Why is The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi such a great book and should be on everyone’s must read list?
First, it is a riveting story telling 100 years of Italian history by following the lives of a family of northern peasants transplanted to the recently drained Pontine marshes to fulfil a grandiose scheme by Mussolini.
Secondly, the characters and the family dynamic are engrossing. We soon care about them and the minutiae of their lives. Mussolini is a major character in the novel and for the most part is sympathetically treated although his flaws and the disastrous effect he had on Italy is there for all to see. Contemporary events flash through the book and the hardship and misery of earlier periods are also seen against the background of modern prosperity. The heroes and heroines of this novel come from the extended Peruzzi family.
Thirdly and above all, the reader feels he is eavesdropping a private Italian conversation and in doing so learning what it is to be an Italian and getting to the heart of this nation. The narrative voice isn’t lost in the English translation, Judith Landry’s translation is pitch perfect, so much so it reads as if the book was written in English.
The great Italian novels for me are I Malavoglia(The House by the Medlar Tree) by Verga, The Leopard by Lampedusa and The Mussolini Canal by Pennacchi. These are the three narratives which use the family to tell Italy’s story and document the state of the nation during periods of great social change. They are novels which engage both the mind and the heart and in doing so stay forever in the reader’s mind.
The Mussolini Canal sold more than 400,000 copies in Italy and has been widely translated. In the UK it has received universal praise and I will end with Margaret Drabble’s appraisal in the Times Literary Supplement.
‘The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi is an epic account of the rise of Fascism. It’s the story of the (fictitious) Peruzzi clan of sharecroppers, moved from their native north to the malaria-ridden Pontine Marshes for the building of the canal and the New Town of Littoria. It mingles family legend and up-to-date political commentary with personal appearances from Edmondo Rossoni and Mussolini, and takes us through Italy’s Imperium and the campaign in Ethiopia to the Anzio landings. The complex chronology and the demotic and combative narrative voice (of a young Peruzzi descendant) are imaginatively handled by the translator, Judith Landry, and the novel presents us with a whole new landscape, complete with the kiwi fruits and eucalyptus that thrived in the reclaimed land. Better than any guidebook, it explains how and at what cost Mussolini succeeded where Romans, popes and emperors failed. A challenging but very illuminating read.
Margaret Drabble in Books of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement