Playing Mussolini, partly, and smartly, for laughs
The Eighth Wonder of the World
Leslie Epstein is best known as the author of King of the Jews (1970), a pioneering work of Holocaust fiction that raised questions, as well as eyebrows, by portraying Chaim Rumkowski, the flamboyant leader of the doomed Lodz ghetto, with broad strokes and equally broad humor.
For Epstein, sentimentality is the sworn enemy of genuine Holocaust fiction, and he took measures (some argued, excessive ones) to ensure that his Jewish characters were fully human and not reducible to the stereotypes of victimhood. This standard applied to Rumkowski as well, and those who prefer that there be no fictional treatments of the Holocaust or if there must be, that they be properly pietistic were outraged. However, as the decades wore on, King of the Jews came to be regarded as a classic.
In The Eighth Wonder of the World, Epstein focuses on Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who needs a proper monument to celebrate his 1936 victory over Ethiopia. Often portrayed as a boorish thug, with beefy shoulders and bald head, Mussolini was, in fact, smarter and more cunning than non-Italians imagined. He single-handedly brought a backward Italy, populated largely by peasants, into the modern world, not only because he made Italian trains run on time but also because he organized the country in ways not known since the days of ancient Rome.
Indeed, in The Eighth Wonder, that is why Mussolini so wants a glorious, oversized monument not only to commemorate his country but himself as well and, moreover, to do it in a manner that would rival, even surpass, the Arch of Titus. But because of Italy’s soil, it is next to impossible to anchor tall buildings in bedrock (which is why the Romans left their mark not in the form of skyscrapers, but a pioneering network of aqueducts and roads).
Enter Amos Prince, an American architect who looks like he stepped out of the pages of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He is an eccentric, no-nonsense genius who brings American know-how (and many of Buckminster Fuller’s more dubious ideas) to the project at hand. Prince is largely identified by a goatee, an affection for white linen suits, and, finally, for outlandish word play. This last trait begins as wit and then becomes, first, predictable, and then, boring. Mussolini is thus transmogrified into “Mushy-Linguini,” “Muscle-teeny,” “Mister-loony,” and dozens more. But no amount of name-calling can disguise the fact that Mussolini’s brand of fascism is dangerous, especially for the Jews.
At this point, enter yet another player from the United States: Maximilian Shabilian. If Prince came to Italy to escape a shady past (his wife and twin sons died in a suspicious fire), the Jewish Shabilian has followed in the hope that he might become Prince’s protege. What he encounters, instead, are a series of disappointments, some personal and some that speak to the bloodthirstiness of history.
When Prince wins an international design contest for the proposed Mussolini monument, the game, as they say, is afoot. Prince’s plan is for a mile-high, 500-story office building that would house 150,000 upper-level fascist bureaucrats. What we have is nothing less than the eighth wonder of the world, something that would rival the pyramids and that, in due time, would serve as a proper mausoleum for Il Duce.
Dubbed La Vittoria, Prince’s building requires that prefabricated units be raised to their proper level by a series of helium balloons. Epstein has lots of fun with telling us how La Vittoria grew ever taller until it was just short of the Empire State Building. At that point, Mussolini loses faith in the project, and Prince himself abandons architecture to make anti-Semitic radio broadcasts in the style of Ezra Pound.
Meanwhile, night and fog descend on the Jews of Europe and nothing Shabilian can do, including offering them up as slave laborers to build La Vittoria, will work. Pope Pius XII listens to Shabilian’s pleas but turns his back, as did most of Europe and America.
For much of the novel, readers may wonder if Epstein has a point hiding underneath all his literary-historical high jinks. He does. For what we see is both how fascism can tap into a people’s misguided love of country and its former glories and how the same wheel that causes some men to rise as ruthless leaders ultimately grinds them into the earth.
Epstein has large ambitions in The Eighth Wonder of the World, not only to put the Mussolini regime under a comic microscope but also to show how history has always treated Jews who were no match for the armies of the ancient night.
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