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.”
In fact Salt in the Wound is a powerful panorama of life in a Sicilian Middletown; it is not a philosophical or political diagnosis. It contains an incredible number of characters of all ages, political opinions, degrees of literacy, and occupations, all of them sketched with miniature-like precision. None of them is the impersonation of an abstract idea. None is a sociological specimen. The characters all seem like human beings. To all of them, individually, and to Regalpetra, collectively, all kinds of preposterous, terrifying, or funny things happen, things that obviously could happen only in Sicily.
The mayor of 1944, the man the American Army put in the chair, was murdered on November 15 of that year, on a rainy Sunday evening in the town’s central square. A pistol was placed against his neck and fired. The mayor’s friends were with him but no one saw anything; everybody fell back in terror from the crumbling body. He was a man who had many enemies. He spent his life dragging lawsuits from court to court, and had even quarreled with one of the leaders of the Mafia, who had been his business partner some time back….
A short analysis of local municipal politics:
In following the tortuous path of the municipal administration through the official records of the Council meetings, you seem to be entering a world in which an interplay of sophisms, of secret understandings and of deceit, of internecine warfare, cold and hot, is transmuted into pure arabesque. The only time a concrete relationship is established between the administrator and the citizen is when the mayor certifies births, identities, or deaths…. The bureaucracy, which in Sicily is a metaphysical institution (and is blasphemed as such), reaches an apex of consecration in the act of signature. When a mayor signs a certificate he’s like a priest saying mass. For the rest of the day he is at peace with his conscience.
Sciascia is at his best when describing the wretched children in his own school whom he had to observe every day for several hours:
Thirty boys bored stiff. They split razor blades down the middle, work them a quarter of an inch into the wooden desks and pluck them like guitar strings. They exchange obscenities that by now I have to ignore—your sister, your mother. They swear, spit, make rabbits out of notebook paper—rabbits that move their long ears and end up as balls of paper if I suddenly call on them. And boats, and paper hats; or they color in the pictures in the textbooks, using the red and yellow so savagely that they tear the paper. They’re bored, poor things. Stories, grammar, the cities of the world, the products of Sicily—but what they’re thinking about is lunch. As soon as the bell rings they race out to grab their tin bowls; watery beans with a bit of margarine floating on top, a sliver of canned corned beef and a dab of jam that they wrap up in a sheet of notebook paper and go off licking, jam and ink together.
The sons of the sulphur and salt miners are a little sharper than the sons of the peasants. The peasants take their boys to work in the fields during vacations and holidays; in May, when the beans are harvested, they stop sending them to school unless they’re sure to be promoted. This is why the peasants stop me in the street in early May, to ask how their sons are doing. I know why they ask, and I answer as evasively as I can: “Perhaps he’ll pass, he’s not doing so badly.” If I told the truth, the class would be deserted; not more than ten pupils would come to the final exams. Besides, I end up promoting more than I should, and defer those who should be in special schools to the October exams. These boys spend the three hours of school in melancholic fixation, their eyes staring straight, their mouths opening only to ask to go to the toilet. Those I send to repeat never show up for the October exams. The mothers don’t want their sons to start the hard labor in the fields at twelve years of age, and they hide the truth from their husbands. I tell the mothers that it’s no use; the boys don’t study and will never pass. They answer that they hope things will change next year, or else their sons can go to night school where they’ll be promoted for sure. And in fact one teacher at the night school gets three thousand lire for every pupil promoted, so you can imagine what goes on there.
He knows the humble Mafia of the little towns:
This is a Mafia Town. A Mafia of poses more than of facts, although the facts, if rare, are not lacking, and in the species of murder victims. There are a couple of Mafia chiefs, men with money and education; they go to the cafés arm-in-arm with ex-cons and then with the sergeant of the carabinieri. As soon as they see a sergeant they immediately play up to him, hang on him, guess his last desires. For them it’s important that people who want to live in peace see them in the company of the more notorious members of the Mafia, and that the Mafia men see them on friendly terms with the cops. This game is their life.
