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The father of populism

FASCISM / Benito Mussolini is back to show us how to build a fascist regime of terror. Antonio Scurati, the author of M – son of the century, says in this interview with MODERN TIMES that "Benito Mussolini was like an empty shell, a man without opinions, but with an excess of the courage of opinions".


When I heard from one of my informants that Cappelen Damm had secured the rights to the first volume of Antonio Scuratis gigantic novel about Benito Mussolini, M -son of the century, I smiled sheepishly. Someone in the Cappelen farm had obviously let themselves be seduced by the insane sales figures in the author's and fascism's homeland, where the book has steadily sold 600 copies. I decided that here we were dealing with a colossus in the wrong place at the wrong time. A mammoth, no less!

I was wrong again. M – son of the century was printed in a new edition even before the author had time to finish his Oslo visit, and my informant believes he knows that Cappelen Damm has already signed a contract for the next of the four volumes in total. An upcoming TV series (ironically designed by a man standing on Winston Churchill's shoulders, Darkest Hour-director Joe Wright) will inevitably lead to further editions.

Just a novel

The above can be read as both good and bad news. It depends on the book. And on the reader. With the most right-wing prime minister since Mussolini in power in Italy today, perhaps the climate should be conducive to rehabilitating the driver with the help of a novel which, like most novels, can defend its falsehoods and concealments behind the fact that it is precisely a novel .

"This is an attempt to warn against the rise of fascism by telling the story of the fascists rather than the story of the victims of fascism."

Antonio Darkened is 53 years old. His career was to be described as brilliant even before he started the "M" series, with a doctorate in text analysis which he has not least benefited from in his work with Mussolini. He also has education and experience as a TV filmmaker, something that is certainly useful in his new role as the hub of what, after being released in 46 countries, is starting to look like an industry.

"I have taken an active role in the development of the TV series," Scurati tells MODERN TIMES in Oslo. It feels reassuring, as the book's cavalcade of graphic violence and grandiose victory rituals should not fall into the wrong directorial hands – as if The Crown was supposed to meet A Clockwork Orange.

The story of the villains

The work covers the day the Italian Fascist Party was founded on 23 March 1919, and ends in 1945. The first volume that is now available in Norwegian, M – son of the century, extends to January 3, 1925, the start of the Fascist regime in Italy.

"It was really meant to be a trilogy", says Scurati, as he laments with a slightly ironic undertone that as a southern European he is subject to old vices and lights a cigarette: "Now we are up to four volumes, and it is not impossible for there to be five.”

Scurati calls himself an "intellectual anti-fascist". He denotes M as an anti-fascist project that does not contribute to any glorification of the history of fascism in Italy, on the contrary, obviously a question he has gained practice in parrying:

"I have both threats and faeces in my mailbox as confirmation that the book's tendency cannot be misunderstood. The threats also come from people who have not read it, who think it should never have been written. This is also about telling a story neglected in Italy, the story of the perpetrators. 20 years ago this book could not have been published in Italy. Then the narrative was the same as it had been throughout my entire upbringing. The history of fascism in Italy has been the history of the victims of fascism," points out Scurati, who himself has been fed a solid diet of books about the resistance movement – books that no longer serve their purpose.

Shut up betegner M – son of the century as an anti-fascist project.

"This is an attempt to warn against the rise of fascism by telling the story of the fascists rather than the story of the victims of fascism."

A novel, anyway

And "this" is, according to the author, a novel in which every single event, every line is documented. A documentary novel, the author calls it, but clarifies that it is just as much about a novel. So where does the fiction lie?

"In the disposition of the material", Scurtati answers matter-of-factly, as he has obviously done many times before. “I can zoom in and magnify details I want to draw attention to. Put focus, quite simply.”

Not least, Scurati applies this method to the main character's use of language, where he clearly reveals what he calls Mussolini's hollowness by such a simple but at the same time sophisticated move as imitating Il Duce's use of personal pronouns in the speeches he gave, where the leader shows himself as a strategist down to smallest small comma. The image of Mussolini as a simple and brutal clown does not survive the meeting with Antonio Scurati.

Scurati's answer to the question of whether the fiction is similar to the answer I got when I asked the same question Larry Schiller, the media entrepreneur who gathered – and largely owned – the documentation that formed the basis of Norman Mailer's award-winning documentary novel about the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Útah, The Executioner's Song – another novel that claims to be true to such an extent that every word is documented. Schiller revealed in the interview that The Executioner's Songs of 1005 pages contained a single constructed line – but he would not reveal which one it was.

Without invoking it, however, Scurati goes much further than that Mailer in making use of the linguistic tools of the novel. Here an illustrative example taken from one of Mussolini's campaigns in northern Italy while he still has to play ball with democratic institutions:
“[H]e must convince them that to eradicate syphilis from a parliament full of old fools it is necessary to ally with the most jaded whores of the Roman brothel, he must convince them to keep in check the orgasms they get by going after the communists” (p. 400).

