On the Assassins’ Trail

Candido: or, A Dream Dreamed in Sicily

by Leonardo Sciascia, translated by Adrienne Foulke
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 132 pp., $7.95

Since the Second World War, Italy has managed, with characteristic artistry, to create a society that combines a number of the least appealing aspects of socialism with practically all the vices of capitalism. This was not the work of a day. A wide range of political parties has contributed to the invention of modern Italy, a state whose vast metastasizing bureaucracy is the last living legacy anywhere on earth of the house of Bourbon (Spanish branch). In fact, the allegedly defunct Kingdom of the Two Sicilies has now so entirely engulfed the rest of the peninsula that the separation between Italian state and Italian people is nearly perfect.

Although the Italian treasury loves the personal income tax quite as much as other treasuries, any attempt to collect tax money is thwarted not only by the rich (who resemble their counterparts in the land of the free and the home of the tax accountant), but by nearly everyone else. Only those unfortunate enough to live on fixed incomes (e.g., industrial workers, school-teachers) are trapped by the withholding tax, Zio Sam’s sly invention. Since many Italians are either not on a payroll or, if they are, have a second job, they pay little or no personal tax to a state which is then obliged to raise money through a series of value added and sales taxes. Needless to say, the treasury is often in deficit, thanks not only to the relative freedom from taxation enjoyed by its numerous entrepreneurs (capitalist Italy) but also to the constant drain on the treasury of the large state-owned money-losing industrial consortia (socialist Italy).

Last year one fourth of the national deficit went to bail out state-controlled industries. As a result, the Communist Party of Italy is perhaps the only Communist Party anywhere on earth that has proposed, somewhat shyly, the return of certain industries to the private sector of the economy. As the former governor of the Bank of Italy, Guido Carli, put it: “The progressive introduction of socialistic elements into our society has not made us a socialist society. Rather, it has whittled down the space in which propulsive economic forces can operate.”

The Italians have made the following trade-off with a nation-state which none of them has ever much liked: if the state will not interfere too much in the lives of its citizens (that is, take most of their money in personal taxes), the people are willing to live without a proper postal service, police force, medical care—all the usual amenities of a European industrialized society. But, lately, the trade-off has broken down. Italy suffers from high inflation, growing unemployment, a deficit of some $50 billion. As a result, there are many Italians who do not in the least resemble Ms. Wert-muller’s joyous, life-enhancing, singing waiters. Millions of men and women have come to hate the house of Bourbon in whose stifling rooms they are trapped. Therefore, in order to keep from revolution a large part of the population, the government has contrived an astonishing system of pensions and welfare assistance.

In a country with a labor force of 20.5 million people, 13.5 million people are collecting pensions or receiving welfare assistance. Put another way, while the state industries absorb about 5 percent of Italy’s GDP or $9.5 billion, the pensioners get 11 percent or $25.2 billion a year. Though doomed, the Bourbons of Italy are brighter if less efficient than the owners of the United States who operate, quite openly, a superb extortion racket known as the Internal Revenue Service. But where America’s owners are damned if any of their victims are ever going to get any part of the loot raked in (without the right political connections, that is), the shrewd condottiere who control Italy realize that the state must, from time to time, placate with milk from her dugs those babes that a malign history has left in her lupine care.

Ten years ago, in the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta, a forty-eight-year-old schoolteacher and clerk in the state granary was given a pension for life. As a result, the part-time writer Leonardo Sciascia became not only a full-time writer but, recently, he has become a political force…well, no, not exactly a force (individuals, as such, exert little force in Italy’s Byzantine politics) but, rather, a voice of reason in a land where ideology has always tended to take the place of ideas. In the last election, Sciascia stood as a candidate for the Radical Party. The fact that the Radicals nearly quintupled their delegation in the parliament can be attributed, at least in part, to Sciascia’s ability to make plain the obvious. After Marco Panella, the Radical Party’s unusual leader (one is tired of calling him charismatic), Sciascia is now one of the few literary political figures who is able to illuminate a prospect that cannot be pleasing to anyone, Marxist or Christian Democrat or neither.

