January 13, 1987
In Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, the philosophical Prince Fabrizio explains sadly to a visitor, a liberal reformer urging Italian national unity, why 19th-century Sicily will not join the modern world: “the Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery.. ..“ A curious and pathetic illusion, this. Mortification would seem a more appropriate response to Sicilian history and culture than vanity. The guiding principles of Sicilian society, at least as it is portrayed in 19th- and early 20th-century Italian literature, are envy, jealousy, superstition, avarice, cunning, unremitting suspiciousness, and everlasting vindictiveness. The stubbornly adhered-to -- and frequently romanticized-- Sicilian ideals of onore, vendetta and omerta mean, in practice, that all women are property, that all grievances are mortal, and that all outsiders are untrustworthy. D.H. Lawrence, who probably knew and loved Sicily better than any other modern non-Italian, was aghast at the mores of the Sicilian village: “so squalid, so pottering, so despicable; like a crawling of beetles.” At their worst, Sicilians of the traditional stripe can make the wiliest and most grasping of Balzacian villains seen like the most ethereally pure of Dickensian heroines. The Mafia and the Inquisition, two of the most successful institutions in the island’s history, are about what they (being only a couple of generations removed, I should say “we”) deserve.
Nevertheless, from this unpromising human material some enduring literature has been fashioned. Giovanni Verga, one of the founders of European naturalism, produced several renowned novels and stories et in Sicily, as did the young Luigi Pirandello, for all his later cosmopolitanism. Southern Italy, with its similar social and cultural conditions, was the setting of Ignazio Silone’s widely admired fiction, including his masterpiece, Bread and Wine. One of the host popular Italian books of this century, Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, chronicles the encounter of an urban intellectual from the North, exiled by Mussolini to a village in the rural South, with his premodern countrymen.
To this slender but distinguished line one may add the contemporary Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia. Born in 1921, he has spent most of his life as a schoolteacher. In the 1950s he began to write historical/political sketches of his native region, which were collected in his first book, Salt in the Wound. Around the same time, he began writing fiction; Sicilian Uncles is his first collection. His subsequent fiction became progressively more playful, allusive, and oblique. Candido is an updated version, with modern Italian characters, of Voltaire’s fable. The Council of Egypt is an historical tale about a forged manuscript; though not quite as baroque as The Name of the Rose, it is nearly as erudite and as epistemologically suggestive. Mafia Vendetta, A Man’s Blessing, Equal Danger, and One Way or Another are detective novels, all of them featuring murder, political conspiracy, and an ambiguous outcome in which, true to Sicilian reality, something less than justice is done. The Wine-Dark Sea is a collection of short stories, Pirandellian in their combination of whimsy and melancholy. Though Sciascia is one of Europe’s most eminent living writers, English translations of all his works have been in and out of print; so every new translation or reissue, like this one from Carcanet, is an event.
Sicilian Uncles is the most political in content and the most conventionally realistic in form of Sciascia’s fiction, and it is arguably his best. It consists of four novellas. In “The American Aunt,” a boy observes the arrival of the occupying American army and the subsequent metamorphosis of his town-- a ritual of Sicilian history -- from hostility to hospitality. He cadges cigarettes from the soldiers and sells than to his layabout uncle, who mourns for the “respect” and “glory” that Mussolini’s conquests had brought Italy. Along with the soldiers, there begins to arrive a stream of parcels from the townspeople’s American relatives. It is like a first installment of the Marshall plan, and like the later installments, it is accompanied by frequent exhortations to vote against the Communists in the postwar elections.
Eventually the boy’s aunt arrives from Brooklyn with her family and a trunkful of gifts, whose distribution is supervised by the Sicilian uncle, formerly pro-Fascist but now staunchly pro-American. The aunt’s triumph is a little muted: she finds the island not quite so poor and primitive as in her girlhood memories and her fantasies of benevolence. But she finds something else, too: a husband for her daughter in the canny, courtier-like uncle. This encounter between New World wealth and Old World subtlety is, in its way, reminiscent of Henry James -- though nothing could be less Jamesian than Sciascia’s laconic style.
