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The Eighth Wonder of the Worldby Leslie Epstein
Synopses & Reviews
A magnificent new novel that strikingly reimagines Fascist Italy.
When Benito Mussolini announces a worldwide competition for a monument to celebrate his victory over Ethiopia, the winning design is an almost unimaginable mile-high tower, La Vittoria, created by the famed American architect, Amos Prince. In his struggle to bring this modern Babel to completion in the face of every conceivable obstacle—including Mussolini's wavering support and loss of power, and the vicissitudes of a world war-Prince will lose his family, his native country, and perhaps even his mind.
Interwoven with the story of Amos Prince is that of Maximilian Shabilian, a recent graduate of Yale who journeys to Rome to attach himself to the world's greatest architect. As World War II progresses, Max becomes inextricably bound up with the building of the tower and with Prince's family, above all with his beautiful and mysterious daughter Aria. In the end he must choose between his devotion to his mentor and his loyalty to his fellow Jews, who are increasingly threatened by the Fascist regime in Italy. Remembering who built the pyramids in Egypt and the Arch of Titus in Rome, Max decides to use La Vittoria to protect his people. In a moment of terrible, tragic irony, the very plan that was designed to save the Jews ends up delivering them to their unspeakable fate.
In 2005 the aged Shabilian makes a fearful journey back to Italy. This epic novel, then, spans millennia, from Solomon and Sheba 3,500 years ago to Mussolini, the Caesar of the Twentieth Century—dictator who is half a posturing clown and half the menacing tyrant who, with magnetic force, determines the fate of nations. Finally, in its remarkable concluding chapter, Maximilian confronts the present ruler of Italy, Berlusconi, whose grip on Italian life may be far more powerful than that of any of the Caesars who came before him.
"Epstein's (King of the Jews; San Remo Drive) ninth book imagines a wisecracking American architectural genius, Amos Prince, who, after fleeing America, wows Mussolini with the design for a mile-high skyscraper. The absurdist encounters between these two men — alongside Rome's Arch of Titus or in the staterooms of the Hindenberg — read like scenes from an opera buffa, in which Mussolini's barking, self-aggrandizing oratory is hilariously undercut by Amos's sly wordplay. The novel soon focuses on Amos's young Jewish-American acolyte, Maximilian Shabilian, who shares Prince's obsessive dream of completing the tower and becomes entangled with the architect's dysfunctional family (and, predictably, his beautiful daughter). As World War II intensifies, Amos descends into livid anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, while Max launches a tragic attempt to save the Jews of Rome by enlisting them to work on the skyscraper. The complexly structured narrative leaps between a turbulent present-day plane ride, flashbacks to 1930s and '40s Italy and Amos's rambling journal entries. Some readers may feel uneasy at the mixing of farce and tragic fact, and the novel doesn't shy away from unpleasantness; descriptions of violence are unflinching. But artful writing sustains a novel as ambitious as the Babel-like tower it describes." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Benito Mussolini has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of dictators. Rudolph Herzog's recent study of humor under the Nazis, 'Heil Hitler, the Pig is Dead!,' recounts a German joke told in the early days of World War II. Word reaches the German army HQ that Mussolini has entered the war. 'We'll have to put up ten divisions to counter him,' says one Nazi general. 'No, he's on our side,' says another.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 'Oh, in that case,' replies the first, 'we'll need twenty divisions.' Mussolini's vanity, buffoonery and general incompetence take starring roles in Leslie Epstein's new novel, 'The Eighth Wonder of the World,' a story of Italian fascism and bombastic architectural ambition. The mix is tailor-made for Epstein's talents. Over the course of nine previous books, he has fixed his trenchant gaze on such dark passages of 20th-century history as the Holocaust (his classic 'King of the Jews') and the House Un-American Activities Committee (his most recent outing, 'San Remo Drive'). Here, as in the earlier novels, the tragic and the inane are slyly spliced together, with inflated delusions punctured by sharp barbs of satire. At the center