Elected to the national parliament last spring, Sciascia opted to go to the European parliament instead. “Sicilians,” he muttered, “gravitate either to Rome or to Milan. I like Milan.”1 Presumably, Strasbourg is an acceptable surrogate for Milan. Actually, Sciascia is unique among Sicilian artists in that he never abandoned Sicily for what Sicilians call “the continent.” Like the noble Lampedusa, he has preferred to live and to work in his native Sicily. This means that, directly and indirectly, he has had to contend all his life with the mafia and the Church, with fascism and communism, with the family, history. During the last quarter century, Sciascia has made out of his curious Sicilian experience a literature that is not quite like anything else ever done by a European—because Sicily is not part of Europe?—and certainly unlike anything done by a North American.

To understand Sciascia, one must understand when and where he was born and grew up and lived. Although this is true of any writer, it is crucial to the understanding of someone who was born in Sicily in 1921 (the year before Mussolini marched on Rome); who grew up under fascism; who experienced the liberation of Sicily by Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, and the American army: who has lived long enough to see the consumer society take root in Sicily’s stony soil.

Traditionally, Sicily has almost always been occupied by some foreign power. During Sciascia’s youth the Sicilians despised fascism because it was not only an alien form of government (what continental government is not alien to the Sicilians?) but a peculiarly oppressive alien government. The fascists tried to change the Sicilians. Make them wear uniforms. Conform them to the Duce’s loony pseudo-Roman norm. Although Mussolini himself paid little attention to the island, he did manage to get upstaged in the piazza of Piano dei Greci by the capo of the local mafia, one Don Ciccio Cuccia. Aware that appearance is everything and substance nothing, Mussolini struck back at Don Ciccio (he put him in jail), at the mafia in general (he sent down an efficient Inspector named Mori who did the mafia a good deal of damage post-1924), at Piano dei Greci (Mussolini changed the name Greci to Albanese…more Roman).

By the time that Sciascia was fourteen years old, Mussolini was able to announce—almost accurately—that he had broken the back of the mafia. Pre-Mori, ten people were murdered a day in Sicily; post-Mori only three were murdered a week. Meanwhile, Inspector Mori was trying to change the hearts and minds of the Sicilians. In a moment of inspiration, he offered a prize to the best school-boy essay on how to combat the mafia. Although there were, predictably, no entries at the time, Sciascia has been trying ever since to explain to Inspector Mori how best to combat or cope with the mafia, with Sicily, with the family, history, life.

I spent the first twenty years of my life in a society which was doubly unjust, doubly unfree, doubly irrational. In effect, it was a non-society Society. La Sicilia, the Sicily that Pirandello gave us a true and profound picture of. And Fascism. And both in being Sicilian and living under fascism, I tried to cope by seeking within myself (and outside myself only in books) the ways and the means. In solitude. What I want to say is that I know very well that in those twenty years I ended up acquiring a kind of ‘neurosis from reasoning.”’

Sciascia’s early years were spent in the village of Racalmuto, some twenty-two kilometers from Agrigento. As a clerk’s son, Sciascia was destined to be educated. When he was six, the teacher assured the class that “the world envied fascism and Mussolini.” It is not clear whether or not the child Sciascia was ever impressed by the party line, but he certainly disliked the balilla, a paramilitary youth organization to which he was assigned. Fortunately, at the age of nine, “a distant relative was appointed the local leader of the balilla.” Influence was used and “I was relieved of my obligations” because “in Sicily the family has its vast ramifications…. The family is the main root of the mafia, which I know well. But that one time I was the willing beneficiary.”

Meanwhile, like most writers-to-be, the young Sciascia read whatever he could. He was particularly attracted to the eighteenth-century writers of the Enlightenment. If he has a precursor, it is Voltaire. Predictably, he preferred Diderot to Rousseau. “Sicilian culture ignored or rejected romanticism until it arrived from France under the name of realism.” Later, Sciascia was enchanted—and remains enchanted—by Sicily’s modern master, Pirandello. As a boy, “I lived inside Pirandello’s world, and Pirandellian drama—identity, the relativeness of things—was my daily dream. I almost thought that I was mad.” But, ultimately, “I held fast to reason,” as taught by Diderot, Courier, Manzoni.

