A New Book About Mussolini Is Provoking a Debate Over His Legacy

Posted December 9, 2018 4:22 p.m. EST

ROME — Mussolini is invading Italy’s bookstores.

For weeks, Antonio Scurati’s “M,” a doorstop of a novel about the rise of the dictator Benito Mussolini, has sat on Italian best-seller lists. The book is set to be adapted into a major television series by Wildside, the same production company that is co-producing the HBO series based on Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend.” And this fall, “M” conquered Frankfurt’s book fair, where HarperCollins snapped up the English rights to the book.

“In the Italian imagination, Mussolini remains a kind of totem, a figure of great charisma, a kind of perverse national father whom we have repressed,” Scurati, 49, said in a recent interview. “This book has brought him out of that repression.”

The unexpected popularity of “M” has also provoked a debate in Italy on Mussolini’s legacy. Scurati’s cheerleaders say his book is a much-needed reminder of the evils of fascism, particularly for young people. But critics say the resurrection and repackaging of Mussolini for the 21st century presents dangers at a time when right-wing governments are being elected around Europe, including in Italy. (Jonathan Burnham, president and publisher of the Harper division of HarperCollins, said, “it is compelling reading for anyone interested in 20th-century history.” He called the book “a timely investigation of how fascism can take root in a society.”)

The book, at 839 pages, gives the impression of heft, as does its spartan cover art of a black M against a white background. Although it has been marketed as a novel, it blurs the lines between novel and history textbook. It consists of short, detail-laden chapters interspersed with excerpts from historical telegrams, newspaper articles, letters and police reports. The chapters feature an omniscient narrator, but focus largely on the perspectives of Mussolini and his collaborators.

All direct quotations in the book are drawn from historical sources, and Scurati said that most of the novelistic re-imagining of characters’ inner thoughts was based on such sources as well. He spent several years reading about Mussolini in preparation to write “M,” and has described it as a novel in which “nothing is invented.”

Some critics worry that the neutrality of Scurati’s narrative, which has been marketed as the first novel to tell the story of fascism “without any political or ideological filter,” could reintroduce Mussolini not as a historical monster, but as a sympathetic protagonist. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of fascism at New York University, described it as “a symptom” of the rehabilitation of Mussolini.

“The history of fascism is a history of dictatorship, of leader worship,” she said. “This book is part of this phenomenon that’s resurrecting the cult of the leader.”

A self-described anti-fascist, Scurati knew he was walking a fine ideological line with his book, which aims to capture the fascination Mussolini exerted over Italians without falling prey to it. But the way Scurati sees it, his book is an anti-fascist history lesson disguised as a novel.

“If fascism was evil, if it brought evil into Italy and Europe, that should come out naturally in the narration,” he said.

The novel opens on a demoralized postwar Italy in 1919 and chronicles the fascists’ improbable rise to power. It describes the midnight assassinations of socialist leaders and the kidnapping and murder of Giacomo Matteotti, the early fascists’ most vocal opponent, but also intimate episodes like Mussolini’s concern over his sick child. It culminates in Mussolini’s Jan. 3, 1925, speech in parliament, which historians consider the inauguration of his authoritarian regime.

Scurati said he got the idea for this book about five years ago while researching his novel “The Best Time of Our Life,” about the anti-fascist Leone Ginzburg, and watching video of Mussolini giving speeches from balconies. He said Italians had seen these clips “too many times, so many times we don’t really see them anymore.”

“I thought at a certain point, this person is still, in a certain sense, at the heart of the Italian conscience,” recalled Scurati, who teaches literature and creative writing at IULM University in Milan.

In Italy, the birthplace of fascism, Mussolini has never carried the same stigma as Hitler in Germany. The dictator still known as Il Duce enjoyed wide public support during his two-decade rule despite his persecution of anti-fascists and Jews. Some in Italy today are willing to overlook those things for the perceived social stability of the fascist era.

In the collective memory, “Italy always came out as the lesser evil with respect to Nazi Germany,” Ben-Ghiat said. “Because of that, Italians were able to say: ‘Well, we weren’t so bad. We weren’t the architects of the Holocaust.'”

Today, Mussolini is less taboo than ever. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and head of its leading political party, sometimes quotes him. Meanwhile, Italian neo-fascist groups, which experts say are attracting many young people, hold frequent marches in cities throughout Italy.

In February, a dark comedy called “I’m Back” depicted Mussolini returning to life as a TV and YouTube sensation. (It was an adaptation of the German film “Look Who’s Back,” which was based on a satirical novel in which Hitler reappears.) Mussolini’s villa near Rimini in eastern Italy has become a popular wedding venue, while his tomb at Predappio attracts a steady stream of visitors.

Scurati said he had been bombarded with letters from young readers enthused about a book they said had engaged them more than history classes at school. He is planning a trilogy that will end with Mussolini’s death in 1945.

“Young people don’t come from the culture of fascism, or from that of anti-fascism,” said Antonio Tricomi, a comparative literature professor at the University of Urbino who also teaches high school. “They’re a blank slate.” He struggles to talk to his younger students about fascism, he said, because to them the fascist era might as well be “the Middle Ages.”

But Tricomi is not so optimistic about the novel.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if a good portion of the readers of this book bought it not because they share the author’s anti-fascist sentiments,” he said, “but because they like Mussolini.”