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Pennacchi the Traitor

by Massimo Mongai

How much does loyalty matter in politics? And how much does it matter in literature in general and in science fiction in particular? How much has Antonio Pennacchi been faithful to his own political ideas? Faithful to himself, quite a lot indeed; coherent, slightly less so: Pennacchi was openly fascist in his youth, only joining the Italian Communist Party in his later years. He was an industrial worker for a long time – thirty years – and then became a writer, and a very successful one at that. All of this he recounted in Il fascicomunista (2003), his first novel, which evolved into a movie (Mio fratello è figlio unico, the 2007 hit) that Pennacchi himself did not quite appreciate, but the audience very much did.[1] Then he won the Premio Strega with his Canale Mussolini (2010), a story of the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes, South of Rome, and of the epic migration of people from Veneto and Friuli to the Pontine plain.

It’s not good practice to start an article with so many questions, but with Pennacchi’s Storia di Karel (2013) we cannot leave such questions out. Let’s face the thorniest one: how much does politics matter in literature? A lot, particularly in Italy and namely with science-fiction, given that for years in Italy science-fiction has been attributed to the Left and fantasy to the Right.[2] This is a resounding nonsense, pure rubbish and you’re allowed to substitute this with any more expressive words you can think of.

In America, where modern science-fiction was born, there are leftist sci-fi writers and rightist or a-political ones – and they would all agree that assigning a political meaning to science-fiction per se is simply stupid. However, when talking about Pennacchi, we cannot just leave politics out, given that this author has been thoroughly involved in politics, both on the Left and on the Right. And what a Left and what a Right! MSI – the all-gathering party of Italian neo-fascists – as a youngster, then Servire il popolo – extreme 1960s-1970s ‘extra-parlimentary’ Left – and then a member of PCI (the Italian Communist Party), PSI (the Italian Socialist Party), CGIL (the Italian Leftist Trade Union) and more. And all in good faith, it seems.

Pennacchi is a jolly and cocky traitor. He’s a man who can betray and get away with it. Pennacchi has never betrayed for interest, but out of conviction, and perhaps he has never betrayed, he has changed his mind, more than once and always in good faith. Which is everybody’s right.

But Pennacchi has betrayed mainstream literature as well. He did so by writing several mainstream literature books, or ‘real literature’, in the Italian sense, as opposed to para-literature or sub-literature – and by securing an enormous success with them, up to the achievement of the Premio Strega and other awards. And by writing a science-fiction novel, he has betrayed again. And you’ll see he won’t be forgiven for this betrayal as easily as he was for his political ones. Critics are not tearing his book to pieces – it’s worse: they are ignoring it.[3]

Is Storia di Karel science-fiction? Yes. But it drifts too much towards metaphor. The planet is called Colonia just like Latina was a colony – Latina, Pennacchi’s town built in the 1930s, is the planet.

Another outstanding feature of the novel is the high number of characters, excessive in my opinion: the author has demanded an appendix with a list of all main characters – it covers three pages! Nevertheless, the complexity of the plot line can be centred around few key-concepts: from poverty to prosperity, from peasants to town-dwellers, from having no oil to having far too much. Is this a good novel? Yes. But is it a good sci-fi novel?

Don’t think it’s a word game. A novel can be good or perfectly science-fictional, and still not a good science-fiction book. Let’s just say that Storia di Karel is a good novel… Essentially, although I appreciated Pennacchi’s novel for its style and the compliance to sci-fi stylistic features, I was slightly disappointed by the mainly metaphorical meaning the genre’s repertoire is bent to.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve felt the same disappointment before with other great writers and works normally ascribed to science-fiction as a genre, like Walter Trevis’s The Man who Fell to Earth or even The Martial Chronicles by Ray Bradubury, who refused the association of his book with science-fiction as a genre.

I had a feeling that Pennacchi desired to privilege his own memory and once more described his own territory, Latina and its outskirts. If this writer has a distinctive feature, there it is: recalling. In this novel, he just moved it all to the boundaries of the galaxy. After all, the author himself has several times publicly declared that names of places and characters are clear references to Latina, for those familiar to the town.[4]

Is this move legitimate? Of course it is. However, the chances are that you’re going to be less interesting or not interesting at all. As for the critical dimension of the present – the modern world – this is thoroughly fulfilled. The characters’ happenings are too obviously a description of our time’s own faults and misdeeds.

I personally reckon that a good book is a book that tells a story – where the author constructs a good plot line and puts up credible characters and facts, building up an illusion of plausibility that allows the reader to suspend his disbelief during the reading. Any author willing to develop his narrative around a metaphor is free to do so, but in order to grip my attention the metaphorical aspect cannot be constructed to the detriment of story-telling and of a well turned out fictional world – or I will read something else. There are too many good books which I will never happen to read, that I cannot lose time with metaphors – I want stories, not metaphors. And this is particularly true for genre fiction and for science-fiction above all.

Naming Colonia a town on a remote planet and making it the fictional image of a real planned town such as Latina, inhabited by Northerner settlers, is by all means legitimate, but sounds like a metaphor and to me this is ‘sapiens haeresim’ – it looks like a heresy.

