Tuesday 19 May 2015
In Leonardo Sciascia's 1958 quartet of novellas/short stories Sicilian Uncles, the year could be 1848 or 1948. We make for ourselves the connection between a boy witnessing the advent of the Americans in Sicily, a dogged adherent of Stalin whose delusions are followed through to the Beloved Leader and Teacher's death in 1953, another boy living through the upheavals that led to Garibaldi's arrival and a poor villager going straight from the mines to fight in Spain in the name of fascism, to whom enlightenment comes as a sort of bittersweet apotheosis for the entire book.
I don't know why I didn't read Sciascia for so long. The name somehow smacked to me of a florid Italian philosopher; the style is anything but. Sciascia's writing is crisp, often ironical and so compressed that he usually leaves you wanting more. 'Forty-Eight', its title taken from a Sicilian phrase which since the events of that momentous 19th century year has become synonymous with 'to cause or profit from confusion', could have been the ideal novel-length equal of Lampedusa's The Leopard; indeed, as it stands at 60 or so pages, it is absolutely perfect in its own right. As in The Leopard (the book, not the often inept film), most of the fighting like that outside the Duomo in Palermo pictured below takes place 'offstage'.
You just want to go on reading about the capricious, casually corrupt and chameleonic Baron Garziano as viewed through the eyes of the son of the estate gardener, about his cronies in the church and the liberals who spend their time between a local bar and prison. The essential message is that everything just goes on as normal after each upheaval, and 'normal' in Sicily isn't good, it's just a case of plus ça change (do the Italians have a similar phrase, I wonder?)
The American Aunt of the first story undergoes an alarming transformation from the magical, mythical figure over the seas to an all-controlling manipulator when she comes to Sicily. The first few pages are a magnificently etched picture of the moment in the Second World War when the Americans arrive; it's so vivid that you know Sciascia is describing from experience. Presumably he also knew a communist who held on to his rosy view of Stalin. But so vivid is the first-person narration in 'Forty-Eight' that you forget the author wasn't alive at that time.
As for Antimony, the name given by the sulphur miners of Sciascia's native Racalmuto to the substance (pictured above) which burns the protagonist's father, the description of fighting in the Spanish Civil War also feels like autobiography, but can't be. As ordinary men whose philosophy has been forged in horror, the narrator and his maverick companion Ventura, who simply yearns to join up with the Americans, do most of the summary reflection for the four stories. Our hero has already understood the nature of Sicilian faith in his village, in contrast to the death-justifying God created by the Falangists:
...in our faith, it's only the good things that count. God doesn't come into the sufferings; it's destiny which brings them. We have a good Sunday, there's soup and meat, and my mother says we must thank God. They bring my father home, burned by antimony, and my mother says it's a vile destiny that's burned him...I'd like to have my mother here, and show her that, here in Spain, God and destiny have one and the same face.
Bitter experience and injury send him home, where the villagers don't want to hear what he's had to say. But there is a kind of transcendence:
The war had condemned my body. But when a man has understood that he is an image of dignity, you can even reduce him to a stump, lacerate him all over, and he will still be the greatest thing God has created. When fresh troops arrive on a front and have been thrown into battle, the generals and journalists say, 'They've had their baptism of fire' - one of the many solemn and stupid phrases thrown out about the bestiality of war: but from the war in Spain, and the fire of the war there, I really do feel I have had a baptism: a sign of liberation in my heart; a sign of consciousness and of justice.
Of course justice cannot thrive in Sicily, or it couldn't when Sciascia was writing (born in 1912, he died in 1989, before any kind of true dawn); I wonder how far the campaign to resist paying protection money, its stickers all over shops in Palermo, has got. I wrote about it here, but no harm in displaying the 'addiopizzo' sticker again.
Sciascia's short thrillers tend to be about cases which can't be solved, even when you have the evidence, because of the Mafia's tentacles reaching to the highest echelons of the government in Rome (as we now know from the true history of 'Il Divo' Andreotti), despite big businessmen and local worthies' insistence that no such thing exists.
In The Day of the Owl, written shortly after Sicilian Uncles, the honest, just Captain Bellodi from Emilia Romagna is determined to do the right thing in Sicily. He knows how it works when he talks to a group under suspicion:
Now let's say that nine out of ten contractors accept or ask for protection. It would be a poor sort of association - and you know what association I refer to - if it were to limit itself to the functions and pay of night watchmen. The protection offered by the association is on a much vaster scale. It obtains private contracts for you, I mean for the firms which toe the line and accept protection. It gives you valuable tips if you want to submit a tender for public works, it supports you when the final inspection comes up, it saves trouble with your workmen...Obviously, if nine companies out of ten have accepted protection thus forming a kind of union, the tenth which refuses is the black sheep. It can't do much harm, of course, but its very existence is a challenge and a bad example. So, by fair means or foul, it must be forced to come into the fold or be wiped out once and for all.
He knows, too, the approach of the big cheese:
One fine day, a person 'worthy of respect', as you would say, comes to have a little talk...what he says might mean anything and nothing, allusive, blurred as the back of a piece of embroidery, a tangle of knots and threads with the pattern on the other side...
Nor is The Day of the Owl a merely schematic exposure of how things work, or don't, in Sicily. There's a brilliant piece of characterisation when the informer of the piece - no major spoiler here, since Sciascia anticipates it almost from the moment the personage is introduced - is shot on his doorstep:
The man had left this life with one final denunciation, the most accurate and explosive one he had ever made...It was not the importance of the denunciation which made such an impression on the captain, but the agony, the despair which had provoked it. Those 'regards' made him feel brotherly compassion and anguished distress, the compassion and distress of one who under appearances classified, defined and rejected, suddenly discovers the naked human heart. By his death, by his last farewell, the informer had come into a closer, more human relationship; this might be unpleasant, vexatious; but in the feelings and thoughts of the man who shared them they brought a response of sympathy, of spiritual sympathy.
Suddenly this state of mind gave way to rage. The captain felt a wave of resentment at the narrow limits in which the law compelled him to act...
Bellodi thinks that one through too, and dismisses it. The standard Sciascian paradigm is one of unearthing, then being forced to shovel the earth back over the discovery.
How Sciascia would enjoy, albeit grimly, targeting the plans of the present government. Within a week we've had auguries of tyranny: worst, the rewriting of the European Human Rights Act to suit the 'British constitution' (opting out would make us pariahs alongside Belarus. Well, exactly). We'll see what that entails, but an act so laboured over, not least by Churchill, should not be open to negotiation - and a healthy response, from the cause-fighting 38 Degrees, is pictured below.
We've had threats of a petty vendetta with the BBC. We've had the delightful Theresa May - the only MP to insist on being driven up to No. 10 Downing Street on the first day in her limo and the one who first raised the spectre of the rights rewrite, now taken over by her even lovelier arch-enemy Michael Gove - saying that the immigrants, thousands of whom have drowned on perilous boat journeys from Africa to Europe (first point of entry, dead or alive, usually Sicily or one of the islands off it) should be sent back home and that we won't join the European agreement to take some in; and on a small scale, the ridiculous move to reinstate fox-hunting.
Fortunately there's a healthy opposition to most of the measures threatened, and the new SNP members are already making themselves felt (Scotland and Northern Ireland too, it seems, have the constitutional right to block the scrapping of the Human Rights Act as it stands, and many Tory backbenchers are against it, too). It's still a democracy, even if sometimes one wonders.