What inspired me to write my Italian historical novella, Where Sunflowers Grow? Go here to catch up before reading on.
I’ve decided to keep the novella at 35,000 words. The story is told through 56 vignettes, and even though it’s a novella and I was toying around with the idea of extending it, I feel the story is complete. Some of my beta readers wanted to know more about the characters, so I have in mind a full-length novel. But today, I thought I’d tell you a bit about my main character, Carlo Moretti.
The start of Fascism in Italy occurred when Mussolini came to power in 1922 and ended in 1943 with his arrest. Imagine what it would have been like to be born in 1920, for example, and for the first twenty years of your life, be indoctrinated in Fascist schools and grow up within a political regime that encouraged spying on neighbours, crushed political opponents and deported 7,000 Jews.
I decided to have Carlo explore what it might have been like to oppose Fascism. Many Italian intellectuals did oppose Fascism, and I wanted Carlo to become aware of an ideology that sacrifices individual liberty for subservience to the State.
Carlo was born on April 8, 1920, and as a young boy, was required to take part in Fascist Saturdays, when the Opera Nazionale Balilla or Italian Fascist Youth saw thousands of boys marching up and down fields, practising how to carry a wooden rifle because Mussolini wanted to build an Italian empire based on physical strength and military might.
Carlo is thrilled by all the speeches and exercises, but as he gets older and attends university as a student of political science, he begins to see that Fascism is brutal. In 1938, the Italian Racial Laws (Leggi Razziali) were introduced and aimed mainly at Jews living in Italy. It was state-sponsored racism and saw Jewish students and teachers expelled from Italian schools and universities. What would it have been like for Carlo to see his friends and teachers at the university ‘disappear’ and no longer welcome in Italian society?
Carlo’s father Angelo – who despises the Fascist state – burns his son’s Fascist uniform and comes to the attention of the authorities, who haul him off for questioning. He returns home late one night, his head shaved and his spirit battered.
Carlo meets a man who is involved in the Italian Resistance, and he ends up ducking through Rome’s streets late at night, posting anti-fascist leaflets on public buildings and metros. And then, one morning at 6.00 a.m. (because they always come for you when you’re still in bed), there’s a knock on the door of the Moretti apartment. Carlo is seized and thrown into a black car, which speeds off, leaving his parents distraught.
Carlo’s trial is swift and he is sentenced to Il Confino – domestic exile for political dissidents, who were sent to remote mountain villages or Italy’s islands for a period of 3-5 years.
I send Carlo to a fictitious mountain village, north of Rome. I called it Monti di Castagne (chestnut mountains), and Carlo discovers a strong undercurrent of anti-fascist activity among the local partisans. I originally intended to write about Carlo’s time in this village, obeying the orders to report daily to the local militia and staying under the radar. But then, I discovered a relative of mine had been an Italian POW, who escaped from a labour camp in 1943 when Italy capitulated.
So, I decided to have Carlo join the local resistance against the Fascists and the Germans (who became enemies in 1943 when Italy switched sides) and have the POW (who is a New Zealander) also join the struggle.
Many women fought in the Italian Resistance, and my other main character, Assunta, is a female partisan fighter. You’ll hear more about the Kiwi POW and Assunta in future posts.
Although I’ve studied Fascist Italy at university, the specific research for this novella took me over a year. I also managed to find a wonderful American who lives in Italy for part of the year. She conducted interviews for me with some Italians who are now in their 90s, who lived during the period of Fascism. A few of the vignettes are based on stories they told – more about this in posts to come too!