An Arid Heart
If anyone wanted a proof that still today there are two Italys, the Italy of the automobile and the Italy of the donkey, he could do no better than read these novels together. Cassola writes about the north, the “middle-class” life of a calm, pleasure-seeking society; Sciascia about Sicily which is like the Roman campagna of a hundred years ago as Stendhal described it, a haunting opera land of passions and baroque lies that seems half oriental.
Carlo Cassola is a workmanlike novelist who accepts the provinciality of European countries today by confining himself to a province of a province; in An Arid Heart this is the Tuscan seacoast between Marina and Leghorn. He is essentially a Flaubertian writer, minutely painstaking, with a style muted to the level of the lives of pedestrian people. You could hardly make a character like Charles Bovary interesting unless you were Flaubert, so one is not kept awake with excitement over An Arid Heart.
Anna and Bice, two orphaned sisters, are brought up by an unmarried aunt who works as a seamstress in a growing seaside resort (the time is before World War II). Seasons pass, the “summer people,” who are another race, come and go, Anna has no feelings for the local boy who wants to marry her, and despises the girls who go with the visitors. Eventually she and Bice both fall in love with Mario, a young man doing his military service at Marina. He jilts Bice for Anna, and Anna encourages him to make love to her. When Mario goes away, Anna—though she wants nobody else—eventually falls for a worthless young man in Cecina, the nearest town, and becomes his mistress. As she doesn’t love him, the adventure soon comes to an end, but when Mario writes to her from America proposing marriage, she answers by telling him the whole story, though knowing that the truth will put an end to their relationship.
The core of An Arid Heart is the molten sea and the beaches and pinewoods of this piece of coast, with the railway running in and out of tunnels between unattractive shapeless towns like Cecina and Leghorn. Cassola puts his story back before 1939 when “getting brown” was not yet obsessive and the beach-revolution, which now employs hundreds of thousands of professional Tarzans and amateur Bardots, was only just beginning. It was then still possible for a girl like Anna to fall back on well-worn simplicities of nature.
If Cassola tries to follow Flaubert’s footsteps along a provincial strip of seaside, Sciascia is an Orwellian. He has adopted the form of fiction, and has written a first-class story of suspense, almost a thriller. But his aim is a moral one, he wants to bring home to his readers what it is like to be a Sicilian under the mafia. As his translator says in an introductory note, “This book has little need for a preface, since it is, as it were, a close-up X-ray photograph of a typical mafia killing, a story which speaks for itself. It would, however, lose its point unless the reader understands that this story of a mafia killing is not fantasy laid in some imaginary land…On the very day I write in Palermo, the night watchman of a building enterprise was riddled with bullets as he sat outside his hut saying the Rosary.”
The mafia, a combination of gang terrorism and the protection racket, has become too deeply rooted in Sicilian psychology to be destroyed in a week or a year. The mafia has its rake-off from water supplies, cattle, shops, businesses—and Italian and foreign aid has flowed not down to the peasants but into the swimming pools of mafia lawyers. Countless thousands of Sicilians know who the big bosses of the mafia are, and who are the local lieutenants. But it is not a question of knowing who they are, but of proving it. How is this to be done when witnesses to assassinations by mafia gunmen can never be persuaded to admit they saw what happened before their eyes? Readers of Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and of Danilo Dolci’s books, will know something of this Sicilian atmosphere of squalor and grandiloquence, of subservience to “those who command” and phallic self-assertion.
Sciascia feels the island in his bones. As he puts it, in the Sicilian conscience “the only institution that really counts is the family…. The family is the Sicilians’ State. The State, as it is for, is extraneous to them, merely a de facto entity based on force; an entity imposing taxes, military service, war, police….” Law is not rational but “something depending on a man, on the thoughts and moods of this man here, on the cut he gave himself shaving or a good cup of coffee he has just drunk.”
Such are the reflections that pass through the mind of Sciascia’s protagonist in Mafia Vendetta, Captain Bellodi of the carabinieri, a north Italian (that is to say, to Sicilians, a foreigner) whose task it is to track down the murderers of a member of the local Co-operative Building Society. The witnesses have escaped and deny all knowledge by the saints and the hierarchy of heaven—except for one inconvenient man who has also been killed. The brothers of the murdered builder sit round, black and brooding, and refuse to speak. A professional informer, who informs in moderation for both mafia and police, has the misfortune to mention two mafia names (his death follows). Bellodi pursues his inquiry, and by a trick worthy of Maigret, obtains confessions. But though he thereby wins some respect from the head of the mafia, there can be no conviction, for lack of evidence. All Bellodi does is to jeopardize his own position, for the mafia interests in Parliament and the Government in Rome can hardly allow a major scandal to be built up out of a minor assassination.
Signor Sciascia’s characters, with their double-dealing motives, their peculiar codes of right and wrong, of honor and religion, could only have been described by a fellow-Sicilian. Time and time again Sciascia summarizes their tortuous minds in a phrase: for instance the superstitious dread of putting anything in writing expressed in the proverb about ink and paper, “White soil, black seed: beware of the man who sows it; he never forgets.” Or the police informer’s thoughts, “From the moment he had heard of Colasberna’s death, the informer had begun thinking out his story. At each detail he added, each little touch, like a painter standing back from his canvas to judge the effect of a brush-stroke, he would say to himself, ‘Perfect…’ And he was still feverishly adding and re-touching even as he told it to the captain.” The grand chivalrous manner of the head of the mafia rounds off an almost perfect circle of Sicilian characters. Absorbing as a novel, this book has much to say about Italy’s growing pains in the twentieth century.