I want to look at Leonardo Sciascia’s books for a minute.
No flights of fancy, the major had warned him. All right, then, no flights of fancy. But Sicily is all a realm of fantasy and what can anyone do there without imagination? Nothing but plain facts, then… (The Day of the Owl, 35)
Captain Bellodi, who is not Sicilian but a northern Italian, is trying to solve a mafia murder. He is repeatedly assured that there is no such thing:
“Has any document or witness any proof at all which has ever come to light establishing a sure connection between a crime and the so-called mafia? In the absence of such proof, and if we admit that the mafia exists, I’d say it was a secret association for mutual aid, no more and no less than freemasonry. Why don’t you put some crimes down to the freemasons?” (64)
The Day of the Owl was published in 1961. All of Italy was, at that point, a realm of fantasy, in which corrupt politicians and a corrupt press denied the very existence of the Sicilian mafia. Sciascia’s novel, one of his earliest, was instrumental in making the mafia a public issue in Italy. This sounds so strange.
It is also, of the three Sciascia novels I have read, the most effective mystery as such, although it does not end – they never do – like almost all other mysteries, and Sciascia never had the commercial good sense to create a series. Whatever the many virtues of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian mysteries featuring Detective Montalbano, they are in the end just detective novels, constrained by the requirements of the form. Sciascia was unconstrained.
I have often read that the pleasure of the mystery lies in the restoration of order. Sciascia’s are about the revelation of a disorder more profound than I first knew. They are, he says, “the history of the continuous defeat of reason and of those who have been personally overcome and annihilated in that defeat” (TDOH, viii).
Sciascia makes this idea clearest in Equal Danger (1971), or in its original, accurate title Il contesto. Una parodia. It is explicitly a parody, an anti-mystery, with nods to Borges and Robbe-Grillet, among others, self-consciously literary – “and this in a country which boasted a whole body of literature dealing with the unforeseeable moods, contradictions, gratuitous actions, and radical changes to which human beings are prone” (12). Oddly, this country is not quite Sicily, but an invented country, perhaps in Latin America somewhere.
Rogas pulled out his paper, opened it to the literary supplement. There was a piece about the translation of a Moravia novel, a Solzhenitsyn short story, essays by Lévi-Strauss, Sartre, Lukács. Translation, translation, nothing but translation. (77)
A sour joke, to my taste; also to Sciascia’s. “I began to write it with amusement, and as I was finishing it I was no longer amused,” he writes (Note, 119).
To Each His Own (1966) is a mystery more in the line of The Day of the Owl. A schoolteacher thinks he has the clue to a mob killing. The real mystery is why he bothers to investigate – why this sudden burst of integrity and truth-seeking which can, in Sicily, only lead to disaster?
It has been a while since I read To Each His Own, so I will set it aside, although I feel I remember it well. Not so much the short stories in The Wine-Dark Sea (1973), which I am now re-reading. It is not so crime and mafia obsessed, even if the story “Philology” is about the origin of the word “mafia.” Well, reminding myself of the contents, there are plenty of murders, but these are not detective stories as such. They are merely about Sicily.