The late Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia was an expert chronicler of Italy's moral anguish, and both an artist and politicianby Duncan Fallowell / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
It’s rush hour in Palermo. Every man for himself. Natale, a student of electronics at the university, is doing his utmost to get me to the office of Sciascia’s publisher on time, worming along side streets, cutting across traffic jams loud with horns. Sciascia-a beautiful name, pronounced Sha-sha-is Sicily’s most distinguished living writer. His books are short, clear, drily sinister; vehicles for an intelligence which circumscribes a mystery. Everyone is tipping him for the Nobel Prize. I missed him last week. I mustn’t miss him today.
But we are late. Natale triple-parks in the local manner. Inside the Sellerio office, after the din of Palermo (which Sciascia has called “the incurable city”), all is literary hush and feminine cool. The publisher is a woman: the strong, the sweet, the oh-so-tired Elvira Sellerio, who is reputed never to have published a bad book. As far as I can make out, her premises are staffed entirely by women.
The Baronessa Renata Pucci-Zanca appears in red and black, arms spread wide. She hates my books but is fond of me and she will act as interpreter, because in Palermo there must be no misunderstandings. Shuffling about against a bookcase is Leonardo Sciascia himself, a slight retiring figure with yellowish wizened skin, in a grey suit. He was born in 1921 and looks older than his years. He looks very Sicilian, too – that is, suspicious and intelligent at the same time. We exchange greetings, after which he immediately picks up a book and buries his face in it, then looks out sideways with one sharp black eye. If he is worried-his behaviour suggests that peace of mind does not come easily to him-it is by something deeper than our late arrival (which apparently doesn’t bother him, a typically Sicilian courtesy). While a place with water jug and tumblers is organised for us to talk, he wanders from room to hushed room, disappearing round corners, reappearing in doorways, victim of a terrible physical unease.
“Signor Sciascia, do you like the modem world?”
“You’re a romantic.”
“No. Perhaps a man of the 18th century.”
“What sort of family do you come from?”
“Petit bourgeois? Or something more?” interpolates Renata.
“Something less. My father was an accountant in a sulphur mine. I know the world of the sulphur mines very well. They were between Caltanissetta and Agrigento and don’t exist any longer.”
There is much that doesn’t exist any longer in Sicily. Perhaps no region of Europe more rejects the stones of its past. The island has been ravaged by cement. Here, everyone wants to live in a new flat in a town. Virtually all the old country villas and cottages (of wonderful design, colour and texture) have been abandoned. Many of the old town buildings have been demolished or abandoned too. The new developments are invariably haphazard, unfinished, and surrounded by rubble.
“Why does nobody want to live in the old houses in the countryside?”
“Because they are cold, damp, uncomfortable.”
“It is possible to renovate them.”
“Yes, but… agriculture is not active any more, financially, except for grapes. The rest goes on only with heavy subsidy.”
When did Sicilians, who are spotlessly, even obsessively clean in their homes and in their persons, cease to regard the external condition of their towns as important?
“It is the problem of the managing class in Italy, which has no taste and no consideration for history-because it is not a managing (dirigente) class but a digesting (digerente) class.” Natale laughs. The clever wordplay is explained to me. “It is an Italian, not just a Sicilian phenomenon. You should see the Adriatic coast-devastated! And it is almost the same story in Spain as in Italy. It started under fascism and continued with this new managing class after the war.”
But like many Italian phenomena, disorderly speculative building appears to be at its worst in Sicily. Despite the planning laws, the mafia builds more or less what and where it likes. A continuing tradition of banditry means that few are tempted by the idea of returning to the countryside to renovate picturesque cottages. Sicilians feel more secure when they huddle together in flats in towns. This sense of physical vulnerability penetrates their psyche. Sciascia is famously opposed to the mafia. In 1961, when the existence of mafia was still officially denied, he published a short novel, The Day of the Owl, said to be the first novel to give a true picture of it.
“Since then I have been condemned to speak on this subject on every occasion,” he remarks.
Sicilians usually do not use the phrase “the mafia” but prefer “mafia” with no article, indicating something less specific, more pervasive.
“At this moment in Calabria,” says Sciascia, “there are more mafia murders than in Sicily. But one talks always about the Sicilian mafia, especially because it was this form which was exported to America. It is the American mafia which has made the problem important in the eyes of the world. But there is also in the rest of Italy a sort of Stendhalian pleasure in this image of a violent, outlaw Sicily. Stendhal would have very much enjoyed everything we call disorder.”
“But ordinary Sicilians, too, take a perverse pride in the mafia because it makes their lives seem dramatic and their island famous.”
“Certainly. When foreigners appear interested, then Sicilians will boast about the mafia.”
Mafia grows in this place as naturally as the prickly pear cactus. Mafia groups now control huge areas of business and agriculture in south Italy. Regional subsidies, including those from the EU, often go straight into mafia pockets. Anton Blok has said that the central characteristic of mafia is the private use of unlicensed violence as a means of control in the public arena. It is this which stifles initiative among ordinary people. Typical mafia areas (Calabria, Sicily, the Campania) have declined economically while the rest of Italy has experienced growth. Sicily is kept going only by huge subsidies. Those unfamiliar with massive corruption in daily life say: “why doesn’t somebody do something about it?” The answer is that mafia has entered the heart of the political system.
