Variations on the Theme of Chaos

May 10, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOLOGNA, ITALY — This is a spring when contradictions cohabit the Italian landscape like delicacies on a platter of antipasto.

On warm days, elegantly dressed Italians walk briskly across broad piazzas dominated by Renaissance churches, conversing

madly on 20th-century cellular phones.

Outside the money exchange, a wall machine instantly converts foreign currency into Italian lire while inside, a man needs 10 minutes and two signed documents to turn $20 into 32,000 lire.

Here in Bologna -- famous for its food and its universities, known by its nicknames, ''Bologna the Fat'' and ''Bologna the Learned'' -- people take their pasta and politics equally seriously. So, on any given evening, the local trattorias tucked away under miles of arcades are full of Italians using both hands to conquer strands of spaghetti and punctuate arguments.

To describe Italy as a country in the midst of change is to miss the flavor entirely. Political turmoil is steady fare here. Since World War II, Italy has been run like a restoration comedy, with governments coming onto the stage and disappearing more often than the calendar year.

This country has had a full deck of governments, 52 of them in some 40 years. Variations on the theme of chaos. A bureaucracy grew that makes our own seem lean and mean. Corruption became the way of government life. A shrug became the universal symbol of cynicism for the old that turned into apathy among the young.

Two years ago, the corruption finally triggered an investigation known as ''Kickback City.'' The scandal sucked up politicians by the hundreds, tainting the whole establishment, leaving a void at the center of political life.

But this year, Silvio Berlusconi moved into that void with the smoothness of a former cruise-ship crooner and the savvy of a communications mogul. This political novice who owns three television stations, a championship soccer team, a huge advertising firm and a host of publications formed a new political party with just a team cheer for its name: Forza Italia, ''Go, Go Italy.''

This new-right entrepreneur became a human infomercial, a political variation on diet-guru Susan Powter promising to ''stop the insanity.'' Professor David Ellwood, watching from his teaching post at the University of Bologna, described him as ''the supreme manipulator,'' saying: ''The speed and style of his rise all relied on the use of television. The others weren't able to match him and didn't try.''

The man who has been compared to everyone from Ross Perot to Ronald Reagan to Citizen Kane sold himself as the prototype of a successful man, somehow American, thoroughly modern. An outsider.

In just three months, Mr. Berlusconi put together an alliance with right-wing and barely-neo fascist parties, and together they walked away with an election that sent 452 newcomers to a 630-seat legislature. Now, the head of this unstable and maybe unholy alliance is trying to put together a government.

He has to prove that the 53rd government is the beginning of a fresh deck -- no small feat in a country whose low expectations of government are routinely met.

Yet, for the visitor who comes here for 16th-century churches and fresh porcini on a midafternoon platter, there are as many signals about the future as there are cellular phones in the old piazza. In Europe, as in America, the Cold War world order has disappeared. Everyone talks of ''a crisis of leadership,'' a collapse of authority combined with a longing for something as undefined as the word ''leader.''

The old political parties in Italy were called ''Jurassic Park.'' The young people, who voted for Mr. Berlusconi in droves, have -- like the young everywhere -- showed less interest in the politics of the right or the left than of the future. Uncertainty about that future is clearly not only an American condition. It isn't the exclusive property of our Generation X. It's here as well.

In uncertain times, populism of the sort that propelled this election can wear a friendly or a fearsome face. Mr. Berlusconi is, for the moment, simply a fresh face, an unknown. He won by exuding what few Italians felt, confidence in the future.

So for now, Forza Italia! -- Go, Go Italy. But the direction is not nearly as predictable as the singular delights certain to be found in the next bowl of tagliatelle on a warm Bolognese afternoon.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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