An epic historical novel that chronicles the birth and rise of fascism in Italy, witnessed through the eyes of its founder, the terrifyingly charismatic figure who would become one of the most notorious dictators of the twentieth century, Benito Mussolini.
The feeling of historical destiny that drives the narrative is so dramatically potent that it raises doubts in the reader’s mind. Is it possible that the portrayal of Mussolini as a masterful tactician who alone perceives the route to power has been over-determined, a known historical outcome conflated with an historical inevitability? There isn’t much room for randomness or luck in this depiction of events. Though nothing about the rise of Fascism has been softened or elided, the account sometimes seems like one that Mussolini himself would approve of. He may be evil and amoral but—in this volume at least—he never looks dumb ... This is unquestionably disturbing. Yet I would defend Mr. Scurati’s characterization on literary grounds. I have often heard readers wonder what the point of historical fiction is, and why anyone would read it rather than a good work of history proper. M: Son of the Century is not the book to turn to for an explanatory blow-by-blow of Mussolini’s rise to power, nor is it interested in presenting an objective, wide-angle view on the complex, interdependent factors that brought about his dictatorship ... What it does instead is re-create the sensations of the era: the dry-mouthed claustrophobia of looming confrontation, the bitterness of resentment and humiliation and the wild exhilaration of violent reprisal. Most of all, it makes us feel the perverse seduction of Fascism, which is connected to the universal allure of victory and control. Readers will find themselves swept up by the story, thrilled by its conflicts and strangely forgetful that its 'hero' is a murderous despot. It’s a dangerous lesson for a novel to convey, but a profoundly important one.
... extraordinary ... M: Son of the century was something of a triumph when it appeared in Italy in 2018, selling in the hundreds of thousands, winning the leading literary prize, the Premio Strega, and finding itself worthy even of a tetchy polemic by an eminent historian in the pages of Corriere della sera. As Antonio Scurati ploughs on in the coming years through volumes three and four, we can only hope that Spain in 1981 rather than the Aventine Secession of 1924 will be the model come the next storming of the capitol.
We know that the First World War left Europe smashed-up, and that, in its aftermath, in the broken soil of the combatant nations, a variety of strange and toxic political fruit flourished, but seldom has the growth of one of those regimes been so fully described. Panoptic and polyphonic, Scurati’s book gives us the experiences of the fearful and the feared, the rhetoric of both the revolutionaries and the reactionaries (and of those, like Mussolini, who veered between the two positions) ... Scurati’s book is very long; it is composed of a multitude of short fragments that collectively add up to an immense mosaic ... It is presented, perversely, as a novel, though it would be more accurately described as history-writing with a few liberties taken. Scurati hews very close to his sources. Occasionally he allows himself a fictional flourish ... Scurati writes with gusto. His style is that of a man unfamiliar with the adage “less is more”. His prose is as verbose and elaborate as his subjects’. He piles on ever more adjectives, more adverbs, more extravagantly protracted sentences. He says things three times over in slightly varying ways. It is as though his researches have left his mind saturated with a blend of d’Annunzio’s florid linguistic curlicues, Mussolini’s oratorical thunder and the fervour of communist rhetoric ... Milano Appel’s translation keeps up gamely: where meaning occasionally vanishes into a haze of highly-charged verbiage I suspect she is being true to the original. I don’t object to Scurati’s taking us inside the collective mind of fascism to show us what it is like. Immersing us in it without the life-belt of irony, however, is likely to leave readers gasping for air. Its language is bombastic, grandiose, exhaustingly irrational. A spritz of something tart would have helped to make it more digestible ... Mussolini saw that disgruntled militarists were numerous but uncoordinated and, cuckoo-like, he ousted their leaders and took over their command. He was an opportunist who caught the wave of violence engulfing postwar Italy and rode it. This book is a fittingly energetic account of that baleful ride.