Translator’s Introduction - by Bill Brown
When the Scriblerus Club of Verona, Italy first published Il segreto è dirlo (“The Secret is to Tell”) in 1983, it was an anonymous work. In the words of the very brief text on its back cover, this novel is the story of the “life and adventures of Salvatore Messana,” who is “a thief, sinner, adulterer, sailor, bank robber, militant of the extreme left, swindler and, finally, a ‘specialist in getting sacked’ who amassed a large fortune.”
Before going any further, allow me to remark that, though I can certainly understand why someone would want the story of downtrodden Salvatore Messana (a kind of Savior Messiah) to have a happy ending, that last idea is false. Though the novel’s hero may have “earned” money by being such an intentionally bad worker (a saboteur, in fact) that his employers were forced to buy him out of his work contracts, he certainly didn’t “amass a large fortune.” His various scams only netted him enough money (no more than $10,000 at a time) to be able to live without having to have a steady job.
Normally, such people – scam-artists, con men and the like – do not reveal their secrets. As Guy Debord says in Panegyrique, which is the story of his own life and adventures, “The gypsies rightly believe that one must never speak the truth except in one’s own language; in the enemy’s language, the lie must reign.” This is why the hero calls himself Salvatore Messana (it appears that his real last name is Upim) and why the author of Il segreto è dirlo wanted to remain anonymous. To be safe from police prosecution, they both did not want to be correctly identified. (Note well that my use of the word “both” assumes that Upim and the author aren’t one and the same person.)
But Salvatore Messana is not a typical scam-artist or con man. Unlike his friend Piras, who chose “to take the money and disappear,” he is dedicated to the education of his fellow proletarians, who, thanks to him, “learned more in an instant than they had learned their whole lives.” To educate as many people as possible, Messana opens Il segreto è dirlo with a short statement entitled “Preliminary Points.” In it, he explains that the secret (the ultimate secret: not just a particular one) is not to keep everything a secret. Telling one’s secrets is a very good way to piss off “the prudent cowards, who are always ready to whisper appeals to stay silent, and the muddled minds that get bogged down in the details, murmuring that the secret is to say nothing,” as well as his own “cunt of an attorney […] who immediately advised me to not divulge the systems that have allowed me to increase my revenues at the expense of the bosses.”
This is what distinguishes Salvatore Messana from his friends in the extreme Left. Unlike them, he knows – and wants it generally known – that engaging in militant class struggle isn’t simply “the right thing to do” and that it doesn’t require one to renounce the acquisition of money and the good things that it can buy. If done in a certain way, class struggle pays. “If you went through the necessary negotiations,” Messana says, “this accursed modern society was able to provide even the outcasts with a salary.”
In 1989, Il segreto è dirlo was translated into French as Le Secret C’est De Tout Dire! (“The Secret is to Tell All!”) by Monique Baccelli and published by Editions Allia. Apparently informed of this translation, and supposedly involved in its preparation (“the majority of the footnotes were created following the author’s indications”), the creator of Salvatore Messana decided that the time had come to identify himself. In the words of a short text that appears on the back cover of the French edition,
Gianni Giovannelli was born in Ferrara in 1949. An attorney, he lives and works in Milan. He has published Svaraj Gandharva (Bianca e Volta, Milan, 1982; second edition: Tranchida, Milan, 1986); Confessioni di un uomo malvagio (Tranchida, 1988); and, under the pseudonym Palmiro, Lettera al Giudice Forno (Machina Libri, Milan, 1981) and Poesie dalla latitanza (C.T.A., Milan, 1982).
I have checked: these books really exist. But of course this does not rule out the possibility that, in the same way that “Palmiro” is a pseudonym for Gianni Giovanni, “Gianni Giovannelli” is a pseudonym for someone else. I say this because there is in fact a well-known Italian politician by that name, and he is closely affiliated with the notorious crook Silvio Berlusconi. As such, he would make an excellent target for a disrespectful parody.
