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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.

  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.

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