Tag Archives: Granta Books

Recent Reads – Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

Brief thoughts on a couple of relatively recent reads, both of which explore the theme of overbearing, abusive men and the alarming power they exert over impressionable young women.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Just as good as I expected it to be given the tidal wave of positive reports and reviews. This is a taut, skilfully-crafted novella in which the twin horrors of past and present-day abuse come together to devastating effect.

The story takes place in the midst of a heady summer at some point in the 1970s or ‘80s (I can’t quite recall which). Sixteen-year-old-old Silvie and her parents are participating in a student encampment in the Northumberland countryside, complete with its wild surroundings and natural terrain. The camp is being run by Professor Slade, an archaeologist with an interest in the Iron Age world; more specifically, its way of life, mysterious rituals and ancient beliefs. During their stay, the participants must live their lives as the ancient Britons once did – existing in the wild, hunting for food and observing Iron Age traditions.

I don’t want to say very much about Silvie or what happens to her at the camp – it’s best you discover that for yourself if decide to read the book. (Throughout the narrative, Moss carefully reveals specific information about Silvie and her family in a way that never feels calculated or manipulative.) What I will say is that the final chapters shook me to the core – this is a striking book in more ways than one.

There is some beautiful writing about the natural world here, particularly in the author’s evocative descriptions of the countryside: the feel of the ground underfoot; the wild plants and berries along the way; the images of water breaking up the terrain.

You move differently in moccasins, have a different experience of the relationship between feet and land. You go around and not over rocks, feel the texture, the warmth, of different kinds of reed and grass in your muscles and your skin. The edges of the wooden steps over the stile touch your bones, an unseen pebble catches your breath. You can imagine how a person might learn a landscape with her feet. (p. 27)

All in all, an excellent novella. It has that blend of beauty and brutality which I love, a little like Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome or Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

Dorian has written about this novel in more detail here.

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921)

A thoroughly chilling tale of the innocence of love and the oppressive nature of tyrannical men. Quite different from her other, lighter books – The Enchanted April in particular.

Devastated by the sudden death of her father, Lucy Entwhistle – young, vulnerable and terribly innocent – comes into contact with Everard Wemyss, a man also recently bereaved and seemingly in need of a kindred spirit for support. At forty-four, Everard is much older and worldly-wise than Lucy, putting him in a position of authority and control. As such, he takes charge of the Entwhistle funeral arrangements, relieving the pressure on Lucy at a traumatic time.

Aside from Lucy, everyone at the funeral assumes Everard is an old family friend, returning to pay his respects to the late Mr Entwhistle. At this point in time, only Lucy knows about Everard and his personal circumstances – more specifically, the recent death of his wife, Vera, following a mysterious fall at the couple’s country home. (A little later it emerges that the incident has created something of a scandal around Everard, a point intensified by the open verdict at the inquest into Vera’s death.)

Dazed by the trauma of grief, Lucy finds herself strongly drawn to Everard with his confident, capable manner and kinship in a shared sense of loss. However, as Everard inveigles his way into the Entwhistles’ company, a more sinister side to his character begins to emerge – something the reader is privy to even if Lucy is not.

She had the trust in him, he felt, of a child; the confidence, and the knowledge that she was safe. He was proud and touched to know it, and it warmed him through and through to see how her face lit up whenever he appeared. Vera’s face hadn’t done that. Vera had never understood him, not with fifteen years to do it in, as this girl had in half a day. (p. 26)

Much to the concern of her benevolent Aunt Dot, Lucy soon agrees to marry Everard, believing him to be a source of comfort, reassurance and love. However, it is only once the couple are married that the true nature of Everard’s merciless personality comes to light. In truth, Everard is unpredictable, cruel and intolerant – even the smallest details are liable to spark a tantrum if they are not in line with his orders or wishes.

At first, Lucy is quick to try and forgive Everard for these outbursts, rationalising them to herself as the consequence of his grief. There soon comes a point, however, when these eruptions prove more challenging to excuse…

She was afraid of him, and she was afraid of herself in relation to him. He seemed outside anything of which she had experience. He appeared not to be – he anyhow had not been that day – generous. There seemed no way, at any point, by which one could reach him. What was he really like? How long was it going to take her really to know him? Years? (p. 168)

To make matters worse, Everard thinks nothing of bringing Lucy to The Willows, the foreboding house in the country where Vera fell to her death. Once firmly ensconced in her new home, Lucy must contend with the shadow of Vera, something that feels virtually impossible to ignore in spite of her best efforts. The house is littered with reminders of the first Mrs Wemyss – from her books in the sitting room, to her portrait in the dining room, to the place where she fell to her death, just outside the library window.

Vera is a very powerful novel, one that highlights the destructive nature of tyrannical men when their behaviour is left unchecked and allowed to run rampant. The tone is chilling and sinister, all the more so when we learn that the story was inspired by von Arnim’s own troublesome marriage to Earl Russell, brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. There is a childlike innocence to Lucy, with her trusting nature and wide-eyed view of the world, something that leaves her open to abuse by the autocratic Everard.

At first, I was a little surprised by the novel’s ending, but looking back on it now it all feels sadly inevitable. This is a cautionary tale that still holds some relevance today in spite of the radically different times. Definitely recommended, particularly for fans of character-driven stories with a dark or disturbing edge.

Several others have written about Vera, including Ali and Simon.

My copies of Ghost Wall and Vera were published by Granta Books and Hesperus Press respectively; personal copies.

West by Carys Davies

Book group choices aside, I don’t tend to read very many newly published books these days, mostly because my tastes have been gravitating towards older literature over the last few years. Nevertheless, every now and again, something new and intriguing catches my eye, often by way of a review or recommendation from a trusted source.

