Salt in the Wound
The Man Who Plays Alone
A Passion for Sicilians: The World Around Danilo Dolci
There is no doubt in my mind that one of the few living Italian novelists of the first rank writing today, perhaps the best of all, is the Sicilian Leonardo Sciascia. This statement is not so bold as it sounds. The competition has lately become weak and scarce. Most well-known contemporary Italian novelists have stopped writing serious books for a variety of reasons: some are dead (like Pavese and the other two Sicilians, Vittorini and Tomasi di Lampedusa); some alive but resting on their oars (like Silone, Moravia, Soldati, and Carlo Levi); or some (like Pasolini) find the movies a more rewarding and less Procustean field of activity.
Who is left? Minor provincial masters, promising young men who may or may not write anything durable in the future, and patient craftsmen who fabricate intricate pastiches, men whose efforts seem directed mainly to surprise or shock the ordinary reader. This is, of course, an old tradition in Italy, which goes back to the baroque saying of Cavalier Marino: “É del poeta il fin la meraviglia.” Some of these books manage to astound some of the people all of the time (a few literally frighten them out of their wits) but do not seem to have what it takes to last.
Sciascia’s books look as if they could. He appears to possess some of the gifts of a great writer. To begin with, he writes extremely well. (This is not indispensable, to be sure—Italo Svevo wrote wretched Italian, a spiky commercial jargon translated from the German with provincial idioms—but it is useful.) His use of language is economical, forceful, transparent, intense. He keeps a curb on his emotions. His books are original inventions, solidly constructed, conceived as one smooth unit from which it is almost impossible to cut a page, a paragraph, even a word. His reality is multiform and can be looked at from several sides. Though reportorial accuracy surely adds nothing to the excellence of works of fiction, the reader is stupidly pleased and reassured to discover that Sciascia’s facts are as reliable as Hemingway’s. (Hemingway’s description of Milan during World War One, for example, is as meticulously exact as a scientific survey, down to the names of obscure streets, small hotels, bars, apéritifs, cigarettes, the habits and talk of the people.) In addition to all this, Sciascia has one advantage many Italian writers envy him for. He is Sicilian.
More famous Italian writers have come from Sicily than from any other Italian region of comparable size. (Among those best known abroad are Verga, Pirandello, Vittorini, and Tomasi di Lampedusa and, among the less known, Capuana, Di Roberto, Rosso di San Secondo, Brancati, Patti, to mention only a few.) In other words, Sciascia (like famous novelists from the American South) had the luck to be born in a defeated, impoverished, tragic, and misunderstood land where injustice and brutality prevail, where emotions run secretly beneath the surface like Carso rivers and sometimes explode violently like those of Homeric heroes. Indeed the scene in which Ulysses tirelessly slaughters his wife’s suitors one after the other in front of his young son could have taken place anywhere in Sicily and not many centuries ago.
Sciascia has such deep roots in his native island that his books (like most Sicilian novels) seem to have written themselves out of family recollections, the reminiscences and gossip exchanged in the piazza, the caffé, or the Circolo dei Nobili, without any important inventive effort on his part. His incandescent hatred of evil, his love of liberty and reason shine through his tranquil, spare prose like the head of Minerva through thousand-lire bank-notes when held against the light, and yet his love for his native country manages in the end to embrace everything, its evil vices as well as its virtues. In fact, he contemplates with the same affection and compassion the sunbaked landscape, the crumbling houses, the princes’ palazzi, the garbage-littered streets, the starving and thieving children, the miserable victims of century-old oppression, the ignorant priests, the Mafia’s cruel rule as well as its victims, as if he were proud, in a curious way, that such climatological misfortunes, historical catastrophes, heroic feats of resignation, and monstrous crimes could only happen among his people. This point of view, however, as well as the fact that he does not explicitly propose any sure-fire political panacea, prevents his books from becoming merely well-written tracts, as many similar ones are.
I must admit that my valuation of Leonardo Sciascia (whom I have never met) is not shared by professional critics. Only when pinned down in private eye-to-eye debate will an eminent Roman critic reluctantly admit that yes, in a way, when isolated from the contemporary scene as if he were already dead, Sciascia should be considered one of the three or four greatest, surely one of the most durable authors, perhaps even the numero uno of his generation. Publicly and officially, however, the same eminent critic will classify him only among the top twenty or thirty, in a group with other writers whose work is obviously transient but easier to catalogue, and whose Marxist or pseudo-Marxist ideologies and motivations are more fashionable. This is probably partly because Sciascia does not live in Rome, where trends and reputations are determined, belongs to no coterie, is rejected alike by the Marxists and the anti-Marxists, and does little to advance his career. He seldom leaves Sicily (as if, like Antaeus, he feared to lose his strength the moment he lost contact with his native earth). In fact, he does not behave like a Sicilian. Most Sicilians are always eager to flee from their island and are past masters in the arts of insinuating themselves into powerful coteries and of promoting their fames and careers.