“My book appeared anonymously,” the man calling himself Gianni Giovannelli says in his preface to the French edition, “so as to avoid confusion with the bands of little opportunists who published ambiguous and insidious chronicles of the Italian struggles in the obvious hope of obtaining some crummy job.” This is reasonable, I suppose: an anonymous author cannot hope to use his book to obtain “some crummy job.” But there are problems with this explanation. On the one hand, Il segreto è dirlo is not an “ambiguous and insidious” chronicle of the class struggles in Italy during the 1970s: it is in fact quite clear and open about its intentions. On the other hand, I know of two books that are “ambiguous and insidious chronicles of the Italian struggles” of the 1970s – The Truthful Report on the Last Chances to Save Capitalism in Italy and Letters to the Heretics – and both of them were not anonymous originally, but were passed off as the works of authors who did not in fact write them (a conservative capitalist who called himself Censor and Enrico Berlinguier, the head of the Italian Communist Party, respectively). And, just like Il segreto è dirlo, these books (which were actually written by Gianfranco Sanguinetti and Pier Franco Ghisleni, respectively) were tributes to the anti-work politics of the Situationist International and clearly intended to destroy Italian capitalism. (Note well that Il segreto è dirlo is in part dedicated to someone named “Gianfranco” and that Sanguinetti seems to be alluded to in the book’s last chapter: he is the “strange character, who had made the art of wreaking havoc into his philosophy of life.”)
There are a couple of other odd details in the French preface to Il segreto è dirlo. Why does it refer to the person who printed the original Italian edition (Marino Mardersteig, who runs Stamperia Valdonega), but not its original publisher? Why does it make such a big deal about “the adventures of a strange client of my services, the worker Stabile Fioravante,” when it appears that Stabile Fioravante doesn’t exist? I am reminded here of Salvatore Messana’s reference to “Professor Lapo Meneghetti,” who is thanked “for having the patience to correct my manuscript, which was written haphazardly, for having respected its spirit, and for having been happy to translate it into good Italian,” but who in fact doesn’t exist.
Perhaps it was these “tells” – or the book’s publication by Editions Allia, which has published several situationist-related titles – that caused Guy Debord to believe he recognized Gianfranco Sanguinetti behind the name Gianni Giovannelli. “Do you know the recent book by Gianfranco?” he asked Charles Vincent on the back of a postcard dated 25 February 1991. “There are pleasing things in it.” A footnote that was affixed to Debord’s possibly mistaken but certainly positive evaluation by either Alice Becker-Ho (aka “Alice Debord”) or the book’s publisher refers to “Le secret c’est de tout dire, by a [sic] Gianni Giovannelli (published by Allia),” and explains that Le Secret is a “fraud that, in a picaresque mode, mixes real facts with the ‘adventures’ of a known informer.” It is abundantly clear that the person who wrote this offensively stupid footnote never read the book in question (it is certainly not a fraud [supercherie] nor is there any reason to believe that either its author or its hero is a known informer [un indicateur avéré]) and wishes his or her readers to think the worst of Gianni Giovannelli, that is to say, Gianfranco Sanguinetti, who, ever since 1981, had been on Guy Debord’s shit list. (Note that the identification of “Giovannelli” as a pseudonym used by Sanguinetti – which is something that Gianfranco himself has denied – is repeated by the index included in the very last volume of Guy Debord Correspondance, published by Librairie Artheme Fayard in 2010. Under “Giovannelli, Giovanni” is says “see Sanguinetti, Gianfranco.”)
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As the reader will see from the footnotes (all of which are mine, as are all phrases that appear within brackets [thus] and the subtitles given to the six sections of Part One), there were a good number of significant discrepancies between the Italian original and its translation into French. Sometimes whole passages were left out; other times, passages were inserted. Even worse, sometimes the French translator changed the meaning of particular passages. It is my opinion that, though she knows Italian much better than I do, I know the book’s politics much better than she does, and thus my version is easily the better of the two.
New York City
28 December 2012