Although Sciascia is a Pirandellian as well as a man of the Enlightenment, he has a hard clarity, reminiscent of Stendhal. At the age of five, he saw the sea: “I didn’t like it, and I still don’t like it. Sicilians don’t like the sea, even those who live on its shores. For that matter, the majority of Sicilian towns have been built with their backs to the sea, ostentatiously. How could islanders like the sea which is capable only of carrying their men away as emigrants or bringing in invaders?”

Immediately after the war, the revived mafia and their traditional allies (or clients or patrons) the landowners were separatists. But when the government of the new Italian republic offered Sicily regional autonomy, complete with a legislature at Palermo, the mafia’s traditional capital, landowners and mafiosi became fervent Italians and the separatist movement failed. But then it was doomed in 1945 when the United States refused (unkindly and probably unwisely) to fulfill the dream of innumerable Sicilians by annexing Sicily as an American state. But then, in those innocent days, who knew that before the twentieth century had run its dismal course the mafia would annex the United States? A marvelous tale still in search of its Pirandello.

Although everyone agreed that Sicily’s only hope was industrialization, the mafia fought industrialization because industry meant labor unions and labor unions (they thought naïvely) are not susceptible to the usual pressures of the honorable society which does and does not exist, rather like the trinity. The first battle between mafia and industrialization occurred when Sciascia was twenty-three. The communists and socialists held a meeting in the piazza of Villalba. Authority challenged, the local capo ordered his thugs to open fire Legal proceedings dragged on for ten years by which time the capo had died a natural death.

What happened at Villalba made a strong impression on Sciascia. Sometimes, in his work, he deals with it directly and realistically; other times, he is oblique and fantastic. But he has never not, in a symbolic sense, dealt with this business. Even Todo Modo (1974) 2 was an attempt to analyze those forces that opposed one another on a September day in 1944, in a dusty piazza, abruptly loud with guns.

Today the mafia thrives in Sicily. Gangs still extort money from citrus growers through control of water sources as well as through what once looked to be a permanent veto on refrigeration, a situation that has made Sicilian oranges noncompetitive in Europe. Mafia gangs control dock-workers, the sale of contraband, construction permits, etc. Meanwhile, as Sciascia has described more than once, those continentals who come to Sicily as prosecutors and police inspectors soon learn that the true lover of justice must love death, too. Many of Sciascia’s tales have, at their heart, thanatophilia. Lately, he has extended the geographical range of his novels. All Italy is now in the process of being Sicilianized. But then, ever since the Second World War, Sicilians have been overrepresented in the country’s police and judiciary in rather the same way that, post Civil War, American Southerners took control of the Congress and the military and, until recently, had a lock on each. Also, with the influx of Sicilian workers to the northern cities (not to mention to the cities of the United States, Canada, Australia) the mafia mentality has been exported with a vengeance.

What is the mafia mentality? What is the mafia? What is Sicily? When it comes to the exploration of this particular hell, Leonardo Sciascia is the perfect Virgil. As we begin our descent, he reminds us that like most Mediterranean societies Sicily is a matriarchy. The father-god of the conquering Aryans has never had much attraction for Mediterranean peoples. Effigies of the original Great Goddess of the Mediterranean can still be seen all over Sicily; and as the idol simpers at the boy-baby clutched in one hand, the other hand is depicted free to stir the life-giving minestra—or wield a knife.

D.H. Lawrence once described an exchange he had with an old woman in a Sicilian church. Why, he wanted to know, was the tortured figure of Jesus always shown in such vivid, such awful detail? Because, said the old woman firmly, he was unkind to his mother. The sea at the center of the earth is the sea of the mother, and this blood-dark sea is at the heart of Sciascia’s latest novel Candido: the story of a Sicilian who, during an American air-raid in 1943, was born to a mother whom he was to lose in childhood to another culture; thus making it possible for him to begin a journey that would remove him from the orbit of the mother goddess.