Sicily is, to say the least, baffling to Italians from other regions. To understand and govern the inhabitants, cater to their needs, and solve some of their fundamental problems have proven almost impossible tasks at all times. The attempt was made, with little success, by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spaniards, Neapolitans, Piedmontese, and the US Army. Even Sicilians have seldom shown themselves capable of coping with the intricate mechanisms of their own life, certainly not the Mafia which does not always manage to run things as smoothly in its domain, which is Western Sicily, as its opponents think.
The reason why Sicily is ungovernable is that the inhabitants have long ago learned to distrust and neutralize all written laws (alien laws in particular) and to govern themselves in their own rough home-made fashion, as if official institutions did not exist. This arrangement is highly unsatisfactory (the inhabitants themselves endlessly lament their fate) because it cures no ills, in fact makes them worse, promotes injustice and tyranny, leaves crimes unpunished, does not make use of the Sicilians’ best qualities, and has kept the country stagnant and backward in almost every way. It consists of a technique, or art, which is second nature to all Sicilians, both the decent, hard-working, honorable Sicilians, and the criminal minority, which includes the Mafia, that of building up one’s personal power, and of acquiring enough power to intimidate or frighten one’s competitors, rivals, or enemies, in order to defend one’s honor and welfare at all times.
This is not necessarily always objectionable. Similar techniques have been pursued in many other countries and many fields of human activity by all sorts of respectable people who wanted to get ahead against stiff competition (at Versailles under Louis XIV, in Wall Street, Hollywood in its heyday, by big corporations everywhere, the Soviet Politburo, democratic political parties). It is, however, nowhere pursued as subtly, astutely, and ruthlessly as in Sicily.
Power has many sources. The first and nearest source is one’s family. In Sicily the family includes relatives as far as the third, fourth, or fifth degree, collaterals, in-laws, relatives of the in-laws, godfathers and godmothers, best men at marriages, dependents, hangers-on, servants, and vassals. They all help or must be helped, as the case may be, in times of necessity. The power of the family is increased by the conquest of new vassals, by new alliances, association with other powerful families (some marriages are decided for strictly political reasons, as among royalty), association with powerful groups (the Church, large corporations, political parties), and, above all, by the capture of the gratitude and loyalty of influential friends.
One can cultivate both humble vassals and influential friends by doing them favors. One poor man needs a good (or a better) job, another a permit to carry fire-arms, the son of a third wants to pass his exams or be let off from military service, a fourth may be in need of a little loan; an official always wants a promotion, a professional man needs clients, a land-owner wants protection from cattle-thieves, a politician wants many votes on election day. They all welcome help. Influential men can, and often do, belong to the official establishment like policemen, judges, prefects, cabinet ministers, deputati (the State being considered by Sicilians as little more than the biggest Mafia of them all).
The island is therefore an intricate web of favors done in exchange for other favors among men of all classes, from the humblest to the highest. It is, however, indispensable for anybody who wants to survive never to overestimate his actual power, to gauge the power of all his possible opponents with the utmost precision, in order to occupy in society exactly the place he can defend with it, and to pursue only the aims he can presumably achieve. Disasters of all kinds can result from a miscalculation.
It is power (in all its forms, including titles, position, fame) and not wealth that represents security among the honorable and impeccable Sicilians as well as the criminals. To be sure, wealth is not despised, but it is sought not, as in the North, for the luxuries and pleasures it affords the rich, but for the power it gives them. These basic facts (here shamelessly over-simplified) must be borne in mind when considering any major or infinitesimal Sicilian event.
Power is used to intimidate and eventually to destroy rivals and enemies, mostly in ways which are not strictly criminal. Only in Western Sicily the ultima ratio for subduing the stubborn is death. A man who encroaches on another man’s territory, brazenly seduces his wife or daughter, defies traditional prejudices, denounces another man’s crimes to the authorities, and heeds no warnings must eventually be eliminated. (Why this should not be necessary in Eastern Sicily is a sociological mystery which has never been satisfactorily studied and explained.) As a result it is not surprising that the number of murders committed in the region is proportionally far higher than in other parts of Italy. It is surprising, however, that this number is not as high as one would imagine. This is because almost always the mere threat of death and not death itself is sufficient to produce results. The threat does not even have to be spoken. It is in the air, in the consciousness of the people. Everybody involved is Sicilian, they all obey the same centuries-old rules of conduct, know their way about, are aware of the dangers of obstinacy. Nobody is a fool, everybody pushes the weak around and exploits them but prudently always gives way to the strong and ruthless.