of the novel is Amos Prince, a goateed American architect with a penchant for linen suits and mocking wordplay (the strutting Mussolini gets turned into 'Mushy-linguini,' 'Muscle-teeny' and 'Mister-loony.') Prince had made his reputation with a series of flashy California mansions before fleeing to Italy in 1930 following a suspicious fire that destroyed his Arizona home and killed his wife and twin sons. Established with the remnants of his family in the Umbrian town of Gubbio, he wins an international competition to design a monument to commemorate Mussolini's 1936 victory over Ethiopia: a mile-high tower called La Vittoria. This 500-story skyscraper is intended to house 150,000 fascist bureaucrats and, in the fullness of time, to serve as Mussolini's mausoleum. The fact that La Vittoria is to be anchored at its foundations by an asteroid and constructed by helium-filled blimps hoisting prefab units into position should alert us that Epstein is less interested in structural mechanics than in the comic possibilities of human folly. Prince is assisted in his duties by Maximilian Shabilian, a hero-worshipping Jewish-American student who has come to Italy to seek out the master. But all does not go smoothly with the La Vittoria project. When the superstitious dictator becomes convinced that his project is cursed, work is abandoned as the skyscraper reaches the 93rd floor — still a few feet shorter than the Empire State Building. By the time World War II starts, Prince has forsaken architecture for more blatant propagandizing, giving full vent to his anti-Semitism in a series of radio broadcasts, a la Ezra Pound, on behalf of Mussolini. Meanwhile, Rome's Jews are being rounded up. Maximilian, who himself falls afoul of the Ministry of Demography and Race, soon hits on a plan to save them. They will be used as forced labor to finish the skyscraper, in the same way that, two millennia earlier, Jewish slaves had been used to build Roman monuments such as the Colosseum. As thousands of Jews are shipped into Rome to start work, their safe haven threatens to vanish with the fall of Mussolini and the arrival in Rome of the Gestapo. Epstein exploits a rich vein of absurdity running through the tragedies of history. We are treated to scenes of Nazi dignitaries dancing and bed-hopping on the Hindenburg, and the novel gives a rollicking send-up of Mussolini's button-popping machismo and overblown oratory. As in several of Epstein's previous novels, real-life figures are memorably evoked. Besides Mussolini, there are cameos for Pope Pius XII (whom Epstein shows watching the roundup of the Jews from a Vatican window) and, as the novel moves into the present tense, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. If these characters are portrayed with scant mercy, then Epstein is equally harsh on his own creations. None of his characters evokes our sympathy. Even Maximilian cruelly neglects his feisty wife and becomes a comically lecherous old man. For all the comedy and farce, Epstein has, as always, a serious purpose. Delving into the myths that nurtured Mussolini's brand of fascism, he offers a view of history as a great wheel, 'endlessly repeating itself, even as it pulverizes those caught beneath it.' Thus the fate of the Jews conquered by the Emperor Titus and marched through the streets of Rome is suffered by the Ethiopians captured by Mussolini in 1936 and then by the Italian Jews forced onto trains for Germany in 1943. James Joyce wrote that history is a nightmare from which we struggle to awake. For Epstein, that nightmare is a recurring one. The only consolation is that, as the grisly account of Mussolini's death illustrates, tyrants too get crushed by the wheel. And then they become the butt of our jokes. Ross King is the author, most recently, of 'The Judgment of Paris.'" Reviewed by Ross King, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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From the author of "King of the Jews" and "San Remo Drive" comes a new novel that strikingly reimagines Fascist Italy.
About the Author
Leslie Epstein, whose father and uncle, Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein, wrote Arsenic and Old Lace, Casablanca, and many other classics of the golden era of films, is the author of nine previous books of fiction, including King of the Jews and San Remo Drive, both published by Handsel Books/Other Press. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where for many years he has directed the Creative Writing Program at Boston University.
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