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The Mussolini Canal

Author: Antonio Pennacchi

Translator: Judith Landry   Cover design: Marie Lane  

There is no hero in this novel, but instead a whole crowd of heroes and heroines in the vast, tough Peruzzi family, who take whatever the 20th century can throw at them and throw as much as they can back at it. Their lives are moved by Socialism and then Fascism, including their very personal relationship with Mussolini himself.

No hero, and no plot, but instead an absorbing and lively story of the Peruzzi family and their lives of poverty and struggle, love and hate. This is a long novel, but I was sorry to see it end, and I can’t remember when I last said that about a book.

The Historical Novel Society Review

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 contribution 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.

Caterina Sinibaldi in The Warwick Review

After its outstanding success in Italy, where it has sold over 400,000 copies and was awarded the Strega Prize in 2010, The Mussolini Canal has now been translated into English. The story spans a century of Italian history as seen through the lives of the Peruzzi family, who were relocated as part of one of Mussolini’s initiatives to increase the amount of productivity from the south. Although the characters are fictional, their experiences would have been felt by many of the 30,000 peasants from the north sent down to farm the newly-drained Pontine Marshes outside Rome in the 1930s.

Italia Magazine

... a powerful portrait of the tensions that brought Mussolini to power and kept him there, at a time when workers and peasants had no rights, and Italy was ruled by the church and a selection of powerful and rich landowners.'You say that Fascism did away with freedom in Italy', Pennacchi's narrator declares,'but there has never been freedom in Italy...not for the poor.'

Caroline Moorhead in The Times Literary Supplement

This is a long but charming tale of the Peruzzi family who are evicted from their sharecropping life in northern Italy, and join an exodus south to tame and farm the Pontine Marshes. Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is mentioned in the text, and has echoes in this exodus, as it does in the moving finale for Armida. But the charming family story too readily becomes a device to excuse fascism. Socialism is for intellectuals and the truly destitute, who burn the haystacks of farmers who refuse to take on an extra quota of labour. The hardworking poor who have some chance of survival and improvement cling to a stable social structure, and oppose the very poor who have no chance but to overthrow the feudal order. So feudalism morphs into fascism. Similarly, protection of endangered species and of the environment are luxuries the farmer striving to survive cannot afford. Bring on the DDT!

For Pennacchi, fascism just happened. This is pure narrative history. There is neither approval nor approbation, but a moral indifference. He presents Hitler and Mussolini as blundering chums, almost cartoon joke figures. He shows that in the unfolding events, ‘everyone has his reason’, as though this understanding might evoke some note of mild sympathy or endorsement. In retributive anger, Pericles kills a priest. In Abyssinia, the army massacres whole clergy groups. So what? appears to be the message. As Donald Rumsfeld said ‘stuff happens’.

Pennacchi does very successfully show how ordinary people can so easily comply, and how whole social moods can quickly switch allegiance. But he leaves it there. There is no comparative study of the resistance hero, of the role of moral conviction, other than of the petty sort which is sufficient to condemn Armida, here explicitly echoing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Scarlet Letter’. He mocks society’s hypocrisy, inconsistency and fickle allegiance, but fascism is presented without moral comment.

Of course, the reader is free to form a moral judgment on fascism themselves, and perhaps this is Pennacchi’s intent. But his coverage of fascism is too limited, and his style too easily lulls the reader into the view that fascism was inevitable, that it just happened, that nice folks did it, that it was therefore excusable.

Atheist Spirituality

Tour de force

the story itself is utterly compelling... The Mussolini Canal, the winner of the Strega Prize, italy's most prestigious literary award, in 2010, is surely Pennacchi's masterwork, written with a rare feel for the present-day idiom across memory, nostalgic but sardonically so. Judith Landry's translation hits the mark every time...It's a big, generous read, a historical giro with stamina and heart.

Novel Of The Week in the Tablet, reviewed by Brian Morton

This prize-winning Italian best-seller has now been translated into English and follows the fortunes of a family relocated as part of Mussolini's plan to increase Italy's productivity. The story is fictional but reflects the very real experience of thousands of Italians in the 1930s.

