Tales of Two Sicilies

Where the "M" Word Is Always You-Know-What

Philology: the study of written records and the determination of their meaning; also, historical and comparative linguistics. The Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia’s short story, “Philology,” which appears in his collection The Wine-Dark Sea, begins innocently enough. One person, possibly a student, asks another, possibly a professor, “Do you think it comes from the Arabic?” The second person responds, “Very likely, my friend, very likely…. [But] this is one of the words that has given rise to more various, and more idiotic theories than most; very scholarly theories, very closely argued, but often very silly….”Not until the second page, though, does the reader realize that they’re discussing the “M” word–and in Sicily the “M” word is always you-know-what. The two characters continue to talk. The possible student says of one scholar’s definition of “Mafia”: “He writes like an angel,” while the possible professor replies, “Maybe; but not without certain illogicalities.” But it’s not until the fourth page that the two characters start to come into sharper focus:

“‘You must watch out for, and avoid, figures of speech, sayings, proverbs. You must speak concisely, correctly, with tact and courtesy.’

“‘God Almighty! D’you think I’m an educated man or something? The nearest I ever got to university was looking after sheep!’

“‘If you let slip an expression like ‘God Almighty’ in front of the Commission….'”

And so it starts to dawn on the reader that a Mafioso at the political level (“When the Americans made me mayor in 1943….”) is instructing a street-level Mafioso on how to respond to questions when he’s dragged before the commission investigating the Mafia; not just instructing him but filling his head with all sorts of nonsense so that the thug, not the brightest student, will himself be confused and wind up sowing even more confusion: “And I guarantee that the moment will arrive when they won’t know what’s happening to them, what with history, philology, anonymous letters….” After all, he continues, “this is a country, my friend, where the left hand doesn’t trust the right hand even if they both belong to the same man.”

In this way Sciascia, who died in 1989 (and two of whose books have just recently been reissued by New York Review Books), ranges hilariously over the origins of the word as the politician quotes scholars and Capuchin missionaries, Arabic and Tuscan dictionaries, and discusses the Bourbons and the Garibaldi revolution before finally winding up, “Culture, my friend, is a wonderful thing.”

Indeed. And if we finish the story feeling more entertained than enlightened, it’s because enlightenment comes at a premium in Sicily–a country within a country that doesn’t give up its secrets so easily. Sciascia, born in the western Sicilian hill town of Racalmuto (Arabic for “the dead village”), has laid claim to being the first Italian writer to treat the Mafia as subject matter, though Australian journalist Peter Robb, who lived in Naples and Palermo for fourteen years, in his excellent book Midnight in Sicily, makes that case for Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s great historical novel The Leopard. It’s just that Di Lampedusa never used the M-word. But there’s no mistaking the culture or the mindset he’s describing: “Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily; a fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished, been camouflaged, embellished, disfigured, squashed, annihilated by imagination and self-interest; shame, fear, generosity, malice, opportunism, charity, all the passions, good as well as evil, fling themselves onto the fact and tear it to pieces; very soon it has vanished altogether.”Yet the book that lays out the origins of the Mafia, far better even than the many Italian books I’ve read, has been written by an American–granted, one of Sicilian descent. It’s Frank Viviano’s brilliant and profoundly moving memoir-cum-detective story, Blood Washes Blood: A True Story of Love, Murder, and Redemption Under the Sicilian Sun. Viviano, a longtime foreign correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, is interested in philology, too. He started to investigate his family’s history when his grandfather, shortly before dying, told Frank how his own grandfather–Frank’s namesake, Francesco Paolo Viviano, aka the Monk, died: “‘The boss tell his men to kill him,’ he whispered. ‘The boss, Domenico Valenti.'”Thus armed with that single name, Viviano embarked on a remarkable seven-year odyssey to solve the murder of his great-great grandfather, a legendary revolutionary and bandit who was shot to death in Sicily in 1876 under mysterious circumstances. Viviano wanted to learn how that murder has reverberated through the years down his family line and perhaps contributed to who he is today. “Blood washes blood,” or Lu sangu lava lu sangu, is an old Sicilian proverb that refers to “the unforgiving vengeance that flows from an unforgivable offense.” But it has another, more benign meaning as well (though, in its own sad way, equally destructive), which Viviano figures out by the end of his labyrinthine quest for identity.

Viviano traveled to the coastal village of Terrasini, from which his grandparents emigrated in 1911, and took up residence. And he learned that in Sicily, which has been invaded repeatedly over the centuries–by Arabs, Normans, Bourbons, Greeks, Spaniards, Romans, et al.–nothing is ever quite what it seems. He tracked down birth, baptismal, and death certificates, worked his way through document files in Palermo, provincial towns, and churches, and rarely did anyone make the going easy. In the course of his research, he discovered a land that, what with all those invaders, has developed a distrust for government, and an admiration for Robin Hood-like bandits, generation after generation of whom have retreated into the wild and mountainous interior known as the Madonie–a region dotted with desolate towns like Cinisi, Alcamo … and Corleone. He describes how the Mafia finally evolved from that thousand-year-old tradition of banditry in the wake of Garibaldi’s unification of Italy. And of how a parallel universe evolved, too–the real world in which most Sicilians lived. Looking at a map of Terrasini from the mid-1800s, he notes: “Of the seventeen peasant families named on [the map], nine would later figure in criminal investigations in Italy or the United States. By then, banditry had given way to large-scale crime, to the fully matured sistema del potere, and to a large-scale taste for land.” Put differently, in a century and a half the families from that small backwater of a village were wreaking havoc on an international scale, corrupting governments and contributing solidly to the degradation of urban life all over the globe.

