Oriana Fallaci

Start Free Trial

The Economist (review date 14 November 1964)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Report—Italian Style," in The Economist, Vol. 213, November 4, 1964, p. 715.

[In the following review, the critic considers Fallaci's descriptions of women's liberation around the world in The Useless Sex.]

The motive behind this book [The Useless Sex] is "a reportage on the status of women." The author departs via Ankara for points east to inquire into the conditions of the female species, accompanied by a Roman photographer who grows more and more disillusioned about his chances of amorous escapades as the trip proceeds.

The result is totally subjective, not very profound, but interesting and often amusing. The theme is a natural for an illustrated weekly like L'Europeo, parcelled into installments with illustrations: it does not adapt so well to book form. One keeps reading about Duilio taking photographs and feels frustrated at not seeing any. To compensate, Signorina Fallaci has a true Italian eye for colour, costume and decor, combined with professional skill in reporting the various interviews en route, and she greets new people and places with a receptive mind.

There are excellent descriptions of the oppressive isolation of Moslem women, shrouded in purdah, who cannot conceive the meaning of love matches, and are still married, in tears, at fourteen. In India the author is shocked at the drastic use of sterilization as one solution to population problems, and the Indian women themselves are confused by the ethics involved: "We have all changed so quickly. We're all a bit bewildered," says one intelligent, educated woman. A good section pinpoints the difference between the women of Hong Kong and those of communist China, the former the most attractive in Asia," the latter wearing plaits, shapeless garments and no makeup. But on both sides of the border they have escaped literally from bondage, epitomized most cruelly by the barbaric custom of binding girls' feet until the bones broke, to achieve the requisite minuteness for finding a husband. As in India, emancipation is a mixed blessing: "People who haven't lived through our metamorphoses cannot understand our bewilderment, our relief and our fears."

In Japan too women seem somewhat disoriented by their new freedom. Here, unlike India, they abandon traditional costume, dye their hair, achieve Western eyes in a fifty minute operation and bolster their bosoms with injections, thus achieving only ugliness in Signorina Fallaci's eyes. So is one to look for the true Japanese woman among the geisha girls? The author and her companions find this approach even more disillusioning, not to say expensive, but the whole Japanese episode is treated vividly both in character and landscape sketches. Perhaps the journey should have ended there: the final passages on Hawaii and especially America are perfunctory and bored in tone. The attitude to American women is too "anti" to have much meaning, in contrast to the open mind displayed elsewhere. It might have been more profitable to carry the inquiries on to home ground. A report on the conditions of Italian women would reveal a lot.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Oriana Fallaci 1930–

Italian journalist and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Fallaci's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 11.

Best known as a hard-nosed interviewer to whom, as Elizabeth Mehren of the Los Angeles Times said, "virtually no world figure would say no," Oriana Fallaci is a writer who combines the methods of fiction with the reporting of facts. She is a valuable contributor to a genre of writing known as new journalism, or creative non-fiction, which includes writers such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese. Fallaci's personality plays a strong role in...

(This entire section contains 1234 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

her writing. As she states in her bookIntervista con la storia (1974; Interview with History): "On every professional experience I leave shreds of my heart and soul; and I participate in what I see or hear as though the matter concerned me personally and were one on which I ought to take a stand." Fallaci eschews objectivity to get at the truth, a controversial approach that has gained her notoriety, but which illustrates her belief that she is not simply a journalist, but also a chronicler of her time.

Biographical Information

Oriana Fallaci was born on June 29, 1930 in Florence, Italy, the daughter of Edoardo and Tosca Fallaci. Edoardo, a cabinet maker and politician, was a leader of the Resistance in Italy during World War II. Fallaci began writing what she called "short naive stories" at age nine and was involved in the Resistance as a teenager. To pursue her writing ambitions, at sixteen she became a reporter in Florence for Il Mattino. She later became special correspondent for the journals Epoca and L'Europeo, and eventually contributed articles to Corriere della sera, Le Nouvelle Observateur, The New York Times, Life, New Republic, Washington Post, and Der Stern. Initially she interviewed show-business personalities like Dean Martin and Michael Caine, but she soon found her true calling: interviewing political figures such as Henry Kissinger, Yasir Arafat, Golda Meir, Nguyen Cao Ky, The Shah of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Mu'ammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi. "I do these interviews to understand the person, to study how power takes place," said Fallaci. She has won several awards for journalism in Italy and North America and has been a university lecturer at Yale, Harvard, Chicago and Columbia. She is a two-time winner of the St. Vincent prize for Journalism and was awarded the Bancarella prize in 1971 for Niente e cosi sia (1969; Nothing, and So Be It), her account of the Vietnam war. She received an Honorary Doctorate in Letters from Columbia College (Chicago) and earned the Viaggio Prize for Un uomo (1979; A Man), a novelistic account of Fallaci's experiences with Alexandros Panagoulis, a Greek political activist who was killed on May 1, 1976. Fallaci met Panagoulis for an interview two days after he was released from a five-year prison term served for an assassination attempt on Greek dictator Georgios Papadopoulos. Fallaci and Panagoulis became lovers and were together until his death. Fallaci claims to never have written for money. Her motivation, she relates, has been "a great emotion, both a psychological or political and … intellectual emotion." The influence of Fallaci's interviews is legendary; for example, a 1972 peace treaty between India and Pakistan was jeopardized because of comments elicited from Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto during an interview with Fallaci. Her approach is unconventional, but effective. As she told journalist Mike Wallace on CBS's 60 Minutes: "I hate objectivity…. I do not believe in objectivity, I believe in what I see, what I hear, and what I feel."

Major Works

Fallaci's work has been translated from the original Italian into many languages, including English, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Dutch, Croatian, and Greek. She is drawn to issues of power, although she has developed other themes. An early book, Il sesso inutile (1961; The Useless Sex), covered the status of women around the world at that time. Fallaci has observed that "when you are a woman, you have to fight more. Consequently, to see more and to think more and to be more creative." Gender is also an important issue in A Man which Fallaci considers her most important work. In it she explores the male heroic ideal exemplified by Greek freedom fighter Alexandros Panagoulis. War is a central focus in several of her works, most notably in Nothing, and So Be It, a reportage on the Vietnam war that placed Fallaci among the critics of American involvement. She returned to the subject of war in Inshallah (1990), where she covers the Lebanon conflict from the Italian camp. In Se il sole muore (1965; If the Sun Dies), Fallaci reported on the American space program and in Lettera a un bambino mai nato (1975; Letter to a Child never Born), written after the miscarriage of her child, she deals with abortion, motherhood, and death. Commonly regarded as Fallaci's most significant work is Interview with History, a collection of interviews with commentary by the author. In the book, prominent political figures of her time are confronted in the provocative manner that is Fallaci's trademark. She confronts her subjects with probing skepticism and a consuming desire to have her questions answered. "I went with a thousand feelings of rage, a thousand questions that before assailing them were assailing me," Fallaci explained. She observed that "those who determine our destiny are not really better than ourselves; they are neither more intelligent nor stronger nor more enlightened than ourselves."

Critical Reception

Fallaci's writing and interviewing methods have met with mixed appraisal. By some she is seen as a fresh voice in a new genre, while others see in her work a violation of fundamental tenets of journalism. The latter opinion is voiced, for example, by Vivian Gornik in The New York Times Book Review who, in discussing A Man, complains of a "passionate enslavement" to a "poetic ideal," and finds that when the techniques of fiction are applied to reportage the writing is particularly troublesome, due to a lack of self-control. Jeffrey Burke also noted a tendency for poetic excess and for polemic. However, many critics applaud Fallaci's approach. John C. Kendrew, reviewing If the Sun Dies, saw it as "one of very few pioneer works in a new genre: the criticism of science and technology as ways of life, as sets of values" and praised her method, which although imperfect, he saw as "breathing with life." Many reviewers have found in Fallaci's direct confrontation of her subjects an engaging application of the journalistic method. They maintain that Fallaci gets extraordinary results due not only to the degree of preparation she brings, but also to the knowledge and intelligence she applies to her trade. David Sanford uses the term "surgical journalism" to explain how Fallaci dissects an interview subject until she gets to the truth. Furthermore, Santo L. Arico remarks that Fallaci's methods are akin to those of cinéma vérité and direct cinema in that her comprehensive study of and involvement with her subjects stimulates disclosures that a more objective, detached approach would not. Another similarity to these kinds of documentary film techniques is Fallaci's habit of commenting on the unfolding story, the whole resulting in a kind of "psychodrama," not simply an interview. Arico concludes that "Fallaci's virtue as a writer lies precisely in showing the possibility of something strikingly different in journalism and in furthering efforts to replace earlier types of fiction with a new brand of literature."

Peter J. Henniker-Heaton (review date 17 November 1966)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Diary of an Infatuation with the Future," in Christian Science Monitor, November 17, 1966, p. 14.

[In the following review, Henniker-Heaton relates the style and substance of Fallaci's If the Sun Dies, which she describes as a "diary of a year in my life."]

"This book," writes Oriana Fallaci in her first chapter [of If the Sun Dies], "is the diary of a year in my life." After serving with the Italian underground against the Nazis, she received at age 14 her honorable discharge and $23.50. A diary of any year in her life could be interesting.

But Miss Fallaci, as she carefully makes plain, doesn't go for religion or prayers or an afterlife; else she might have been cautious and recalled that old saying about man proposing and God disposing. Her book begins as a personal diary; but in no time its theme takes over.

Its theme is the future. Sometimes this future looks like the moon, sometimes like Mars, or a rocket at lift-off, or that state of mind called America. Always, underneath, it is the five billion years left before the sun dies. Five billion years of furious living. Five billion years of grace in which humanity has to find itself new homes in new planetary systems with younger or longer lived suns.

A Chinese courtship

Swiftly the diary becomes the chronicle of a passionate wooing. Many handwritings contribute. It is a wooing of Florence by New York, or possibly of New York by Florence. The intermediaries are several: Houston, Texas, and Cocoa Beach, Florida, Huntsville and White Sands and Las Cruces.

In spite of its intensity the wooing unfolds with the slow complex inexorability of a traditional Chinese courtship. Here on hand are the groom's supporters, the Magnificent Seven, the original astronauts, alive in three dimensions, perhaps four. Here are the lesser astronauts of the second and third batches. The nurse and doctor of the astronauts. Their wives and their children. None of them doodled or squeezed into the margin; each perceptively drawn squarely on the page in full color.

Here, too, are the marriage brokers, acting for the future; Willy Ley, the rocket expert who fled before the Nazis in 1935. Wernher von Braun, the rocket expert who made his smooth get-away from Peenemünde in 1945, Ernst Stuhlinger, the rocket expert who broke it to Oriana that the moon's surface is black, not gold. And the Master of Ceremonies who decides which astronaut shall interview whom, and the great Chief who decides which astronaut shall go up on which mission; and all the minor functionaries and officials, endlessly intertwined like a Maurits Escher drawing. And somewhere, hidden away in the innermost throne room, controlling the strings of power, is NASA itself.

Astronauts and Florence

Back in Florence is the lady's family. Particularly her father, devoted to the old ways, devoted to the earth, certain that no good can come from rockets and star travel and the whole five billion years ahead. In vain his daughter tells him of the plan hatched by her and the astronauts to steal the cheese with holes in it, of which the moon is made; or to set up a chain of drive-in restaurants on the planets. And he remains unimpressed by her story of the astronauts all standing round a swimming pool in their trunks exchanging quotes from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." All right, metalaw is the law of the galaxies. Then let his daughter discuss it face to face with the science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury. For himself he will have none of it. So she marries the future without her father's consent, but with all the proprieties of metalaw; and she settles down in New York.

With mighty NASA itself, Miss Fallaci never even asks for an interview. Throughout her chronicle Oriana is something of a Model 1966 Alice. Perhaps she is afraid. Perhaps, if she penetrates to the final throne room, she will find no one, nothing, there. Then the astronauts and all the other strange unbelievable characters who throng her pages will come tumbling about her head like Alice's pack of cards.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Il sesso inutile [The Useless Sex] (journalism) 1961
Penelope alla guerra [Penelope at War] (novel) 1962
Se il sole muore [If the Sun Dies] (journalism) 1965
Niente e cosi sia [Nothing, and So Be It] (journalism) 1969
Intervista con la storia [Interview with History] (journalism) 1974
Lettera a un bambino mai nato [Letter to a Child never Born] (novel) 1975
Un uomo [A Man] (novel) 1979
Inshallah (novel) 1990

Willy Ley (review date 5 February 1967)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Out of Orbit," in New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1967, p. 49.

[In the following review, Ley comments on Fallaci's reactions to the American space program in If the Sun Dies.]

Oriana Fallaci is an Italian journalist who came to the United States a few years ago to have a personal look at the space program and related activities. She came to this task armed with nothing more than the knowledge of a few American science-fiction stories, and she found the impact of advanced science and technology quite disturbing. She interviewed engineers, medical doctors, public relations men and astronauts. Throughout, she had a pronounced tendency to veer off the theme and to ask irrelevant questions.

In fact, she reminds me of a long-dead aunt of mine—whom I am dragging in at this point because one such question is the only thing I really remember about her. I was roughly 8 years old then, and I had saved the lead foil from wine bottles and cast them into a mold that looked like a ship's hull. When said aunt came for a Kaffeeklatsch I proudly showed her my lead boat and told her how I had made it. "But," she said, "what will you do when it explodes?"

Miss Fallaci (though indubitably far more intelligent than my aunt) has a penchant for making queries of this kind at precisely the wrong moment. While being driven to Merritt Island, the site of the Apollo Launch Complex in Florida, she wanted to know what would be done if an astronaut died during the mission. When taking a preliminary psychological test for astronauts (she had the idea of taking all the astronaut's tests, but gave up soon) she was asked the question: "What do you do if you find an addressed and stamped letter in the street?" Her answer: "I'd put it in my handbag" "And then?" the psychologist asked. "Then it will stay there, along with all my own letters."

Her surprise at receiving an indignant reaction is in itself surprising, to put it mildly. Doesn't she know yet that psychologists, with the exception of Dr. Theodore Reik, have no sense of humor? In a similar vein, she pestered astronauts, who would have preferred to do just nothing for half an hour, with questions about "fear" and "courage"—and, again, was wild-eyed with surprise that most of them felt disinclined to engage in philosophical discussions.

The result of all this is a fairly long book. It is not, as she herself stresses, reportage. (No, it isn't; reportage should not contain so many errors of fact.) It is a long diary about her personal reactions to rockets and space and research engineers; it reminds me of a series of waterfalls near Colorado Springs, where one cascade only ceases when it gives birth to another. The whole is addressed to her father, a justification for having taken an interest in the "new things."

I don't know how the book was received in Italy, though I can imagine Italians might have been greatly interested in the impressions made by Americans on their compatriot. But even Italian readers (who, I suppose, are less well informed about the details of the space program than their American counter-parts) must have felt that all these impressions should have been interspersed with a few explanations and factual statements. How If the Sun Dies will affect readers in the United States is something I dare not prophesy. I don't know myself whether I should be amused or not.

One thing that Oriana Fallaci has done to me is to weaken a cherished belief I have held for over 30 years—i.e., that (discounting some kinds of fiction) the idea of books "for men," or "for women," is nonsense. Here, I find I would advise Mr. Reader to look for something more concise and informative, while I would tell Mrs. Reader or Miss Reader to find out for herself.

John C. Kendrew (review date March 1967)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of If the Sun Dies, in Scientific American, Vol. 216, No. 3, March 1967, pp. 144-45.

[In the following review, Kendrew praises Fallaci's If the Sun Dies as "one of very few pioneer works in a new genre."]

The knowing publishers have placed on the dust jacket of this book [If the Sun Dies] a full-page photograph of its young Florentine author, curled barefoot in a chair with her long blonde hair loosened. This is the lady who visits NASA, in Houston and Los Angeles and Cape Kennedy and Huntsville and White Sands, who confronts astronauts and Ray Bradbury, public-relations men and motel keepers with her memories of vineyard and basilica, her literary values and her human charm. She asks these people "Why?" and "Who are you?" She tells the story with hot candor and a sharp eye, out of a remarkable experience of life.

The book, in rushing and poetic prose, turned into flowing colloquial English by Pamela Swinglehurst, takes the form of long reflective letters to a distant father—off there in a villa in Chianti, a Tuscan country gentleman who was something of a hero in the Resistance. The war and the Nazi terror are strong in the book. Wernher von Braun (Doctor von Braun, the public-relationsman insists weakly throughout the colloquy) is portrayed: likable, forceful, versatile, extraordinary, dominant. But over the whole of this expansive interview the scent of lemon hangs like the memories of Proust's childhood. Then she recalls. The German soldiers with the tommy guns who broke the door down to find and deport the two partisans she had just hidden in the well carried the same scent: German soap. "'The future is always interesting,' said von Braun. 'More than the past,' said I."