Sciascia has made an interesting distinction between what he calls the “maternal man” (someone like Robert Graves who serves the Great Goddess?) and the “paternal man.” Although “I spent my infancy and adolescence surrounded by women, with my aunts and ‘mothers’…I became a rather ‘paternal’ man. Many Sicilians are like me: they have hostile relations with their fathers during their youth and then, as if they’ve just seen themselves in a looking glass, they correct their attitude, realize that they are their fathers. They are destined to become them.” For Sciascia,

many wrongs, many tragedies of the South, have come to us from the women, above all when they become mothers. The Mezzogiorno woman has that terribile quality. How many crimes of honor has she provoked, instigated or encouraged! Women who are mothers, mothers-in-law. They are capable of the worst kinds of wickedness just in order to make up for the vexations they themselves were subjected to when they were young, as part of a terrifying social conformism. ‘Ah, yes,’ they seem to be saying, ‘you’re my son’s wife? Well, he’s worth his weight in gold!’

These women are elements of violence, of dishonesty, of abuse of power in Southern society, even though some of that ancient power was reduced when the American troops landed in Sicily during the last war. And so it is that Candido (the character in my book) loses his mother at the moment of the arrival in Palermo of US soldiers. If that event dealt a hard blow to the matriarchy, it also introduced ‘consumerism,’ a taste for modern gadgets, possessions, a house…. From the moment that they began building new housing in Sicily, the sons (and the daughters-in-law) began to leave the old tyrannical hearths of their mothers, thus undermining, in part, the ancient power structure.

After the bombardment, the child is named, “surreally,” Candido: neither parent has ever heard of Voltaire. The town is occupied by the American army and Captain John H. (for Hamlet) Dykes becomes, in effect, the mayor. Candido’s lawyer-father asks the American to dinner, and Candido’s mother falls in love with him. Sourly, surreally, the father comes to believe that Dykes is the blond Candido’s father even though the child was conceived nine months before the arrival in Sicily of the Americans. Nevertheless, in the father’s mind, Candido is always “the American.”

As a result of the April 18, 1948 election (when knowledgeable authorities told this reviewer to flee Italy because the Communists would win and there would be—what else?—“a blood bath”), the Christian Democrat party doubled its vote and Candido’s Fascist grandfather, the General, was elected to parliament while the General’s aide-de-camp, a local nobleman, was also elected but on the Communist ticket. Nicely, the two ex-fascists work in tandem. Meanwhile, Candido’s mother has divorced his father and gone to live with her American lover in Helena, Montana. Candido is left behind.

Sciascia’s Candido is a serene, not particularly wide-eyed version of Voltaire’s Candide. In fact, this Sicilian avatar is a good deal cleverer than the original. As a boy, “His games—we can try to define them only approximately—were like crossword puzzles which he would play with things. Adults make words cross, but Candido made things cross.” One of the things that he makes cross…cross the shining river, in fact…is his lawyer-father who has assisted in the cover-up of a murder. When Candido overhears a discussion of the murder, he promptly tells his schoolmates the true story. As a result of the boy’s candor, the father commits suicide and Candido, now known as “the little monster,” goes to live with the General. At no point does Candido feel the slightest guilt. Pondering his father’s death, he begins to arrange an image in his mind “of a man who adds up his whole life and arrives at a sum indicating that it would be right for him to put a bullet through his head.”

It is now time for Dr. Pangloss to make his entrance, disguised as the Archpriest Lepanto. Highly civilized priests keep recurring in Sciascia’s work, although he confesses that “I have never met one.”

The Archpriest and the boy spar with each another. “Up to a point, the Archpriest also was convinced that he was a little monster…whereas Candido had discovered that the Archpriest had a kind of fixed idea, rather complicated but reducible, more or less, to these terms: all little boys kill their fathers, and some of them, sometimes, kill even Our Father Who is in Heaven.” Patiently, Candido sets out to disabuse the Archpriest: “he had not killed his father, and he knew nothing, nor did he want to know anything, about that other Father.”

