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PIAZZA CARIGNANO by Alain Elkann , translated by William Weaver (Atlantic Monthly: $16.95; 243 pp.).

February 01, 1987|Alexander Stille

After 1938, when Mussolini passed a series of racial laws in order to cement a military alliance with Hitler, it was inconceivable for an Italian Jew to remain Fascist. And yet, there were a handful of such deluded souls. They believed the racial campaign to be a mere political expedient which would be lifted as soon as the war was brought to a successful and glorious close.

Alain Elkann's "Piazza Carignano" is a fictional account of one of these men. The novel begins in the present when the narrator, Alberto Claudio, returns home to Turin at his mother's death. He and his French girlfriend, Thusis, discover the secret diaries of his great uncle, Tullio Treves, a notorious Jewish Fascist, killed with his wife and children by the Nazis at the end of the war. The diaries tell of an adulterous and vaguely sado-masochistic affair Tullio had with a French Fascist woman, Celeste. Thusis and Alberto Claudio play erotic games in which they pretend to be the Fascist uncle and his partner. The novel moves back and forth between the diaries of the uncle and the story of the narrator and Thusis, and the two begin to parallel one another closely. In fact, as the young couple unravel the uncle's entire story, they discover that Thusis is Celeste's great-niece.

Elkann's description of fascism is evocative, and his attempt to fathom the phenomenon of Jewish fascism is important. But the heavy emphasis on Tullio's sexual life oversimplifies the subject. He sees Tullio's fascism as the product of latent homosexuality, a rigid discipline which contains his forbidden desire. As his racism collapses, Tullio's homosexuality emerges. In his effort to understand Tullio, Elkann often romanticizes him. Tullio's refusal to renounce fascism is seen as a willingness to swim against the tide of history in search of a life of pure passion. Tullio's fascism--whether viewed as sexual perversion or grand passion--is interpreted in purely personal terms and emptied of its political significance.

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