The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (tr. Avril Bardoni)

The thirteen pieces in this excellent collection of Leonardo Sciascia’s short stories, The Wine-Dark Sea, were written between 1959 and 1972. Collectively, the author considered these stories – which are arranged in chronological order – as a kind of summary of his work up until that point in time. As such, the pieces are somewhat diverse in nature, and yet there is something inherently Sicilian in each and every one, a reflection of a certain aspect of the island’s soul and character. As with other collections I’ve covered here, I’m not going to review each individual story. Instead, I will focus on my favourites, the ones that made the greatest impression or spoke to me in some way.

IMG_2573

The collection opens with The Ransom, Sciascia’s retelling of an old folk tale he first heard during a visit to the capital as a young boy. When Don Nicola Cirino, the Procurator General of Palermo takes a fancy to a beautiful girl named Concettina, he sees an opportunity to strike a bargain with her father, Don Raimondo. If the father allows him to marry Concettina, Don Nicola will arrange for the release of the man’s son-in-law, currently serving a prison sentence for killing a peasant with a single kick of his foot. Despite the young girl’s concerns, the father agrees to the union, and so Concettina has to marry the old judge; in effect, the innocent must pay the price for the release of the guilty. However, the story doesn’t end at this point; there are further developments to come, events that add a touch of irony to this old tale.

Many of the stories in this collection are underscored by a sense of rivalry between factions, whether it be clashes between husbands and wives, conflicts between separate branches of the Mafia or tensions between local neighbourhoods. This quote from The Ransom captures it nicely as Sciascia reflects on the differences between two neighbouring towns, Grotte and Racalmutto.

In truth, the two towns, although only separated by a couple of miles, were as different as could be. Grotte had a Protestant minority and a Socialist majority, three or four families of Jewish descent and a strong Mafia; it also had bad roads, mean houses and dreary festivals. Racalmuto staged a festival that lasted a whole week and was splendidly colourful and extravagant; the people of Grotte flocked to it in their hundreds; but for the rest of the year the town was tranquil and trouble-free, being electorally divided between two great families, having a handful of Socialists, and army of priests and a Mafia  divided against itself. (pg. 5)

Perhaps somewhat inevitably, the Mafia feature in quite a few of Sciascia’s stories. In Philology, two men discuss the origins and meaning of the word ‘mafia’, but their reasons for doing so only become clear as the story unfolds. Another story, the aptly named Mafia Western, features two rival Mafia cells that have been in conflict with one another for many years. When a third cell is suspected of killing several members of both factions, not even the patriarchs of the Mafia hierarchy can solve the issue through the usual declaration of a truce; so they leave it up to the two cells to resolve things as swiftly as possible.

The mafiosi of the town began to make their own investigations, but fear, the sense of being the objects of an inscrutable vendetta or homicidal whim, and finding themselves suddenly in exactly the same position in which they themselves had placed honest people for so long, left them bewildered and robbed of much of their will to act. They were reduced to imploring their political members in their turn to implore the carabinieri to mount a real, thorough-going and efficient investigation—even though they suspected that the carabinieri themselves, having failed to smoke them out by legal methods, might have resorted to this shadier, more secure one. (pg. 169-170)

In one of my favourite stories from the collection, The Long Crossing, a group of peasants board a ship on the promise that they will be taken from Sicily to New Jersey, where life in the land of hope and glory beckons. The story opens with this wonderful passage which sets the scene perfectly.

The night seemed made to order, the darkness so thick that its weight could almost be felt when one moved. And the sound of the sea, like the wild-animal breath of the world itself, frightened them as it gasped and died at their feet. (pg 17)

Several of the men have sold virtually all their possessions to pay for the trip, a journey they understand will take twelve days, give or take a day or two, But when they arrive at their destination, all is not quite what it seems at first sight. This is a mournful story of faith and duplicity, one that will stay with me for quite a while.

Betrayal also rears its head in another excellent story, A Matter of Conscience, in which a woman who has committed adultery with a relative is wracked with guilt at the thought of continuing to deceive her husband, a loyal and loving man. Even though the affair is now over, the woman, who loves her husband very much, feels the urge to confess everything to clear her conscience. With this in mind, she writes a letter to a woman’s magazine asking for advice. When the letter is printed, it catches the eye of one the local lawyers. Consequently, it’s not long before the men of the town are caught up in the process of trying to guess the identity of the woman (and therefore the husband) in question. When one man, Favara, becomes the focus of attention, he is both amused and anxious:

Amused, because the bachelors, the widowers, the old men and those fortunate enough to have a wife without relatives, could afford to feel highly entertained; anxious, because those who fulfilled Don Luigi’s conditions were now seriously alarmed and were studying Favara’s reactions minutely as if he were offering a kind of sacrifice on their behalf which, once accomplished, would restore their shattered sense of security. (pg. 148)

Like a number of the stories in this collection, A Matter of Conscience ends on understated but poignant note.

