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B+ : all-too-relevant thoroughly documentary fiction
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
The M of the title, the 'Son of the Century', is Benito Mussolini, and this volume is just the first in what is apparently planned to be a quartet of M-books.
(A second volume has already appeared (in 2020) in Italian, M. L'uomo della provvidenza ('M. The man of providence').)
Though a novel, it is decidedly documentary fiction, entirely based on and closely recounting actual events; to emphasize that fact, there is a selection of relevant historical quotes, taken from newspaper reports, periodicals, speeches, memoirs, and other sources appended to almost each of the novel's short chapters.
Who are the fascists ? What are they ? Benito Mussolini, their creator, considers it an idle question. Yes, of course they are something new ... something unheard of ... an anti-party. That's it ... the fascists are an anti-party ! They engage in anti-politics. But then the pursuit of identity must stop there. The important thing is to be something that allows them to avoid the encumbrances of consistency, the dead weight of principles.At that first rally of the Fasci di Combattimento Scurati has him see himself as: "the misfit par excellence, the protector of the demobilized, the lost drifter searching for the way". He may be onto something -- "The age of mass politics has begun" -- but that first rally suggests he hasn't immediately tapped into it: "we, here in this room, are fewer than a hundred".
Indeed, while much of the early part of the novel does feature Mussolini, it is another figure who initially makes the much grander impression, taking dramatic action: the "living myth" Gabriele D'Annunzio, "Italy's foremost poet", who led the seizure of the city of Fiume (Rijeka)) in the fall of 1919, as Italy seemed unwilling to annex the city while its future status was still being negotiated in the post-World War I peace talks. For a few months, the place becomes: "the city of D'Annunzian legend, the Jerusalem promised by the poet-warrior to all patriots and adventurers throughout Italy and Europe". It is: "a world of worlds, a free port for rebellion of all political sides" -- and:
The amalgam is exciting, the bacchanal orgiastic, licentiousness the norm, excess absolute; the spectacle is continuous, the party uninterrupted.This: "politics of the masses is completely foreign to the interests of men of traditional power" -- and in this case, they can ultimately thwart it. But there are lessons to be taken from it -- and Mussolini, though he mostly kept his distance here, does certainly pick up on some of them -- not least that:
The masses, if you pay attention to them, if you don't ignore them, are like that: you just have to lead them and they will follow.Beyond the outlier that is Fiume, the would-be fascists don't do very well early on. The socialists are the coming power. Even as the fascists put up a few prominent candidates in the 1919 elections -- notably conductor Arturo Toscanini -- it's the socialists who romp to a crushing victory:
A triumphal result, the harbinger of revolution. In inverse proportion to that, the failure of the fascist ticket was absolute: out of approximately 270,000 voters in the district of Milan, the fascists garnered only 4,657 votes. Mussolini obtained only 2, 427 preferential votes. None of the fascist candidates was elected. Not a one. Not even him. It was a complete fiasco.Mussolini was unable to win over either the proletarian masses or the "nationalist avant-gardes"; instead of leading the way, it seems that at this point: "Fascism is on a spur track".
A strong shift to the right, and a willingness to embrace violence -- a thuggish approach -- soon begins to make the fascists a force to be reckoned with -- and the other parties don't know how to counter it. In 1921, socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti already protests:
This is assault, by an organization of thugs. It is no longer a political struggle; it is barbarism; it is medieval.It also proves to be a winning formula -- with the fascists even painting themselves as the protectors against the real danger(s):
Fascist violence is light, its wavelength vibrates in the range of yellow, orange, red, not in the blin spot of black, its phenomenal war is the antithesis of terrorism. What's more, the fascist war is the war against terrorism.It sells itself as something more than politics:
Fascism is not a religion, it is a training ground, it is not a party, it is a movement, it is not a program, it is a passion. Fascism is the new force.For a while, they go along with the rules. As they seek power: "Participation in government cannot be ruled out: parliament must be held in contempt, agreed, but it must be used to advantage". With barely any representation in the Chamber of Deputies, they must however resort to other means -- as, as Mussolini announces at a fascist convention in 1922: "Our program is simple, we want to govern Italy". The 'March on Rome', with its threat of violence, is ultimately then enough of a show of force to bring them to power.