All this is done with grace. Manners are almost always impeccable, even when matters of life and death are being decided, the language always euphemistic, and things never called by their own names. Foreigners seldom understand what any controversy is about; they do not know what is being left unsaid, because it is unnecessary to say it, or what is behind the dazzling smiles, the hearty embraces, the damp kisses on stubbly cheeks, the clasped hands, the compliments, the declarations of eternal friendship.
To be sure Sicily is no longer what it was a few years ago. It is still visibly changing: factories spring up here and there (there is a piece of the coast between Augusta and Syracuse that now looks like Galveston, Texas). Public works projects transform the landscape, cities have been cleaned up and enlarged. The people’s standard of living has never been so high (which, of course, is not saying much). But those who hoped to see the industrial revolution dispel the cloud of fear under which Sicilians lived for centuries (some optimists believed the industrial revolution to be the only cure for all the island’s ills) are bitterly disappointed.
The patriarchal Mafia of the villages, with its vaguely feudal code of honor, its old-fashioned manners, its dedication to patron saints and religious festivals, is on the way out, but a more vicious and dangerous, and less controllable Mafia has risen in the bustling cities. Its somewhat overdressed leaders are mostly men in their early forties, urbane, active, and tough. Some of them have university degrees. They handle immense sums of money, kickbacks from public works projects, manipulation of real estate restrictions, cuts on other people’s profits, international loans, party funds, etc. These men enjoy a power the old Mafia never dreamed of, have international connections, shuttle by air to and from Rome, Milan, Beirut, or New York, They entertain bankers, political leaders, industrialists.
Only fools, idealists, and foreigners try to move without their guidance and protection in any business venture. Only fools, idealists, and foreigners, in fact, try to compete against enterprises enjoying Mafia tutelage and paying tribute to it, and this usually with disastrous results, for one thing only has been preserved from the old days: the new leaders still cultivate the power to order the death of anybody stupid enough to stand in their way. This, of course, they seldom do. In fact these men can often be compared to great statesmen of the past, whose unquestioned authority at international conferences was based on invisible and unmentioned armies and navies which they could employ at a moment’s notice, but seldom had to. The cleverest contemporary Mafia men (as well as the cleverest statesmen of the past) never use the words: “Or else….”
This does not mean that men are not murdered almost daily by the Mafia in Western Sicily. The victims are undisciplined and ambitious Mafia men of low, medium, or high (but not the highest) rank who “took a step longer than their leg”; policemen in the line of duty; indiscreet or loquacious witnesses or informers; young and eager trade union organizers in country districts. The mortality of the latter is among the highest. They are particularly feared by the Mafia because they play without observing the rules and can easily cause more trouble than anybody else. They incite farm hands to strike at harvest time, incite them to rebellion, demand the local application of laws which are valid in other parts of the country, and give sleepless nights to Christian Democratic politicians, land and mine owners, and industrialists.
On the other hand, the Mafia does not bother with foreigners, journalists, and reformers. Foreign travelers are blind, do not know what is going on around them, and every year spend a lot of money in Sicily. They are respected and protected. The Mafia often orders some petty thief to return to them what was stolen from their cars or hotel rooms. To be sure, muckraking journalists try to write embarassing revelations about the Mafia from time to time, and often publish books of alleged Mafia secrets, but they are seldom to be feared. Their facts are almost always wildly inaccurate, but, even if accurate, could never be proved in a court of law, especially if the testimony of Sicilian witnesses is necessary. The most daring exposés always leave things as they are. Reformers are rare. They come and, as they tire of getting no results and battling against invisible obstacles, they go. The best manage at times to change the surface of things in one or two villages but never the real substance underneath. They can safely be left alone to pursue their ineffective activities.
