God is screening one of his satirical shorts the morning I arrive in Rome. The rail-link between the international airport and the city centre, which has been expensively revamped, or at least remarketed, shimmers me to the first stop, Ponte Galeria, and then breaks down. The power is out all along the line, says the guard. Trains are marooned to the front of us and behind, like the ghosts of journeys past and yet to come. A party of oriental tourists, their Roman stopover originally windowed for a leisurely seven hours, gives up all thought of the Colisseum. When the current eventually comes back on, they file glumly onto the down-line platform. The guard looks at them and shrugs. He says, ‘Well, today is the 17th,’ a reference to the day that the Italians, a Christian people if ever there was one, unaccountably plump for over the 13th as the blackest in their calendar.

If this were a movie shot at Cinecittà, the critics would complain that the studio had been laying on the subtext with a paletta. Late trains, for Pete’s sake, in the country where the reliability of the railway timetable was once the best thing to be said for the place. Moreover, this go-slow occurs on the eve of elections likely to benefit the successors of Italy’s Fat Controller himself. Finally, there is the guard, clearly an Italian Everyman. He just shrugs and blames bad luck.

As it happens, even a low-budget project like this would probably be nixed by the Cinecittà, accountants. As Italy struggles to emerge from its deepest recession since the Second World War, almost the only film in production on the Rome back-lots is a spoof of Jurassic Park. To its backers, the chief attraction of this remake is that the species to be reconstituted from primeval amber is the relatively unexotic chicken.

Outside the cinema, Italians are being assured that political dinosaurs are also giving way to a less menacing breed. Among more than three thousand leading citizens under suspicion of graft are hundreds of politicians. Accused of accepting backhanders in return for steering contracts in the direction of supportive businessmen, they are set to forfeit immunity from prosecution if they lose their seats in the poll on 27 March. It’s thought that as many as a third of Italy’s 630 deputies will be voted out. Just to be named by the investigators of Operation Mani Pulite is politically the kiss of death. Conversely, it’s assumed that those whose files have not been pulled by the police after two years of inquiries must be in the clear. ‘We had been troubled for a long time by the doubt about who was a monster and who was not,’ Calvino said at one point in ‘The Origin of the Birds’, ‘but for some time the question could be regarded as settled: those of us who are here are non-monsters, whereas the monsters are all those who could be here but are not, because the succession of cause and effect has clearly favoured us, the non-monsters, rather than them.’

Almost Papal in its labyrinthine elegance and sophistry, this captures the tenor of political debate here. Despite the reputation of Italian television for dwelling on soccer and obliging housewives, the state-run RAI channels transmit talk shows of such prolixity they make The Late Show look like Beavis and Butthead. However, they are broadcast to a background susurrus of indifference and contempt. You hear the same lack of faith in the future on every street corner, and this in a country where you would think the vaunted overhaul of the old order ought to be good for at least a little hope. Moreover, the chat shows are in bed with the politicos who appear on them, and so they are in no position to test what might be called Calvino’s Law. In these dog days of Italy’s first republic – in the last days of this Roman empire – no one actually knows if the monsters are going for good, no one is certain that those of us who are here are non-monsters.

Power has a smell in Rome, the scent of expensive soap. If you catch it on the breeze, you’ll probably glimpse a composed-looking man of a certain age in a £500 overcoat. He will be accompanied by a toothsome brunette who may or may not be his undergraduate granddaughter up from the country to look at the Berninis. Or you may find yourself admiring the hair oil favoured by a man who is stepping out of an unmarked bullet-proof car. As he walks up a side street off Largo Pietro di Brazza, carrying his leather gloves and fishing in a pocket for his keys, you’ll realise he is going home for lunch. Even if the voters frog-march such men from office, you can’t imagine that the carabinieri will burst in afterwards to do the job for real. Either the politicians are showing a remarkable sang froid – a phrase for which there is no happy Italian equivalent – or else they sense that life in the second republic may not be as arduous for them as some would wish.

There are already a few straws in the wind. Parliament voted last month, by 249 to 175, to ban magistrates from making the first arrest of one of its members since the Tangentopoli, or Bribesville, scandal began. The deputies refused to remove the immunity of Giulio Di Donato, the former second-in-command of the Socialists. Suspects who have had their immunity waived – some of them as highly placed as Gianni de Michelis, the former foreign minister – are said to have slipped out of the country on ‘international business’. Others, including Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister, who is under investigation for murder and Mafia involvement, will remain in Parliament as senators-for-life. This seems likely to cheat the courts of sensational appearances. Bettino Craxi’s trial has been postponed at least until 29 March, with the election campaign given as the reason. In the meantime, the political class are covering their tracks as best they can, renaming their parties and ducking into new alliances.

‘The politicians will never go to prison,’ a former RAI employee tells me as they’re stacking the chairs in a trattoria in the Trastevere district. ‘It is impossible. There are too many, and this problem of money and influence, it goes to the top.’ She says the cost of civic finagling is now beginning to catch up with the state, and RAI is hard pressed to commission new programmes. She’s going to work for a new satellite TV station backed by Arab money. The studios are on a business park on the outskirts of the city, opposite a new building which the Government is renting. At the moment, they’re putting in reinforced glass and rumble strips: the place will be used as a strongbox for the paperwork generated by Mani Pulite. The owner over-hears my touchingly unschooled questions about pursuing bent politicians. He stomps over, tousles my hair with a calloused hand, and bursts out laughing at the very idea.

