The Young Maronite, the first act of the Cyrenaican saga, begins in November 1912. The new Italian conquistadors have barricaded themselves inside Benghazi and nervously look on as the Libyans muster their strength in the desert and begin their gallant guerrilla war against the usurpers. Meanwhile, Émile Chébas, a savvy young merchant from Cairo (and based on Spina’s father), arrives in town with a meager cargo. Émile nonetheless lands on his feet thanks to a chance encounter with Hajji Semereth Effendi, one of the city’s wealthiest men and a former Ottoman grandee, who takes Émile under his wing and helps set him up, even lending him one of his servants, Abdelkarim. Although Émile is technically the book’s protagonist, it isn’t until later that he emerges from Semereth’s shadow. Spina’s portrait of Semereth is immediately ensnaring:
In Istanbul, [Semereth] had occupied several public positions that prophesied a stellar career, but after the plot had been uncovered, the shadow of conspiracy had settled on him and prompted his fall. He had withdrawn to that obscure provincial backwater and been quickly forgotten…. He was very tall and his face was frightening. A gunpowder charge had exploded close to him during a military campaign and he had been left forever disfigured. His hair had been reduced to a few tow-coloured clumps of locks. The wrinkles on his skull emanated a bad smell. He had an inbred seriousness and exuded an authority that made anyone who talked to him bashful and hesitant. It was like a spell that separated him from everyone else, but he was a victim of it, rather than its conscious master, as others instead assumed.
The first section deals with Semereth’s unrequited love for Zulfa, the youngest of his four wives, who later betrays him with Ferdinando, an orphan raised in his household. Although Semereth tries his utmost to shield the lovers from blood-baying relatives, tradition makes an honor killing inevitable: the old politician is forced to watch as Ferdinando is stabbed and Zulfa drowned. Unbeknownst to Semereth, his family tragedy is being quietly observed by two Italian officers who, adrift in a violently hostile land—and having arrived assuming they’d be welcomed as liberators—grasp hold of what they can to try to make sense of their new surroundings. Of all the book’s characters, it’s once again the officers who attempt a systemic understanding of the alien world around them, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the results are never positive. Here is Captain Romanino’s take on Italy’s African venture during a soirée in Milan, where he is on leave:
Just as a language is only useful in the area in which it is spoken and is pointless outside of it, so it goes with Europe’s liberal moral values, which don’t extend anywhere south of the Mediterranean. As soon as one reaches the other coast, one is ordered to do the exact opposite prescribed by God’s commandments: kill, steal, blaspheme…. Once the Turkish garrison was defeated and a few key locations on the coast were occupied, we found a vast, obscure country stretching out before us, into which we’re afraid to venture. Therefore we cloistered ourselves in the cities awaiting daylight. Instead, the night is getting deeper, darker, deadlier, and teeming with demons.
Although the initial volumes of The Confines of the Shadow attracted some notice in the mid-1970s, with several of them, including The Young Maronite, making the short lists for the Strega and Campiello prizes, Spina’s existence in Libya became increasingly tenuous, especially once his father’s factory was nationalized in 1978. The years following Qaddafi’s coup had seen the despot eliminating foreign influences in Libya, a process he began in 1970 with the expulsion of thousands of Jewish and Italian colonists. Thus, at age 50, Spina witnessed the Italo-Arab-Ottoman universe he’d been born into vanish completely. While this didn’t impair his work, it certainly impacted its publication. Case in point: although Spina had penned The Nocturnal Visitor over the course of a few months in early 1972, he delayed its publication until 1979 to avoid scrutiny during the turbulent early years of Qaddafi’s rule, when dissidents—including a number of Spina’s friends—were routinely rounded up and imprisoned. In between his novels, Spina had also composed The Fall of the Monarchy, a history in the style of Tocqueville that analyzes the events leading up to Qaddafi’s coup, which, per Spina’s wishes, will only appear posthumously. Circulated in samizdat among a select group of acquaintances, the book attracted the attention of the security services, and when Spina left Libya for good in 1980, he was forced to smuggle the manuscript out in the French consul’s briefcase. Safely removed from the reach of Qaddafi’s men, Spina sojourned in Paris and finally retired to a seventeenth-century villa in Padergnone, in the heart of Lombard wine country, where he consecrated his buen retiro to completing The Confines of the Shadow, his privacy as jealously guarded as ever.
Like Joseph Roth, another inveterate chronicler of a crumbled empire, Spina had from a young age set himself to resurrecting his lost world on paper, thus ensuring its survival in our collective consciousness. While historical novels habitually focus on the rise and fall of specific castes, very few of them (Roth’s The Radetzky March, published in 1932, being a notable example) ever capture the confused excitement that makes the very earth those characters tread tremble with unregulated passions. As Chateaubriand once put it: “In a society which is dissolving and reforming, the struggle of two geniuses, the clash between past and future, and the mixture of old customs and new, form a transitory amalgam which does not leave a moment for boredom.” It is exactly these fleeting junctures in time and custom that infuse Spina’s sophisticated prose with such an unbridled sense of adventure. Besides being the “right” person for such a job, Spina also found himself in the right place at the right time: a Christian Arab born at the apogee of colonial power, who then combined his Western education with his intimate knowledge of Libya and Middle Eastern traditions and history to produce the only multigenerational epic about the European experience in North Africa.
Yet despite winning such diverse admirers as Claudio Magris (his closest confrere), Giorgio Bassani and Roberto Calasso, Spina occasionally professed surprise at the utter indifference prompted by his work, or rather his subject. Toward the end of his Diary, he recalls a run-in with the poet Vittorio Sereni at a theatrical premiere in the early 1980s and being introduced to Sereni’s wife as follows: “Darling, this is Alessandro Spina, who is trying to make Italians feel guilty about their colonial crimes, all to no avail of course.” Not that he hadn’t been warned: when Spina had sought Moravia’s advice about his project in 1960, Moravia had counseled him against it, saying that no one in Italy would be interested due to their sheer ignorance of the country’s colonial past. Twenty-first-century readers might do well to heed Solzhenitsyn’s warning that “a people which no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul.” Still, one must chuckle when one can: during the Libyan civil war in 2011, Spina was often approached by journalists on the hunt for sound bites, requests that he invariably declined. Nevertheless, I’ve little doubt that the coincidence of the civil war being declared officially over 100 years to the day after the Italians conquered his beloved Benghazi would have made him smile.