Thursday, July 9, 2020

SCIASCIA: the Best Italian Mystery Writer You've Never Heard Of: Guest post by Vito Racanelli

The latest issue of Mystery Readers Journal focuses on Mysteries set in Italy. Vito Racanelli wrote two important articles for this issue, but unfortunately his essay about Leonardo Sciascia was omitted from the print and PDF versions. My fault. Apologies to Vito. I will be posting the article on the website, but here it is for you to read now. Check out Mystery Readers Journal: Italian Mysteries (36:2) for more information on Italian Mysteries.

SCIASCIA: the Best Italian Mystery Writer You've Never Heard Of

I fell in love with Leonardo Sciascia’s novels rather late in my reading life. Only in the last couple of years have I become acquainted with the contours of his dark Sicilian landscapes, a venal sin given I lived in Italy for several years. How did I miss this writer for so long?

There are many 20th century Italian novelists who are known internationally, Ferrante more lately, but also Moravia, Morante, Eco, Calvino, and Ginzburg. In Italy, Sciascia is recognized among the greats, with more than one Nobel nomination. Outside his native land, however, he is not. I’m not certain why this is, but perhaps it comes from being seen as a regional (Sicilian) writer of mysteries. Then some of his best works are slim, often less than 200 pages, about murder mainly, and hardly the introspective, moody doorstoppers that win prizes.

In reality, Sciascia (1921-1989) is a superb writer, a master of dialogue and silences, and one that critics have compared to Stendhal for his deft and haunting recreation of place, Sicily in his case. Like a painter that uses few strokes, his novels and stories manage to capture the island and its deep fatalism. He was born in Racalmuto, Sicily, just as Fascism was about to emerge, and as the brigands of old had already been replaced by their children, the Mafia.

Corruption of the state and society infiltrates his work, from feckless police investigations of murders to the inability of the people—cowed by fear—to act morally. Sciascia’s books do have lead characters that want to do the right thing, fervently and often at risk of their lives. It’s just that they don’t succeed, that they never will succeed, and that they are lucky to be still breathing in the closing pages. His detectives’ efforts are doomed to be deflected purposely by people in whose interest he operates.

Indeed, they are complicit. As The Day of the Owl, (Sciascia’s first novel, 1961) opens, a man is shot in the piazza in broad daylight, witnessed by several bus passengers and the local fritter seller. All melt away before the police arrive. Later the police question him about the shots: “ ‘Why?’ ” the fritter-seller answers, “…astonished and inquisitive, “ ‘has there been a shooting?’ ” It’s horrifying but his response is completely understood by all the characters, including the police.

Sciascia does this all in what seems simple crime fiction and a mystery, where the silences are as important as the prose. When questions are asked, answers sometimes are given or not, and sometimes there’s just a turn of the face, a movement of the hands. Who kills whom isn’t directly revealed, and yet the reader can know for the clues are there, in a cigar butt on the ground, for example, in To Each His Own, a favorite of mine, along with The Day of the Owl, and Equal Danger.

In Sciascia’s mysteries, rationality and the enlightenment fail to make more than a slight nick against a long Sicilian history of mistrust and deception, born of an island conquered by all and ruled by none, where civic action was left for centuries to an idle, despoiled Bourbon aristocracy, brigands and finally the mafia. The writer’s strained affection for the island comes through even as his is a critical judgement of a damaged and dysfunctional society. Many of his novels could easily be set in any small town in “il Mezzogiorno,” like the one my own parents abandoned. The poorer parts remain places of superstition, where dreams and nightmares mean much more than Freud could ever have imagined. These places all share the same benighted history.

Perhaps what I love most about Sciascia is that he doesn’t give readers the satisfaction of a crime solved or that somehow good won out. Indeed, he’s been called a pioneer of the “anti-detective” novel, where “order restored” is rejected. The bad aren’t found out, they aren’t punished. In fact, they go on doing all the terrible things they’ve been doing with implacable impunity. The people shrug their shoulders at evil, knowing it cannot be banished.

Although rationality fails in Sciascia’s world, there is a strange beauty to his detectives’ passionate fight against futility and resignation. His characters don’t brood. Instead, they go about their business as best as they can. In one scene in The Day of the Owl, the investigator, Captain Belled, a northerner sent from Parma to investigate a murder, questions mafia boss and suspect Don Arena. In a tarantella of wits, they discuss history, philosophy, the Catholic Church, sin, death, compassion and delusion. Arena is implicated but is never charged.

Belled faces a closed society in Sicily where Arena is simply the blunt and dangerous tip of a violent and mendacious organization whose tendrils go through local mayors and policeman across the strait of Messina all the way to ministers in Rome. The regular folk can do nothing but submit.

In Sciascia, the Mafia typically remains in the background, but its power coils thickly around the political and business machinery. I find the Ragana’ character, who appears only briefly in To Each His Own, as one of the most frightening organized crime characters I have ever encountered in ink. It’s not that he says much, waves a gun or even threatens. He is drawn simply, with a cheap cigar in his mouth, and a brazen look on his face of absolute confidence that he will not pay for his sins in this life. It’s as if he says, “If you are trying to find the killer, look no further.”

Sciascia, a prophet about the scourge of the Mafia, was once quoted as saying; “At a certain point in life, hope isn’t the last thing that dies, but death is the last hope.” Darker than that is hard to get. He might be the best Italian “mystery” writer you’ve never heard of. His novels just happen to include unsolved murder. But then that’s life, isn’t it.
Vito Racanelli is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer whose thriller, The Man in Milan, will be published by Polis Books this month. His short stories have been broadcast on the BBC’s Story Time as well as performed at Liar’s League NYC. He was formerly the AP-Dow Jones bureau chief for Italy.


Rebecca said...

Thanks so much for this telling introduction. My knowledge of Sicilian crime writing. Camilleri, whom I love dearly, is the only Sicilian crime writer I know.

Priscilla said...

Many thanks for this! Just bought Day of the Owl.