(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Narrated in the first person, In Sicily concerns a few days in the life of a thirty-year-old Sicilian, Silvestro Ferrauto, who returns to the village of his youth after having spent half of his life working as a Linotype operator in northern Italy. His account begins, just prior to that visit, while he is enduring a winter in which he feels “haunted by abstract furies”: Despite his certainty that an imminent calamity will seal mankind’s doom, he can summon no emotion. Existence seems a dream without content, and his one desire is to surrender utterly to despair. Not even his wife and daughter can relieve his fascination with nullity.

Then, one day, an envelope arrives addressed in handwriting he recognizes as his father’s; strangely, it bears a postmark from Venice, not Sicily. After some hesitation, he opens the letter and reads that his father has turned his back on his marriage in order to launch a new career and to live with a new woman. The father’s motive in writing the same letter to each of his five sons has not been to ask their forgiveness or understanding—after all, he reasons, in leaving home he is only doing what they had done many years before; moreover, he has assigned his full monthly pension to his wife. Rather, his purpose is to urge his sons to ease their mother’s loneliness by visiting her on her birthday.

Silvestro’s childhood suddenly floods back to him. Memories—of his father, an amateur actor, reciting from William Shakespeare, of the smell of prickly pears, of the sight of the mountains, of the taste of home-baked bread—all become more vivid than any experience he has had in the fifteen years since his departure. The idea of making the journey down the whole length of the peninsula seems too impractical to consider; while on a walk to mail a birthday card to his mother, however, he sees an advertisement for reduced fares to Sicily. That night, unable to fathom quite how it has come about, he finds himself on the train south. Even so, he professes indifference as to his final destination and, after crossing the strait, tries to prove the point by buying a ticket for Syracuse, a route opposite to the one leading to his village. A day of idling in the big city brings no satisfaction, however, and so, upon discovering that the birthday card is still in his pocket, he sets out on the tortuous mountain roads to his mother’s house.

As soon as he arrives, Silvestro is overcome by the feeling that he has emerged from a vacuous dream into the intense experience of life as a twofold reality. He is simultaneously boy and adult, and his mother Concezione’s age and role magically change as his mental perspective flickers. This shimmering sense of reality produced by the superimposition of the past on the present (and of the present on the past) is especially keen when the conversation concerns the broader implications of his parents’ sexual relationships.

Concezione harbors no bitterness because of her husband Costantino’s desertion or even because of his periodic escapes into the valley with various women—indeed, she admits to being rather attracted by that sort of masculine swagger and romantic impulsiveness—but she resents that, although he wrote lyrics to the “dirty sows” who were his paramours and called them queens, he treated her as uninspiring and ordinary. Silvestro, sensing an opportunity to satisfy his curiosity, asks: “Were you a dirty sow when you did the thing with other men?” His mother quickly defends herself. There were only two, she says,...

(The entire section is 1456 words.)