When can we bring the guillotine back?

Sleepwalkers and other counter-revolutionaries

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Made in Italy: two historical novels that also deal with contemporary issues

From Jens Renner

The revolution is great, the counterrevolution is terrible. Both provide material for novels. This applies to the French Revolution of 1789ff. as well as for the "passive revolution" (Antonio Gramsci), which brought fascism to power in Italy in 1922. Both events are re-processed in two bulky novels by Italian authors - an exciting and, at least in part, politically instructive reading.

To oppose the historiography of the victors with the alternative version of the vanquished has always been the endeavor of the left-wing Italian collective Wu Ming. (ak 603, 620 and 632) Another historical novel by the four authors is now available in German translation: »The Army of the Sleepwalkers«.

The plot begins with the execution of Louis XVI. on January 21, 1793 in Paris and ends at the same place, exactly two years later to the day. First of all, it is the counter-revolutionaries who fail: they cannot prevent Ludwig's death under the guillotine. But they are secretly planning a counter-attack. It should be more than restoration: "The counterrevolution is itself a revolution, or it is nothing," is the motto of its strategist, the Chevalier d'Yvers. In order to make his preparations for the day of reckoning, he retires under a false name to the "madhouse" of Bicêtre, on the outskirts of Paris.

Wu Ming: "The Army of Sleepwalkers"

Because meanwhile the revolution continues. Your heroes are simple people: »The people. Absurd abstraction and yet real power, elemental force. «His representatives include the seamstress Marie Nozière, a single mother from the poor district of Saint Antoine, and the unemployed Italian actor Leonida Modonnesi alias Leo Modonnét. In the costume of Scaramouche, originally a character from the Commedia dell’Arte, he becomes a proletarian superhero who punishes the bad guys, especially the "monopolists" who hoard goods in order to drive up prices. Only after massive pressure, especially from women, does the convention decide on maximum prices for food. But hunger remains, the class struggle intensifies, the revolutionary Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre, the "incorruptible," and his companions die under the guillotine. The militant women are also persecuted, their clubs dissolved by a unanimous decision of the convention.

Meanwhile, Yvers is working towards the "big day". He wants to free the ten-year-old heir to the throne from prison and take power. The means for this is the "army of sleepwalkers" - a troop of human fighting machines which, "somnambulized" by a kind of hypnosis, do what Yvers demands of them without will and insensitivity to pain.

In the appendix to the novel, we learn that there was indeed a violent counterrevolutionary gang in Paris in 1794 - "strange dudes who don't fall over when you hit them ... men with extinguished eyes". However, there is no »factual evidence of the popular treasure trove of legends« from which they - like their opponent Scaramouche - come from.

The progressive side in the form of Doctor Orphée d’Amblanc also tries to manipulate people through external control ("animal magnetism") - for a good cause, of course. The radicals demand that not a single enemy be allowed to escape. The violence of the counterrevolutionary gangs, on the other hand, is similar to that of Mussolini's fascist raiding parties: "Hunting people, a hundred against one, beating up women and old people, killing beggars, setting fires in the last Jacobin clubs still open."

The progress of the events is told in a relatively neutral way, then commented on by voices from the "people" and sometimes controversially discussed. The revolution is collective madness and street theater at the same time, a courageous avenger like Scaramouche becomes a pop star. But women's activism also frightens many progressives. In the end, like all protagonists of the revolution, they only fight for survival.

In this novel, too, Wu Ming researched the real background of the exciting story. Short digressions with excerpts from parliamentary minutes, appeals or newspaper articles convey the significance of the revolution in world history. When the Italian original appeared in 2014, the left-wing daily Il Manifesto Wu Mings praised "stories of the vanquished who, instead of discouraging them, stir up hope and restore trust." This is true, and perhaps in particular, of "The Army of the Sleepwalkers".

Antonio Scurati: »M. The son of the century "

The New York Times calls the book a “lesson in anti-fascism”, and Roberto Saviano (“Gomorra”; “Paranza”) also considers it a masterpiece: Antonio Scurati's novel “M. The son of the century «. On the more than 800 pages about the Duce of Fascism, which only make up the first part of a trilogy, Scurati does a lot to captivate his readers. He describes Mussolini's rise to power as an adventure story.

He let it begin on March 23, 1919 in Milan with the founding of the fascist combat leagues. It ends - for the time being, in this first part - on January 3, 1925: The fascist government in office since the end of October 1922 has consolidated its power, the Duce is satisfied with himself: “Nobody wanted to put the cross of power on their shoulders. That's how I take it. "

The fictional self-reflection of the protagonist is disturbing, not only at this point. Scurati was aware of the danger of involuntarily contributing to the heroization of Mussolini, as he explained in an interview. (Il Manifesto, April 23, 2019) He dared to take the form of the novel in order to contribute to a renewal of anti-fascism. While most of the dialogues are convincing, the narrative tone is sometimes strained: "Like a predator that buries its snout in the bowels of its prey," Mussolini appears - while he is just sipping his milk soup.

Scurati has enriched his story with countless contemporary texts, from which he documents excerpts - for example the opinion of the US Ambassador Richard Washburn on the fascist march on Rome in October 1922: “We are experiencing a beautiful revolution of young people here. No danger, it's colorful and full of enthusiasm: We're having a lot of fun. "

Scurati attributes the voluntary submission of the liberal democrats to their fear of right-wing violence. This fear was the "only sharp weapon" of the militarily hopelessly inferior fascist troops. As an explanation for the frictionlessness of the alleged "seizure of power" this is rather poor; the class interests of the traditional elites who backed Mussolini hardly play a role for Scurati. “No need to ask why. There are many reasons and none, "he writes instead, and continues nebulously:" The Sphinx of history sits mute and unmoved on what was and what will be. "

A novel is a novel. Scuratis Opus can be read without getting bored. His contribution to the »renewal of anti-fascism«, however, remains manageable.

Wu Ming: The Sleepwalker Army. Translated from the Italian by Klaus-Peter Arnold. Association A, Berlin, Hamburg 2020. 671 pages, 28 EUR.

Antonio Scurati: M. The Son of the Century. Translated from the Italian by Verena von Koskull. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2020. 830 pages, 32 EUR.