The Mafia was careful never to bother directly the reformer the whole world believes is its own worst enemy, Danilo Dolci. It never thought him really dangerous, although it has occasionally taken reprisals against Sicilians who have helped him. To begin with, Dolci is almost a foreigner. He was born in 1924 at Sesana, near Trieste, in a province which had been part of Austria until 1918. His father (an Imperial and Royal, later Italian, stationmaster) had German and Istrian blood, his music-loving mother was half-German. Dolci therefore has no more than twenty-five percent Italian blood, and border blood from the extreme Northeast at that. He looks like a foreigner, tall (head and shoulders taller than any Sicilian crowd he leads in demonstrations), heavy, placid, blond and blue-eyed. (To be sure, there are many blond and blue-eyed Sicilians, most of them of Norman descent, but they usually look like nervous and thin Englishmen.) He could easily be taken for a prosperous Austrian shopkeeper, a Bavarian brewer, a Bolzano wine-grapes grower, the kind of people on whom Lederhosen look natural. Like most of them Dolci speaks jovially and unguardedly, in an island where every word is loaded with hidden meanings and only the initiate has the key.
Dolci seems to think everybody is fundamentally nice; and that, if people only knew the real facts, they would draw his conclusions, share his hopes, and join him in his work. As a result, almost all the non-Sicilian people who come in contact with him, including the author of these pages, and also many Sicilians, find him irresistible, even when they realize he is doomed to go on chasing wild geese and never to produce results proportionate to his efforts and sacrifices.
When talking with him one is always tempted to believe the unbelievable, that, one day soon, enough people in Sicily will wake up and stop behaving like the Sicilians they are, and free their island from its tragic destiny, a destiny which is notoriously due not so much to a limited number of exploiters, bullies, and murderers, as to the overwhelming multitudes of resigned, apathetic, and willing victims. One is seduced by Dolci’s ebullient optimism, determination, his heroic acceptance of sacrifice, ridicule, and occasional punishment; by his simplicity and what is obviously a gentle form of madness. He is, in fact, as mad as many saints in the past, a mad non-Catholic saint of today.
He was born a Catholic and was a fervent and practicing one until a few years ago. After the war, he abandoned his studies in Milan—he was a student of music, and later of architecture—to follow the priest Don Zeno and work for him as a secretary. Don Zeno was a holy and controversial man who followed his inspiration rather than his superiors’ instructions. He founded a village for abandoned children, was persecuted by the official Church, and was finally stopped from experimenting with dangerous ideas. Dolci, who was fascinated and inspired by the priest’s conceptions, considers himself still a religious man but definitely not a Catholic.
After leaving Don Zeno, Dolci went to Sicily. He loved the island where he had lived as a young boy, when his father was stationmaster in a small town. Danilo chose one of the meanest and hungriest villages, Trappeto, to settle in at first, in order to meditate on a plan of action. There he married the cleaning woman of the house where he roomed, the widow of a fisherman with five children. (The couple has a few children of its own now.) Later he moved to Partinico, one of the Mafia strongholds, where he gathered a group of followers and founded something impressively named Centro Studi e Iniziative per la Piena Occupazione. It consists of a few employees and a mimeograph machine in a barn-like house, and is financed irregularly and insufficiently by contributions from all over the world, mostly from Protestant countries, although often by the Catholics in those countries, and by the royalties from Dolci’s books.
Dolci’s technique is simple and straightforward. He is a gentle and fearless agitator. He singles out one overdue but necessary improvement for a particular district, a dam, a road, a hospital, a school, an irrigation canal; convinces a lot of local people of its need; talks to key men who might help him or men who stand in the way; manages to persuade many village priests, mayors, doctors, schoolteachers; holds meetings and debates; publishes articles and gives interviews to the press. Finally, when the situation is ripe, he decides on a final demonstration to force the authorities to action. He wants them either to persecute him publicly or to hasten the construction of the project.
In the beginning he staged hunger strikes for himself and some of his followers. Later he preferred sitdowns which blocked public roads, cross-country marches of peasants, and unusually large public meetings. He even led delegations to Rome, to stand in front of Montecitorio, the seat of Parliament, placidly holding signs, or to explain the problem to ministers and deputati. Naturally the authorities handle him gingerly, with great tact, trying to avoid incidents.
