Sciascia, Leonardo (Vol. 8)
Sciascia, Leonardo 1921–
An Italian novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, to date Sciascia seems mainly intent on detailing the historical background and character of his native Sicilians. This has included both an explanation and an expose of the Mafia, which he seems to understand as well as any author writing today on the subject. Sciascia is a gifted stylist writing in the realistic tradition, and his novels can be read as thrilling entertainments or as serious investigations of political intrigue and corruption.
"Sicily is still a bitter land," writes Leonardo Sciascia in the introduction to his Le parrocchie di Regalpetra, a volume of narrative essays…. The reasons why Sicily is still a bitter land are briefly summarized by Sciascia in a sentence, in which his moral indignation stands out from the bare facts:
In Sicily there are laborers paid by the day who live 365 days, a long year with rain and sun, on sixty thousand lire; there are children who are employed as servants, old men who die of hunger, and persons who—as Brancati said—leave a little crease in a club's arm-chair as the only mark of their passing on the earth.
In the face of such a situation, Sciascia gives his motivation for writing:
I have tried to say something about the life in a town I love, and I hope I have given a feeling of how distant this life is from liberty and justice, that is from reason…. Certainly I, too, have a bit of faith in writing, like the poor people at Regalpetra: this is the only justification I have for these pages.
His faith in the written word and in human reason immediately points to his engagement, which is more open and direct, in terms of neo-realism, than the objective and dispassionate representation of Verga's verismo. In fact Sciascia is concerned with the structure of society as the primary cause of a given situation, and therefore as a problem which is essentially political rather than humanitarian. (pp. 13-14)
Sciascia's testimony on the war of Spain is quite revealing of both a moral and a historical condition—a theme developed in a later short story, L'antimonio, which is imbued with the tragic sense of death and destiny, and can stand a comparison with the much longer and more famous novels L'Espoir by André Malraux and, obviously, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway….
From this point on, the inquiry into the present develops along two directions: on the one hand Sciascia gives a bare documentation of the way the poor live: on the other, he exerts his bitter satire—which at times reaches the grotesque—on the vices of the bourgeoisie and of the ruling classes. (p. 15)
Such is the "sociological" background of Sciascia's Sicily, to which one can apply, literally, the following sociological description by Raffaele Crovi:
The social units of the peasant's world in the South are still the family and the town community—not the individual and the national community…. The peasant's society is still an object, not a subject, of political power; it judges good and evil instinctively, according to rules of utility and conservation; it tends, finally, to transform religious beliefs and popular forms of culture, traditions and customs into irrational myths.
Sciascia's stories are deeply rooted in this background. Gli zii di Sicilia, for instance, depicts the ideals of the poor as reflected in the popular imagination. "Uncle Sam" on one side, with the disappointment of a young boy when he meets his big and vulgar Italo-American relatives; "Uncle Joe," that is Stalin, on the other, with the gradual disappointment of the cobbler Calogero whenever international politics contradict his naive faith….
The trouble is that all the expectations of the Sicilians are sooner or later frustrated. Il giorno della civetta is the account of a murder committed by the mafia and of the efforts of a young captain of the carabinieri, the Northerner Bellodi, to find the culprits: efforts that in the end remain utterly vain because of political support for the mafia bosses in Palermo and in Rome. Given the subject, the novel is not written "with the full liberty of expression which a writer should have"—as Sciascia feels obliged to point out in a note: a further proof of the terrible truth contained (and to a certain extent disguised) in this novelistic account. Nevertheless, Sciascia is very effective in unfolding his dry and nervous narration underlined by a sober compassion…. (p. 19)
The history of Sicily … fascinated Sciascia, who traces back the virtues and the vices of today in the past centuries, in search of the identity not of himself, but of his land and of his people first of all…. Il Consiglio d'Egitto especially reaches beautifully poetic and human results in this search. In XVIII century Palermo, the erudite Abbé Vella invents an Arab code which annuls the feudal prerogatives of the Barons, while the young Jacobin lawyer Di Blasi attempts a revolt but fails and undergoes torture and death. The events are narrated through brilliant and witty dialogues, erudite references, social and moral concern ("the right of the peasant to be a man," the frightful absurdity of torture), images of serene and sensual beauty, recurrent thoughts of death, and sudden lyrical passages ("guitars like crickets in the night," for instance, as in a line by Garcia Lorca). In Il Consiglio d'Egitto the pragmatic power of the word becomes also a vital and aesthetic power, thus confirming what Sciascia had stated earler: "I believe in the mystery of words, I believe that words can become life, destiny—exactly as they become beauty."
