Lidia wondered what it would be like. To know what people were talking about when they referred to the twenties as “roaring” or “gay.” Considering the National Fascist Party was founded in 1921 and Benito took hold of power in ‘22, Lidia experienced little of the flapper life she occasionally heard about (and only in hushed tones and quietly scandalized murmurs), nor the debauched excesses that were going on in Paris. She wished she had escaped to the City of Light when she had the chance, but now it was all darkness upon her. Upon Bologna, and the entirety of Italy. Well, “entirety” had a new meaning, thanks to Il Duce. He seemed to think Italy’s entirety also included the likes of Libya, Albania, Dalmatia, Tunisia, Malta, certain parts of France (namely Nice, Savoy and Corsica) and just about anything else he could calculate as being a benefactor of italianità. Looked at from that vantage point, of course most things were going to seem like Italy’s “God-given right” to take thanks to this whole “let’s make Italy the Third Rome” approach–as in, the third version of the Roman Empire (the Second, in their estimation, was when the Renaissance occurred, though some could argue it was really when the Roman Baroque period transpired). By such logic, the majority of Europe was influenced by or fell under the jurisdiction of the original Roman Empire.
She could remember the moment it first began. With that initial speech Mussolini gave in their town. Over the course of the next few months, the fervor that swept Bologna seemed to do so with more intensity than the manner in which Lidia swept the floor. In fact, sweeping the floor of the modest apartment she shared with her husband, Paolo, was about all she could do to keep her mind off her fear of the future, as well as what it might mean for the state of her own marriage–what with Paolo already becoming a devoted follower of Mussolini’s politics based on the primary notion of Italian superiority. Of course, this is how Italian Fascism and German Nazism became destined to collide eventually, it just took Hitler a bit longer to rise to power in order for their “marriage” of dictatorships to coalesce. Personally, Lidia didn’t much tend to believe that any one culture was better than another (though she couldn’t deny that Italian cuisine remained the most superlative). Yet that’s what Mussolini was telling il popolo, assuring them that they’d all gone soft in fathoming just how great their power was over the rest of Europe and Africa, if only they could remember who they were deep within: italiani. I-T-A-L-I-A-N-S. They needed to view themselves once more as their forebears did at the height of Italian influence over art and culture. The French had fucked them over. The Spanish. Of course, the British (again, Malta was theirs, it did not belong to the bearded chimney running England). It was time to stop bending over and letting every inferior nation bum them as though these really were the days of Ancient Rome. That’s what Mussolini said anyway, in so many words.
In fact, all Paolo seemed to want to talk about at the dinner table now was what Mussolini was saying. His latest ardent crusade to, ahem, make Italy great again. So ardent it required the use of castor oil as punishment to get those who would even try to resist to submit. Lidia herself viewed being subjected to the sexual whims of Paolo as her own version of castor oil. She gritted her teeth whenever he was able to stay awake long enough after dinner to try to have sex with her, reminding Lidia that it was her wifely duty to bear him a son. That way, he could become part of the Opera Nazionale Balilla, learn the Fascist doctrine, as well as how to wield a gun. Lidia was horrified at the prospect. Though she didn’t much care for the thought of having a daughter either. It wouldn’t yield a much better fate. Instead of being forced to show off guns and subjugate dissenters by force, a daughter would instead be trained in the “virtues” of motherhood and domesticity (Mussolini had also taken it upon himself to make female reproduction a major mission of feminine existence under Fascist rule–the women who could birth the most children were declared heroines of the nation, saviors of creating pure Italian beings like products on an assembly line to be fed back into the Fascist machine).
Lidia prayed she was sterile every night so that she would not have to raise children in a country like this. A country that knew nothing of the joys everyone still seems to associate with the 20s. Where were these joys in Italy? Not much chance for a speakeasy with Mussolini having a damned parade everywhere you turned. At the Colosseum. At the Venice Film Festival. Even in Naples, where buildings like the Palazzo delle Poste managed to go up without decades passing by–all thanks to Mussolini’s brand of “efficiency.” This is what endeared the Italians to him, his exclusionary message to “lesser” races be damned. He was the first in so long to be able to make the impossible red tape disappear (with the Blackshirts, instead red tape became blood, as they axed anyone in their path toward Italian progress). Trains on time, order established like never before in a nation so divided and eclectic. For once, the Italians were viewed by other nations with respect (out of that Machiavellian advice that it is better to be feared than loved). They were not looked down upon, nor mocked (except when they couldn’t manage a simple takeover of a country like Ethiopia). Furthermore, they could even argue his “generosity” to the “lesser” races by allowing the provision that italianità was something that could be taught, assimilated–to those willing to recognize their inferior place. Basically, he wanted as many devout worshippers of Italian culture as possible.
