Leonardo Sciascia Sciascia, Leonardo (Vol. 9) - Essay

Sciascia, Leonardo (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sciascia, Leonardo 1921–

Sciascia is a Sicilian novelist, essayist, poet, and dramatist who considers the depiction of social iniquities a major function of his art. Despite his use of Sicily as setting and his frequent use of the Mafia to represent evil, Sciascia's work has a sense of immediacy and universality. (See also CLC, Vol. 8.)

Leonardo Sciascia's novel of life in Sicily, "A Man's Blessing" …, is a surprise, coming as it does from the author of "The Council of Egypt," which was a very coolly ironic and detached piece of storytelling concerned mainly with social hypocrisy in the manner of Voltaire or Anatole France. This time out, Sciascia is paying the homage of imitation to Graham Greene. Not, it should be emphasized, to the later Greene, soupy with Jamesian intimations of undeclarable subtleties, but to the earlier writer whose inspirations were the darker side of Robert Louis Stevenson's imagination and whose manner was such as to make all but the most attentive readers feel that they were dealing with something wholesome and bracing in the way of an action or suspense story…. [In Greene's "The Man Within" it] is the virtues—an innocent belief in them, and striving for them—that undo the hero; and the message is that to love, to trust, and to believe is to betray oneself into the hands of the wicked. Sciascia has taken up this theme and has written a characteristically polished and elegant story which purports to be a thriller about an ordinary man's drift into conflict with the Mafia in a small Sicilian town—a matter of an obtuse man blindly putting himself on the spot—but which is in reality a paradigm of the condition of the good man in the modern world. The protagonist is a solitary, brooding individual, gifted with intelligence and sensibility, and cursed with a belief in justice and a sense of loyalty to his fellow-creatures. One of his acquaintances becomes the victim of an apparently senseless murder, and chance puts him in possession of a clue that offers him the possibility of discovering its meaning and exposing the killers…. He moves about the torpid town, picking up a thread here and another there, slowly approaching the active agent of evil that he is seeking, becoming less ordinary and less inconspicuous every day as he acquires a dangerous knowledge of the realities that surround him. There is, however, to be no crisis, no agon, no meting out of justice. When he has achieved a certain degree of visibility against the darkness with which he is at war, it silently engulfs him. He disappears, and his body is never found. He has not even marked the surface of evil. Once he has gone, Sciascia turns his knife in our wounds: he lets us hear the townspeople talking over the disappearance. They have known all along the meaning of the original crime, and just where the missing man's clue would lead him. (p. 144)

This graceful piece of storytelling is in fact a savagely expressed cry of despair. Sciascia has moved on from the belief that life is a comedy, which would be much more enjoyable for the actors if they would only be a little more reasonable and a little less emotional, to discover its tragic essence. This account of his discovery, in the form of a novel, is at once moving and horrifying, and may well in time win itself recognition as one of the minor classics of extreme pessimism. (pp. 144-45)

Anthony West, in The New Yorker (© 1969 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 3, 1969.

This is a fallow period for the Italian novelist; no one major writer has come forward internationally. A familiar tale: some of the most talented have moved toward the films, television and magazines. But in Sicily there is a novelist respected by his peers and readers for grappling with old themes that reach down to the condition of life and justice around the Mediterranean. Leonardo Sciascia … has remained close to his roots and the sources of his material. Even more telling, he is aware of writing against a Sicilian literary past that includes the social feeling of Verga, the puzzles of Pirandello, the historical depth of Lampedusa….

Crime, the police, the peasant and the Mafia continue to insinuate themselves into his books. Often the forlorn search for justice takes place in a fictional small town, not unlike his native Bacalmuto, in the province of Agrigento, which is best described in his book, "Salt in the Wound."…

Sciascia is a careful and slow writer who has turned out a unified body of work in the last 20 years. He was puzzled and saddened when I told him that in the United States his books sometimes fall into the mystery bin. "At least I hope they will be regarded as metaphysical mysteries," he said, eyes twinkling.

This is precisely the way to read his … novel, "Equal Danger"…. It follows an overly bold police inspector peeling away the motives behind a series of killings. His search takes him on a journey through the human brambles and political apparatus of Sicilian justice. The pacing is swift and yet simple—a Costa-Gavras thriller that depends on more than murder. What emerges is a logical solution rooted in political rot and cynicism. And a tiny ray of hope: that by passing on the facts to a writer-character, perhaps truths will be passed on to many people seeking honest answers. (p. 39)

Herbert Mitgang, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 16, 1973.

Signore Sciascia is rightly considered as one of Italy's major writers.

The subject of all his stories, novels and essays is always Sicily…. He is famous in Italy for his denunciation of the Mafia, but his keen intelligence has explored many periods of Sicilian history and many aspects of Sicilian life. His works range from something very much like crime stories to erudite dissertations on minute points of provincial history, but they are always good, and often excellent literature—even if their language, grammar and syntax at times baffle the non-Sicilian reader.

