A Stage Across the Sea

A Stage Across the Sea

An unjustly-neglected Libyan novelist captured the twisted logic of colonialism, past and present.


In the opening of Alessandro Spina’s novel The Nocturnal Visitor (1979), night is falling on Sheikh Hassan’s home in a valley in eastern Libya so small that it fits “in the hollow of a hand.” The sheikh is ready to embark upon his reading, a nightly voyage he takes with his books as “enigmatic traveling companions.” But his reveries are troubled: A crime has been committed in his home. What follows is a series of doubles and double-crosses, in which guilt shifts with each new revelation—a plot that could have sprung from one of Sheikh Hassan’s treasured books. A boy in his household, accused of trying to sleep with his sister, is exiled from the valley. In town, he finds another boy who bears a striking resemblance to him and lures him back home to be punished in his place. In doing so, he unearths their secret, shared parentage, and commits an even worse crime. Most of the characters in The Nocturnal Visitor discover that their identity—as son, sibling, father—is not what it seemed. Just as the narrative reaches its tragic climax, it abandons the personal and fantastic and enters modern Libyan history. It’s 1927, the beloved valley is occupied by advancing Italian forces, and the sheikh must slip away in the night, an exile joining the resistance.

The Nocturnal Visitor has many characteristics of Spina’s fiction: the inspiration drawn from Arabic culture (in this case partly from the great medieval itinerant scholar Ibn Khaldun, repeatedly quoted by the sheikh); the view of literature as a voyage of discovery, and of historical change as irredeemably violent; the possibility of parallel identities. With this last characteristic especially, Spina was borrowing from his own life, for he had several identities of his own. He was born Basili Shafik Khouzam in Benghazi in 1927, the son of a Syrian Maronite who relocated to Libya to find his fortune just as the Italians wrestled the province from the Ottoman Empire. At age 12, he was sent from the Italian colony in Libya to Milan for his education, where he conceived a passion for theater, opera, and literature. He returned to Benghazi to run the family textile business in 1953. He lived independently (he married once, but it didn’t work out), and his job provided him with a good livelihood and ample opportunity to observe Libyan society. In 1954, he penned his first story, set in Libya’s eastern province of Cyrenaica. He would write of nothing else but Libya for the next 40 years, even after he had to leave the country in 1979 and retire to a villa in Lombardy. It would be an understatement to say that Spina, who died in 2013, took his time with his fiction.

Spina belonged to a set of privileged, wandering, mercantile minorities whose identities could not be reduced to nationalities, and who have been all but swept out of the Middle East by xenophobia, conflict, and ethnic cleansing. Spina aspired to cosmopolitanism but inverted its usual polarities: He liked to shock his Italian friends by telling them that he had “un-provincialized” himself by moving from Milan to Benghazi. His influences and references range from Proust to The Thousand and One Nights to the fifth-century Greek philosopher and bishop Synesius of Cyrene. But for all his cosmopolitanism, Spina was not interested in universalism. What he valued, above all, was being unique. He was a Catholic moved by the daily presence of the divine in traditional Muslim society; a successful industrialist who viewed modernization with skepticism and melancholy; a critic of colonialism who was also dismissive of superficial tiers-mondisme; and a scathing critic of the silence of all Italian political factions regarding the country’s colonial crimes. The nom de plume he adopted—spina means “thorn”—suited him perfectly: The Italian he wrote in is exquisite but prickly. His sentences are thickets, dense and erudite, demanding to be reread. But his sharp, poetic images lodge instantly in one’s memory. “The cold hand of that old man an unbreakable dam” is how he describes the severe and orthodox teacher who curbs the young Sheikh Hassan’s flowing curiosity in The Nocturnal Visitor. Spina abhorred shortcuts and banality—journalists, whom he viewed as purveyors of the commonplace, were his bêtes noires. And he didn’t think of difference as something to be dismissed or overcome. “Nothing is more fruitful and more vital than the irreconcilable,” he wrote.

Spina can be counted among a small group of expatriate writers who are hard to classify: Home is a place they have made for themselves at the intersection of East and West. One thinks of Paul Bowles in Morocco, or of Albert Cossery, who was born in Cairo of a Francophone Orthodox Levantine family in 1913, moved to Paris at 17, and then spent the next half-century writing wonderful satirical novels in French that are not only set in Egypt but are also deeply Egyptian in their cynicism and humor. There is also the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, whose Beer in the Snooker Club (1964) is a deceptively lighthearted gem written in English and featuring a penniless upper-­class layabout bumbling around Nasser’s Cairo. These writers have never found a place in the Arabic literary canon, not only because of linguistic barriers, but also because they have little respect for nationalist orthodoxies. And they haven’t always found the audience they deserve in the West.