She met a dozen or two of the astronauts. They come off not badly. To be sure, she finds most of them venerable, dull, bored, bald, mechanical. A few—she was fortunate—are different. She found a poet and a philosopher, and a few others who knew what wit and doubt and fancy mean. One day while driving with the astronauts' physician she invented a Project Cheese, which proposed to subvert Apollo to mine the moon, to sell the cheese here at great profit, working all the while on the other side of the moon to evade discovery. The rumor spread to all the astronauts, and a few of them understood.

And so this woman, a partisan at 14, an incredulous European witness of the vulgarity of Highway 66, of our motels and our extortionate economy, comes in the end not to bury Apollo but somehow to praise it. "And if the Earth dies, and if the Sun dies, we shall live up there, Father. Cost what it may: a tree, a billion trees, all the trees that life has given us."

No capsule review can exhaust the manysidedness and perceptivity and eccentricities of this book. It is one of very few pioneer works in a new genre: the criticism of science and technology as ways of life, as sets of values. It is not exposition of events or good reporting or philosophical analysis. It is quick and imperfect, but it is breathing with life.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Brunette, Peter. Review of A Man, by Oriana Fallaci. New Republic (22 November 1980): 37-38.

A brief review of Fallaci's book, A Man.

Kapp, Isa. "Oriana Fallaci and the Facts of Life," in Washington Post Book World (13 February 1977): G7, G10.

A short review of Fallaci's book Letter to a Child never Born. Kapp comments briefly on how the subject of abortion has had "relatively little place in literature until recently," and on Fallaci's advanced style and technique in the semi-autobiographical novel.


Cott, Jonathan. "How to Unclothe an Emperor: The Rolling Stone Interview with Oriana Fallaci, The Greatest Political Interviewer of Modern Times," in Rolling Stone No. 215 (17 June 1976): 44-47, 66, 68, 71.

An in-depth interview in which Cott reveals Fallaci's methods for preparing for interviews, and discusees several of the high points of her interviewing career, including excerpts from talks with Henry Kissinger, Yasir Arafat, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, and Indira Ghandi.

Margaret Parton (review date 18 March 1972)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Nothing, and So Be It, in Saturday Review, Vol. IV, No. 10, March 18, 1972, pp. 75-76.

[In the following review, Parton considers the Vietnam experiences that are the basis of Fallaci's Nothing, and So Be It.]

"Life, what is it?" asked Oriana Fallaci's small sister the night before the well-known Italian journalist was to leave for Vietnam. "Life is the time that passes from the moment we're born to the moment we die … that's all" the older sister replied. Nothing, and So Be It is the harrowing account of Miss Fallaci's search, in the midst of man's utmost bestialities, for a better answer to that question.

The diary of her three trips to Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, which comprises the bulk of the book, reveals Miss Fallaci as a woman who is not only courageous but passionately honest as well. She admits to being terrified at Dak To, an American airstrip under constant fire by the North Vietnamese, but she unflinchingly faces mutilated corpses or the stray, detached hand—"yellow, stiff-fingered … Leftover from three days ago." The blood of dead Americans, South Vietnamese, and Viet Cong stains her pages, and Miss Fallaci tells us exactly how these people died. The screams of a three-year-old burned by napalm, a pregnant woman with her abdomen ripped open, a man undergoing the torture of electric shocks in the genitals are heard throughout this book. So be warned.

"I'm here to prove something I believe," she wrote in her diary near the beginning of the first trip: "that war is useless and stupid, bestial proof of the idiocy of the human race. I'm here to explain how hypocritical it is for the world to rejoice when a surgeon substitutes one heart for another but accepts the fact that thousands of strong people with healthy hearts are slaughtered like cattle for the sake of a flag." During her initial forty-day stay in South Vietnam her exploration of this thesis led Miss Fallaci not only to battle fronts but to a study of the futility of the Buddhist immolations and to an examination of the twisted mind of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the brutal head of the National Police and the man who, in a famous photograph, was shown firing into the head of a prisoner whose hands were tied. "I adore roses … with a pearl of dew in each," he told her.

In the United States Miss Fallaci experienced what the late Christopher Rand, another fine journalist, called "the law of diminishing reality." But when the Tet offensive exploded in February of 1968, she could not bear to be away. Returning to a hard-hit and badly shaken Saigon, she resumed her "terrible effort to understand what death was, what life was, and what it meant to be a man." It was on this trip that Miss Fallaci was given two diaries (which she here reproduces) by dead Viet Cong, full of love for the beauty of their country and longing for their young wives. In Hue, she nearly reached the end of her emotional resources, for there she saw children playing with corpses as if with toys, and the thought of belonging to the human race made her ashamed. Like other women correspondents who have seen more horror than they can bear, Miss Fallaci reached out for fresh life in a vain effort to adopt a Vietnamese child.

The Italian reporter had two interviews with then Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky before leaving once again for the United States. During the second of these, Miss Fallaci writes, she began to realize "something very simple" about the Vietnamese people:

These people don't hate each other, although they go on killing each other. It's we they hate. Because we are the ones who force them to kill each other in the name of a civilization that thinks it's superior because of its bigger bombs. We are the ones who invaded their rice fields; corrupted their conscience, destroyed their towns, and finally cut them into two: the North for you, the South for me. Not realizing that the same wind blows over the North as over the South, and the same dreams.

On her third visit, a few months later, she was shocked because the Viet Cong murdered several correspondents in cold blood. "Western journalists have always been generous to the Viet Cong," she writes, "… for years they've defended, and even praised them … I feel very disillusioned. I feel like crying." By the time she left Vietnam for the last time Miss Fallaci's bitterness toward mankind was profound, and she composed a prayer to express her discouragement:

Our Father who art in heaven, give us this day our daily massacre, deliver us from pity, love, and the teachings your Son gave us. As it has been good for nothing, it is good for nothing. Nothing and amen.

Only after witnessing an appalling massacre of the innocents in another part of the world—in Mexico City where, in the fall of 1968, "more than three hundred … boys, pregnant women, children" were killed by the police—did she discover the falsity of her prayer and find an answer to the question with which she had begun her search.

American readers of this moving book will have no cause to feel proud, for at the worst we emerge as savages and at the best as well-meaning, clumsy innocents. But Miss Fallaci is as critical of Russian guns in Prague as she is of American artillery in Vietnam, for she has learned that man's inhumanity to the poor and defenseless is the ultimate obscenity regardless of who displays it.

Thomas H. Stahel (review date 26 March 1977)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Letter to a Child Never Born, in America, Vol. 136, No. 12, March 26, 1977, p. 279.

[In the following review, Stahel discusses the plot outline and the ideas raised in Fallaci's novel Letter to a Child Never Born.]

Imagine the embarrassment of an Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, who, because she has written a novel that certain Catholics approve, now finds that her liberal credentials have grown suspect. In one effort to rehabilitate herself (and to sell her book), she appeared on the "Today" show recently and assured Tom Brokaw that she, like other "civilized people," was politically for abortion. When Mr. Brokaw assayed the touchy question as to whether this short novel were autobiographical, Miss Fallaci, who is unmarried, answered: I am a woman, with a womb, who was pregnant, who lost her child; but the novel is a construction. It uses the author's experiences and ideas, but it is not the author's history.

Fair enough.

The protagonist of this quasi-autobiographical novel explicitly rejects belief in God, family and the Catholic Church. Yet she resolutely decides not to have the abortion that lover, friend and employer urge, and she even hangs near her bed pictures of a developing fetus—at four weeks, eight weeks and so on—the kind certain pro-lifers distribute so aggressively and pro-abortionists ignore so determinedly. In the end, this incipient life (the child never becomes more than a tiny fish-like fetus) dies within her, and she has to have it removed, though she resists this so long that she almost dies of blood poisoning.

As its title implies, a large part of the novel is addressed to the new human life that the protagonist carries within her. But other people are given voices, too, including, at the end, the fetus itself, who speaks in the voice of the adult male he would have been.

That may sound sentimental, but, like its author, the novel is both tougher and more real than that.

It is full of ideas, for instance: the philosophical inspection of arguments for and against abortion; existentialist questions about the quality of human life and freedom; a worldly-wise, 20th-century skepticism that favors political and personal commitment, but scorns religion and other superstition. It also has set pieces: three parables told the fetus by its mother to teach him that "good" and "bad" don't count, that there is no equality in this life and that the world never changes; also, a "trial" to determine the guilt or innocence of the ambivalent mother when the fetus dies.

Despite universal doubt, a pervasively mocking tone and numberless arguments overturned, the tough journalist of the novel decides to have the baby, because, after all, life is better than nothingness and the little blob in her gut deserves a chance at joy and love. She refuses to simplify things for herself, to sacrifice the life of her child for the sake of her freedom. She is more likable than all her intellectual agonizing in the way that Italian people are more likable than French ideas. If she—Oriana Fallaci, I mean—heard that from me, a Catholic priest, she might laugh a hard metallic laugh and blow smoke in my face. I would like her anyway.

Jeffrey Burke (review date November 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Fallaci Records: Unanswered Questions," in Harper's, Vol. 261, No. 1566, November 1980, pp. 98-99.

[In the following review, Burke considers Fallaci's devices in genres such as interviews, non-fiction works, and the novel.]

Oh, come now, there's no need to be Herodotus; for better or worse you'll contribute a little stone to help compose the mosaic; you'll provide information to help make people think. And if you make a mistake, never mind.

     —from the introduction to Interview with History

Oriana Fallaci has done rather well for herself by asking famous people questions. In the beginning of her career she interviewed entertainment celebrities, like Dean Martin and Michael Caine. Then she hit her stride with political figures, like Henry Kissinger, Yasir Arafat, and Willy Brandt. Rolling Stone is credited with a blurb on the paperback cover of Interview with History (1976), her collection of fourteen political tête-à-têtes: "the greatest political interviewer of modern times." I suppose one might consider Socrates a great interviewer of ancient times. Question-and-answerjournalism as a self-sufficient genre, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon and one that has certified as celebrities Fallaci in print and Barbara Walters, among others, on television. In fact, to Fallaci the spotlight seems about equally split between her and her subject. If that sounds excessive, consider Fallaci versus Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Interviewing him in April 1972, she extracted such insults of India Gandhi that a peace agreement between India and Pakistan nearly went unsigned. She relates the denouement in an introduction to the interview as it appeared in Interview with History:

Bhutto lost his head and, not knowing where on earth to turn, turned to me…. Wherever I went I was pursued by an important Pakistani who begged me to disavow the interview, then reminded me that the lives of six hundred million people were in my hands. Vainly I replied that my hands were too small to contain six hundred million human beings, vainly I shouted that their demand was absurd and insulting. The nightmare ended only when Indira magnanimously decided to act as though Bhutto's error had never happened. And the two of them met to sign the peace accord.

Immodesty unbecoming to a journalist? But then, "what other profession allows you to write history at the very moment it happens and also to be its direct witness?" she asks in the introduction to Interview with History. And her professional attitude is reinforced by personal reflection. In an article entitled "Why I Never Married" (Ms., December 1974), she writes: "Though celebrated, at times, and respected, the men I knew weren't very worthy, and the day always came when I proved to have more balls than they."

Ironically, Fallaci may have so eclipsed her past subjects that her future interviewing is questionable. Besides, there are only so many world leaders, and she has covered most of the ones worth covering. Perhaps that explains why she has turned to fiction in a recent book and in her new one—a kind of fiction that begs the genre itself but that is most agreeable to her talents as a journalist.

A woman who had suffered three miscarriages, Fallaci brought to the writing of Letter to a Child Never Born the physical and emotional wherewithal for a poignant novel about a woman who suffers one. Unfortunately she chose to emphasize the woman's struggle against the stigma of being an unwed mother (as Fallaci was), a choice that mires the novel in a feminist tract of various, but mainly strident, pitches. All the while, the woman is talking to the unborn child, advising it about women and men and life and death, addressing it in the second person: "One day you and I will have to have a little talk about this business called love. I still don't understand what it's all about." The second-person technique can be tender and honest in the context, and it can be absurd unless you make allowance for the woman talking to herself.

It can also remind you that you have heard that you somewhere before in Fallaci's writing. Sure enough, it's the you implied or stated in every interviewer's direct question: "Let's talk about war, Dr. Kissinger. You're not a pacifist, are you?" Through miles of recording tape, that you has been Fallaci's creative peg, her link to history and its representatives, her bread and butter, and her stylistic constant. Although Letter to a Child Never Born might have been far more powerful as a straight essay on the politics of pregnancy, I can see why Fallaci would feel more comfortable with a tried and true device.

(With the sanction of a little dime store psychology, I would also speculate that Fallaci, in confronting one prestigious you after another, sensed a cumulative growth in the I, the ego that was the one constant in every interview.)

Certainly she felt comfortable enough to exploit the device again, this time playing off an actual interview. A Man is a novel about Alexandros Panagoulis, the leader of the Greek Resistance in the Sixties and Seventies, whom Fallaci interviewed two days after he was released from prison in September 1973. Their conversation, including twelve pages of introduction, makes up the last forty-four pages of Interview with History.

In that brief space, Panagoulis is revealed as a true hero, an extraordinary individual. He had tried in 1967 to assassinate Papadopoulos, had failed, and was captured. In the interview he describes the subsequent months of torture, during which he was frequently subjected to the phalange, which involves beating the soles of the feet with a metal bar until the pain shoots to the victim's brain and he passes out, only to be revived with forced walking or more blows; he was hung by his wrists from the ceiling until his arms and shoulders were paralyzed and his breathing cut off; while one torturer pointed a gun at his head, another tore his chest open with a jagged letter-opener; a wire was inserted in his urethra and heated with a cigarette lighter; a nearly severed finger was stitched without anesthetic; and—Panagoulis's worst fear—he was often threatened with near suffocation. He revealed nothing, never broke. The torturers finally gave up, and eventually they imprisoned him in a specially designed isolation cell that resembled a tomb and permitted him three paces of movement in the one place in the cell where he could stand up straight.

That is a summary sketch of the horrors, neglecting all the psychological torture and deprivation. Throughout he constantly rebelled, incurring more beatings, or went on hunger strikes to gain small privileges. The authorities did not want him to die, because he had become an international hero whose martyrdom would have been at least embarrassing, if not dangerous. He was pardoned in 1973 for political reasons.

Fallaci's function in the interview is, for the most part, to listen, awestruck, until the you and I change places during the last question and Panagoulis asks, "And for you, what is a man?" to which she replies: "I'd say that a man is what you are, Alekos."

That Panagoulis was the only man with whom she could make that exchange on equal terms is acknowledged in A Man, which recounts the torture and imprisonment as a lead-in to their becoming lovers a week after the interview took place. They lived together for long stretches, broken by Fallaci's going out on assignment. Panagoulis was often harassed, under constant surveillance, yet still was working to organize the Resistance. When that method failed to draw support, he entered politics, determined to find the documents that would provide a political anatomy of the military junta and its civilian successor. He succeeded, but allegedly was murdered before enjoying any sort of triumph.

Panagoulis had entrusted copies of the documents to Fallaci and had made her promise to tell his story. A Man is the promise fulfilled. It is a true story. Why then has she insisted on calling it a novel? I put that question to her editor at Simon and Schuster and was told that because Fallaci had recreated scenes between Panagoulis and his jailers that she could not possibly have known accurately, the journalist in her felt the book had to be called a novel. I still had my doubts. Was it just the jail sentences, and if so, why not italicize the re-created sections and call the whole thing a "narrative and documentary" or something less cumbersome but equally qualified?

I asked an Italian friend of mine named Gennaro Chierchia, who was in Italy when the book came out there, what sort of reception it got. Of course, it was a best-seller. And there was some political furor because Fallaci had reproduced or described the most important documents, some of which indicated collusion between Italy and Greece. In addition, Fallaci had not made Panagoulis's family very happy. She had characterized their son and hero as a melancholic, obsessive man given to bouts of drunkenness and lechery; and she had denied the official explanation, which they were willing to accept, that his death had been an accident.

Curiouser and curiouser. Panagoulis was not always a pleasant man to live with, by Fallaci's account. He even caused one of her miscarriages. But in her way she seems to have loved him, even if it was during their time together that she made the statement in Ms. about her anatomical superiority to the men she knew. Is it possible that she could not bear the idea that Panagoulis had more balls than she, and so she reduced him in fiction to preserve her high self-esteem?

I don't think so, but alas I will never know. A Man, however much matter of record it contains, calls itself a novel, and even to that claim it is a dismal pretender. Fallaci is a journalist who handles facts well, possesses a sense of history, and analyzes the contemporary scene—granting her radical point of view—perceptively. She also owns a few too many bottles of purple ink, delights in repetition to little effect, lurches suddenly and frequently into polemic, and displays a heavy hand with such basic tools as metaphor, motif, and foreshadowing. Needless to say, her use of the second person is bludgeoning at this length.

