Book Review

OBAMA AS LITERARY CRITIC, BY EDWARD MENDELSON

Barack Obama at Occidental College, 1981
Barack Obama at Occidental College, 1981

It’s the biggest show in town. Boasting 46 defendants, hundreds of witnesses and more than 3,000 hours of wiretapped conversations, Rome’s biggest corruption trial is under way. Between now and July, a circus of alleged mobsters, neo-fascists and smooth civil servants will be paraded before the citizenry, all accused of building an empire of kickbacks at the town hall.

More than anything, the so-called Mafia Capitale trial is revealing how a culture of casual dishonesty in Rome helped to run down the city’s services, bringing the capital to its knees. As Raffaele Cantone, Italy’s anti-graft chief, put it, Rome lacks “the antibodies” to stop corruption.

But why, I thought, should I sit through months of court hearings to understand all this? I simply have to drive around Rome for half an hour to grasp five fundamental truths about the city’s peculiar relationship with the law.

1. Many people have little idea what is legal and what is illegal. At the end of my street is a roundabout where half the drivers follow an old law giving them right of way as they enter, while the other half follow the more recent one forcing them to give way. The result is a chaotic and murderous ballet where you need to make split-second judgments about which law other motorists will follow, based on their apparent age and make of car.

2. When the law is clear, it is an annoyance. Many motorists react to red lights in the way that they react to the concept of government, with irritation and a belief that their liberty is being stamped on. If you are at the front of the queue at a red light, people will rev up behind you, ready to make up for lost time and zoom off the moment the light changes. But don’t pull out too fast, since if you do, you will likely be sideswiped by the car speeding across the intersection just after his light turned red. Italians have a saying: In Milan a traffic light is the law, in Rome it is good advice, in Naples it’s a Christmas decoration.

3. A civic sense is sorely lacking. Stuck in my car on the ring road, I get so fed up watching SUVs cruise down the emergency lane that I sometimes edge out into the lane to block their passage. This provokes indignant honking and cursing, a reminder that people are at their most self-righteous when they are in the wrong. When arriving in the centre of town on my moped looking for a spot to park, I head for the city’s shared bike bays. Since bike sharing was abandoned by the town hall years ago when all the bikes were quickly stolen, the bays have become very convenient places to park a moped.

4. Those who break the law are likely to be working at the town hall. The evidence is under your nose, especially when you are lying on your face after plunging into a pot hole. I have a map in my head of all the gaping holes to avoid en route to work. Occasionally, usually before local elections, they are filled with steaming dollops of asphalt, which get washed away after a few decent downpours. It’s been going on for decades, but only last month did it finally occur to investigators to arrest the bent bureaucrats taking bribes from road repairers to look the other way while they did shoddy work.

5. The end result is that Romans believe it’s every man for himself. In the decade that I have driven a moped in Rome, I have seen dozens of grisly crashes, but had just one myself, when I skidded over on a patch of oil, probably left by one of Rome’s clunking buses. I was lucky to avoid being flattened by a car as I picked myself up and pulled my moped to the side of the road where a gang of teenagers watched me curiously. “There’s a patch of oil there,” I said. “We know,” one replied gleefully. “You’re the fourth to skid in half an hour.”

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