An Italian film-maker’s childhood in the fascist era

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The film-maker and writer Lorenza Mazzetti was born in Italy in 1927 and, as a young girl, lived through the heyday of fascism and the horrors of war. Years later she channelled her trauma into an autobiographical trilogy that began with the novel Il cielo cade (1961; The Sky Falls, 1962), now reissued, three years after her death, in a new translation by Livia Franchini. The plot follows the events of Mazzetti’s early life: having lost their mother, she and her sister were sent by their father to be brought up by a Jewish uncle on his Tuscan estate. When German troops occupied the villa in 1944 they killed the absent owner’s wife and children. The Mazzetti girls survived because of their Italian name; on his return their uncle committed suicide.

Mazzetti’s memories, fictionalized as realist sketches interwoven with fantasy, are narrated by Penny, a girl too young to fully understand what’s going on around her. Her inability to interpret (and so distort) facts makes her a reliable witness – except when she gets carried away by imagination. “I love Benito Mussolini more than my own father because my father is not here”, she writes in an innocently subversive response to classroom propaganda. Meanwhile, in the villa, life is beautiful: the cook makes cream buns, the chauffeur drives the girls around and a fascist official sends his regards.

As everyone in the village knows, the uncle “is foreign and he’s gonna go to Hell because Jews don’t believe in Jesus”, so Penny and her friends embark on a mission to save his soul. Praying for him, the children invent games involving ever more painful forms of penitence: running through thorns, kneeling on sharp pebbles, whipping each other. They embrace Catholicism – miracles and exorcisms, saints and devils – as readily as they do fascism. In Penny’s dream, “The Duce even had a halo around his head, just like a saint”. Fascinated by the black uniform with gold insignia, she marches and sings along with her classmates; yet more evidence of how easy it is for an impressionable mind to fall under the spell of an ideology based on a “cult of heroism … strictly linked with the cult of death” (in the words of Umberto Eco, another Italian writer who grew up under fascism).

Peasant children are an important part of Penny’s world. Franchini is sensitive to the commoners’ dialect (“’cus he ain’t Christian”), which punctuates a narrative dominated by Penny’s bold, impatient, self-centred voice. Having a child relate everything, comic and tragic, in the same blunt manner is a powerful device, though her words are sometimes overshadowed by her actions. Too young to comprehend the phrase “human dignity”, she is nevertheless old enough to attempt to hang herself in an attention-seeking gesture. The book sometimes reads like a precursor to Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline (1990), in which another girl tells of a disturbing childhood, this time at boarding school. Jaeggy’s protagonist is a teenager, as was Mazzetti during the period about which she writes; Penny, by contrast, becomes a headstrong teen for one scene only before turning into a little girl again. She seems to cling to her innocence – it’s her only pass to paradise.

The idyllic setting soon darkens: the uncle frowns, hearing Mussolini on the radio; a fascist march interrupts the girls’ journey to school; a villager is beaten up by the blackshirts. When the Germans arrive Penny continues to be troubled by visions of hell, made worse by the fear that her uncle might be sent to a camp. The only way the children can process war – a danger with “no face” – is to treat it as a game in which reality and fantasy coexist. When tragedy finally comes the fairy-tale existence takes over: it’s as if, now that those she loved and wanted to please are gone, the heroine has no reason to grow up.

Anna Aslanyan is a freelance journalist and translator. Her book Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the balance of history was published in 2021

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