* * *

Spina’s opus is the colonial epic The Confines of the Shadow, a cycle of 11 novels and short-story collections that offers a deep and singular account of the great historical fractures that preceded the establishment of Moammar El-Gadhafi’s ­Jamahiriya in 1977. A first installment, In Lands Overseas, containing three novels—The Young Maronite, The Marriage of Omar, and The Nocturnal Visitor—set during the Italian conquest and early occupation from 1911 to ’27, is now available from Darf in a translation by the poet André Naffis-Sahely. Two further installments focus on the brief golden age of the Italian colony, in the 1930s, and on the period of independence leading up to Gadhafi’s bloodless coup against King Idris in 1969. The Confines is a reminder, among many other things, of the radical transformations that Arab countries experienced in the 20th century—and that have continued to the present day, since Libya after Gadhafi’s fall has become a terrible new place.

In his lifetime, Spina saw more than one world end. When he realized that the establishment, development, and collapse of Italy’s Libyan colony were to be the focus of his life’s work, he began reading everything he could find on the subject. This research informs his first novel, The Young Maronite (1973), in particular. In it, we are treated to jaw-dropping quotations from Italian officials following the 1911 invasion (these have been removed from Darf’s translation—“a fairly daring choice,” writes Naffis-Sahely, intended to keep the flow of Spina’s prose unimpeded). In February 1912, Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti told the Italian Parliament, to applause: 
“I wish with all my heart that the world may have only colonial wars, because colonial war means the civilization of populations that would otherwise go on in barbarism.” It is estimated that the concentration camps set up in 1931 to finally vanquish the rebellion in Cyrenaica killed between 40,000 and 70,000 residents of that region.

Supporters of the war celebrated their homeland’s new quarta sponda (fourth shore), while the opposition mocked the conquest of a scatolone di sabbia (big box of sand). Italian newspapers described the invasion in the excitable language of rape: “We have all throbbed with resurgent pride, following with the eye of the soul our generals and admirals as they subject land and sea to their crude wishes.” Libyan resistance erupted and would last another two decades. The Italians responded with bloody, indiscriminate reprisals.

The Young Maronite approaches the question of colonialism from all angles, as it were: historical, allegorical, psychological, and satirical. It weaves together an Oriental tale of a powerful merchant and his unfaithful child bride; the stylized conversations of Italian officers; and the story of a young Maronite immigrant with a business to run, an irresponsible brother, a loyal servant, and a tiresome uncle.

Spina’s first aspiration was to be a playwright, and the theater is one of his principal metaphors for the colony—a stage across the sea on which Italians act out their fantasies. This vision seems to presage the work of Edward Said, with its emphasis on the rhetorical and representational violence that provides the intellectual underpinning of colonialism. But Spina is less interested in the way that the arts and scholarship can serve political power and more in the way that individuals react when another culture, distinct and self-sufficient, poses a challenge to their identity. He perfectly captures the twisted logic of colonialism past and present, which to justify itself first insists on a fundamental difference between “us” and “them,” and then insists on annihilating that difference.

But Spina was a product of the Italian colony—­he owed it his education and his inspiration, what he called his destino—so he was interested in more than just condemning it. He reserves his greatest contempt for those foreigners who have no interest in Libya, who either don’t seem to notice it (such as the professor who arrives in Africa “like he had moved from one floor to another”) or who want to destroy it (such as the official who speaks optimistically of the day when Libyan society—a building from which “we remove a stone every day”—will collapse). Spina saves his sympathy for those who wish to force their way into Libyan culture, even as they know their wish to be foolish and culpable. More than once, he compares the distance between natives and colonizers to that between audience and actors. Captain Martello (his name, meaning “hammer,” suits him well) is seemingly driven mad by his unreasonable desire to be granted a role within local society. A fellow officer later says of him: “But what estranged him from us? Encountering a world governed by different laws, the legitimacy of such a society, the irredeemable sin of our attempt to destroy it? It’s as if he’d stumbled into an opera house for the first time in his life and was confronted with a reality that followed its own rules: Instead of sitting back and enjoying the show, he suffered an identity crisis and could no longer draw any comfort from being a spectator.”

In The Young Maronite, the deranged Martello arranges to have his local antagonist arrested. But even as the man awaits execution, Martello cannot get him to answer his questions. Instead of playing the leading role in his dream scene, the colonizer is stuck in a monologue. Although all-powerful, he remains unacknowledged. The two characters have only one thing in common: “They were acting on a strongly inclined stage,” Spina writes, slipping toward “the well of the death.”

