Tag Archives: Granta Books

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.

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

A couple of years ago I read (and very much enjoyed) Valeria Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd, and now we have Sidewalks, a collection of essays from this talented young Mexican writer.

Luiselli, a keen observer, is a little like a modern-day flâneur (or in one essay, a ‘cycleur’, a flâneur on a bicycle), and we follow her through the city streets and sidewalks, seeing the surroundings through her eyes and gaining access to her thoughts.

IMG_1609

Many of the essays in this collection concentrate on locations, spaces and cities. And the subheadings, while at first sight seem to bear little relation to the essays themselves, are mostly themed around journeys: locations in Mexico; directions; street signs. In Flying Home, Luiselli ponders the way in which maps and different viewpoints present Mexico City and how these images have altered over time, possibly reflecting changes in the character of the city itself:

There are those who say that Mexico City is like a Big Pear – a bizarre sister of the Big Apple; the widest part of the fruit to the south and the stalk somewhere around the Basílica de Guadalupe, in the northernmost borough. But on more careful examination, the flesh of the fruit has, in fact, overflowed far beyond its skin. A contemporary artist – or a child – might represent the pear-city with a silhouette, like the ones drawn in chalk at the scene of a murder, the consequences of which exceed the supposed contaminant of the outline: pear splattered on tarmac.

The latest map we have of Mexico City (Guía Roji, 2012) doesn’t look like anything – anything, except, perhaps a stain, a trace, a distant memory of something else. (pgs. 27-28)

And a few lines later:

Far from above, lights glimmer in the valley and it regains its liquid past: a lake overcrowded with fishing boats. And on a clear day, from an airplane window, the city is almost comprehensible – a simpler representation of itself, to the scale of the human imagination. But as the airplane descends to earth, one discovers that the grid is floating on what seems to be an indeterminate stretch of grey water. The folds of the valley embody the threat of a wave of mercury which never quite breaks against the mountain range; the streets and avenues are petrified folds in an overflowing, ghostly lake. (pgs. 28-29)

In an age of constant connectivity, Luiselli contemplates the transition to a world where there has been a switch between the status of the street as a public space and the home as a private one. In such a world ‘our only option is to construct small, fleeting intimacies in other spaces.’ She finds an ally in the night-shift doorman of her building, a man who ‘watches over the imprecise limits between the public world and the private.’

Only in that liminal space, under the umbrella of his company, do I feel safe from the claustrophobic categories of outside and inside. (pg 97)

The collection comes bookended by the author’s reflections on a visit to Venice. Luiselli has travelled here in search of the grave of Joseph Brodsky, and the subheadings in this essay come from the other tombstones (including those of Ezra Pound and Luchino Visconti) she encounters in her search for Brodsky’s grave. As Luiselli considers Brodsky’s life, she touches once again on the theme of residences and spaces:

But perhaps a person only has two real residences: the childhood home and the grave. All the other spaces we inhabit are a mere grey spectrum of that first dwelling, a blurred succession of walls that finally resolve themselves into the crypt or the urn – the tiniest of the infinite divisions of space into which a human bodies can fit. (pg.13)

In some of the essays, Luiselli turns her gaze towards her own writing, language and the meaning of certain words. In Alternative Routes, she muses on the meaning of the Portuguese word ‘saudade’, for which there is no direct translation. Here she considers how our minds operate as we try to navigate our way through another language:

When we have only a partial knowledge of a language, the imagination fills in the sense of a word, a phrase or a paragraph – like those drawing books where the pages are covered with dots that, as children, we had to join with a crayon to reveal the complete image. (pg. 42)

I loved this collection of Valeria Luiselli’s illuminating essays, many of which have a philosophical and melancholy tone. The writing is excellent. Luiselli’s words (and Christina MacSweeney’s translation) seem to flow effortlessly across the page, and one could describe these glimpses into the author’s world as graceful prose poems or laments. In some respects, Sidewalks reminds me a little of Renata Adler’s Speedboat (which I’ll be reviewing in a few weeks’ time); while Speedboat is a novel, the two books share certain similarities in style and tone. Sidewalks also brings to mind Teju Cole’s Open City, a comparison Tony Malone makes in his excellent review of Luiselli’s novel, Faces in the Crowd. My one regret is that Sidewalks isn’t longer – Luiselli’s writing runs to around 100 pages but let’s hope there’s more on the way.

I’ll finish with a quote on books that seems to typify Luiselli’s writing:

Going back to a book is like returning to the cities we believe to be our own, but which, in reality, we’ve forgotten and been forgotten by. In a city — in a book — we vainly revisit passages, looking for nostalgias that no longer belong to us. Impossible to return to a place and find it as you left it — impossible to discover in a book exactly what you first read between its lines. We find, at best, fragments of objects among the debris, incomprehensible marginal notes that we have to decipher to make our own again. (pg. 85)

I read this book to link in with Biblibio’s #WITMonth (focusing on Women in Translation), which is running throughout August, and also Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month which has been extended by a week or two.

Sidewalks is published in the UK by Granta Books. Source: personal copy.

Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia (tr. by Adrienne Foulke)

Leonardo Sciascia was born in Sicily in 1912 and died there in 1989. He was one of the country’s leading writers (both a novelist and essayist), as well as a forthright political commentator. Sciascia was deeply concerned with the failings of the judicial system, corruption and the moral challenges facing Sicily and Italy, and his novels tap into these themes. Earlier this year, Granta reissued a series of Leonardo Sciascia’s books in smart, new covers, and having enjoyed The Day of the Owl, I couldn’t resist buying a couple of the new editions.

