Rosetta Giuliani Caponetto. Fascist Hybridities: Representations of Racial Mixing and Diaspora Cultures under Mussolini. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 199 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-48184-9.
Reviewed by Beatrice Sica (University College London)
Published on H-Nationalism (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Cristian Cercel (Centre for Advanced Study)
As the subtitle indicates, Fascist Hybridities deals with the “representations of racial mixing and diaspora cultures under Mussolini.” In particular, as Rosetta Giuliani Caponetto explains in the introduction, “Fascist Hybridities examines how Italian literature and cinema of the 1930s are traversed by the hybrid figures of meticci and Levantines” (p. 4). Drawing on a number of studies on Italian colonialism, Fascist racism, the representation of black and meticci people in Mussolini’s Italy, and the presence of Italian Levantines in Egyptian Alexandria, and using in particular Homi Bhabha’s notion of mimicry, Caponetto sets out to analyze the relationship between “narrative strategies” of the works she considers “and the political climate of the time” (p. 4). Her aim is to “reveal the inconsistencies within Fascist ideals of racial and cultural purity” by bringing “to light how literary and cinematic devices used to stigmatize colonial meticci and Levantines often undermine themselves” and to show “how certain images pressed into ideological service escaped their initial purposes, releasing unintended meanings” (p. 5). Chapter 1 provides an overview of Italy’s colonial history and legislation on interracial unions and biracial offsprings and focuses on three (children’s) colonial novels, Rosolino Gabrielli’s Il piccolo Brassa (1928) and Arnaldo Cipolla’s Balilla regale (1935) and Melograno d’oro. Regina d’Etiopia (1936). Chapter 2 addresses the figure of the Levantine and the “dissident literature of Fausta Cialente and Enrico Pea” (p. 18). Chapter 3 deals with propaganda cinema and examines Augusto Genina’s Lo squadrone bianco (1936) and Guido Brignone’s Sotto la croce del sud (1938). Chapter 4 goes beyond Fascism, looking at Levantines and biracial offspring in postwar Italy.
The work is well grounded on historical studies on Fascist colonialism and racism, but for a book devoted to narrative strategies in the literature and cinema of the period, the number of primary sources that have been used seems too limited. Moreover, the kind of works analyzed do not seem always in line with the conclusions drawn, or these are drawn too hastily based on those works. For example, in order to illustrate the colonial novel, Caponetto uses three novels for children and young readers, but does not clarify her use of this particular subcategory. Instead, she moves from her analysis of the three examples within this subcategory to making points on the colonial genre as a whole and on literature in general under Fascism (see pp. 42-43; “The children’s colonial novel, like its adult counterpart,” p. 44; pp. 49-50; “A reading of colonial novels like Il piccolo Brassa and Melograno d’oro clearly shows how Fascist propaganda literature …,” p. 53; “a close reading of these novels reveals that the literature affiliated with the Fascist regime failed to condemn misgeneation,” p. 53). Likewise, discussing Pea’s and Cialente’s works that depict the lives of Italian characters in the cosmopolitan Egyptian Alexandria only to argue that “the phenomenon of Italians ‘going native’ undermined the unspoken goals of the demographic colonization in Ethiopia” (p. 65) seems out of focus. The author herself recognizes that “Alexandria was not an Italian colony but an Italian emigrant destination during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (p. 66), so why choose these works? Studies of Italian literature under Fascism have clarified how varied the picture of Italian literature was under Mussolini’s rule, so it is not a big surprise to see that alongside the Fascist (children’s) colonial literature there was also space for Pea’s and Cialente’s narratives: the two were just two different literary products (not to say that in the eyes of the regime’s censors, depicting the unhappy existence of Italians living outside Italy and its colonies might have appeared beneficial to the Fascist cause).
One way for the author to make her points stronger would have been to look at how the works she analyzes were received and at the circulation and reviews that they had. But Caponetto does not delve into this kind of evidence, which somehow undermines her argument (“it is unclear if the authors truly succeed in encouraging their Italian characters and readers to feel superior to the black protagonist and preventing them from realizing that they do not correspond to the ideal image constructed by the plot,” p. 43). Only for Brignone’s La croce del sud Caponetto reports that “the film received significant criticism in Fascist circles for its ambiguous portrayal of the character of Paolo” (p. 121), but here she relies on secondary sources and does not give examples of this heated debate, which would have provided a good example of anxieties and negotiations in Fascist Italy on these issues.
Overall, the reader of this study is presented with a flattened idea of literature and cinema. While it is true that propaganda works generally do not offer many nuances to their readers/viewers and divide the world into black and white, it is also true that narrative works come with their own devices and strategies to capture the readers’ attention, and these become apparent especially in a popular/children/propaganda context. Thus, although the regime preached that Fascist men should control their erotic desires, we know that, as Caponetto herself recognizes, there is always “the pleasure derived from transgression” (p. 52), so how can we be so sure that, for example, “Cipolla’s narrative strategy unintentionally transforms the reader into a voyeur” (p. 52)? It seems likely that Cipolla did want the desire to see the Ethiopian girl Melograno to remain central to the text. In sum, the book addresses an important issue--the visibility and representation of meticci and Levantine characters in narrative works produced under Fascism--but would have benefited from a wider range of sources and a more nuanced picture of the actual literary and cinematic production in Italy in the interwar years.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-nationalism.
Beatrice Sica. Review of Caponetto, Rosetta Giuliani, Fascist Hybridities: Representations of Racial Mixing and Diaspora Cultures under Mussolini.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
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