Sicilian Uncles

Although there are probably any number of reasons for me to think otherwise, even in my own reading experience, when I consider translated literature I never imagine it to be genre work – as if being translated were a genre in itself. They may be experimental texts, like of Perec or Calvino, autobiography or characterful short stories or even, like Sulphuric Acid, what is superficially a thriller – but it is as though I mentally consign their authors to a general category marked foreign drama regardless of what it is they actually write.

Standing in a bookshop in Trapani, Sicily, desperately searching the English language section for something to read on the flight home, I had the name Leonardo Sciascia pointed out to me, and quickly learn he is regarded by his peers as one of the greatest modern writers – and a writer of detective fiction. I chose Sicilian Uncles instead of one of his novels without hesitation; four shorter stories in which to test his waters, all the time freshly recognising this unfair tendency of mine and looking forward to challenging it.

Of course, none of them are detective stories. All are, more or less, foreign dramas; but in the sense of shining a fierce light onto a society which is largely alien to me and bringing it into sharp focus, revealing strange things lurking in the dark, casting mysterious shadows – bringing it startlingly to life in a way the experience of a seaside resort tends not to.

The blurb on the back cover reads, “A Sicilian uncle is a mentor, a patron, but a sinister and treacherous one” – and the first story, The American Aunt, perfectly embodies this assertion. Beginning during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, it is recounted by a youngster making a good living for himself trading cigarettes from soldiers  – first German or Sicilian, later American – and selling them on to the suppressed civilian adults of his community at a great profit, even within his own home, something his father and uncle consider (to coin a popular misuse of the word amongst Europeans) a very unfamiliar thing to do.

Because of the cigarettes I got for my uncle, no one dared fall out with me. When my father got angry at my grasping attitude, my uncle would calm him down, fearing that business might end. He used to wander round the house, forever saying, “I’ll die if I don’t have a cigarette!” He would give me a look of hate and then ask me gently if I had one.

In a strongly nationalist, fascist-supporting community the arrival of the Americans means a bitter swallowing of pride, but it occurs with immediate and fervent effect, presenting them as a nation of turn-coats. For the young narrator America represents something grand and he enjoys provoking his uncle in particular over this involuntary social revolution, one which he fears will see him snatched from his bed for his former loyalties; but as their presence grows ever stronger something in the sight of the American forces and his people’s willing capitulation disturbs the boy, fills him with anxiety and fear for his home.

I rushed back up the road, now festive with voices, and when I closed the main door behind me, I felt as if I were in a dream, as if someone were dreaming and I was in that dream, climbing the stairs, tired out, with a tight lump of tears choking in my throat.

My father was talking about Badoglio. My uncle was looking so beaten he seemed like a bag of sawdust, but he livened up on seeing me come in. He took a packet of Raleigh cigarettes, the one with a bearded man on it, out of his pocket, and loading his voice with gentle hypocrisy, asked me, “How much would you make me pay for a packet of these?”

I burst into tears. “Cry!” he said, “Go on, because the Land of Cockaigne is over for you! Even if I’m condemned to death, they won’t deny cigarettes to this man.”

“Leave him alone”, my mother said.

I finished it thinking how excellently the blurb had described the nature of a Sicilian uncle; then I turned the page and discovered I had only finished part one of the story. The arrival of the forces of freedom heralds prosperity in the form of his aunt, living in the heart of America and enjoying its great wealth; which, like the remote relatives of everyone in the town, she sees fit to bestow from long range as soon as circumstances allow. Soon the town’s entire population are wearing American Clothes, eating American Food, using American Goods, and soon enough too this American Aunt will arrive in person – but with her she brings the real victory of the Sicilian Uncle over his nephew.

This is the only literal uncle to be found in the collection; the others are sometimes obvious, sometimes less so. A more consistent feature of Sciascia’s tales is political or social division and the second story, The Death of Stalin, voices the communist perspective in a time when to be a minion of Moscow was to risk being vanished off to some island prison in the night; its narrator, who believes his dreams about the Russian leader to be prophetic of the ultimate victory of global communism, views Stalin as an uncle both to himself and the Sicilian communist movement. His is a moving story, of a desperate need for vindication of his beliefs and of painful disillusionment.

The title of the next story, “Forty-Eight”, refers first to the Sicilian revolutions of 1848 and their gradual decline; from this, the phrase “forty-eight” came to mean disorder or confusion, and “to make a ~”, “to end in a ~” or “to profit from a forty-eight” meant to cause, result in or profit from confusion respectively. Again the dominant feature here is corruption, the betrayal of one’s ideals or subverting those of others. The nominal uncle comes in the form of the local landed gentry, a philandering Baron in league with the corrupt officials of the town and church, and to whom the narrator’s father is a bondsman. There is humour in all four pieces but here it is most ripe, the Baron’s cowardice and opportunism driving the action, along with that of his co-conspirators – though in their eyes, by continuing to subjugate the populace and undermining a revolution against themselves, they are doing nothing more than their God given duty. By contrast the narrator’s role is least developed this time, for the most part recounting events he is largely disconnected from, though there is the suggestion of their great effect on his later life.

The last story, Antimony, echoes this, describing the experiences of a Sicilian volunteer fighting for the fascists against the communists in the Spanish civil war. One of a family of sulphur miners, for whom the semi-metal antimony was a known and very unpleasant killer, he signs up to fight with no greater fear for his life than that which he experienced daily underground. The second meaning of antimony, the paradox of two mutually incompatible laws, comes in the narrator’s realisation that he has committed himself in a fight against the very people he would support were he at home –  the ordinary workers. In the discovery that Mussolini’s fascist government, supposedly egalitarian in its domestic policies, would side with the fascism of wealth and the establishment abroad – in which Spain is portrayed, perhaps, as an uncle to Sicily, with many affectionate similarities between the two identified – lies the death of the narrator’s idealism and the birth of his cynicism, and in the book’s closing line a simple declaration of his abandonment of Sicily in return.

Sciascia writes in a bare, naturalist prose that gives form to deep currents of feeling. Clearly he loves his country the way one can love a close but deeply flawed family member, a love that embraces their failings without necessarily overlooking them. My experience of Sicily was, though fairly superficial, a positive one; my experience of Sciascia was only positive, and has given me a hunger for more of both. Having found my literary preconceptions inadvertently supported, a new goal will be to read something of Sciascia’s specifically in the realm of detective fiction – I have no doubts I will be well rewarded.

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