I reminisced recently with a friend of mine, Roger Fox, on the several days we spent in Athens in the spring of 1972. We were blithe, truant college students traveling through Europe on as few dollars a day as our health and seeing the sights would allow. Panagoulis was in prison. Fallaci was talking to Bhutto. We knew vaguely, naively of the political tension in Greece, a suspicion confirmed when we were hushed to silence on busy street corners for asking about the government or how people liked Papadopoulos. We stopped asking after Easter eve. On that night, hundreds of soldiers with machine guns lined a broad avenue, facing the mutely expectant crowd. A procession of government limousines drove from the palace to a nearby church and back. The name Papadopoulos passed in whispers along the avenue as people strained to see which car bore the leader on his ceremonial visitation. Roger and I offered our shoulders to a couple of children so that they wouldn't miss the Easter parade.

Now I would like to offer those children copies of A Man, with the inscription: "She made mistakes, but never mind."

Vivian Gornick (review date 23 November 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "A Journalist in Love," in New York Times Book Review, November 23, 1980, pp. 14, 35.

[In the following review of A Man, Gornik assesses the strengths and failings of Fallaci's method and style.]

It becomes more and more common that a book feels like a memoir, essay or reportage but is called fiction, and at book's end one finds oneself protesting: "That's not a novel." The source of the protest is not, I think, either devotion to literary orthodoxy or a concern that a spade be called a spade. It is just that most often when journalism is called fiction, the authority of honest reportage is mysteriously lost without the command of imaginative transformation having been gained, and sometimes atrocities of language clearly related to the ambition released by the words "a novel" are committed as well. The book under review is a case in point.

Oriana Fallaci is an Italian journalist famous the world over for her political interviews. Indignantly democratic and possessed of a vigorous hatred of dictatorship, Miss Fallaci's work is characterized by a pugnacious insistence, somewhat like that of an aroused child stamping her feet and demanding to be told the truth. From her inviolate position behind the microphone she points, probes, insinuates and mocks, provoking her subjects—mainly men of great power—into regretted revelation. The results are almost always scandalous, distasteful and remarkably effective. Miss Fallaci the journalist is master of her trade.

In August 1973 Miss Fallaci flew to Athens to interview Alexander Panagoulis, a Greek political dissident who had spent five years in prison for an attempted assassination of the dictator George Papadopoulis, and who had just been freed by a general amnesty. These two took one look at each other and both knew instantly that destiny had been achieved. Especially Miss Fallaci. She really knew. When Panagoulis asked her why they hadn't met before, where had she been when he'd been caught, tortured and imprisoned, she had to answer: "Saigon … Hanoi … Sao Paulo … Amman … Calcutta." But she hastened to assure him that they had met before—many times in fact: "You were to have many faces, many names, in those years. In Vietnam you were a Viet Cong girl with cheeks and chin and forehead defaced by scars…. In Bolivia you were the last of the Peredo brothers, the first [of whom] had died with Che Guevara…. And then you were a Dominican monk whose face and age I didn't even know." Only in order to accomplish their fate, it had been necessary to wait until this moment for them actually to come together.

A Man is a 463-page account of the three-year-long affair between Miss Fallaci and Panagoulis, begun at their meeting, conducted through a nonstop disheveled flinging about between Athens and Rome, and brought to a distraught end in May 1976 when Panagoulis was ambushed and killed in Athens. Written in the form of an elegiac address to the dead man, it is in effect a journalist's recital of the events of those years, masquerading as a historical romance of the kind that can only be called torrid-mythic. Panagoulis is for Miss Fallaci openly and unashamedly a figure of fantasy—a hero of legendary proportions, not an actual man at all but an incarnation of spiritual resistance (political resistance is here clearly a metaphor). As such, he—his life, his person, his immediate history—is described in language that would draw from D'Annunzio an admiring "So that's how you do it these days."

The words "destiny" and "fate" are used repeatedly in this book, along with a steady, rhythmic variation on the phrase "This is the tragedy of a man condemned to be a poet, a hero, and thus to be crucified." These words and phrases, surrounded by whole paragraphs of a suffocating thickness, are like bits of lard studded throughout an old-fashioned dish of hearty melodrama being offered as though it were the cuisine of tragedy.

There is a certain sense in which A Man is not only ludicrous, but offensive as well. In a time of unimaginable cruelty, when we are surfeited by accounts without number of daily atrocity, the only way to convey the pain and dread of an honest rebel's life in some police-state part of the world is through the sparest of prose, the leanest of eloquence. What one feels here is not only Miss Fallaci's inability to trust in the emergence of the inherent power in Panagoulis's life by writing quietly about it, but her unwillingness as well. The syntax must be inflated to include a self-portrait of Oriana running about Greece and Italy with her freedom fighter, he acting out the anti-social behavior his existential tragedy has entitled him to in her eyes, she all self-important nerve endings, registering herself hourly as an intimate of history.

In a rather astonishing passage toward the end of the book, Miss Fallaci—writing as though she's now going to set the record straight with an "honest" admission—announces that she never did love Alekos. He was sexually repellent to her (not to mention compulsively unfaithful), had the character of a primitive and a mind in a state of permanent intellectual arrest. In those pages we suddenly see Panagoulis for what he is: A caricature of smoldering force (shoulders braced, eyes narrowed, one foot pawing the ground) being made flagrant use of by a writer whose sense of things is foolish and self-deceived. The other side of Miss Fallaci's foot-stamping righteousness in the presence of dictatorship is the eager plunge into "passionate enslavement" to the poetic ideal: two parts of an adolescent's rebelliousness, neither one having much to do with independence of mind or spirit.

What makes Miss Fallaci's journalism useful is her mythic sense of political evil. What makes her "fiction" trashy is her mythic sense of the hero. In the first instance, since it is in her psychic interest to distance herself, her intelligence and temperament serve her well. Since it is also in her psychic interest to merge herself in the second instance, she comes to disaster. It is conceivable that A Man might have had power and integrity if Miss Fallaci had had the wisdom and self-control to write an honest piece of reportage.

Santo L. Arico (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Oriana Fallaci's Discovery of Truth in Niente E Cosi Sia," in European Studies Journal, Volume III, No. 2, 1986, pp. 11-23.

[In the following essay, Arico compares Fallaci's style and techniques with those of the documentary film genres cinéma vérité and direct cinema.]

Although Oriana Fallaci is best known as a political interviewer, she is also recognized as an accomplished author of three novels and five works of non-fiction. Niente E Cosi Sia, [Nothing and So Be It] the writer's novelistic report of the most unpopular war in American history, earned Italy's Premio Bancarella and placed her in the ranks of the most severe critics of United States foreign policy during the Vietnam War. Fallaci went to Vietnam in November 1967 with definite pro-Vietcong convictions. The reasons for her political stance are clearly developed in Niente E Cosi Sia and are characteristic of many thinkers who were critical of American involvement. Nevertheless, the author's political view evolves: her personal opinions change drastically. After a bitter inward struggle, what was apparent truth becomes less clearly defined and takes on a new complexion. The odyssey toward a final and different level of veracity constitutes one of the outstanding features of the work and helps to elevate what could have been just a journalist's diary to the category of good literature. What is equally important, however, is how and why a new attitude comes to the surface. Fallaci accumulated the raw materials for her book with journalistic methods that are analogous to cinematic documentary techniques. These professional strategies unexpectedly forced her to conform to a new reality that becomes irrefutable and bitter. Although personal bias is often reflected in the writer's selectivity of content, her style produces evidence that acts as a catalyst for change and becomes as important as the discovery itself.

In Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Erik Barnouw proposes that the basic drive behind all documentary film inventions is a compelling need to document some phenomenon or action. The same critic also states that the two main patterns for documenting—cinéma vérité and direct cinema—capture reality in a different manner. Adherents of cinéma vérité embark on an anthropological study of human beings involved in a particular set of events. These documentarists are not content to remain mechanical bystanders but actually instigate moments of revelation and provoke action. At a certain point in time, they become on-camera participants in a venture, evolving procedures that act as psychological stimulants; they enable people to talk about things that had been previously concealed. Film participants are eventually invited to see the footage in a screening room and to discuss it. The discussion is then filmed and becomes part of the motion picture. The entire procedure has aspects of psychodrama.

According to Erik Barnouw, direct cinema is the procedure of the observer-documentarist who transmits objective productions. The director refrains from participating in the scene and limits his activity to capturing factual information. What transpires may exert an influence on emotional sensitivity but happens without a helping hand. Film makers who accept this process are intent on listening and watching rather than promoting a point of view or soliciting personal disclosures. The tape recorder and camera open a new world to readers, fascinating them by its sounds, speech, rhythm, and scenes. Producers often venture into new places that society is inclined to ignore or keep hidden: they keep their eye on people in action or involved in spontaneous talking. This type of presentation opens a new world from which viewers could draw disturbing inferences and free conclusions. The genre's special quality of unpredictability and ambiguity prove exhilarating to some film-goers and infuriating to others.

Although both approaches have stylistic similarities, they are actually a world away from each other. The documentarian of direct cinema takes his camera to a situation of tension and films a crisis that is in process or waits for one to happen; the artist of cinéma vérité tries personally to precipitate significant transformation. The former aspires to invisibility and plays the role of an impassive recorder of data, while his counterpart is often an important protagonist and espouses the role of prompter. Direct cinema finds its truth in events available to a movie projector, whereas the other is committed to the paradox that artificial circumstances can bring hidden reality to the surface. The main difference between the two is the prestigious status that cinéma vérité gives to the interview technique, a device that had been shunned by most directors in the earlier development of the documentary.

In Niente E Cosi Sia, the interview is one of Fallaci's most used mechanisms for obtaining data and is the basis of an analogy with cinéma vérité. The cassette player, records, documentation, photographs, or personal observation constitute the groundwork of a comparison with direct cinema. Both systems make abundant use of commentaries. In the former, she includes narrative annotations on what she and her subject say to each other; this procedure resembles that of film producers who talk about a product and then include their statements as part of the end result. In the latter, personal comments differ from those dealing with exchanges between the author and her subjects. The technique of direct cinema can lead to unexpected results in a person; after witnessing a powerful scenario, individual sensitivity hardly ever remains unmoved. Thus, the writer explains how the emotions respond. In the first instance, her remarks relate to a state that she creates; in the second, they focus primarily on internal change, occurring as the effect of conditions that Fallaci herself does not inspire. On the one hand, the author comments on her own interview, which is a professionally fostered situation; on the other, she objectively captures fact, experiences a repercussion and then elaborates on the effect that this particular incident produces in her.

During her Vietnam experience, the journalist initiates dialogues with scores of important figures and uses these conversations to construct a meaningful story. Her discussions with fighting soldiers and officers directing the action or with key personalities behind the scene aim at throwing light on a subject that is of great importance—war's terrible destruction of human dignity. "Perché quasi niente quanto la guerra, e niente quanto una guerra ingiusta, frantuma la dignità dell'uomo" (XVII). Thus, the writer begins moments of revelation by getting highly involved in the scenario; she does not simply record or photograph; she uses questions as a tool to probe into the minds and hearts of people, enabling them to express their passions candidly.

On November 21, 1967, Fallaci visits Hill 1383, where a vicious battle rages. She successfully converses with two artillery men, actively engaged in combat. The first individual is Larry who directs mortar fire against enemy Hill 1875. He views his enlistment in the army as an act of stupidity. The journalist logically questions his reasoning. "E perché sei andato volontario?" His response then provides insight into his monetary motives and into his regret at having made such a decision. "Alla fine mi dissi: meglio andar volontario, o la va o la spacca, se torno mi becco un congedo di centocinquanta dollari al mese. I miei genitori si arrabbiarono molto […] Anche per questo mi pentii subito di quello che avevo fatto." Fallaci quickly takes her cues from the soldier's concluding thought: "Quando I'hai fatto, Larry?" She, therefore, helps him to disclose additional private information. "Oh, mi sembra un secolo. E fu solo tre mesi fa. Ho ancora nove mesi da passare qui. Credi che torneró a casa?" Fallaci's brief statement "Certo, Larry" is an attempt to assuage Larry's fear of dying in combat but also creates the climate for an additional emotional reaction. "A volte ho paura di no. E prego, sai non of che pregare. Prego anche quando non ho tempo. Per esempio quando vo all assalto. Dico alla svelta: Dio, non farmi morire."

Fallaci's second exchange on Hill 1383 is with Larry's fellow gunner George, an Italian American who had recently married. She begins by asking what he is thinking and thus makes it easy for him to start. "Ad uccidere. A non essere uccisi. A non aver troppa paura, lo, quando andai all'attacco, avevo tanta paura. Era la prima volta che andavo all'attacco, capisci, e mia moglie aveva scritto d'essere incinta, ed io avevo tanta paura." After George asks whether he can reveal something that troubles him, her reply is simply: "Dilla a me." The young man then painstakingly explains how he saved himself during a rocket attack but failed to pull his closest friend Bob down to shelter on the ground. "Non pensavo che a me. E mentre non pensavo che a me vidi Bob scoppiare. Proprio scoppiare, centratato nel petto. E mori […] Gridai: Bob! Ma lui era gia morto." When George still feels the need to communicate another torturous thought, the writer uses the same laconic structure: "Dilla a me, George." The soldier proceeds to admit shamefully that he is happy his friend died rather than himself. "Te la dico sennó divento pazzo. E poi, ecco, poi fui cosi felice che il razzo avesse preso lui anziché me. Ci credi?" Fallaci's one word "Si" facilitates an additional confession. "E ti dico di più, lo sai che ti dico? Se in questo momento arriva un altro razzo, io spero che prenda te anzichè me."

During her interview with the artillery gunner's superior, Fallaci's lead question concerns the horrible effect that the war has on George. "Quel soldato … George. E ancora sconvolto. Dev'essere stato tremendo. Vero, tenente?" Although the writer poses only one question to the officer, it acts as a catalyst that releases a torrent of emotions. The Lieutenant loses no time telling about the anguish of the war. "Tremendo. Io la guerra l'avevo vista al cinematografo e basta, non credevo che fosse cosi." He admits counseling his eighteen year old brother to avoid coming to Vietnam at all costs. "Gli ho scritto: non voglio che tu veda quello che ho visto io, non farti fregare con il Vietnam. Vai volotario in Marina, cosi sfuggi al Vietnam." He follows with a sketch of the battle in which George actually kills for the first time. "Le pallottole ti passavano sopra la testa, e colpivano l'albero. Allora volevi cosi bene all'albero che l'avresti abbracciato: per non lasciarlo mai piu." During their assault, it is always instinctive to protect one's head. "Forse perché il primo che avevi visto morire aveva perso la testa, gli era volata via come unpallone.' The Lieutenant's final thoughts first state again his desire to spare his younger brother the agony that he experiences and also to prevent the possibility of two casualties in the same family. "Non voglio che mio fratello veda queste cose, non voglio che muoia. Se l'America pretende ch'io muoia qui, pazienza. Peró mio fratello no." In conclusion, he summarizes the American soldier's dilemma—the tension between loyalty to the United States and an honest aversion toward a military presence in Vietnam. "E malgrado sia un cittadino ubbidiente, malgrado sia abbastanza d'accordo sulla nostra presenza in Vietnam, chi vuol essere qui? Chi ne è fiero?"

Fallaci next meets with the American Captain Scher, who courageously led his troops in the assaults against enemy positions around Hill 1383. Her questions are again direct and motivate moving responses: Fallaci: "Capitano, quante vite e costata questa collina?"; Scher: "Tante, Troppe, Centocinquanta, duecento […]"; Fallaci: "Capitano, e i prigionieri?"; Scher: "Non si fanno prigionieri in Vietnam." Other queries take their cues from the Captain's statements. After he laments—"Dio che cosa schifosa é la guerra"—she formulates a comeback: "Allora perche la fa, capitano? Perché l'ha scelta come mestiere?" Her examination is also emotional in nature. While pointing to the Vietcong soldier that he killed, she asks: "Cosa senti, capitano, quando lo ammazzò?" Occasionally, her interrogation will be brief but a stimulant to further self-revelation. When the American states that he felt fear upon shooting the enemy soldier, she simply adds: "Lei, paura?"

