M. Son Of The Century
Award- winning Antonio Scurati’s book will appear in the US in April 2021
Title: M. Son of The Century
Date: 12th September 2018 (First Italian Edition), to appear 29th April 2021 in US
Number of pages: 848
Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel prize for literature in 1996, wrote:
Where does this written doe run in a written forest?
To drink from a written water
That reflects her muzzle like carbon paper?
Why does she raise her head, does she hear something?
Supported by four little legs borrowed from truth,
from under my fingers she pricks up her ears.
Silence — even this word rustles on the paper
and moves the branches
caused by the word “forest”.
We catch a glimpse of the little legs of the written doe as we read, and we hear that written rustle of branches which emerges from the page. Almost as if they were real, even if of course, they are written branches: a manifestation of the strength and power of words.
And it is precisely from this strength, from this care in choosing the most suitable word to bring the narrative to life, that one of the greatest successes of contemporary Italian literature arises, both for the public and, to a large extent, for the critics (a difficult combination). We are speaking about M. Son of The Century, by Antonio Scurati, whose first Italian edition is dated September 12th, 2018.
A huge success
Especially looking at the rather low numbers of the Italian publishing market, the success of “M. Il Figlio Del Secolo”, the first chapter of a tetralogy dedicated to the figure of Benito Mussolini, the son of the blacksmith who, starting as the director of “Avanti” (press organ of the Italian socialist party), became a reactionary dictator, is impressive.
Not only does the text win in 2019 the “Premio Strega”, the most prestigious Italian literary awards, but it exceeds five hundred thousand copies sold, a particularly significant result for a book of 848 pages.
The novel, already translated into several languages, and much appreciated for example by French and German critics, will also be available in the United States starting from the end of April 2021. But what is the secret that allows Antonio Scurati to see his book, with its historical slant and challenging content, purchased (also, and not only) in supermarkets?
Since its first steps, Scurati has proved to be one of the most important writers on the Italian scene: suffice it to say that in 2003, with his first essay “War. Narration and cultures in Western tradition” was a finalist at the Viareggio prize, while two years later, with “The Survivor”, he won the Campiello prize.
Scurati combines to his activity of novelist also the journalistic engagement, in particular collaborating with the Corriere Della Sera newspaper and with the Internazionale magazine. Moreover, he teaches creative writing, orality and rhetoric at IULM University in Milan.
In 2010, he also confronted himself with the television, collaborating, through the creation of the column Letters from North to the information and satire program Speak with me, aired on Rai 3. Perhaps, it is also in this versatility of the author that we should look for the reasons why M. Son of The Century has become a real literary case.
Between novel and history
Scurati stands tall in a sort of middle ground between novel and history, in balance between individual narration and collective fresco, with a political-social breath, and a narrative atmosphere. The most significant episodes happening during Mussolini’s rise to power appear to us through the eyes and feelings of the protagonists. These moments, as if they were captured the pages of a precious diary, are interspersed with solid documentation.
Excerpts from newspapers of the time, public statements and private communications, vividly represent the distance between the public image and concerns, uncertainties, private fears. The private fears of what is becoming, an authoritarian regime, which makes the univocity of views and intentions a flag. And a weapon.
And perhaps it is precisely this frequent alternation of moments of great emotional participation and rational, curious, often astonished observation that constitutes a significant part of the work’s charm. The book speaks, so to say, as much to the head as to the heart.
Not only the public, but also the critics seem to be won over by this choice, both in Italy and abroad, offering enthusiastic reviews of the work. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule: Ernesto Galli Della Loggia, historian and columnist for the Corriere della sera (the main Italian newspaper), shortly after the book’s release, is rather critical, pointing out some flaws in the historical reconstruction.
More specifically, in the editorial dated 13th October 2018, a month after the publication of the book, Galli Della Loggia points out eight inaccuracies, starting from the definition the great proletarian coined by Pascoli and erroneously attributed by Scurati to Carducci, and moving to the date of the battle of Caporetto.
