Leonardo Sciascia: the underground man from Sicily


Leonardo Sciascia has never gained a major foothold in the mind of the Anglophone world. Perhaps one could say he has a pigeonhole. He never had a patron, the way Sebald, say, was heralded by major critics like Susan Sontag. In spite of this, a surprising number of his books have been translated into English. The New York Review press has reissued five of his books, among them his most famous, Borgesian detective novels – The Day of the Owl, To Each His Own, and Equal Danger – as well as his howl at the political system, The Moro Affair, which ranks up there, among polemics, with the best of Pasolini and – inevitable comparison – Orwell.

In France, Sciascia has had a different destiny. Fayard, in an act of literary bravery (or financial suicide) issued his complete works in three thick volumes. How thick? I’m looking at the closely printed pages of volume three, which covers 1984 to 1989, the year of his death, and counting 1300 some pages. This is homage out the ass, so to speak. It speaks both to the fact that Sciascia is a major European writer and the fact that Sciascia’s models for lucidity were great French writers – Voltaire, Montesquieu, Stendhal. Although unlike Calvino, Sciascia didn’t show much interest in his French contemporaries. There’s probably some mention, somewhere, of Sartre and Camus, to use the big tribal names, but they were not his conversation partners of choice.

Sciascia was born to comparatively poor parents in a remote part of Sicily, the town of Raculmuto, known, before its major product was Sciascia, for its dreadful sulfur mines. To get an outsider’s sense of what Raculmuto was like, read Peter Robb’s account of trying to get there, and trying more desperately to get out, in Midnight in Sicily.  Robb could only stand it for a few hours. He aborted his visit and skeedadled, spooked by the lifelessness of the place (literally – he kept running into funeral corteges). Sciascia lived there during his childhood. His first experience was of a peasant world that has largely disappeared. Its disappearance can be dated to the “discovery” of Sicily by the U.S. Army in 1943 – a sort of reverse Columbus. In the years of the economic boom that followed the war of total destruction, the technostructure of modernity, from television to automobiles, penetrated even the smallest villages. Lenin famously said Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the countryside. It turns out that Capitalism, in its late form, is corporate power plus the televisionication of the entire countryside. The capitalism that affected the Italy of Sciascia’s time, however, was still dirigiste, still accommodating the socialist demands of the working class. In fact, the working class still recognized itself. But changes came here, too, in the eighties. Changes in the recognition that was happening on the ground, changes in corporate structure and trade policy, and changes in the public ethos.

Sciascia spent his whole life understanding changes, reversals and advances in the “public ethos” as well as in private life. This consideration runs through his detective novels, which are more famously considerations of organized crime and the manufacture of conspiracy that is the mafia SOP. I love The Day of the Owl, and Equal Danger, etc., but I consider The Council of Egypt, which was recently reissued by Head of Zeus, as Sciascia’s greatest novel. The translation into English is by Adrienne Foulkes, who was, by all accounts, a great translator from the Italian. It is in this book that Sciascia makes his largest novelistic exploration of the the ruses of reason. Its larger dimension comes from its larger canvas – the largest, in a sense: the way the Enlightenment came, and didn’t come, to Southern Italy – more specifically, to Sicily. Which is the way, more or less, that the Enlightenment interacted with all traditional societies. The plot of The Council of Egypt is allegorically irresistible: a priest in 18th century Sicily, Giusseppi Velli, receives a commission to translate an old Arabic manuscript because he has an (unwarranted) reputation for knowing Arabic. He does know enough Arabic to recognize that the manuscript has no real interest – it is merely a conventionally pious tract – but he pretends that it is a manuscript of great interest, and that it tells the history of the Arab conquest of Sicily. This history, moreover, contains information about the family trees of all the great Sicilian grandees. This fraud elevates Velli from his humble and ignored status to the status of a much cossetted man, as emissaries from the great families become anxious about how their ancestors are portrayed. Velli hints that the portrayals will depend on how he himself is treated, which satisfies the nobility, instead of alerting them. If a man can change a detail, he can change the whole.

Velli’s story – which one can see as a variant of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew – plays out in contrast to another one. In the 1700s, Sicily was part of the Bourbon kingdom with its center in Naples. For a short period up until the beginning of the French Revolution, the Bourbon court faddishly devoted itself to enlightenment principles coming out of Paris, at least to the extent of making blasphemous jokes; in this spirit, the new Viceroy sent to Sicily, Carraciolo, comes equipped with the latest notions of the physiocrats of Paris. But his is not a faddish devotion. He is serious. He operates on the principle that good governance is not about squeezing the last penny from the peasant, but about promoting a general well being. It is the new new thing – the legitimacy of the governors is founded in the happiness of the governed. As Velli writes his fraud of a book, Carraciolo burns the old feudal code books. And then everything inverses. The revolution puts a panic into the Bourbons (which, to jump from the story to fact, lasted for more than half a century, until they were finally deposed by Garibaldi). The grandees, who Carraciolo has offended, get their revenge, and rescue the old feudal codes. Velli, at the same time, confesses his fraud – turning in that moment from an Enlightenment adventurer to something like the Underground Man. It is as if both the bright side of the enlightenment and the dark side of the past are put in the balance. The bright side, the spread of rational happiness, falls with Carraciolo. The dark side, which is  Velli’s absolute mockery, by his fraud, of the idea that the feudal system is legitimated by a noble past, rather than a hotchpotch of lies, ends up as an existential gesture of futility. The torture instruments come out again.

