The Day of Judgment

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The Day of Judgment is a remarkable work in several respects. The first of these may well be the very fact of the novel’s existence. The manuscript was found among the author’s effects after his death, a hitherto unsuspected work that was written during the last thirty years of his life. Its presence, not to mention its distinction, was all the more surprising since its author, Salvatore Satta, was not a literary man. On the contrary, he had earned an illustrious reputation for himself as a jurist, in particular for the work he carried out reconstructing his country’s penal code after the Mussolini era and World War II. As is sometimes the case in such literary discoveries, the novel is incomplete, and in this translation it comes without evidence of the author’s further intentions with regard to a work which, judging by this segment of it, was perhaps unfinishable. As various reviewers have pointed out, its history strongly resembles that of another long-lost important Italian novel, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, set amid the generation immediately preceding that dealt with in The Day of Judgment. The Leopard also came to light posthumously, and was also greeted rapturously: It was published in Italy in 1958.

Another remarkable feature of the work is its setting, the author’s native town of Nuoro in Sardinia. Some of the novel’s landscape will perhaps be recognized by readers familiar with D. H. Lawrence’s travel book, Sea and Sardinia. Indeed, Lawrence’s work may be used as an introduction to The Day of Judgment, particularly since Lawrence visited Sardinia during the period covered by Satta’s novel. Yet the Lawrence book, can only perform a scene-setting function. The strangeness of Sardinian life, and within that (as Satta continually emphasizes), the strangeness of life in and around Nuoro, is simply not amenable to depiction by an outsider. In The Day of Judgment, this strangeness is evident in the frequent, though never confusing, use of the local dialect, such as in some of the lower-class characters’ names, and also in various references to local cuisine, superstitions, costumes, and songs. Such references, together with a certain fondness on the author’s part for terms such as “mystery” and “dream,” create a superb sense of Nuorese reality, even while Satta insists on the nullity of it all.

The setting’s strangeness is not, however, simply a matter of picturesque detail, but also extends to features which have a more general significance. Nuoro is isolated in almost every conceivable way. Before the days of mass communications (the novel is set at the turn of the twentieth century, in the years leading up to Benito Mussolini’s ascent to power), the town was geographically isolated. This condition evidently bred a marked lack of curiosity among the inhabitants concerning the world at large. Thus, Nuoro (and presumably Sardinia in general) was a historical backwater. Indeed, although not even Nuoro could avoid involvement in World War I, the author does manage to tell his story, or rather to paint what he calls his “fresco,” without incorporating a single date.

Nuoro’s isolation from the world created isolation within itself, or so it seems. The town’s sense of community is stilted and constrained by virtually feudal connections of blood and classifications of rank. Moreover, in the realm of personal relations there is little openness and generosity. Public institutions such as the school system and the church are, perhaps predictably, useless for engendering wider awarenesses or opportunities for progress. The town feeds on its isolation, projects an aura of benightedness, seems paralyzed and static. The Day of Judgment produces effects of intense claustrophobia and a genuinely morose atmosphere of lives damaged irreparably by the stultifying consequences of living in such a place. It is not a novel to read for fun.

The Day of Judgment may not be a novel. For want of a better classification, however, it has been placed in that category. In some respects, it does conform to the conventions of fiction, such as in its employment of a protagonist, Don Sebastiano Sanna. He is the town’s most distinguished notary (Nuoro being the kind of place that is filled with functionaries who earn a living shuffling meaningless pieces of paper). In certain respects, the book may be considered a fictional biography of Don Sebastiano and, through him, a depiction of a desolate place at an inert time.

Although Don Sebastiano happens to be a notary, his occupation is not particularly germane to the biographical perspective chosen by the author. Some detail of the protagonist’s work enters into the narrative, but it is not crucial to the story. Instead, the narrative proceeds digressively to deal with his private life, his inner life, and his life as a landowner. Land is a...

(The entire section is 2018 words.)