This brings me to West, a haunting novel by the Welsh-born writer Carys Davies, published to great acclaim in 2018. I’d already been thinking about picking up a copy when Max’s praise for it on Twitter pushed me over the edge. This taut, finely-honed novel – Davies’ first – packs quite a punch. As you’ll see from my comments below, it shares something with the classic, almost timeless narratives I tend to enjoy.

Set in the American landscape in the early 19th century, the novel revolves around Cy Bellman, a British settler and widower who lives with his ten-year-old daughter, Bess, on their mule ranch in Pennsylvania. Curious and adventurous by nature, Cy is intrigued by newspaper reports of the discovery of huge animal bones in the midst of the Kentucky swamps – so much so that he prepares to embark upon an epic journey through challenging territory in the hopeful belief that these mammoths might still be alive in the West.

While Cy’s forthright sister, Julie, thinks him crazy for abandoning his daughter, Cy is determined to go. He must discover the truth for himself – to see these beasts with his own eyes, complete in their natural habitat. It seems likely he will be away for a year or two, possibly longer – it’s hard to predict. Only Bess is convinced that her father will eventually return home, demonstrating a maturity behind her years in understanding his desire to see something of the world, his sense of curiosity about the great unknown.

Once Cy heads west, the narrative moves back and forth between his travels and the situation back at the ranch. Aunt Julie is now installed at the farm, firstly to take care of young Bess and secondly to oversee the breeding of mules and hinnies which provides the family with their income. In the latter activity, Bess is assisted by Elmer Jackson, a shady neighbouring labourer who harbours designs on Bellman’s estate, not least the women who live there. Like Julie, Jackson is also firmly of the belief that Cy will never be seen alive in Pennsylvania again, his endeavours written off as a foolhardy venture.

Bess, on the other hand, spends her spare time in the local library, keen to learn more of her father’s potential route through the territories. Intuitively, she senses the need to be wary of the librarian, a lecherous man with a penchant for young girls…

Meanwhile, back on the journey, Cy is joined by a Native American, a young Shawnee boy named ‘Old Woman from a Distance’ who is familiar with the local terrain. Even though the two travellers have very little in the way of a common language – they communicate mostly through displays of emotion and physical gestures – the boy helps Cy to navigate the unfamiliar territory, hunting and fishing for food in exchange for various trinkets of interest.

The vast prairie is tough and relentless – as is the climate, particularly in winter, a harsh and unforgiving season in the exposed terrain. Sightings of other individuals are few and far between; but when they come, they never cease to surprise, forming a striking image against the backdrop of the land.

The intermittent appearance of natives now, though he’d come by this time to expect it, amazed him: the presence of people in the vast wilderness around them. Even though he was used to the rhythm of their journey – that he and the boy could travel for a month and see no one, and then without warning encounter a large camp, or a group of savages walking or fishing. Noisy children and men whose bodies gleamed with grease and coal, women loaded like mules with bundles of buffalo meat. A whole mass of them together, undifferentiated and strange, and present suddenly amidst the course grass and the trees, the rocks and the river, beneath the enormous sky. All of them wanting to touch his red hair. Half of them enthralled by his compass, the other half trying to examine his knife and the contents of his tin chest. All of them fearful of his guns and eager to traffic a little raw meat for some of his treasures. (p. 100)

There is some beautiful writing here, demonstrating Davies’ deep appreciation of the land and cultural history of the West. These descriptive passages feel grounded in authenticity, a quality that adds a strong sense of credibility to the narrative.

As the prospect of another winter in the barren landscape looms large on the horizon, Cy finds himself wondering if his journey has been in vain, a fruitless folly in search of some great inexplicable myth.

He began to feel that he might have broken his life on this journey, that he should have stayed at home with the small and the familiar instead of being out here with the large and the unknown. (p. 99)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the story itself, save to say that it is powerful, vivid and beautifully constructed. Along the way we learn a little more of the Shawnee boy’s backstory, how his countrymen were cheated out of their land, their possessions and their ways of doing things – an underhand action brought about by US Government representatives who wanted the Native Americans moved on from their communities, thereby freeing up the Eastern territories for the arrival of new settlers from Europe. In the following passage, the boy recalls the earlier prophecies of an elder member of his community – predictions that largely came to pass in the course of the negotiations.

He prophesised that a time would come when they would know that the whole of the earth had been pulled from beneath the skin of their feet, that they would wake up one morning in the dawn and find that all the forests and all the mountains, all the rivers and the vast sweep of the prairie, had slipped from their grasp like a rope of water, and all they had to show for the bargains they had made was some worthless jewelry, some old clothes, and a few bad guns. Everything they’d bartered – their dogs and their furs, their pounded fish and their root cakes, their good behaviour, their knowledge of the country and the way they’d always done things – they would understand that they had given it all away for a song. (p. 34)

Unsurprisingly, the boy is angry about previous events; but he is also industrious, determined to seek a different, more beneficial future for himself in the fullness of time.

West is a potent, elegantly-constructed book that captures the beauty and brutality of the vast American landscape in equal measure. It is a novel shot through with a strong sense of loss: the loss of communities, possessions and personal dignity – the absence of loved ones is also very keenly felt. Themes of displacement and elimination run through the book, from the movement of the Native Americans to the West, to the dying out of the great mythical creatures that form Cy’s quest.

As the narrative plays out, there is a degree of retribution for some of the injustices and atrocities of the past – reverberations from days gone by ripple through the story, particularly towards the end.

I absolutely loved this spare and compelling novel. Very highly recommended, particularly for fans of fiction with a deep sense of place.

West is published by Granta; personal copy.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.