Spina’s Shadow

Spina’s Shadow

“Darling, this is Alessandro Spina, who is trying to make Italians feel guilty about their colonial crimes.”


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.

* * *

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.

In 1939, when Spina was 12, Italy officially annexed Libya, by which time Italian settlers constituted 12 percent of the population and over a third of the inhabitants of Tripoli and Benghazi, the epicenters of Italian power. At the outbreak of World War II, Spina’s father sent his son to Italy, where he would remain until 1954. Initially leading a peripatetic existence that saw him alternate between Busto Arsizio and the spa town of Salsomaggiore, Spina—accompanied by his mother—eventually settled in Milan. There, he became a devotee of opera: as luck would have it, the hotel where they lodged, the Marino on Piazza della Scala, was directly opposite the Teatro. While in Milan, Spina—by then fluent in Arabic, English, French and Italian—studied under Mario Marcazzan; penned a thesis on Moravia; and began drafting his first stories, lush tapestries of history, fiction and autobiography that featured a cosmopolitan array of characters: Italian officers, Senussi rebels, Ottoman bureaucrats, chirpy grande dames, Maltese fishermen, aristocrats, servants and slaves. Spina described each caste with the same finesse, empathy and intimacy, partly thanks to his immaculate fusion of Eastern narrative quaintness and the passion for encapsulating an entire way of life that informs much nineteenth-century European fiction, thereby distinguishing sentiment from sentimentality.

There is perhaps no better example of this balancing act than “Il forte di Régima” (The Fort at Régima), an early story set in the mid-1930s, in which an Italian officer, one Captain Valentini, is ordered south of Benghazi to take command of a garrison stationed in an old Ottoman fortress that “recalled the castles built in Greece by knights who had joined the Fourth Crusade.” Valentini is glad to leave the city and its tiresome peacetime parades behind, but as he’s driven to his new posting, his mind is suddenly flooded with the names of famous Crusaders who had “conquered Constantinople, made and unmade Emperors, carved the vast Empire into fiefs, and run to and fro vainly fighting to ensure the survival of a system, which owing to its lack of roots in the country, was never destined to survive.”

Employing only several hundred words, Spina slices across 700 years, showing the inanity of the concept of conquest as well as the existential vacuum it inevitably leaves in its wake: “As he weltered about in his armoured vehicle, it seemed cruel to the Captain to be forced to undergo the same rigmarole after so many centuries had passed.” Our technological genius may be growing, Spina implies, but so is our historical ignorance. It is no coincidence that Spina collected these sketches under the title Officers’ Tales. His men-at-arms perfectly typify his concept of the “shadow”: their minds are haunted by the maddening darkness of the colonial enterprise, which still overshadows our own supposedly postcolonial times. More than a metaphor intertwined throughout his novels, Spina’s shadow can be interpreted as an allegory of how the Italian presence in Libya was visible by dint of its brutality and yet incorporeal because it sought only to rule, never to integrate. Ultimately, the shadow is also life itself: amorphous and mysterious, because history has seen us repeatedly fail to envision what lies beyond what we can see, past the horizon of our ephemeral lives and experiences.

At the end of World War II, Italy relinquished its claim to Libya, which was then administered by the British and French until 1951, when the country became independent under King Idris I. In August 1953, Spina—now 26, and with the ink still fresh on his degree—returned to Benghazi to help run his aging father’s factory. Although typically working twelve-hour days, he somehow found time to write and would lock himself in his father’s office, whose windows looked out onto the fourteenth-century fonduk. Throughout his life, Spina firmly believed that he’d acquired his discipline not despite being an industrialist but because of it, in the same way that Tolstoy refused to leave Yasnaya Polyana so as to stay among his people and the chief source of his inspiration. In his spare time, Spina would pick up the copy of Le temps retrouvé that he always kept by his side, or send letters to friends, which often featured pearls encapsulating the transformations that his country was traversing. In a letter dated July 26, 1963, to Cristina Campo (the pen name of Vittoria Guerrini), he wrote:

A young scion of the royal family—“of the highest pedigree,” as Hofmannsthal might have said—the grandson of the old king who’d been deposed by the current monarch, has died in a car accident. Having come to convey his condolences, one of the King’s cousins also suffered a crash on his way home to his desert encampment, an accident that took the lives of his mother, wife and son (he remains in intensive care at the hospital). I went to convey my own condolences. The Prince is very handsome, around sixty years old. He’s extremely tall, his skin’s a milky white and he sports a little aristocratic goatee. Eventually, the talk turned to the accident. The old man (his medieval view of the world still unmarred) remarked: “Are automobiles meant as vehicles for this world or the next?”

* * *

During the first decade of Libyan independence, Spina completed his first collection of stories; published Tempo e Corruzione (Time and Decay), a novel based on his days in Milan; and worked on a translation of Storia della città di Rame (The City of Brass), a tale excerpted from the Thousand and One Nights. However, it was only in 1964 that he truly hit his stride and began writing the first volumes that make up The Confines of the Shadow. From 1964 to 1975, arguably his most productive decade, Spina produced Il giovane maronita (The Young Maronite), Le nozze di Omar (Omar’s Wedding), Il visitatore notturno (The Nocturnal Visitor) and Ingresso a Babele (Entry Into Babylon), which while occasionally featuring such diverse locales as Milan, Paris and Cairo, are chiefly set in Benghazi, ground zero of The Confines of the Shadow.

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.

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