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Feltrinelli

An article by Robert Fulford in Canada's "National Post" Op Ed column [Feltrinelli], Saturday Jan. 18.02



Italy, once famous for communist millionaires, never produced a stranger specimen than Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who was simultaneously a great book publisher and an incompetent terrorist. He flourished in a time of political fantasy, when intellectual talk sometimes turned into a more-radical-than-thou competition. Conversation in the late 1960s often began with the assumption that the Soviet Union was no longer true to communist principles and then moved on to ask where the future of humanity lay: With Mao's China or Castro's Latin America?

Born in 1926 to a wealthy Milanese family, Feltrinelli died in 1972 when a bomb he was attaching to an electricity pylon blew up. His son Carlo, who was then just 10 years old, now runs the Feltrinelli publishing business from his father's old office in downtown Milan. In Carlo's blurred recollections of their last meetings, his father appears as a fugitive, sometimes changing his appearance, who makes abrupt late-night visits that end with hugs and promises. After 20 years, Carlo decided to put flesh on those memories, and sought his father in everything from conversations with contemporaries (some knew him only under his terrorist pseudonym, Osvaldo) to government records. He's produced a biography, Feltrinelli: A Story of Riches, Revolution, and Violent Death. It's sentimental, indulgent, and sometimes annoyingly vague, but it evokes an astonishing life.

When I read of his death at the time, I thought: Such a big man, such a petty act! Why was he setting a bomb that, if successful, would have merely interrupted local electricity service. He had blindly embraced the romantic belief in violence as the way to a better society. He came to think that demonstrations of radical will, such as bombings ("propaganda of the deed") would provoke a general uprising and liberate Italy from capitalism. But as his story unfolded posthumously, another reason became evident. He craved excitement. He had run through four wives, he owned a castle-size house, he had enjoyed being a millionaire playboy (once he posed in Vogue), and he had proven he was a first-class professional. By his late 30s he was the man who had everything. He was giving himself a present of revolution.

He was always unpredictable. How many people brought up in luxury develop both a taste for communism and a talent for business? As a young publisher he established a chain of bookstores that anticipated Barnes & Noble by decades, and after only two years pulled off his generation's great international publishing coup. In 1957, hoodwinking Moscow's spies, he brought Boris Pasternak's anti-communist novel, Dr. Zhivago, out of the Soviet Union, controlled the copyright, and made a fortune from publication in scores of countries. His brilliant promotion, and the unwitting publicity help of the USSR's would-be censors, established Pasternak's stature on the world scene and helped win him the Nobel Prize. Feltrinelli did all this even though Dr. Zhivago explicitly rejected the collectivist principles that he, a Communist Party member for many years, claimed to believe in.

Perhaps his instincts as a publisher trumped his politics, or perhaps he wanted to prove his independence by humiliating both Moscow and his fellow Italian Communists. He scandalized his comrades again by following Dr. Zhivago with The Leopard, a magnificently aristocratic novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Armies of reviewers called it a masterpiece, adding more shine to the Feltrinelli name.

Publishers around the world considered him charismatic, witty, and original. In the 1960s, when he went to Havana to persuade Fidel Castro to write his memoirs, Castro began putting him through the torture inflicted on all supplicants: waiting by the phone for days before being summoned, possibly in the middle of the night, into the great man's presence. Feltrinelli fought back. He went on a hunger strike, announcing in a sign on his hotel-room door that he would starve rather than submit to this indignity. Castro, perhaps recognizing an ego equal to his own, caved in immediately--though he never wrote his memoirs.

Feltrinelli privately reported that he was unimpressed with Castro ("ideologically confused") but nevertheless soon became a convert to Castro-style revolution. He began giving money to revolutionary groups, like the Red Brigades, to pay for arms and safe houses. Once he handed to a young woman the pistol she used to murder the Bolivian official thought to have hunted down the leftist hero Che Guevara. He also set up a radical group of his own, went underground, and imitated Castro's battle fatigues. Pursuing a particularly bizarre fantasy, he visited Sardinia and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the local bandit chiefs that they should become revolutionaries and make Sardinia "the Cuba of the Mediterranean."

The son, Carlo Feltrinelli, sympathizes with leftist politics but has no idea why his father turned to terror. "To die for your ideas is the most radical of fairy tales," he writes. When Feltrinelli's bomb killed him, rumours of assassination plots circulated. But radicals, including the leadership of the Red Brigades, decided the problem was a defective timing device. In truth, it was a peculiar historical illness that killed Feltrinelli. He died of radical chic.

robert.fulford@utoronto.ca



Also: An extract from the NYT of Dec 14, 2002:

"On the night of March 14, 1972, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a leading European publisher who was one of Italy's richest men, was blown up trying to ignite a terrorist bomb on an electric pylon outside Milan.

It was a strange and yet emblematic end to the complex career of a man who was a major figure in the history of postwar European culture. Feltrinelli had helped revolutionize Italian book publishing. The son of a family of wealthy Italian monarchists, he joined the Communist Party while still a teenager. He nonetheless published, over the objections of the Soviet Union, the first world edition of Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago," an event that shook the Soviet empire and won Pasternak the Nobel Prize for Literature. Feltrinelli also started the first (and still the best) great bookstore chain in Italy, which still bears his name.

At the same time, infatuated with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, he became convinced that he could wage a Cuban-style revolution in the middle of wealthy, well-defended Europe, a tragic delusion that led to his death on the outskirts of Milan. Indeed, he helped finance the nascent terrorist groups that would bloody Italy with hundreds of deaths in the decade after his death.

Feltrinelli was a revolutionary millionaire who, even after going underground, retained tight control over his economic empire. He was profoundly at odds with himself: it is perhaps symbolically significant that the electric pylon he died trying to blow up was on property belonging to none other than himself...

In the journalist Giorgio Bocca's 1979 book, "We Terrorists," Feltrinelli appears like a kind of Walter Mitty of revolution. Mr. Bocca tells how Feltrinelli went underground, how he visited a friend and insisted on sleeping outdoors, wore Cuban military fatigues and lobbed grenades in the garden.

In the book, Renato Curcio, a founder of the Red Brigades, describes Feltrinelli as sincere but given over to a romantic idea of guerrilla life. At a certain point, Feltrinelli lectured the Red Brigades on the necessity of each member's having a "guerrilla knapsack," with a change of clothes, new fake identity cards and "a bag of salt and cigars.""





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