Fallaci's approach to writing is also like that of the cinéma vérité documentarist when she includes a commentary in the narration on what she and her subject say to each other, thereby increasing the aspects of melodrama in an already tense situation. Her commentary will either follow the interview, precede it or appear between the fragments of the dialogue. Her comments add interest to what could have been a mere repetition of a tape recording. During her exchange with Captain Scher on Hill 1383, she reacts to his belief in the positive effects of the American presence in the country after the interview is actually completed and has taken time to reflect on his point: "Malgrado la sua umanità egli è convinto d'esser nel giusto a trovarsi su questa collina che non gli appartiene, come le altre colline e le pianure ed i fumi, è convinto d'avere ucciso in nome della giustizia, della libertá, mi guarderebbe con stupore innocente se gli dicessi: quale giustizia, quale libertà?" The Vietnamese soldier, whom the Captain sprays with bullets, first killed three Americans. In her commentary, the writer prefers to direct her sorrow at the former, as well as his cause. "Dal giorno in cui era nato, forse diciotto, forse diciannove anni fa, egli non aveva visto che guerra. La guerra ai francesi, la guerra agli americani, la guerra a qualcuno che non doveva esserci […] perché al diavolo il comunismo e il noncomunismo, questa collina apparteneva a lui, come le altre colline, e le pianure ed i fiumi, e i tre ragazzi bianchi erano li per rubargliela."

When Fallaci meets with Barry Zorthian from the American embassy in Saigon, the same interview-commentary technique structures the narration. Zorthian believes in the American obligation to bring civilization to the Vietnamese and predicts that they will become as rich as the Japanese, after they are taught how to exploit their natural resources. "Ovunque sorgeranno fabbriche, grattacieli, autostrade, e il Delta del Mekong gareggerà con la Florida." In her commentary, the journalist sarcastically states that the Vietnamese have no desire to compete with Florida, "che vogliano solo vivere in pace, col loro riso piantato a mano, raccolto a mano, mangiato coi bastoncini." She also blasts Zorthian's paternalism by pointing out the prices being paid for creation of this paradise: "Il particolare che l'ipotetico paradiso essi lo stiano pagando con la distruzione del loro paese, il massacro dei loro figli, la fame, è un particolare cui non pensa." Zorthian explains the necessity of an official defoliation policy as a needed weapon against guerrilla fighters who hide in the jungle. Fallaci's reflections attack this strategy: "Ma dimenticava di dirci che gli alberi arsi cosi non rinascono per almeno vent'anni, che l'anidride arseniosa, l'arseniuro di sodio, gli arseniati di piombo e di manganese, la calciocianamide eccetera, uccidono anche le vacche ed i bufali, e all'uomo producono ustionmi, diarrea emorrragica, cecita, magari la morte."

Fallaci's cinéma vérité technique is particularly useful for expressing a biased opinion. In her interview with Nguyen Van San, the terrorist who had blown up the My Canh restaurant in Saigon, Fallaci's commentary precedes the conversation and immediately expresses an impression that favors him. "E gli ho voluto subito bene malgrado avesse ammazzato cinquantotto persone in ventinove attentati." Her initial line of questioning bypasses the suffering that he inflicts on a civilian population but stresses both his humaneness and heroism as he suffers brutal torture at the hands of the South Vietnamese police. When she finally addresses his killing of so many people, she reinforces her partisan attitude by failing to challenge the fact that he shifts the emphasis of guilt to the American side. "Mi sentii, ecco, mi sentii come penso si debba sentire un pilota americano dopo avere sganciato le bombe su un villaggio inerme. La differenza è che lui vola via e non vede quello che ha fatto, lo lo vidi."

A commentary similarly structures the introduction to the dialogue of the writer's second interview with Barry Zorthian. According to Fallaci, the embassy official's invitation to breakfast provides him the opportunity to express delicately his displeasure toward her writings. She points out that his initial cordiality, as well as the idyllic setting of his bedroom terrace, suggests the romantic behavior of a man in love. His first question relieves her anxiety concerning any amorous intentions and also contrasts sharply with the lace tablecloth, crystal glasses and silverware of a refined table setting. "Darling, sei communista?" She then bluntly reveals her anti-American feelings. Fallaci: "No Barry."; Zorthian: "Molti dicono di no e invece lo sono."; Fallaci: "La solita storia, vero Barry? Chi non è con voi è contro di voi. E chi non è con voi è iscritto al Partito."; Zorthian: "Sei con noi o no?"; Fallaci: "No, Barry. Non sono con voi. Lo ero, molti anni fa, quando vi amavo. Ora non vi amo piu."

Although Fallaci's views clearly favor the Viet Cong, her cinéma vérité methods also yield results that are antithetical to her personal bias. The unforeseen turn of an interview often overpowers individual prejudice and produces unexpected outcomes that are free of partiality. In February 1968, Fallaci visited the city of Hue, where a savage battle was taking a terrible toll of human life. After an American lieutenant saves her from a Vietnamese sniper, a conversation ensues in which the soldier labels her a liberal journalist who unfairly and conveniently disparages Americans in favor of enemy forces. He points out that he, an American, has killed to save her life, whether or not she likes it, and that she is free to leave with a clear conscience. He however, lives with the knowledge that he has taken someone's life and must remain to do more of the same. Fallaci appreciates his point and questions her own objectivity in analyzing good and evil: "Dio, come è difficile giudicare, capire dove sta il bene e dove sta il male. Sbagliavo dunque scegliendo di piangere solo su Le Vanh Minh e Tuyet Lan? Mi sembra d'essermi cacciata in un vicolo cieco, a venire quaggiù." The uniqueness of the writer's conversation with this soldier is that the interview-commentary obtains a different type of effect. For the first time, Fallaci begins to doubt her absolute views on what is right or wrong. After her experience in Hue, her reflections tend to become more universal than particular and to express her shame as a member of the human race. "All improvviso mi ha colto una paura che non è paura di morire. E paura di vivere."

In contrast to interviews and commentaries on the conversations, direct cinema finds its analogy in Fallaci's consuming drive to be where the action is, to expose it and to open her reader's eyes to a new dimension of truth. Immediately after her arrival in Vietnam, Fallaci made arrangements to go to Dak To, where the bloodiest fighting was taking place. On route, she uses her cassette player to record a conversation in a military cargo plane that was transporting troops. A sergeant cynically explains to his soldiers how a flight similar to theirs crashed the day before, killing all on board. Sergeant: "Ragazzi, sapete che ieri un C130 è precipitato fra Pleiku e Saigon?": Soldier #1: "Chiudi il becco.": Soldier #2: "E perché?": Soldier #3: "Già, perché?": Sergeant: "Un sabotaggio forse, o una cannonata. Nessuno ha fatto in tempo ad usare il paracadute, del resto il paracadute a che serve, mettiamo che ora succeda lo stesso, mentre cali a terra li sparano.": Soldier #4: "E chiudi il becco!" The writer's impassive presentation of the dialogue projects a new insight into interpersonal relationships between an officer and his subordinates.

During her first night in Dak To, a mortar attack forced Fallaci to seek safety in one of the bunkers on Hill 1383. Although it was light bombardment that lasted one hour, she had time to record a group of soldiers conversing about draft dodging. Soldier #1: "Capisci, con la storia della mamma a carico, lui è rimasto a Los Angeles e s'è fatto la piscina"; Soldier #2: "Be, Jack e stato ancora più furbo"; Soldier #1: "Che ha fatto?"; Soldier #2: "Si mise a here, a here, finche gli venne l'ulcera e lo riformarono per via dell'ulcera"; Soldier #1: "Mi venisse un'ulceral." According to one of the men, his friend Howard was the most skillful at obtaining a deferment. Soldier #3: "Quando gli hanno chiesto se gli piacevan le donne, ha risposto: oddio, no, lo sanno tutti che vo coi ragazzi"; Soldier #4: "Ci va?!?"; Soldier #3: "No certo, sei pazzo? Ma se dici d'essere frocio, ti riformano immediatemente: non lo sapevi?"; Soldier #4: "Maledizione, no! E se lo dicessi ora?"; Soldier #3: "Troppo tardi, mio caro. Dovevi pensarci prima. E io con te." The journalist's restatement of this conversation casts a new light on the real attitude of many soldiers toward the war.

Fallaci also uses commentaries as part of her direct cinema technique. However, this aspect of the method does not make the procedure less objective or neutral. Instead of reacting to an interview, she responds to what is seen or heard and, thereby, reveals what effect the event produces on her personal life. In contrast to cinéma vérité, her remarks now relate to a scene that she herself does not help to create. The objective documentary does not imply that the bystander is immune to feeling; it simply exposes data in the act of unfolding and that needs simply to be filmed rather than incited. In this system, producers witness action that would have occurred even if the individual had been absent. The fact that Fallaci has emotional sensations and then states them makes her approach no less impartial. Objectivity results from her attempt to seize an historical moment that is in the making and not from stifling human sensitivity.

On the way from Pleiku to Dak To, the writer had to take a helicopter, explaining that there was enough room for only four passengers, in addition to the two pilots and two machine gunners.

Objective Description: "Uno dei quattro era un telecronista appena giunto da New York. In preda a un tremito convulso, il viso colore del gesso, si agitava, si mordeva le mani, gemeva: a un certo punto s'è perfino alzato per scongiurare il pilota di tornare indietro, e il pilota non gli ha neanche risposto." Her reaction illustrates that the television reporter's fear helped to cure her own state of anxiety.

Commentary: "Ecco, ho provato una tale vergogna che subito son diventata un'altra persona: tranquilla, lucida, attenta. Mentre lui gemeva potevo addirittura sporgermi fuori dell'elicottero, osservar freddamente le colline a sinistra da cui si alzavano fumate nere, il napalm che i caccia americani sganciavano sui nordvietnamiti […] non mi preoccupava nemmeno che ci stessimo volando nel mezzo."

In her book the writer makes use of priceless records that then become an integral part of the account. However, the truth is selective here and an expression of her anti-American attitude. The technique is objective since the materials were available and already in existence; the writer does not actively participate in generating them. Her individual prejudice is a separate issue that influences what part of the documentation she finally selects. The preface of her work consists mainly of statements made by soldiers of Charlie Company who had participated in the My Lai massacre. The reader senses her exasperation as she quotes from testimony like that of Corporal Jay Roberts: "Fuori del villaggio c'era questa pila di cadaveri. E c'era questo bambino minuscolo che aveva addosso una camicina e basta. E questo bambino avanzò a piccoli passi verso la pila dei cadaveri e sollevò la mano di una morta. Allora uno dei GI dietro a me si inginocchiò in posizione di sparo, a trenta metri da questo bambino, e lo ammazzò con un colpo solo" (XI). Other testimony offered by witnesses, like the farmer Do Thi Chuc, to Time, Look and Europa reinforces the shock aroused by the slaughter of innocent victims. "Non ricordo altro che la gente ammazzata. C'era sangue dappertutto. Sia gli americani bianchi che gli americani neri ammazzavano. Spaccavano le teste in due e molti americani avevano addosso pezzi di carne. A me ammazzarono una figlia di ventiquattro anni e un nipotino di quattro anni" (XIII).

Fallaci's bias is just as poignant when she publishes selected passages of Vietcong diaries that American intelligence had obtained. Her carefully chosen selections romanticize the Vietcong writers as heroic freedom fighters. One unknown author explains how he was obliged to leave his new wife in order to combat the ugly American invaders: "E le lacrime cascano. Addio, mia adorata. Quante cose restano da fare […] Ma un giorno non ci sarà piu un diavolo americano in questo paese. Se non fosse per gli americani io e te non ci daremmo baci d'addio." In a second diary, a soldier, identified as Le Vanh Minh, poetically describes his feelings as the war inflicts hardships on himself and the ones he loves. He addresses his wife as "Tuyet Lan, mia adorata" and dolefully requests a sparrow, flying in the direction of his village, to carry a message to his beloved: "Le ho chiesto di portarti il mio amore e chiederti di aspettarmi pazientemente." These selections depict the guerrilla fighters as noble and utopian heroes, who possess sensitive minds and hearts. The journalist's sympathy for the Vietcong and distaste for Americans seem to have reached their apex, as she chooses personal writings from the diaries of these dead Vietcong soldiers. When François Pelou, director of the Agence France Presse in Vietnam, expresses his solidarity with all people on this earth, Fallaci refuses to identify with every human being but prefers to choose carefully those to whom she will extend support. "E dacché ho in mano questi fogli io piango assai meno sui Larry e sui Johnny giunti qui con le loro vitamine, le loro razioni e il loro superequipaggiamento, le loro buone intenzioni. Le Vanh Minh mi piace di piu."

As a journalist permitted to cover the battle of Hue, Fallaci becomes overwhelmed by the extraordinarily high number of civilian casualties. Both Americans and Vietcong bear the responsibility for causing so many deaths. However, the salient feature of the commentary is an indictment of the Vietcong. For the first time, her comments toward them are directly critical and negative. "Da ringraziarci insieme americani e Vietcong. Infatti sarebbe difficile stabilire se hanno causato piu vittime gli americani con le cannonate, i mitragliamenti, il napalm, oppure i Vietcong con le esecuzioni in massa." The Vietcong had summarily executed masses of people, killing anyone who refused to shoot at an American helicopter or who had refused cooperation in any manner. Speaking of the massacres, she expresses her dismay: "Sembra di riguardare Mathausen, Dachau, le Fosse Ardeatine: il mondo non cambia […] né gli uomini. Qualunque sia il colore della loro pelle, della loro bandiera."

During the second battle of Saigon in February 1968, the Vietcong begin to execute captured journalists. When Fallaci sees photographs of these slayings and visits the execution sights, her outrage against this group becomes even stronger. News correspondents had been under the general impression that they were immune from Vietcong killings. "Non era mai successo che i vietcong fucilassero dei giornalisti. Mai dall'inizio della guerra in Vietnam. Chiunque sia stato catturato n'è uscito indenne." However, the Vietcong's execution of four journalists—Ronald Laremy, Michael Bird, John Cantwell, Bruce Pigott—offers no possible justification and is seen as an act of pure barbarism. The subsequent extermination of Ignacio Ezcurra, the young South American journalist whom Fallaci had befriended, completes the deromanticization process and shatters her idealistic vision of the Viet Cong. The realization that even they behave in animalistic fashion summarizes her response to the situation. "E difficile, sempre piu difficile, accettare il fatto che i vietcong commettano tali vigliaccate. Insomma che neanche loro siano i cavalieri di giustizia e liberta che abbiamo finoggi dipinto. E doloroso, sempre piu doloroso, ammettere che valgono gli altri, sono hestie come gli altri."

Fallaci's observations of the casualties in Hue and of the photographs of slain colleagues form part of the technique of direct cinema. She herself sees the mass graves filled with Vietcong victims; she herself views the pictures of their barbarous killing of reporters. The realization that a photographer's snapshots do not always capture their atrocities, whereas there always seems to be a picture of a brutality committed against them by an American or South Vietnamese, places her vision in a more objective perspective. The writer's commentary summarizes the evolution of her frame of mind. "Quanti altri delitti hanno commesso i vietcong senza che un fotografo li immortalasse? C'è sempre un fotografo per l'esecuzione di un vietcong, per la testa tagliata di un vietcong, ma non c'è mai un fotografo per l'esecuzione di un americano, per la testa tagliata di un sudvietnamita."

Perhaps the death of Eczurra and the other journalists was the deciding factor in Fallaci's change of attitude. In reality, their death was no different from the brutal killings of so many other innocent people and intellectually should have been viewed in the same objective context. However, seeing photographs of Ezcurra with his hands bound and with a bullet wound in the back of his head to ascertain successful completion of the execution was too much for the writer simply to accept intellectually. "Nel segretto di me stessa, quei cinque cadaveri m'avevan sconvolto quanto il cadavere di Martin Luther King aveva sconvotto i negri di Washington: invece dei negozi lungo la 14a strada, insomma, io avevo bruciato la mia simpatia pei vietcong, la mia ammirazione per loro." Fallaci seems overpowered by the evidence before her. The writer openly acknowledges that she has great confidence in her feelings. "I believe in what I see, what I hear and what I feel." Thus, it may have been necessary for her to experience directly the savage murder of colleagues, as well as the senseless execution of thousands of civilians, before she could have actually deflated her vision of the heroic Vietcong.

Shortly after Ignacio Ezcurra's death, Fallaci receives a copy of Pascal's Pensées as a gift from her close friend François Pelou. The writings of the French philosopher offer some insights into the more mature realization that truth is not always clearcut and perhaps communicate to her the most satisfactory explanation for the chaotic state of affairs in the world, as well as for man's inhumanity to man. According to Pascal, heroes may frequently delude us, while objects of scorn may suddenly become attractive. The knowledge and understanding that truth and falseness blend into a given set of ideals change the author's absolute views on right and wrong: "Qualsiasi cosa é vera solo in parte, falsa solo in parte, e il giusto e l'inguisto si mischiano, e coloro che rispetti possono deluderti, coloro che disprezzi posson commuoverti." Pascal's belief that each man contains both the angel and the beast within himself goes right to the heart of the matter and succeeds in facilitating the final stage of the writer's transformation. "Aveva mitigato il mio assolutismo, Pascal, le mie cecita." The bitterness of truth has brought about a new vision of the world in Fallaci the journalist, writer and thinker.

