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 millionnaire 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.
Now, Feltrinelli’s son, Carlo Feltrinelli, who has taken his father’s place at the helm of the family publishing business (Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore) has published an English-language version of a memoir he wrote about his father a few years ago called ”Feltrinelli.”
It offers a somewhat different picture from that of a series of memoirs published in recent years by several of Italy’s leading left-wing terrorists. They portray Osvaldo — the battle name Feltrinelli chose for himself when he went underground — as a central figure in the early history of Italian terrorism. His son focuses more on Feltrinelli’s 25 years in publishing rather than on his last few years. The two halves of Feltrinelli’s life don’t fit together, as his son understands very well.
All the same, the stories of the two Giangiacomo Feltrinellis together make up one of the more bizarre and interesting tales of postwar European cultural life. Feltrinelli was the scion of one of Italy’s great industrial fortunes. The family had the cold strictness of many Northern Italian families: children were forced to pay a series of fines for various small offenses. Referring to articles in the strict code of his great-grandparents’ household, Carlo Feltrinelli writes: ”Those who entered the kitchen for no reason were fined 10 cents (Article 3), and there was the same fine for those who dared to speak Italian more than three times over lunch (Article 5).”
A streak of violence also runs through the family history. Giangiacomo Feltrinelli’s mother lost an eye in a bizarre 1928 hunting accident that may not have been an accident. And his father died under peculiar circumstances — a sudden heart attack or suicide — after the family found itself the object of a trumped-up investigation by the Fascist government in 1935.
Feltrinelli’s only friends during his teenage years appear to have been the gardeners and farmers who worked in a family villa. Through them he discovered the lower classes. ”I came to understand the lives that the workers led,” Giangiacomo Feltrinelli wrote, ”the efforts they had to make to keep their families, the inadequacy of their wages and the constant threat of unemployment that loomed over every one of them.”
He joined the Communist Party in 1945. Thus, as his mother was driving around in her Rolls-Royce distributing literature on behalf of the Italian monarchy, young Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was putting up posters and handing out literature for the Communists.
Feltrinelli used his position and his wealth to finance all kinds of projects. He created, for example, the Feltrinelli Institute, which he turned into one of the premier archives of the working class movement in the world.
Even though the Italian Communist Party became his adopted family, he showed considerable independence in objecting to the party’s support of the Soviet Union as it put down a popular revolt in Hungary in 1956. At the same time, he was an astute businessman. He oversaw the family empire and opened his own publishing house in 1955. He introduced discounting policies for bookstores in Italy, as well as the paperback original and the practice of displaying books face out in his bookstores. He was decades ahead of Barnes & Noble in putting a pinball machine and a Coca-Cola machine in one of his bookstores, realizing that people who hang out in a bookstore also end up buying books.
Given the radical extremism of his end, Feltrinelli showed a surprising critical distance on first meeting Mr. Castro. ”I have mixed feelings about this man,” he wrote during a trip in 1964, in which he was trying to convince the Cuban leader to publish a book of memoirs. ”He is a sort of Garibaldi, utterly unsuited to government work, incapable of working, reasoning and hard thinking. Impulsive, rhetorical. High-pitched. Ideologically confused.”
And yet, within just a few years, Feltrinelli himself dreamed up projects that far outstripped Mr. Castro’s in their impulsiveness and confusion. He traveled to Sardinia to try to organize local bandits into a revolutionary force in an attempt to turn one of Italy’s most conservative regions into what he termed ”the Cuba of the Mediterranean.”
At the same time, Feltrinelli was giving money, arms and safe houses to revolutionary groups interested in armed revolution, as his son acknowledges and as was described in greater detail by several former terrorists. He supplied the pistol to a young female terrorist who used it to murder a Bolivian official blamed for hunting down Guevara.
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.”
As Mr. Curcio recalls, the dialogue continued:
CURCIO: Why the salt?
FELTRINELLI: Because salt is a precious thing in Latin America.
C: Fine, but we’re in Milan and you can find salt anywhere.
F: It doesn’t matter. Salt is a guerrilla tradition and it must be there.
C: Any why the cigars?
F: Because Che Guevara said that the best friend of the guerrilla in his hours of solitude is the cigar. This, too, is a tradition and should be respected.
When Feltrinelli was killed, many on the Italian left immediately blamed the government and insisted the revolutionary publisher had been the victim of an obscure assassination plot. But the Red Brigades conducted their own investigation, interviewing the members of Feltrinelli’s little terrorist group and concluding that he had simply run afoul of a defective timer.
Part of the problem, evidently, was that Feltrinelli wanted to be more proletarian than the proletarians and insisted on planting the explosives himself.
– December 14, 2002
Published at The New York Times