* * *

Spina’s prose itself is theatrical. He can set the stage quickly, whether writing about Arab countries where “the police [are] as observant as a mother” or a spacious office with that “patina of neglect that in Africa ends up vengefully reaching all pretentious surroundings.” His stories have great beginnings and endings, the curtain snapping open and shut upon dramatic scenes; his characters make memorable entrances. Here’s one: “Thin, nimble, nearly eighty, moneyed, troubled by multiple cravings, not even death dared bar his way.” Of a shortsighted secondary character, Spina writes: “His myopia forced him to narrow his eyes and the mind ended up making the same movement; he always feared something was being hidden from him.”

Spina’s descriptions are sharp and elliptical, but his dialogue can belabor the point. Most everyone—merchants, Italian officers, married couples going to bed—is improbably cerebral, eloquent, and self-conscious, sharing a tendency to tell a story and then dissect its meaning at length. But the originality of Spina’s vision, the strength of his voice, compensates for the occasional longueur. It’s hard not to admire a writer who sets a tribute to a Mozart opera in the house of an Italian vice governor in 1920s Benghazi, and then gives that story a tragic ending in which it is the ancient local customs—the apparent opposite of high European culture—that offer meaning and succor.

This is what takes place in The Marriage of Omar (1973), set in the divided Libya of 1920. The Italian governor is ruling from Benghazi, and Sidi Idris al-Senussi, the head of the Senussi dynasty and Sufi order and future Libyan king, is governing from Ajdabiya. Exhausted by World War I, Italy is prepared to grant Libya a degree of independence. The young Omar, a servant in the vice governor’s house, is preoccupied with remarrying a wife he has repudiated; he is torn between his friendship with Antonino, the vice governor’s young nephew, and the authority of his sulky, charismatic cousin, Sharafeddin, who rejects the foreigners’ presence. The vice governor supports Italy’s more conciliatory approach, but his wife questions this supposedly benign plan, warning him there is something “demonic” in the attempt to convince Libyans that “it’s in their best interests to stick with us,” that “trading their freedom for economic, medical and educational advantages is a good deal for them.”

The young Antonino, charming and free to cross most of the colonial society’s thresholds, is of course doomed, as is the brief attempt to find a more equitable, peaceful way forward. When he dies suddenly, the bereaved masters are consoled by the household staff. The Libyans’ condolences—­formulas full of ancient authority, resignation, and resilience—light the way in a house fallen into darkness.

The epilogue takes place in Milan in 1931. Mussolini has been in power for close to a decade, and has violently crushed the Libyan uprising. The vice governor is walking home from a dinner party of liberal anti-Fascists, where he was the only one present who seemed to be aware that two days earlier, the 74-year-old leader of the Libyan resistance, Sidi Omar al-Mukhtar, had been hanged. “The Count was astonished,” Spina writes, “that his anti-Fascist friends hadn’t mentioned that murder during their noble, scholarly, and passionate discussions.”

For his part, Spina argued that Italian fascism was born in the colonies and committed its worst crimes there. He couldn’t forgive the Italian left for its silence on colonialism, for drawing no parallels even as it told the story of its own persecution under fascism and celebrated its own resistance. To Libyans, one character points out, there is no difference between the Italian right and left; they both have the same guilty past—and the same blank memories. It’s a lacuna that continues more or less to the present day, even as the Italian political class and media fret over the migrants and terrorists who might be headed for their shores from Libya’s unguarded waters.

It’s tempting to ascribe Spina’s lack of an Italian audience to the country’s Libyan blind spot. Spina isn’t just unknown to English readers; he’s virtually unheard of in Italy as well. His books are hard to find, although he won a major literary award in 2007. Alberto Moravia told Spina that no one in Italy would read a book like his, and he was more or less right.

The long middle section of The Confines is composed of several collections of short stories set in the years just before World War II. For hundreds of pages, time stands still. The war looms, but in the meantime the narrator lingers along the Corso, gossips in the cafés, walks under the oleanders of the public gardens, picnics at the ruins of ancient Greek colonies, and takes refuge during the afternoons from the blinding, blistering Libyan sun. This is a small world, and its main stage is the Officers’ Club, where the productions are always teetering between melodrama and farce, and the audience is intent on pretending that the curtain isn’t about to fall. Spina’s own reluctance to close this chapter suggests his mixed feelings toward this period, the era into which he was born.

And then with a jolt it all slips into gear again, and history is in motion, running not just fast but almost off the rails. The Psychological Comedy (1992) chronicles the Italian evacuation; Entry Into Babylon (1976) is a story of the shifts in power, generational conflicts, and new politics that follow the end of colonialism. Now it is the Libyans’ turn to travel to Italy, register their own impressions, and make their own arguments, as Ezzedine, the Libyan protagonist, does on a trip to Milan in the late 1940s. His visit produces some disconcerting exchanges:

“Mr. Ezzedine is also a lawyer,” Nina interrupted her.

“Is that so? Where did you study, in Benghazi itself?”

“I studied at home,” said Ezzedine. “During colonization we weren’t allowed to attend universities.”

