Valerio Massimo Manfredi still lives in the same village in which he was born, in the province of Modena, Italy. Eyes twinkling, he describes how secluded it is, and yet how close to such major cities as Florence and Rome. He takes great pleasure in describing his dream house, which he has built adjacent to the house in which he was born.
Almost 30 minutes into the conversation, Manfredi who was here in Kolkata to attend the book fair, lets drop that he once had dinner with big-ticket Hollywood director Baz Luhrmann at a venue not easily accessible to anybody, and which is still a secret. And that he sorely misses his close friend Dino (late legendary producer Agostino Dino de Laurentis, the man behind countless film classics).
Manfredi is the author of The Last Legion, which was made into a 2007 film starring Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley. His Alexander trilogy has been bought by Universal Pictures for a re-telling of Alexanders life story. He is also an archaeologist, historian, and journalist.
As he wanders unobtrusively around the lobby of ITC Sonar, a city hotel, however, Manfredi epitomises the sense of wonder and discovery that he associates with story telling. Story telling and writing are two separate things. When I was a child, my grandfather, who was a story teller, would tell the most wonderful stories, which conveyed so many emotions and were so entertaining. That is what I want to do, entertain, he says.
Manfredi, whose works have been translated into 38 languages and sold millions of copies in Europe and the USA, also finds time for a quick chat with his publishers, Hachette, two of whose representatives clearly make a big deal out of him as our interview progresses.
How does it feel to be a Hollywood writer? It feels good to see my characters in flesh and blood, he says simply. Evidently, what is more important is the reaction from the man on the street. In France, he says, an accountant came up to him after a presentation and said, You made me ride Bucephalus, in a reference to Alexander the Greats famous horse.
That is what Manfredi wishes to do with history, which, he says, is a titanic attempt by mankind to compose a common memory. It is a constant work in progress because there is no absolute truth. It is about rigorous, honest endeavour. History builds memory, and memory has to do with identity, even the identity of nations, he adds.
Despite his serious engagement with history and archaeology, though, he knows one thing. Story telling came first, right from the time when a Neolithic man sat around a fire and described a thrilling hunt to his peers. Today, we may squeeze out bits of truth from our epics such the Mahabharat, Iliad, or Odyssey for historical patrimony, but the message of history becomes meaningful only when our emotions are involved. And that means telling a story.