Silvio Berlusconi is not a laughing stock. This was to be my original line for this piece; it was to be a lament about the British media and how it has always failed to take him seriously.
How many times over the years have I been rung up by journalists asking about his latest pronouncement or gaffe? Berlusconi has said he won’t have sex for a month. Any comments? Berlusconi has had a hair transplant, what’s your expert opinion? Berlusconi has said that fascism was a benign regime that “sent people to holiday camps”. Your reaction?
It used to drive me mad.
This was a man who had made millions from a construction, media, publishing and sporting empire, who invented a political party from nothing and won a general election soon afterwards. His political project was fascinating and important. But all we were asked about was the trivia, the fluff, the stuff that matched the stereotypical image of Italy as a borderline-lawless basket case.
But then My Way: Berlusconi in his own words turned up in my pigeon-hole. I started looking at the photos and the blurb. And I’m afraid I was already laughing.
There’s a picture of “Berlusconi with his current girlfriend Francesca Pascale in 2015” (they put the date, just in case). There’s Berlusconi in deep conversation with Barack Obama “in the Oval Office”, which carries the brilliant caption “Obama was standoffish in general, but ultimately took Berlusconi’s side against Sarkozy, Merkel and Lagarde during the euro crisis”. There’s Berlusconi with Bill Clinton, with Vladimir Putin (of course), with George Bush (again, of course), with his own five kids (minus ex-wives), with Gorbachev, with his mother, and last but not least with Hillary Clinton (Berlusconi knows which way the wind is blowing).
But the laughter quickly faded. I had, of course, seen this all before.
No laughing matter
I lived in Italy for 20 years, and I have written almost constantly about Berlusconi in various contexts. I demonstrated against him on a number of occasions. For many years, he dominated the lives of almost everyone in Italy.
Berlusconi has always been a genius at selling himself – his life story, his smile, his success, his sex life, his money, his sporting prowess. He once said that “I sell sales” and stated, famously, that “I am condemned to win”. He dominated Italian political (and judicial) life for more than two decades, and against all probability, stayed out of jail.
He tried to pass laws making himself immune from prosecution, and changed the law to alter his own trials and their outcomes. Yet he always seemed to get away with it; his trials tended to end with him being cleared, or (more often) judicial time simply ran out.
Meanwhile, he just kept winning. He came back from the political dead time and again. Even in 2013, despite numerous scandals and a deep economic crisis, he came within a whisker of winning again. Even from the outside he still holds sway over the current coalition government, having been banned from parliament thanks to his prosecution for tax evasion – the first and only time the judges actually managed to make a case stick.
His legacy is everywhere, not least in the political system itself. Many people argue that Matteo Renzi, the young centre-left prime minister, has shown signs of modelling himself on Berlusconi.
So, does My Way add anything to this story?
The original project seems to have come from Rizzoli books, a publisher that has just been purchased by Mondadori (Berlusconi’s own publishing conglomerate). Coincidence? Who knows?
As rendered by author and interviewer Alan Friedman, who knows Italy well, this book is flowery and bombastic. We start with a meeting with Putin, who praises Silvio as “a remarkable, straightforward and very interesting man” who “will surely assume his deserved place in Italian history”.
Then we go to Arcore, Berlusconi’s sumptuous palace outside Milan, where he has already built himself an enormous tomb. Arcore, for Friedman, “was Berlusconi’s Rosebud”. He also describes it as “an Italian version of Camp David”.
There follows a potted history of Berlusconi’s rags-to-riches early life, before quickly moving on to the making of his first fortune in Milan’s 1960s construction industry. Descriptions of Berlusconi’s gesticulations are mixed with long quotes.
Any tension quickly dissipates. There is little here that’s controversial or new, and it’s all highly controlled. The controversial purchase of the villa at Arcore is glossed over (there are entire books about this case). And this is a pattern that repeats itself time and again. Every time we get close to controversy, or an event about which various versions exist, Friedman pulls his punches.
Frost-Nixon? Hardly. When the going gets tough, the answers (and questions) mysteriously dry up.
Man versus world
My Way is perfectly titled. This is the story of Berlusconi against the world, Berlusconi as fighter for freedom – economic freedom, freedom from communists, freedom from a conspiratorial judiciary. Everything which doesn’t fit is simply left out, or glossed over.
There is nothing new here. No revelations. No scoops. Nothing. The section on football, for example, is mundane in the extreme. In the end, this book even manages to make Berlusconi and his extraordinary career quite dull. And that’s quite an achievement.
If you want to read pages and pages of a powerful man’s hero-worship of himself, this is the book for you. But there is a lot of serious journalism about the man out there; if you really want to know about Berlusconi, read those books, not this one.
In the end, I found the whole experience incredibly depressing. This book is like being trapped in a corner of a terrible party with a crashing bore. For hours.