And alas, metaphor is everywhere in modern science-fiction! In fact, metaphors are abundantly present in mainstream literature, ‘high’ literature, literature reviewed by academic critics. Apparently, there is a general desire to tell stories through metaphors, which perhaps means that writers cannot narrate reality for what it is, in the way they see it. And no doubt science-fiction lends itself to metaphor. In England, China Mieville’s books are there to show this. Need I say that I find them a bit boring?

Science-fiction is bold and therefore cannot be boring. If, even in Italy, becoming boring is the price to pay for securing mainstream critics’ endorsement, it is perhaps better to remain confined in the genre sub-literature niche. It is more fun that way.

But each to his own. Pennacchi has been faithful to himself. No writer can be asked more.

[1] The website ‘My Movies’ specifies that Mio fratello è figlio unico cashed in 6,357,000 € in Italy between April 2007 and February 2008 (http://www.mymovies.it/film/2007/miofratelloefigliounico/) coming first in line during the first weekend after it was released; see ‘Cinema 2007, incassi da record. Solo una volta meglio in 20 anni’, Corriere della Sera, 9 January 2008, p. 53 (http://archiviostorico.corriere.it/2008/gennaio/09/Cinema_2007_incassi_record_Solo_co_9_080109087.shtml).
[2] On the relationship between science-fiction and politics see for instance the recent issue ‘Fantascienza e politica’, Delos Science Fiction 71 (2011), <http://www.fantascienza.com/magazine/speciali./fantascienzaepolitica/); see also Massimo Mongai, ‘L’iniziativa su “Fantascienza e politica” di Delos’, Il Foglio di Fantafolio 15 (2002), <http://www.nigralatebra.it/archivio/file15/delos.htm>.
[3] Exceptions were Lorenzo Mondo on Tuttolibri the insert of La Stampa (‘Pennacchi prova la fantascienza’, Tuttolibri, 29 November 2013, <http://www.lastampa.it/2013/11/29/cultura/tuttolibri/pennacchi-prova-la-fantascienza-5pzNzhFiziX5uJd1JI7spM/pagina.html>) and Stefania Vitulli on Il Giornale (‘La decrescita? Una bufala galattica’, Il Giornale , 17 November 2013, <http://www.ilgiornale.it/news/cultura/decrescita-bufala-galattica-commento-2-968057.html>). In 1978 Carlo Pagetti wrote on the outstanding exclusion of science-fiction from the canon of Italian literature and in general on the misfortune of science-fiction among Italian academic criticism (C. Pagetti, ‘Twenty-Five Years of Science Fiction Criticism in Italy (1953-1978)’, Science Fiction Studies 3 (1979), pp. 320-326); a more recent overall critical examination of the question is still missing.
[4] See for instance Rossella Battisti, ‘Un marziano a Latina. Antonio Pennacchi parla del suo romanzo’, L’Unità, 2 February 2014, p. 17 (http://cerca.unita.it/ARCHIVE/xml/2610000/2609918.xml?key=Rossella+Battisti&first=1&orderby=1&f=fir).
 Books of Antonio Pennacchi quoted in the article

Il fascicomunista. Vita scriteriata di Accio Benassi (Milan: Mondadori, 2003) (film adaptation: Mio fratello è figlio unico, dir. Daniele Luchetti, Italy, 2007)

Canale Mussolini (Milan: Mondadori, 2010).

Storia di Karel (Milan: Bompiani, 2013).

Massimo Mongai is a journalist and a writer. In 1997 he won the Premio Urania with Memorie di un cuoco d’astronave (Milan: Mondadori, 1997). He worked as a librarian at the University of Rome until 1981 and as copywriter, scriptwriter, author and speaker in radio programmes for the Italian channel ‘Radio RAI 2’ from 1999 to 2003. He was co-founder and member of the scientific committee of Il Falcone Maltese, the first Italian magazine entirely dedicated to crime fiction (2005-2007), he has taught at the School of Collective Writing ‘Omero’ in Rome, and he has worked in several occasions with the Università di Roma La Sapienza, where he has taught at the ‘Master di Editoria, Giornalismo e Mediazione Culturale’ held by Professor Elisabetta Mondello (2011-2012).

He has published the following non-fiction books: Serendipità, istruzioni per l’uso (Rome: Robin Edizioni, 2007); Psicoanalisi e fumetti (Rome: Psicoanalisi contro Edizioni, 1995 and subsequently San Benedetto del Tronto: Inchiostro Edizioni, 2010); Come si scrive un romanzo di genere (Rome: Scuola Omero Edizioni, 2007).

Among his many fiction books are the following: Memorie di un cuoco d’astronave (Milan: Mondadori 1997 and Milan: Mursia, 2000); Il gioco degli Immortali (Milan: Mondadori, 1999); Alexia aka buke ed altre cantastorie (Cassino: Cagliostro, 2009); the collection Psicopatologia sessuale di una prostituta cyborg (Arese: Edizioni la Vigna, 2013).

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This entry was posted on June 3, 2014 by in Critic's corner.
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