Graham Sells

Rome Diary

‘Today Italy is a country like any other,’ Moravia declared in a recent interview, and there is more than a grain of truth in this. More than five years have passed since Pasolini took the disappearance of fireflies, dense sparkling clouds that hung over the countryside on summer nights, as a symbol of the impoverishment of Italy, the void in political vision and direction, the destruction even of the vigorous, articulate sub-proletarian culture of the Roman ‘ borgate’. Since then the homo genising processes of consumerism have continued irresistably through political and economic crises, while terrorist groups, most notorious among them the Red Brigade, have spent the fire of the left in spectacularly useless flares of violence and cruelty.

There would be enough to be pessimistic about, if one could afford such an indulgence. Ten years ago this December a bomb exploded in a bank in Milan’s Piazza Fontana killing or maiming a large number of the customers present, and the question arose ‘cui prodest?’ – whose purpose does it serve?; the question has been raised repeatedly at every new act of political violence, and has become an ever more insoluble riddle.

Until five years ago the geography and hierarchy of the mafia were fairly well-known- recently a magistrate, who had been deputy in Parliament in the independent lists of the Communist Party, returned to Sicily not so much to incriminate or acquit as to try to understand what was happening, and was promptly shot in the centre of Palermo. Political and criminal structures, which at times coincide, not only in the extra, parliamentary fringes but even bang in the centre (a number of leading lights of the Christian Democrat Party have more than an odour of mafia about them) are in a state of considerable disarray.

A quality of life ever more uniform with the standard patterns of the consumer society, and a crisis of traditional structures have led on one hand to the ‘riflusso’, the reflux or return from the public to the private dimension of life, from the political to the sentimental, much heralded and encouraged by the conservative press in Italy; and on the other hand to an ever greater demand for the political, social or historical essay with particular emphasis on the evolution of Italian society during the last fifty-odd years.

This situation is reflected in the production of Italy’s most significant novelists; on the one hand there has been the affirmation of writers like Fulvio Tomizza, of Istrian origin, and Carlo Sgorlon of Trieste, both of whom evoke deliberately peripheral worlds, far from the centres of power and realpolitik, where simple natural humanity and traditional piety go hand in hand with gentle magic and robust myth. In contrast with these is the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, whose latest book, Daile parti degli infedeli (‘In the lands of the unfaithful’, Sellerio, 1979) has just been published. Sciascia is one of Italy’s most significant authors not only for the quality of his work, but also in his curious evolution as a writer. There is no myth or magic in Sciascia’s Sicily, but a hard reality, which he explores with a ‘tough reasonableness’; the island is seen as a laboratory where new formulae of power, political and criminal, are elaborated.

An early work Gli zii di Sicilia (‘The Sicilian Uncles’, 1958) describes with characteristic irony (and irony, from the tragic to the absurd, is a constant in Sicilian writing from Verga through Pirandello to Brancati) a land torn between the values of America, whose consumer blessings are brought by uncles and aunts to the under-developed island, and the great ideals of Russia, traumatically experienced on the death of ‘lo Zio Giuseppe’, Uncle Joe Stalin. Two following novels, Il giorno della civetta (‘The Day of the Owl’, 1961) and A ciascuno il suo (‘To Each His Own’, 1966) deal with the mafia, a Sicilian phenomenon which has spread to the whole country and even beyond. Sciascia denounces it with cool indignation, a rational and lucid pessimism, and with no hint of the mystification and indulgence which are so frequently a vice of the literature and sub-literature on the subject.

His more recent novels, Il contesto (‘The Contest’, 1973) and Todo Modo (1974) would have been considered fantapolitica (a political variant of fantascienza – science fiction) had not the convulsions of political reality so quickly outstripped their discouraging prognostications. Not that he had set out to be prophetic, and this surely must have deepened his quandary as a novelist – employing literary and aesthetic criteria to create an objective correlative for the insidious violence implicit in complex power structures, he had anticipated a new escalation in the ‘strategy of terror’, cryptograms written with the blood of magistrates and illustrious public figures.

Since 1974 Sciascia has abandoned fiction in search of a genre fusing elements of Pirandellian drama, the detective novel and the paradoxical spirit of Borges into the mould of contemporary Italian life. The results have been debatable; most controversial among them was L ‘affaire Moro published hot on the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro in 1978 which consisted largely of a close analysis of the letters and documents which came out of the ‘people’s prison’, a real test-case for Sciascia’s aesthetic theory of truth; a familiar-sounding one that has always raised more questions than it has solved (not that this necessarily invalidates it; Sciascia, who is both passionately idealistic and profoundly sceptical would probably adduce this in its favour). The task of the writer, he claims, is to observe, examine, bear witness, and, above all, respect the truth, the supreme form of knowledge being art, which is ‘the only possible form of truth’. His examination of the Moro case, as of the disappearance of the physicist Majorana and the death of Raymond Roussel, lead the reader into a Borges-type labyrinth with alternate glimpses of light and blind alleys.

In the last few months Sciascia has published no fewer than three books; La Sicilia coe metafora (‘Sicily as a Metaphor’, Mondadori), a long interview-confession in which he recognises his condition as a cultural ‘commuter’ between Sicily and Paris, between the concrete reality of the metaphor and the rational, enlightened spirit (traced back chiefly to Diderot and Voltaire) which he considers the necessary tool to draw a sense from it; Nero su nero (‘Black on Black’, Einaudi) a journal covering the last ten ‘black’ years in Italy; and finally the above-mentioned Daile parti degli infedeli. It is the amply documented story (some of the letters Sciascia quotes were covered by ecclesiastical secret, not to be revealed on pain of excommunication) of a bishop in Sicily who ignored pressure from the church to encourage his flock to vote for the Christian Democrat party; not, the writer suggests, out of any political motivation, but because he could not recognise that times had changed (we are in the late 40s) and that his faith was now strictly identified with the interests of a party. The bishop of Patti was ‘promoted’ arch-bishop of Leontopoli di Augustamnica: in partibus infidelium. This slim volume is not so much a denunciation of the church authorities as of a particularly intolerable form of injustice; Manzoni, one of the writer’s recognised masters, distinguished between that injustice which results from the state of things, and which can arouse only indignation, and that committed by those who (morally) know not what they do because they choose not to. This latter is Sciascia’s theme, and he treats it with a rare combination of lucidity and passion.

Truth and justice; absurd abstractions, as ‘old-fashioned’ as Manzoni, to which Sciascia is trying to give some sense in terms of contemporary Italy, courageously exploring the labyrinth with the baggage of the French enlightenment. The results have been uneven, but he remains the Italian writer one follows with the greatest curiousity and hope today. Having abandoned the novel, he appears to have embarked on a Pirandellian quest in search of a genre, seeking his own space amid and in contradistinction to the convulsions of the current culture. He also amply demonstrates that to ‘make it new’ is not essentially a formal problem (the approach that has led to so much irritating mannerism in modern literature), but a question of being seriously involved in the times we live in.

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