I am asbestos ascending steel” Alberto Prunetti writes about himself. An incipit sentence. Instead, it is more than halfway through the memoir that asbestos, a mineral with killer fibres, is put in the title. And rightly so. Because the hero of the book is Renato, Alberto’s father, a pipe welder, a metalworker to the core, a life dealing with the sparks of the welding machine, with industrial fumes, heavy metals, with the thin asbestos that should protect from danger immediate fire and instead, slowly, kills him prematurely, at 59 years old. The author projects him on stage in a pose of a Polycletian statue in chiasmus, one knee bent, more waiting than rest. And it’s action right away: «he grabs the grinding wheel: with a blow of the mallet on the head of a screwdriver with a beveled handle, in the opposite direction to the direction of rotation, he loosens the ring nut that fixes the brush and inserts a cutting disc. Then, with his gloved thumb, he pushes the switch up. The blade immediately begins to spin at a speed of ten thousand revolutions per minute. Bring the disk closer to the gray tube. Upon contact with the blade the noise changes, it transforms into a metallic scream, followed by an explosion of sparks and the upward projection of a dry shower of fibrous and regular particles”.
The gestures are exact, measured in detail, as befits a “working class hero” from Livorno who is always on the move, dealing with the industrial chimera, a “legionnaire” (this is how veterans in the factory and refinery are called), to a front-line worker who keeps his tools as efficient as the guns of a protagonist of spaghetti westerns, the films that Renato and Alberto devour together with family complicity. The fibrous and poisoned darts unfortunately fall towards the ground and onto men, all it takes is for one to stick in the trachea to cause a tumor, decades later. So there is also fate in this counter-epic (Prunetti prefers to call it a “raging epic”) and class destinies return to the bookstore, in a society that is increasingly less mobile and increasingly marked by deaths at work (an average of 80 victims per month, in the first half of 2023, according to INAIL data).
It is the case of Asbestos, published in 2012 and 2014 by small publishing houses such as Agenzia Books such as appear at the festivals The passion for renewal. My years in Federmeccanica by Fabio Storchi, published last year by Marsilio, the changes in the working world told from a different perspective from that of the Prunetti family. It’s not just an Italian trend. In October, Englishman Allen Lane releases Beauty is on the street (Beauty is on the way) by Joachim Haeberlen, in which the squares and streets of Europe in turmoil – for social reasons above all – since the middle of the last century, flow as if in the montage of a film. If the next edition of the Class Festival in Bristol (which was a great success at its launch in 2021) has been postponed until autumn next year, the Campi Bisenzio working class literature festival, directed by Prunetti himself, dragged last spring a demonstration audience in the GNK factory. Last year the Tuscan writer managed to get it published by Bompiani To the Line, a work in free verse by his French friend Joseph Ponthus, trained as a specialized educator, who became a temporary worker in a canned fish factory to follow the woman he loved to Brittany. The production line chains gestures and thoughts but allows poetry to emerge. In France it was a best-seller. After the publication of the book, Ponthus, who passed away in 2021, was fired from the Breton factory.
The new proletarians are not just workers. In the same days as Amianto it was released by Mondadori The boss by Francesco Pacifico: characters from popular and bourgeois backgrounds confront each other, all entangled in a plot of subtle blackmail and psychological and sexual abuse. «The Italian office manager is a figure still little investigated. I learned that an old friend has become one of those bosses who yells at newly hired girls. Her colleagues find them queuing for the bathroom waiting to sit on the toilet lid and cry.” This is how the Roman author starts and the style seems to be that of denunciatory literature; then the story of the protagonist Gaia who meets the writer-confessor on a very empty night during the first lockdown takes on surreal nuances. André Breton’s strange rendezvous with the mad Nadja come to mind. In the pages of Pacifico, the foundation where Gaia works manages to emanate her labyrinths outside and the existences are revealed in a game of Chinese boxes parallel to the one that governs multinational companies. Here too is the monster. In Prunetti’s book, a Ligurian refinery has the appearance of a dragon; in Pacifico’s the beast of abuse is made up of two bodies in an embrace of demonic possession. Gaia disappears from the fading fiction-truth. In 2021, a Supreme Court ruling established a link between office bullying and suicide.
Prunetti with a 60 on his high school diploma, the scholarship drunk in the bars of the Maremma, the festivals, the translations, the many books read to evade fate – «I feel more like Jack London’s nephew than Emile Zola’s» – today he considers himself a cognitive proletarian, with a damaged back and poor earnings. «Today in Italy the riskiest environment is that of construction, but exposure to asbestos still occurs in countries where controls are more lax, such as India and Brazil», he says. His memories tell indirectly, with the crisis of the working aristocracy to which his father belonged, the wild globalization of work, migrations, delocalisations, lost social conquests. If you read the stories between hyperrealism and hallucination of Deepak Unnikrishnan in Temporary lives (Waterlines, 2017) on the semi-slave conditions of the workers of the Indian subcontinent at the service of the architectural hubris of the Gulf Emirates, one shudders with shame. And it seems like looking into an unknown social world to scroll through the verses of New workers, migrant worker poets of neo-Confucian and capital-communist China, for example in the poems of Xiao Hai: «All we can do is let the mystery of these words/Made in China/ proudly fill every river that flows/into the four oceans and on the seven continents.” In the poetic assembly line, pride and despair are assembled together. Lives opaque in appearance, which, once rubbed by the story, shine; deaths that we should no longer call white (or maybe yes, because white is the color of ghosts).
Alberto Prunetti gave poetic justice to Renato. An old Brazilian song by Chico Buarque comes back to your ears, Construction (construction): an anonymous worker climbs onto a scaffolding, puts up «magic walls», stumbles in the sky like a drunk and soars into flight like a bird to fall to the ground like a flaccid package and die against his hand, «disturbing the Saturday”. Today, perhaps, the meaning of a literature of workers, not just workers, is to disturb the increasingly less serene Western Saturdays.