Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456
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, and one was a mistake, the result of confusion caused by an earthquake. The other—the one who counted—was a wayfarer who had traveled across Sicily; after he praised the smell and taste of her freshly baked bread, she “wanted to see him sated, and it seemed a Christian and charitable act to appease his hunger and thirst for other things.” “Blessed old sow,” her son thinks to himself.
The ironic juxtaposition of these parental infidelities has a humorous aspect, but it serves a further purpose as well. The wayfarer acted as a substitute for Costantino, whom he resembled in temperament, and his attention to Concezione restored the pride in herself as a woman that her husband’s neglect had undermined. Now, many years later, when it is age and loneliness that beat against that pride, another man who aches with emptiness, her son, has traveled to her across Sicily; in reawakening him to the goodness of life, she is also revitalized.
On the second day of Silvestro’s visit, the denial of death through the sensual affirmation of life becomes even more explicit. When Concezione, who earns a meager living by giving injections, takes her son with her on her rounds of patients suffering from tuberculosis or malaria, she enjoys observing the attractive middle-aged women quicken with excitement as they expose their flesh in his presence; at the same time, she delights in seeing that her son is also aroused. Silvestro, however, remembers a young girl from his childhood who died. She, too, had had injections for her illness; she, too, had removed her chemise in front of him. Suddenly, he has had enough of the game. Death, he states, is real and must be acknowledged. What is unstated but implied in several complex ways is his confrontation with the inevitability of his mother’s death—and his own.
In the next section, while Concezione continues to make her calls, Silvestro befriends a knife grinder, who introduces him to a variety of trades-men. One of them, a harness maker, sees in Silvestro a fellow initiate in a fundamental truth: “The world is big and beautiful, but it has been greatly outraged. Everyone suffers, each for himself, but not for the world that has been outraged, and so the world continues to be outraged.” The sentiment quickly becomes a chorus in the conversation of these workers, who repair to a tavern to assuage their suffering. In an obvious reference to the New Testament (John 4:10-11; 7:38-39), the tavernkeeper calls the wine they drink “living water.” The allusion to Christ’s restoration of the faithful is extended in the company’s singing in praise of the blood of the “Holy Wine Bottle.” A draper, however, denies that the wine has any such property, and he urges the men not to forget the world; “Don’t have illusions,” he keeps repeating. Silvestro embraces the message. As he walks to his mother’s house, he thinks of this one night as many: “the nights of my grandfather, the nights of my father, the nights of Noah, the nights of man, naked in drink and defenseless, humiliated, less of a man than even a child or a corpse.”
The last of the novel’s five main sections begins with Silvestro’s meditation on his father, who, by playacting Shakespeare’s poetically ennobling lines from As You Like It about the transformation of man, tried to subdue the pain of the world’s unremitting insult to him. This memory leads to a hallucination of his brother Liborio as, at once, an eleven-year-old boy and a soldier killed in Italy’s war for national glory. Liborio speaks of the cemetery in which they meet as a theater where, every night, the suffering dead re-create the deeds that shaped history but have been left unsung by any Shakespeare.
The next morning, while great flocks of crows, birds of death, gather around the Ferrauto hillside, a woman interrupts the conversation between mother and son; Silvestro hears the woman say only two words, “Fortunate Mother,” and he knows that she has brought the news of Liborio’s death in battle. After an ironic passage in which Silvestro tells Concezione that her son’s death pays her honor and has earned for her a place in history (one must remember that Elio Vittorini wrote knowing his words would be read by the Fascist authorities), he starts weeping, uncontrollably, for his brother, for his mother, for Sicily, for the world, and for no one. Eventually, he finds himself standing under a monumental bronze statue of a naked woman. The “conversation in Sicily” ends with her “clanging laughter.”
A short epilogue deals with Silvestro’s farewell to his mother, whom he finds washing the feet of an old man. Although the man hides his face, Concezione intimates that he is Silvestro’s father. The son draws close. Surely, he thinks, the man is too old; perhaps he is his grandfather, or even the wayfaring lover who ate his mother’s bread so long ago.
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