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.
Born in the hardscrabble hill town of Racalmuto, Sicily, in 1921, Sciascia grew up in a world centered around the sulfur mines. His grandfather had been a caruso, a miner, and his father was a bookkeeper with the company. The family’s finances were pinched, and when Sciascia finished school his father did not have the means to send him to university. So he went to a teachers’ college and got the diploma he needed to teach elementary school. He was a fierce young intellectual; his students were impoverished, hungry and distracted. Mercifully for both, Sciascia eventually landed a desk job in the school administration. When he became known as a writer, he moved to Palermo, the island’s intellectual metropolis, where in the late 1950s the Mafia had begun to put down roots in construction and public works. Sciascia was intensely skeptical of Italian politics, yet he was a participant. He sat on the Palermo city council as an independent with the Communist Party, and after he broke with the Communists in 1976 over their proposed “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats, he was elected as a deputy in Rome and then to the European Parliament in Strasbourg with the Radicals, a civil rights party.
Since only a few of Sciascia’s books have been translated into English, the appearance of the novels The Day of the Owl and Equal Danger, as well as his nonfiction account of the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, The Moro Affair, is a most welcome event. The translations were commissioned in decades past for British editions and, in the case of the two novels, do not quite convey the richness of Sciascia’s prose; but all three volumes have good new prefaces.
The Day of the Owl, published in 1961, is probably Sciascia’s best-known book. It offers the first account in his fiction of the Mafia, at a time when few Italians knew anything about the Sicilian underworld, and those who did know often denied that it existed. The novel’s protagonist, Captain Bellodi, is a policeman from the North of Italy who is trying to untangle Sicilian omertà, the habit of silent complicity with the Mafia. One morning in town, an honest building contractor is shot while boarding the bus, and none of the dozens of people who were at the scene remember being there or having seen anything. As Bellodi digs deeper into the crime, he sees that fear of and complicity with the Mafia go far up the ladder, right into the political system. So, Bellodi asks himself, why should people trust a policeman–and a non-Sicilian at that? Out in the countryside he meets a farmer with a dog called Barruggieddu. What does that mean? he asks the farmer, unfamiliar with the Sicilian word. “Someone who’s bad,” replies the man. The name, Bellodi conjectures, must come from bargello–the old-fashioned title of police chief. Here is a man who considers the chief of police as evil as his own dog. And why not? For centuries the police had bitten people like this man:
‘Hound of the law’, he thought of himself; and then he went on to think of the ‘hounds of the Lord,’ who were the Dominicans, and of the Inquisition, a word which conjured up a dark, empty crypt and stirred gloomy echoes of history. He found himself wondering with anguish whether he, too, the fanatical hound of the law, had not already crossed the threshold of that crypt.
Perhaps there was something of that terrible fanaticism in the serious misstep regarding the Mafia that Sciascia made near the end of his life. It was 1987, and the Italian police and courts were fighting the Cosa Nostra with some success for the first time. In a notorious article Sciascia attacked the reform mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, and the anti-Mafia prosecutor Paolo Borsellino as self-promoting “anti-Mafia professionals.” It was a reckless thing to say, playing right into the hands of the very people who, as Sciascia well knew, had terrorized the South for years. (Borsellino was later murdered by the Mafia, along with his five bodyguards.) It was the kind of ferocious solitary stand that Sciascia, who hated being part of a chorus and who was skeptical, if not cynical, about the prospect that real change could come to Italy, took more than once in his life. No one saw the deceit and the hypocrisy of the Christian Democrats as clearly as Sciascia did, but he was peculiarly unable to appreciate that the system, for once, might be doing something right rather than conniving with crime.
The underworld and the way it is interwoven with power is the subject of Sciascia’s 1971 novel Equal Danger, about an unnamed Latin country where judges and prosecutors are being methodically murdered. (In 1976 Equal Danger was adapted by the great director Francesco Rosi into the chilling Cadaveri eccellenti [Illustrious Corpses], one of at least six films based on Sciascia’s books.) Rogas, the contemplative, brooding police inspector assigned to the case, quickly grasps that he is not expected to inquire into the questionable probity of the murdered men, and that he should look for the killers among the far-left groups on the margins of society (just as the police blamed the left for several real-life crimes in the 1960s and ’70s, notably a deadly bombing in a Milan bank in 1969, that were in fact carried out by Italy’s far right). In a postscript to the novel Sciascia said he was writing about “power…that we can roughly term mafioso.” Mafioso in the sense of a web of interlocking powers–criminals, business, politicians, police and the courts–that in the 1960s would have been called “the system.”
In 1978 the Italian system came under one of its harshest trials when Aldo Moro, a former prime minister and a powerful figure in the ruling Christian Democratic Party, was abducted by the Red Brigades, an insurrectionary Marxist-Leninist group whose early members were veterans of the 1968 rebellions on Italy’s campuses. Moro was held for fifty-five days in an apartment in Rome (“the people’s court”), where the brigatisti interrogated him intensively about the political strategy of the Christian Democrats. When the government refused to negotiate for Moro’s release, he was murdered by his captors, dumped in the trunk of a car and left on Via Caetani in the center of the capital, more or less halfway between the headquarters of the Christian Democrats and that of the Communist Party, the two churches of Italian cold war politics.