But perhaps the words which summarize the poetical and moral world of Sciascia—his Sicily—are to be found in the beautiful short story Il Quarantotto…. These words are said by Ippolito Nievo to Garibaldi, but it is as if Sciascia were speaking to himself and to all of us:
I believe in the Sicilians who speak little, in the Sicilians who don't get excited, in the Sicilians who suffer silently inside themselves: the poor who greet us with a tired gesture, almost from a distance in the centuries; and Colonel Carini, always so silent and aloof, full of melancholy and boredom but ready to act at any moment: a man who seems to have no hope, yet who is the heart itself of hope—the silent, fragile hope of the best Sicilians…. A hope, I would say, which fears itself, which fears words and is familiar instead with death.
Such is the Sicily of Sciascia…. Sicily in time, a region of the world; but above all a timeless Sicily, a region of the human soul. (pp. 20-1)
Gian-Paolo Biasin, in Italian Quarterly, Summer-Fall, 1965.
A plot summary might hint at a Jesuitical remake of And Then There Were None: cassocked participants in a retreat for "spiritual gymnastics" are reduced in number as one is shot (while praying in moving squad formation), a second is bludgeoned, and a third—supervising priest-hotelier Don Gaetano—turns up a possible suicide. But, even more than in Equal Danger (1973), Sciascia submerges suspense and detection under dense, witty dialogues—here touching on Don Juanism, medieval Christ portraiture, poetry, Voltaire—and under the musings of the narrator, a non-participating painter-observer who has whimsically come to the monastery with "no worries, no anxieties" except for a "tiny but tenacious trinity neurosis." Guilt, political corruption, and the hovering image of the Devil-in-glasses darkly predominate as public prosecutor Scalambri ("a sphinx") investigates. There's fine Italian wine here, but for connoisseurs of slim, black-bordered belles lettres, not bodies in the library. (p. 307)
Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1977 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), March 15, 1977.
In I pugnalatori, Leonardo Sciascia investigates for himself the contemporary investigation of a celebrated Sicilian crime of the last century; he believes that it was, for motives as predictable as they were dishonourable, botched.
The conspiracy, a clever exercise in the now commonplace "strategia della tensione", was a political one. Its leader, locally, was the Principe Sant 'Elia, a nobleman generally thought to be a supporter of Italian unity and the House of Savoy but who seems in fact to have been in the pay of the Bourbons, currently plotting to recover the island they had lost in 1860. The hero of Sciascia's plain and bitter account of the case is the prosecutor Guido Giacosa, an honest, moderate Piedmontese who was thoroughly sickened by his exposure to the feudal values of Sicily. Sciascia accepts Sant 'Elia's guilt and has retold this upsetting story in the belief that Sicily today is every bit as bad as Sicily in 1862. The forms of corruption are the same and so are the forms of illusion: Sicilians feel an absurd nostalgia for a past of order and decency which actually the island has never known. Sciascia has assembled his narrative from the records with extreme simplicity and economy; the indignation which he allows himself he intends as a corrective to the irony of so many of his fellow-Sicilians, because irony expresses fatalism and kills all hope of improvement in the morality of Italian institutions.
Percival Blake, "Sicilian Capers," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 25, 1977, p. 334.