Brief EncountersCanLitShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 26: “The Fate of the Son of the Man on the Horse” by Rawi Hage

From Stray Dogs

The nature of celebrity is close to the divine in modern society; as Western culture becomes increasingly secular, movie stars, rock ’n’ roll singers, and even politicians have taken the place of saints and deities as objects of veneration for much of the populace. This is by no means a new phenomenon, though the internet has accelerated the pace at which gossip besotted fans are able to indulge their obsessions, elevating and demolishing reputations in a heartbeat.

Rawi Hage conflates notions of secular celebrity and religious worship in his story “The Fate of the Son of the Man on the Horse,” which focuses on Giuseppe Cassina, a down-on-his-luck Montreal photographer who may also be the illegitimate son of Benito Mussolini.

The figure that sets the story in motion and acts as the precipitating factor in Giuseppe’s discovery of his possible biological heritage is Italian actress and diva Sophia Loren. The movie star makes an unannounced visit to Giuseppe in the year 1970; her purpose is to deliver a letter along with money and a series of photographs that include shots of an Italian village and a signed eight-by-ten glossy of the actor herself.

Briefly, a baker above whose shop Giuseppe resides tells the photographer that his deceased mother, who worked as a double agent for anti-fascist organizations during the war, had an affair with the Italian dictator and became pregnant. She fled to Canada (where she was followed by the baker, whose love for her remained unrequited throughout her life) where she eventually fell on hard times. She reached out to Anna Maria Villani Scicolone, the wife of Giuseppe’s half-brother by Il Duce, who is also the sister of Sophia Loren, asking for help. According to the baker, Giuseppe’s mother had “all kinds of proof” that Mussolini was her child’s father; Anna Maria, it is presumed, sent her sister to deliver the package to Giuseppe in Montreal.

These are the bare bones of the story, but this is not where the interest lies. Hage’s technical achievement in the piece allows for numerous levels of refraction, irony, and commentary on the nature of fame and the ongoing pull of history.

The local priest, for example, visits Giuseppe and invites him to act as photographer for his congregation at celebrations of sacraments and other significant church events. The priest is drawn by the portrait of Sophia Loren that Giuseppe has posted outside his building, passing it off as his own photograph. What is interesting is the language Hage uses in connection with the priest’s visit. He comes to the apartment to visit “the holy site” on which the “miraculous apparition” of the actor manifested. Loren’s appearance, in the priest’s eyes, had the effect of “transfiguring Giuseppe, the former outcast.”

There are multiple ironies at work here. First, and most obviously, there is the fact of a man of God being associated with explicitly religious language while describing his reaction to a film star. There is the notion of Giuseppe’s condition as an “outcast” – a kind of leper – prior to Loren’s appearance. There is the implied connection between Loren and the Virgin Mary who many believe manifested in places like Lourdes. (The priest officiates at the Church of the Madonna della Difesa.) And there is the clear irony in the fact that the priest was drawn into Giuseppe’s inner sanctum by the photographer’s perceived talent, despite the fact that the photograph he is passing off as his own is counterfeit.

Then there is Giuseppe’s mother’s atheism: the priest castigates her as a communist and, though he agreed to have her buried in the church cemetery, confesses to fearing for Giuseppe’s soul and asking his mother to have him baptized.

Hage extends the irony in the fact that Giuseppe discovers his apparent family heritage by attending the church, into which he has not previously entered, where he encounters a fresco of Il Duce on a horse – the painting that gives the story its title. “[W]e have a bad reputation because of that fresco,” the priest says, “but now we can’t do anything about it.” His follow-up observation that “what is past is past” also takes on a heavily ironic sheen given what transpires in the latter part of the story.

Giuseppe travels to Italy to trace his mother’s wartime peregrinations and accepts room and board from a fascist merchant who is staggered by the resemblance between the photographer and the late dictator. The merchant ends up outfitting Giuseppe, “a carbon copy of Il Duce who spoke fluent Italian with a local accent,” in military garb and has him pose for photos with blackshirt-clad locals that he then sells for five lira (more if they want an instant Polaroid).

The merchant’s capitalist scheme lays on yet more irony, given Giuseppe’s financial straits – prior to Loren’s visit and the bequeath of an envelope full of cash, Giuseppe was forced to sell his camera to make ends meet. “[H]e should consider giving up his illusions, his delusions,” Hage writes, “(a photographer with no camera!).” The theme of forgery, apparent in Giuseppe’s deception involving the Loren photo, is recapitulated in the military costume he is forced to wear – the son of an anti-fascist dressed to resemble a “carbon copy” of the notorious Italian dictator. And the brisk business the merchant does selling photos of the resurrected Il Duce serves as a comic debasement of Giuseppe’s own failed artistic practice.

Themes of religion, history, authenticity, and the nature of celebrity congeal in Hage’s carefully constructed, layered story to produce a portrait of a doomed, ineffectual man who discovers that, as Faulkner had it (and in contradiction to the priest’s naive assertion), the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.

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