Festivaletteratura…The Best Literary Festival in the World

I’ve just got back from four days at the festivaletteratura, the most wonderful literary festival – I’d be tempted to say – in the world. Not only an amazing line up (well ME… oh yeah and Toni Morrison, Neil Macgreggor, Roddy Doyle, Luis Sacher and a whole long and gorgeous list of writers from Italy and around the world) but the most ravishingly lovely setting, Mantova, the city Romeo ran away to when he quit Verona,recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mantova sits like a queen on a throne, in the middle of a lake in the Po valley. As you approach the city, rushing across the long bridge over the silk-smooth water, the vast 15th Century walls of the Ducal palace, meet you, grand and solemn. Behind them is a world of internal courtyards and towers, colonnades and gorgeously frescoed halls. Mategna filled a room with ‘La Familia Gonzaga’, whose expressions and clothes are still as fresh and clear as if the paint had only just dried. Pisanello roughed out a fresco the size of a tennis court but never finished it (I like to think he was wooing some local beauty who he wasn’t supposed to be wooing and had to make a quick gettaway). The Ducal palace is just the start of Mantova’s delights – there is grand and domestic architecture from 600 years of Italian invention, plus all the usual happinesses of Italian street culture – fabulous food, loud conversation and a general delight in being alive and in the moment. Oh, and did I mention the sunshine? After the long, wet punishment of this last Summer in the UK, it felt like a personal blessing to have to wear sunglasses.

The Mantovani LOVE the festivaletteratura. They flock to it from every street, from every town and village for miles around. It’s like Bethlehem Dec 24th in the year nought – if you want a bed and you haven’t booked it, you’ll be sleeping in a manger. Cars and bicycles are left parked in drifts and odd angles, as if their owners just couldn’t wait to get out and hear what writers have to say. The book shop is stuffed with people and by the time the festival ends, the shelves look like fields after a swarm of locusts has passed through.

To be in the company of such book lovers, in such a place is beyond wonderful for a writer. All those cold, dark days alone in front of a sullenly blank screen, with your feet in four pairs of socks because the advance is late and you can’t afford to turn the heating on; those days when stacking supermarket shelves seems a more justifiable way of spending your time or when a beloved title goes out of print like a child dying in the night. ALL those days don’t matter any more: you are in the sunshine and these lovely Mantovani want to hear what you have to say, want to read your words.

For me, and I suspect almost every other writer who comes to Mantova, there are more direct inspirational benefits too, things about the place and the people that feed directly into your work. When I came to Mantova for the first time six, perhaps even seven, years ago, I found the location for an image which had been sprouting in my head. This is the way stories always begin for me, with a single, emotion-charged picture swimming into focus in my brain. The moment I stepped into the Piazza in front of the Ducal palace, with its high rows of pigs-trotter battlements, I knew I had found the location for the final scene in my story, although I wasn’t sure what the rest of the story would be. The wide old spaces of Mantova’s piazza’s haunted my dreams, and over several more visits to Italy, the vivid images began to join up into a narrative that became a book, written but not yet published.

So far it’s called ‘The Silent Circus’ – although I’m not great with titles and that may change. It’s set in a fairy tale world, based on Mantova, the Po valley and the Dolomites, in the early 15th century. It’s about a child called Mite, his friend – a bat called Sneeze – and their companions in a troupe of traveling acrobats and performers. All are children, bought or stolen from poor familes, by the beautiful but wicked circus trainer and owner, Manco; all the children are dumb, voiceless from birth or made so at the hands of Manco’s cruel sidekick Guido and his white-hot iron pincers. Manco presents a lovely face to the world, handsome and charming, a kind benefactor to orphans, giving the children in his care a skill and a chance to live a glamourous life on the hire wire above the flame-lit piazzas of towns and villages all over the province. But there is a terrible, dark secret at the heart of The Silent Circus: Manco hires out his young agile performers as thieves and slaves; any child returned to him damaged, is simply killed.The children live in fear and sadness, poisoned by cruelty and misuse and kept captive by their own inability to speak out. But Manco is greedy and when he comes to Mantova to collude with corrupt Nobility and merchants and pull off a great and daring crime, he over stretches himself. In the Mantova of my story, as in the real Mantova, there are ordinary people who can read, who can write and who can think, people who have rejected ignorance and slavery. With the help of a young Mantovani musician, Mite and Sneeze find a voice for the voiceless children and reveal the dark heart of the Silent Circus and of the city’s rulers. The poison of Manco’s lies and deceit, and the corruption of the ruling nobility and officialdom is revealed to the Mantovani, who take the children to their hearts.

I finished the book three years ago but when I came back to Mantova this year, I found that, as so many times in my writing life, things which I thought I’d made up, turn out to be true. Just as there is a dark secret at the heart of the Silent Circus and the Mantova of my story, so the real, modern Mantova has a dark secret: I learned from a group of local Mantova mums that there is an underground wave of deadly pollutants – benzene and other powerful carcinogenic petrochemical leftovers – making its way through the aquifers around Mantova towards that silky lake. Its secret, invisible presence can already be discerned in the foods of which the area is so proud – the dairy products and meat, raising the incidence of tumours in the local population and showing its ugly face in human breast milk: Mantovani babies are being poisoned by this deadly secret on their mother’s breasts.

Once the wave progresses through the aquifers and makes it into the lakes, there will be no stopping it. It will explode through the ecosystem and the food chain of the region, poisoning everything faster than you can say ‘World Heritage Site’. When people hear the word Mantova they will no longer think of Romeo or festivaletteratura but of Bhopal, Chernobyl and Serviso.

Fortunately, while it is still relatively contained in the aquifers, the dark secret poison can be stopped. It won’t be cheap, the equivalent of four euros per head of the Italian population – one less slice of pizza per person. But at the moment the solution and the terrible irreversible consequences of not financing it, are being lost in a sea of pointless bickering over who is to blame. No one is prepared to take responsibility and act. And while local industry and government squabble, the silent, secret poison creeps ever closer, bringing lovely Mantova closer to ruin, every moment.

A local doctor Gloria Costani,(who uncovered the high incidence of tumours in the region) her husband, Paolo Rabitti, a scientist and legal advisor, and a group of parents, scared for the future of their kids, ‘The Mantua Mums’, are trying to spread the word amongst the ordinary citizenry of the city, but they are faced with a wall of denial and silence.

I’m hoping that once more my story will prove to be true. That the good, book-loving Mantovani, the readers who reject ignorance and like to think, will pull this dark secret out into the light. Will describe it clearly, in words so they can understand the threat it poses to the life of their City and then they will act, to reject darkness and lies and poison and safeguard the future of the children of Mantova.

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