The Italian post-World War II elections, in which the Communists lost to the Christian Democrats, took place in 1948. Exactly a century earlier, the spectre of revolution had likewise haunted Sicily, and was likewise beaten back. The narrator of “Forty Eight” is also a boy. His father is the gardener of Baron Garziano of Castro, who, along with the Bishop and the Prefect, incarnates the traditional triple nemesis of the Sicilian peasantry: Church, State, and landed aristocracy. When the European revolution of 1848 sets off tremors even in Castro, the terrified Baron and the wily Bishop manage to ride out the storm and return to their customary pursuits: the Baron to adultery and the Bishop to embezzlement. But twelve years later the spectre returns in the form of Garibaldi, whose troops (including the narrator, now a young man) are in the process of unifying Italy. Ever a survivor, the Baron welcomes and abjectly flatters Garibaldi -- though enough of the Red Shirts see through his cajolery to suggest that the old order is no longer invulnerable.
In both these stories, the ingenuousness of the child-narrator highlights the ubiquitous, ineffable rascality of Sicilian adults. This contrast is the source of much of Sciascia’s humor. For example, the pro-Fascist uncle in “The American Aunt,” who grumbles that Mussolini is too soft on political opponents, is full of terrors when the tide turns:
"'The Communists!” he said. “Neither you nor your father under stand anything of what’s going on. They’re coming now. You’ll see those murderers arrive right here, burning the churches, destroying families, pulling people from their beds and shooting them.'
My uncle was thinking of himself. He was in bed at least sixteen hours a day. I pictured him being dragged from his bed by the feet-- which pleased me-- but I wasn’t so pleased at the thought he might be shot."
The note of compassion in that last sentence is characteristic of Sciascia. Notoriously, Sicilian speech is sly and melodramatic by turns; the effect is ridiculous but endearing. Sciascia renders it sardonically, unsentimentally, with affection but without condescension.
“The American Aunt” and “Forty Eight” are exquisitely wrought stories, in part because. their author maintains a certain aesthetic distance: the comic invention is so exuberant that moral and political meanings remain latent. The other two stories in Sicilian Uncles, “Antimony” and “The Death of Stalin,” are more directly political; Sciascia’s wry humanism is closer to the surface. But if they are not quite so coolly elegant, they are even more affecting.
In “The Death of Stalin,” the shoemaker Calogero Schiro is a loyal Communist and a fervent admirer of Stalin, whom he defends against the continual imprecations of the parish priest. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 tests his faith and gives the priest something to gloat over. But, helped by the appearance of Stalin in a dream, he reasons it out: the Non-Aggression Pact is a trap for Hitler; Stalin is biding his time. The priest is skeptical, but Calogero is gleeful at his discovery: “Stalin’s the greatest man in the world,’ he said. “To think of traps like that you need a brain as big as a fifty-pound sack of flour.’”
There are other troubling developments-- the annexation of Poland, the invasion of Finland, the liquidation of Stalin’s generals, the loss of the postwar elections-- but Calogero keeps the faith. Then the hardest blow falls: Stalin dies and his “mistakes” come to light. Even the Party admits them. Calogero is shaken; the priest exults. Again he tries to reason it out: Stalin’s “brain was beginning to crumble with always having to think about the benefit of mankind: at a certain point he became an eccentric.” But he’s too honest not to end up dissatisfied and confused.