What interests Signore Sciascia most is the relation between men (especially the poor and defenceless) and the Law. Hence his persistent investigation of the ways, practices and tactics of the Mafia, on the one hand, and of the Roman Catholic Inquisition on the other. Il giorno della civetta (published in English as Mafia Vendetta, 1963) describes the hard, right-minded, courageous, but finally ineffective struggle of a young police officer (from the North of Italy) against the insidious, formidable power of the proteiform organization that has poisoned the past hundred years of Sicilian life. The blood-curdling events of the story are related with the same cold lucidity that regularly assists the Mafia in the remorseless, professional execution of its crimes. Yet Signore Sciascia's indignation at the reign of terror and injustice that the Law is unable to eradicate is made very apparent, and Il giorno della civetta has done a great deal to awaken the Italian conscience to the moral, social and political problems of the Mafia.

Artistically, however, Signore Sciascia's second "Mafia novel", A Ciascuno il suo (1963) is much better. Here the Mafia's antagonist is a fellow Sicilian, and there are more of the historical and sociological digressions needed in Il giorno della civetta to illuminate the contrast between the policeman from the North, with his civilized obedience to the Law, and the Sicilian's medieval system of submission to force….

Il contesto (1971) was a disappointment. It may have been that to move from the limited, familiar and more or less clear-cut scene of Sicilian life to the vast conundrum of Italian politics was in itself an impossible ambition, or that Signore Sciascia's deliberate, utilitarian intention of castigating Italy's inane political parties … could not be reconciled with his essentially poetic imagination, but the fact is that Il contesto is far less telling than his two Mafia novels. It caused an uproar among the politicians, but added little to the author's literary reputation.

Il mare colore del vino, on the other hand, shows Signore Sciascia at his best. Although it does not contain anything new, being a collection of short stories written between 1959 and 1972 and published in various newspapers, it is important because, as the author himself points out, it offers a kind of summary of his life's work. And this summary reveals an admirable consistency of both inspiration and style….

[Although] Signore Sciascia is generally keener on denouncing the vices of the Sicilians than on extolling their virtues, there seems no doubt that he approves their "religion of the family". The title story of this collection … certainly suggests as much….

Signore Sciascia's other favourite themes are present too: his concern with the miscarriage of justice; his very Sicilian interest in adultery, with no pity for the cuckold, of course; his zest for popular anecdotes and his historical curiosity; even his bent for political satire. But the fact that in a collection of stories of cunning deceit, sickening failure, ghastly crimes and violent death, the place of honour is given to the only story that contains an affirmation of faith in life, is very indicative. In such a bitter cocktail one is relieved to be given some small taste of Sicilian honey.

"In Praise of Cretins," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 5, 1973, p. 1155.

Ettore Majorana was a brilliant, reticent young physicist from Sicily who vanished in 1938. At the time it was supposed he had committed suicide…. His body was not found. In this short, speculative book [La scomparsa di Majorana], Leonardo Sciascia goes over the case again. He analyses Majorana as a man, as a fellow Sicilian both morbid and unsociable; and as a scientist, clever and informed enough to have foreseen the homicidal uses to which his researches into atomic structure might lead. The contemporary investigation, such as it was, into Majorana's disappearance also interests Sciascia because it shows how police and politics fitted together in Fascist Italy. This episode from recent history extends the series of unsolved mysteries Sciascia has invented in his novels to point the finger at the corrosive forces in Italian public life.

His strongest reason for writing La scomparsa di Majorana, however, was to have his say against the misuse of science. Majorana, a religious man, is made here into a precocious hero of the ethical crisis in science….

Sciascia has integrated the rare facts of Majorana's life, the records of the official inquiry, the rumours his disappearance gave rise to, and his own moral preoccupations in a book which is as much essay as story. He invents nothing and is therefore forced to use whatever he has learnt about Majorana to his one end, which is to raise him into a martyr for a more humane idea of science than that generally held by his fellow scientists. Such coherence is frankly unnatural and Sciascia's narrative barely holds together as he arranges the data to his own best advantage. Nor does he face what one would have thought was the most pressing of all moral questions about Majorana: why, given what he knew and felt, he broke with science so silently. Self-effacement is no part of martyrdom. Sciascia has tried, honourably but not quite successfully, to make a secretive, perhaps neurotic young man into the public victim of a world unworthy of him.

Peter Lloyd, "The Case of the Vanishing Scientist," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 30, 1976, p. 101.

A well-known artist driving aimlessly down a highway sees a sign with the words "Hermitage of Zafer 3" and decides to investigate. He finds an ugly concrete barracks, run by priests and described by them as both a hermitage and a hotel. The man in charge, an enigmatic eminence named Don Gaetano, wears glasses identical to those of the Devil in a painting in the hermitage's chapel. Soon, the artist learns, a group of people will arrive to undertake "spiritual exercises," and his curious visit to this strange place leads him through layer after layer of mystery, corruption, and violence. So, roughly, runs the story of [One Way or Another], which has a thin texture of teasing, sardonic dialogue that constantly hints at metaphysical and social satire. Neither a strict mystery nor a fully achieved fantasy, the book draws the reader on while leaving a nagging sense of having missed some important detail. (pp. 87-8)

The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), July 4, 1977.