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'The Mysterious Affair At Olivetti' Attempts To Find A Cold War Conspiracy

In the preface to The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti, Meryle Secrest, a renowned biographer, explains how she became interested in the subject that resulted in her book.

Secrest happened upon an unsold story of hers which detailed a weekend she spent with Roberto Olivetti. She never saw him again but after rediscovering the piece of writing "[i]t suddenly become important to know whatever had happened to Roberto."

She learned he passed away in 1985 but the obituaries did not say how. Eventually she got in with Roberto's daughter, Desire. "That illuminating conversation led to other discoveries...I found I had opened the door upon a Cold War mystery and a major industrial spy story with the Olivetti family as its victims."

This circuitous, bizarre starting point is appropriate for The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti, which tells a circuitous, bizarre story. The outline is this: The Olivetti company, primarily known for its typewriters, was a major Italian business that survived two world wars. The company, run by a string of men in the Olivetti family — Camillo, Adriano, Roberto — was also the producer of one of the first functioning desktop computers. Part of Secrest's goal is to undo what she sees as an erasing of the Programma 101 from computer histories, as other tech companies stories seem to have overtaken this one.

It's a useful reminder to be skeptical of the stories companies tell about themselves. Still, the book is a little in the weeds. The first two-thirds or so of The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti, despite their spanning two world wars and an unending series of complicated and fascinating interpersonal dynamics, can at times feel tedious and confusing. Secrest moves between time periods in a way that can be difficult to track — and the relationship each of the long list of characters who appear has to the Olivetti family is often hard to ascertain.

Working through the wave of information, however, is worth it for the absolutely thrilling — if not entirely believable — theorizing and deducing that takes place over the last third of the book. The mostly straitlaced history turns conspiratorial as Secrest combs through the details of the deaths of Adriano Olivetti in 1960 and Mario Tchou, a leading engineer for the company, in 1961, both of whom she argues were murdered.

Around the time they died, Italy seemed to the United States an important front in the Cold War — and the Olivetti company was seeking expansion into various place, including Mao Zedong's China (were that option to open up to them). This, alongside Olivetti's purchase of Underwood, an American competitor, would theoretically have made the company an object of scorn in the eyes of powerful American interests at a time when they were very concerned with spreading influence across the world. Additionally, Adriano Olivetti dedicated his life to a utopian, quasi-socialist vision that, despite being anti-Communist and never particularly popular, could have irked United States officials.

Adriano was ruled to have died of natural causes at 58 when he had a heart attack on a train, but Secrest notes that the "doctor could not be sure and recommended that the family order an autopsy. Most accounts ignore the uncertainty and state this verdict as authoritative." No autopsy was ordered. Covert murder on a train, she writes, is a hallmark in fiction for a reason. Secrest references a documentary produced by Michele Soavi, Adriano's nephew, wherein Adriano's guard says bluntly: "I know that he was murdered." A few sentences later, Secrest offers a theory as to by who, and how: "Curiously, the CIA created a particularly handy weapon for [train] corridor use: the poison gun, one that mimicked a heart attack."

Things get more suspicious after his death, as his office was ransacked during the funeral. Later, a prototype of the Programma 101 was stolen.

Tchou died in a car wreck on a notoriously dangerous road. There was initially little suspicion about what occurred. Secrest likens it to the death of Gen. George Patton, who was believed to have died as a result of a car accident until a member of the Office of Special Services, a World War II-era precursor to the CIA, allegedly admitted in an interview with author Robert Wilcox that he was ordered to assassinate Patton. This is still not considered the official story regarding Patton's death (a mention does not even appear on his Wikipedia page) but Secrest cites the incident as evidence that this type of thing does happen. She also references the argument of an auto body shop founder, Jose Zamara, who assessed the pictures of Tchou's accident and believes the car was not hit "squarely on" as the reports suggest. Other details are fishy, as well: It was reported that Tchou's driver was drunk and the car smelled overwhelmingly of alcohol but neither man drank. The road they were on, Secrest explains, is famously dangerous, but if one were to plan on staging a car accident, they would choose a road likely to have a car accident.

This exercise is convincing in that the official arguments are no longer easy to believe, but there are still more questions about their deaths than answers. Secrest deftly stays away from definitive claims, making clear that foul play was possible or even likely but never outright saying by whom or for what reason. It is gripping to read, though, as with most theories of this nature, one's hunger for sufficient proof one way or another will never be satiated. As Secrest says, while describing the theories of other writers: "like most who investigate such ruthless international power games, they were unable to prove it."

What we do know for certain is that these deaths created the conditions for what we would now call a hostile takeover of Olivetti by General Electric, which spelled the end for Olivetti's influence in the electronics field.

The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti is a rigorous history of a powerful Italian family and their company with an absolutely gripping but specious and perhaps reckless section of conspiracizing at the end. One must read it skeptically, but it's exciting to watch someone try to put the pieces together, even if a large percentage are missing.

Bradley Babendir is a freelance book critic based in Boston.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bradley Babendir