Fallaci's methods make possible her arrival at a more mature stage of thought. Both the interview and direct observation produce unforeseen results that help shape her outlook. The talk in Hue with the soldier who saves her life makes it clear that criticism of military actions comes more easily when a person stays removed from conflict conditions. Her commentary indicates that a negative attitude toward Americans represents an overly harsh and simplistic stance. Contemplating Vietcong atrocities, whether they be on a film or with the naked eye, also justifies the impassioned repercussion that she did not expect. The author's commentaries reveal that barbarism exists on the other side, too, and that their savagery senselessly eliminates innocent colleagues, as well as a significant part of the civilian population. The writer's remarks about her feelings permit the reader to follow the changes that occur in her attitudes.

As Erik Barnouw summarizes, documentarists capture fragments of actuality and then combine them meaningfully. Such an endeavor stresses two main functions: 1) recording (of images and sounds): 2) interpretation. Fallaci's journalistic procedures parallel this role. Her use of the interview corresponds to the art of cinema vérité. When she reprints significant documents or visually observes events. She resembles the technician of direct cinema. The commentary constitutes a significant feature of both methods and allows her state of soul to become transparent. Adhering to this craft. Fallaci clearly projects a slanted point of view and then expresses an opinion on it accordingly. However, her tactic is also conducive to witnessing and to comprehending hardcore reality that subsequently shapes her outlook into a more significant degree of thought. Evidence imposes its own force on the viewer and then overpowers any preestablished judgments. The mature truth that she finally discovers is powerful but no more so than the becoming which her technique fosters. The process of change not only causes her personal, ideological and political perspectives to evolve but also transforms Niente E Cosi Sia from a professional and editorial account of the Vietnam conflict into a soul-searching and literary achievement of merit.

Santo L. Arico (essay date Autumn 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Breaking the Ice: An In-Depth Look at Oriana Fallaci's Interview Techniques," in Journalism Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3, Autumn 1986, pp. 587-93.

[In the following essay, Arico examines the techniques that he believes make Fallaci an effective and engaging interviewer.]

Although Oriana Fallaci is recognized as an accomplished author of three novels and five works of nonfiction, she is best known today as a political interviewer. Using her skills, she has not only exposed some of the world's most powerful and intransigent political leaders but has also made history with them. She confronts her interviewees with no inhibitions but as their intellectual peer and social equal. She boldly interrogated Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Thieu about the corruption in South Vietnam's regime during the Vietnam war and lured former Secretary of State Kissinger into describing himself as a lone gunslinger on a horse as he traveled around the world on diplomatic missions. After Fallaci printed her interview with Ali Bhutto, the Pakistani Prime Minister had so many adverse political repercussions that he begged her several times to retract her statements and to proclaim publically that she had fabricated the story. When Alvaro Cunhal openly admitted that his Portuguese Communist Party viewed national elections as a game, he severely set back the efforts of European Communism to prove its faith in the democratic process and to assume a shield of respectability. Her emotion laden questions to Haile Selassie on the poverty of his people caused him to recall angrily his Ethiopian ambassador from Italy.

Although Fallaci's interviews have made her both respected and feared, her methods are not unique and innovative; they are traditional procedures that most professionals utilize. What makes her approach different is the degree of commitment and passion that she brings to journalism. Her work is not only the reflection of an acquired craft but also the expression of a personality. This unusual woman becomes her interview; the technique becomes a verbal projection of the person herself. The intensity of her line of questioning impregnates the colloquies with a dynamism that places them in a class of their own. Fallaci's stock in trade techniques, as well as her originality, have been the study of several short articles. However, none of them has done justice to isolating her skills or emphasizing her uniqueness as an interviewer. Instead, they accentuate one aspect of a narrow segment of her discourses. The present analysis attempts to rectify this deficit and to discover the hidden force that motivates the interviewer.

Fallaci's repertory of techniques seems endless and always reflects a fervent desire to discover the hidden truth in each figure that she encounters. Before every confrontation, she guesses where the person is most vulnerable and calculates her questions accordingly. Her flattering queries to Kissinger reflect her belief that his particular weakness is his vain and massive ego. "Dr. Kissinger, how do you explain the incredible movie-star status you enjoy; how do you explain the fact that you're almost more famous and popular than a president? Have you a theory on this matter?" At this point, Kissinger made his disastrous cowboy statement, which became prime subject matter in the American press for months afterwards.

Another of her strong points is the thoroughness of her preparation before each of her interviews. Her preparedness sometimes catches her subject off guard and enables her to assume an advantageous stance. During her meeting with Kissinger, she brought out speeches and clippings in which President Thieu of South Vietnam challenged the American Secretary of State to tell the real reasons for their disagreeing on a peace treaty with North Vietnam. Kissinger's response reflected his awkwardness: "Let me see it … Ah! No, I won't answer him. I won't pay any attention to this invitation." Fallaci is also master of the old rope trick, giving people just enough line to hang themselves. To Ali Bhutto, she simply alluded to the antagonism that existed between him and Indira Ghandi. "You two really can't stand each other, can you?" Bhutto then imprudently allowed his hatred to arouse a string of insulting remarks toward Ghandi and subsequently suffered humiliation when India retaliated by retracting the agreement to sign a peace treaty with his country.

In many of her exchanges Fallaci formulates inductive conclusions after listening to a speaker's statements. According to former CIA Director William Colby, influential Italians taking bribes from his organization were regarded as good clients rather than corrupt officials. Fallaci then bitterly sums up the idea. "So you consider yourself the lawyer for Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Italy." In the same exchange, Colby admits that the FBI would arrest Fallaci if she were to finance American politicians in order to protect her interests in the U.S.A. She then states her own ending: 'Fine. So I ought to report you, your ambassador, and your agents to the Italian police and have you arrested." Occasionally, the writer's summary statement also acts as a stimulus for further conversation. When Thieu expressed feelings of betrayal by American politicians, she both summarized and instigated: "In other words, Mr. President, you expected just what has happened." Then, after Thieu completed his hypothesis, she again used the same technique and provoked a response that supplied additional information. "In other words, Mr. President, you think that Kissinger was about to sell Vietnam in the name of his world strategy." After Thieu openly accused Nixon and Kissinger of bad judgment in dealing with North Vietnam, she varied the basic strategy by adding a simple question to her conclusion. "So, in your opinion, Nixon and Kissinger made a mistake. Mr. President, how do you explain the fact that they made a mistake?" When Golda Meir made it clear that Israel would not return captured Arab territory, Fallaci accurately grasped the heart of the question. "And so it's obvious that you'll never go back to your old borders." When Kissinger compared himself to an adventurous cowboy leading a caravan into an isolated town, she again hit the nail tight on the head. "I see. You see yourself as a kind of Henry Fonda, unarmed and ready to fight with his fists for honest ideals. Alone, courageous …"

Techniques Vary

Fallaci's techniques vary and change according to the particular set of circumstances. In the Kissinger talk, one tactic was to go from the general to the particular. First, she asked in broad terms what he would do after his term of office expired. Not receiving a satisfactory answer, she changed to a specific possibility. "Would you go back to teaching at Harvard?" During her Cunhal interview, she posed a sly question, acting as though she had inside information regarding his forthcoming dismissal as secretary of the Portuguese Communist Party. After he became emotionally involved in the game, he asked if it was due to his old age. Fallaci then continued to push the tactic to the limit, "No, no, because you are too arrogant. Too Stalinist. Because you cause Socialist newspapers to be shut down and organize lots of troubles for Communists in other countries." Then, when she finally discloses the prank, her retort was one of bantering: "You really got scared, didn't you?" At other times, she leads her victims on what seems to be a safari of irrelevant questions and then, when they least expect it, succeeds in obtaining the desired information. This method was particularly useful during her interview with Haile Selassi who had refused to discuss the coup that his two trusted advisors, Menghistu and Giramané Neway, had initiated. Both men died before Selassie could have had the pleasure of seeing them executed. After an attempted escape became impossible, Giramané shot his brother to prevent capture, then, he took his own life in prison before his scheduled day of execution. Selassie vengefully ordered their bodies to remain hanging from the gallows for eight days. In order to discuss this untouchable topic, Fallaci posed an apparently unrelated question: "Your majesty, if you don't wish to speak about certain things, speak to me still about yourself. It is said that you love animals and babies very much. May I ask you if you love men as much?" He responded that he only respected men who were courageous and dignified. Then, she made her key statement. "The two protagonists in that coup d'etat had dignity your majesty. They had courage." Selassie realized that he had been intellectually cornered and gave vent to his annoyance by angrily commanding her to refrain from her line of questioning. "That's enough, that's enough! Enough of it!" During the course of her exchange with the Ethiopian monarch, Selassie vehemently ordered her to change the subject at least six different times.

Part of Fallaci's talent is an instinctive ability to adapt quickly to each situation and to perceive an advantageous direction after an unexpected and indiscreet disclosure. During her talk with the Shah of Iran, he revealed that he had not only had visions of the saints and prophets but had actually spoken to them, Fallaci profited from this revelation by making fun of him: "You mean you could shake hands with them?" After an affirmative response, she continued her sarcasm: "If I am there with you, can I seem them?" In the same interview, she noticed that the Shah's profile communicated an expression of forlornness and thus composed an appropriate question: "Why are you so sad, Majesty? I may be wrong, but you always have such a sad and worried look." Right before she met with Quadaffi, the Libyan dictator began to yell hysterically like a broken record for ten minutes straight that he was the Gospel and naturally intimidated the entire entourage. At a certain point, Fallaci, who almost never interrupts, boldly cut him off and put forth the appropriate punch line: "Stop! Stop! Do you believe in God?" Quadaffi: "Of course, why do you ask?" Fallaci: "Because I thought you were God." During the course of their conversation, Quadaffi asserted that he was much loved by his people. Her response was appropriately provocative as she gestured to his battalion of bodyguards: "Colonel, if the masses love you so much, then why do you need so much protection?"

Fallaci skillfully uses all the techniques mentioned but is certainly not alone in that regard. Any good interviewer prepares well, adapts to different statements, summarizes the main idea in a concise conclusion, and tries to understand the personality of the subject before the actual confrontation. Fallaci's originality is the emotional entanglement that takes place when she meets the other person. Her degree of involvement makes most exchanges seen on American television look tepid. Journalists in the United States appear far too objective and composed to rate a valid comparison. On CBS's 60 Minutes, Fallaci, who has never understood the American insistence that all reporters remain impartial, said to Mike Wallace: "I hate objectivity, you know, I have told it many times, I do not believe in objectivity, I believe in what I see, what I hear and what I feel which is a kind of blasphemy … especially for the American press." When Wallace accused her of emotionalism and subjectivity, she did not deny it; indeed, she elaborated on what he perceived as peculiarities, "I don't only put my opinion but my sentiment in it." Consequently, every time the writer meets someone, she throws her entire being into the experience and takes a moral stance on every issue. When she met Golda Meir in Israel, she knew exactly where she stood on the Palestinian issue and immediately proposed that Arab terrorism would exist as long as there were Palestinian refugees. When the prime minister tried to assuage her concern, comparing this problem to the case of German and Czech refugees, who were homeless after World War II, Fallaci resisted and countered: "But the case of the Palestinian is different, Mrs. Meir…." She suggested that Israel should allow them to return to their homeland or to create their own nation on the West Bank. When Meir explained that Jordan should welcome them into its territory, Fallaci found this idea unacceptable, "because they say they are Palestinians and that their home is in Palestine, not Jordan." There is no interview in which she remains detached and objective; each one seems like a moral debate.

According to her admission to Robert Scheer, Fallaci meets with important people in order to understand the logistics of world decisions. "I do these interviews to understand the person, to study how power takes place." This desire to perceive how leaders determine the destiny of all mankind turns her appointments into stalking sessions in which she holds her subjects accountable for all deeds and actions. Before seeing Alvaro Cunhal, she knew that the Communist Party had seized control in March 1975 of Republica, Portugal's last free newspaper, and ignored the country's mandate in favor of the Socialists. Therefore, she immediately brought him to task: "You can say whatever you wish, think whatever you wish: it is not licit to neutralize and to ignore a party that represents the greater majority of the people, that has won the elections." When the ex-CIA Director William Colby agreed to receive her, there were no holds barred on the various activities of the agency. She condemned its desires to control other nations for selfish interests and denounced the harm done to genuine freedom in the process. "From Franco to Caetano, from Diem to Thieu, from Papadopulos to Pinochet. Without counting all the Fascist dictators in Latin America. Tortured Brazilians, for example. In this way, in the name of freedom, you became the supporters of all those who kill liberty from the other side."

Takes Personal Stand

Fallaci takes such a strong stand on issues that she frequently expresses her sense of outrage by actually insulting or injecting elements of melodrama into the exchange. Her debate with Colby became so heated that she refrained from direct bombast only with difficulty and referred to him as a corruptor. "There is only one type more disgusting than the corrupt: the corruptor." Then, she accused him of plotting to overthrow governments throughout the world: "And under Johnson what knavery did you organize? Ah, yes: the overthrow of Papadopulos." Finally, she bitterly equated him to a hard-line Stalinist: "If you had been born on the other side of the barricade, you would be a perfect Stalinist." To the Ayatollah Khomeini, she hurled a pointed challenge: "Are you a fanatic?" When the Iranian leader smugly insulted her, stating that the chador was appropriate attire for proper young women and that, therefore, she had no need to wear it, she retaliated angrily by tearing the veil off, throwing it to the ground and shouting: "This is what I do with your stupid medieval rag!" He, in turn, stormed out of the room, only to hear her insultingly call after him: "Where do you go? Do you go to make pee-pee?" Fallaci's tactic was next a lengthy sit-in demonstration until he swore on the Koran that he would again meet with her on the next day. Her use of dramatics was also evident during the time spent with Kissinger, when she used a pistol-to-the-headtype question. "Dr. Kissinger, if I were to put a pistol to your head and ask you to choose between having dinner with Thieu and having dinner with LeDue I ho … whom would you choose?" During the Colby interview, Fallaci repeatedly alluded to his readiness to overthrow any possible Communist regime in Italy, just like the Allende-Pinochet experience in Chile and dramatized her statements by sarcastically challenging the notion that her country was his personal banana republic: "Mr. Colby, I am trying to get you to admit that Italy is an independent state, not a banana republic, not your colony!"

In his analysis of Fallaci's techniques, Thomas Griffith spoke of trials of strength in which the writer stress tested her subjects. Right from the start, she placed continued pressure on the person and mercilessly persisted in her taxing pressure, until the point had been exhausted. In Portugal, the Communists could have managed to control the government after their loss in the 1975 elections, only if the military had given their support to this paradoxical condition. Thus, Fallaci asked Cunhal the loaded question whether his party had accomplished the manoeuvre alone or with the help of the military. "The Communists and no one else, or the Communists together with the military?" When Cunhal tried to dodge the question, she emphatically repeated it four more times until he answered. She continued to bombard Kissinger with questions on Vietnam and the impending peace agreement with the North to the point that he practically had to implore her to stop pursuing the topic: 1) "No, I don't intend to argue about this"; 2) "That's enough, I don't want to talk anymore about Vietnam, I can't allow myself to, at this time. Every word I say becomes news. At the end of November perhaps … Listen, why don't we meet again at the end of November?"; 3) "I cannot answer that question."; 4) "I cannot, I cannot … I do not wish to answer that question"; 5) "And don't make me talk about Vietnam anymore, please"; 6) "But are we still talking about Vietnam?" Fallaci made use of this same persistence technique with William Colby, when he avoided revealing his plans in the event that the Communist Party were to win a majority in an Italian national election. 1) "Mr. Colby, what would you do, you Americans, if the Communists were to win the elections in Italy?" 2) "Mr. Colby, would you have a coup d'etat like in Chile?"; 3) "Answer me, Mr. Colby; another Chile?"; 4) "But I insist on the question which you don't want to answer: what would the Americans do if the Communists were to win control of the government in Italy?"; 5) "Courage, Mr. Colby. Do you believe it would be legitimate for the United States to intervene in Italy with a Pinochet if the Communists were to gain control of the government?"

In her discussion with David Sanford, Fallaci was very clear about her efforts to badger and intimidate her subjects. "I know that I make psychological violence on them." Thus, the questions she poses are intensely direct, personal and frequently provocative. To General Thieu, she offered a series of four consecutive brutal inquiries that took their toll on his emotional equilibrium: 1) "Here's the first: What have you to say about the fact that you're called an "American puppet" or the "man of the Americans"?; 2) "Question number two. What do you have to say to those who accuse you of being corrupt, the most corrupt man in Vietnam?"; 3) "And is it true that today you're immensely rich, with bank accounts and houses in Switzerland, London, Paris, and Australia?"; 4) "Question number four. Aren't you afraid of being killed? For instance, assassinated like President Diem?" Fallaci's directness in no way resembles the Barbara Walters whammy number, made famous when she cunningly obliged Jimmy Carter to discuss whether he and Rosalyn slept in a single or double bed in the White House. No, Fallaci asked Golda Meir if she would ever give up Jerusalem, whether she would return the West Bank to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt, whether the Golan Heights would be permanently annexed, and whether the Sinai would become part of Israel. Fallaci's technique has no place for the banal type of question that Barbara Walters asked Anwar Sadat: "What is your biggest thrill?"