“What is the connection between mafia and national Italian politics?” I ask.
“Votes. The mafia controls blocks of votes, and politicians need votes. Fascism was able to beat the mafia because there were no elections. We all know that the problem of mafia lies in the fact that the Christian Democrat party has had power in Italy since the war. Nothing can really be done about mafia until the power changes hands, because the connection between mafia groups and the Christian Democrats is too well established. In Italy we had great men-but nobody listened to them. One was Gaetano Salvemini, an historian who was an exile in England during fascism. He warned Italians that they should never give power to a Catholic party.”
The Roman Catholic church has been in business longer than anybody, and although these days it doesn’t go in for violence, its representatives are frequently involved with those who do.
“Unfortunately,” Sciascia continues, “the opposition parties in politics tend to be magnetically attracted to the leading party instead of being an opposition. In Italy, we have no consistency of democracy of a ruling party and a checking party.”
“Has the mafia ever threatened you?”
“Once. But you must not have fear, otherwise you’ll never do anything. They wrote a threatening letter against me to the editor of Il Mondo. It was easily recognisable as a mafioso letter, but I didn’t care about it. And I’m still alive.”
He chuckles like a genial iguana, the tension lines in his face doubling with mirth. In such a world, I wonder what place love might have and ask, “what is the Sicilian concept of love?”
“It spreads over only a small circle of people. We cannot talk of love for the universe, for humanity. The family, friends-this is where all possible love is poured, and the only place possible for love.”
“What qualities do you admire in a man?”
“And in a woman?”
Appreciation of the terribilita in life is strong in Sicily-part of its fascination for outsiders. Then there is Sicilian mercuriality, which is neither whimsicality nor caprice, but rather a rapid moodiness, a readiness to express the contradictions in experience. Sciascia’s expression can go from amused to grim to sad very quickly.
There is something English in Sicilian humour, a dry sense of irony, a subtle and often masked playfulness, even that capacity for taking what the English call “the mickey” out of life itself.
“That is true,” he says, offering round his cigarettes (no takers) and lighting up. “There’s an Italian writer, Giovanni Maria Cecchi who in the 16th century refers to the Sicilians’ dry intellect. And our poet Quasimodo thanks his mother for the irony she has given him. But we have to divide Sicily into two parts. Western Sicily and Palermo, the more Arab part, I would say, has a lack of sense of humour… But the eastern, more Greek part has a sense of humour which topples over into comedy, fun. The great players were born in east Sicily-and the great writers too. Like Brancati, one of our best comic writers.”
“Wasn’t he born in Caltanissetta?” asks Renata.
“No,” replies Sciascia, “at Pachino. I believe he lived for a short time at Caltanissetta.”
Sciascia was born at Racalmuto-in the middle.
Like Ireland, Sicily has produced a disproportionate number of important writers for its size. The Italian language began here in the school of lyric poetry at the court of Frederick II. It is truly a place for writers and it esteems them-which may explain why Sciascia hasn’t been murdered.
Northerners tend to confuse an emotional nature with an open, honest one. But Sicilians often hide their true selves behind outbursts of emotion. One of the most noticeable Sicilian characteristics is their fear of what other people are thinking of them. This makes them secretive, suspicious, nervous. They are capable of devastating sincerity-and of devastating insincerity. Trust is hard-won-only after repeated testing-and even then there remains a doubt.
“Yes, yes, this is our uncertainty,” confesses Sciascia. “We have no inner security, no self-assurance.”
This uncertainty takes the edge off southern machismo and boastfulness, making Sicilians a more complex, subtle and wily quantity than, say, the comparatively straightforward Neapolitans. Sicilian uncertainty is maddening-and very appealing.
“What is truth in Sicily?” asks Sciascia. “Pirandello speaks of truth as changeable, impossible to seize.”
“It also changes objectively.”
“So there can be no honesty here? Sicilians don’t believe in objective truth?”
“But Sicilians don’t believe in anything. Cicero said of us: people of very keen mind but suspicious, people born for controversy. This is because of our history as an island, the keystone of the Mediterranean. Everybody wanted Sicily. And everybody has possessed it. Even in the last war, it was not necessary for the Allies to land here first-maybe northern Italy would have been better-but they chose Sicily.”
“A traditional English question-what did you do during the war?”
“I worked in an office for requisitioning wheat.”
What has caused unhappiness in his life?
“Many things. Domestic unhappinesses-the strongest has been the suicide of a brother of mine. In public matters, I was very unhappy when Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler, because I thought then that fascism would never end. I am unhappy today, seeing how badly Italy is governed, especially Sicily.”
I wonder if he is an Anglophile like his favourite modern writer, Jorge Luis Borges, and ask if he has ever visited England.
