She attacked first

Dear Oriana,

You had never wanted your life story to be written. “I have never authorized, nor will I ever authorize, a biography,” you said once. So, it was with some trepidation that I approached “Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend”, by Cristina de Stefano, translated from the Italian by Marina Harss (Other Press, 2017. First published in Italian as “Oriana, una donna”, Rizzoli, 2013). However, much to my dislike, the trepidation soon died out: the author seemed to be intent on putting out any small hint of fire in this flat, well-behaved biography.

We are told that you were born in Florence, in 1929. Despite being poor, your parents were avid readers, and you grew up surrounded by books. Your father, Edoardo Fallaci, made his living as a woodcarver and was very active in the Italian anti-fascist resistance during World War II. Brought up by him to be “as tough as a boy”, you were taught to shoot and hunt at a very young age. When you were about 14 years old, you became a courier for the resistance, smuggling hand grenades inside heads of lettuce in the basket of your bicycle and carrying secret messages to anti-fascist fighters.

Brought up under the imperative to fight fascism, from a very young age you were used to challenging authority. Moreover, your mother Tosca, a housewife who had not been able to pursue her studies due to her gender and social class, had strongly encouraged you to study and to have a career. After the war, you entered medical school, and started working as a journalist to pay for your studies. Soon, you would leave university and become a full-time reporter – by then, largely a “man’s profession” in Italy. Years later, you would say that you became a journalist in part to “vindicate your mother”.

Initially dismissed for being a woman, you battled your way up from social columnist and celebrity reporter to celebrated war correspondent, novelist and controversial political interviewer, breaking boundaries for women in your field in Italy. After covering celebrities in Rome and in Hollywood, in the early 50’s, you spent extended periods at NASA in the early 60’s, reporting on the U.S. space program. In the late sixties, you headed for Vietnam to cover the war. You soon became one of the world’s preeminent war correspondents, flying from Saigon to Karachi, from Teheran and Mexico City to Tel Aviv.

You are best known for your confrontational interviewing tactics, and De Stefano’s book actually does a good job at sampling some of your finest moments. For example, when you asked Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya: “Do you know you are so unloved and unliked?”; or when you asked Henry Kissinger: “To what degree does power fascinate you?”, in an interview which may have contributed to his political demise; or when you began an interview with Gina Lollobrigida by stating: “I don’t think you’re as stupid as people say”, and followed it up with a question about the immoral nature of the amount of money actors were payed. When interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979, you criticized the condition of women in Iran. Khomeini responded, “If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to follow it. The chador is only for young and respectable women.” You immediately took off the chador you were wearing, and said, “That’s very kind of you, Imam. And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.” Angry, Khomeini, interrupted the interview and left the room, but you insisted you would only leave after getting the interview you had been promised. Khomeini conceded your point and returned the next day to complete the interview, but, rather than being diplomatic, you continued the interview on the same point you had left it at the previous day: “Let’s start where we left off yesterday: you were saying that I was indecent…

Even your extensive notes on people who refused to be interviewed are illuminating. For instance, your preparatory notes for an interview with Pope John Paul II are full of sharp questions, such as: “What do you think of the Inquisition? Why is the Church so obsessed with sex? Can one ask a pope if he has ever been in love? Why not? Why do you expect a lack of political engagement by Latin American priests but not by Polish priests?”

The book also does a good job at presenting the key aspects of your writing style. You never shied away from placing yourself at the centre, as if the interview was a stage and you were one of the main players. By structuring the interview as a literary piece, and by inserting in it your own personal feelings, you challenged the ideas of objectivity and neutrality in journalism. “I think there is still a place to be very personal and literary in journalism.” While never inventing the facts, you managed to be very creative in putting the pieces of the story together. You were sharp, witty, antagonistic, uncompromising and, more often than not, very entertaining.

I also appreciate the fact that, to some extent, the Oriana that emerges from De Stefano’s book dwells in contradictions: a hypochondriac who never feared to fly to dangerous warzones; an independent woman who was very passionate and romantic, often debasing herself for the man she loved; a truculent person who could be very vulnerable and tender (“She was fragile,” recalled one companion, “but she used aggressiveness as a shield. She attacked first. As a result, Americans were often terrified of her.”); a nomad obsessed with her roots; an atheist who admired Pope Benedict; a leftist with Islamophobic tendencies; a self-proclaimed anarchist and individualist who could often infuriate both sides in a given debate.