My description of the novel pulls out its melancholic theme, but the novel itself is formatted stylistically as a sort of jeu d’esprit in the vein, again, of Diderot. Sciascia’s angle, though, has been informed by the history of twentieth century atrocity that Diderot could not imagine. This is not to say Diderot could not imagine atrocity – there was never a time in history when we were lacking in atrocity – but in Diderot’s day, the directors of atrocity seemed to be plainly against the Enlightenment. Although even this broad statement is not completely true: in the image of Diderot advising Catherine the Great to abolish the death penalty we have the whole commedia dell’arte of enlightened opinion disguising its own autocratic impulses with philanthropic suggestion. However, only in the twentieth century did the project of enlightenment and that of mass murder come together so seamlessly, come to be intermingled with one another to form one of the determinants of modern life.  

Of course, as Adorno spent his life pointing out, the Enlightenment project of demystifying and uprooting a peasant culture that had developed over thousands of years in Europe (and elsewhere) succeeded at a terrible cost to both sides. Sciascia has no nostalgia for the society in which his parents and grandparents were victims of oppressive power. In Roberto Calasso’s The Ruin of Kasch, he quotes Tallyrand as saying that nobody after the French Revolution could experience the sweetness of life, as did those in the Ancien Regime. Tell that to the sulfur miners. Sciascia’s insight, derived from his Sicilian experience, was that the collapse of an oppressive order doesn’t lead, by any logical or social necessity, to the construction of an enlightened, non-oppressive order. It often simply signals a change in players and justifications. In a patchwork world, Sciascia recognized that the norms of justice and democracy could not be temporarily abolished for the greater good: he was a great opponent of states of exception.  If you bring out the torture instruments, even if you claim it is just for a short time, and aimed at the “right” wrong people, good luck on putting them back.


 This is the background for an event that caused a scandal in the 80s, and that has been much discussed since.

In 1987, Leonardo Sciascia published an article in the Corriere della Sera that commented negatively on the new anti-mafia police commissions and “professional anti-mafiosi”. It has since become impossible to avoid this newspaper column in telling the story of the collapse of the First Republic in Italy. Both of the best books in English on the Mafia trials and their consequences,  Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily, and Alexander Stille’s  Excellent Cadavers, mention it. Robb obviously adores Sciascia – Midnight in Sicily evokes him as a sort of tutelary spirit, Virgil to Robb’s Dante – but he thinks that Sciascia lost touch with the reality of the mafia state in the 1980s, treating it partly in terms of the rural criminal force he remembered from his youth. Robb writes this more in sorrow than in anger; and he is certainly right to point out that Sciascia’s column in the Corriere della Sera in the 80s too often descends into mere fulmination – as though Sciascia had exhausted the intricate, decrypting intelligence that makes his account of the Moro affair so breathtakingly plausible. Yet it is, in hindsight, perhaps not right to claim that Sciascia’s objection to the relaxation of democratic standards granted to the anti-mafia brigade – which he decried as anti-constitutional – was simply either carping or some obscurely pro-mafia strategy produced by a useful idiot.

This, at least, is my conclusion after recently reading the famous columns in the collection, Future Memories.  

There’s no point in Orwell-izing Sciascia – it is bad enough that we Orwell-ize Orwell, a man who was often petty, mostly wrong in his predictions, and moved by those prejudices of his time that he could not free himself from. Sciascia was the same way. He has a tendency, writing for a national newspaper, to assume the oracular position, to issue peremptory judgments and to make, in the small space afforded by the paper, his own detective story about narratives that he often did not have sufficient information to comment on. He took much more care in his real work. He often fails to understand contexts, reducing them to reiterations of story forms he already knew. This is a bad mistake for a novelist.   

But having a grasp of the larger story, the grand narrative, does give one certain advantages. Sciascia had Sicilian history at his back. He saw that the American army discovering Sicily was essential to crushing fascism, a victory which he identified with his entire career. But he also saw that the army came with Lucky Luciano as the joker in the pack. Thinking of these backgrounds, thinking of these scenes in a positional economy of horrors, Sciascia responded from his best chemistry.  

There’s a beautiful phrase coined by the Mafia bosses to signify influence by menace or inducement: retinata, a “tug on the reins”. All persons have reins. They have replaced the more grossly physical bonds that were clapped on our ancestors, who buttered their hair and slaved for their betters. Sciascia had broken free from his reins, the Mafia-conditioned reins that defined freedom as narrowly as possible as egotistical enjoyment. And the bit of wisdom that Sciascia used to judge the anti-mafia prosecutors and laws was that you cannot have liberation without politics.  