“So what do the English represent for you?”
He tilts his head to one side, eyes narrowing. One eye opens and twinkles, and he starts to speak in a series of soft descending curves, as is his fashion.
“Borges used to say that the world is divided into those who consider Waterloo a victory and those who consider it a defeat. I consider it a defeat, because Italy must always be obliged to France and Napoleon for bringing us out of the feudal world.”
I am hot, and drink some water. There is a heater on wheels near me and I turn it off, but Renata pulls a horrified face. Debussy’s definition of unhappiness was feeling too hot but Sicilians, it seems, never experience this. Natale offers Sciascia some water, but he wants no dilution of the nicotine in his system and lights another cigarette. He reacts to drinking water not with distaste, more as if the stuff were simply alien to him-which somehow it is.
“Signor Sciascia, do you find writing easy?”
“Yes, very easy. When I want to write, I write.”
“Why do you write?”
“Because I like it.”
“How did you begin to be a writer?”
“From the first day I went to school. And when I was a child I was very attracted to the instruments of writing-pens, ink, paper.”
“And how would you describe your literary style?”
“I’m not very fond of definitions. But the only style I aspire to is that of Mazzoni, which is rational, direct, transparent.”
The style may be clear, but the content of Sciascia’s books has something of a riddle. Usually he writes about crime, but this does not make him a crime writer. In Sicily particularly, crime is the touchstone for looking at the operations of society as a whole. This is not because the world of south Italy is more vicious than elsewhere (when I asked Sciascia if he thought Sicilian society more cruel than other European societies, he said no after a long pause), but there is a sense of brilliant improvisation on the spiritual verities of life and death, and their earthly representations of family and church, rather than functioning within the verbal verities of laws.
Carlo Emilio Gadda, in That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (Italy’s most important modernist novel, sometimes called the Italian Ulysses) uses a theft and a murder as a way into the world of his characters.
In its disregard for law, Italian society is the most free in western Europe. This brings its own form of oppression, especially bullying and financial corruption. Life in Sicily is a matter of intensity, not of justice. This can be very exhausting. Sciascia protests against injustice, against the rule of fear, in documentary works as well as in fiction. He has written a controversial book, The Moro Affair, about the murder of Aldo Moro, president of the Christian Democrat party, by the Red Brigades in 1978.
“What has your writing achieved?”
“I achieve a better knowledge of myself and of the reality around me.”
“But do you think writing changes anything?”
“Within ourselves, or externally?”
“It is the same in the end.”
“Yes, in improving our writing we improve ourselves-because we know ourselves better and better. As far as external effects are concerned, I’m very doubtful-because there are so many different ways of reading the same book. I get topsy-turvy just thinking about it. Mazzoni used to say that he had only 25 real readers.”
“Apart from him and Borges, what other writers have been important to you?”
“Graham Greene, Bernanos, TS Eliot when I used to read poetry. I don’t read poetry any more, except Dante. It’s very strange. I don’t feel myself to be a Catholic, yet I appreciate Catholic writers very much. I was baptised but I have no Catholic feelings.”
“Is Sicily a religious place?”
“No, no, no, absolutely not. Some years ago I wrote an essay which angered both communists and Catholics. It was an introduction to a book of photographs of religious festivals in Sicily. The religious festivals are very important here, and absolutely pagan. They are explosions of vitality, pretexts for riots, quarrelling, drunkenness. It’s Dionysus.”
“Yes, yes, especially at Caltanissetta,” exclaims Renata. She seems to have a thing about Caltanissetta. Or maybe she just loves to enunciate its wonderful syllables.
“Not only there, but everywhere. And the cursing during the religious festivals! Yes, there is an underground pagan feeling here. I’m attracted by it-religion which is not a religion. It’s fine by me. There is a short story by Verga, War of Saints. Very interesting. The saints have a war through their devotees. Do read it. It’s translated into English.”
“By DH Lawrence?”
“Not this one, I think. Lawrence has written an extraordinary essay about Verga, perhaps the best essay ever written on him.”
“Translation is very difficult.”
“Yes. I can check the translations of my books only into French and Spanish and I can say they are… reliable. The best thing on translation was said by Cervantes: translation is the other side of a tapestry. That’s perfect.”
Despite his soft, slow, relaxed manner of speaking, Sciascia’s face has a clenched look. The mouth is thin-lipped and the words emerge from stiff jaws. The brow is creased in a permanent frown. The eyes are held in a squint, half shut as if against the sun’s glare. There is no sense of strain or fatigue in the nimble brain when occupied with words, but when he is not talking or writing, when the calming flow of words is halted, then the tension becomes acute.
“Are you happy to be a Sicilian living in Sicily?”
“Happy? No. Another Sicilian writer, Borgese, said of Sicily, quoting the Latin poet Martial, ‘I cannot live with you, nor without you.’ That’s the general feeling of Sicilians. A good Sicilian detests and loves Sicily. A bad Sicilian loves Sicily.”
“You’re a good Sicilian?”
“I think I am.” n