Sculpted in Stone

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Review of 'My First Seven Years', Dario Fo, Methuen £14.99

'There are periods in the life of a man which... leave deep marks on the memory, causing each moment to be imprinted as though sculpted on stone.' These words - prefacing the story of how, in 1945, Dario Fo, as a young conscript in Nazi-occupied Italy, deserted a few months before liberation - express the logic of selection in Dario Fo's crafty and uproarious memoir.

Dario Fo is Europe's leading radical dramatist, the winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1997 and internationally renowned - with his wife and collaborator, Franca Rame - for satirical plays such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1970) and Can't Pay? Won't Pay! (1974). This book about his early life is really a homage to the Italian anti-fascist resistance and to the 'fabulatori': the worker and peasant storytellers who inspired him to devote his life to building the left by exposing corruption and hypocrisy through theatre. Fo and Rame have won mass audiences by taking their performances to factories and outlying districts, tackling such subjects as the Palestinian struggle, popular revolt in Chile, Aids and women's oppression.

Fo grew up in a village on the shores of Lake Maggiore, near Italy's border with Switzerland, where his father worked as the railway stationmaster, clandestinely helping refugees escape from Italy's fascists. In fact, Fo's entire extended family, aunts and children included, turns out to have run a people-smuggling operation, which took the five year old Fo into magical adventures involving a wild bolt with Uncle Trombone on horseback pursued by bees, and a secret jazz session by black musicians. Soon, buoyed by his courageous relatives, young Dario starts to play his part in the asylum-seeking effort. But it's not a series of 'great acts': Fo embeds his stories of political awakening into a child's world of play and, later, teenage angst.

Having to move for Papa Fo's work, the family find themselves in Porte Valtravaglia, a fishing town dominated by the vast glass-blowing factory. In this cultural crucible, master-craftsmen from all over Europe have pooled their languages to form a unique dialect, out of which emerges storytelling based on ancient traditions, but adapted to the industrial context and moral ambiguities of modernity. Fo recounts outlandish tales and extracts the principles of improvisation and word play, explaining how style reflected the function of the fabulatore: fisherman, saucepan-seller, glass-blower. He identifies 'underlying paradox' as the central element of storytelling.

Fo develops this element in a political direction. Under the tutelage of a professor he shares a railway carriage with, he unravels the hidden contradictions of heroic myth, stripping away, for example, the epic impetus for Ulysses' journey, revealing a selfish womaniser and absent father. In 1936, when Fo is nine, Mussolini invades Abyssinia, and Italy implodes in a carnival of warmongering reaction, with schools teaching children that Italy is there to liberate, civilise and build (sounds familiar, doesn't it?). Young Dario is drawn into the hysteria and, affronted by his father's cynicism, delivers a tirade about patriotism, challenging his father to justify his own part in the First World War. Patiently, Papa Fo reveals the horror of conscription, and explains how he displays his medals as a decoy against arrest. In one go, Dario learns about the reality of war and the need for tactics in resisting oppression.

The title of this book is a misnomer, as most of the stories take place after Dario's eighth birthday. But it's also a clue about the function of this storyteller. Fo's persona here is contradictory but consistent. His formative experiences do take place at a very early age, but they develop as he grows as a young adult and artist (Fo was originally a painter and planned to become an architect). He is a conduit and an originator, a saver of lives who is eventually rescued himself. The dramatic high point, when 50 prisoners are smuggled to safety in drag, is both hilarious and deadly serious. And that combination about sums up Dario Fo. I look forward to his next instalment.