Nemo propheta in patria…

Censorship is an invariable side-effect of totalitarian regimes. Only two options are open to writers who fall victim to it: either to abandon all hope of being published, or to publish abroad. Those who go for the second alternative would be well advised to choose a country, like the Netherlands, in which freedom of speech is well established.

Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas, who fled Nazi Germany with the help of André Gide and Aldous Huxley, soon founded a magazine in Holland. Writers persecuted by the Inquisition found publishers in Amsterdam or Leiden and created a tradition of cultural sanctuary.

Even today, it is in Holland that a courageous and dynamic publisher is printing this Italian novel in the language in which it was written.

It should be borne in mind that Imprimatur has been translated into 20 languages and published in 45 countries, which is something of a record for an Italian historical novel (the exception being The Name of the Rose).

There is, however, one country in which readers can’t find the book for love or money: democratic Italy, the writers’ homeland.

Recent elections have brought a new political formation to power in Italy. We shall see whether they abolish the editorial dictatorship which has prevented our books from returning to their own country or whether, as in the novel The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, everything changes so that things stay the way they are.

The strange story of this novel began in the Spring of 2001, when the manuscript was acquired by a publishing house belonging to a well known politician and businessman, who also happened to be Prime Minister. The book came out in March 2002 and, despite the fact that it had received almost no promotion whatever, immediately took fourth place among the top ten best-sellers listed by the Corriere della Sera. It soon sold out. The second edition, however, arrived four weeks late. And the third took even longer: the book was out of stock for almost three months and sales dropped to zero.

Meanwhile, in a newspaper belonging to the brother of the Prime Ministerial Publisher, a noted Catholic historian wrote an unusually hostile review of the book in which, referring to the (as yet unknown) authors, he commented: “We’ve had quite enough of people like this.”

Whereupon, quite inexplicably, the book disappeared from circulation. Internet was flooded with messages from readers vainly seeking a copy. Bookshops kept asking the publisher for another reprint and were invariably told “It’s on its way.” But “it” never came.

On the contrary, Imprimatur was excised from the publisher’s catalogues. It was as though it had never existed. Likewise, it was expunged from all websites when a number of readers began to point to the anomalies affecting its publication.

A few months later, there was even a little political earthquake. The man who had married the writers, Arch-priest and parish priest of Castelgandolfo where the Pope has his summer residence, was demoted and transferred without warning or valid explanation to a distant city: Constantia, on the Black Sea coast of Romania. Now, in antiquity, this was known as Tomi; and there Augustus exiled the poet Ovid for revealing in his writings the secrets of the Imperial Household.

The message could not have been clearer: he was being punished for a literary crime. The personage of the priest was indeed present in the novel (under another, easily identifiable, name) as the bishop who opens and concludes the narrative.

Everywhere else in the world, things went very differently. Imprimatur topped the list of best-sellers in all the countries in which it was published, even in some cases upstaging the Da Vinci Code for a few weeks. And this happened in lands very far removed from our culture: from Korea to Turkey, from Bulgaria to the Ukraine. Everywhere, critical reviews were particularly generous, a number of newspapers and weeklies even placing it before the novels of Umberto Eco. The rights to the next novels in the series were bought completely “blind”, i.e. before they’d been written.

Meanwhile, back in Italy, the Prime Minister’s publishing house presented the authors with statements of accounts containing curious anomalies. Fed up with all these strange goings-on, the writers and their agent asked for the contract to be dissolved, failing which, they would take the matter to court. The Prime Minister’s company accepted without demur.

In other countries, newspapers and TV stations interviewed the writers about their Italian misadventure and in major European countries, full-length documentaries were broadcast by public television corporations. One newspaper even interviewed the priest exiled to Romania. Foreign newspapers made rude comments on publishing in our country. In Italy, silence.

So, the writers opted for an embargo. They’d had enough of Italy. Henceforth, their books would be published only abroad, in translation. People speaking twenty languages and living in 45 different countries can read them. In Italy, they remain in the publishers’ drawer.

All this has, however, has had the effect of making a laughingstock of the “Italian system”: in Frankfurt and in the other international book fairs, the juicy tale has done the rounds. The bosses of Italy’s publishing houses have had to put up with the heavy gibes of their foreign colleagues. So, it came as a surprise when, in the spring of 2005, Italy’s second publishing group (the only one able to compete with their predecessors) made an offer. They would republish Imprimatur and bring out Secretum, the second novel in the series, that very autumn. Now, this was strange, given the normal rhythm of publishing houses, which always plan at least a year in advance. The writers consulted with their foreign publishers who warned them: beware of poisoned bait! The writers then requested a later date and contractual guarantees equal to those which they received abroad. Whereupon, the publisher simply vanished into thin air.