Sciascia’s themes now begin to converge. The mother has abandoned the son, a very good thing in the land of the Great Goddess (who would be Attis, who Pan could be?); the father has killed himself because of Candido’s truthfulness or candor when he made cross the thing-truth with the thing-omerta; now the Heavenly Father, or Aryan sky-god, is found to be, by Candido, simply irrelevant. Plainly, Candido is a monster. He is also free. He becomes even freer when he inherits money and land. But when he cultivates his own land for the good of his tenant farmers, they know despair. When a parish priest is murdered (with the regularity of a Simenon, Sciascia produces his murders), Candido and the Archpriest decide to assist the inspector of police. When, rather cleverly, they apprehend the murderer, everyone is in a rage. They—not he—have broken the code. A theologian is called in by the local bishop and an inquiry is held into the Archpriest’s behavior. It is decided that he must

step down as archpriest: he could not continue to fulfill that office if all the faithful now disapproved of him, even despised him. “And further,” the learned theologian said, “not that truth may not be beautiful, but at times it does so much harm that to withhold it is not a fault but a merit.”

In handing the theologian his resignation, the Archpriest, now archpriest no longer, said, in a parodying, almost lilting voice, “‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ but sometimes I am the blind alley, the lie, and death.”

With that, the moral education of Candido is complete. On the other hand that of Dr. Pangloss has just begun. The Archpriest—now Don Antonio—becomes a militant communist. To an extent, Candido goes along with Don Antonio. But he is not one to protest too much. He cannot be a protestant if only because he “was utterly averse to believing that there were any sins other than lying and seeking the pain and humiliation of others.”

The political education of Candido—as opposed to moral—begins in early manhood. Like so many educated Italians of that time, he regards communism as a replacement for a church that has not only failed but in the land of the Great Goddess never truly taken hold. Candido likes the writings of Gramsci; finds Marx boring; as for Lenin, “he had come to picture Lenin as a carpenter atop a scaffolding who had worn himself out hitting the same nails on the head, but all of his efforts had not prevented some nails from being poorly set or going in crooked.” (I am not always enchanted by the translation of Adrienne Foulke.) Although Candido believes that “to be a Communist was, in a word, almost a fact of nature” because “capitalism was bearing man toward dissolution,” he much prefers the imaginative writers to the contorted Machiavellianism of the communist theoreticians: “‘Zola and Gorki, they talk about things that used to be, and it’s as if they were talking about things that came later. Marx and Lenin talk about things that would happen, and it’s as if they were talking about things that are no longer.”

But Candido becomes a member of the Communist Party even though he is more repelled than not by its sacred texts (excepting, always, Gramsci). Acting on principle, Candido offers his own land for a hospital but because of the usual collusion between the condottiere of the left and the right, another piece of land is bought by the community and the condottiere make their profit. Candido is thrown out of the Communist Party. In due course, after he is done out of his fortune by his own family, he goes off with his cousin Francesca to Turin, “a more and more sullen city…. The North and the South of Italy settled there; they sought crazily to avoid each other and, at the same time, to strike out at each other; both were bottled up in making automobiles, a superfluous necessity for all, a necessary superfluity for all.” Just before the young couple move on to Paris, Candido says to Francesca, “Do you know what our life is, yours and mine? It’s a dream dreamed in Sicily. Perhaps we’re still there, and we are dreaming.”

In Paris, at the Brasserie Lipp (August 1977), Candido runs into the long-mislaid mother and her husband Mr. Dykes. Don Antonio is also there: he is now as doctrinaire a Communist as he had been a Roman Catholic. Predictably, the Americans have little to say to the Sicilians. But Don Antonio does ask former Captain Dykes: “How did you manage, only a few days after you had arrived in our town, to choose our worst citizens for public service?” Dykes is offhand: he had been given a list. Yes, he had suspected that the people on the list were mafiosi, “But we were fighting a war….”

