Book Review: Antonio Scurati's M. Il Figlio Del Secolo

“A country where nothing ever happens and where nothing ever lasts”. This is how Benito Mussolini had described his homeland exactly a century ago. But he didn’t live up to 2020 to hear about the current apocalyptic happenings in Italy that made the whole nation an infamous brand. Just let’s hope that the second part of Mussolini’s judgment justifies itself. And the sooner the better.

Mussolini or Il Duce, as millions of Italians still call him, is like this minor step-brother in the history of fascism, passing all maleficent merits to the primary monster Hitler. If you’re not an Italian, you’ve probably just been introduced to one of the closest allies of Führer while studying history of WWII. However, this Italian political figure had exceptional strategic abilities and insight, not to mention his rhetoric skills, to build himself from a political zero to the omnipotent dictator. That’s why Antonio Scurati’s M. Il Figlio Del Secolo (M. The Son of the XX Century) about the rise of Benito Mussolini has immediately become a best-seller.

Unfortunately, there’s still no English version of this book (but rights are bought by HarperCollins), so it turned to be my longest Italian read (836 pages) so far. Though the book is considered a novel, it is actually a historical reconstruction of the facts and events from 1919 to 1924, thanks to investigated piles of articles, authentic letters, telegrams, official statements, etc. According to the author, it is the novel where “nothing is invented.”

Scurati starts his novel with Italy, poor and hungry after WWI, governed by rising socialists and communists. Inspired by success of Russian revolution, the country suffers from a countless number of strikes and incapacity of political leaders. Mussolini, also a former socialist, starts a new movement called fascism, which dramatically fails during the elections of 1919. Each chapter of the book is dedicated to some historical figure - both an ally of Mussolini or his opponent - through which the reader learns about the atmosphere, circumstances and events that took place and how all this predetermined the rise of the dictator.

The chronicle also depicts a character of Il Duce with all his vices and weaknesses. “The armchair and the slippers are the ruin of a man”, exclaims Mussolini when he sees a new armchair in his office and orders to take it away immediately. Never being faithful to his wife, he was circling among his lovers and even took advantage of their position in society, as in case of his close companion Margherita Sarfatti. Though his wife and children were also of true concern.

Admiring Nietzsche’s “Vive pericolosamente” (Live dangerously) Mussolini dives into the venture from nightly black shirt raids against local communists and socialists to the open kidnapping and murder of the famous Italian socialists’ leader Giacomo Matteotti. He justifies violence and disallows the concept of freedom: “Does freedom exist? After all it is a philosophical-moral category. There are freedoms. The freedom has never existed.”

Step by step the book navigates through ups and lows of Mussolini’s attempts to seize the power. It also shows Italy as impotent to find a consensus among the parties and deal with economic problems, therefore allowing such a self-confident bastard as Il Duce to climb the ladder. “Italy is like this: one big comedy, always a comedy. Here’s their fate: the comic ending. For this reason they had no destiny. Either comedy or tragedy. Almost always both. Reliability, this one never,” dictator’s mind is ruthless about his motherland.

These Mussolini’s insights are difficult to argue even in our century, especially taking into consideration his mastered journalistic expression. That’s why many argue that Scurati, being a true anti-fascist, actually wrote a praise for the great dictator who is easy to be idolized, especially by young people who are too distant from a tragic historic reality of that time.

Nevertheless, Scurati will continue writing: this was only the first volume of the trilogy, which will end with the death of Mussolini in 1945. Meanwhile, “M” finishes with Il Duce’s triumph in the elections of 1924 and the start of dictatorship in Italy: “This is the last time when they go to elections. Next time I will vote in place of them all.” And nothing’s left but to live dangerously.

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