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Leonardo Sciascia
by Vincenzo Salerno


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Sciascia."The conscience of Italy. Defiant by definition." That's how the late Leonardo Sciascia, one of the most popular authors of postwar Italy, has been described by his fellow Sicilians. In the words of Gore Vidal: "What is the mafia? What is Sicily? When it comes to the exploration of this particular hell... Sciascia is the perfect vigil." To know the man one must know his world. It is the complicated world of Italian public opinion, in which Sciascia was novelist, polemicist, occasional politician, and perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize. In a philosophically eclectic environment typified by intolerant Leftist journalists and, at the opposite extreme, right-wing politicos, he was unafraid to write about moral and ethical issues. Not rarely, Sciascia took stands which were decidedly unpopular in late twentieth century Italy. If, like many prophets, he sometimes seemed more popular outside his own country, one should realize that, despite Sicily's remarkable literary heritage, true intellectuals themselves are rarely respected, or even recognized, by the Sicilian public. Ethics and politics aside. In academia and in the press, six decades of sometimes hostile influences, ranging from Existentialism to Catholicism, from Communism to Neo-Fascism, have eroded the popular appreciation of objective social commentary. Even a superficial glance at Italian newspapers is sufficient to confirm that journalists in this country are obsessed with their own opinions, engaged in a bizarre egocentric ritual that takes precedence over unbiased reporting.

That Leonardo Sciascia transcended this violent maelstrom, subtly revealing society's greatest challenges in Everyman's life, leaves us with the impression of a master critic. Amidst a sea of pseudo-intellectual charlatans, his shone as an illuminated and creative talent. The essence of human insight. The real thing. It would not be unfair to say that Sciascia's brief was to "set the record straight." The young Italian student of political science, philosophy or law might well study something at university, thinking that she had finally reached one of life's junctures in the quest for understanding its mysteries, only to have to reconsider those notions after reading a Sciascia novel. To his great credit, this most singular of authors was not particularly popular with Italian university professors. His greatest audience was, and is, the honest intellectual.

Challenging fickle youth's preconceptions was only one small part of Sciascia's work. His characterizations and observations were as uncomfortable for many older Italians as Tolstoy's and Turgenev's were for the Russians of another time. It is perhaps in this way that a contemporary author crosses that undefinable boundary between popular fiction and great literature. Fiction sells; literature endures. Some of Sciascia's best work dealt with fundamental, if rarely simple, moral quandaries, often in the setting of law and order, right and wrong. He was, in fact, one of the first authors to grapple with Fascism's intrinsic evils, something distinctly unsettling for those Italians who participated in the Regime, and even for some of the collaborators' children. (Hardly a family in the country did not contribute to Fascism, Italy's Taliban, in some way, even if it were only by enlisting one son in the Fascist Youth or sending another to perish in one of the Duce's ill-fated military adventures.) In Sciascia's stories, the human conscience is explored in an intimate, yet collective, manner. In a sense, he was Everyman's philosopher. Blackshirts were only his easiest targets. The entire inefficient, corrupt system of Italian justice found one of its most lethal critics in Leonardo Sciascia, from whom there could be no defence, only retreat.

His birth coincided with Fascism's, and he knew that nemesis (and others) well. Born in 1921 in the town of Racalmuto, where he spent much of his time until his death in 1989, he preferred country life to that of Rome or other chaotic cities. Observation, insight and expression are the tools of a great author, and these Sciascia did not lack. His rough and tumble literary style is not always captured in the English translation of his works, but the spirit is there. His pen was his sword, and from his vantage point at Racalmuto, a town of Arab foundation with a Norman church and the ruins of a Norman castle, Sciascia, the consumate country squire, stood as a solitary knight poised to lead his island away from a vast sea of social conformity. The knight as shepherd, whose disciples meet in a non-violent revolution of minds.

A few of Sciascia's funnier phrases have endured in the Sicilian mind. In The Day of the Owl (made into a popular film) he divided men into several classes, including the directionless, aimless, easily-led, duck-like Qua-qua-a-qua who rarely accomplished much in life.

Not for nothing do certain American law professors require that their students read Sciascia, whose works have been compared to those of Kafka and Stendhal. In Open Doors, a judge insists on morality during the Fascist era. The novella has been described as "a meditation on capital punishment, moral traduction, and cultural imprecision." Death and the Knight is the story of a police investigator who confronts "the treacherous relations between individuals and the state." It was terrain that Leonardo Sciascia knew well.

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2001 Vincenzo Salerno