Nothing immediate seems to come from his efforts. Only very rarely are the ministers convinced, the obstacles removed, the red tape loosened, and the project turned into a reality. But other useful, secondary results are produced nevertheless, whose consequences are not easy to estimate. Some people are taught the value of impatience, the need to defend their rights without waiting for the benevolent intervention of distant and absentminded authorities; some learn that injustice can be resisted if defenseless people get together, exchange ideas, organize, and decide on a plan of action. One obscure and forgotten problem is talked about in public until it becomes urgent; newspapers begin to ask questions; well-wishers are aroused. Sometimes the leisurely itinerary of the dossiers, estimates, and engineering plans from one office to another becomes perceptively accelerated under the pressure of public opinion. Eventually (not always) the dam, school, hospital, road, or canal may be built.
It is difficult to determine how effective Dolci’s methods are. Obviously, from a strictly traditional point of view, he should get no results whatever since he controls no real power, not the kind of power that intimidates Sicilians. He does not belong to a family, party, or awe-inspiring group; he has never ordered the death of anyone; he could not even defend himself and his followers in a real showdown. Furthermore, weak as he is, he has taken on, at one time or another, most of the dominant organizations in the island, the Church, the Mafia, the Government, the Christian Democratic Party, the Bank of Sicily, the police, and the prominent men. He even gives the Communist Party (which tries to exploit his activities) headaches.
In spite of all this, he has not been neutralized, deported, or destroyed. In reality, he is more powerful than people think, but the roots of his power lie outside the island. He is internationally famous. Foreign journalists, television cameramen, photographers, reporters from many parts of the world flock to his picturesque demonstrations. His books sell well in North Italy, Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, and the United States. All this is the equivalent to a confederation of Mafia cosche. The fear of bad publicity stops the hand of the police. He is so well-known that he cannot be intimidated, roughly handled, or killed. (Moreover, the Mafia does not bother about him because, as I pointed out, it does not believe he is an immediate threat.) In fact he is not primarily what he believes he is, neither a political agitator nor a social reformer inflaming people with his arguments, but an unconscious and extremely able manipulator of publicity.
His books, the ultimate source of his power, make fascinating reading, like most books dealing with the incredible facts of life in Sicily. They are more scrapbooks than books, carefully edited albums filled with newspaper clippings, quotations from official documents, facsimiles of bureaucratic letters, speeches, minutes of meetings, answers to questionnaires, children’s poems, tape recordings of confessions, reminiscences, tales from all kinds of people, and an occasional little essay by the author. There is probably no better way to cope with such rich material.
The latest to be published in the United States is The Man Who Plays Alone, ably translated and annotated by Antonia Cowan. The title comes from a prudent Sicilian proverb, “The man who plays alone never loses.” As in all his preceding books, he allows the facts to speak for themselves and seldom attempts to diagnose, or suggest cures for, the impressive collection of symptoms. The authenticity of people’s speech comes out even in translation. This is, for instance, the way a small mafioso explains some of the things a man ought to know:
An advantage of the Catholic trade unions is the assistance they can get from the Christian Democrats in exchange for help in getting them votes at election time. A recommendation from a priest, an archbishop, a cardinal…nowadays these people have some say, they have authority…a job in a bank, in an office…. These people can help if they wish. And if they help a person, then naturally he will follow them: after all, they have provided his children with daily bread. When someone’s been given a job, if he cannot return the favor any other way, he’ll naturally try and get votes for them. The debt must be paid back…. Everyone will rally around a man who’s in the money: he’ll be favored by everyone, the authorities and the people alike. If one has money one becomes a gentleman. If you’re in with the Government party, you’re well off; but if you’re against them, things will go badly for you…. A man with money finds all doors open, everyone makes way for him.
Girolamo Leto, provincial secretary of the Liberal Party in Palermo:
…The Mafia, like the clergy, sides with power…. Today the real trouble in industry is not the mafiosi but the politicians who put pressure on to get jobs for their clientes; this is what is known as the “white Mafia”; the “black Mafia” shoots, the other kills without shooting. Politicians use the Mafia as an instrument to get power.
