Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Sicily '48



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 ├ža 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.

9 comments:

Susan Scheid said...

What I'm wondering is why I've never even heard of Sciascia, as these books seem right up my alley. Two have gone on the ever-growing wish list. (In my determination not to buy another book until I've read or otherwise disposed of the ones I have, I plucked from my bookshelf and have been reading Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings. It has its longueurs, but overall it's fascinating--and disturbing.) It's appalling what's afoot politically over your way--I guess I was naive enough to think that the UK wouldn't stoop to what seems so commonplace here. The bright spot for me right now is the Minnesota Orchestra's sojourn to Cuba. The reports are incredibly moving. Why, why, why, can't we see our way to do more of this? Boggles the mind.

David said...

Sciascia's not widely published in English, but Granta have taken up the reprint gauntlet for some of these books. The other thing that put me off was how slim they were - too close to my own ridiculous wariness of short stories to buy at first. Sicilian Uncles, being four in one, is fatter, and now I won't stop until I've read what I can of the oeuvre. They're also books full enough of philosophical wisdom to want to keep.

I did try Birds Without Wings but, having loved Captain Corelli's Mandolin, got bogged down with the (IMO) rather heavy style.

Hadn't heard about the Minnesotans in Cuba (nor followed up the results of the lockout). Must go dig out reports. Here there are moving reports of how the adoption of the Sistema in Scotland is working, and how the audiences for the kids' concerts are packed out.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Very pleased to be alerted that Granta is embarked on reprints--I think they're not yet available over here, and now I know to keep my eye out. By then, perhaps, I'll have finished Birds Without Wings, and perhaps some of those others sitting my my stack! Yes, you're right, BWW gets pretty "boggy" at times. I think I got far enough along before I bogged down to want to get to the finish line. On Minnesota, forgive me for a couple links (hoping I've done them correctly!), but I was so very moved by this. Some touching photos:here and I thought a very nice article in the NY Times here

What's so apparent from this, it seems to me, is the importance of cultural exchange like that the Diplo-Mate and Anneli do so well.

David Damant said...

The reason why the Human Rights Act( and the Geneva Convention) need fundamental review ( which may mean change) is that there are now individuals, groups and large organisations (IS) which set out to kill cruelly in a civilian environment and to sacrifice themselves in hitting at others. This sort of "human" was not envisaged when the existing rules were drawn up. We now need to investigate, arrest, sometimes deport, people before they have committed any crime under existing laws. And this is going to go on for ever as a result of the web which is really world wide. As for immigration ( from outside the EU) the fundamental point is that millions and millions now live is tragic situations ( and, is a refugee from a starving country to be sent back to see his family die since he is only an economic migrant ?) Because of the web they think that happiness is available in Western Europe or Australia. Discussing letting in a few is not the way to start. Merely re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.We have to stop the traffic - police the seas - since if we do not any acceptance will lead to another million wanting to take advantage of the facility that they perceive. More even shakier boats. We should try to alleviate their terrible condition at home, though if there is violence we can assist with troops only at the risk that all over the Muslim world ( and elsewhere) we are seen as Western imperialists attempting to force our values on them - so our soldiers will again be cut to pieces in revenge in the English streets. This problem is never going to end and requires tough management from point to point in situations that only a few decades no one could envisage. Australia seems to have got it as right as is possible, though in that case geography helps

David said...

Sue, surely you can order the Granta books over the internet - I've stopped using Amazon direct, but there are other sellers on there.

David, surely the work needs to be done on the European Human Rights Act, not tailoring it to suit the UK (which is in no different a situation to the rest of Europe, so-called - remember this includes Russia and Turkey, which will take Cameron's initiative as a precedent to dismantle what's so badly needed in those countries).

Some of what you say is undoubtedly true, but we CAN afford to take more. And the right of free movement within the EU is non-negotiable. The other member states will not agree to modification there.

David Damant said...

I did exclude comment on the EU immigration question in my text above. On a cultural level ( which matters) and in my kind of life, the Roumanians, Baltic people eic - I came across an Albanian the other day - fit in very well. Maybe they are to an extent and like us heirs of the Greeks and Christianity. But from outside the EU my point is based on numbers - millions and millions and millions. That is where the EU should start the discussion, not talking about letting in a few which will only increase the crowd who see a greater hope

David said...

On numbers you're no doubt right. But you're on very dodgy ground deciding who 'fits in' best.

Laurent said...

I see why Mr Cameron is such a good friend of our Mr Harper. We have a similar bill in the Senate now C-51 which would create a Secret State Police with powers to ignore the Constitution and the Charter of Rights in the course of their duty, all of it quite legal under this bill. Furthermore this Secret Police would be under the PM's supervision and control. Shades of Romania pre-89 in Canada. Sad day but it appears that the extreme right is making a come back 70 years later. As for Immigration and refugees, Canada is no stranger to it. Helping genuine refugees is a duty. However economic migrants is another matter and needs more careful consideration. I am going to look up this author sounds very interesting and I love your book recommendations, always spot on.

David said...

So rich when Harper is on the attack re Putin (not that I think he's wrong in anything he says there, but pot and kettle do come to mind).

You'll find Sciascia amazing. I'm nearly through his very different book on the Moro affair/tragedy, far more discursive and full of savage indignation at the Christian Democrats.