Three months after Alessandro Spina’s death in July 2013, Ilario Bertoletti, his Italian editor, published a memoir in which he described his first near-encounter with the notoriously reclusive writer: “It was June, 1993. The bell rang in the late afternoon; moments later, a colleague entered my office: ‘A gentleman dropped by. He looked like an Arab prince, tall and handsome. He left a history of the Maronites for you.’”
The editor made some inquiries and discovered that Spina had been quietly publishing a number of novels and short stories since the early 1960s. It was an oeuvre that charted the history of Libya from 1911, when Italy invaded the sleepy Ottoman province, all the way to 1966, when petrodollars sparked an economic boom, exacerbating the corruption and nepotism that eventually paved the way for Muammar Qaddafi’s coup d’état in 1969. Bertoletti runs an independent imprint based in Brescia, and it took him fifteen years to persuade Spina to let him reissue his books, or rather to assemble them into a 1,280-page omnibus edition entitled I confini dell’ombra: In terra d’oltremare (The Confines of the Shadow: In Lands Overseas). Published by Morcelliana in 2007, the cycle comprises six novels, a novella and four collections of stories, which Spina, who’d only settled on a definitive structure and title in 2003, summarized thus:
The sequence of novels and short stories takes as its subject the Italian experience in Cyrenaica. The Young Maronite (1971) discusses the 1911 war prompted by Giolitti, Omar’s Wedding (1973) narrates the ensuing truce and the attempt by the two peoples to strike a compromise before the rise of Fascism. The Nocturnal Visitor (1979) chronicles the end of the twenty-year Libyan resistance; Officers’ Tales (1967) focuses on the triumph of colonialism—albeit this having been achieved when the end of Italian hegemony already loomed in sight and the Second World War appeared inevitable—and The Psychological Comedy (1992), which ends with Italy’s retreat from Libya and the fleeing of settlers. Entry Into Babylon (1976) concentrates on Libyan independence in 1951, Cairo Nights (1986) illustrates the early years of the Senussi Monarchy and the looming spectre of Pan-Arab nationalism, while The Shore of the Lesser Life (1997) examines the profound social and political changes that occurred when large oil and gas deposits were discovered in the mid-1960s. Each text can be read independently or as part of the sequence. Either mode of reading will produce different—but equally legitimate—impressions.
A year later, The Confines of the Shadow was awarded the Premio Bagutta, Italy’s highest literary accolade. It was an impressive achievement, especially for an author who’d insisted on publishing his books with tiny outfits in limited editions, all of which had fallen out of print by the early 1990s. However, the Bagutta nod caused only a few ripples: a single radio interview, a handful of glowing reviews and a conference in Spina’s honor (which he didn’t attend). Without a recognizable persona to market—the back flap doesn’t even feature an author photograph—the book receded into obscurity, and although Spina remains little known even in Italy, where he spent the last thirty years of his life, The Confines of the Shadow belongs alongside panoptic masterpieces like Buddenbrooks, The Man Without Qualities and The Cairo Trilogy.
Spina died two weeks before I came to an agreement with a London publisher to translate the entirety of The Confines of the Shadow. Denied the privilege of meeting him, I was faced with a conundrum: the translation of such a monumental opus in the immediate wake of Spina’s death meant that any afterword I produced would have to deal with his life, of which I knew next to nothing, save that “Alessandro Spina” was a nom de plume adopted in 1955 when Alberto Moravia published his first story, “L’ufficiale” (The Officer), in Nuovi Argomenti. Sporting an English reticence and safely ensconced behind his pseudonym, Spina had spent half a century eluding the limelight, refusing invitations to make public appearances or give interviews. Consequently, I realized that any clues to his life story would have to be culled from the work itself. I therefore retreated to the books, sleuthing through The Confines of the Shadow and the 300-page Diary that Spina kept while composing his epic, as well as three volumes of brilliant essays. And thanks to quasi-involuntary slips on Spina’s part, I slowly began to assemble a narrative.
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Alessandro Spina, né Basili Shafik Khouzam, was born in Benghazi on October 8, 1927, into a family of Maronites from Aleppo. His father, a wealthy textile magnate, had left his native Syria at 17 to make his fortune and arrived in Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica—then a quiet city of 20,000 Turks and Arabs ringed by Bedouin encampments—a few weeks after Italy and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Ouchy. Ratified in October 1912, the treaty brought 360 years of Turkish rule and thirteen months of war to a close and formalized Italy’s possession of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. A latecomer to the scramble for Africa, acquiring Eritrea and Somalia in the late 1880s, barely a couple of decades after they had been cobbled out of squabbling fiefdoms, Italy had long sought to lay its hands on the quarta sponda, or “fourth shore.” After all, the Libyan coast—the last remaining African territory of the Ottoman Empire, which, as Baron Eversley put it, had grown used to having provinces “torn from it periodically, like leaves from an artichoke”—lay only 300 miles south of Sicily. With trouble brewing in the Balkans, and sensing that the “sick man of Europe” was on his last legs, the Italians seized their chance. Knowing they would merely have to contend with a crippled navy and a handful of ill-equipped battalions, they delivered an ultimatum in September 1911, their soldiers disembarked in October, and by November the Italian tricolor could be seen flying from every major city on the Libyan littoral.
Nevertheless, what was expected to be an easy conquest instead turned into a twenty-year insurgency that was quelled only when the Fascists took power in Rome and Mussolini, in a quest to solve Italy’s emigration problem, dispatched one of his most ruthless generals, the hated Rodolfo Graziani (1882–1955), to bring the quarta sponda to heel and “make room” for colonists. Genocide ensued: a third of Libya’s population was killed; tens of thousands were interned in concentration camps; a 300-kilometer barbed-wire fence was erected on the Egyptian border to block rebels from receiving supplies and reinforcements; and the leader of the resistance, a venerable Koranic teacher named Omar Mukhtar (1858–1931), was hunted down and summarily hanged—a chilling story depicted in Lion of the Desert (1981), in which Oliver Reed and Anthony Quinn played Graziani and Mukhtar, respectively, and which was banned from Italian screens for several years.