The early 1970s were years when Italian cities reverberated with political chants, wildcat strikes and utopian demands. Everlasting meetings convened in dry, dusty rooms full of cigarette smoke, with many of the young participants busy looking for ways to get by without regular jobs, spinning out their college careers. This was the time the Italians call the ‘Years of Conflict’ (gli anni di contestazione) or, more bleakly, the ‘Years of Lead’ (as in bullets).
Balestrini’s The Unseen is a personal, grimly accurate testament to that period. The story it tells — recalled from inside the riotous mayhem of a maximum security prison full of young ‘politicals’ — is of a working-class youngster living and participating in that half-demented, half-amazing era. The protagonist starts as an idealist working for social justice but is eventually dragged into a circle of gun-toting fanatics who have left any original ideals far behind in their talk of power and violence.
As well as its atmosphere of slogans and tear gas, The Unseen offers convincing documentation of the unglamorous side of the boom years that preceded the wild 1970s. What Balestrini doesn’t transmit so well is the youthful optimism (and, perhaps, the ridiculous arrogance) that made this generation believe it was on the threshold of a new world it would somehow manage to build out of songs and dreams. He does however accurately describe how rapidly (and strangely) a large-scale movement in Italy was precipitated into isolated acts of violent terrorism, a wave of bombings and assassinations by ‘revolutionary armed bands’, most notoriously the ‘Brigate Rosse’ (Red Brigades) and how revolutionary dreams ended for some in long years of incarceration ordered by a political establishment that was alternately cruel and frightened, bewildered and devious. A mess and a morass, and one it would be good to be able to say that Italy is well out of — but with almost the entire political and economic élite of the nation exposed as being up to their necks in corruption when will it be possible to say that?
‘the streets are busy all the time with groups of comrades the evenings are high-spirited lively noisy with our sounds shouts songs music they’re made colourful by our jackets scarves skirts hats the walls are one long stretch of graffiti...with slogans one on top of the other against the bosses against sweated labour against all work against the ghettos against the clergy against the mayor against the trade unions against the parties against the city council against men against heroin against fascists against cops against judges against the state...against the family against school against sacrifices against boredom.’ p173