Valerio Evangelisti Used Literature to Point the Way to Communism

The Italian communist Valerio Evangelisti, who died in April, was a science fiction pioneer. His work showed the power of literature to grasp the horrors of the present and imagine something beyond them.

Valerio Evangelisti in Bologna, Italy, January 2002. (Ulf Andersen / Getty Images)

In a small cemetery nestled in the Apennine valleys of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, about a hundred people of all ages gather. The persistent rain leaves four unmarked red flags drenched. A visibly moved man lovingly places a fifth flag on the coffin: it is the red and black banner of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, the anarchist union that waged the resistance to Francoism from 1936 to 1939. From under the umbrellas rises the hymn of the “Internationale,” then someone selects a song from Spotify on a smartphone and turns the volume up to the max. I seem to recognize Sepultura, a Brazilian death metal band.

On April 18, Valerio Evangelisti, author of more than thirty novels translated in more than twenty countries, as well as an infinite number of short stories, essays, articles, and prefaces, died at age seventy. On the day of his funeral, the trade unions had called a demonstration in Rome with the slogan: “Lower your weapons, raise your wages.” A banner carried by dozens of workers reads: “From the factories to the ports, we shall be all! Ciao Valerio!” The slogan “We shall be all” belongs to the Industrial Workers of the World and gives the title to one of the novels that this writer from Bologna dedicated to the heroic struggle of the American revolutionary union.

This was not the first time that social movements had taken up Evangelisti’s books as their own: a decade ago, the Book Block students took to the streets with large book-shaped shields to defend themselves from police charges. Their message was clear: our imagination defends us from your violence. The titles that came out of this writer’s pen were also present on their covers. “I’d much rather see myself on these shields than win the Strega award,” Evangelisti commented. “I’ve never been so proud as when I saw myself up there.” Strega, in addition to being a saffron-colored herbal liqueur, is Italy’s most prestigious mainstream literature award. But there was very little mainstream about Evangelisti’s life.

So Long, Fordism

He began to serve in the revolutionary left-wing parties in 1969, earning the nickname “So Long” (as he was called, in English) on account of his height: “In those days we were essentially referred to by first names or nicknames,” he said. “Last names were for the police. Nobody else asked for them.” When in 1977 those political groups headed into crisis, becoming institutionalized or dissolving into the workers’ autonomy movement, Evangelisti continued his militant activity by participating in dozens of committees and then, in the 1980s, in the nascent social centers.

These territorially based organizations were the spontaneous response to the fragmentation of what had hitherto been the subjects of social revolt, with the end of the Fordist cycle of accumulation. Occupying disused buildings to turn them into meeting places, where music was made and film forums were organized, made it possible to resist — even if only partially — repression, political reversals, and the rampant plague of heroin. Through them, the heritage of the struggles of the previous decade was passed on to younger generations.

Evangelisti, however, had a second, a third, and even a fourth life. After graduating in political science in 1976, he continued to pursue academic research, publishing volumes and essays on history concerning the Jacobin plebs of Bologna, early Italian socialism, the anarchist band Bonnot, and punk cultures. He had also won a contest to be admitted to the Superior School of Public Administration, in 1981 becoming an executive civil servant at the Finance Ministry.

This new occupation did not change his political attitude in the slightest: as he recounted on more than one occasion, he passed information to the grassroots unions as best he could, so that they would have as much ammunition as possible in their negotiations with the other side. But this revolutionary researcher who “infiltrated” behind enemy lines had also begun writing fantastical stories and novels, which he circulated for fun among friends and comrades.


This was soon met with success. In 1993, his Nicolas Eymerich, inquisitore won the Urania Award, a contest for unpublished works of science fiction, organized by Italy’s biggest publishing firm, Mondadori. The following year, the book became a bestseller in this field, and in 1995, a sequel was published in “instalments” in the weekly magazine of Repubblica, Italy’s second most read newspaper. Radio adaptations, comics, and video games followed.

Nicolas Eymerich was a Catalan inquisitor who really existed in the medieval era, but his literary transposition by Evangelisti makes him an educated, cunning, cruel, misogynistic, insectophobe, and especially schizoid character, in whose person elements of paraliterature, gothic, horror, space opera, cyberpunk, detective, Western, historical novels, and Bildungsroman converge. If Italian science fiction had hitherto been considered substantially foreign to the national tradition, it was born in its own right with this Dominican priest.

The style of the novels of the Eymerich cycle is clear, fluent, and without linguistic experimentation. The plot is articulated around various temporal planes: the fourteenth century in which the inquisitor lives, the later settings where we meet the scientist Marcus Frullifer, the psitronic spaceships, the three US states with a single army, and the Nazicommunists of the Rache in eternal conflict with Euroforce, the political front for the Eurobank. In this literary metaverse, Eymerich solves an enigma at each conjuncture and restores the Church’s reactionary order wherever heresy and subversion might risk taking root.

But why does the revolutionary Evangelisti encourage the reader to identify with a hero who, in the course of his inner journey, instead of redeeming himself, turns into a completely evil monster? According to Alberto Sebastiani — editor of a monumental work that collects the thirteen novels dedicated to the Dominican — his psychopathology, his coldness, his hostility to the Other, is in embryo the same as contemporary capitalism’s own: “Eymerich is a form of evil, a shadow. And it must be recognized. That’s why the reader, in his hero’s journey, must investigate the character, understand how he works and defeat him.”

