The Meaning of Berlusconi's Mysterious Bandage

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, March 10. Reuters.

By Piero Garau

ROME, Italy -- I normally pose as an architect and urbanist (not these two, me), and I suppose foreign readers might be genuinely interested in hearing about little-known architectural and urban wonders of the city where I live, Rome. More on that later, perhaps. But now I must share with you my current obsession with the latest mystery surrounding our leader, Silvio Berlusconi. Most of you are in the enviable position of being able to ignore the clown altogether, as well as his past and his actions. But we cannot. He is the one who is running our country -- and in the opinion of many, running it down. Fast.

His latest feat is slightly obsessive because it is hard to explain. Most of the fellow's past actions and doings are easy to fathom. That he cheated and bribed to become the richest man in the country, everybody knows. That he runs parliament like one of his own private companies, we are all aware. That he bought judges to expand his media empire, is common knowledge. That he harasses journalists he does not like during live shows, we can all see with our own eyes. That he pays young girls to keep him company in his lonely evenings in the cellar of his princely villa, is even certified beyond doubt by magistrates; as well as the fact that he tried to get one of them, and underage Moroccan, discharged by the police claiming she was the Egyptian president's niece. We all know all of this: and yet, a majority of Italians still feels some kind of sticky attachment to this man. Adhesive bondage, indeed. (Those of you who wish to sympathize may take a look at the despairing collection of my own cartoons from the celebrated Poerio Press).

No. my current obsession is not the adhesive bondage between Berlusconi and his admiring compatriots or between him and the foreign leaders he has been consorting with (see picture above). Rather, I am concerned with the Mysterious Case of the Adhesive Bandage.

Here are the facts. The other day, Berlusconi underwent surgery to fix a mastication problem. This was the consequence of a blow he had suffered some fifteen months ago at the hands of a deranged bystander in the aftermath of a public rally. And when he showed himself again to his fans after coming out of hospital, he was sporting a huge, white adhesive bandage on his left cheek.

The problem is that the surgery took place inside his mouth. So, a suspecting journalist interviewed a well-regarded specialist, who said that he had never heard of the need for external bandages after this kind of surgery. Then the journalist interviewed the surgeon who actually did the procedure. The answer was that the bandage had been placed there "in order to stabilize the internal stitches." Uhmmm.

A famous Italian politician, Giulio Andreotti, once famously said: You sin in thinking badly about people - but, often, your guess is right. So, here is my wily interpretation of the mystery.

There was no need for the adhesive bandage. And indeed, nobody in his right mind would want to sport something so unsightly. But it became very handy, for a number of reasons. First: our man has an obsessive need to be at the centre of attention -- at all times. Second: the sight of a medication always attracts sympathy and concern. Third: this was a wonderful opportunity to remind everybody of the horrible aggression he was the victim of more than a year ago, while discharging his duties to the nation. Fourth: it was also a message, "Here I am, sprung out of hospital with a terrible wound, ready to serve the nation as ever."

The bandage may have been imposed by the surgeon, after all. But the point is that the man's reputation for deceit is such that thinking it was a fake was the first thought many people had. To the point of turning it into an exercise of public mockery:

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Rome, Pro-Constitution Rally, 12 March 2011. The placard on the left reads: "You are pathetic. Remove that band-aid from your cheek and stick it on your mouth". On the right: three protesters sport a band-aid on their left cheek. Photos by Susan Zerad Garau.

Hopes of sorting out the adhesive bondage paradox, I have lost long ago. But perhaps some expert doctors, psychoanalysts, or attentive students of the human soul can help me sort out at least the adhesive bandage riddle.

Piero Garau is an Italian architect and urbanist who worked with the UN and taught at the University of Rome.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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