Discovery of the World: A political awakening in the shadow of Mussolini

Jane Shallice reviews Discovery of the World: A political awakening in the shadow of Mussolini, by Luciana Castellina

August 6, 2014 · 7 min read

Discovery_of_the_World_CMYK-33b89f2e9ac2a56d0fbfb2834b782888This book is a short autobiographical piece from Luciana Castellina, a woman who represents much of the best of Italian political thought and actions over the last fifty years. She has been a formidable politician, expelled from the Communist Party in 1969 she was a founder member of Il Manifesto group, which produced the daily paper which magnificently survived until two years ago. Elected as an Italian Deputy and later to the European Parliament, she is a renowned journalist, writer and intellectual.

This short and well crafted book uses the diary which she kept between 1943 and 1947, the period when Mussolini’s fascism collapsed, when the Germans had control of the north and when the British and American forces were advancing and occupying Italy from the south. It opens when she was 14, playing tennis with her friend, Anna Maria, who is suddenly called away by a policeman. Anna Maria was a daughter of Mussolini and it was the moment of his arrest and detention by the Germans. It marked the period from 1943 when fascist and antifascist forces became locked in the bitter struggle for power, when the Germans became the occupying force in the north and when the Americans and British were advancing from Sicily. It was from this moment too that the Jews of Italy started to be swept into the maws of concentration camps.

Discovery of the World is the account of the growing up of a girl from a bourgeois background whose family however was liberated from the conventions of the period. She only became aware of her social position when a couple of years later, having joined the Communist Party, she was informed that ” as a bourgeois (she) could not be a true revolutionary”. Her response was a determined political militancy, in order to gain political forgiveness or political credibility. As for many throughout Europe Luciana’s family was an amalgam of different groups and traditions and in her case the origins were immediately both Jewish and Catholic. Her grandmother (mother’s side) was “Aryan” – a Marzi from Tarquinia – whilst her Jewish grandfather was a Lieberman from Trieste. Throughout the book stories emerge of the complexity of the family, her grandfather being part of the triestini – those wanting Trieste to return to being an Italian city, of those living in Latin America, of wealthy conservative elderly relatives, of her parents’ friendship after a complicated divorce, and of an immediate family that was unprejudiced and modern.

At 14, she was living in the cusp of the fall of fascism but the world is seen by an adolescent who, whilst aware of the political changes, expresses her thoughts, desires and the engagement of wanting to be growing up. It is for her the world of social lives, of cinema trips, meeting friends and of becoming herself. It is a time when she was still finding out what she thought in that confusion of a world of struggle, of a constant change of place, of pressures to be someone, but, as with so many between childhood and maturity, who? A time when she can write that “my agony is that I do not have any ideals”. It is a world that is gradually being revealed and where she has to make choices.

In the inevitable disruption of war, with Jewish relatives in hiding, with families being divided she was often having to live with and eventually organise the lives of her grandmother and elderly relatives. As an Italian fourteen year old unaware of the partisans, she states she is an anti fascist, an anti Nazi, and anti British. In 1944 under the German occupation, a British pilot “Gigetto” flew punctually at midday over Rome, despite its designation as an open city, to bomb different areas.

But her experiences of occupation bear little correspondence with that shown in Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City”, where partisans were trying to organise against the Germans. For the bourgeois, life continues with scarcity and some restrictions but without evident brutality or control. In June 44 at the liberation of Rome by the US troops, “as if by a miracle, Italians appear on the back of lorries and wildly acclaim the Fascist defeat” One them was displaying a red flag, “the first that I have seen in my life”. The following two years whilst still wanting the buzz of a social life and wanting to party with the young bourgeoisie, she is living with the debates of the left and choices of Socialist or Communist, and only then is she aware some of her acquaintances were linked in some way to the Communist Party.

But it was with the defeat of fascism, that closed borders disappeared and a presence of cultural space as well as political organisations and debates surfaced. Knowing she wanted to be an artist, the communists in her school asked her to speak about Cubism and Picasso, which she did although “to tell the truth none of us had yet seen any of his paintings”. In the talk to mainly disinterested fellow students she finished with Picasso’s statement; ” It is not the job of painting to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of offensive and defensive warfare against the enemy”. This, she writes, was her first political gesture.

But the separate social world in which she had grown up was only punctured when having joined the Youth Front, a Communist Party/Socialist Party organisation, she is exposed to the problems of everyday life by going to Garbatella, a working class quarter of Rome. There she first meets people who have been fighting fascism through the 30s, and is conscious that she is meeting the survivors, large numbers having been shot or deported and who then died in the German camps. “Terrible stories, all of parents with many children, generally very poor and courageous workers or artisans. I felt ashamed thinking of the passivity of the people in my parts of the city who called themselves anti-Fascists.”

It is in 1947 under the aegis of the Communist Party and its international connections she is able to travel to Paris, and as a delegate, with Italo Calvino, the journalist and writer, to the Council for the International Union of Students in Prague. It was an idealism and optimism that “freedom for all was round the corner and guaranteed for all, and all were discovering politics and love”. Unknown to her, it was the start of the Cold War, Churchill’s Fulton speech made only a few months previously, and “the iron curtain” became an established part of the lexicon. Following a period in a work brigade in Yugoslavia she returns home a dedicated member of the Communist Party.

To this day Luciana Castellina still asserts her decision to join the party was right as it ” enabled me to avoid remaining stupid as I would have if I had not left my native ghetto and had the possibility of sharing with various comrades the finest of all passions, the ambition to change the world”. That ambition was and still is her finest passion.


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