“The purpose of culture is to build bridges, not celebrate differences,” Corrado Paina says from his office at the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Toronto, where he occupies the top post as executive director. An apparent contradiction, Paina seems to effortlessly straddle the interstice between business and culture, between the rigidity imposed by commerce and the unconventionality that a bohemian lifestyle allows.
A man of culture in the Renaissance sense, an erudite who personifies the intersection of homo economicus and homo sapiens, Paina, at 57, is also the author of several books of poetry and short stories in Italian and English.
Arriving at Toronto’s Italian Chamber after a stint at the Italian Trade Commission, Paina is an unabashed supporter of the arts. And though he is vehemently critical of whiny Italo-Canadianism, he is a close friend of well-known Italian Canadian writers Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, Gianna Patriarca and Mary di Michele. “I work to tear down stereotypes,” says Paina, who is equally disdainful of Italian immorality as he is of Canadian vices.
A sleepless, early-bird executive who either walks or takes public transit to work (he does not own a car), he is also a regular on the Milan-Toronto route, and increasingly at ease in the role of executive (or manager, as they are called in Italy), rubbing elbows with the financial élite of the largest Italian community in Canada.
Corrado Paina was born in Milan in one of the thousand residential buildings dotting the city, with a courtyard but only a few scattered plants. His first landscape was decidedly an urban one. It was not necessarily a trivial dimension nor a creativity killer. Quite the opposite: of the other kids of similar age playing in the same courtyard, one was to become one of Italy’s most famous comedians, another a globe-trotting development economist, another a teacher at a US university. Not bad for a grey scenario reminiscent of Adriano Celentano’s song Il Ragazzo della via Gluck.
At the age of 33, after a long, neotenic adolescence as is customary in Italy, Corrado set sail for Canada. His was not a move out of necessity, as it was for millions of his countrymen before him. Like for most of us Italian émigrés of the 1980s and 1990s, it was out of choice – the siren call of the great American continent, the backdrop of the many epic cartoons, comics and films that crowded our adolescent dreams. Now we wanted to live them out. For the boy from via Angera, it was a call towards new horizons without the ubiquitous Po Valley fog.
By the time Paina arrived in Toronto in the late 1980s, the city’s history of immigration had already been written by those who preceded him. “As a northern Italian, I was slightly confused and a bit out of place in a context dominated by Southern Italians, except for a handful of Friulani,” recalls Paina. But the bluesman in him was not deterred; rather, he was enriched by the bucolic setting and the names of things previously unknown.
Canada is an endless forest grooved by wide rivers, opening up into colossal deltas. But amidst all this, Corrado relates first and foremost to the City – and beyond this, to the City within the city: College Street – that Italian microcosm from which he would not be able to unglue himself, with its concrete and glass, the varied souls that inhabit it, and the reflections of rivers and lakes suspended in midair, epiphanies and miracles, Miracoli, although not a Milano, but in Toronto.
Over the years, Corrado’s immersion in the cauldron of Italian-Canadian culture, has not dimmed his critical sense, as he glimpses behind the peristylia of Woodbridge’s Palladian villas, seeing the loneliness of the elderly and the neuroses of the youth, a generation gap now irreparable – on the one hand a nostalgia for a postcard-like Italy that no longer exists, and on the other a quest for integration into a society that only knows measurable, material and monetary goals: houses, cars, jewellery, weddings and package vacations.
All this sounds disturbing to Corrado, the boy who was in high school during the ’68 protest and in college during the ’77 revolt, who witnessed police charges and raids, terrorist bombs shattering Milan, the years of Movimento Studentesco and the Brigate Rosse, the Anni di piombo and the Anni di plastica, the Milano da okkupare and the Milano da bere.
Yet the Canadian metropolis and its inhabitants accomplished that impossible mission of transforming the protester Corrado into a man of the community, a standard-bearer of culture, a man of connection and dialogue – not a Zelig, but rather Pico della Mirandola able to converse at the same time with different interlocutors, to each in their own language, tone and register – a homo universalis able to appreciate the value of the pecunia, even and especially when it is put to good cultural use – yet immune to its messianic scent; an architect and maintainer of cultural bridges, a visionary creator of urban landscapes of coexistence and integration, a rigorous tutor of young professionals and generous mentor of young artists.
The poet Corrado Paina, not unlike the man, abhors being caged in a pattern. Poetry, “is a natural thing,” an “essential part” of his human essence, a “polarization of agglomerates,” a pastiche of cultural worlds, an independent creation that is indebted to many an influence, but is the child of none. His poetry is a systematic deconstruction of stale paradigms and their accessory iconography typical of the subculture of immigration; it is a poetry that unmasks the hypocrisy of empty traditions devoid of spirituality, hollow rituals and self-pitying rhetoric.
The cloying Italy of some “literature of nostalgia” filled with scents of sautéed garlic and burning fireplaces is no longer. Corrado Paina’s is a modern relationship with a modern Italy, that complex, painful and often unsettling country – a country that is still able to provide the tool of a beautiful and versatile language, but perhaps no longer able to offer new and exciting cultural models.
Canada and its pervasive language, English (Corrado is a stubborn anglophile, despite the romance commonality between Italian and French), do provide him with a chance to experiment and jolt the hinges of style and lexicon, along with those of content and theme. And of content and theme, Corrado Paina is never in short supply, as he gazes, with true Latin pietas, at that tumultuous humanity that he crosses every day in his long walks to and from his office, a humanity that he seems able to feel in all of its diseases and weaknesses, ambitions and sadness, hopes and disappointments.
Whether he is flying on the Milan-Toronto route or resting on a Cuban beach chatting about failed revolutions with an old fisherman, it is always worthwhile, for Corrado, to continue to write truly libertarian poetry and leave his scripta to us in dowry.
He knows all too well that these, unlike the verba volantes that populate his life as a high-flying executive, manent.
Alberto Mario DeLogu is the author of Sardignolo (2010). Born and raised in Sardegna, he now lives in Montreal.
First published in Accenti Magazine Issue 21.