Can Europe Make It?

An Italian poet on trial

Erri De Luca suggested in an interview that the Susa Valley high-speed rail line should be sabotaged. The construction company involved has taken him to court.

Alessio Colonnelli
20 March 2015

Susa valley, north-west Italy. Wikimedia. Public domain.A novelist, poet, essayist and translator is on trial. One of Italy’s finest left-leaning intellectuals, Erri De Luca is accused of inciting sabotage against the high-speed rail line (TAV) currently being built between Turin and Lyon along the Susa Valley up in the Alps near the French border.

Many people deem the new route unnecessary and are adamant its only purpose is to line the pockets of the construction companies involved, particularly the Franco-Italian Lyon Turin Ferroviaire (LTF). Myriads of protesters from all over Italy have fought a 20-year-long battle to prevent a 35-mile rail tunnel being dug through the valley; it will be among the world’s longest.

The many dissenting voices on TAV

Beppe Grillo, the prominent dissenting politician, leader of the boisterous Five Star Movement party, waged a massive campaign against the invasive rail project; he has written and publicly spoken viscerally against TAV a number of times. Mr De Luca is indeed in excellent company. He and Mr Grillo are not alone in what’s perhaps become contemporary Italy’s most apparent cause célèbre, the list of voices in opposition being exceedingly long.

The controversial statement of sabotage made by Mr De Luca came up in an interview with the Huffington Post on 1 September 2013 (he also spoke on national radio about this using similar words). His was a reply to Gian Carlo Caselli, Turin’s chief prosecutor at the time, who had warned that intellectuals and other publicly influential minds like Mr De Luca were ‘dangerously underestimating the threat of acts of terrorism’ in the Susa Valley. ‘TAV ought to be sabotaged’, was the author’s answer to the alarming comment by Mr Caselli. ‘That’s why shears were used: they’re useful for cutting wire-fencing. Nothing to do with terrorism.’

The above referred to an incident involving two young men who were stopped the day before the interview and were found to be carrying Molotov cocktails, gas masks, slingshots, nails and, of course shears in their car. Material, according to the investigators, that was supposed to be used in actions against the construction site of the angrily contested high-speed rail line.

What did he mean about ‘sabotaging’?

Mr De Luca maintains that the word ‘sabotage’ could be interpreted in different ways, that the Italian language allows for the term to be stretched enough to reach figurative meanings. He says (correctly) that sabotaggio could also mean ‘obstructing’, ‘interfering’ – a legitimate way of displaying dissent.

The Guardian has duly published a short article on this not long ago – perhaps not detailed enough; in fact, the piece in question could be misinterpreted. Mr De Luca is described as a bit of a naïve tree-hugger, a kind of anarchist with delusions about changing the world. The TAV in the Susa Valley has not attracted the attention of environmentalists solely. And it’s definitely not a niche topic for high-brow, salon intellectuals at their dinner-parties.

It’s a matter of concern for millions of Italians. And the way the powers-that-be are hell-bent on bringing Mr De Luca before a court to make him shut up has all the characteristics of an exemplary punishment. A reminder to others they’d better be quiet and stop pursuing a legitimate cause.

This is one telling episode, again about silencing people’s genuine concerns over a seriously disruptive project, whose benefits are unclear. On 5 December 2005 the police beat up several protestors (many of whom went along with their families and children) plus the valley’s village mayors and priests who joined them. Peaceful activists felt the heavy hand of hard, authorized clubbing duly administered by means of state cudgels.

The official left distancing itself

But how destructive is the Susa Valley TAV? In his book Beppe Grillo’s many battles (2007), the comedian-cum-politician put the whole issue in simple, plain words:

‘The 35 mile-long hole [the rail tunnel] will cost at least €12bn if not €30bn by the end of the project. It’ll be completed in twenty years, by which time it could be entirely obsolete. But you wouldn’t know what to do with it today either. […]  Those mountains contain asbestos, 500 lorries carrying detritus would travel up and down the valley every day for twenty years. The rail line would be economically justified only if 40 million tons of goods were to travel on it every year – that’d be a total of 350 trains a day, one every 4 minutes at 150 km/h, alternating with passenger trains cruising at 300 km/h. Pure folly.’

A fiery tirade that renders well the project’s magnitude; and perhaps its potentially disastrous impact.

But with Italy’s Green Party being practically inexistent and the Left Ecology Freedom party (SEL) not being influential enough despite its buoyancy, all potential support to the dissenting voices could’ve come from the traditional left-of-centre Democratic Party (PD), roughly the equivalent of Labour.

That didn’t happen. Stefano Esposito, a PD senator supporting the rail line just like the rest of his party, said Mr De Luca was a walking relic from the 1970s, an era plagued by acts of violence and terrorism by activists from all sides of the political spectrum.

Mr Esposito cheekily added that Mr De Luca’s was a publicity stunt to sell his books. As if Mr De Luca were as a mediocre as that. His excellent works, all informed by original, progressive thinking and published by the gigantic Feltrinelli, hardly need any promotional stunt of that kind – Mr Esposito’s affirmation was an indirect and cheap insult. (The senator’s vain-publishing efforts perhaps have not sold as well as Mr De Luca’s, hence his badly concealed envy.) The Italian official left, the one essentially embodied by PD, has proved once again to be quite distant from ordinary people’s concerns. The Susa Valley TAV is a dramatic case in point.

What happened to freedom of speech?

So Mr De Luca is now fronting accusations in court, on his own. No precise acts of terrorism or material sabotage have been linked to his statement. The brave wordsmith now deserves all the moral support he can get from the public at large. With the PD-led government showing complete disinterest if not in actual fact a downright antagonistic attitude, the poet’s only weapons left for the moment are his sardonic smile and eloquence.

An LTF spokesman has declared that his company is pleased with Mr De Luca being brought before justice: ‘It’s a question of principle, one that openly states that this isn’t simply a case of freedom of speech – it goes beyond that.'

Mr De Luca risks facing five years in prison. Not even a hundred years have passed since the terrifying experience of state dictatorship and yet the censoring of genuinely concerned citizens in Italy is definitely back in fashion. And transnational corporate interests are making good use of it.

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