Yet, more than with the author, to whom he does not spare a few jabs, Della Loggia addresses his objections to the editors of the book and to the critics, almost unanimous in their praise and, evidently, not very attentive to the details or not very informed on the matter under discussion.
The observations, as Scurati himself acknowledges in his answer to Della Loggia, published a few days later (on October 17, 2018) also in the Corriere della Sera, are all correct. It is, of course, the author observes, a handful of elements, within a text of more than 800 pages. But this is not the central reply by Scurati and, perhaps, also of those who greatly enjoyed the book.
“The crux of the matter is all here, I think: M, though grounded in a vast documentary base, is a novel, not a historical essay…M. is a novel, plays a different linguistic game, succeeds or fails by aiming at a different goal, that of integrating, of completing, perhaps, the analytical work of historical research with the synthetic force of narrative.”
To read Scurati’s book as a historical essay, in other words, is valuable criticism in pointed terms, but from a point of view which may be misleading. The narration does not develop so much in depth as in breadth; it aims to awaken, in the readers’ consciousness, what, perhaps, would risk being relegated to a corner of memory, or the subject of a debate among intellectuals.
From this point of view, it is not surprising that M. Son of The Century has ended up expressing its contents also in different forms, overflowing, in some sort of spin-offs, onto other media, such as radio and television.
Beyond literature and towards other media
The actor Marco Paolini, for example (best known in Italy for his monologue Vajont, which retraces the stages that led to the 1963 disaster) has dedicated himself in 2018, in collaboration with the major publishing group Repubblica-L’Espresso to the creation of a podcast in ten episodes: each episode corresponds to the reading of one of the chapters of the book.
Television is also very interested in the novel: in particular Andrea Purgatori, investigative journalist graduated at the Columbia School of Journalism and host of Atlantide, on the La7 channel, with an average of about six hundred thousand viewers in prime time, proposes a special episode dedicated to Scurati’s book, which also includes an interview with the author.
It seems, in essence, that the narration arouses interest in a cross-media way, so to speak, bringing the written word to color itself with ever new nuances, hence stimulating also of the creativity, passion and interest of other figures on the cultural scene, who seek and find a way to express their talent also reinterpreting the story of M. Son Of The Century. And somehow the parable of the book, so linked to the power of words, leads us once again to reflect on the content, on the contents, of the novel itself.
The age of extremes
In 2012, the Scottish journalist Andrew Marr set himself the ambitious goal of telling the History of the World in eight episodes, in an acclaimed documentary for the BBC. Having reached the last episode, dedicated in particular to the twentieth century, he chose the title The age of extremes. It is not easy, in fact, to frame a common trait for the century and so Marr appeals to the famous definition by Eric Hobsbawm, the English historian, who also coined the expression the short century.
Reading Scurati, we become more and more aware of how the birth of fascism, which had a tragic and ominous impact, also corresponds to a transformation, a rapid and extreme change of words and meanings, which will then be translated, unfortunately, into actions, into history, into tragedy.
The change, however, begins with words: it is not by chance that Mussolini was born a journalist, and laid the foundations of his authoritarian model with his editorials in Il popolo d’Italia. Once in power, he established the Ministry of Popular Culture: in fact, a ministry of propaganda.
He invested heavily in Cinecittà (cinema) and the Luce Institute (information), realizing that a visual communication could have an even more pervasive impact. Unfortunately, the lesson would be learned and, if possible, further exacerbated by the Nazis and, in particular, by Goebbels.
Perhaps it is precisely the care with which this slide from democracy to authoritarianism is rendered on a slope that embraces the latest technological innovations, that keeps the reader, or the viewer, glued to the story. A story that not only has the function of historical memory, but also constitutes a valuable lesson for those who, today and tomorrow, do not tire of looking beyond the appearance, in the continuous, and very current, search of a critical and free modernity.