She prefers to get right to the point, asking the Shah of Iran about attempts on his life: "Majesty, how many times have they tried to kill you?" She commented on the fear of his Iranian people toward him—"When I try to talk about you, here in Teheran, people lock themselves in a fearful silence. They don't even dare pronounce your name, Majesty. Why is that?"

In Fallaci's last question to Haile Selassie, she asked how he felt about death and his personal mortality. The query was particularly provocative, since the monarch disliked the word death and was petrified of dying. The emperor's anger and frustration hysterically burst forth, as he ordered Fallaci to leave his presence at once and demanded to know who this woman was. "Death? death? Who is this woman? Where does she come from? What does she want from me?!? Away, enough, that's it! That's it!" Like Selassie, many people have wondered about Fallaci. Gloria Emerson refers to her as a "divine troublemaker." Elizabeth Peer writes that she bullies, baits, charms "and harvests disclosures of stupefying indiscretion from statesmen who ought to know better." David Sanford uses the term "surgical journalism" to explain how she dissects a person's mind until she gets to the truth. In the Introduction to Interview with History, the writer herself tries to explain who she is. All of her motivation derives from her desire to understand the powerful and how they control our lives. She does every interview "with the hope of understanding in what way, by being in power or opposing it, those people determine our destiny." She painstakingly inflicts a torturous preparation on herself before doing the same to the other person. "I went with a thousand feelings of rage, a thousand questions that before assailing them were assailing me." Fallaci believes that our existence is controlled by a handful of individuals and calls this condition an "atrocious hypothesis." According to the writer, world leaders are capable of changing the course of events by means of an idea, a discovery, a revolution, an assassination or even a simple gesture. In view of this overwhelming belief, she acts as the official representative of the cheated, the abused, the suspecting, the defiant, the insanely brave—all the people who say no to those who attempt to decide our destiny.

Once she succeeds in obtaining an appointment, Fallaci then becomes involved in the game of getting at the truth. "Once there, however, it became a game to reach the truth." The truth that she has discovered in her interviews is both harsh and revolutionary. According to the writer, all the selective criteria possible do not justify power. "Not even a selective criterion justified their power. Those who determine our destiny are not really better than ourselves; they are neither more intelligent nor stronger nor more enlightened than ourselves." In order to discover the intricacies that actually produce decisions, Fallaci uses every professional interview skill possible. What makes her original, however, is the degree of conviction she injects into her work. "On every professional experience I leave shreds of my heart and soul." Her passionate involvement renders each interview more than a document "for students of power and antipower." Fallaci refuses to become a mechanical repeater of what has been seen or heard; she refuses to define herself as a journalistic doctor of anatomy or an impassive recorder of events. Each encounter becomes not only a power study but also a portrait of herself. "They are a strange mixture of my ideas, my temperament, my patience, all of these driving the questions." This journalist certainly knows how to pose the questions. In addition, she adds something extra that provokes her subjects to openness and emotion. It is as though this woman has fallen in love with the interview process even though she might hate the person in front of her. She seems to experience a sexual excitement as she succeeds in getting Kissinger on the record, in making a fool of the Shah of Iran, or in arousing the rage of the Lion of Judah Haile Selassie. In her own words, Fallaci says it all: "An interview is a love story for me. It's a fight. It's a coitus."

Robin Pickering-Iazzi (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Designing Mothers: Images of Motherhood in Novels by Aleramo, Morante, Maraini, and Fallaci," in Annali d'Italianistica, Vol. 7, 1989, pp. 325-40.

[In the following excerpt, Pickering-Iazzi compares the treatment of women and motherhood in novels by Fallaci and three other Italian writers.]

For its poetical suggestiveness and socio-cultural significance, motherhood has been a central interpretative image for twentieth-century women writers, designed to express female existence in its personal and social dimensions. The content and configurations of the maternal images in Una donna, La storia, Donna in guerra, and Lettera a un bambino mai nato [Letter to a Child Never Born] explain ways in which women writers conceptualize maternity, delineating the essential designs of motherhood as social institution and as personal experience. Aleramo, seeking to create an authentic rendering of female existence, articulates the protagonist's intimate drama of entrapment within the socially imposed maternal role and her escape for purposeful identity as woman, mother, and writer, thereby illustrating the disparity between institutionalized motherhood and the realities of mothering. Morante's depiction of Ida explicates the male-authored metaphor of motherhood, subverting the institution's ideological and historical designs as a means for an authentic relationship to self and being. The novels by Maraini and Fallaci interpret a period of disrupture between the traditional attitudes and values of institutionalized motherhood and alternative notions that reflect women's knowledge and experience. Though both writers refute the ideology of motherhood as women's biological destiny and primary source of identity, Fallaci posits a regenerative notion of maternity, charging that when motherhood is a conscious choice the mother/child relationship has the potential to transform the nature of society and culture. While taking into consideration the recurring and divergent components within these feminist and women's discourses, this study examines the designs of motherhood, the architecture and aesthetic purpose of its imagery, and the meanings enclosed in and suggested by the maternal images.


In Donna in guerra and Lettera a un bambino mai nato, the writers forge alternatives to women's silence, fashioning a new contextual framework for female identify that expands women's designs, as content, form, and intent. Each novel reflects key positions within the broad spectrum of women's ideas and attitudes concerning motherhood that were articulated in the 1970s. Interpreting the variety of views women hold with regard to maternity, Maraini states: "la posizione è ambivalente tra le donne, da una parte c'è il rifiuto dell'identificazione della personalità della donna con la riproduzione, col ruolo materno, dall'altra c'è la rivalutazione della maternità come forza e privilegio della donna: in origine la donna ha avuto questa forza, che era il suo potere sociale, insomma la creatività della donna, la capacità di formare un altro essere umano era una cosa straordinaria, unica." Fallaci's vision of the mother/child relationship reveals the power of women's mothering to transform life and society, whereas Maraini explores promising courses, exclusive of motherhood, for women's individuation and self-originated social action, and therefore, fulfillment.


From the multi-voiced narrative in Lettera a un bambino mai nato emerge two essential images of motherhood; one clarifies the designs of the institution as social imperative, the other expands the meanings of motherhood in its personal and social dimensions. This latter aspect of Fallaci's novel, as well as her scathing indictment of societal institutions and systems of belief have been much overlooked by critical commentary. However, with the initial question posed by the protagonist, concerning possible reasons for bringing a child into the world, Fallaci provides the essential framework for a close examination of contemporary life and society, as well as the attendant attitudes, beliefs, and values that bear upon the nature and realities of motherhood.

The voices of the unborn child's father, the male obstetrician, and the protagonist's employer form a composite of motherhood that reflects dominant ideas and attitudes in a world "fabbricato dagli uomini per gli uomini," recalling the images of institutionalized motherhood in Una donna and La storia. This notion of motherhood values maternity only in the traditional family nucleus, and considers mothers and their offspring to be possessions of the State. Furthermore, since this concept of maternity is designed upon the social imperative of women's self-sacrifice, it restricts female identity to the maternal function, thereby denying individual faculties and aptitudes, and their complementary range of expression in society. The protagonist's modes of existence and mothering undermine these conscious and unverbalized beliefs, upsetting the social order, which is a function of the writer's regenerative notion of motherhood.

The mother-to-be, her close friend, the woman obstetrician, and the unborn child express different dimensions of an alternative vision of maternity that reconceives the terms, content, and configurations of the potential relationships between mothers and daughters, and mothers and sons. Central to Fallaci's reconceptualization of motherhood is the right of choice, a premise she has in common with Maraini. To be a mother, the writer maintains, is not a vocation, a duty, or women's biological destiny. Rather, it is a right, which should be exercised solely on the basis of women's individual choices. Although the character does not give birth to a living child, she begins to mother when she makes the conscious decision to have the child.

Like Aleramo's fictionalized memoirs, the letters written by the protagonist to the child she is carrying evoke with reflective frankness and sensibility the enigmatic muddle of feelings—encompassing the spectrum between joy and despair—that she experiences. Fallaci's discourse, which includes introspective narrative, dreams, fairy tales, and stories, articulates her insights about the complex relationship between the conscious and unconscious content of maternity, and the highly variable realities of motherhood. For example, the protagonist endeavors to refashion the terms of the maternal relationship with such ideals as autonomy, self-respect, and reciprocity, all of which are frustrated by unforeseeable complications in her pregnancy requiring bed rest and hospitalization. The consequent loss of freedom, evoked in powerful images of literal and figurative entrapment, threatens the woman's identity. Nonetheless, the values inherent in the character's manner of coping break the conventions of motherhood, revealing women's aspirations and concerns, as well as the potential of the mother/child relationship to transform life and culture.

The recurrent references to teaching in Fallaci's novel, conveyed by her discourse and the repetition of such words as lezione, spiegare, insegnare, insegnamento, imparare, and apprendere, underscore the formative role mothering may play in reshaping ideas, values, and culture. Subverting the traditional scope of the maternal vocation—to transmit dominant societal systems of meaning—the mother undermines such patriarchal institutions, ideals, and myths as the State, the Church, patriarchy, the family, and gender roles. The writer posits new determinants of human conduct, irrespective of gender, embodying individual desire and thought. Whether her child is a girl or a boy, she will be equally pleased:

essere donna è così affascinante. E' un'avventura che richiede un tale coraggio, una sfida che non annoia mai. Avrai tante cose da intraprendere se nascerai donna. Per incominciare, avrai da batterti per sostenere che se Dio esistesse potrebbe anche essere una vecchia coi capelli bianchi o una bella ragazza. Poi avrai da batterti per spiegare che il peccato non nacque il giorno in cui Eva colse una mela: quel giorno nacque una splendida virtù chiamata disubbidienza. Infine avrai da batterti per dimostrare che dentro il tuo corpo liscio e rotondo c'è un'intelligenza che urla d'essere ascoltata.

If born a male, the child will be free from certain humiliations, but his mission will be no less demanding. He will have to fight against the same patriarchal institutions, ideologies, and injustices, as well as others, dependent upon gender assumptions, which limit the range of human experience. The vision the mother projects of the values she wishes to instill in her potential son designs alternative forms for male self-expression reflective of women's experience and ideas:

se nascerai uomo, spero che sarai un uomo come io l'ho sempre sognato: dolce coi deboli, feroce coi prepotenti, generoso con chi ti vuol bene, spietato con chi ti comanda. Infine, nemico di chiunque racconti che i Gesù sono figli del Padre e dello Spirito Santo: non della donna che li partorì.

Most importantly, the behavior of the child, whether male or female, must manifest kindness and intelligence.

In the course of teaching her child-to-be to question and, moreover, to resist the established beliefs and forms of society, the protagonist elucidates perhaps the most significant means for transforming life and culture. Fallaci's pluralistic vision, operating upon the values of individuality, human dignity, and relationship, expands the designs of women's and men's experience. As portrayed by the dream sequence of the trial, and the words of the mother and child, there exist many realities, many truths, and many kinds of consciousness, dependent upon experience and contextuality. By incorporating their own beliefs and aspirations in the content of mothering, women may generate further meanings and forms for society. Although the protagonist miscarries and may die, the concluding images of the woman express a life-affirming vision; the daily struggle, to question, to meet and create opportunities, produces a life of committed belief and purposeful action.

Fallaci posits a regenerative notion of motherhood, whose primary tenets are choice, the affirmation of self-identity, and social transformation. Her conceptualization endeavors to reconcile the disjuncture between the domestic and social spheres described in Una donna, La Storia, and Donna in guerra. Each of these artistic visions expands the readers' consciousness of the meanings and designs of motherhood, creating new metaphors for women's experience, thought, action, and desire.

Santo L. Arico (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Oriana Fallaci's Journalistic Novel: Niente e così sia," in Contemporary Women Writers in Italy, edited by Santo L. Arico, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, pp. 171-82.

[In the following essay, Arico examines the meeting of journalistic and novelistic techniques in Fallaci's Niente e così sia.]

Although Oriana Fallaci is best known as a political interviewer, she is also recognized as an ardent practitioner of New Journalism. According to the critic James C. Murphy, this innovative approach allows the journalist's opinions, ideas, and commitments to permeate the story. Correspondents become so intensely involved that they attack their assignments with missionary zeal. Murphy refers to this subjectivity as activism in news reporting. Fallaci's effort to write Niente e così sia (Nothing and Amen), her report of the war in Vietnam, is a classic example of such activism. The personal nature of her account runs counter to more conventional journalistic objectivity, and her bias colors the narration. Her anti-American and pro-Vietcong feelings are a matter of public record, but during her stay in wartorn Vietnam, Fallaci's perceptions undergo a noticeable transition and this change develops into one of the most interesting aspects of her book. The zeal with which she embraces her assignment is obvious. She spends nearly a year on location, compulsively covering dangerous situations, interviewing fighting men at the bloody conflict in Dak To, flying on a bombing mission in order to experience a pilot's emotions during combat, and almost losing her life during the battle of Hue. Indeed, Fallaci's absorption in her professional pursuits consumes her so completely that any comparison with traditional reporting appears misleading.

Departing from customary methods of gathering data, Oriana Fallaci practices a distinct type of writing. Murphy points out that some scholars consider New Journalism to be a literary genre. Such an interpretation sees the writer's exposé as more than just a forum for viewing and experiencing incidents through the medium of her own individuality; it is also nonfictional prose that uses the resources of fiction. Her work stands as a classic example of what Seymour Krim labels "journalit" and classifies as the de facto literature of our times. In his article "The New Confusion," William L. Rivers proposes that writings in this modernistic style add "a flavor and a humanity to journalistic writing that push it into the realm of art." Fallaci's virtue as a writer lies precisely in showing the possibility of something strikingly different in journalism and in furthering efforts to replace earlier types of fiction with a new brand of literature. Her total immersion in the Vietnamese conflict explains a large part of the popularity that her book attracted. Her writing exerts, however, an even greater impact when she elevates factual statements to artistic invention, demonstrating that it is possible to write accurate nonfiction while using literary devices such as traditional dialogues and stream-of-consciousness.

In 1972, Tom Wolfe hailed New Journalism's replacement of the novel as literature's main event and detailed the historical development of this movement. According to Wolfe, authors like Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), Gay Talese (Honor Thy Father), Norman Mailer (Armies of the Night), and John Sack (M) write journalistic novels, using the same techniques that gave the literature of social realism its impact. Discovering the joys and power of faithful portrayal, these writers applied their new knowledge to the richest terrain of the novel—the manners and customs of society. Wolfe points out that in the 1960s journalists began employing the techniques of realism—particularly those of Fielding, Smollett, Gogol, Balzac, and Dickens. "By trial and error, by 'instinct' rather than theory, journalists began to discover the devices that gave the realistic novel its unique power, variously known as its 'immediacy,' its 'concrete reality,' its 'emotional involvement,' its 'gripping' or 'absorbing quality.'" Wolfe proposes that this extraordinary dynamism derives its force from just four devices: scene-by-scene construction, full record of dialogue, third-person point of view, and the portrayal of everyday details in the lives of people to round out character development.

Although Fallaci makes use of the literary conventions of mood development, interviews, character portrayal, satire, and humor, she mainly relies on the four techniques of realism that Wolfe summarizes. By doing so, she changes what would have been an objective record of an armed conflict into a fresh form of art. According to Wolfe, the first characteristic that sets dramatic fiction apart from documentaries is scene-by-scene construction. The writer relates a series of events by moving from one situation to another, resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narrative. Although novelists have relied heavily on this method, its role in classical journalism has been minor. In the new style, however, background building is paramount to storytelling; it eliminates any similarity to detailed documents; it explains, too, why journalists undertake extraordinary feats in order to obtain the information needed to construct a scenario.

The first scene that Fallaci describes is one that takes place after her arrival in Saigon on 18 November 1967. She uses the classical approach of juxtaposing sights that catch her attention en route from the airport to her hotel. At the Than Son Nhut terminal, she indicates the setting's main features: "Jet fighters, helicopters with heavy machine guns, trailers loaded with napalm bombs, stood in line with unhappy-looking American soldiers." She notes salient aspects of the countryside on the way to Saigon: "Guarding the road leading into town were sandbag fortifications surrounded by barbed-wire fences and ending in turrets with rifles sticking out." The author next concentrates on the vital signs of life in the city itself and highlights jeeps full of American soldiers, trucks with cannons leveled, convoys carrying ammunition boxes, rickshaws plunging into traffic and swiftly pedaling on, water sellers scurrying about, their merchandise swinging from bamboo sticks across their shoulders, minute women in long dresses, their loose hair waving beyond their shoulders like black veils, bicycles, motorcycles, shoe-shine boys, and filthy, reckless taxicabs.