The biographer had access to personal papers – notes, manuscripts, journals, letters – and previously unpublished personal testimonies from people who knew you. Written in the present tense, with short sentences and easy vocabulary, De Stefano’s book reads like a fast-paced, action-packed novel. And that can be a little irritating: it gives the impression of being the simplified version of something that remains yet to be fully analysed. Furthermore, the book reads, at times, like a collage of direct quotes – and, worse still, the source of each quote is not even provided by the biographer through footnotes or endnotes.

Some reviewers commented that the biographer’s style is evocative of your own writing style, but I would beg to disagree: De Stefano’s writing is too tame to be compared to you. She is always ready to compromise; she never inserts herself in her narrative, never criticizes you nor analyses your contradictions. Her portrait ends up being too well-mannered and light-hearted, as if De Stefano were too afraid to go beyond what was expected of a well-meaning fan of your work. And that’s a shame.

This shortcoming becomes particularly clear in the chapter on your post- September 11 work, when you published three controversial books about Islam and the West. Those books sparked accusations of Islamophobia and destroyed your reputation as a journalist. De Stefano seems to want to prevent the overshadowing of your career by this late episode; she seems to demand that the reader should put your late work in perspective – as the work of a sick, old, lonely woman. However, in doing so, De Stefano glosses over your contradictions, trying to find excuses for your choices and beliefs – something that you would certainly have hated.

On the whole, I think this book can be read as a fast-pacing account of your tumultuous life and as an introduction to your work, but it will disappoint readers who are more familiar with your books. De Stefano analyses your choices under one simple aspect: the imperative to fight fascism that you experienced as a young girl, which then shaped your view of life as a tough battle. The need to oppose fascism, of any type, on the Left or on the Right, is her line in the sand, the measuring stick with which she judges people and governments,” writes the author. However, I think that can be a limiting perspective, because it evades criticism from the start: the Oriana that emerges from this portrait is a larger-than-life personality; not possibly a truculent, arrogant narcissist, but the only hero of her own story, solely driven by the quest for freedom. I think this is a very reducing picture – and not one which you would have liked either. It is too tame and neat a version of your life. And you were too much of an uncompromising, disobedient type to fit De Stefano’s neat picture.

Yours truly,

J.


Francisco de Goya, Queen of the Circus (Halfway There), c. 1779

“She’s never detached. She undertakes each meeting with the same passion and radical approach: “In my interviews I don’t act only on my opinions but also on my emotions. All of my interviews are dramas. I involve myself even on a physical level.” She doesn’t believe in objectivity: “When I take the subway in New York and see ads for newspapers that claim ‘Facts not Opinions,’ I laugh so hard the whole subway car shakes. What does that mean? I’m the one interpreting the facts. I always write in the first person.” –  Cristina de Stefano, “Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend”, translated from the Italian by Marina Harss

“For her, an interview is never neutral. It is an encounter, a collision, sometimes a love story. This exchange with a colleague regarding her methods is especially illuminating: “‘Do you go into your interviews with the powerful men of the earth with the intention of berating them?’ ‘Of course not! I go in with the desire to understand them.’ ‘Without preconceptions?’ ‘No, I have preconceptions, of course. But because I’m a reasonable human being, I can change my mind.’” She doesn’t like to be described as a journalist who is feared. “If they’re afraid of me, that’s too bad. I need a partner. An interview is like a duet in an opera.”

She doesn’t use insults as a weapon. When she is about to strike, she warns her interlocutor: “When I have to ask a brutal question, I always say, ‘Now I’m going to ask you a brutal question.’ I don’t write it down each time because it would be boring for the reader.

My questions are brutal because the search for truth is a kind of surgery. And surgery hurts.” She is frequently accused of combativeness, which she considers merely courage, as she explains to an American colleague: “Most of my colleagues don’t have the courage to ask the right questions. I asked Thiêu, the dictator in Saigon, ‘How corrupt are you?’” – Cristina de Stefano, “Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend”, translated from the Italian by Marina Harss


About the book

  • Other Press, 2017, translated from the Italian by Marina Harss, 289 p. Goodreads
  • First published in Italian as “Oriana, una donna”, 2013
  • My rating: 3 stars;
  • This book was read for Nonfiction November;
  • This book was kindly sent to me by Other Press for review.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Well she sounds utterly fascinating! Maybe I’ll look out for her own work rather than this biography though.

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    1. Yes, she was an interesting, controversial person. I hope you enjoy her books, Cathy! 🙂

      Like

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