That he keeps aloof from current fashions and admires discredited and obsolete models he readily admits in his Preface to Salt in the Wound, a book known in Italian as Le parrocchie di Regalpetra. This work, recently published in the United States, was his first. He wrote it in 1954, when he was about thirty-three years old, an unknown elementary school teacher in his native Recalmuto. It took him only a few days to finish the first draft of this chronicle of his little town during his lifetime; it was partly written in school while the boys drew pictures or solved problems of arithmetic. He did not know at the time for whom or why he was writing and what he would do with the manuscript once it was finished. Like most other autobiographical books, it was really written by the author for himself, in an effort to make sense of all the disorderly, puzzling, contradictory things he had observed through the years. It is a meandering and fascinating tale of events in Recalmuto (which he transparently concealed under the invented name of Regalpetra), couched in the unfashionable literary style of La Ronda‘s writers.
La Ronda was a small but influential magazine published between 1919 and 1923, at about the time of Sciascia’s birth, by young men back from World War I who were in revolt against the bombast and affectation, the decorative use of archaic words and twisted syntax, which plagued the Italian literary style of the times. They stove to write clear, simple, well-ordered, and polished prose. (“I liberated myself of all the Latinism that was imposed on my generation,” Sciascia confesses.) The best writers in the period between the two wars had worked for La Ronda or had been influenced by it. But by 1954 they were mature or old men whom the younger generation derided.
Why La Ronda? Why such an unfashionable choice? Sciascia, being a provincial amateur buried in the heart of a distant island, far from the centers of fashion, might have thought La Ronda was the latest thing. On the other hand, he might have been born that way. It may be that his prose naturally belongs to the unadorned and muscular style of Italian writers before the Counter Reformation and the Spanish rule, the style of Machiavelli and Guicciardini. Sciascia himself proclaimed his pre-Baroque preference for construction rather than ornamentation in these words: “It’s more important for me to follow the evolution of the mystery novel than that of esthetic theories.” These are, of course, fighting words in a country which cultivates esoteric literary cults.
Sciascia is just as difficult to catalogue from a political point of view. I believe he thinks of himself as a Marxist of sorts. His books are filled with immense Tolstoyan pity for the derelict, admiration for their courage, and the implicit hope that slowly, if other men like him go on writing honestly, denouncing things as they are, analyzing the historical and psychological causes of the Sicilian misfortunes, something will happen. “The poor in this town,” he writes, obviously including himself among them, “have a profound faith in the written word: a slash of the pen, they say, like a slash of the sword, is enough ‘to right a wrong or rout an injustice.”
He is trying to deceive himself, of course. Sicilians do not read many newspapers (Italians read fewer newspapers than any other European people, even fewer than the Turks, and Sicilians read fewer newspapers than other Italians). When the poor talk about “words righting wrongs like a slash of the sword” they mean words written by officials, notari, lawyers, judges (Sicilians are particularly fond of protracted legal wrangles, mostly over land boundaries and wills), or by politicians in power, Mafia chiefs (who usually write little but who might redress a wrong or two in their own peculiar way), and surely not by novelists or poets.
Sciascia clearly is working hard to persuade himself that his own words may be useful, that his books may really help to change things. They may well be, in the end: they may change a few things. Who can tell? He has written several successful books in the last few years, two admirable contemporary novels (“Il giorno della civetta” and “A ciascuno il suo“), which have been distorted into shoddy popular movies, one ingenious historical novel, “Il consiglio d’Egitto,” and a series of essays.
What cures does he suggest? When he tries to indicate a solution, Sciascia puts on not Marx’s Prince Albert coat, nor Lenin’s peaked cap, but the silk suit, powdered wig, and knee-breeches of a philosophe. “I believe in human reason,” he says, “and in the liberty and justice it engenders, but here in Italy you’re accused of waving a red flag as soon as you begin to speak the language of reason.” In fact, many benpensanti are sure he is a Communist. (He might think so himself, for all I know.) On the other hand, it is pointless to define his exact political position. His politics are not important: his books are—Salt in the Wound, above them all, the matrix of his subsequent works. All the principal themes he later developed are to be found in it. All his books are, in his own words, “one Sicilian book which probes the wounds of the 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.”