After all, not only the Eymerich cycle, but the Bologna writer’s entire oeuvre is configured as one enormous novel in which the forces of reaction and of rebellion eternally clash. However totalizing and desperate the scenarios evoked may be, the possibility of resistance is never completely silenced. Worthy of note is the final dialogue of Black Flag in which Carl, standing in front of the tanks reimposing domination by the powerful, cries out:

It’s useless! They’ve already won anyway! The world is theirs! The future is theirs!

Sheryl answered: — Maybe. The important thing is that they know that there are those who resist.

She advanced towards the wagons firing all six shots of the drum, in succession. Six silver bullets pierced the screaming metal.

Resistance is never futile: “If the cause is just, the battles lost are the most beautiful,” says an Irish teenager in the Western novel Antracite. Here the protagonist is Pantera, another serial character created by Evangelisti. A Mexican gunslinger, he is a quite different figure from the inquisitor, although they do share some common traits. While Eymerich is ready to eliminate anyone who questions power, Pantera is the hireling of his paymasters — but, out of an irrepressible sense of justice, he rebels against those who commit abuses against the weakest.

In Evangelisti’s poetics, if the principle of rebellion is resilient in the face of power, it has the same weapon at its disposal as reaction does: the imagination, in this case serving to conceive a different future. Narratives, and especially those of popular literature, evoke archetypes, allow readers to make a journey together, and recreate the social bond destroyed by capitalism.

Sun of the Future

Evangelisti’s imaginary included fantastical figures (vampires, the living dead, ghosts, werewolves), but was not limited to this. His output also included many works of historical fiction without supernatural elements. Among these we should mention the three novels of the Il Sole dell’Avvenire (Sun of the Future) cycle. This saga of a family from Emilia-Romagna tells the story of Italian socialism from 1870 to the early years of World War II, passing through the biennio rosso of factory and land occupations in 1919–20, Fascism and the years of the Resistance.

The writer weaves into these new adventures a phenomenology of class consciousness, dramatic, articulate, and not without humorous elements. Family separations, stories of emigration, unemployment, and poverty intersect with popular myths and the forms of an alternative sociality, produced by the class composition of time and place. Very interesting is the case of the cameracce (“bad rooms”) that allowed workers to cheaply drink and eat, to have places to meet and play cards after work. It is no coincidence that a character in the book sees therein an embryo of the future society. The author’s role in the social-centers movement of the 1980s is strongly evoked here.

Evangelisti’s last novel was entitled Gli anni del coltello (The Years of the Knife). The revolution has been defeated and the patriots who fought for the Roman Republic in 1849 are dispersed throughout the Italian peninsula. They try again to attack the Habsburg-Austrian authorities in a plethora of farcical micro-insurrections, they delude themselves that the Savoy monarchy will aid the national cause, they quarrel among themselves, end up in prison, suffer tortures, and betray one another.

This is the narrative world in which a dark protagonist again operates: an ethical terrorist who kills in the name of the republic and the word of Giuseppe Mazzini. Dressed in a cloak and a wide-brimmed hat, Gabariol is a fierce folk hero who, through his long and bloody odyssey, never has a real change of consciousness. He always remains true to himself, even as events force him to confront the contradictions of the revolution. For this is a revolution that does not address the social question and continually pushes patriots into the bloodbath, to fulfill the calls for armed struggle coming from a republican party now transformed into the Company of Death.

Again in this work, the peculiar elements of Evangelisti’s sociological poetics recur: the taverns as fortresses of the antagonistic social fabric — with their related popular food and wine culture, their songs and their imaginary; women’s agency, with a surprising mixture of subversive radicalism and pragmatism; and the historical novel as a multilayered device, whose fluid and entertaining narration harbors a deep analysis of the human experiences that result from social conflict.

Reading this last bequest of the Bologna writer, our thoughts immediately turn to Italy in the early 1980s. We think of the expectations for a better world which lasted for a decade and vanished within a few months; to the militarization of the political confrontation; to the special laws; to the five thousand political prisoners; to the enforced disappearances; and to the rapes and tortures which were identified during trials but never followed by punishments for the guilty. Millions of men and women, after having tasted the thrill of an authentic life, turned back into the private sphere, into withdrawal, depression, heroin, clandestinity, self-referentiality, and then, in many cases, even into reporting on their former comrades.

Partisans of the Future

Valerio Evangelisti had a past as a historian, and mastered the tools of scholarship. To these he added the imaginary models drawn from literature to push research further, and above all to forge weapons of rebellion. Despite becoming a successful writer, he never abandoned his political commitment, supporting the Sandinista revolution, anti-imperialist struggles in Latin America, and the movement against the unnecessary and costly environmental destruction caused by the project for a high-speed train line through the Val di Susa. His last battle was against the current military escalation: in video conferences he appeared in front of his vast library making the case — calmly and with many historical examples — against rearmament. “We must not give up an inch,” he insisted.

One of his creatures that he particularly cared for is still among us: Carmilla, a political-literary magazine that takes its name from the vampire that sprung from Sheridan Le Fanu’s pen. Evangelisti was its editor in chief until his last day of life. Born in a paper version in 1995, it turned into a webzine after a few years. It hosts reviews, serialized novels, humorous pieces, reportages, articles on political, sociological and philosophical theory; interventions by dissident writers, activists, researchers and other supporters of the imaginary way to communism.

A fitting expression of the importance of the imaginary to political struggle comes from Evangelisti’s preface to Jack London’s The Iron Heel. Here, he recalled how partisan commanders never failed to mention this book of social science fiction among the works to be read between actions. I’m sure that in the backpacks and smartphones of the partisans of the future, there will always be a book by Valerio Evangelisti.