In the course of the book we learn much of Sicily’s history, as well as what village life is like there today. We also get a crash course in the contemporary Mafia. And there’s some dark Mafia comedy as well. The house that Viviano rents gets broken into while he’s away on assignment. It takes a local Mafia boss to finally clue him in that the intruders were not Mafiosi but the carabinieri in search of Giovanni Brusca, the boss who, with “Toto” Riina, assassinated the crusading anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, a shocking bomb attack that made the front page of the New York Times. Apparently the police thought the bearded American might be Brusca hiding behind new facial hair.

Viviano’s book is infused with a melancholy: the melancholy of a man who, like his namesake, (that highwayman called the “Monk”) has never quite been able to put down roots anywhere. At one point, recalling a family holiday gathering, he writes: “The thirty-one people in that living room were the measure of my populous childhood, the measure of a fierce embrace. I longed for that embrace when I was in my forties, alone on the road. That was the operative number now, as I saw it: one. In my friends’ estimation, my [professional] life was a resounding success…. But the measurement that counted for me was the heart-wrenching decline from thirty-one to one…. It was a career that grew out of wanderlust and false starts … to produce a failed marriage and a recklessly unmoored existence.” His story, and the story of his parents’ own failed marriage, grew out of that murder in the Madonie in 1876, and when he finally figures out the elusive truth about his parents’ bad marriage, it has a real melancholy kick. The book has been labeled “True Crime” but it really defies categorization; in the end, it’s a beautiful exploration of the links between family and history, and of the secret histories that are often truer than the official ones.Still, it is a detective story, with the narrative drive of a good detective story, and the mystery that he’s trying to solve powers the book’s motor. And this is what ties his work, in that odd Sicilian way, to the fictions, particularly the longer fictions, of Sciascia, whose novels manage to combine brooding philosophical and historical meditations, and the kind of intellectual detective work that doesn’t solve crimes so much as open them up into larger crimes that redefine paranoia itself. Stories that, in Robb’s words in Midnight in Sicily, “found their own truth in the absence of certainty, the impossibility of knowing.” Robb also writes, “Many readers of his books had remarked that unlike the investigative thrillers they seemed to be, which started from a problem and arrived at a solution, Sciascia started from a problem that looked susceptible of rational solution and moved carefully and logically to a conclusion of total unknowing and enveloping dread.” Sciascia provides “that narrative shock you got when experience was thrown on to another plane of reality altogether.” American audiences might know Sciascia best by way of several excellent movie adaptations of his work, most notably Francesco Rosi’s Illustrious Corpses, adapted from his novel Equal Danger, and Gianni Amelio’s Open Doors (nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category in 1990), from the novella of the same name. He is an author whom Gore Vidal has called “the perfect Virgil” for his exploration of the particular hell known as Sicily. There is a playfulness to his work, and a murderous irony as well, that makes him, in many ways, very much the descendant of his fellow Sicilian Luigi Pirandello, who likewise was a student of the malleable identity, the social illusion that obscures reality, the social masks that people don.

Sciascia’s dark, bitterly sardonic novel, To Each His Own, does not quite deal with the Mafia but with that type of mentality that has infected so much of Sicily: the whole culture of secrecy, ignorance, and look-the-other-way, where little secrets sow the seeds for great historical delusions a century down the line. A pharmacist receives a note: “This letter is your death sentence. To avenge what you have done you will die.” Having no idea of what he has done, he dismisses the letter as a joke. A day later he and his hunting companion are shot dead in the woods.

Then a high school teacher who knew both men decides to investigate the murders on his own, almost as a hobby, and comes to the conclusion that in fact the pharmacist’s companion was the real target–the note was just to throw the police off the trail–and that the motives were both sexual and complexly political. In the course of his half-assed sleuthing an old man says to him, “Some things, some facts, are better left where they are, kept in the dark…. There’s a proverb, a maxim, that runs, ‘The dead man is dead; let’s give a hand to the living.’ Now, you say that to a man from the North, and he visualizes the scene of an accident with one dead and one injured man; it’s reasonable to let the dead man be and to set about saving the injured man. But a Sicilian visualizes a murdered man and his murderer.” But ultimately the teacher doesn’t hear the old man’s advice and winds up in the dark himself, at the bottom of a sulfur-mine shaft.

In the end there is a difference between the Sicilian Sciascia and the American Viviano. Sciascia is content to take us by the hand down a country lane, and only when it is too late do we realize that all that pretty scenery disguises a labyrinth in which we have been deposited by the fiendish author (but there is a certain political valor in simply making the labyrinth visible, and Sciascia, who at one point sat on the Palermo City Council as a representative of the Communist Party, is certainly political). Viviano, on the other hand, starts in the labyrinth–the labyrinth of his family history, which is also the labyrinth, the stasis, of Sicilian history. Ultimately he finds his way out into the light, even if it’s only autumnal light. But it is enough, one can hope, to enable the author to move on.

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