paint a picture of the political/economic climate in the 1970s. A young man working at an Italian university, Williams faced much fiscal and personal hardship when he chose to speak out against what he felt were unethical, illegal business practices. Here, he tells us how he surmounted those hardships with the help of Piero Trotti—the man who served as the inspiration for the protagonist of Williams’s six novels.
Finding the Hero Through Hardship: Reflections from an Italian Streetside
By Timothy Williams
Walking up Strada Nuova I noticed a naked black woman. Her photograph had pride of place in one of the boutiques where she was sitting, with her back to the passers by and with her face hidden.
I would have recognized the shape of the back and plaited hair anywhere.
It was 1977 and we were poor. My wife had never told me she had posed for the photograph but I knew she was grateful for any money she could bring in. When we were in the south of Italy, she had done some modeling. In the seventies, black mannequins were a novelty and she had even gotten as far as Palazzo Pitti presenting clothes for Max Mara. She had never enjoyed the job. The other girls were catty, she said, and you’re old at twenty-seven. She was twenty-seven.
I taught at the university. The pay was paltry and we survived only because we ate cheaply in the college restaurant. No frills: a cappuccino was a luxury and a doughnut was out of the question. Fortunately my wife didn’t drink coffee and didn’t like doughnuts.
We were poor and then the Italian government, in a hiccup of fiscal rigor, decided to make us even poorer, by imposing income tax.
We’d been married for four years and we got on well. My wife was fun and I could make her smile. Being beautiful, she attracted many glances and once a prelate outside the college where I worked had seen her pedaling an old bicycle while I perched contentedly on the cross bar. Perhaps he thought that I had acquired a lady chauffeur from Africa to ferry me about his flat Lombard city.
We did not want to leave Italy, but with the threat of taxation, financial ruin loomed. We liked this northern city in the summer with its mosquitoes, frogs and rice, and in winter with its fogs and snow. We liked the cobbled streets, Habsburg architecture and dour, hardworking folk. My job gave me free time and my wife made friends—Rosanna who ran a little shop, Pisanelli and Spadano who were students at the university. Despite her origins, my wife had a background Italians could identify with; she had been brought up Catholic in a devout and provincial backwater.
Two people couldn’t live on the 145,000 lire the faculty gave me each month, but there were rumblings in the university and I soon learned that other foreigners like me were unhappy about the new taxation. People who were teaching French or Spanish or German found themselves facing penury. They said the university was employing us illegally.
We worked as teachers, they told me, but we were being paid as researchers. Either we were teachers or we researched; we could not do both. No research was ever asked of us so, clearly, we were teachers in everything but name. Imposing tax on us when we were so poorly paid was unjust and, more to the point, illegal.
These were the years of lead. The Partisan War, now over for more than thirty years, was still being re-enacted on the streets of Italy. Young men and women were killing and maiming civilians in the battle between communism and fascism. My immediate employer, the university, was decidedly to the left—a nest of communists, Maoists, Trotskyists, Lotta Continua, etc. Everybody from the Magnificent Rector down to the last bidello or college porter knew our situation was untenable, but the humanist convictions and generosity of our bosses did not stretch as far as to actually doing anything to help us, their exploited collaborators and subordinates.
I was young and naïve: I had yet to learn the ancient Italian law of not raising your head above the parapet. Furious that I was being exploited by a communist university, I withdrew my labour. I ceased to take class or exam, telling myself that my colleagues would follow suit and join me in my strike action. No one did. I merely alienated my colleagues who, with families to feed, could not afford to rise above the parapet. No matter how badly paid, they needed the job that brought prestige and a modicum of security. Not theirs, then, to rock the boat.
My one man’s strike served no purpose other than to put me on the front page of the city’s newspaper: Bizarre protest at the university. Insufficient pay. On strike alone. Thirty years old, English, without health insurance.
Knowing the university was going to sack me, I started writing letters to America, seeking employment in a distant land of milk, honey, decent pay, and sensible labour laws.
Somebody suggested I should also see the Inspectorate of Labour, an organization set up by Mussolini, to protect the interests of the worker in the corporatist state. They might be able to help me, I was told. My wife had said she would be happy in America, but she was putting on a brave front. She did not want to say goodbye to Rosanna, Pisanelli, Spadano, and all the others.
I found the Inspectorate Building in a nondescript back street of the foggy city, and I was sent to the fourth floor where a thin man with bright eyes, a long nose and dark hair, shook my hand and invited me to sit down. He appeared amused that an Englishman should come to his office.
That is how I met Piero Trotti.
Not the policeman Piero Trotti who was to become the protagonist of my six novels, but the real Piero Trotti: the good Italian on whom I based my honest policeman.
The real Piero Trotti worked as a labor inspector and he took me under his wing. We became friends and, in time, through his doggedness, understanding of labor law and cunning, Piero Trotti forced the university to recognize the folly of its ways. Abbiamo fatto giurisprudenza, Piero Trotti wrote me more than a year later. The law has changed. We have won.
Our victory came too late; by the time Italian law was changed to accommodate foreign collaborators in universities, my wife and I had said goodbye to Rosanna, Pisanelli and Spadano. We had left the foggy city.
The University of New York at Stony Brook came up trumps and offered me decent pay and sensible labour laws on the other side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the offer got lost in the Italian postal system and my wife and I were already back and working in Manchester when the letter inviting me to America fell onto a damp doormat.
Nearly forty years on, thanks to Piero Trotti, I now receive a pension from the Italian government. It’s not a lot of money, but it pays for the daily cappuccino and an Italian doughnut.
When my wife and I returned to her Caribbean island, I started work on my first book, a novel set in the city on the Lombard plain. Instinctively, I knew my policeman had to be Piero Trotti. In a byzantine world, where conspiracy and chaos vie, I needed a protagonist of integrity, a man whom readers would identify with and through whose eyes they could get a better understanding of the frustrations and, yes, joys of living in Italy during the years of lead.
Converging Parallels was immediately accepted by a London publisher. At about the same time that the book was published in England, my wife left me.
I sometimes wonder whether she ever kept the photo from the boutique in Strada Nuova.
Of course, there is always a black girl in all my books.
In 2011, The Guardian of London selected Timothy Williams as one of the ten best modern European Crime Writers. His first novel Converging Parallels, featuring the policeman Commissario Trotti, was published in 1982 and was followed by four more procedurals set in Northern Italy. Soho Press republished the entire series in 2014/15. The Second Day of the Renaissance, the last novel in the Trotti cycle, will be published in 2016. Soho has also published two Caribbean books, featuring the investigative judge, Anne Marie Laveaud. Now retired from teaching in Guadeloupe, Timothy Williams spends his time in France, Italy, and Kenya, and was in Nairobi during the Westgate massacre of 2013. To find out more about Timothy Williams, visit http://timothywilliamsbooks.com.