Nineteen sixty-eight came early to Italy–it began with student protests at the University of Trento in 1967–and lasted longer, arguably, than anywhere else. The Italian 1960s (which ran well into the 1970s) were remarkably turbulent times, from the “battle of Valle Giulia,” where students fought police hand to hand in Rome’s Villa Borghese gardens, to the extraordinary wave of strikes and protests in the factories of the autunno caldo, the “hot autumn” of 1969, and thereafter; from the extreme right-wing “strategy of tension”–lethal bombings in public places around Italy that aimed to instill a climate of fear and create demand for authoritarian rule–to the rise of the ultraleft Red Brigades, who killed scores of Italians before they were finally defused in the early 1980s. With its calls for revolution, its working-class militancy and a strong feminist movement that led to popular referendums endorsing the rights to divorce and to abortion, Italy’s 1968 created a new social and political landscape that neither the ruling Christian Democratic Party nor its opposition, the Communists, recognized as their own. Yet for all the shock waves il sessantotto sent through Italy’s political class, the Christian Democrats stubbornly clung to power.
Except for Pier Paolo Pasolini, no Italian writer examined that power more perceptively than Leonardo Sciascia, who time and again wrote of the dark forces that would plague Italy in the last decades of the twentieth century. The violence that would erupt from the ultraleft and the neo-Fascist right, the yawning corruption and deceit at the heart of the political system, the menacing hand of the Mafia–it was all there in the prophetic novels Sciascia wrote in the late 1960s, before much of it had actually happened. Like an oracle, Sciascia was eloquent and brooding, fierce but delicately paradoxical. He is a writer who has never been easy to classify, especially for English-language readers, who have had to make do with only a few–mostly novels–of the long shelf of books he left when he died of cancer in 1989. Although he is best known for his crime fiction, he also wrote short stories, historical fiction and nonfiction, and sophisticated reportage.
Sciascia had a gift for seeing things about Italy that others didn’t see and for seeing them before others noticed them, which made him an intellectual loner, a solitary mind. He could make mistakes, as proud loners do, but he was too smart not to see the evils that hid under the surface of Italian life, and too honest not to tell the truth as he saw it. He was honest in his laconic, oracular way, which left so much unsaid. Sciascia is the writer you need in your pocket when you travel around Italy. He demands that you look behind appearances and is the ideal antidote to sunny, mindless Tuscanophilia.
Among Sciascia’s Italian peers are writers who carry their meaning with them into English better–Italo Calvino with his tales of charm and erudition; Primo Levi with his devastatingly quiet writings on the Nazi concentration camps–but none have seeped so deeply into Italian identity as Sciascia. Reaching for the words to describe some baleful aspect of life, an Italian will say, “It’s like a Sciascia story.” A Sciascia story is one in which murders take place, so he is usually classified as a crime writer, which he is not, really. He wrote enigmatic fiction and so he is called metaphysical, when the striking thing about his novels is how closely they hew to the reality of Italian affairs and history–the manners, the morals, the way the political system colluded with other interests, including organized crime. More than describe Italian life, his novels predict it. “Delphic realist” would be closer to the mark than “metaphysical.”
Sciascia has never been very well translated, not that his beautiful Italian–his winding, energetic sentences; the high diction looped with his native Sicilian cadences–is easy to render. What’s hardest to capture in English is the tone: the flickering dry humor, followed by an undertow of evil and dread that goes far beyond a mere noir atmosphere. The Christian Democratic politician Aldo Moro was once described as the “embodiment of Southern pessimism.” Although he wouldn’t have said so, there was a streak of that pessimism in Sciascia, despite his being a man of the left and an admirer of the Enlightenment.