Interestingly, I found Sciascia’s stories more humane than I had anticipated. When I think back to my previous readings of Sciascia’s novels Equal Danger and The Day of the Owl, it’s the biting combination of crime, corruption and political intrigue that I remember rather than a sense of compassion. Perhaps the best example of this feeling of humanity is encapsulated in the titular story, The Wine-Dark Sea, in which Bianchi, an unmarried engineer from the North of Italy is travelling to Sicily by train, sharing a carriage with a husband and wife and their two boys. The family, who are returning from a wedding in the capital, are accompanied by a relative, an attractive young girl named Dina. As the journey progresses, Bianchi – a man who has never been particularly fond of children – finds himself warming to the young boys despite their rather unruly behaviour. Further, Bianchi is clearly attracted to Dina, a girl of few words and profound feelings. As a consequence, these two developments prompt him to re-examine his own life. At just shy of forty pages, this is the longest story in the collection and deservedly so. It touches on the joy of family life, the tensions between the people of the North and those of the South (the Sicilians, in particular), the values of society, so many things. It’s my favourite piece in the collection.

A similar humane quality comes through in The Test, a story in which a Swiss engineer named Basler travels across Sicily from town to town, recruiting young women to work in a factory producing electrical goods. On the engineer’s arrival in an isolated village, his driver is approached by a young man whose girlfriend is one of the candidates. The young man wishes to marry this girl, and so he implores the driver (a fellow Sicilian) to help him by persuading the engineer to reject her, thereby ensuring she remains in the village. This story touches on several things: the economics of life in a small town; the dignity that comes with work and being able to provide for a family; questions of trust and loyalty. It’s another fine story.

Other stories worthy of a mention include:

  • Demotion, in which the head of the local Communist cell berates his wife for joining a demonstration against the removal of a statue from the local church, the statue of a saint whom the priests have now declared as never having existed in the first place. This is a story with an ironic sting in its tale, best left for readers to discover for themselves.
  • End–Game, the story of a man who is sent to eliminate a woman. But who holds the balance of power here? Is it the assassin, his potential victim or the man who commissioned the kill (the husband of the woman in question)?

In summary, this collection of stories would make an excellent introduction to Leonardo Sciascia’s Sicily, a place characterised by a compelling fusion of raw beauty, dignity, suspicion, brutality and sly irony.

Update: Grant (1streading) has reviewed this collection – click here to read his excellent review.

The Wine-Dark Sea is published by Granta Books. Source: personal copy.

45 thoughts on “The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (tr. Avril Bardoni)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always Jacqui. I have read one Sciascia book “A Simple Story” which was anything but, and I’ll certainly look out for this one – sound like a fascinating collection!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one. His stories are very interesting – they are by turns philosophical, humane and surprising.

      Reply
  2. Sarah

    I do like a smattering of philosophy in my reading so this collection has piqued my interest. Also,as it’s set in Sicily, it would be perfect for my ‘around the world in 80 books’ reading challenge, so thank you for the recommendation. It’s on the wishlist! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great! I think this would be an excellent choice for your reading project. Sciascia’s stories seem to capture the very essence of Sicily, the island’s culture and its inhabitants. I really hope you get a chance to try them.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How timely! I can’t want to hear what you think these stories. This collection should give you a good introduction to the heart and soul of the island. I spent a very enjoyable week travelling around Sicily ten years ago, would love to go back at some point.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad you like the sound of it. Sciascia’s stories are quite unusual, very different to much of the more conventional short fiction from many of the American and British writers I’ve read. I really liked the diversity of pieces in this collection.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary as always Jacqui.

    I have not read Leonardo Sciascia yet. As per your observation I would likely begin with this collection to to the humane nature of the stories.In addition, I really need to read more short stories

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Having read a few of Sciascia’s works, I would recommend this collection as a good place for you to start with him, partly because of the humane quality you’ve picked up on . He’s definitely worth considering, especially if you’re interested in getting an insight into Sicilian life and culture.

      Reply
  4. realthog

    Shockingly, I don’t know Sciascia’s work at all. I’d better go see if I can hunt down one or two of his novels, since novels rather than story collections are generally the way I get into authors. Many thanks for the introduction, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. realthog

      So off I pottered to the library catalogue and immediately recognized the cover and blurb of the single novel of his they have there, To Each his Own. So I’m not as ignorant as I thought I was! I quite enjoyed that book back in September 2014 . . . probably thanks to your review of Equal Danger.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Haha – I love it! Well, if you’re interested in trying another of his novels, I would recommend The Day of the Owl. I think it’s my favourite of the Sciascias I’ve read so far, and I have a feeling you might enjoy it too!

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Sciascia sort of dropped off the radar for a while, but Granta Books sparked a mini-revival of interest in him when they reissued a whole clutch of his books a couple of years ago. This collection would make a good intro to his work and to Sicily itself. Alternatively, there’s always Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano mysteries, an excellent choice if you fancy doing a little light sleuthing. I often read one when I’m need of a quick palate cleanser between heavier reads. :)

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    What a coincidence. I’m so in the mood for books and stories set in Sicily. I travelled there extensively and wanted to bring back some of the memories. Of course, I thought of Sciascia whom I haven’t read. Luckily I own this. I’m very curious to see how I will like him.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how timely! It’s good to hear that you have a copy, that’s great news. I would love to hear what you think of this collection, Caroline. I’ve only been to Sicily once and would love to go back again one day. The island has a very unique character, and I think Sciascia captures it perfectly.