Their triumph means it's all downhill for Italy from there, the country finding itself with a thirty-nine-year-old prime minister, "the youngest ruler in the world at the time of his ascent; with no experience in government or public administration, having entered the Chamber of Deputies only sixteen months earlier". With the 30 October 1922 installation of Mussolini -- "the son of the century" -- as prime minister, Scurati suggests: "At that moment the new century had begun and, at the same time, ended in his wake"
Months earlier, Mussolini had already summed it up in an article Scurati quotes from:
Left-wing regimes such as those established throughout Europe between 1848 and 1900 -- based on universal suffrage and social legislation -- gave what they could ... The century of democracy dies in 1919-1920 ... The process of restoration of the right is already visible in concrete manifestations. The orgy of unruliness has ceased, enthusiasm for social and democratic myths is over. Life returns to the individual. A classic recovery is underway.Democratic will certainly counts for next to nothing now: the Chamber of Deputies includes a mere 35 Fascist Party members -- but the other parties bow to the new leader -- with, as Scurati puts it: "An adamantine will to capitulate". Still, Mussolini understands he needs to take over the Chamber as well, and so electoral reform become the big issue; again practically all the opposition folds -- paving the way to their own (and Italy's) demise: elections are 'reformed' (the Acerbo law) and in the 1924 elections: "the fascist list received 64.9 percent of the yes votes. All of its 356 candidates were elected, down to the last one". (And, as Scurati notes: "It is the eleventh-hour fascists who delivered the country to Mussolini".)
Nevertheless, the fascists haven't completely won over the country -- and their continuing need to resort to violence and physical intimidation remain a source of difficulties for them (though it's also proven a very successful technique over these years). Eventually, they would seem to go too far -- but outrage only moves the population so far, too:
Yes, the majority of Italians, horrified by the crime, would like to see the fall of fascism in order to decontaminate its ghost-infested houses, but then, towards dinner time, the demands of everyday life prevail. Morality is not among them. The nation is clouded, its sense of justice is listless and murky. The sense of rebellion ois reduced to the morbid passion with which people follow news reports of the outrage.Repeatedly, Scurati notes how decisive action could have thwarted Mussolini and his goons. Dithering dooms the government facing the March on Rome in October 1922:
Had the prime minister resigned even just twenty-four hours earlier, it would have enabled the country to have a government capable of confronting the fascist aggression; to do so now would leave it without a government to confront the threat. Facta resigned right then.So too, in January 1925, the deputies in the Chamber could turn the tide:
Just one.But, of course: "No one gets up".
It makes for a dramatic conclusion to this volume, the first great test of Mussolini's holding-power -- and the failure of Italy to take him down while they still easily could.
M: Son of the Century chronicles this rise to power, of man and pseudo-movement. With his sweeping portrayal of the events over the six years chronicled here, Scurati shows the failures large and small. As he sadly notes at one point, Mussolini's bluster so often helped him make huge strides: "Words -- words yet again -- prevail over reality, keeping it at bay. Small causes, big effects". The latter sums up much of the book well.
A small scene has Benedetto Croce suggest the reason for much of Mussolini's success: "Politicians are play-actors. That Mussolini is a good histrionic". The puffed-up Duce -- showing off his physique at the seashore -- knows how to play to the crowds. And the crowds are easily swayed:
The masses are a flock of sheep, the century of democracy is over, the masses have no tomorrow.Scurati tackles a great deal here, and even if this work only covers less than six years, it's a lot of history and events. He does a quite good job of getting at the essence, though much of it still feels more like survey than detailed account, as there is simply so much ground to cover. And though Mussolini is very much at the heart of the novel, others' stories have to play significant roles, and so even this central figure remains in many ways elusive. (The fact that Scurati starts off in 1919, with a Mussolini already in his mid-thirties, and barely filling in biographical background to that point, contributes to the sense of the character not being fully formed.)
The chronicle of events from a hundred years ago does feel horribly relevant today. Mussolini's means, all to the would-be end of nothing other than power, feels, yet again, all too familiar, with similar populists rising to and consolidating power left and right around us, with little else to show for it. We know how Scurati's project will end, three volumes on, but even Mussolini's ultimate fate is hardly comforting, considering how long it took to get there, and what he wrought in the meantime
Scurati's book is long but reasonably fast-moving with its short chapters. It does take a while to get going -- the events in Fiume easily outshining Mussolini's early efforts (indeed, there'd surely be a good book in that, too ....) -- but M: Son of the Century is a work that really gathers momentum; well into it, there's even some genuine suspense.
For all of Scurati's efforts to describe Mussolini's life beyond politics -- notably, his relationships with women, along with his womanizing on the side -- he does remain a bit of a distant figure and, indeed, all the characters, including colorful ones such as Italo Balbo, remain seeming more historical than real (as one might have hoped for in a work calling itself fiction).
It is a curious novel -- so focused on the historical, and underlining that with its constant verbatim presentation of bits from historical records -- and doesn't entirely satisfy as a work of fiction (the point of fictionalizing surely being to somehow make more of its material). But the material is so obviously relevant and Scurati's presentation, in its starkness, so powerful that M: Son of the Century does grip and impress. It is, in every sense, weighty -- and pushes the reader not only to reflect on the past but also on our present; as such, it is stimulating read, and one that is certainly worth engaging with.
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 April 2022
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Italian author Antonio Scurati was born in 1969.
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