Italian Walking Holiday Reading List

It is the voice that lifts this novel from being a fascinating story of a peasant exodus from northern Italy to the Pontine Marshes, as part of a fascist bid to reclaim agricultural land, to a magnificent rollicking saga offering a cockeyed version of modern Italian history (while sticking to the facts) which begs to be read. The irreverent voice of the narrator relates,with humour,the adventures of his 17 uncles and aunts under the grip of a gran whose bottom was much appreciated by Mussolini.

This is not a heart-wringing story of poverty and suffering, for the Peruzzi family refuse to be victims; they are the stars of their own soap opera. Pennacchi brilliantly brings them to life, from mild Unclce Adelchi, whose obsession with uniforms ultimately leads him to become a policeman, to Uncle Themistocles, who went off to fight the German in Great War. Uncle Pericles gets the lead role;fascist thug as amiable hothead. Pennacchi makes his characters loveable but they follow Mussolini.

Il Duce decided to drain the Pontine Marshes,near Rome, and bring 2,000 fascist families from northern Italy to work the reclaimed land abutting the newly built Mussolini Canal. Two storey houses were built for each family as part of an enormous model town project. While the narrator lampoons the vanity and excesses of fascism, in particular the fat dictator, he also explains its lure, and documents its failure, through the eyes of the Peruzzi family, and he understands the nostalgia of many Italians for a country which worked.

Pennacchi, in his introduction, calls his tale "the book I came into the world to write";he is a descendant of those people and still lives in Latina, outside Rome, where he was born, only stopping work on the night shift at a local factory when he could make a living from writing. While the characters are fictional he says there were no settlers "who did experience at least some of the events in which the Peruzzi family were caught up'. If he never writes another novel he will have added more to literature than many authors alive today.

This glorious mishmash of a peasant's eye view of the first half of 20th century Italy deservedly won the Strega Prize. A book of many layers, beneath the history, political commentary, and humour, it is a novel about the strength of the family. right or wrong, they stick together and that is how they survive.

Credit must go to the translator Judith Landry, for capturing the spirit of the work, even if some turns of phrase are a tad too English. A book not to be judged by its cover, which makes it look like a worthy foreign tome, rather than a spectacular work of earthy humour.

Scarlet McGuire in Tribune

In the week that the last old-style Man Booker prize was awarded, one can't help wishing that in its bid to widen its horizons, the prize organisers had decided in future to include English translations as well as all works in English published in Britain.

Were that the case, a novel such as The Mussolini Canal would be a shoo-in.
Winner of Italy's prestigious Strega Prize in 2010, this is Antonio Pennacchi's second novel, his first, Il Fasciocomunista, having won the Premio Napoli. As the labyrinthine story unfolds, the reader scarcely needs Pennacchi's prefatory note that: "For what it's worth, this is the book I came into the world to write." In every line The Mussolini Canal feels personal, as if its plot and cast emerge not from the writer's imagination but from his marrow. A hefty work, of more than 500 pages, it is so beguiling one does not want it to end. Rambunctious and picaresque, it is the story of a generation of poverty-stricken peasants from the Veneto and Tuscany, who were enticed south in the 1930s by the promise of land in the dreaded Pontine marshes, near Rome. Until that time, nobody sane would have gone there, the place a mosquito-infested swamp. But under Mussolini's fledgling rule, the marshes were properly drained for the first time in history, allowing land to be reclaimed, and many lives with it.
Brilliantly controlling his material, retracing his steps, repeating stories from fresh angles, or simply reminding the reader of what they already know, Pennacchi's style holds an echo of early Gunter Grass, but is infused with a spirit and tone that are entirely original. High among its charms is his rich vein of humour, a mordant leavening to otherwise grim material, as the Peruzzi family picks its way through the debris of half a century of troubles.
Gathering pace slowly, as one grows familiar with its dizzying cast and the tale's back and forth telling, it builds in tension like a spring being tightly coiled, creating a vigorous, unrepentant, anarchic picture of a clan surviving despite chaos all around. It is a truly fine novel, demonstrating a remarkable talent, Antonio Pennacchi's high ambition matched word for word by his artistry.