IMG_1529

Equal Danger opens with the discovery of the body of District Attorney Varga, shot dead while walking home one evening. At the time of his death, Varga had been in the middle of conducting the prosecution in a lengthy trial, and at first sight it appears that someone may have eliminated the DA with the aim of halting his case. Initial probes by the local police, however, lead to a dead end, and in an attempt to restore public faith, the Minister for National Security appoints inspector Rogas to the investigation. And it’s at this point that we start to gain a sense of the politics at play:

The Minister did not fail to communicate to Rogas, by way of a viaticum delivered by the High Commissioner of Police, the desire of both the President of the Supreme Court and himself that any shadow which might blemish the limpid reputation of the deceased Varga should be evaluated by Rogas in light of the discredit that would unjustly fall upon the entire judiciary; therefore, with the utmost caution, any such shadow was to be exorcised upon its first appearance. Should it loom up irresistibly, it was to be erased. But Rogas had principles, in a country where almost no one did. (pg 4, Granta Books)

Almost as soon as Rogas starts to probe the circumstances surrounding Varga’s demise, news of another death comes through; Judge Sanza has been found dead on a beach in Ales (about sixty miles away), killed by a bullet to the heart. Then, four days later, another official, Judge Azar, is wiped out. Sciascia has a terrific way with words, which I hope to illustrate by quoting his description of this unfortunate character:

Four days later, in Chiro, Judge Azar was felled: a sullen, reclusive man, who had spent the years from youth to death in terror of being infected by illness and emotions. Never had he shaken hands with a colleague or with a lawyer; when he could not avoid shaking hands because some newly arrived superior offered his own, Azar would suffer until he managed to slink behind a curtain or to some place where he, not seeing, believed himself unseen; taking out a tiny flask of alcohol, he would pour a generous amount (the only thing in which he was generous) over his bony hands, which were roped with veins and spotted like lichen-covered stones. (pg. 7)

During his investigation, Rogas discovers that Judge Azar had amassed a substantial fortune, the source of which remains a mystery. Our protagonist smells the whiff of corruption, but is quickly advised by his superiors (and those at the very top levels of state) ‘not to forage for gossip; Rogas should keep on the trail, if trail there was, of that crazy lunatic who for no reason whatever was going about murdering judges.’ (pg 8)

Rogas believes the crimes are connected in some way and wonders if someone is seeking revenge for a previous miscarriage of justice. Presently he learns that about ten years ago, Azar and Varga served together in the Criminal Court in Algo. No sooner does Rogas arrive in Algo than another body (that of Judge Rasto) is discovered, promptly followed by the felling of another Judge in a city far away from the other crimes.

Undeterred, Rogas continues to pursue his revenge hypothesis and homes in on three cases of particular interest. He eliminates two of the three leaving a prime suspect, a man convicted of attempted homicide, a crime involving poison, a dead cat and a pot of black rice. Having served five years, Rogan’s suspect, a pharmacist by the name of Cres, is now back living in Algo. Rogas places Cres’s home under surveillance, but the pharmacist gives Rogas’s colleagues the slip.

Meanwhile, another District Attorney is killed (this one in the capital city), and witnesses report seeing two people fleeing the scene of the crime. Consequently, those in the upper echelons of power believe revolutionaries and political activists are responsible for the murders, and Rogas finds himself transferred to the Political Section in order to ‘redeem himself and redeem the police force from evident error.’

From here, our Inspector finds himself drawn into a web of political entanglements involving several players. There’s the editor of Permanent Revolution (a magazine that has published articles attacking the administration of justice), the Minister for National Security and Mr. Amar, the leader of the International Revolutionary Party (an opposition movement). And this section of the narrative delivers further insights into the nature of political environment at large – here’s The Minister talking to Rogas and the Chief of the Political Section:

But, you see, this country hasn’t reached the point yet of despising Mr. Amar’s party as much as it despises mine. And in our system, contempt is what puts the seal of approval on power. Mr. Amar’s people are doing their level best to deserve it, and with time they will. And once they’ve got it, they will know what to do to legitimize it. Because, while the system allows us to come to power via contempt, it is iniquity, the practice of iniquity, that legitimizes it. We – those of us in my party who succeed each other in ministerial posts – we are blandly iniquitous. (pg.72)

At the end of this scene, the Chief of the Political Section asks Rogas for his take on the Minister’s remarks. Rogas replies:

“I have no opinions. If I did, I’d change jobs. I’ve only got principles. What about you?”

“I’ve got neither opinions nor principles.” (pg. 73)

As Rogas tries to find a way forward, he meets with the President of the Supreme Court, and the two men enter into a complex philosophical discussion on the nature of innocence, guilt and the administration of justice. What started as a murder mystery has by now morphed into something else altogether.

In a note at the end of the book, Sciascia describes Equal Danger as a fable set in an entirely imaginary country:

A country where ideas no longer circulate, where principles – still proclaimed, still acclaimed – are made a daily mockery, where ideologies are reduced to policies in name only, in a party-politics game in which only power for the sake of power counts.

Equal Danger is a very good novella. It comes in at just shy of 120 pages, but Sciascia makes every word count here; each sentence feels charged with meaning. It’s a very skilfully-written story, and the narrative becomes more nuanced, more philosophical as it develops.

If you’re looking for a crime novel with a classic plot resolution, one in which the detective gets his man, Equal Danger (and Sciascia in general) may not be for you. But if you’re interested in mysteries that explore deeper issues regarding moral values, corruption and social injustice, then Equal Danger is well worth a shot.

Equal Danger is published in the UK by Granta Books. Source: personal copy.