“The Death of Stalin” is extremely funny. But even more important, Sciascia shows that although Calogero was deceived, he was something more dignified than a dupe. To acknowledge the horrible crimes of Stalinism, and at the sane time do justice to the honorable aspirations it exploited, is difficult; it has rarely been done better than here. As the Germans retreat before the victorious Russian armies, Calogero has a reverie:
"Stalin was coming down into the very heart of Europe, bringing Communism and Justice. Thieves and usurers were trembling, and all those spiders who wove the world’s riches and its injustices. In every city that the Red Army reached, Calogero imagined dark swains in flight: the men of oppression and injustice convulsed with animal terror; while in the light-filled piazzas the workers mobbed Stalin’s troops. Comrade Stalin, Marshal Stalin, Uncle Joe, everybody’s uncle, protector of the poor and weak, the man with justice in his heart. Calogero closed every reasoning out of the things wrong with Regalpetra and the world by pointing to the portrait, “Uncle Joe’ll take care of it,” and he thought it had been he who had invented the familiar nickname, which by that tine all the comrades in Regalpetra were using. On the contrary, all the farm laborers and sulfur miners in Sicily, all the poor who believed in hope, used to call him “Uncle Joe,” as they once had done to Garibaldi. They used the name “Uncle” for all the men who brought justice or vengeance, the hero or the capomafia: the idea of justice always shines when vindictive thoughts are decanted. Calogero had been interned, his comrades there had instructed him in doctrine, but he couldn’t think of Stalin as anything other than an “Uncle” who could arm for a vendetta and strike decisively a baccagliu that is, in the slang of all Sicilian “Uncles,” against the enemies of Calogero Schiro: Cavaliere Pecorilla, who had sent him into internment; Gangemi, the sulfur miner, who had refused to pay him for resoling a shoe; and Dr. La Ferla, who had distrained him of over two hundredweight of wheat to pay for an operation on his groin, which a butcher could have done better."
There is no need to detail the ironies in this passage, or the fate of Calogero’s hopes; I could hardly bear to, in any case. Still, this homely vision -- this jumble of ancient grievance, local prejudice and personal pain -- seem to me as worthy of respect as the loftiest flights of Gramsci.
Stalinism and Fascism had another fateful encounter: the Spanish Civil War. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia begins with a now-famous anecdote: his brief meeting with an illiterate Italian militiaman, who symbolized for him everything brave and decent about the Republican cause -- everything that, like Calogero Schiro’s vision, was frustrated and betrayed by Stalinism. The protagonist of “Antimony” is also a young Italian militiaman, this time on the Fascist side, one of the many unemployed Italians shipped to Spain by Mussolini to fight for Franco. But the Fascist firing squads nauseate him; and he comes to realize that the people he is fighting in Spain and the people he lives among in Sicily -- the peasants and sulfur miners -- have a common enemy. “I would say that the least peasant in my home district, the most ‘benighted,’ as we say, that is, the most ignorant, the one most cut off from a knowledge of the world, if he had been brought to the Aragon front and had been told to find out which side people like himself were on and go to them, he would have made for the Republican trenches without hesitation. ...” It is a memorable political education. Despite its brevity, “Antimoy” ranks with Homage to Catalonia and Andre Malraux’s Man’s Hope as one of the finest imaginative products of the Spanish Civil War.
By the end of that war W.H. Auden was to write, in deepest disillusionment, that “intellectual disgrace/Stares from every human face.” Very few politically engaged writers have emerged from this century’s ideological wars with their intellectual honor intact. Sciascia may be numbered among them. The humanism that shines through the fiction of Silone, the films of De Sica, the essays of Chiaromonte, Camus, Orwell, and Dwight Macdonald -- this, leavened with the bittersweet humor of the immemorially defeated Sicilian, is Sciascia’s sensibility as well. The miracle, even more in his case than in theirs, is that so much disillusionment and defeat could yield so much generosity and hope.
“All my books taken together form one,” Sciascia has written: “a Sicilian book which probes the wounds of past and present and develops as the history of the continuous defeat of reason and of those who have been personally overcome and annihilated in that defeat.” Defeat, yes; but there is hope in Sciascia’s “Sicilian book,” too. In Politics and the Novel Irving Howe once paid tribute to Silone in terms that will do equally well to sum up Sciascia’s achievement: “He remains hopeful, with a hopefulness that has nothing to do with optimism, that from the hidden inarticulate resources of the poor, which consist neither of intelligence nor nobility but rather of a training in endurance and an education in ruse -- that from all this something worthy of the human may yet emerge.