Nanni Balestrini was born in Milan in 1935 and was a member of the influential avant-garde Gruppo 63, along with Umberto Eco and Eduardo Sanguineti. He is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, including Blackout and Ipocalisse, and novels such as Tristano, Vogliamo Tutto, and La Violenza Illustrata.
During the notorious mass arrests of writers and activists associated with Autonomy, which began in 1979, Balestrini was charged with membership of an armed organization and with subversive association. He went underground to avoid arrest and fl ed to France. As in so many other cases, no evidence was provided and he was acquitted of all the charges.
He currently lives in Rome, where he runs the monthly magazine of cultural intervention Alfabeta2 with Umberto Eco and others.
Literature does not get written in a technological void where its material conditions of production would be irrelevant. Quite the opposite actually, as the long tradition of writers and poets who enthusiastically engaged with the material texture of the book suggests: think of Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a flipbook presentation of 10 sonnets where the 14 lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding one in any of the other poems; or think of BS Johnson’s idiosyncratically experimental The Unfortunates, a “book in a box”, without any binding, so that the reader can assemble the book any way she likes. Nanni Balestrini’s Tristano directly comes out of this vibrant tradition of avant-garde, experimental literature.
Inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde, Tristano was first published in 1966 in Italian. But only recently has digital technology made it possible to realise the author’s original vision. The novel comprises ten chapters, and the fifteen pairs of paragraphs in each of these are shuffled anew for each published copy. No two versions are the same.
This radical testing of the limits of the novel both as a genre and a physical object did not fail to sparkle what might very much look like the harbingers of a fierce literary debate – or will it be a storm? Very recently, The Guardian ran two articles that evinced starkly opposed reactions to the book.
From Antonio Negri's new foreword to The Unseen by Nanni Balestrini
Nanni Balestrini's book tells of unseen actors in the class struggle between the 1970s and '80s, particularly in northern Italy, and inside the jails of the Realm. These subjects are invisible because they are elusive, mutating beings in the act of metamorphosis. But what can we say about them today (and also about this novel) if not that rather than being an old, outdated story this is now very much of the present moment, one caught sight of at that time and followed in the course of its unfolding? The republication of The Unseen therefore has the advantage today of telling us about proletarian subjects whose class nature has finally been revealed: the unseen individual of yesterday is the proletarian of today, the immaterial worker, the cognitive precariat, the new figure of the worker as social labour power in the movements of the multitude. Those poor wretches did it, they managed to get through a revolution in the composition of labour and a ferocious political repression and to struggle on from the factories to society and (still productive) from society to the jail (still fighting back). And now where will they go? The elite of the working-class movement who betrayed and dragged the unseen into prison now look around, fearful and unable to build a politics, afraid of losing out if they do not resume contact with that age-old movement of transformation; but that elite will never win! Indeed, regardless of this betrayal by the working-class movement (which has been so serious, especially in Italy), the unseen have gone forward. In the '80s, they were organizing prison revolts and the first autonomous social centres in the cities; in the '90s they organized the Panther movement; in the late '90s they turned into Zapatistas and tute bianche, the anti-globalization movement and everything else that has happened and will happen.