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Monday, October 9, 2017

A powerful anti-globalization polemic: Edoardo Nesi's "Story of My People"

Prato; the wool factory was just outside of Prato in Narnali
Edoardo Nesi stares at likely illegal Chinese immigrants eating, sleeping and, yes, running machines in the same building where he and his ancestors made "the most beautiful fabrics on earth," but which is now a "filthy industrial shed."  He knows they are "an astonishingly young army of extortion victims who often fail to recognize the depth of the inadequacy of their working condition."

Edoardo Nesi, who has translated David Foster Wallace
and is the author of  a dozen books, now also a politician.
Although only a decade or two has passed, what's in his sight, as he accompanies a raid on this illegal operation, seems light-years away from his life as a young businessman in the late '80s to mid-90s. He relates a life then that "really could be exciting," flying from Florence to Munich, driving a BMW at 170 mph to meet with clients, and back in Florence in the evening, where he would "watch the dizzying back-and-forth of the workers on the loading docks...or have fabric assortment meetings and we were all focused on trying to select the best items for the coming season."

Nesi's description of his beloved Prato, the town outside of Florence that was the heart of the textile industry in Italy, as it goes from the glories of small artisan shops to abandoned land, at best - or worst - inhabited by the Chinese he sees, is perhaps the best argument I've read against globalization.

The author of "Story of My People" belongs to the tradition of Herman Melville--or in Italy Italo Svevo and Primo Levi--that subset of writer/businessperson.  The lyricism Nesi brings to the effects of globalization that he experienced first-hand almost makes the reader weep, weep over fabrics and their makers.

A third generation businessman, Nesi oversaw the sale of his family's business, sold before it went bankrupt.  "I can't manage to get out of my head that '& Figli'--'& Sons' [part of the name of his company]--that seals the end of the woolen mill, that announcement of continuity...I can't say whether I was a sly fox or a miserable coward, whether I did the right thing or betrayed my birthright....Then, of course, I get over it.  I go home and get over it."

Nesi, whose tale of growing up is of a rich, spoiled kid, merges business and philosophy and provides a good take-down of the myth that globalization would bring prosperity to Italy as the Chinese would buy Italian products:  "things didn't go the way they said they would; the Chinese didn't rush out to buy Italian style, they hurried out and produced it themselves."

And he suggests there was another way:  "We should have fought tooth and nail, every inch of the way, just as all the other nations did.  We should have negotiated, negotiated, and negotiated some more."  I have my doubts that this plan would have succeeded.  And I'm certain Nesi glamorizes the conditions of his family's factory and their workers.  Nonetheless, Nesi grabs our attention with his personal story, the story of his people.

In 2011, "Story of My People" was the first non-fiction book to win Italy's Strega Prize.  Translated by Antony Shugaar.

Prato's merchant class dates at least as far back as the middle ages.  Iris Origo's first book is "The Merchant of Prato: Francesco Di Marco Datini, 1335-1410.

And a shout-out to my mother, who in the 1970s took me to Prato to buy me outfits made of those wonderful fabrics.


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