Brava: The fearless life of Oriana Fallaci

A new biography of the extraordinary Italian journalist and novelist reveals a woman who never backed away from seeking the truth

Douglas Murray

She always grabbed you by the throat, Oriana Fallaci — her readers as much as her unfortunate interviewees. At the opening of Nothing and Amen (1969) she relates a child asking her: “Life, what is it?” The next morning Fallaci flies off to the war in Vietnam to find out.

And then there were the interviews, starting in the 1960s with Hollywood stars. She was always fearless, Fallaci. As a child growing up in Florence during the war, all her earliest memories were of war as well as love. Her father was involved with the local resistance to the fascists, and as a schoolgirl Oriana would run errands for them, carrying notes, papers and weapons for the partisans. When she had to carry a hand grenade she would hide it in the head of a hollowed-out lettuce and place this in the front basket of her bicycle.

Having learnt not to fear Italian or German fascists, it was never likely that the aspiring journalist would be cowed by mere celebrity after the war. Interviewing the actress Gina Lollobrigida she began with, “I don’t think you’re as stupid as people say.” Interviewing Sean Connery in 1965 she asks, “How much do you earn, Mr Connery?” and gets a remarkably full and frank answer. But she was never just rude. In a high-wire act she sensed just when to put things in. And how she could provoke answers. However, these “limelighters”, as she called them, didn’t satisfy her hunger to get to the real source of things.

In the 1970s she migrated towards political leaders, and in that decade interviewed almost every major world figure. Like many of her male subjects, Colonel Gaddafi tried to impress her when she came to interview him in his Libyan compound in 1979. But she was deeply un-impressible and having come through layers of protective security to get to him, she waves aside his claims about the love the Libyan people feel for him. “I want to understand why everyone dislikes you so much,” she tells him at the start. “Why you are so little loved?”

In the early 1970s she had conducted an interview with the Shah of Iran, in which he discussed the visions he believed he had received. The resulting piece was so damaging that when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power he granted Fallaci the only interview that any Western journalist would ever get with him. They met in Qom in 1979, where the Ayatollah discovered that just because Fallaci disliked your enemies it did not follow that she would like you. When the Ayatollah claimed that the Iranian revolution which he was heading was animated by love she replied, “Love or fascism, Imam? It seems like fanaticism to me, the most dangerous kind: the fascist kind.”

The full version of the Khomeini interview remains one of the greatest pieces of reportage of the 20th century. Not just for the scoop, or the intricately revealing lead-up to the encounter, but for what Fallaci did during it. Forced into a chador in order to enter the Ayatollah’s presence, she ended up in a row about why women should be forced to wear such a garment, and became so enraged that she stood up and ripped off “this stupid medieval rag”, letting it fall to the floor “in an obscene black puddle”. At which “like the shadow of a cat . . . he rose so quickly, so suddenly, that for a moment I thought I had just been struck with a gust of wind. Then with a jump that was still very feline, he stepped over the chador and he disappeared.”

Amazingly, in a vindication of Fallaci’s allure as well as her persistence, the interview picked up again later. People wanted to speak to her, though the urge would generally have proved wiser to resist. Henry Kissinger temporarily ruptured his relations with President Nixon in 1972 after revealing too much in an interview with Fallaci. He would describe the encounter in his own memoirs as “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press”. But like many others — Yasser Arafat, Indira Gandhi, Deng Xiaoping, Robert Kennedy, Ariel Sharon — he wanted to join the pantheon of the people eventually collected as Interview with History. Yet eventually enough careers had been damaged or destroyed by encounters with Fallaci that she put herself out of a job.

From the end of the 1970s she turned to fiction, writing a long, unrelenting but extraordinary book about one of the few people whom she had loved. A Man is a barely disguised account of the life of Alexandros Panagoulis, the Greek partisan who was assassinated in 1976 and who had a tempestuous relationship (what other type could there have been?) with Fallaci. It is filled with that unmistakable mixture of rage, passion and contempt which — along with coffee and cigarettes — seemed to fuel her. At one point the author is told that “a thousand people” are ready to come forward to help the partisan cause. “Who were those people?” she asks. “The ones who always come forward when the risk is past, when freedom has been regained, the big talkers, the cowards who as soon as they are put to the test melt like candles in a fire?” A now uncomfortably prescient novel on the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut (Inshallah) followed. And then silence. Cancer had begun to attack her body, but in her garret in New York one great final novel was in progress — a novel about her family and Florence. Notoriety still hung around her, now with the added allure gained by some recluses. But after Fallaci withdrew from the world her carefully created reputation inevitably began to wane too.