When Candido’s mother, rather half-heartedly, proposes that Candido visit America, Candido is polite. For a visit, perhaps. “‘But as for living there, I want to live here…. Here you feel that something is about to end and something is about to begin. I’d like to see what should come to an end comes to its end.’ Embracing him once again, his mother thought, He’s a monster.” Mother and son part, presumably forever.

Rather drunk, Don Antonio has, once again, missed the point to what Candido has been saying. Don Antonio says that “here,”meaning France, “something is about to end, and it’s beautiful…. At home, nothing ends, nothing ever ends.” On the way back to his hotel, Don Antonio salutes the statue of Voltaire as “our true father!” But Candido demurs; and the book’s last line is: “‘Let’s not begin again with the fathers,’ he said. He felt himself a child of fortune, and happy.” Magari as the Italians say.

I am not sure just what it is that makes Sciascia’s novels unique. Where “serious” American writers tend to let the imagination do the work of the imagination, Sciascia prefers to invent for us a world quite as real as any that Dreiser ever dealt with, rendered in a style that is, line by line, as jolting as an exposed electrical wire. I suppose, as a Pirandellian, Sciascia is letting a very real world imagine him describing it.

Candido is bracketed by two political events: one of importance to Sciascia, the other to the world as well as Sciascia. From time to time, Italian political parties will propose for election a sympathetic non-party member, preferably a “technico” (usually, an economist who has managed to jam the central computer of a major bank) or a “personaggio,” a celebrated man like Sciascia. One year before Candido was written, pensioner Sciascia was a Communist Party candidate for the Palermo city council. “My ‘debut’ was solicited by the local [party] leaders as an event destined to have consequences at the local level.”

Sciascia accepted the Communist nomination for city councilor with a certain Candide-like innocence. Like most Italians of his generation, he is a man of the left. Unlike most Italians, Sciascia is a social meliorist. As a public man, he has an empirical streak which is bound to strike as mysterious most politically minded Italians. Sciascia has ideas but no ideology in a country where political ideology is everything and political ideas unknown. Sciascia’s reasons for going on the city council are straightforward. Grave problems faced Palermo, “in certain quarters there was no water, whole neighborhoods lacked sewers and roads, and the restoration…the rehabilitation of the historic center presented all sorts of problems,” but “during the eighteen months that I served on the city council, not once did anyone talk about water or any other urgent problems….”

Sciascia was also shocked to find that the council seldom met before nine in the evening; then, around midnight, when people were yawning, a bit of business was done. Finally, Sciascia was wised up,

off the record, thanks to the benevolence of a socialist councilman who spelled the whole thing out to me in real terms, clearly: thus, I was able to understand how the Communists and the Christian Democrats did business together and I was less than pleased…. Aware that my presence in the bosom of the city council was inopportune and useless, and that the possibility of a row between me and the party that had put me there seemed more and more likely, it was obvious that I’d have to quit. I wanted to go without slamming the door, but that wasn’t possible.

There was a good deal of fuss when Sciascia quit the council in 1975. But though he may, personally, have found the experience “inopportune and useless,” he was able to make good use of it in Candido: when Candido tries to give the city land for a hospital, he discovers that nothing can ever be given in a society where everything is bought and sold, preferably twice over.

Sciascia entered Italian political history in the wake of the kidnapping and murder by terrorists of Aldo Moro, the president of the Christian Democrat party. More than anyone else, Moro was responsible for the tentative coming together of left and right in what the Communists like to call the “historic compromise” between Christ and Marx, in what Moro himself used to call, with a positively Eisenhowerian gift for demented metaphor, “the inevitable convergence of parallel lines.”

Moro was kidnapped by a mysterious entity known as the Red Brigades. Whoever they were or are, their rhetoric is Marxist. If Italy was shocked by the Moro kidnapping, the intellectuals were traumatized. Since Italy’s intellectuals are, almost to a man, Marxists, this was the moment of truth. Moro was the leader of the party that serves the Agnellis, the Pope, and the American (somewhat fractured) hegemony. If the leader of this party is really being tried by a truly revolutionary Marxist court, well…. Although any communist party is a party of revolution, the Italian party long ago dropped its “to the barricades” rhetoric, preferring to come to power through the ballot box. Until the Moro affair, the Communist Party was prospering. In the previous election they had got well over their usual 30 percent of the vote and it looked as if a coalition government was possible. Christ and Marx were, if not at the altar, getting their prenuptial blood tests. But, suddenly, prenuptial blood tests turned to blood-letting. Why, asked a number of political commentators, are the intellectuals silent?

