“According to the Peruzzi”: Antonio Pennacchi, The Mussolini Canal

I make no claim to be telling you God’s own truth, the perfect and absolute truth which is known to Him alone. I’m telling you the truth according to the Peruzzi, as my uncles told it to me, as they themselves had lived it. To hear the other side of the story, and about other people’s rights, you’ll have to talk to them. From us, all you’ll hear about are our own.

I’m not really sure I deserve to write a blog post about The Mussolini Canal: I skimmed a fair amount of it, which may or may not be a better thing to do with a book you’re struggling with than simply giving up. I’m a big believer in persisting to the end of a book if you possibly can, not least because more than once in my own reading experience a book has grown on me, or I’ve grown into it, so that by the time I’ve finished it I am engrossed in ways I didn’t initially think possible. Sometimes, too, persistence in itself feels like progress–now at least you know, if only in a preliminary way, what the book is. For all I knew, reading The Mussolini Canal would be like that: just because by page 200 I was restless and irritable with it didn’t mean that by page 500 I wouldn’t be glad to have stuck with it!

But I wasn’t glad. Maybe it’s because I started skimming, which really only “helps” if you’re just trying to keep up with the plot, and The Mussolini Canal (despite being a book in which a great deal happens) is not at all a plot-driven book. Rather, it is a digressive family history with a narrator who sounds like a garrulous old man at a bar: “What–you don’t believe me? You think it sounds like the stuff of fiction, that it’s impossible that someone like Rossoni should have put himself out for the likes of them?” 

It’s a history well worth telling: the narrator’s family, the Peruzzis, are peasants who are early supporters of Mussolini and end up being relocated as part of his massive project to drain and farm the Pontine Marshes. Through the stories of the many (but, for me, often indistinguishable) members of the Peruzzi family, Pennacchi takes us through a big stretch of modern Italian history, from the rise of fascism to the end of World War II. Because the focus is always on the Peruzzis, it’s history up close and personal, with family feuds and village rivalries and petty acts of greed or revenge folding into the bigger national narrative.

It’s great material, and (in theory, at least) a great strategy, too, made especially interesting because it puts us, with the Peruzzis, on the wrong side of history, not heroically resisting tyranny but, without quite meaning to or really understanding, enabling and cheering it on–until the tide turns, and the Allies land, and everything is ruined: “the Mussolini Canal itself beggared description.” The problem, for me, wasn’t with the story but with its telling, which is one almost continuous and, to me anyway, fairly shapeless monologue, going around in circles and off on tangents–our narrator goes on for several pages about “privies,” for instance, and about road construction and paving, and about beekeeping. There are two full pages on how to make cappelletti, starting with killing and plucking the chickens and ending with Christmas dinner.

Some readers would revel in all of this. I’ve read other books that are garrulous and digressive and reveled in them myself: indeed, I rather specialize in them! But The Mussolini Canal just didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if my own poor concentration was cause or effect here, but for me all this miscellaneous stuff overwhelmed not just the Peruzzis but even Mussolini himself: it drowned out the human drama, and it muffled, instead of humanizing, the historical drama.

That said, even as I worked here on writing up my failure to read the novel well, it started sounding more interesting than I thought it was while I was actually reading it. This too is something that often happens! In fact, this blog has a lot of skeptical posts about books or authors that made a bad first impression but which I ended up learning to appreciate much better over time and rereading, and also through writing about them. The Mussolini Canal was highly recommended to me by someone who is a really smart and insightful reader: he clearly found things in it that I didn’t. (Perhaps reading it in the original Italian, as he did, made a difference?) Right now I can’t imagine rereading The Mussolini Canal, but I’ll certainly hang on to my copy, just in case.

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