The old lady looked at him with surprise, as if she had heard a far-off thud.

“Oh bella! But weren’t we in Libya to promote civilization!”

Critical as he was of colonialism, Spina was also skeptical of the revolutions, coups, and nationalist regimes that marked its end in the Middle East. In his collection of essays, Intellectual Hospitality (2012), he writes: “The miseries of the colonial era (sordidness, uncivil condescension, criminal crumbling of others’ civilizations…) have been replaced, among European professors in need of active participation, by an aggressive, blackmailing wishful thinking about subversion: revolution as cure-all, just as once for every ill we prescribed bloodletting.”

Spina’s sympathies lie with the old, elegant, complacent world that is under attack. In the excellent Cairo Nights (1986), a wealthy Coptic Egyptian family nervously and defiantly waits to hear if its business has been nationalized by Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Egyptian leader is presented as uncouth, greedy, and disingenuous, his nationalist tirades another simplistic kind of theater. Spina thought post-independence regimes were a continuation of colonialism more than a corrective to it, because they often accelerated the process of modernization that foreign invasion had set in motion. Although there are huge differences in style and references, one finds similar preoccupations in the work of the great Libyan writer Ibrahim al-Koni, whose oeuvre charts the disintegration of the country’s nomadic, tribal, and mythic culture under the impact of foreign intrusions and then of oil wealth. One of Spina’s characters argues, speaking of post-colonial Libya: “The country is losing its life center, the sacred world of the fathers. Having adopted the ideologies, the structures and the techniques of others, it’s wearing itself out in a sterile antagonism with the outside world.”

Spina wasn’t too sentimental about this lost world or the fathers who ruled it. He always includes two sides to the conversations he stages, and he himself pointed out that while, as a writer, he eulogized traditional Libyan society, as an industrialist running a large factory in Benghazi (the first to employ women), he hastened its demise. Yet he disliked the new world that was coming into being—one both ever-changing and composed of interchangeable parts. He was always looking back, not so much out of nostalgia as contrariness.

* * *

All the characters in Spina’s final, remarkable novel, The Shore of the Lesser Life (1997), are in motion, slip-­sliding between relationships, countries, identities, and jobs. It’s the 1960s, and the bronze statues of the wolf of Rome and the lion of San Marco that once adorned a pair of columns along the sea in Tripoli have been dumped in a wild field at the edge of the zoo. Everyone listens to Nasser’s speeches on the radio, while the soon-to-be-deposed King Idris rules from secluded palaces far from the capital. Oil has been discovered, and the promise of extraordinary wealth has made the future hazy with possibilities. Young men have ideas, fathers grow uneasy, and foreigners think that if they just show up, they can cash in. Everyone is on the hustle, trying and generally failing to make the most of their chances.

Gerard Conti, the author’s alter ego, is a young Frenchman who dreams of entering “all the houses of the city like a guest before whom there’s no need to change one’s voice, to defend or sell cheap one’s symbols.” He quits the foreign service on a whim, takes a job with a charismatic Libyan businessman, and, to the consternation of his relatives and friends, hands himself over to the daily adventure of living in Libya. Genuine travel abroad must involve a loss of time and opportunities, Spina suggests, an alienation from the understanding of others back home.

In the bitter, scrambling, pathetic Pierre Dexais, Spina paints a darkly funny and surprisingly moving portrait of fallen colonial elites. Pierre is a would-be businessman and amateur spy, and his indignation and nostalgia are entirely self-interested. He is outraged at the “weakness” of Europe’s strategy toward its former colonies, which he equates to his own ongoing loss of status. The representatives of Western powers have become shopkeepers, “ready to swallow any humiliation to make a few more bucks,” whereas Dexais dreams of witnessing European cannons firing on an African port once more, “and with two shots knock down a tower or sink an anchored ship.”

After one of his many ill-advised get-rich-quick ventures is exposed, Dexais is dressed down by Sua Eccellenza, a Libyan minister who has modeled himself after the former colonizers. The minister first appears as a comic figure, a man whose greatest pleasure is hearing his title spoken when he stays at fashionable Roman hotels, an “insatiable spectator of himself.” But it troubles him that his sons, possessing privileges and an education he never had, seem to understand nothing of his past, of the “misery, colonial humiliation and collaboration.” His estrangement from them saps his optimism and his worldly ambition. By the end of the book, circumstances have reduced him to being Salem, a bereft father.

He and many other characters are players in yet another decidedly petty, always human scramble for Africa—even as another great upheaval approaches. Its most likely survivors will be the book’s cynical and philosophical underlings. There’s a laughing chauffeur who can predict the future, as well as an “usher who had seen rise, fall, rise again and disappear so many figures that he had acquired the science of a puppet-master, the culture of a historian and the skepticism of an undertaker.” That could be Alessandro Spina.

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