September 30, 2004
The Italian Job
Diego Brasioli is a diplomat with a secret life. Italy's consul general in Los Angeles is not, a la John le Carré, a spy on the side. But he is, a la John le Carré, a novelist.
Brasioli has written a book, "Paradise Cafe," which sold surprisingly well in Italy and earned him numerous accolades. Published in Italian as "Il Caffe de Tamer" (Mursia ed.), it was nominated for the 2003 Giuseppe Berto prize, Italy's highest award for debuting writers.
"Paradise Cafe" is not a novel of suspense or espionage. It chronicles the life and death of a victim of terror. "Dori Goldman: a normal man with a normal background," reads the book's opening sentence. "He lived, however, in a situation that was all but normal."
Brasioli based his novel on a true story. While stationed in Beirut, he came across an article in The International Herald Tribune about an Israeli Jew, Avi Boaz, who was driving his best friend's son home when their car was ambushed by Palestinian terrorists.
It was just another brutal act in the course of the second intifada, which, as it enters its fifth year, has claimed some 4,300 lives. But what caught Brasioli's eye -- or more precisely his heart -- was that Boaz's best friend, the son's father, was a Palestinian. The terrorists let the son go, then shot and killed the Jew. Boaz was the second American to die in the second intifada. At the funeral, Arabs and Jews wept side by side.
"The picture shown of both families together at the funeral was really moving," Brasioli told me.
By the time Brasioli read the article, he had worked for several years in and around the Middle East. A native of Rome, the 43-year-old diplomat had been stationed in Jordan and Pakistan. As deputy director of the Ministry of Foreign affairs Middle East desk, he dealt with the Middle East peace process from its awakenings in Madrid to its death at Taba. After the Iraq War, he helped reopen the Italian government office in Baghdad. It seems that the slender, impeccably well-mannered diplomat with an appreciation for a good Amarone della Valpolicella and fine poetry is drawn to the front lines of ancient conflict and senseless killing.
At least two Italian diplomats before him, Niccolò Machiavelli in the 18th century and last century's Curzio Malaparte, sought to make sense of their world through fiction. Brasioli had written some short stories and articles before, but when he came across the funeral photo, a novel spilled forth. It was the symbol of the conflict he had been living with. "The conflict is political," he said, "and we tend to lose perspective that at the end of the day you have human being who suffer. Both people live in a state of siege."
"Paradise Cafe" is written from the point of the view of the Israeli. It is a spare book (I read an unpublished English manuscript translated by Paul Vangelisti), but compassionate and chilling and, even as it drives on toward its inevitably tragic conclusion, uplifting. Dori, the American-born Israeli, is no idealist. His friendship with the Palestinian restaurant owner Tamer, though, is simple and real.
At a time when the European press and intelligentsia, Bernard Henri-Levy notwithstanding, are generally lopsidedly anti-Israel, I mentioned to Brasioli that his novel was empathetic to all who suffered in the conflict, but markedly fair to the Israelis.
"I tried to avoid bias," he said.
He'd spent much time traveling in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, meeting with people on both sides: "They feel the way we would feel."
I spoke with Brasioli twice about his book, each time shadowed by some horrible terrorist event: the massacre of schoolchildren in Russia, the Beersheba bus bombings and the decapitation of hostages in Iraq.
The bad news has been so relentless that a senseless and cruel hostage taking that doesn't end in beheading, as in the case of the two Italian aide workers this week, is all the victory we could hope for.
In such times, I can see why a diplomat would turn to fiction; to try to make sense of something the politicians themselves can't figure out.
"Diplomats, we make reports," Brasioli said. "Political reports, economic reports. You don't talk about the human side. So I wanted to find a way to express my feelings over a conflict apart from political analysis."
The other spur may have been his own household. Brasioli's wife, Rana, is a Lebanese Muslim who lived through her nation's civil war. Brasioli himself is a Catholic, and the couple has two young children who blend both cultures.
"The conflict is between human beings who kill each other for an idea," he said. "It brings conflicting feelings to your mind and your heart. Writing it down is a way to clear your mind and heart."
We all go about our normal life and, in our secret, private life, try to come to grips with a situation that is "all but normal." Brasioli found a way that reaffirms humanity, not ideology.
"This is not the kind of book that will appeal to extremists," he said.