Friday, June 22, 2018

Oriana Fallaci by Cristina de Stefano, translated by Marina Harss

Hardcover, 282 pgs, Pub Oct 17th 2017 by Other Press (NY) (first published October 30th 2013) ISBN13: 9781590517864

This book has only recently been translated into English and published in the United States by Other Press of New York. It is five years old already, not that it particularly matters. In fact, one could argue it has come out at precisely the right time. The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was born in 1929 and lived her life uncompromisingly, doing what she wanted, where she wanted, when she wanted. She hated the way women were treated but she did not hate men. She loved men, and she was loved by them in turn, for her feminine nature, her intelligence, her courage. Fallaci died in 2006 in Florence.

Oriana never wanted a biographer…or an opera, or a movie made of her life. All these things are what one images when we read of her life. This biography does exactly what a biography should: makes us thirst for the woman herself, her writing, her thinking. De Stefano helps us by picking out those things Fallaci’s audience are curious about, like sources of her outspokenness and critical thinking, her major works and the circumstances in which she wrote them, the places she went, the places she vacationed.

Seeing early photographs of the diminutive Oriana navigating post-WWII Italian newspaper world don’t make her look hard and accomplished, but more vulnerable. She gradually developed a style of interviewing subjects that included herself in the story. She never pretended to be objective, but would ask difficult questions of the subject, a result of her deep knowledge of them from extensive research.

Fallaci originally started coming to the United States to report on Hollywood and the actors and celebrities who lived there. She learned English on the job. Gradually she found actors shallow and uninteresting, unworthy of the attention she was lavishing on them and began reporting instead on astronauts. She was so attracted to the team planning a trip to the moon because they were disciplined, brave, and willing to sacrifice. In every other way they were the opposite of her…
“They live in neat little houses lined up next to the other, like cells in a convent. Each has a wife, kids, short hair, clear ideas. She meets with seven of them…to her they seem almost like clones. It takes all her talent to find a distinctive quality in each of them. But as with every subject she writes about, this is what fascinates her most: the human element.”
Oriana will go on to become fast friends with the astronauts; they will carry her photo with them to the moon, and tell her they wish she could come along for the ride. They recognize her courageous spirit and her unflinching intelligence and willingness to look truth in the face.

Fallaci became a worldwide phenomenon during her time reporting on the Vietnam War. She interviewed General Giáp, head of Vietcong forces, and Henry Kissinger, whose carefully modulated voice finally responded candidly to a difficult and insistent question by calling himself a cowboy:
“The main point is that I’ve always acted alone,” he says. “Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else.”
Fallaci isn’t afraid to paint unattractive portraits of the people she interviews, but uses her questions and instincts to uncover examples of deception and its reverse: a respect where she didn’t expect to find it, with Ayatollah Khomeini for instance. Fallaci for the most part did not like people in power; that is, she did not like what power did to people. She wanted to interview Pope John Paul II but he refused her request. Apparently the notes Fallaci made in preparation for that interview included questions like, “Why is the Church so obsessed with sex?” and “Why do you expect a lack of political engagement by Latin American priests but not of Polish priests?”

Fallaci had grown up with her fellow Italians in the resistance to love Americans, who they were and what they stood for. But over time, even though she chooses to live out much of her life when she is settled or when she is old in New York City, the war in Vietnam breaks her love affair with America.
“America has disappointed me…It’s like when you’re completely in love with a person, and you get married, and then day after day, you realize that the person isn’t as exceptional, as extraordinary or marvelous or good, or intelligent, as you thought. The U.S. has been like a bad husband. It betrays me every day.” “But you like Americans,” her colleague insists. “Yes, of course, I love children,” she answers.
There is more. The read is utterly compelling, no matter that Fallaci did not want anyone representing her while she was alive. De Stefano gives us a great deal of insight into Fallaci’s character, who she loved, the miscarriages which ended up breaking her heart. She did not suffer fools but she loved life. She called it an adventure.

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