Yet he failed to realize that there was once a time when Italians were associated with being capable of having a bit of fun. One would think that sense of chimerical brilliance would have been allowed to shine in the Jazz Age, but there was nothing “jazzy” about living a life of repression under Mussolini’s boot. Lidia felt some days she might be going insane. From the fear, the oppression, the utter dissatisfaction with what existence in Italy had become. To add to the general paranoia, she was certain a war was doomed to break out.
She wasn’t sure she could take any more, and there was no end in sight for Mussolini’s reign. She decided one day, with firm resolve, that she would flee. Head for the border and make her way toward the place Mussolini saw as Italy’s: Nice. From there, she would make her way up to Paris, and, at last, finally join the decade she had heard and clandestinely read so much about (the contraband newspapers and magazines not sanctioned by Mussolini occasionally managed to cross her path–when she willed it to with money she had squirreled away without Paolo’s knowledge). She would be free. Purely and truly.
Lidia was aware that flight from the motherland was not without its risk, but she had enlisted the help of a man–an old childhood friend from the neighborhood–named Nino, who not only had expertise in defection (over the past three years, he had been something of a “passatore” for people leaving the nation in secret), but also the understanding and compassion Lidia required in order to confess her desperate need to escape. He typically smuggled Italians who couldn’t take Fascism anymore in a hidden compartment of one of the cars he would “borrow” from the Isotta Fraschini factory where he worked. Constantly appearing in a vehicle with a different color or model made him forgettable to the border patrol. He also knew better than to attempt being jovial with them, adopting the same stoicism they did so that they would believe he was just as much of a die-hard believer in Fascism as they were. His methods worked, and, what’s more, he had always loved Lidia. It was his greatest regret that he didn’t make his move before Paolo and he figured that, as he saw her off, this would be his chance to finally divulge his true feelings.
As for Lidia, all she could think about angrily while stowed away in the secret compartment is how Isotta Fraschini profited off what the 1920s were really supposed to be–“gay”–by marketing themselves to the American “aristocracy” a.k.a. film stars like Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow. Why was this “gaiety” reserved solely for other countries and not their own, where Isotta Fraschini vehicles were manufactured? It was an egregious injustice, one that made her all the more eager to get the hell away from this nation of hypocrisy and misogynistic boot-stomping.
But something happened. Maybe Nino had been too overly friendly, had flashed too much of a smile indicating something was suspect. Whatever was going on up there in the driver’s seat, it led to the inspection of the trunk. She could hear the forceful, entitled movements of the Blackshirt’s hands, feeling the surface until finally noticing the discrepancy. The latch that opened up the compartment. He was momentarily stunned by the sight of her not to make a quick enough movement to keep her from kicking him in the face. She knew it was useless to try, but she ran anyway. Ran as fast and as far as she could get her legs to go, which turned out to be not very. She was shot in the back, though, much to her dismay, it wasn’t an aim to kill. Just enough to maim her so they could dose her with castor oil and question her loyalty until she declared it was and always had been to Mussolini. “Mussolini is Italy,” she assured. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she could hear the tune of Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “The Man I Love…” all to some ominous smash cut of Mussolini marching, giving speeches–and always the marching. The torture methods, naturally, were never meant to be rewarded with her release. She was left for dead, along with Nino, in a field on the side of a deserted road. The castor oil had dehydrated them both to the point where they didn’t stand much of a chance for recovery anyway.
There is the perception of the 20s, one that always seems to overrule any other experience that someone else–most people, in fact–did not have. But because it’s the narrative that fits most neatly into a convenient box that can be repurposed for the future (namely, at various theme parties), it has remained the go-to belief in how things were. But, as with all public opinion, it is shaped. Reality is so rarely real.
Even Italians themselves don’t always seem to remember just how bad it was. For the shrugging acceptance of this period of Fascism was typically followed by an accompanying, “Say what you want about Mussolini, he got things done.”