Review : The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi

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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.

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