If the death of the monsters turns out to be a joke, how will the rest of us cope? How will we be able to tell if we’re dealing with non-monsters or the real thing? Zapping away from an RAI politics seminar one morning. I am confronted by a moustachioed weatherman who is wearing a dark navy uniform garnished with braid, frogging and general scrambled egg. He jabs at a map of Italy with a swagger stick, as a caption credits the forecast to the Armed Forces. I decide I’ll ring the office if silhouettes of tanks appear among the raindrops and sunbeams. In fact, the military haven’t thrown in their lot with the buoyant right wing and saved them the bother of taking over the media. Passing by the Palazzo Venezia later in the day. I am reassured to see that the balcony where Mussolini used to jut his chin for his public remains free of black-shirted wannabees. The prospect isn’t as fanciful as it seems, however. As everyone knows, Alessandra Mussolini, the dictator’s granddaughter, is contesting a Naples seat. And only a few weeks ago, a grizzled neo-fascist called Carlo Tassi, whose movement now trades under the name National Alliance and wishes to be thought of as Gaullist, rather spoilt it all by insisting on attending a rally in his favourite little black number. His handlers eventually talked him round to a more conservative midnight-blue ensemble. Although many voters are undecided and may exercise their franchise with little show of enthusiasm, opinion polls have predicted victory for an alliance of right-wing parties under Italy’s new voting structure. Three-quarters of seats will be won on a first-past-the-post basis, with the remainder shared out according to proportional representation as before. One survey suggested that the Right could take up to 340 seats, comfortably passing the 316 tally required for an absolute majority.

As well as the neo-fascists – whoops, Gaullists – the right-wing Freedom Alliance is composed of the Northern League, with its UDI-for-Lombardy agenda, and the Forza Italia movement of the Thatcherite tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi. A successful Italian election campaign requires cash and glamour, and the man Italians call I1 Cavaliere is not short of either. On top of a proprietary interest in what seems like half the titles on the news-stands, Berlusconi owns a chain of 500 supermarkets and the Serie A champions, AC Milan. The celebrities running on his ticket include a soccer star’s widow and the photographer responsible for Benetton’s controversial advertising campaign. The media baron’s most illustrious recruit is the director Franco Zeffirelli. Not surprisingly, Forza Italia puts out the best-looking commercials. Until campaign broad-casting regulations came into effect at the end of last month, Berlusconi’s three TV channels were running them as if they were on a tape-loop – that is when they weren’t cheering their crusading owner in news bulletins and election updates. Claiming a Perot-like mission to take the politicians out of politics, Berlusconi presents himself as a slayer of Italy’s monsters. But one or two observers claim to have spotted scales on the backs of his hands. The journalist Eugenio Scalfari has written in La Repubblica that Berlusconi’s entry into politics isn’t newsworthy:

If there is any businessman in this country who has been inextricably entwined in its political currents it is Berlusconi, therefore he has effectively been in politics since he started being an entrepreneur. Right from the birth of the private TV channels ... to the Craxi-Berlusconi agreement which allowed the cameras back into the High Court, Berlusconi’s career has been a series of business and political actions bound together.

Ironically, the Craxi-Berlusconi agreement means that the Italians will be able to watch the trial of their former premier on television. More ironically, the alleged links between the fallen politician and I1 Cavaliere are canvassed around town on posters produced by a samizdat publisher who is almost as skilled in his art as Berlusconi himself. The underground bills mimic the magnate’s exactly, apart from their Bronx cheer of a slogan ‘Forza Craxi’. For critics like Scalfari, Berlusconi has as good as been prime minister already thanks to his influence on both the Socialists and the Christian Democrat power blocs: ‘Berlusconi’s party has been in existence since the late Seventies and has even held quite a parliamentary majority, including four-fifths of Craxi’s party, parts of Andreotti’s and Forlani’s party, Altissimo’s Liberals, a fair amount of the MSI (neo-fascists) and a good slice of the Republican leadership.’

Opinion polls indicate that not much will remain of the once-sprawling centre ground. As few as 55 seats could be divided between the erstwhile Christian Democrats, now wistfully billing themselves as the Popular Party, and the Pact for Italy under reformer Mario Segni. The Left, which was tipped to gain power before Berlusconi threw his bespoke millinery into the ring, may have to settle for around 240 seats. The Left is made up of the embers of the Socialist Party, the anti-Mafia La Rete and the PDS, the old Communist Party. Next to Berlusconi, the PDS leader, Achille Occhetto, can appear a trifle dour, but very little Tangentopoli mud clings to him as yet. According to the LRB’s own rigorously unscientific survey, Occhetto is the choice of the common man for premier. According to the bullet-headed landlord of the Trastevere trat, for example, the PDS chief is unarguably – I use the word advisedly – the only decent candidate standing.

Occhetto and his allies are unhappy with the Pope, because of an allegedly secular encyclical he sent to priests ahead of election day. Innocuous-sounding remarks, on the need for Catholics to remain united, are being seen as a puff of white smoke from the Vatican on behalf of the former Christian Democrats, who still espouse ‘Catholic values’. From the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Northern League too has taken umbrage at this message. As the vote gets closer, even the Pope can be monstered, it seems.

In St Peter’s Square, I meet a grey-haired nun, Sister Maria Regina of Jesus, who asks me if I’m a Christian.

‘I think so,’ I tell her.

‘Were you baptised?’


‘Then you’re a Christian. I will pray for you every day, for your body and soul.’

A gobbet of spit lands on my shirt and Sister Maria apologises. She asks me if I’m married and I say not yet. She gives me three silver medallions depicting the Holy Mother, for the children I’ll have one day. The Holy Mother makes the medallions herself in heaven, Sister Maria tells me. She says the Pope often watches the crowds in the square from behind the curtains of his private apartments. She knows a nun who used to work there.

Suddenly, Sister Maria points to the top floor of the Vatican Palace. ‘I can see him!’ she cries. ‘I can see his white robes! The Holy Father is watching us!’ I follow her terrible gaze, and see that the heavy Papal drapes are all tightly drawn.

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