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  • Fear of the Periphery: Colonialism, Class, and the South American Outback in Carlo Emilio Gadda
  • Albert Sbragia

L’idea coloniale . . . è oggi tra le più congeniali allo spirito italiano.

(Carlo Emilio Gadda, 1938)

The Gemütlichkeit of colonial adventurism to the spirit of 1938 Italy, like that of the infamous anti-Semitic racial laws promulgated by the fascist regime in the same year, is debatable and it reeks of sardonic irony in Carlo Emilio Gadda’s misogynistic essay “La donna si prepara ai suoi compiti coloniali.” 1 By mid-1938 (the year in which both Gadda’s La cognizione del dolore and Vittorini’s Nome e lagrime began to appear in the pages of Letteratura), two unpopular years of Italian involvement in Spain and fascist Italy’s further slide into its ill-advised alliance with Nazi Germany had largely extinguished the propaganda success of the 1935–36 Ethiopian campaign. That earlier victory, trumpeted by the regime’s press as “the greatest colonial war in all history,” had marked the short-lived apogee of Mussolini’s popularity, helped in no small part by the anemic sanctions of the League of Nations which enabled [End Page 38] the dictator to rally to the cause a hitherto sheepish Italian populace. 2 But fascism’s great colonial victory proved to be both expensive and ineffectual. The war had cost nearly an entire year’s national revenue while the provisional Italian East African government had put together a budget request for its first year of operation larger than yet another year’s national revenue. The exaggerated reports of vast mineral and natural resources had proven false. By 1940 Italian colonizing agencies had been able to locate only a few thousand settlers in the new colony, less than 10 percent of the established goals, while at home the negative effects of the regime’s bellicose foreign policy and its impractical promotion of self-sufficient autarchy were fueling popular discontent. 3

If the colonial idea was less than congenial to the Italian spirit in 1938, it did enjoy a ubiquity of semantic extension indicative of its importance as metaphorical vehicle for the regime’s totalitarian obsession with order, hierarchy, obedience, and Gentilian actualism, or the conception of ideology as pure act. Youths were indoctrinated into military discipline during their excursions to summer colonies. The regime’s efforts at demographic control, ruralization, and land reclamation took on the aspects of an internal colonialization or repopulation of abandoned zones of the South (see Gadda’s own laudatory 1941 essay “Case ai coloni di Sicilia”). 4 The effort to organize the Italian emigrant “colonies” abroad into active nuclei of fascist ideology through the regime’s Fasci all’estero was pursued more or less vigorously. The third way or “terza via” economic structures of autarchy and corporativism were to be in the service of an aggressive imperialistic and colonial policy.

It is in particular emigrational colonialism which will be the focus of our examination of the fascist colonial metaphor in Gadda’s literary imaging. The anachronistic Gadda, who has been called by critics and friends alike more a man of the nineteenth century than the twentieth, had not been adverse to the colonial idea. At the end of World War I he wrote in his Giornale di guerra e di prigionia of his and Bonaventura Tecchi’s “vecchia idea” to serve in Libya. 5 In the 1932 “Crociera [End Page 39] mediterranea” he hailed Italian Tripoli as “un abbozzo di redenzione” for Italy and was full of admiration for the “operosa volontà” of motivated and pragmatic colonialism (juxtaposed to the frivolous colonial tourism of himself and his fellow cruise passengers). 6 Nor was the post-Second World War reawakening of the Third World viewed with either understanding or favor by Gadda. The events in South East Asia, in Algeria, Egypt, and the Congo received the caustic conclusion that France and England should band together to declare “questa è roba nostra e intendiamo tenercela.” In any event, better a monarchy in these countries, Gadda opined, than a “repubblica di descamisados.” 7

For all of this, colonialism per se is a peripheral issue in Gadda’s works, nor do I wish to argue otherwise, but...

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