In his checked lumberjack shirt and alpine boots, it’s clear that in the Paris office of the publishers Gallimard, Erri De Luca is a fish out of water. Amongst circling gaggles of journalists and wafts of Chanel perfume, this 'writer in Italian' as he prefers to be known, albeit of very Neapolitan background and character, shows his true colours: a man of the mountains, an outsider – aloof perhaps, or shy? But a man apart certainly.
In the footsteps of Nives, ('Sulla traccia di Nives', 2005), he relates his Himalayan experience in the company of the famed Italian female mountaineer Nives Meroi. De Luca retains the air of the countryside about him, despite having lived in the outskirts of Rome for some time.
The story of his life could not be more astonishing, and it seems etched in his features. 'When I was eighteen – in 1968 – I saw myself immersed in a generation of troublemakers and rebels. I went along that route until it was no more.' De Luca was an active member of the extreme left political activist group Lotta Continua 'for around 12 years,' then a worker for another twenty. He became a writer 'by chance' in 1989, when 'Not now, not here' ('Non ora, non qui', 1989) - a warts-and-all account of his Neapolitan childhood – was published.
God never said there would be pain in birth
'In all this time I have given myself to strange, fun things. Like studying Ancient Hebrew and translating parts of the Bible,' he explains, defining himself as 'not so much atheist but rather a non-believer.' For the author of 'Comme une langue au palais', a breviary of writings on the Holy Scriptures that have appeared in France, it was essential to go back to the literal meanings of the original terminology.
According to most translations, God tells Eve she will 'give birth in pain.' De Luca points out that: 'the term used in the Bible is not ‘pain’. On the five other occasions in which the same Hebrew term appears, the official translations employ another word. Only in this passage of the Bible is the term used to lend weight to the Deity’s intention to punish womanhood.'
Similarly, in accounts of the Tower of Babel, 'it is a ‘gift’ rather than a punishment that the godhead casts down. This is since mankind, until then focussed in one place, and thus vulnerable, is given linguistic diversity and can therefore spread across the Earth. It’s what saved humanity from extinction.'
Apart from Italian, De Luca speaks French, English, Ancient Hebrew, Yiddish, Kiswahili, and of course, Napolitano. What then differentiates these languages? 'There is only one difference between Neapolitan and the other languages: generally, languages are for explaining, communicating...Napolitano is for singing, arguing, hurrying.'
Europe: a big supermarket
Avid reader as he is, De Luca will of course have read the Koran, fashionable as it is these days. 'Actually, no,' he answers with surprising candour. 'I’m from this side of the Mediterranean, the monotheist and Judeo-Christian shore.' So does he consider Europe as nothing more than a club of Christianity? 'I don’t really know what Europe is: at the moment it’s a huge supermarket with its unified currency and policies. I feel more Mediterranean. I know what stuff a fisherman’s house in Tunisia or Marseilles is made of. I know the Mediterranean isn’t and never will be a political concept, but I feel much closer to a Moroccan or Lebanese than a Scandinavian or German.'
This isn’t surprising, coming from someone who describes himself as ‘napolide’ – a wordplay with the terms Neapolitan and ‘apolide’ or ‘errant’ (in the sense of the Knights Errant: wandering). Napolide, in fact, is the title of another of De Luca’s books (2005), one which he has, as he often does, ‘given’ to a modest publisher. His relation with the Neapolitan Mediterranean, however, remains a complex one. 'I pulled myself out of Naples like a tooth is ripped out: at the root, with no hope of a being reinserted anywhere else. I ‘go’ there, I don’t ‘return’.
Nothing to teach in the fight against La Camorra
Naples is a city in the media spotlight as it continues its bloody fight against the Neapolitan version of the Sicilian Mafia, la Camorra, a world portrayed recently by the young writer Roberto Saviano in his book Gomorra. De Luca has described this book as 'an excellently framed snapshot by someone who knows the internal workings of the money making machine that is La Camorra.' Although what he revealed was out-of-date a month after appearing on the shelves, what makes it dangerous for Saviano, and where the merit lies according to De Luca, is that 'he personally, physically went head to head against the ‘capos’ of la Camorra.'
Why then hasn’t De Luca himself committed himself against them? 'In literature, there’s no reason to get into making pledges. In fact, it is lessened by doing so,' he explains with sudden antic gestures full of meaning. 'And anyway, I don’t live in Naples.' In the long silence that follows, he seems more than a little perturbed, before returning to his explanation, brooding now, his hands gathered in, composed. 'I’m no-one’s master; I have nothing to teach anyone. I tell stories, full-stop.'
Alarm bells, Belgrade 99
De Luca’s life is replete with militant acts. For example, becoming a driver for a humanitarian convoy in Bosnia, as he did, suddenly, isn’t something that happens to everyone. 'What?! Of course it does, it happens all the time,' he rebuts. 'I’m not a particularly committed person, just someone who sometimes gets engaged in awkward, uncomfortable issues.'
‘Awkward engagements’ that would lead him to Belgrade during the bombings in 1999. 'I consider the bombardments the definition of an act of terrorism. So, to express myself against such acts, perpetrated by NATO and my own country, I crossed over to the other side. There I experienced the air-raid sirens that my mother told me about first-hand, when Naples was bombed by the Allied Forces during the Second World War.' He recounts these in 'Morso di luna nuova,' (2005). 'In Belgrade, I wasn’t going to hide away in the air-raid shelters. I could have stayed at home for that.'
Such are the ‘rebellions’ to which De Luca sees himself irrevocably linked. 'We, the generation of ’68, exposed ourselves, our youth, in the streets. In other times, the young generation was lost in war. Now, the young don’t know what to do with themselves. The challenge of being young today lies in not wasting what you have, and at the same time making some sense of being young. Cafebabel.com has something that makes sure you're not wasting your time as young people. I think that it’s quite a rare thing. That said, there are a million and half students out there who have graduated through Erasmus. So it’s up to your generation to turn this Europe of banks and bankers into a Europe of politics.'