Leonardo Sciascia: To Each His Own

Sciascia, Leonardo (2000, 1966), To Each His Own, NYRB
[Translated from the Italian by Adrienne Foulke]
ISBN 978-0-940322-52-3

DSC_1574How is this for coincidence. After finishing To Each His Own, the first and (so far) only novel by the famous Italian novelist Leonardo Sciascia, I decided to quickly write a review. So I was taking notes on what this exquisite little novel reminded me of. I know nothing exactly like this, but during my reading various very different kinds of texts came into my head, and I’m sure I’ll mention some of them in the review. But my main association was with one of my favorite movies, one I’ve seen a number of times already, the Italian classic Cadaveri Eccellenti starring Lino Ventura. So I opened its Wiki page to maybe find a picture to use for the review, and lo and behold – I find that the movie is based on a novel by Leonardo Sciascia, the 1971 novel Il Contesto, translated into English as Equal Danger. All this is to say that clearly, Sciascia has an incredibly recognizable style, as far as what kinds of plots he likes and how he structures the grammar of power and corruption. Given how different the settings of the books are, even though both are set in Sicily, the underlying similarities, starting with the bleak political and humanist outlook and ending with the political passion and outrage are exceptionally striking. If the movie is any indication, however, To Each His Own is the – by far- superior novel. It manages to take various staples of 1970s noir, common especially in French and Italian cinema and combine them with a powerfully charged take on the vagaries of village life in a climate of fear and resignation. Sciascia then combines these things with a complex discussion of the role of sex and women, and an angry attack on political apathy. All of this is condensed into a short, but arresting tragedy. The novel’s language is interesting in that it often appears to wear the outward marks of translation, but that doesn’t mean I disapprove of the job Adrienne Foulke has done, because the translation artefacts that have made it past translator and editor into the book, complement the novel’s often opaque dialogue and secretive descriptions very well. If, like me, you like (love, even) Jean-Claude Izzo’s trilogy or village noirs, this is definitely for you.

220px-Cadaveri-eccellenti-posterI will admit: as with some other books I recently reviewed, I may not be extremely qualified to review this book, as I have not read an awful lot in this genre. So for me there were three main associations here, apart from the movie. There was the Marseille trilogy of Jean-Claude Izzo, especially the dark and brilliant final volume, Soléa, there were various village based crime novels (British crime fiction seems especially keen on that kind of setting, although I’d like to point out how many famous writers in the genre are actually Americans. Both Martha Grimes amd Elizabeth George, who excel when placing their detectives Richard Jury and Inspector Lynley, respectively, in bucolic British environments, are born and raised in the US of A) and, finally, and maybe oddly, throughout my reading, I couldn’t shake the memory of Clochemerle, Gabriel Chevallier’s 1934 mild mannered satire of provincial life. For a novel about murder, corruption, disappearances and sex, Chevallier’s gently humorous book may not appear to be entirely apropos, but I think if we focus on the Mafia angle, maybe influenced by what we know of Sciascia’s other work and political career, we miss the core of the book, Sciascia’s interrogation of ordinary Sicilian life and his statement on how its provincial morals and political apathy enable the larger and more lugubrious political scandals. Clochemerle‘s major conflict is the scandalous decision to erect a public toilet across the street from the local church and of course a prim, middle aged local woman leads a campaign against this immoral decision. Being set in a Beaujolais village in the 1960s, the outrage leads all the Catholics to rally behind her, leaving the local priest having to navigate the waters between morals and practicality. Much of this book is a (prude) satire on the sexual prudery of village life, featuring such archetypes as the aforementioned prim lady, the nubile young woman, the slightly overwhelmed priest, and politicians of various degrees of corruption. I mean, Chevallier has not invented this genre, it’s been around a long, long time, but it feels like a very typical (and funny) entry in the genre in that the author cut all kinds of superfluous fat from the book, offering us just the most salient bits and characters. Clochemerle feels less like a specific novel and more like a type.

DSC_1580It’s this type that we encounter in Sciascia’s novel, as well. In fact, I suppose it helps knowing the type to see the tradition much of the novel is placed in, because, as reduced as Clochemerle is, Sciascia’s approach is much more bare-bones. He offers us the central elements, and enough to contextualize them, but he doesn’t dwell on it. I admire writers who can draw up a complex background with just a few broad strokes and Sciascia truly excels at this. Like Chevallier’s book, To Each His Own is also set in a Catholic village, it also features some typical archetypes of the genre, including sexual prudery and outrage, it offers us corrupt politicians, nubile young women and disapproving prim old maids. Overlaid on this traditional narrative is a very modern story of politics and murder. In fact, it’s modern to me, but to Sciascia’s audience, it’s downright contemporary. I think the technical skill of the novel is more evident when we include the reading horizon of his audience in the way we look at the book. For the reader in the new millennium, both elements have a historical feeling to them, but that’s not how the novel works on a technical level. The frisson between traditional, homely setting and contemporary political references is very much part of the book. This is part of the reason I dwelled so much on Clochemerle – I think it’s important to see that the village in Sciascia’s novel is not just any village. Given that his audience wasn’t just contemporary, but that a broad swathe of his intended audience was Sicilian, too, it seems relevant that he didn’t merely offer them a village like the one they knew. He offered them a type that was heavily connotated with reactionary, old stories. An Italian version of Clochemerle, even though it doesn’t seem as immediately applicable, would be the novels of Giovannino Guareschi, for example. Point being. Italian readers would instantly recognize the type. I think the elliptical way the book introduces and uses a fairly large array of characters is an indication of that – it expects the readers to fill in the gaps from the tradition they know. And for political emphasis, the book matches, with what appears to be excellent accuracy, political points of view to those types.