Eventually, Italy’s premier man of letters, Alberto Moravia, admitted to a feeling of “sorrowing extraneousness” while the young Turks at Lotta Continua (a radical newspaper of the left) proclaimed: “Neither Red Brigades nor the state.” But the real polemic began when it came time to try a number of Red Brigaders in Turin. So many potential jurors received death threats that sixteen refused to serve. When Eugenio Montale said that he “understood” their fear, Italo Calvino took him to task. “The state,” said Calvino, “is all of us.” Calvino chose to cling to what Taoists call “the primal unity.” So did the Communist Party. Contemptuous of Montale’s unease, the Communist leader Giorgio Amendola declared: “Civil courage has never been in great supply among Italian intellectuals.”

With that Sciascia went into action. “I intervened,” he said later, “because of Calvino’s article, in which he expressed embarrassment and concern when Montale said that he ‘understood’ the sixteen citizens of Turin who refused to be jurors. I felt that I ought to contribute to the debate: I, too, understood the sixteen citizens, just as I understood Montale…even I might have declined the honor and the burden of being a juror. What guarantee, I asked, does this state offer when it comes to the protection of those citizens who put themselves at risk by becoming jurors? What guarantee against theft, abuse of power, injustice? None. The impunity that covers crimes committed against the general public and the general good was worthy of a South American regime.” As for the Red Brigades: “All my life, everything that I’ve thought and written makes it clear that I cannot take the side of the Red Brigades.”

Sciascia then turned on Amendola. “For him the state must be a sort of mythical and metaphysical entity….” Sciascia’s own view of the state is less exalted: a state is a system of well-coordinated services. “But when those services are inadequate or lacking then one must repair them or make something new. If this is not done, then one is defending nothing but corruption and in-efficiency under the pretext that one is defending the state.” As for Amendola (and, presumably, the Communist Party), he “was simply animated by the desire for an authoritarian state…and from a visceral aversion for non-conforming writers.”

Ultimately, Sciascia has taken the line that “the Italian Communist Party has become a precise mirror-image of the Christian Democrat Party.” Consequently, “one can only make two hypotheses: either the Communist Party has not the capacity to make a valid opposition, and Italians have credited the party with qualities that it never had, or the Italian party is playing the game ‘the worse things are the better’ or ‘to function least is to function best’…. These two parties seem to be intertwined and interchangeable not only in their existence today but in their future.”

Now, in 1979, Sciascia has moved toward new perceptions if not, necessarily, realities. To the statement, “We cannot not be socialist” (the famous paraphrase of Croce’s “we cannot not be Christians”), he replies that things have changed as “it is plain that, at the level of collective humanity, socialism has known failures even more serious than those of Christianity.” For Italian intellectuals of Sciascia’s generation, this is a formidable heresy. But he goes even further. Contemplating those who speak of Marxism with a human face, he responds, “I respect their position, but I retain the idea that ‘an authentic Marxism’ is a utopia within a utopia, a dream, an illusion.” Nevertheless, he cannot be anti-communist. This is the dilemma that faces any Italian who takes politics seriously. To the question: what would you like to see happen next? Sciascia replied, perhaps too simply, “The creation of a social democratic party.” But then, less simply, he acted upon his own words, and stood for parliament in the Radical Party interest. Like a growing number of Italians, Sciascia finds appealing a party which compensates for its lack of ideology with all sorts of ideas. In the last election, the party tripled its vote.

Although the Radical party stands for such specific things as liberalized laws on abortion, divorce, drugs, sex, as well as the cleaning up of the environment and the removal of Italy from NATO (something the Communist Party has not mentioned since 1976), the party is constantly being denounced for representing nothing at all. But then, for most Italians, a political party is never a specific program, it is a flag, a liturgy, the sound of a trombone practicing in the night.

