Genova as scenario for the New Europe: How Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer illustrates superdiversity

4 minutes to read
Odile Heynders


In Via Genua, a television documentary broadcast by VPRO television, the acclaimed Dutch writer Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer introduces the Italian city where he lives as an ‘African city’, and collects stories of migrants and inhabitants. In making this docu Pfeijffer demonstrates a personal perspective on global issues, but also marks the superdiversity in singular cases. Odile Heynders argues that watching this ‘Italian tour’ should be obligatory to our representative politicians: to sharpen their views on the current Europe.

In the context of Brexit and the cacophony of columnists on the relevance (or not) of the European Union, and the powerlessness (or not) of mainland Europe, it is helpful to meet people in a particular national context, to hear stories from ordinary men and women, to talk about their experiences, needs and fantasies. Most ideally, we would send our politicians, representatives and CEO’s for a while to another part of Europe, to get information from another perspective, to listen to voices of others. But, second best option, is to watch and read what intelligent and sensitive writers, artists, film or documentary makers experience on their travels or stays elsewhere in Europe.

In January and February of this year a fascinating television documentary in three episodes was aired, Via Genua, in which celebrated Dutch author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, a huge, theatrical figure with long hair and a deep voice, walks through the centre of Genova, following just one street, the Via di Prè, while meeting and interviewing several people. He talks to them in Italian, French and English and collects the narratives of migration told by residents and new comers.

All the different voices are social and individual, local and global, optimistic and negative

To give a few examples: Pfeijffer meets Patrick, a disabled Moroccan man – he lost an arm in a car accident – who owns a legal shop and is able to send money home to his family. Only if people have a regular job can they get a permit to stay in Italy. Pfeijffer encounters a group of young asylum seekers from Gambia, just arrived from Lampedusa which they reached by boat from Libya. They survived and consider each other ‘family’ now. He meets the woman Nogaye from Senegal who has a young son and works as a domestic worker for an old Italian woman. And he talks – among others - to Matteo Salvini, a representative of the Lega Nord, who despises the migrants since they get ‘three meals a day and a place to sleep’, while Italian people are suffering from poverty.

All the different voices are social and individual, local and global, optimistic and negative. Interestingly, Pfeijffer’s own voice as voice-over is repeating the words of others without judging them, while also taking a distance when reading passages from his novel and poems. Pfeijffer considers himself to be a migrant, having left his homeland eight years ago. As he explains, all migrants ‘took off on a journey because of a dream of a better life elsewhere’. Italy was better than the provincial Dutch city in which he lived at the time. Evidently, Pfeijffer is not as the migrants he meets: he earns money by publishing books and being a prestigious author in the Netherlands. Italian people accept him –he is not rebuked for intruding.

In the Via di Prè there are halal butchers, fruit & vegetable shops with names in Arabic and Wolof, mobile shops, African barbers, a flower shop, a chocolatier and so on. At the end of the street transgender prostitutes have their rooms nearby an improvised mosque, most of the time overcrowded, so that people have to do their prayers in the street. The Via di Pre, I would say, is emblematic: we could find similar streets in Rotterdam (de Kruiskade), Antwerp (Berchem region) or Paris (the quartier next to Gare du Nord). From a positive perspective, we could characterize this street as ‘porous’ spot in the city – as described by Richard Sennett: ‘people of all castes, classes, races and religions coming and going, doing deals or gossiping’ (the Guardian 2015). From a negative perspective we could say that streets like these are ‘disturbing, uncomfortable, since many black people are strolling there and absorbing the space’. These words come from Pfeijffer himself, who has been living in Genova for 8 years now. It is Pfeijffer who has depicted the Via di Pre in much of his work, in a prize winning novel entitled La Superba (2013), in his correspondence Letters from Genova (2016), in poetry, Idyllen (2015), in essays entitled Fortune seekers (2015). It is Pfeijffer, the often breath-taking Baroque stylist, who recognizes his own stereotypical behaviour, as he realises that he usually kept his pace in this street and never stopped for one moment. The street is ‘a bit exciting and carnivalesk’, as the writer claims, ‘it is part of a city that is African’. Genova, as Pfeijfer emphasizes, might be the scenario for the new Europe.

The power of imagination is needed in a European context in which more and more politicians lose contact with the everyday realities of people

Historically Genova is complex and fascinating: situated at the sea, the harbour gave way to crusaders and traders – the city always has seen migrants coming in. The difference today, as an Italian marquise explains in the docu, is that there are no restaurants in the harbour anymore – the newly arrived do not have money, and that is where the discrepancies start. The spatiality of the city is remarkable as well: the intimacy of the narrow streets as both outside and inside space, the mixing of languages: Italian, Arabic, Swahili, of tradition and trash, of migrants and tourists. In this space, social relations are easy and difficult. Nothing is evident, everything has to be fought for. Italy has no system – and because of that the people have to be creative and resilient, Pfeijffer explains.

Watching the documentary, it becomes clear that the power of imagination and mutual interest is needed in a European context in which more and more politicians lose contact with the everyday realities of people. What we need is the personal perspective on global issues, the sensitive view on general ideas and observations. I claim that we need writers as Pfeijffer to rethink our position today in regard to developing European cities. We need them because they sharpen our views and touch our emotions.