Three Views of the Same Mess

May 18, 2010

In the nineteen thirties much of North Africa became a target for Mussolini’s colonial aspirations. Libya and the North Eastern lands were invaded and were held by the Italians for a short and fascinating period. The Second World War effectively ended this short second ‘Roman’ empire.

Almost accidentally I have read, in the last three months, three authors accounts of the mess Mussolini made of it. You may remember Evelyn Waugh as the author of Brideshead Revisited, which was made int o a very successful TV drama. Before the war he enjoyed a spell as a very amateur war correspondent in 1935 sent to cover the invasion of Abyssinia. He wrote it up in Waugh in Abyssinia and also transformed it into a hilarious spoof of the stupidity of not just the military and political fools who started the war but the same condition in the press corps in his novel Scoop. I first read Scoop in my twenties, a period now covered in dust and cobwebs. I finished Waugh in Abyssinia last week.

Alberto denti di Pirajno was an Italian medical officer whose account of his life in Eritrea and Libya, A Cure for Serpents,  portrays a humanity and kindness toward the residents of those countries that was not witnessed later by Colonel Vladimir Peliakof, an Belgian born Russian fighting the Germans and Italians in Libya for the British Army. Their accounts of the same events are not the same. for every story of Italian generosity and colonial wisdom we hear from diPirajno we hear of harshness, including several atrocities, from Peliakof in his book, Popski’s Private Army.

I could hardly expect these three alone to provide me with anything like complete picture of the events between 1930 and 1945 in North Africa. But what these authors have again reminded me is that you cannot really trust any single voice to relate the truth about any single or series of incidents, even those who were there.

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