The kidnapping–recounted in Sciascia’s fascinating work of reportage, The Moro Affair, published just months after the murder–took place, not by chance, as Italians were contemplating a momentous change in their political equation. Throughout the postwar years Italy had been deeply divided between the Christian Democratic Party, which led every government since 1945, and the Italian Communist Party, which could draw more than 30 percent of the vote but was systematically excluded from holding power at the national level, partly as a result of American pressure.
In the mid-1970s, mindful of how Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected left-wing president, had been overthrown in a violent, CIA-backed military coup, Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer advocated a “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats, a plan to share power whose most passionate advocate on the other side was Aldo Moro. For Moro, the compromesso storico represented “the inevitable convergence of parallel lines,” a paradoxical formula that so enraged US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a meeting with Moro in Washington that he threw the Italian politician out of the room. The Red Brigades looked upon a pact between Communists and Christian Democrats with equal disgust, seeing it as just another obstacle to the revolution they believed was drawing near.
Sciascia also detested the historic compromise, on the grounds that the Communists should stay in the opposition and not join the system, and he went so far as to break with the party on the issue. Whether he was right or not is a matter of dispute even today.
The Moro Affair is Sciascia’s burning, obsessive effort to make sense of Moro’s fate. Sciascia sees him as the epitome of Christian Democratic ambiguity but credits him with great intelligence and shrewdness. Sciascia is not very interested in probing the motives or strategy of the Red Brigades; all the drama in his tale lies in the troubled relationship between Moro and his fellow Christian Democrats. While in captivity, Moro wrote dozens of letters to government ministers and party colleagues begging them to negotiate for his release; in Sciascia’s view, he was bargaining for time, hoping that the police would discover his hideaway.
Moro wrote his letters in the way he always wrote and spoke, a cryptic, incomprehensible Christian Democratic idiom that Pasolini once characterized as “the new Latin” because it fell on Italian ears like the language the Church used before the mass was recited in the vernacular. He was obliged, writes Sciascia, “to communicate through the language of non-communication.” But it didn’t matter how Moro wrote, since his Christian Democratic colleagues had already given him up for dead. Fifty “Friends of Moro,” one of them a cardinal, signed an open letter saying that based on the letters he had been writing, Moro was “not the man we knew.” This, Sciascia argues, amounted to a death sentence. His party fellows did not want Moro to come back alive. They decided it was more important to refuse to negotiate with the Red Brigades than it was to save one politician’s–a former prime minister’s–life.
“You have no idea,” says one character in Sciascia’s novel about Catholic mayhem, Todo Modo, “what people who are all church and family, people who go around with a prayer book in hand, people who say they love their neighbors as themselves, are capable of…. The most vicious crimes I have seen, the most deliberately planned, the most difficult to uncover, the craziest crimes and the simplest ones, are those committed by people who have knees like this (he shaped his hands into a huge loaf of bread) for all the time they have spent behind the altar rail or at the confessional booth.” This is Sciascia writing in 1974, four years before Moro’s kidnapping.
Sciascia was appalled by the Christian Democrats’ hard line on Moro. Here, he acidly observed, was a party that had never shown any particular regard for the state or the rule of law, suddenly discovering a vocation for institutional rigor. Perhaps, he suggested, they were afraid of what Moro was telling the terrorists in his interrogations. Why, he asked, were the police so bumbling in their efforts to find Moro, despite their great display of effort?
The Christian Democrats were certainly hypocritical, but in retrospect it is harder to say whether they (and the Communists, who also advocated a hard line) were wrong in refusing to negotiate with the Red Brigades for Moro’s release. Historians of the period point out that after Moro’s death the terrorists began to lose momentum and backing on the far left, although they went on killing for several more years, and later an offshoot arose in the 1990s.
As prophetic as he often was in his writing, Sciascia did not foresee the astonishing path Italian politics would take after the Christian Democrats imploded in 1993, brought down by the Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”) corruption scandals after nearly half a century in office. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what he would have said about Italy’s current prime minister, the extravagant billionaire Silvio Berlusconi. We can be sure he wouldn’t have been tender. Although everything in Italy has changed, the country Sciascia described has not so much disappeared as mutated. The president of the Sicilian region, currently on trial for Mafia association, represents a small party descended from the Christian Democrats that now belongs to Berlusconi’s right-wing governing coalition. And Berlusconi’s right-hand man in the Forza Italia party, also a Sicilian, Marcello dell’Utri, stands convicted–pending appeal–under similar charges.
More urgent and less reflective than Sciascia’s fiction, The Moro Affair is caught up in the heat of the moment, and not everything he wrote in it has stood the test of time. Yet the universe Sciascia evokes in the book is much the same as in his novels. In Sciascia’s world, crimes are committed but light is only dimly shed on them. We will never know what went on in the corridors of power during the fifty-five days of Moro’s captivity. Like his fictional protagonists, Sciascia the journalist peers deep but can only half make sense of what he sees.