Fallaci reveals surprise at not immediately seeing the full impact of the war, and her commentary reinforces her technique of accumulation. "There was a chaos almost gay in this Saigon in November of 1967…. It seemed more like a postwar period: the markets filled with food, the jewelry shops stocked with gold, the restaurants open and all that sunshine." The tranquil atmosphere at the hotel creates the impression of a relaxed city that is oblivious to its country's agony: "Even the elevator, the telephone, the fan on the ceiling were working, and the Vietnamese waiter was ready to respond to any gesture you might make, and on the table there was always a bowl of fresh pineapple and mangoes." One final observation summarizes her overall impression: "Dying didn't occur to you."

Fallaci uses the same procedure as she constructs the scene at Battery 25 when she visits an army chaplain, Father Bill. The besieged outpost occupies a barren plateau surrounded by North Vietnamese positions and receives a steady barrage from enemy artillery. "On the bare earth, all you could see were artillery posts, five or six trenches and a hundred dirty soldiers who needed a shave." Father Bill, who regularly enters the encircled area by helicopter in order to minister to the men's spiritual needs, explains that the North Vietnamese, who occupy all the surrounding hills, bombard the American position with mortars twice a day and attack it once a week. The priest quickly prepares an altar by placing a cardboard box on two empty howitzer shells. The recruits assemble in the open space and Mass begins, lasting for about twenty minutes. During that time, two Phantoms drop napalm ten kilometers to the southeast, causing black clouds to darken the blue sky. Farther away to the northeast, cannons thunder. There is, however, absolute quiet at Battery 25, where Father Bill raises his cardboard beaker, calling on the Lord and leading the men in prayer. "All this took place in the most complete serenity, the most absolute silence. In the same silence the boys got up, stood in line, and Father Bill gave them communion: laying little hosts like peppermints on their tongues."

In her personal reflections, Fallaci wonders incredulously why the North Vietnamese did not fire during the service. Since they are able to see clearly the American position with or without field glasses, the writer concludes that enemy gunners chose not to initiate action until the men had finished their prayers. "It seems absurd, I know, but I think they really did want that, because as soon as Mass was over, when Father Bill had hardly put away his crucifix and his jars, the first mortar fire fell. Right into the camp."

The re-creation of scenery and atmosphere is central to Fallaci's technique. Her mimetic ability and talent for acute description enable her readers to receive as full an experience of the war as possible, short of actual, physical presence. The portrayals of Than Son Nhut Airport, Saigon, Dak To, Battery 25, and many other locations bring people and situations alive in a way that makes conventional journalism seem bloodless. Fallaci differs from traditional reporters, who have also been writing anecdotes for years, by her literary technique of building scenes, which she does throughout the book.

The second technique of realism that Wolfe identifies as part of journalistic literature is fully recounting a dialogue. The skilled novelist allows characters to develop action, plot, and personalities in free colloquial exchanges rather than in descriptions or explanations. This device also defines each protagonist quickly, efficiently catches the reader's attention, and creates a sense of proximity to what occurs in the story. Fallaci capitalizes on this tactic by having her subjects' words carry great portions of the story and by developing their uniqueness through these conversations or simple monologues.

Immediately after her arrival in Vietnam, Fallaci made arrangements to go to Dak To. During her first night there, a mortar attack forced her to seek safety in one of the bunkers on Hill 1383. Although it was a light bombardment that lasted an hour, she had time to listen to a group of soldiers conversing about draft dodging. The journalist's restatement of this conversation casts a new light on the character of many soldiers, as well as their real attitude toward the conflict:

"You see, he told me he had to take care of his mother and so he managed to stay in Los Angeles and built himself a swimming pool."

"Well, Jack was even smarter."

"What did he do?"

"He started drinking and drank himself into an ulcer, so they turned him down because of the ulcer."

"Roll on the ulcers!"

According to one of the men, his friend Howard was the most skillful at obtaining a deferment:

"When they asked him if he liked girls he said: 'Goodness no, everyone knows I go for boys.'"

"Is he a queer?"

"Of course not. You crazy? But if you say you're queer, they turn you down flat, didn't you know?"

"No, dammit. Suppose I said it now?"

"Too late, buster. You should have thought of it sooner. I should've, too."

During the battle of Dak To, the North Vietnamese controlled most areas around the American positions and shelled them day and night. Most of the firing came from Hill 875, which seemed impregnable. Any attempts to overrun the enemy emplacement resulted in failure and major casualties. American soldiers whom the North Vietnamese had pinned down there were accidentally bombed by their own aircraft trying to dislodge the opposition. When help finally arrived, the full impact of losses became evident. Fallaci's recordings catch the anguish and depression of the wounded as they are prepared for evacuation. One of them grabs her, laughing hysterically: "The order was to take the hill. Take the damned hill! But we couldn't, you see, we couldn't!" Another, half naked, shakes and stomps around, slapping his forehead, sobbing: "I hate them! I hate you! You bastards! You pigs!" Others try to calm him and lead him off to sick bay, but they cannot. A black man sits quietly eating a bowl of soup and weeping as he recalls the heaps of dead after that bomb: "You didn't know where to go, you didn't know where to hide. You slept with the corpses. I slept under Joe. He was dead, but he kept me warm. Give me a cigarette. Have you ever slept under a corpse that kept you warm?."

The soldiers in camp 1383 had received the brunt of the attack and, in many cases, fell victim to depression in these trying circumstances. Fallaci captures the men's intense agony and frustration by simply restating their words. A young Puerto Rican from New York vents his despair. He neither knows what communism is nor understands why he should fight for the benefit of a distant nation in southeast Asia. "I don't know what the hell this communism is and I don't give a damn and I don't give a damn about these fucking Vietnamese. Let them fight communism themselves. There's not a single South Vietnamese here." When a corporal tries to silence him, the soldier not only angrily refuses to be still but also heatedly recalls his father's anger after he had volunteered. "And he was right! He said: 'You're a fool; let the rich boys go.' They never do, you know. My father's a workman and let me tell you something: it's always the sons of the working people that die in wars. Never the rich boys, never!"

Rather than describe each fighting man in concrete terms, Fallaci gives glimpses of their inner selves by relating their free and spontaneous statements. The writer is able to communicate a frame of mind by reporting revelations of their fullest and most intimate sort. This gives the narration its atmosphere of accessibility and nearness; it, together with scene construction, separates the writer's work from traditional journalism and makes it technically more like a novel.

According to Wolfe, seeing the world through someone else's eyes is the third characteristic of journalistic literature. Eye-witness accounts permit both Fallaci and the reader to experience sights from the vantage point of an observer. This slant avoids the limits of exclusivity invoked with a first-person perspective, and also generates a climate of intimacy through its full exposure of a character's mind and emotional life. Wolfe's term was "chameleon," i.e., taking on the coloration of whomever or whatever was being written about.

Most instances of this technique occur when François Pelou, director of France Presse, describes for Fallaci major events that she had not witnessed herself. During a conversation with him about Buddhist self-immolation, Fallaci expresses a desire to witness one. Her colleague reacts negatively to the request but then proceeds to describe a burning that took place in Saigon in July 1966, which he witnessed while he was on his way to a press conference. After hearing the noise of an explosion and seeing flames rising up, Pelou approached the fire and recognized a young monk in the flames, sitting with his legs crossed in the lotus position. "Around him there are kids playing, women crying, and two nuns who state emotionless. Though everybody seems to respect his decision, the traffic is hardly disturbed by the show."

Pelou attempts to save the burning victim who begins to move and twist with pain; fellow monks, however, block his efforts to aid the victim. Except for the covering of his shoulder, the victim's skin slips away from his arm and hand. After a nun places burning material back on the suffering person, Pelou quickly removes it once more, only to have it thrown back by the religious. "The whole thing is grotesque, this coming and going of burning clothes, while it's obvious that the poor monk has lost any will to die. Now he waves his hands, all his body clearly asking for help." Pelou and other newsmen eventually succeed in extinguishing the flames and getting the monk to a hospital, where he finally dies. This third-person point of view exposes the horrible suffering endured by the victim and also suggests the influence of chemical drugs and brainwashing to keep the individual resolved during burning. Pelou believes that no willpower on earth can keep a person standing still during such agony. "Not to mention another kind of drug—the one we call brainwashing. Get it into the head of a monk of seventy or a nun of seventeen that the destiny of Vietnam depends on his sacrifice and he'll agree to be roasted straight away."

In another conversation, Pelou expresses his thoughts on the insanity of dying in combat and his belief that incidentals frequently distract from an actual slaughter. He illustrates this with two anecdotes that deal with his experience as a Korean War correspondent. The first story deals with a heated engagement between a French battalion and North Korean units. Action began early in the morning and lasted until six in the evening. During the subsequent period of calm, Pelou interviewed a group of men. At a certain point, however, an artillery shell landed amidst these very soldiers. "It fell on them and the bodies shot out in pieces. A head in one place, a foot in another." Rather than experiencing grief at the sight of severed members, the journalist explains that his attention was caught by a helmet flying much higher than the heads or feet and completely absorbed him: "Up, up, up till it was nearly still and turned a somersault and came down in a spiral, down, down, till it hit the ground with a resounding thud."

The second incident occurred during the same period. After one particular battle, many of the dead remained exposed to the elements in subzero weather. Only after a few days could military personnel begin the grizzly task of retrieving frozen bodies. It was unbearably cold and the corpses were statues of ice, crystallized into absurd positions. Their awkward postures made it impossible to align them horizontally in containers. "You couldn't lay them out in a normal position, before putting them into the plastic bags. And so you were forced to bend the arms and legs till they broke like a glass—crack—and then you had to jump on the body and crush it well." Pelou explains how workers begin to perspire and how the sweat froze into snow on their faces. An unexpected detail again detracts from the morbid scene. One particular soldier appears relaxed and unruffled by his labor. "He wasn't working hard. In fact he didn't even try to stretch out their arms and legs; he just gave them a whack with a stick and that laid them out. And as he hit them, he sang: 'Mona Lisa … when you smile, Mona Lisa … I love you!'"

Third-person point of view considers reality through someone else's perceptions and exposes a person's intimate feelings. In the description of a Buddhist self-immolation, the reader is presented with Pelou's frantic attempts to save a human life and his frustration as all rescue attempts fail. Pelou's earlier experience permits him to formulate a personal philosophy of death. Nonetheless, the incidental details in his two Korean stories—a spiraling helmet, a soldier's failure to perspire like everyone else, and his irreverent song as he performs his horrible duty—distract from the actual fact of death, while simultaneously creating a surrealistic atmosphere of the macabre and absurd.

Wolfe refers to social autopsy as the fourth technique that distinguishes journalistic literature. The writer pays close attention to the minute manners and other trappings of a subject's life and, consequently, presents a comprehensive picture that communicates insight into personalities and situations. Symbolic details represent entire patterns of behavior and positions in the world. Recording of such incidentals is not embroidery; it contributes as much to the power of realism as any other literary device. It resembles third-person point of view because it also casts unexpected clarity on a character.

Fallaci's use of social autopsy takes various forms—brief informative details, humor, mood, portraits. She best utilizes this approach, however, when she paints a word picture of particular people whom she encounters. In each case, her sketch places emphasis on what she perceives as the character's principal trait. Physical features reinforce her observations, correspond directly to each person's inner spirit, and satirize obvious weaknesses.

The press officer at Dak To with limited intellectual vision: "He has a small ridiculous mustache on his dumb mouselike face and looks as if he'd been born in his helmet. Probably he sleeps in it." In his pants pocket, he keeps a box of color slides that he shows everyone: his girl in a nightgown and without it, naked, photographed while he was on leave in Honolulu. "Showing us the slides he scratches himself. How depressing to think that we shall have him around for most of the time."

The mysterious silence of François Pelou's accountant, Than Van Lang: "When you happen to look his way and see him, he comes as a surprise; he seems to have materialized that very moment." He never gets up, never speaks; he only writes with long, slim fingers and an old-fashioned pen that he dips in an inkwell. "The movement carrying the pen to the mouth of the inkwell is so strangely slow that it seems as if it weren't happening at all." Nothing upsets or bothers him; he shows no emotion, even in the face of death. "An invisible wall round his desk isolates him from us, and beyond that wall his eyes move only to look at François. Secretly, though, while the face remains impenetrable. A thin, yellow, ageless face."

General Loan, who has the reputation of being the cruelest individual in Vietnam: "The ugliest little man I had ever seen, with a tiny twisted head screwed on to his meager shoulders. The only thing you noticed about the face was the mouth—so large and so out of proportion." According to Fallaci, one looked directly down to the neck from the mouth because the chin fell away so fast that one wondered if it had existed. His eyes were not really eyes; they were eyelids that were scarcely visible through the slit. "The nose, on the other hand, was a nose but so flat it was lost in the cheeks, which were also flat. I looked at him and felt a kind of uneasiness."

The gross policeman dressed only in underwear who receives Fallaci and another journalist at central headquarters: "Fat, barefoot, sweating. He looked at us as if we were a couple of criminals, pulled up his pants and spat on the floor. Then he stood admiring the spittle, scratched himself down to his genitals and pushed us toward a desk."

Catherine, the French journalist whose false timidity camouflages an aggressive nature: "Catherine, with that little each-man-for-himself face of hers. I shall never understand that girl. You look at her and feel, immediately, that you want to protect her: so blonde, so worn, so tiny." A second glance, however, quickly changes the initial reaction. "You feel that you want to protect yourself—from her. Perhaps it's her eyes—pitiless, cold. Perhaps it's her fingers—large, knotty, always held forward like the claws of an eagle."

The impractical and mistaken patriotism of Barry Zorthian, director of the Joint United States Public Affairs Office of Vietnam and considered one of the most important men in Saigon: "Mr. Zorthian … has a large nose, a large belly, a large faith in this war, and an unshakable conviction that the United States must teach civilization to poor people who have never heard of democracy and technological progress."

The superficial and convenient Catholicism of the adoption agent Tran Ti Au, who takes Fallaci to an orphanage: "She has a pretty face of old ivory and owns a factory that makes chemical products, a house full of china and servants. She deals with adoptions and she looks like the charity ladies who think they'll get to heaven on bazaars and good works." Fallaci had gone to see her about adopting a child. When she informs her that she is neither a good Catholic nor a bad one, the lady seems irritated. When she hears that the writer has a chapel in her country home, however, she appears satisfied "as if someone with a chapel was automatically on the right side of the angels."

The highly intelligent American lieutenant Teaneck from Oklahoma who saved Fallaci's life at the Battle of Hue: "He has a wide, red, Indian face mixed with some other race—high cheekbones, thin nose, Asian cheeks." He does not fit the stereotype of the unthinking, ignorant foot soldier, who simply obeys without thinking. On the contrary, he labels Fallaci a liberal who has unfairly disparaged American soldiers in favor of the Vietcong. "It's one thing to take risks with a return ticket and another to take risks with a one-way ticket. Like me." He questions her fairness and justice, objecting to the journalist's partiality. "The fact of being in the war doesn't authorize you to despise us and respect them. Because when you escape, as you did today, you owe it to us mediocre men. To us Ugly Americans. To us who fire for your sake, to save your life and your conscience."

The coldness and impenetrability of Vietnam's president Cao Ky: "He's a Vietnamese like plenty of others, neither tall nor short, neither strong nor frail, and physically distinguished from the others only by a black mustache that stands out on his dark amber face." Fallaci sees his profile as unattractive and closed in by a sad, arrogant expression; his glance is direct but at the same time somber and melancholic. What he says, however, is greatly interesting to her and makes a profound impression. Ky is the only one on his side of the barricade "who dares admit he belongs to a powerless, inefficient, corrupt regime. I'm the only one who says the Americans are here not to defend us but to defend their own interests and set up a new colonialism."

Before her subjects even speak, Fallaci points out physical features that often indicate their personalities and provide a key to their emotional constitution. Scarcely a detail does not illuminate some point of their temperament. These clues, in combination with the writer's evaluations and comments, constitute the very essence of her literary portraits. The relentless and meticulous accumulation of these character profiles not only reveals Fallaci's private interpretations of each protagonist but also projects a comprehensive panorama of Vietnamese society during the war.