Rosemary Goring in The Sunday Herald

The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi is an epic account of the rise of Fascism. It’s the story of the (fictitious) Peruzzi clan of sharecroppers, moved from their native north to the malaria-ridden Pontine Marshes for the building of the canal and the New Town of Littoria. It mingles family legend and up-to-date political commentary with personal appearances from Edmondo Rossoni and Mussolini, and takes us through Italy’s Imperium and the campaign in Ethiopia to the Anzio landings. The complex chronology and the demotic and combative narrative voice (of a young Peruzzi descendant) are imaginatively handled by the translator, Judith Landry, and the novel presents us with a whole new landscape, complete with the kiwi fruits and eucalyptus that thrived in the reclaimed land. Better than any guidebook, it explains how and at what cost Mussolini succeeded where Romans, popes and emperors failed. A challenging but very illuminating read.

Margaret Drabble in Books of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement

Another historical novel, again like Spence's free of any hint of genre cliche, is Antonio Pennacchi's masterly The Mussolini Canal. My favourite novel of the year, it is a sweeping, giddying tale of those impoverished northern Italians who were relocated in the 1930s to farm the area of former swampland south of Rome, many of whom became ardent fascists. An exquisitely composed work of political and social insight, it is as humorous as it is haunting.

Rosemary Goring in The Herald's Fiction: best books for Christmas

I have been riveted by The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi published this year by Dedalus in a fine translation by Judith Landry. It tells the story of a northern Italian peasant family, intertwined with the early career of Mussolini, that had been transplanted to the new fascist landscape of the drained Pontine Marshes outside Rome.

Timothy Brittain-Catlin in Summer Reading in The Tablet

If you're going to Italy (or even if not), I recommend a couple of books that illuminate Italian history of the fascist period: Lucy Hughes-Hallett's The Pike, an entertaining biography of the outrageously colourful poet and man-of-action Gabriele d'Annunzio, to be offset by Antonio Pennacchi's epic novel The Mussolini Canal. The latter will make you want to head off at once to the Pontine Marshes.

Margaret Drabble in The Guardian's Best Holiday Reads

Antonio Pennacchi's boldly engaging second novel could be read as a graphic social history. It is this to some extent but it is also lively and funny. The Mussolini Canal is an earthy story of underlining seriousness told with a gruff bluster of a narrator possessed of an astonishing grasp of his family's story - which also happens to be that of his country... There are obvious echoes of One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Grapes of Wrath and even slight hints of The Tin Drum, but most of all Pennacchi's large-hearted narrative balances the domestic with the international. As the narrator announces: 'Heed me I have a story to tell.' And he certainly does.

Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times

'Antonio Pennacchi's long and grandly sweeping novel – well translated by Judith Landry – tells the story of a Veneto peasant family, the Peruzzi, through the eyes of a descendant. It's the story of a poor family, but it is also the story of Italy. At the end Pennacchi half-promises us a sequel. One of the many strengths of Pennacchi's book is that its first third puts the diaspora in context:the precarious placed smallholders, the landless braccianti, the appeal of revolutionary socialism, the burning of homes and haystacks, the anger of returning soldiers, the alliance of landowners with fascist thugs, the Church's equivocal role... The book is fundamentally the story of one tightly-knit extended farming family, the sort which dominated Italian society until relatively recent times. Not for nothing has Pennacchi been called the 21st century Verga. I hope there is a sequel.'

Tom Richardson in Rivista Magazine

RRP: £12.99

No. of pages: 536

Publication date: 15.04.2013

ISBN numbers:
978 1 909232 24 2
978 1 909232 40 2

Uk, Europe & British Commonwealth (excluding Canada)