Review of Story of My People by Edoardo Nesi

Monday, November 4, 2013

Story of My People

by Edoardo Nesi
Other Press

Edoardo Nesi is an Italian writer, film director, translator, and former industrialist whose family’s textile business closed its doors over a decade ago. His nonfiction book Story of My People, is a story of personal failure inextricably linked to Italy’s failing economy: the country is enduring the longest recession of its history. Nesi takes us on a tour of struggling contemporary Italy that covers abandoned warehouses, depressed towns, and Chinese-run sweatshops. He also describes what it’s like to manage a family business and be at its helm while it flounders and then goes under -- the ultimate insider’s view. Because he is writing a kind of memoir, Nesi structures Story of My People in an elliptical, almost associative fashion. He emphasizes personal recollections, and it is necessary for the reader to come up with a timeline for his company’s history on her own. This makes for challenging, but ultimately rewarding reading.

The textile company, Lanificio T.O. Nesi & Figli S.p.A., opened during the 1920s in the city of Prato, which is near Florence and is one of Italy’s textile centers. Lanificio carried out operations for the better part of a century. Nesi’s paternal grandfather and great-uncle intended the company to be a legacy for generations to come, a typical goal of Italian business entrepreneurs. Nesi was co-CEO of Lanificio alongside his cousin Alvaro when he and his family made the decision to sell. The decision haunts him—in fact, it has left him with an unshakable anguish.

Nesi makes it clear that he was not a natural businessman. He reluctantly took the reins of Lanificio  in 1993, after an apprenticeship that began in the late 1980s. Nesi’s true passion is literature, American literature in particular, and his ambition as a young man was to become a writer. One of the most charming moments in Story of My People is when Nesi merges his passion for fiction with the textile business by asking employees to create fabrics of the type that his literary heroes wore: “The technicians would cluster wide-eyed around the old black-and-white photographs on the backs of the dust jackets, bending closer and peering intently to see just how those fabrics were constructed, and a few weeks later we’d have on the conference table those very fabrics that had been suggested to us by [Malcolm] Lowry and Hemingway.”

Nesi’s employees had the creative skills to match his dreams. The void left by the loss of their talent is obvious.

The fabrics that Lanificio created were sold primarily to German companies, which used them to make heavy winter coats. The fact that Germany, the country responsible for burning Prato businesses during World War II, went on to become an indispensable customer is an irony not lost on Nesi. This trade relationship worked well for both sides, and orders were filled with clockwork regularity. The business sustained Nesi’s parents, his family, and also his cousin Alvaro’s branch of the family. However, after the Italian government opened the country to cheaper Chinese goods, Italy’s small and midsize family-owned companies were under a sort of death warrant, though previously they had accounted for 85 percent of Italy’s GDP. Nesi describes the bewilderment he and his competitors felt as they negotiated contracts in the harsh world of globalization. Eventually winning contracts became as bad as losing them, because the fees negotiated proved insufficient to cover manufacturing costs. Given a choice between proudly bleeding to death and selling Lanificio while it still had value, Nesi and his family took the latter option. He writes of this harrowing time: “The rope of my tolerance and my rage slid through my fingers . . . and I started keeping a very heavy steel bar that I’d found in the weaving mill in my car. . . . It’s not like I had any idea what I would do with it. . . . I just kept it there, under the seat, and every so often I’d reach down and touch it.”

Nesi blames Italy’s long recession on politicians and journalists who championed a globalization they did not fully understand. Nesi was as lost as everyone else—until one afternoon he spoke at a conference in Milan. There, he began a spontaneous talk about “the empty discouragement that I’d seen stretching over my people and my city, the unstoppable decline of ambition, the abandonment of the most fragile and naive yet vital dreams.” Story of My People was born at this conference, when Nesi realized that he was articulating not only his feelings but the feelings of the people in the room. “They nodded, they elbowed one another. They flashed bitter smiles—someone even applauded, briefly. . . . It was at that moment, I believe, that I decided to write this book

Fittingly, Story of My People ends with Nesi’s participation in a large protest held in Prato’s main square. For the first time in the book, Nesi’s people appear concretely, rather than abstractly. In Italy, a person’s “people” form the clan to which they belong. Nesi’s people are textile workers, other failed businessmen, all those who have been displaced in a global economy. He confesses that it was difficult for him to join their ranks: “It’s a part of life that I don’t understand and I’ve never managed to get into: the communitarian side, in which you participate with other people in things and you are unafraid of setting aside your differences.” Despite this, Nesi has added his personal story to that of the collective through his writing. While working at Lanificio he published five novels, and his literary skills, which he always felt to be impractical, finally found a pragmatic use.

He hopes that because of his status he will be an effective advocate for those who have no voice. Nesi’s Italy is constituted not by la dolce vita but hard work, pride in productivity, and strong family and community ties. His heartbreaking narrative describes a struggling country that is just as fascinating and rich as the Italy advertised through the tourism industry, and much more real.