According to Seymour Krim, journalists enjoy a definite advantage in their attempts to re-create reality if they use every conceivable literary avenue open to them. Oriana Fallaci does so and particularly profits from the techniques of realism that Wolfe outlines. By observing the facts of a ruthless conflict and selecting them with an artist's touch, she captures the deeper half of reality, which old-time journalism excluded, and structures a narrative with skills that had always been associated with novels. If for some reason Fallaci had written a fictional sketch, changing names and location, she would have disgraced the reality of what she had seen. She ascertains, however, the veracity of all her data while simultaneously structuring her information in the manner of narrative prose writers. The result is a form that looks like fiction but unquestionably remains reportage. The impact of Niente e così sia lies in its portrayal of reality and the realization that its subject matter has not been imagined.

Oriana Fallaci combines her talent as a reporter and interviewer with a proven ability to write novels. The end result of her efforts, however, is not "fictional" literature. Such a label would suggest that the author has made up her story. It is true that Niente e così sia is indeed "imaginative," but that is not because Fallaci has distorted data but because she has presented them in a full manner instead of in the style of cold, clipped, factual newspaper journalism. She has brought out the sights, sounds, and feelings surrounding the raw material of her report, connecting them in an artistic manner that does not diminish but gives greater depth and dimension to the information.

Krim proposes that writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and Faulkner were "in the most radical sense reporters whose subject matter and vision were too hot or subtle or complicated or violent or lyrical or intractable or challenging for the mass media of their period." He proposes that twenty or thirty years ago writers of talent necessarily expressed themselves in fiction because only this form was able to bypass the narrow framework of journalism and provide a channel through which invented characters with made-up names in imagined situations could express their creators' world. Fallaci, however, takes part in a movement that reverses this trend. Her success lies precisely in the ability to communicate directly an investigation of the war in Vietnam as if she were writing a novel.

Fallaci accepts the ideal that art remains at all times the highest condition to which a person can aspire. In fact, she speaks openly of her burning desire to write novels after having dedicated so much of her life to the professional aspects of journalism. She projects the full weight of this desire and belief on the war in Vietnam, creating in the process an imaginative nonfiction that profits from acceptable literary techniques, especially those of social realism. In 1972, Tom Wolfe wrote: "I think there is a tremendous future for a sort of novel that will be called the journalistic novel or perhaps documentary novel, novels of intense social realism based upon the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism." Fallaci's Niente e così sia stands as a classic example of this imaginative truth writing—a genre as creative as fiction used to be, which uses the staples of the older art, in particular the four techniques outlined by Wolfe, when it needs or wants to, but expands them into deeper and more authentic worlds of contemporary reality.

Thomas Keneally (review date 27 December 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Waiting for the Suicide Truck," in The New York Times Book Review, December 27, 1992, p. 8.

[In the following review, Keneally discusses Fallaci's reportage of the Beirut conflict.]

"Inshallah" is a phrase one hears everywhere in the Arab world. It is an utterance of Arab stoicism, meaning "God willing." But God's will is savage indeed in the Beirut that Oriana Fallaci so palpably renders for us.

With the large-scale vigor that is typical of Ms. Fallaci's work, Inshallah begins on the night in October 1983 when two members of a Khomeinist sect, the Sons of God, crash suicide trucks, one into the American Marine compound, the other into the French compound. Nearly 300 young American marines and French troops are destroyed in an instant.

The third large peace-keeping force in the city is the Italians, and Ms. Fallaci's novel is concerned with the Italian officers and men during the three winter months following the explosion as they wait for the "third truck" to strike.

On the edge of the mass graves of the Shatilah Palestinian refugee camp, the Italians try to keep peace between the Palestinian Amal militia and the Lebanese Government forces of President Amin Gemayel, and dodge suicide attacks by the Sons of God and stray shells from the artillery fire of the Druze.

The main onus of preventing the "third truck" from tearing to pieces the Italian marines, alpine troops and carabinieri (Italian police units) falls on Charlie, an extremely civilized and sentimental intelligence officer, who is excessively tender toward his men, going around the outposts in the dark to make sure they are cautious enough and have their winter wear on. To forfend the Armageddon truck, Charlie has to trade in plasma and anything else he can think of with a serpentine power structure that includes the local militia leader, Bilal, a dwarf street-sweeper, and the Imam of the Lebanese Shiites, Ayatollah Zandra Sadr, who has the power to make the muezzins in their towers utter instructions favorable to the Italians.

Ms. Fallaci is not the first journalist to find that truth escapes the net of reportage but belongs to those who make appropriate myths out of the chaos. In Inshallah she manages to make the confused universe of Beirut factions and political goals internally coherent and weirdly rational. As always, she is not timid about writing about men, their sensibilities, brashness and occasional fated courage. If there is any shallowness of characterization, she compensates by giving us a generous range of men and officers.

Besides Charlie, we encounter an austere, old-fashioned soldier, Condor, who feels debased by all Charlie's deal making and by the tortuous way modern peace-keeping has to be conducted. There's Crazy Horse, a lover of antiques and of the classics, who is likely to speak in moments of crisis in maxims by Cicero or Seneca. A young failed mathematician, Angelo, is—like half the Italian peace-keeping force—in love with an Arab woman.

Ms. Fallaci writes with a muscular eloquence when giving us the squalor, yearning and shadowboxing of the soldiers' existence. And what works especially well for her is the fact that they are Italian, with a European heritage and therefore a different world-view from that of the Americans. From the peculiarly Roman Catholic consciousness of these Italian soldiers arises a sense that their occupation of Beirut is simply one item in a string of historic follies involving Europe and the Arab world. Like a medieval crusader, one officer, Pistoia, thinks that the real war has always been "between those who eat pig meat and those who don't, those who drink wine and those who don't, those who mumble the Pater Noster and those who whimper Allah rassullillah!" Both sides uttered the same basic prayer. "Our Father and Our Allah who art in Heaven, supply us our daily 7.62's and 5.56's and rockets and bombs, lead us not into the temptation of making peace."

Ms. Fallaci's hashish-dazed soldiers are aware that in falling for Arab women they are facing the same divide as susceptible crusaders. A sense of history being repeated explains to them such mysteries as a Norman-featured, flaxen-haired, teen-age Amal militiaman called Passepartout, the lover of a guerrilla leader, who comes up to the Italian outposts gesturing with grenades and yelling insults.

And the divide has its own comedy. One Italian soldier, in love with a Muslim woman and saving up to pay her father her bride-price, runs up against the problem that she has now read the Gospels and been deeply impressed by Jesus Christ, "particularly by the fact that He befriended a streetwalker named Mary Magdalene and prevented the Pharisees from stoning the adulteresses."

Ungovernable Beirut, as rendered by Oriana Fallaci, will stay with the reader. It is just as well, because in company with her vigorous narrative comes dialogue that creaks and overreaches for effect in her translation, done from a first translation by James Marcus. And on top of that there seem to be too many huge, banal swaths of musing on destiny and chaos.

A characteristic unnecessary sentence runs, "When something big happens, something that changes the status quo or even provokes a tragedy, we don't wonder which weft of marginal and apparently trivial episodes has eased or determined its realization." Such observations occur again and again, and are often backed up in Angelo's thoughts by the frequently repeated formula for chaos devised by the physicist Boltzmann. American readers will find some of the book's expletives similarly stretched. "By Christopher Columbus and his mother's dirty underpants!"

I heard an author as full-blooded as Oriana Fallaci recently boast at a reading that at least his book was not about someone's second divorce. Ms. Fallaci can make a similar assertion. She is profligate with plot and detail, and her openhandedness and the inherent tensions of her large story should insure that most readers will overlook her equally spacious faults, including the banality of her asides.

Ronan Bennett (review date 11 February 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Dogs," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 3, February 11, 1993, p. 19.

[In the following review of Inshallah, Bennett assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Fallaci's portrayal of war-torn Beirut.]

Set in Beirut in the early Eighties, Oriana Fallaci's novel [Inshallah] opens at the moment when, on the morning of 23 October 1983, an Islamic Jihad militant drove a truck laden with explosives into the headquarters of the US contingent of the Multinational Force (MNF). A second suicide bomber attacked the French military base at the same time. Altogether more than three hundred servicemen were killed.

The Americans and French had returned to the city the previous year, along with a body of Italian troops, after the catastrophic Israeli invasion of the Lebanon. The MNF's presence was highly controversial and subject to conflicting interpretations. Its self-proclaimed goal was vague and, with hindsight, absurdly optimistic: to protect the innocent from slaughter and oversee a return to some kind of normality. Others, perhaps casting their minds back to 1958 when US Marines landed at Beirut to fight off 'international communism', saw the MNF's presence as yet another show of force on the part of a Western bloc determined to impose its will on a vulnerable part of the Arab world. Fallaci takes the generous view of the MNF's role, and the book's heroes are the soldiers of the Italian contingent. In the aftermath of the bombings, they ready themselves to face a similar attack. But there is no third truck, no third suicide bomber.

Having been spared annihilation, the Italians are condemned to a living hell in which violent death is part of everyday life, cruelty the norm. They live under constant threat of being targeted. Negotiating the tricky currents of Beirut's political underworld, they do what they can to guard their lives; but this is straightforward compared with the difficulty of preserving their sanity and moral perspective. Will they survive their time in Beirut? Will they get home body and psyche intact?

Beyond this, Inshallah has little in the way of narrative. The novel is a shapeless, sprawling mess, a densely crowded, confusing and episodic collage in which incident, portentous speculation and opposing galleries of goodies and baddies take the place of plot, theme and characterization. There are more than a hundred characters: few are sufficiently differentiated for the reader to recognize them on second meeting. The Italians have names like Condor, Eagle and Onion. If Fallaci, in giving her characters such names, was striving to enhance the surrealism of the nightmare the soldiers inhabit, the effect is immediately undercut by a naive literalism. Onion, we discover, is so called 'because his face was shaped like an onion'. Sugar, the bomb disposal expert, is so called because 'his gentle face emanated an almost sugary sweetness.' Then there is String, who is nicknamed String 'because, besides being very tall, he was as thin as a string.' Fallaci makes an extra effort with his characterization: 'like a string he could squeeze nay strangle you each time he opened his mouth.' The picture conjured up by this line can hardly have been the intended one, and Fallaci makes it worse by forgetting to give String any good lines.

Fallaci's treatment of the Arabs makes her handling of the Italian soldiers look subtle. They are, without exception, villainous; many are psychopathic, some are out of their heads on drugs. Zandra Sadr, a Shiite Imam, is a cunning, fork-tongued politician who plays a double game with the Italians. Hezbollah militants are crazed fanatics. An adolescent thug murders the girlfriend of Angelo, one of the Italian soldiers and the nearest the book comes to having a central character. The Arabs are men who, when they are not raping and murdering nuns, will disguise a bomb as a doll in the hope of maiming the man who stoops to pick it up. In Beirut people drag around guns the way 'normal people' drag around umbrellas on a rainy day. A child can strip and clean a rifle the way 'normal children' fiddle with toys.

The book was published in Italy in 1990 and later appeared in translation in the US. This accounts for the American cast of speech—'Buttfuckers', 'Don't bust my balls,' and so on—but does not help the strained and artificial dialogue. This effect is heightened by the disjointed and deliberately impressionistic use of language. It is a device from Catch 22: to capture the insanity of war by adopting, in the writing, something of war's surrealism. This is fine when it is done well. When it fails, as it frequently does in Inshallah, it fails badly. Some of the language is surreal in other ways; no matter how some sentences are read, they fail to make sense. The book is really only partly fiction. Oriana Fallaci made her name as a reporter and interviewer. Her work—in books and in articles—has always been passionate and opinionated. She has never been shy about setting out her position; and Inshallah is no different. Here is her version of the Lebanon before the civil war:

Beirut had been one of the most agreeable spots on this planet: an extremely comfortable place to live and die of old age or illness. Whether you were rich and corrupt or poor and honest, there you found the best a city can offer: a mild climate in the summer and winter, blue sea and green hills, work, food…. A more or less democratic regime existed, civil liberties were respected…. War didn't exist…. It was called the Switzerland of the Middle East.

But then 'one ugly day the Palestinians had arrived. With their anger, their pain, their money.' These violent sectarians destroyed the splendid villas, the 'immaculate gardens and verandas paved with superb Alexandrian mosaics', the 'stunning' residences and 'exquisite' art deco houses, the 'magnificent' racetrack, and the 'sumptuous' hotels.

It is not clear what day Fallaci is referring to, but one assumes she is thinking of September 1970, when the PLO was driven out of Jordan. However, there had been Palestinians in the Lebanon for almost a quarter of a century before the PLO set up its new headquarters in Beirut, and their lives had been anything but pleasant. It is hard to recognize the 'Switzerland of the Middle East' in The Disinherited, Fawaz Turki's account of his family's flight from Haifa to Sidon and on to Beirut in 1948. His experience, shared by thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, was one of poverty, deprivation, surveillance and discrimination. Nor could the Shia of South Lebanon—among the poorest people in the country—have had many opportunities to enjoy a day at the races and a night at a sumptuous hotel in the capital.

The truth is that Lebanon before September 1970 was a great place to be if you happened to be one of the rich Muslims or rich Christians who had divided up the country and its spoils. For these people, there were few if any irksome regulations in the way of turning a dishonest dollar. If you made your money out of smuggling guns or drugs, that was no one's business but your own. If you sold your ministerial vote, only the most churlish would criticize you. And there was always plenty to distract you from the pressures of high finance and politics. In Fallaci's disingenuous phrase there was 'a thoughtlessness that put up for sale any kind of pleasure'. For the rich whose interests ran in that direction there was unrestricted access to prostituted women and children, and drugs of every variety. Lebanon before 1970 was as much a paradise as Havana before 1959. The disparities of wealth and the polarization of politics—the Christian fascists, the Phalange, had been around long before 1948—meant that Lebanese society was unstable in a way Swiss society never was. Lebanon was, moreover, a 'fake' state, the result of post-colonial realignment, a hodge-podge detached from Syria after the imperialist misadventures of the French. The arrival of the PLO in 1970 merely provided the trigger for a civil war that had been brewing for years.

How important is this for Inshallah, which is, after all, fiction spiced with polemic rather than polemic with fiction thrown in? It seems to me to go to the core of the book's weakness. What it demonstrates is the imaginative shortcomings of an intellectual from a modern agnostic culture faced with strong, anti-liberal belief in another. The civil war in the Lebanon is just one of the many 'ethnic' conflicts that seem to defy all reason. The novelist wanders, weary and outraged, around the hell that has been created. And the book the novelist writes from the inferno is the equivalent of the white flag of reason and peace, of compassion and humane wisdom, a flag all the more poignant because it is spotted with the blood of the innocent. This is the understandable reaction, the instinctive response to slaughter on such a horrific scale. But if the reaction goes no further than this, the writing will be all too predictable. And indeed, Inshallah deploys a familiar metaphor on its first page: 'At night the stray dogs invaded the city … Like men they divided into bands consumed by hate, like men they wanted only to tear each other to pieces, and the monotonous rite always took place under the same pretext: the conquest of a sidewalk made precious by food scraps and scum.'

The book closes with the same image. The dogs are still there, still tearing each other apart: 'Filthy, bloody, covered with sores, encrusted with tinea, some with only one eye, one ear, three paws.' The madness goes on. And the dogs, far from being reduced by their mutual slaughter, are strengthened by it: they kill each other without mercy, but they seem possessed of such energy and life. And while the dogs thrive on violence, the innocent suffer. Angelo arrives at the bombed US barracks: 'Every step, a stab of rage and horror. Here a finger, there a foot, or a hand, a forearm, an ear that improvised sextons picked up and threw in plastic bags like the garbage of a butcher shop: most of the bodies had been in fact dismembered into dozens of pieces.' Angelo finds a Marine cradling a helmet in his arms 'with the obstinacy of a child who refuses to give up an object very precious to him'. The Marine's histrionics irritate Angelo until he realizes that the helmet contains the decapitated head of the Marine's buddy.

Fallaci's simplistic and apolitical take on the situation has not helped her. Her sensitivity to the suffering and the slaughter is evident, but what comes across most strongly is her naivety and the sense of our having heard and seen it all before. Every step of the territory Fallaci traverses is familiar; it carries echoes from Hemingway, Joseph Heller and Michael Herr without possessing a fraction of their power: the descriptions of the war-torn city, the psychotic gunmen, the well-intentioned if ineffectual soldiers doing their best to 'hold the ring', the brutalized population, the dead children, the doomed love—the novel's treatment of these people and things has suffered because the author is transfixed by the corpses and the rubble and does not know where else to look. Most of all, what is tellingly absent is a convincing psychological portrait of someone from the other side, the anti-Western, anti-liberal side, the side engaged in the fighting. What Fallaci serves up here, unintentionally is further proof of how difficult modern novelists—with exceptions, like Timothy Mo and Amos Oz—find it to write about sectarian conflict.


Fallaci, Oriana (Vol. 11)