The writer Alessandro Baricco photographed in Turin by Vanity Fair Italia, 2013. Photo by Alessandro Albert / Getty Images

Baricco and beauty: cultivating a 2,800 year-old gesture

Baricco has been in the spotlight of the opening conference of Festival Clàssics, a multidisciplinary festival dedicated to classical culture conceived by Casa dels Clàssics, a new entity following in the wake of the Bernat Metge Collection, from the publishing group Som.

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he slightly dishevelled gray-hair of novelist, playwright and journalist Alessandro Baricco gives him a gently unkempt touch, which, funnily enough, contrasts with his speech manners: precise, poetic, forceful, always in full control of the stage, the tone, the pronunciation and everything single thing he transmits, always unwilling to budge an inch of depth. Evidence of such features was displayed in the opening conference of Festival Clàssics, a multidisciplinary festival dedicated to classical culture conceived by Casa dels Clàssics, a new entity following in the wake of the Bernat Metge Collection, from the publishing group Som.

The festival, co-organized in tandem with the group Focus, aims to offer a novel insight and reflection into the classical legacy. Hence, its particularly ambitious opening venue: a conference by Baricco on the concept of beauty, a true source of inspiration for featured artists next year at the Clàssics. Theatre director Àlex Rigola, actor and director Josep Maria Pou, illustrator Paula Bonet, poet and rhapsodist Josep Pedrals, singer-songwriter Roger Mas, and the theatre company Les Impuxibles, film director Albert Moya, cinema critic Àlex Gorina and a few other big names that will be shortly advertised, will show next year their creations conceived from insights into the Italian writer, who has recently published The game, an essay on the effects of the technological revolution.

The Iliad is a war monument, a song dedicated to the beauty of war, its splendor oozes from everywhere”, points out Baricco, after reading, aided by a translator close-by, calculating and chewing each and every word in his unwritten speech, thus adding more dramatism and depth to his words

The headquarters of Institut d’Arquitectura Avançada de Catalunya (IAAC), a warehouse in Poblenou with its factory roof from the past still visible, was the chosen place for his conference, as if clarifying, from the outset, the original idea of this festival, i.e. confronting past and present. But the true contrast was established by the author of Silk and Novecento, on bringing to the fore the beauty hidden behind The Iliad, the classical Greek epic poem from the 8th century BC credited to Homer. This is a poem he knows in depth. In 2004 he published his own version of the poem, which would translate into English as Homer, Iliad, here translated into Catalan (La Magrana) and Spanish (Anagrama). This version was meant to be spoken in public (it was heard at the Festival Grec in Barcelona in 2006), and its various characters speak in a monologue. At the conference, actress and actor Clara de Ramon and Marc Rius read two excerpts of it. In the first excerpt, Cressida explains in the first person how she is being the object of a dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon. In the second excerpt, Antelope narrates Patroclus’s death, Achilles’ brother-in-arms, at the hands of the Trojans.

What are we seeking when we seek another beauty?, wonders Baricco: “finding and creating an intensity, a force, a light that life itself does not always possess”.

The Iliad is a war monument, a song dedicated to the beauty of war, its splendor oozes from everywhere”, points out Baricco, after reading, aided by a translator close-by, calculating and chewing each and every word in his unwritten speech, thus adding more dramatism and depth to his words. The underlying message of Homer’s work “is crystal-clear”, he stated: “the highest fate one can expect is dying in war, rather than winning the war”. From this idea, he gradually and naturally unfolds the plot, and steers it towards his target. This influence of war glory led his 19-year-old grandfather down the trenches of the Great War. “But we are no longer immersed in this dark and stubbornly male-dominated world as he explained in his conference of 25N, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and we have succeeded in achieving another beauty, a beauty that is not war-related”. But why are Homeric stories so beautiful? “Because they vibrate with life, and one with an extraordinary intensity”, he affirmed. Therefore, we can stay that the answer to the question, what are we seeking when we seek another beauty?, the answer is “finding and creating an intensity, a force, a light that life itself does not always possess”.

“We have been for 2,800 years trying to remove our helmet, and we are very close to succeeding in that; this can be described as creating a new beauty” (..) this other beauty “made up of small daily gestures and details found in the desires we cultivate, in the simplest moments of life”

The difference is that, “instead of seeking beauty in the limits of death, we seek it in the region of peace”. Despite acknowledging that we must “accept the memories from when we were war-seeking beasts”, what we are actually looking for now is “another destination”, he states. While The Iliad is a monument to war, it is also an underlying story of beauty: always “there is someone saying that, sooner or later, we will realize that we cannot continue living like that anymore”. These words he says always come from women’s lips in Homer’s work. This alternative idea of beauty was illustrated in a sequence described in full detail, with clear parallelisms with western movies that brought to the fore the male-dominated attitude of many scenes. Here is an artist creating complicity with the audience. Baricco transports his public back to the time when Hector, prince of the Trojans, realizes they will lose the war and goes back to the city to make an offering to the gods: He comes across his mother, his lover (Helena, “she’s like Scarlett Johansson”, he points out), his wife (Andromache) and his son. Andromache tells him off: “you’re all out of your minds! Don’t you realize what you’re doing?” Baricco says, half-jokingly: “remember this whenever you feel this warlike instinct coming, even if it’s in a football pitch; just ask yourself, what the hell are you doing?”

Before going back to the battlefield, Hector wants to hold his son. But when the child sees him, he starts crying. “At this point, Hector makes a grand gesture, as he grabs his helmet and takes it off; the child looks at his father and stops crying”. With this poetic climax, Baricco completed his own interpretation of history, literature and beauty, with which the audience fell at his feet: “We have been trying to reproduce this gesture for some time; it’s been 2,800 years since we’ve been trying to remove our helmet. We are nearly there; and all this can be defined as creating a new beauty”. This is how Baricco defended this other beauty “made up of small daily gestures and details found in the desires we cultivate, in the simplest moments of life”: “we are trying to complete a gesture started up so many years ago…”