Readers of this preface will surely wonder: why all this?

As in every good thriller, you must read right to the end if you want to get to the answer. Reading Imprimatur, you will learn that the authors, when conducting research on which to base their historical thriller, drew upon original documents. You will discover that some of these documents, which historians had been seeking for centuries, were at last traced by the authors in the Vatican’s Secret Archives and in the Rome State Archives and published in the appendix to this book; and that these texts undermine the reputation of a Pope who was beatified in 1956. A Pope who, one reads in the novel, was responsible for grave offences against the Catholic religion itself, and has been unjustly honoured.

After September 11th 2001, preparations were made in the Vatican for a colossal ceremony at which this Pontiff was to be canonised. He had indeed been the architect of the Christian victory at the battle of Vienna on 12 September 1683 which saved Europe from the Turks. For this reason, the Vatican destined him for sainthood: his canonisation would officially sanction the Church’s support for the international mobilisation against Islam. Once Imprimatur was out, with its revelations, the project went up in smoke.

The rest of the story is in the public domain. In St. Peter’s Square, on 27 April 2003, a secondary figure was beatified: the unknown Capuchin friar Marco d’Aviano, the factotum in Vienna of the less-than-virtuous Pope. Suddenly, after three hundred years on the waiting list, his beatification had become urgent.

An attempt was, however, made to give the event a high profile. Long articles appeared in the main Italian newspapers. The Corriere della Sera carried a banner headline: “The beatification that will make Islam tremble”. In the East, they laughed and asked who this Marco d’Aviano was… Of the absent prime mover, the Pope of Imprimatur, nothing was said. The press performed acrobatics in order to skate over the name of the Pontiff who gave Marco d’Aviano his orders. It was like a biography of Sancho Panza that never mentioned Don Quixote.

This, then, is how a mere historical novel, set in Rome three centuries ago, caused ructions in newspapers, publishing houses, and even in the Vatican. Anyway, it could not have been otherwise. A few clear warning signs – the anathema cast by the Catholic historian, the exile of the parish priest of Castelgandolfo – marked the launching of a boycott of Imprimatur. And no Prime Ministerial Publisher, with a variegated parliamentary majority to be held together at all costs, could possibly remain insensitive to such pressures.

There has been much discussion in Italy as to whether it is opportune that the same person should own football teams, palaces, newspapers, insurance companies, half the television channels, bookshops and the main concentration of publishing houses, and, in addition be allowed to exercise the office of Prime Minister. In our view, the question (the answer to which should be pretty obvious) has not been well framed. One wonders, rather, why he should not be made Pope, too.

How will it all end? We do not know. For the time being, there is no room for us in a country in which the owners of almost all bookshops and of the main publishing groups can sit comfortably around a table for four.

At the beginning of 2005 this concentration of power, which is unparalleled in any civilised country, went so far as to exclude from their bookshop chains practically all small publishers, in other words, those who do not sit at the high table of the famous four. Meanwhile, in those newspapers which are the PR organs of the system, the usual hacks with their snake-oil sales-talk blare forth their bare-faced propaganda with its grotesquely over-inflated sales figures (just ask any bookseller…). There is, of course, a fig leaf: the books of independent publishers are also mentioned: to little avail, as they are not to be found in any of the outlets belonging to the ‘famous four’. So that, rather than return home empty-handed, readers end up buying titles sold by that cartel.

Thus the noose set by this pseudo-élite, led by the Prime-time Ministerial Publisher, has tightened around the necks of all independent writers and publishers, and above all those of ordinary readers, who are being kept in the dark about the existence of thousands of titles.

It can scarcely come as a surprise if the ‘Italian system’, as in the days of Fascism, confines dissident writers and joins the list of countries like Iran, Chad or Albania, where the art of writing leads to exile.

We shall know soon enough whether the electoral discomfiture of the PM-publisher will have the beneficial effect of bringing the country’s exiles back home, or whether the system is simply too rotten to be susceptible of reform.

Through Internet, an Imprimatur fan club has been formed, a group of Italian readers keen to right this paradoxical situation.

It is thanks to the encouragement of our readers and the many requests which we have received for a reprint that this edition of Imprimatur is coming out, one which maintains our embargo of protest against the “Italian system”: this book will not be obtainable in Italian bookshops but only via Internet, in Italian bookshops abroad and in foreign bookshops in Italy.

To our publisher De Bezige Bij and their courageous editor Robert Ammerlaan we offer our heartfelt thanks for enabling us to satisfy our readers’ demands.

May 2006

Monaldi & Sorti