Scurati has naturally read his Mailer, and one feature the two great works have in common is a generous use of authentic written sources.

"There is an interaction between the words and the message in these texts on the one hand, and the acts of violence that eventually unfold, which it is essential not to lose sight of," he says.

Scurati is thus concentrated on the words and deeds that underlie the protagonist's notoriety, rather than on his psychological structure. "There is hardly any psyche to study," Scurati asserts dryly. "I see Benito Mussolini as an empty shell, a man without opinions, but with an excess of the courage of opinions."

A History of Violence

“One side of the story that became important for me to bring out is how quickly Mussolini went from being a political failure to being in power. From four thousand voters to government
power of five years. What happens during that relatively compact period of time?" asks Antonio Scurati, and he answers in the same breath:
"Violence. It is violence in all its forms that is Mussolini's main capital. Not just the violence he and his fascists cause, but how he manages the use of violence by his opponents. This is how he can, for example, go from praising the terrorist acts of the socialists while he was still what you might call a left-revolutionary, to later using the same acts as a motive to crush the socialists."

Scurati's image of a man following public opinion rather than shaping it has its counterparts in every corner of today's Europe, well illustrated by the Tory MP Lee Anderson, who in an interview with The Spectator on the occasion of Britain's boat refugee crisis – which has only its counterpart i Italys – stated: “It is our job to represent the opinions of the people of our country. If people are angry about the small boat traffic, it's our job to be angry.”

These are words that Scurati can nod to: "Violence breeds fear, but you don't have to use violence to create that fear. You get a long way by hinting about it, again and again. If people feel that violence is not only imminent but inevitable, they will seek reassurance, and of course the easiest way to achieve this is to submit to or ally with the perpetrator. It is often necessary to throw a number of ethical principles on the scrap heap, and this is where Mussolini can be of help. Being, as I said, just an empty shell, he had plenty of room to taste and consume people's discontent and rage, and he gradually realized where the business idea lay. The socialist Benito Mussolini can safely be described as a man of hope, but the lesson he learned, not least from being excluded from the Socialist Party, was that hope is far more difficult to convert into power than fear is.

An overused myth

In many of the interviews he has given in connection with the book's publication, Scurati has emphasized the topicality of his project. To our question about topicality, he answers: "Developments in Poland and Hungary, and not least in Italy, have definitely had a motivating effect on the work, and I can only state that the book resonates better with its time than I had imagined when I started with it. In a way, it is both pleasant and at the same time terribly sad when I get feedback from politicians who have read the book and feel that it reflects the challenges of politics today to a far too large extent."

"Violence in all its forms is Mussolini's main capital."

He continues in our conversation: “As the traditional narrative slowly faded, began fascismn to show up here and there. That is because the very idea of ​​fascism as the greatest evil of the 20th century was leaving us. The history of the resistance movement was not a lie, but it was just as much a myth, a myth that could no longer serve itself. And that has consequences, because here we are talking about the very foundation of society."

Scurati speaks excellent English, but his need to maintain a high level of precision which, in addition to his education, is also a result of the constant need to specify what he thought characterized the debates in the wake of M, allows him to give himself all the time he needs to answer our question about whether Italy is far from being in the fascism again:
“The signs are there. In my country, this process has now progressed from including the occasional local politician who quoted Mussolini, to now including Prime Minister Meloni and her post-fascist party."

So what does he have to offer against this?
"A new democratic blueprint, a new democratic feeling, a new anti-fascism. An anti-fascism that does not start from the traditional thought that says we are all anti-fascists, but rather asks why we were fascists, and how did it come to be? In my eyes, it is absolutely crucial if we are to have any hope of fighting fascism in the future, that we acknowledge our fascist past, that we stop exclusively telling stories where the fascist is always the other."

The legacy of Mussolini

Scurati says he has always been clear that he wants to use his abilities, and in that respect the Mussolini work does not represent anything new in his writing. The idea came to him right on the eve of work on his previous book, which was typically about an Italian anti-fascist, a slightly gray anti-fascist, even:
"I sat and watched several film recordings of Mussolini in different contexts, and I asked myself whether the story of this man has really been told. Not that there hadn't been books written about Mussolini and the Fascists, but it had never been attempted as a novel. It was not possible from the victims' perspective. It is not possible to have Mussolini as the main character in such a book."

For those who don't have the energy to read thousands of pages, I ask, what realization do you as an easily fearful citizen miss today?
"The more I worked with the material, the more certain I became of my case: Mussolini was the world's first populist leader in the sense of the word we know today, and by that I mean not only in Italian, but in Western history. The legacy of Mussolini is his populism. This is his great creation. Although voldone was his tool, we should not claim that it was his invention, while his will and ability to sense where the people's wind was blowing, and then turn the cloak according to it, is innovative and unfortunately sets the tone."

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