DSC_1577I think it’s that last fact that is among the most devastating ones. The novel has two levels of criticism and story. One involves the actual story. A pharmacist receives a letter threatening him with his death for some unspecified wrong he has done. He assumes it’s a joke. The next day, he and his hunting companion are dead. A local teacher, young Professor Laurana, notices an odd detail in the letter and decides to follow up on his hunch in private. Bit by bit, he uncovers the motive of the crime, as well as the murderer and his accomplice. His meandering private sleuthing leads him down a path he will not return from alive. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s the underlying principle of most books and movies in the genre. They are built a bit like tragedies, and the ἁμαρτία in this case is curiosity. Well, that, and perseverance, a moral backbone and a certain naivety. It’s interesting that the murder itself is motivated by more or less personal issues, with corruption more of a backdrop or tool to be used. The treatment of corruption is also a case of differing reading horizons. For modern readers, the fact that everyone in the village more or less knows who is the most corrupt person there, and that everyone knows that the first assumption with a letter like that is that the recipient has somehow crossed the mafia, and that even the person who executed the original murder is a well known Mafia killer, has to be striking. It’s quite stunning to what extent these things are shrugged off or used as basic assumptions for larger points. This is, however, strictly something that would strike us as strange today. I assume the Sicilian reader of Sciascia’s novel in the late 1960s would know all this. The fact that it’s backgrounded means that the criticism has to be found elsewhere. Cadaveri Eccellenti, for example, makes pretty direct and explicit attacks on the political system, foregrounding corruption. The failure of that movie’s (and novel’s?) main detective (an actual policeman, there) is directly due to the murky mire of Sicilian politics. In its final minutes, the detective finds himself posthumously saddled with much of the blame for the issue at hand. These kinds of narratives ask the reader to be skeptical, to interrogate authorities, and official narratives.

DSC_1575The same is true for Jean-Claude Izzo’s magisterial Marseille trilogy, which even offers hip hop as an alternative narrative to the established/accepted one (the first two novels are named after songs by Marseille groups IAM and Massilia Sound System), where failures should be parsed as calls to arms. Neither Izzo nor, as far as I know, Sciascia produce the kind of investigative Mediterranean noir that we know from contemporary writers like Massimo Carlotto. Izzo and Sciascia merely foreground things that are known to those willing to read the right sources and keep their eyes open, but they imbue them with clarity and urgency. Yet, despite all that, we don’t really get that in To Each His Own. The protagonist’s curiosity is informed by a sense of sexual repression (which in turn will lead him to his death), and the main culprit of the book is not “untouchable,” in fact, he panics when confronted with the possibility of being caught. The central conflict is eminently solvable, were the detective following the leads not a naive professor of literature. This means that the focus is elsewhere and I think it’s political apathy. In the very first pages we learn about what appears to be a typical political thinking process in this village (and by extension, among ordinary Sicilians of Sciascia’s time). The pharmacist who is about to be murdered doesn’t much care about politics, we find. He votes one way in federal elections, another way in local elections. His point of view is well summed up in this passage: “To get involved in politics was a waste of time, in any case; if you didn’t know that much, either you found politicking profitable or you’d been born blind.” See? Everybody knows politics is a waste of time! And yet, as we find, the group described as “find[ing politicking profitable” is doing its best to use their fellow citizens to their advantage. Even those who are not in the Mafia are at least, for profitable reasons, connected to it, and they wring the utmost from their fellow man. It’s never discussed explicitly, but the murder victim has voted, for much of the last years, for the person who ended up shooting him. He put his own murderer in the position to murder him – and since the book is set up as a type, it implies that “we” all do that, where “we” mentions the apathetic Sicilian populace of Sciascia’s time. The victim identifies neither as left nor as right, and despite different parties being discussed, including the Communist party, Sciascia stays away from left/right discussions. That is typically a sign of corrupt, apathetic political systems. An example among today’s democracies would be Romania, where, unless we refer to the radical right or the radical left, the usual left/right distinction is utterly meaningless.

All of this makes for excellent reading – and the fact that the book additionally critically examines the trope of sexual scandals, Catholic sexual repression and the role of women in modern contemporary life (there’s a whole paragraph about the objectification of women) is just icing on the cake. The writing is not always smooth, but the language mirrors well the way the professor meanders down the byways of village gossip and clues. The occasional translation artifacts somehow add to the effect instead of weakening it. The translation feels a bit sloppy here and there but it never detracts from the book. Read it. And if you know Sciascia and the genre, tell me what else to read?


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