Reviewed by Ross King
Sunday, November 26, 2006
THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD
By Leslie Epstein
Handsel. 461 pp. $24.95
Benito Mussolini has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of dictators. Rudolph Herzog's recent study of humor under the Nazis, Heil Hitler, the Pig is Dead!, recounts a German joke told in the early days of World War II. Word reaches the German army HQ that Mussolini has entered the war. "We'll have to put up ten divisions to counter him," says one Nazi general. "No, he's on our side," says another. "Oh, in that case," replies the first, "we'll need twenty divisions."
Mussolini's vanity, buffoonery and general incompetence take starring roles in Leslie Epstein's new novel, The Eighth Wonder of the World, a story of Italian fascism and bombastic architectural ambition. The mix is tailor-made for Epstein's talents. Over the course of nine previous books, he has fixed his trenchant gaze on such dark passages of 20th-century history as the Holocaust (his classic King of the Jews) and the House Un-American Activities Committee (his most recent outing, San Remo Drive). Here, as in the earlier novels, the tragic and the inane are slyly spliced together, with inflated delusions punctured by sharp barbs of satire.
At the center of the novel is Amos Prince, a goateed American architect with a penchant for linen suits and mocking wordplay (the strutting Mussolini gets turned into "Mushy-linguini," "Muscle-teeny" and "Mister-loony.") Prince had made his reputation with a series of flashy California mansions before fleeing to Italy in 1930 following a suspicious fire that destroyed his Arizona home and killed his wife and twin sons. Established with the remnants of his family in the Umbrian town of Gubbio, he wins an international competition to design a monument to commemorate Mussolini's 1936 victory over Ethiopia: a mile-high tower called La Vittoria. This 500-story skyscraper is intended to house 150,000 fascist bureaucrats and, in the fullness of time, to serve as Mussolini's mausoleum. The fact that La Vittoria is to be anchored at its foundations by an asteroid and constructed by helium-filled blimps hoisting prefab units into position should alert us that Epstein is less interested in structural mechanics than in the comic possibilities of human folly.
Prince is assisted in his duties by Maximilian Shabilian, a hero-worshipping Jewish-American student who has come to Italy to seek out the master. But all does not go smoothly with the La Vittoria project. When the superstitious dictator becomes convinced that his project is cursed, work is abandoned as the skyscraper reaches the 93rd floor -- still a few feet shorter than the Empire State Building.
By the time World War II starts, Prince has forsaken architecture for more blatant propagandizing, giving full vent to his anti-Semitism in a series of radio broadcasts, à la Ezra Pound, on behalf of Mussolini. Meanwhile, Rome's Jews are being rounded up. Maximilian, who himself falls afoul of the Ministry of Demography and Race, soon hits on a plan to save them. They will be used as forced labor to finish the skyscraper, in the same way that, two millennia earlier, Jewish slaves had been used to build Roman monuments such as the Colosseum. As thousands of Jews are shipped into Rome to start work, their safe haven threatens to vanish with the fall of Mussolini and the arrival in Rome of the Gestapo.
Epstein exploits a rich vein of absurdity running through the tragedies of history. We are treated to scenes of Nazi dignitaries dancing and bed-hopping on the Hindenburg, and the novel gives a rollicking send-up of Mussolini's button-popping machismo and overblown oratory. As in several of Epstein's previous novels, real-life figures are memorably evoked. Besides Mussolini, there are cameos for Pope Pius XII (whom Epstein shows watching the roundup of the Jews from a Vatican window) and, as the novel moves into the present tense, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. If these characters are portrayed with scant mercy, then Epstein is equally harsh on his own creations. None of his characters evokes our sympathy. Even Maximilian cruelly neglects his feisty wife and becomes a comically lecherous old man.
For all the comedy and farce, Epstein has, as always, a serious purpose. Delving into the myths that nurtured Mussolini's brand of fascism, he offers a view of history as a great wheel, "endlessly repeating itself, even as it pulverizes those caught beneath it." Thus the fate of the Jews conquered by the Emperor Titus and marched through the streets of Rome is suffered by the Ethiopians captured by Mussolini in 1936 and then by the Italian Jews forced onto trains for Germany in 1943. James Joyce wrote that history is a nightmare from which we struggle to awake. For Epstein, that nightmare is a recurring one. The only consolation is that, as the grisly account of Mussolini's death illustrates, tyrants too get crushed by the wheel. And then they become the butt of our jokes. ·
Ross King is the author, most recently, of "The Judgment of Paris."