Then the dormant volcano exploded. After 9/11, when the dust of human remains and rubble was still hanging over New York, Fallaci broke her self-enforced silence. The Rage and the Pride was a defence of the free world, and a savage — at times wild — attack on the Islamic world. She had first encountered Islam in Pakistan as a reporter in the winter of 1960. The fury which had burned since then now poured out in this burning, toxic lava. In Italy the newspaper which carried the first version of the essay sold out, while the book version sold by the hundreds of thousands. A follow-up (The Force of Reason, 2004) was followed by a third post-9/11 book, Oriana Fallaci interviews Oriana Fallaci (L’Apocalisse). Across Europe various Islamic organisations tried to take her to court and hounded her in her last years.

The new Pope — Benedict XVI — invited her to his summer palace at Castel Gandolfo, but the meeting was conducted on the agreement that Fallaci never wrote about it. She took the contents of her last great interview to her grave. In September 2006, so ill that no commercial airliner would take her, she flew back by private plane to the city of her birth. “I want to die in Florence,” she explained to a friend. “And now the time has come. But I’ll die standing on both my feet, like Emily Brontë.”

And there her reputation had remained for the past decade. When remembered it has tended to be for some portion of those three last, undisciplined but important books. In Italy the events of the migrant crisis and upsurge in terrorist attacks over recent years have brought her books back onto the display tables. There remains a considerable pride over this Cassandra daughter of theirs who made it big wherever she went.

Outside Italy her reputation has fared less well. Her publishers, Rizzoli, who did so well from their star author, have still scandalously failed to publish an English translation of the last book in her post-9/11 Islam trilogy. And more unforgivably still her final novel — published posthumously as Un cappello pieno di ciliege (“A Hat Full of Cherries”) — is still not translated or published in English. Nevertheless, a small gap has been filled with the publication of Cristina de Stefano’s biography, Oriana Fallaci: The journalist, the agitator, the legend, translated by Marina Harss (Other Press, £21.99). It is the first major work to emerge in English since its subject’s death, and though it is not definitive, it does benefit from interviews with some of those still alive who were close to her and offers the most readable and approachable overview of Fallaci’s life yet available. De Stefano’s predecessors were not always so lucky. In 1998 an academic at the University of Mississippi, Santo L. Arico, produced Oriana Fallaci: The Woman and the Myth. But what set out as a homage written with its subject’s blessing soon turned into a nightmare thanks to Fallaci’s interference. In the introduction Arico memorably describes how Fallaci’s control over her own myth turned him during the writing of his book from “a devotee . . . to a disenchanted researcher”. That was inevitable. Fallaci could not be quiet while she was alive, and only the grave allows the peace and perspective for researchers and admirers to put her work in its full context. Parts of that bigger context have begun to re-emerge. For example, in recent years some feminists have rediscovered Fallaci’s wrenching account of a miscarriage, Letter to a Child Never Born (1975). Later critics seized on her obsession with Muslim birthrates in Europe, seeing in it an especially sinister expression of xenophobia. But De Stefano’s biography, along with Fallaci’s own 1975 work, adds considerable depth and humanity to this preoccupation, which Ayaan Hirsi Ali memorably described in her 2010 memoir Nomad.

In the epilogue to that work, Hirsi Ali writes her own “Letter to my unborn daughter”, in which she relates her meeting with Fallaci in Manhattan just before Fallaci returned to Italy for the last time. Weak and barely able to speak, Fallaci tells her, “You must have a child. I only regret one thing in my life, and that is that I do not have children. I wanted a baby, I tried to have one, but I tried too late, and I failed.” Hirsi Ali goes on, addressing her “unborn daughter”: “Dear child, she inspired me to have you.”

It is strange how this happens with authors. For a period some book, piece, or aspect of their personality pushes itself to the front. Meanwhile, others await their moment and come along again. Fallaci’s work is strong meat certainly, but it is also fortifying, invigorating and unarguably awe-inspiring. It is not just the ceaseless passion, rage or pride, but the desire to keep digging, in question after question, aiming them at herself as well as at others. Always there was that effort to get to the very root of things, whether the truths of motherhood and womanhood, the desire to get to the moon (the subject of her 1966 book If The Sun Dies) or her endless returnings to the nature of war — a thing she hated with all her being. With these subjects, among others, she dug and dug until she was able to come back up to her readers, cradling some truth.

By the end of Nothing and Amen she has an answer for the little girl who asked that great question of her at the start. By then Fallaci has returned not only from the war in Vietnam, but from Mexico, where she reported on the student riots taking place ahead of the 1968 Olympics. She got caught up in the massacre at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas when the army began firing on the demonstrators. A German reporter beside Fallaci was killed instantly. She was shot repeatedly and left for dead. There were always some who claimed that she over-egged it: that she talked up her own involvement in things, including her own bravery. Truthfully it is hard to think of any man or woman of recent memory who was as consistently, almost pathologically, brave in war zones as on the page.

And that question that was put to her? After staring down death, life and love, Fallaci tells the little girl that life “is something you’ve got to fill up well, without wasting any time. Even if you break it by filling it too full.” If that is the measure of a life then there is only one word that needs to be said of their author: “Brava, la Fallaci. Brava.”

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