It is the great enlightenment dream: that someday, happiness will be collective. It will be not just an individual emotion, but a judgment made by a population on its state and society. It is the utopia underneath liberalism, variously phrased. Why should the government be concerned to guarantee the pursuit of happiness of its citizens, after all. This obscure question is really what is at the root of most politics after the Atlantic revolutions. Against the happiness ethos is pitted the force of traditional society, in which the good of one person is taken, in the cosmic economy, from another. In this view of the world – which anthropologist George Marcus called the “image of the limited good” – the rulers are just and unjust by accident, but the store of goods remains in God’s hands, reaching peaks or troughs but never growing consistently. A government that ensures the pursuit of happiness of its citizens is simply ensuring the taking of goods by some from the others – and so one looks at the government for other things.

The utopian idea of happiness has faded under the stresses of neo-liberalism, but one can still feel it in the liberal idea that consensus is ultimately a good in itself. It is with this belief in mind that Anglophone authors venture into Italy and immediately feel assaulted by something uncanny. For there is no consensus or attempt to create consensus in Italy. The partisan/fascist war has waged there since the 40s. Tobias Jones, who wrote a book about Italy in the 2000s, is an exemplary Briton from the Age of Blair, and he keeps running in dissensus and finding it distressing. Can’t we all get along?

No. Italy as Sciascia knew it was a society in which quality of prosperity – the whole technostructure of the industrial productive system, the whole capitalist system of enterprise – fell on a people who had to adopt their inner attitudes and larger beliefs to it, for whom, more naturally, the state was more easily thought of as a protection racket, like any other. And if, Sciascia thought, the state ordained the violation of basic rights and constitutional precedents, it did become a protection racket.

In this respect, Italy is, once again, a forerunner. The Anglo world has been learning that consensus is not only not a good in itself, but a misrepresentation of political reality, much to the despair of its leading pundits and public intellectuals. This is why they look at the internet, all those list sites, all those social media sites, with horror. Cause the antheap speaks, and it turns out the ants don’t speak in the dulcet tones of a NYT op ed columnist. 

From the anthropological point of view, the  mafia is moved by a curious amalgam of traditional and rational  beliefs. They accumulated an untold amount of wealth in the 70s and 80s, but they didn’t know what to do with it. The major players, the bosses, the ones who met the politicians as equals, who made trips to America, who channeled the heroin, the filth, who took their cuts from the businesses – how did they live? Not like plutocrats. Not like,say, the Columbian drug lords in their baroque palaces. They didn’t know what to do except to use force to take more of it. Unlike, say, the plutocrats of the neo-liberal era, they were curiously hemmed in by their money. The people who enjoyed it were usually the ganglia, as they were called – the businessmen and politicians who associated with the mafia, but weren’t in it. Mafia bosses typically ate in the same restaurants they could have eaten in as mere soldiers, and they lived in hiding – not, like the rich, in estates and complexes built to keep the proles out, but in real hiding. It was a curiously atavistic deal they were engaged in, this avant garde of globalisation.

Sciascia had some sympathy with the thousands of years of beatings that produced this combination of deadly avarice and exile from the modern conveniences  – for instance, the lazy belief that the state in a supposedly democratic society was ultimately concerned with the well-being of the populace. Sciascia said, famously, that he had a bit of mafia in himself. Not a bit of fascist, but of mafia. The big difference is that the fascist does believe that, going his own path of obedience to a leader and ethnic solidarity, happiness would overflow. But for the Mafiosi, happiness itself seemed to have little point if it wasn’t a triumph over other people; if it wasn’t connected, in the end, to the image of the limited good.  For the Mafiosi, Lebensraum didn’t make sense – they wanted to rob and have honor, not to conquer in the name of some master race. After they died, there was the intercessor saints – more mafia – and heaven.

The co-occurrence of the downfall of Soviet communism and the downfall of the mafia – the old mafia – has not generally struck observers. Both were supposed to be revolutions. And both were inherited, in the 2000s, by nation states that saw the reconstruction of Cold War divisions and a geometric increase in the number and extent of the great ills associated with the mafia: money laundering, drug use, and dark money.  The revolutions of the nineties not only failed, but they weren’t, really, revolutions. In the case of the overturning of the mafia and their political associates and imitators – there was a flurry, a breakup of organizations, a fleeing to foreign lands where the extradition treaties were in their favor. But there was no revolution. D.A.s and cops will never be revolutionaries.  In the great threefold division of governance that became the paradigm after the Atlantic Revolutions of the 18th century, the judiciary stands out as the non-democratic power. Its force is to be non-majoritarian, and in ideal cases it protects the minority. Yet those ideal instances depend on extraordinary social circumstances, where the courts depart from their usual role of enforcing established power.  Sciascia saw the energy that went into the prosecution of a great criminal organization as something that was inherently political, under a government run by the fundamentally corrupt. Given this conjunction, he felt it was right to apply the skepticism that was the intellectual’s instrument. And underneath that there was some bit, some little bit, of casting the evil eye.

I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.
About Roger 78 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

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