The Mussolini Canal su The Warwick Review

[Questa recensione di Canale Mussolini firmata da Caterina Sinibaldi apparirà sul numero di Giugno 2013 della rivista del dipartimento di Letteratura Inglese della Warwick University]

In this great family saga, Pennacchi follows the lives of two generations of Perruzzis, sharecroppers from the Veneto region, from the beginning of the twentieth century to the aftermath of World War II and the fall of Fascism. The first part of the book takes place in the Veneto villages of Copparo and Codigoro; in the second part, as a result of Mussolini’s revaluation of the lira (the so-called quota 90), the Perruzzi family is forced to migrate to the Lazio region, where they will work on the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes.

The daily life of the family and their private history intertwine with great historical events, offering an engrossing account of Italy’s recent past. The story opens with the characters of the grandfather, the great patriarch of the Perruzzi clan who, after participating in one of the first Socialist meetings in 1904, named his children (both boys and girls) after Socialist leaders: Adelchi, Treves, Turati, Modigliana and Bissolata.  The three eldest children, who have taken part in World War I, are also given the distinctive names of Iseo, Temistocle and Pericles. The grandmother, a real pillar of the family, is described as a strong and fierce woman, who loves her husband passionately and delivers her children in the fields, while taking a short break from work.

While having an exceptionally close bond, built around a strong, shared identity and common values, the Perruzzi family is comprised of very different personalities. At the same time, all the characters seem to possess qualities that are traditionally associated with rural communities. From the way they deal with private and public events affecting their lives, men, women and children appear to be strong, proud, fiery, perseverant and hard-working. Their fatalism and superstition, which are presented as direct consequences of their vulnerability to unpredictable natural disasters, do not however translate into a pessimistic view of life. The Perruzzis are industrious and ambitious, and rely on magical and symbolic rituals to predict and manipulate external forces.

What makes the story particularly compelling is the use of oral narrative features, which are evident from the language and the rhythm of the narration. The narrator speaks in the first person, creating an immediate intimacy with the reader, further reinforced by the fact that he is addressing an interlocutor. Although the latter never manifests himself, the narrator repeats his questions, revealing that his interlocutor is clearly younger and from a different social background, which is probably closer to that of the readers. Through this narrative pretext, the narrator can offer further explanation and, more importantly, can express his point of view on the facts. He does so by distancing himself from his interlocutor and, by extension, from the reader, thus conveying an image of himself as a representative of an older generation, as well as of a whole society that does not exist anymore.

The mystery surrounding the identity of the narrator holds the reader in suspense until the very final pages.

As a result of this unusual narrative strategy, contemporary sensibility is often challenged. We read, in one of the frequent one-sided exchanges between the narrator and his interlocutor:

“What did you say? That a priest shouldn’t take up arms? Yes, that’s the kind of thing they say today, but actually I can’t see much difference between opening fire directly and blessing those who are opening fire on your behalf” (140)

The clash of worldviews between the narrator, through whose eyes we witness both the ordinary and the exceptional experiences of the Perruzzis, and the contemporary reader, becomes particularly evident when politics is discussed. The family’s engagement with Socialism, first, and Fascism, later; their involvement in the First and Second World War and in the Fascist colonization; their whole-hearted support of Mussolini and his violence means cannot be articulated using the language of today’s political discourse.

As a result, when the book was awarded the prestigious Premio Strega in 2010, Pennacchi was accused of offering an apologetic assessment of Fascism, and reinforcing the stereotype of Mussolini’s regime as relatively benign and tolerant.

Mussolini is portrayed as a family friend, dining at the Perruzzi’s table before becoming The Duce. In a particularly disturbing scene, Pericles, one of the most prominent characters, brutally murders an anti-fascist priest. He then goes straight to his wife-to-be’s house and the two make passionate love wrapped in a window curtain, while in the next room the villagers are mourning the death of a different man.

However, although the intimate and sympathetic relationship between the narrator and the characters makes it difficult to blame the individual family members for their support of Mussolini, there is a clear condemnation of Fascism as a political regime.

The ambiguity and inconsistency of Fascist ideology are clearly revealed from the beginning, when Mussolini wins the support of rural populations through demagogic propaganda. The Perruzzi themselves will be terribly damaged by the economic policies of Fascism and their relentless support of Fascism will cause their ruin. Moreover, thanks to the colloquial style and the ironic comments of the narrator, Fascism is deprived of its rhetoric or legendary aspects. For instance, a founding myth such as that of the March on Rome is described as a bluff where: “but before sending them [the black-shirts] all off home again it was only fair that they should at least be allowed to enter Rome, have a march past and let them think it was all their doing (…)” (136).

Pennacchi’s book has the merit of shifting the dominant perspective of historical discourse, by presenting the great events in history from the point of view of their impact on the private, individual dimension. In this regard, The Mussolini Canal can be seen as a to the field of ‘micro-history’, since it highlights the importance of oral tradition, and effectively shows how social and cultural history can illuminate wider historical events. At the same time, like all great works of fiction, Pennacchi’s story constructs a parallel universe where the reader develops a true relationship with the characters. After laughing with them (and at them), suffering with them, and becoming invested in their struggles, we cannot help missing the Perruzzi when it is time to separate.

On a final note, the translator Judith Landry has successfully risen to the challenge of rendering into English such a dense, culturally-loaded language. The frequent appearance of dialect, and the incorrect use of written Italian in the letters coming from the battlefield, have been translated into a non-standard English that closely matches the original syntactic structures. We read in the final page: “That’s the end of the filo” (536), the filò being a traditional oral narrative of the North-East rural communities. In leaving the Italian word without providing any explanatory remarks, the translator concludes the story by opening a window into the original social context, and maintains a reference to the peculiar narrative voice.


06 2013

2 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. A. #

    Molto bene.
    Chiedo solo di mettere un link metterlo su twitter e fb. grazie

  2. admin #

    Ci stiamo lavorando…