Michelangelo Russo, provincial secretary of the Communist Party in Palermo:
…There is a vast sea of bureaucracy. It’s estimated that there are thirty thousand civil servants in Palermo, out of a population of 550,000, what with the Regional government, the State, the Provincial administration, the Municipal offices, and Regional economic organizations. From the numerical point of view, this category is most powerful. Since everybody knows that a job is not to be had through open competitive exams or on merit but only through string pulling, people turn to politicians in power in order to get the necessary recommendation. Once a man gets a job…it is unlikely he’ll join any left-wing opposition party. Obviously he is influenced by how he got the job in the first place…. Our chief difficulty is that we have not succeeded in creating a mass party. At the moment our Party is weak, both as regards political initiative and in its lack of representation in the different strata of society. Another obstacle is the fact that our members are not sufficiently well educated to read widely or to assimilate and discuss printed matter, or to read our own publications.
A well-informed, readable, if somewhat prolix, travelogue-diary-reportage of Danilo Dolci’s country was written by an American of Sicilian descent: A Passion for Sicilians, by Jerre Mangione, who is a novelist, former journalist, essayist, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and head of the University’s creative writing program. Mangione and his wife lived near the Dolcis at Partinico and became their intimate friends; Mangione joined Dolci’s staff for a while as secretary, adviser, and confidant. He went with Dolci to hunger strikes, sitdowns, demonstrations; sat with him at staff conferences; and apparently, like Boswell, never stopped scribbling in his notebooks.
In the end he had enough material to fill a useful and interesting book. It contains more information about Dolci the man than other books I know, including Dolci’s own. You can read all about this man’s youth, maturity, private and public life, the genesis of his ideas, his adventures and hopes, his difficulties with authorities; you get a description of other people’s (including opponents’) views of him, and so forth. The book is well written and, as far as I could tell, accurate and reliable. In spite of his Italian blood, however, Mangione is a victim of the view of Italy which is common among many of the lighter-weight English-language writers, both the professional Italianisants and the casual travelers, mostly women: the sentimental, compassionate, dewy-eyed view of the beautiful but unfortunate country, where the innocent and noble contadini are the victims of the machinations of cruel and avaricious villains. Why this view should please Mangione, for whom Sicily is the idealized home of his forebears, I understand. But he should also have learned from family tradition that Sicilian society is extremely complex, that one should be very careful when describing it, and that the people cannot be cleanly separated into sheep and goats.
It is curious to observe that Mangione has a distorted and partisan view of Italian history and misspells many Italian words. He writes: “[Garibaldi’s] proved to be a false liberation of Sicily [in 1860]. Shortly afterwards the landowning barons, using gangs of mafiosi as troops, resumed their feudal powers, and continued to keep the majority of Sicilians in a subservient state.” This is a series of oversimplifications. Garibaldi’s liberation of Sicily from Bourbon rule, when seen in the light of nineteenth-century ideology, was a true liberation. The land-owning barons found the competition of the new capitalist bourgeoisie increasingly irresistible in the decades after 1860. The Mafia was used by the new capitalists more freely than the barons had ever done. Its power really grew with the help of the new bourgeoisie, the men who bought Church land put up for sale. Garibaldi did not end feudal powers which were abolished forty-odd years before, when fiefs were transformed by law into private estates. The factors which kept Sicilians in a subservient state are innumerable and cannot be limited to one, the barons’ conception of their place in society.
Mangione’s linguistic errors are equally inexplicable. He repeats several times “Siamo in accordo” (“We agree”) as if it were a familiar colloquial phrase. The correct form, of course, is “Siamo d’accordo.” He writes “guante” instead of “guanti” (gloves); “scusa” between people who do not know each other, instead of the formal “scusi“; “pianificazzione” instead of “pianificazione“; and calls the well-known “carabinieri” “caribinieri,” forgetting the parallel English word “carabineer.” These mistakes are not unusual and could only be noticed by Italian readers, who do not read foreign books about their country anyway. There are perhaps only a handful of English-language writers who bother to find the correct spelling of Italian words, as if Italian were still an unwritten language, like some obscure African or Amazonian dialect, which everybody is allowed to write his own way, by ear. One is led to suspect (when one stumbles on one mispelled word after another) that facts are treated as glibly, which is unjust in the case of Jerre Mangione.
October 9, 1969