Remember,” Sciascia said to Marcelle Padovani, “what Malraux said of Faulkner? ‘He has managed to intrude Greek tragedy into the detective story.’ It might be said of me that I have brought Pirandellian drama to the detective story!” Often disguised as detective stories, Sciascia’s novels are also highly political in a way quite unlike anything that has ever been done in English. While the American writer searches solemnly for his identity, Sciascia is on the trail of a murderer who, invariably, turns out to be not so much a specific character as a social system. That mafia which Americans find so exciting and even admirable is for Sciascia the evil consequence of a long bad history, presided over by The kindly Ones. Whenever (as in Il Giorno della Civetta, 1961)3 one of Sciascia’s believers in justice confronts the mafia (which everyone says—in the best Pirandellian manner—does not exist), he is not only defeated, but, worse, he is never understood. Particularly if, like Captain Bellodi from Parma, he regards “the authority vested in him as a surgeon regards the knife: an instrument to be used with care, precision, and certainty; a man convinced that law rests on the idea of justice and that any action taken by the law should be governed by justice.” Captain Bellodi was not a success in Sicily.

A decade later, in Il Contesto.4 Sciascia again concerns himself with justice. But now he has moved toward a kind of surrealism. Sometimes the country he writes about is Italy; sometimes not. A man has gone to prison for a crime that he did not commit. When he gets out of prison, he decides to kill off the country’s judges. When Inspector Rogas tries to track down the killer, he himself is murdered. In a splendid dialogue with the country’s Chief Justice, Inspector Rogas is told that “the only possible form of justice, of the administration of justice, could be, and will be, the form that in a military war is called decimation. One man answers for humanity. And humanity answers for the one man.”

Although moral anarchy is at the basis of this ancient society, Sciascia himself has by no means given up. The epigraphs to Il Contesto are very much to the point. First, there’s a quotation from Montaigne: “One must do as the animals do, who erase every footprint in front of their lair.” Then a response from Rousseau: “O Montaigne! You who pride yourself on your candor and truthfulness, be sincere and truthful, if a philosopher can be so, and tell me whether there exists on earth a country where it is a crime to keep one’s given word and to be clement and generous, where the good man is despised and the wicked man honored.” Sciascia then quotes Anonymous: “O Rousseau!” One has a pretty good idea who this particular Anonymous is.

It is Sciascia’s self-appointed task to erase the accumulated footprints (history) in front of the animal’s lair (Sicily, Italy, the world). The fact that he cannot undo the remembered past has not prevented him from making works of art or from introducing a healthy skepticism into the sterile and abstract political discourse of his country. No other Italian writer has said, quite so bluntly, that the historic compromise would lead to “a regime in which, finally and enduringly, the two major parties would be joined in a unified management of power to the preclusion of all alternatives and all opposition. Finally, the Italians would be tranquil, irresponsible, no longer forced to think, to evaluate, to choose.”

Rather surprisingly, Sciascia seems not to have figured out what the historic compromise ultimately signifies. When he does, he will realize that Italy’s two great unloved political parties are simply the flitting shadows of two larger entities. As any Voltairean knows, the Vatican and the Kremlin have more in common than either has with the idea of a free society. Once each realizes that the other is indeed its logical mate, Sciascia will be able to write his last detective story, in which the murder will be done with mirrors. Meanwhile, he continues to give us all sorts of clues: reminds us that criminals are still at large; demonstrates that life goes on todo modo.

  1. 1

    This was said in an interview given to Il Messaggero. All other quotations—not from his books—are taken from a series of conversations that Sciascia had with the journalist Marcelle Padovani and collected in a volume called La Sicilia come metafora (Mondadori, 1979). The unbeautiful English translations are by me.

  2. 2

    Published in English translation by Harper & Row in 1977 as One Way Or Another.

  3. 3

    Published by Knopf in 1964 as Mafia Vendetta.

  4. 4

    Published by Harper & Row in 1973 as Equal Danger.