      Reply
  6. Scott W.

    A marvelous review, Jacqui, feeding your readers with just enough detail to get them – this one, anyway – tremendously excited about taking on the collection. I have this lying about somewhere and will certainly be re-visiting it. Interesting that you call out Sciascia’s compassion as a surprising quality. I agree that it’s not overtly apparent in most of his work, but his deep moral conscience occasionally leads to revealing moments of compassion. I’m thinking in particular of parts of The Council of Egypt.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, Scott. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that you have a copy of this collection as it strikes me as being right up your street, especially given your love of Italian literature! The humanity and compassion really came through in three or four of the stories in particular (The Wine-Dark Sea, The Test, A Matter of Conscience and The Long Crossing). I haven’t read The Council of Egypt, but your comment has me scurrying off to look it up. Thanks for the tip.

      Reply
  7. FictionFan

    These sound like a fascinating collection, with a lot of variety but working well together. Must investigate further – thanks for the excellent and intriguing review! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! I’m a bit of a fan of Sciascia’s work as I think he’s still relatively underappreciated as far as writers go. If you’re tempted to give him a try, then this collection would make a good intro. As you say, the stories are quite diverse, but they come together to form a sort of tableau of Sicilian life. Alternatively, I can highly recommend his novels, especially The Day of the Owl, my favourite of the works I’ve read so far.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I read (and reviewed – though far more briefly!) this two years ago. Like you, it seems the title story was my favourite. Shamefully I haven’t read anything else by Sciascia despite intending to!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, I hadn’t realised you had reviewed this one, Grant (or if I did, I had forgotten). Right, I shall head over to yours in a little while to take a look at your review!

      Yes, I loved the lead story in this collection – the characters, the themes, the way it unfolded, everything really. If you’re ever interested in trying another Sciascia, may I suggest either The Day of the Owl or Equal Danger, both which I enjoyed very much. I was reminded of them last year when I read The Inspector Barlach Mysteries – like the Durrenmatts, Sciascia’s novellas contain a philosophical dimension.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great stuff – I think you might like these stories, Guy. Good to hear you enjoyed To Each His Own. For some reason, Granta didn’t include it in their reissues, so I may have to hunt around for a copy.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, it does. He has a strong moral compass. I like the way he exposes the corruption and duplicity inherent in state-controlled organisations – it comes through very clearly in much of his work.

          Reply
  9. Max Cairnduff

    Rather jealous of Emma going to Sicily and Caroline having been.

    That aside, it sounds tremendous, a really strong collection. I’m a bit overflowing with short stories presently so likely won’t get to this for quite a while, but you do make a terribly good case for it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a wonderful place, so full of character and spirit. The closest comparison I can think of is Naples. It’s that mix of raw beauty, grittiness and vitality, I think.

      As for The Wine-Dark Sea, it’s an excellent assortment of pieces, but I understand what you’re saying about having more than enough short stories right now. I tend to get through quite a few collections as I often read short stories alongside whatever else I’m reading at the time (novels mostly). If I’ve only got 20 minutes to read, then I tend to turn to stories rather than a novel as they’re easier to fit into smaller chunks of time here and there. As a result, a collection might last me two or three weeks as I’m dipping in and out every now and again.

      Have you read anything else by Sciascia, Max? He definitely strikes me as being your type of writer. The Day of the Owl is my fave of the novels I’ve read so far, but I really enjoyed Equal Danger too.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Claire. I’ve only been to Sicily once, but it turned out to be one of the most memorable weeks I’ve ever spent abroad. It’s a fascinating place, so I’m often drawn to stories set on the island as a way of returning there, albeit vicariously!

      Reply
  10. Cathy746books

    I’m reading a lot of short stories at the moment and this collection sounds fantastic. The Long Crossing sounds like it could still be very pertinent today. I loved the line ‘the darkness so thick that its weight could almost be felt when one moved’.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you like the sound of this one, Cathy. You’re right, there’s something timeless about The Long Crossing – I couldn’t help but think of the current migration crisis too.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  12. Richard

    I’ve had this collection in Italian for two or three years now, but I haven’t worked up enough nerve to give it a go in the original language yet. Your enthusiastic review gives me motivation, though, and it’s been a while since I’ve read any Sciascia so there’s extra motivation as well. Have you read Sciascia’s nonfiction The Moro Affair, Jacqui? That one probably rivals The Day of the Owl as my favorite Sciascia to date. Cheers!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, how interesting. I would love to be able to read Sciascia in his native language. It’s a fine collection, and it reminded me just how good a writer he was.

      No, I haven’t read The Moro Affair, but it’s definitely of interest to me. Sounds like I’m going to need to pick it up, especially if it’s up there with The Day of the Owl. Thanks for the recommendation, Richard!

      Reply
  13. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  14. Pingback: The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia | Book Around The Corner

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s