Sicilian Uncles

Although uncles figure in three of four tales collected here, the book’s title connotes something on the order of “Dutch uncles.” Each novella follows a historical sequence of military engagements seen through unwavering peasant eyes. “The American Aunt” traces the fortunes of a poor Sicilian family during the Allied occupation. Here, as elsewhere, the United States figures as a bizarre, attractive fantasyland. “The Death of Stalin” describes the Soviet Union’s shifting strategies during and after World War II. “1848” recounts a Sicilian baron’s efforts alternately to placate the Church, the military, and the revolutionary forces led by Giuseppe Garibaldi. “Antimony” follows an Italian soldier who becomes part of Benito Mussolini’s contribution to the Spanish Civil War.

These chronologies appear as successions of discrete events spread across months or years. Viewed by poor men who are more victims than agents of history, their drawn-out trials help to clarify and to confirm suspicions about one or another ideological stance. In “The Death of Stalin,” for example, a small-town Sicilian Communist faithfully supports Stalin’s alliance with Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union’s annexation of eastern Poland and the Baltic states, only to be met by the implacable facts in Nikita Khrushchev’s disclosures about the wartime dictator. In “Antimony,” a peasant volunteers in Italy’s Spanish expeditionary force and discovers that he is defending wealthy landowners and priests against a population as poor as himself.

Throughout, Sciascia maintains a posture of sympathy and humor, writing with a specificity that recalls the postwar films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. In fact, SICILIAN UNCLES was originally published in 1958, appearing now in its first English translation.