Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Leonardo Sciascia's "history of the continuous defeat of reason"

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.


  1. My enthusiasm for Sciascia, charged with the reading of the superb Equal Danger, has since dwindled with every other book of his I've read. But I don't forget the initial electricity of following Amerigo Rogas through a parody of detective novels.

    His novels, I later found out, tend to make interesting, if not great, movies. I've seen about 5 or 6 adaptations so far, and never get disappointed: there's something a bit different about the way Italians make crime/detective movies - everything is so pointless, integrity is so useless, crime is so normal. Indeed, what's the point of the school teacher investigating a murder in "To Each his Own?" I have a particular fondness for "The Day of the Owl" - there the cop is defeated, not by the mob, but by bureaucracy - he doesn't even need to die, he's just transferred to another city.

  2. I've read both "The Day of the Owl" and "To Each His Own" and I found them both quite fine anti-detective novels. The pointlessness (does anyone write about Sciascia's novels without using that word?) of all attempts at justice could make the books unbearable and one-dimensional, but Sciascia's grim humor gives them life. I'd like to read more of him. I own "The Wine Dark Sea" but I've been avoiding it for some reason.

    The cop in "Day of the Owl" is almost a mythological figure, laboring away like Sisyphus, pretending he will produce meaningful results, real justice for the victim. I love that.

    1. A good entry point into The Wine Dark Sea is Giufa, which is a masterful short story bringing together Italian folk-tales, picaresque and Arab traditions. I read it 20 years ago and still remember it with fondness.

    2. With only minor changes, "Giufa" could slide right into Calvino's Italian Folktales.

  3. I remember liking Open Doors a lot, but it's been years (decades!) since I read it.

  4. Each NYRB Classics book has an introduction by someone different, all good - one of them writes about how Sciascia has been served well by Italian film.

    W. S. Di Pieroidentifies the ones I mentioned plus The Council of Egypt as the "major" novels. But Open Doors has a novella called "1912 + 1" that I want to read.

    And Sciascia's books are all so short. No bloated 400 page mysteries here. He's efficient.

    If anyone comes by who is wondering about reading Sciascia, these comments should help - yes, of course!

  5. Great! I'm reading Equal Danger at this very moment. I've read several of Sciascia's novels (plus his bizarrely meticulous inquest into the suicide of Raymond Roussel), and I think the restoration of order he may have been after is nearly the pursuit of a restoration of Enlightenment ideals. It helps to know that Sciascia was as much political activist as writer, and attacked the Mafia and government complicity with it with astounding courage and with a vision (unsurprisingly pessimistic, as Miguel points out) of a country and world that should but won't embrace reason and law and stop grubbing about in corruption and medieval levels of violence.

    I have not read To Each His Own, but the motivation for a teacher to undertake an investigation strikes me as almost quintessentially Sicilian; the fight against the Mafia has been led by legions of ordinary heroes. Sciascia was roughly a contemporary of "the Gandhi of Sicily," Danilo Dolci, one of the most significant anti-Mafia figures in Sicily's history and - a teacher.

    The most affecting of the books I've read by Sciascia is The Council of Egypt, a kind of cross between a mystery, an historical novel in almost an Umberto Eco vein, and a polemic against ingrown politics, political persecution and torture.

  6. All right, Councils of Egypt, that's two strong votes.

    I did not write about it - too hard - but the great friction in Sciascia is that he has a world view that is a deeply pessimistic Voltairean rationalism, one that for many people would lead to despair and inaction. But Sciascia was intensely active, fighting for reform despite the impossibility of reform. And he in fact achieved reform, which you would think might lead to a revision of the underlying world view, if that is how that kind of thing worked, which it ain't.

    Makes for superior fiction, though.

  7. I have to point out that Voltaire was extraordinarily engaged, and fought ardently for reform, as well as defending victims of persecution. He was also proud of improving the economy of Ferney, his residence for many years. Écrasez l'infâme!

  8. The Voltairean side of Sciascia is the spur to action. The more Schopenhauer-like side is what would do in most people. In Sciascia's life, Voltaire triumphed, so to speak. In his fiction, less so.

  9. I remember having been very moved by Todo Modo ("One Way or Another") as well as Il Contesto. And having tracked down Kazimierz Brandys thanks to the fact that Laurana was reading him.

  10. Brandys, that is an interesting thread to follow. I know nothing about him.