Thursday, 4 April 2013

Leonardo Sciascia: Equal Danger

The detective work is scarce and unexceptional in its lingering vestiges, and Amerigo Rogas, the inspector, is so low-key he lacks the idiosyncratic personality of all the great fictional detectives: Sherlock Homes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Father Brown. He also has a great disadvantage. Let’s make it clear, he is an intelligent and rational detective, he has good instincts and intuitions, he knows how to piece things together. It’s just that his arch-enemy is too overwhelming. Some detectives only have Dr. Moriarty and Fu Manchu’s sinister machinations to thwart. Poor Rogas has the-world-as-it-is against him. If it is essential that a crime be solved in a detective novel, Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger is a remarkable failure of the genre. In everything else a good novel should excel at, it is a massive achievement.

I have two favourite periods in the history of the detective novel. The first would go from its primitive origins around the turn of the 19th century all the way up to the 1930s. Call me a purist, but Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled aesthetics never impressed me as a literary style, although I think it did wonders for cinema. I’ve always preferred the exotic murder weapons, the convoluted motives and overwrought methods, the larger-than-life detectives, the feeling that murder and detection are a game of little consequences. Then Chandler decided to remember everyone how ugly and simple and dull murder really is, and I think the genre became smaller and less enchanting for it. As far as I’m concerned Chandler’s style continues to reign supreme in the genre, of which the absurdly gory violence and graphic grittiness in display in the modern fad of Scandinavian novels is but his style taken to its logical extreme, and I fear creative dead end.

But there’s a second epoch in the genre, although perhaps it’s more of an ethos than a specific slice in time. To some extent it’s always been part of the genre, but it really started gaining strength in the ‘60s, and it’s what I’d call the anti-detective novel, the post-modern or intellectual detective novel for lack of a better term. I mean novels that used the genre to talk about everything except crime, or that challenged its tropes. You know what I mean: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, José Cardoso Pires’ Dog Beach Ballad, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur, Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Most of these used the genre for post-modernist games, others used the genre as a vehicle for dense stories filled with philosophy, history, art. Still others just made some good parodies of it. The actual business of solving crimes got sidetracked in these novels, which nevertheless are more colourful and entertaining than Chandler’s many bastard children.

It is to this later development in the genre that I situate  Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger (1971), a detective novel really interested in discussing what justice is, what right and wrong are, the conflicts between state and private justice, and the manipulation of justice for political ends. It’s an unusual detective novel so it’s unsurprising it deals with a figure we never see in the detective novel. We see the victims, we see the killers, we see the detectives. We even see cops. But we never see judges. Remarkable considering catching a criminal eventually is but part of a process that ends with a judge trying him. In this novel, however, the judge plays the role of victim. A district attorney is murdered, and before you know it judges start showing up dead everywhere at an alarming rate. In order to placate a mistrustful public opinion, the ministry of security assigns the case to their best detective, inspector Amerigo Rogas, a man with principles in a country without them. He’s a patient man, preferring slowness and meditation to the police’s habits of rounding up the usual suspects and framing innocent men. He’s an intellectual, with artistic taste and culture, which makes his colleagues jittery. Nothing in him says action. The narrator grimly jokes that he waits for fresh corpses so he can find new clues. And yet he makes progress in the investigation. His strongest suspect is a man who may have been wrongly accused of murder and now is conducting a vendetta against judges.

But he’s just a suspect because no one will ever know the truth. Due to events out of Rogas’ control, the theory of the lone mad killer is replaced with the theory of a terrorist revolutionary group. Rogas is transferred to the political section, made to monitor harmless young men whose only crime is to wear long hair and scraggy beards and to have political beliefs contrary to the mainstream. In the political section detective work is irrelevant since the agents operate from a pre-existing basis of certainty and it’s just a matter of making facts fit their theory of a revolutionary group being behind the murders. The normal business of detective is foiled by political motives, and only Rogas doggedly continues to pursue his theory, becoming in turn a target of the investigation. Here we see the great question of the novel: what is the truth? The state has decided the killings are political. Rogas believes the killer is a wrongly-accused man in want of personal justice. The state, however, holds the power; it gets to decide what is true. Justice is implemented if it serves its objectives. Rogas can only rebel and pursue his investigation in the margins of the law, at his own risk and aware he’s wasting his time and energies.

When Leonardo Sciascia published this novel he had already been working on it for several years. He wrote it during a period in Italy known as the years of lead, when the country was an ideological and physical battleground between the left and the right, and their most extremist wings, when terrorism was commonplace, including state-sponsored terrorism, when the government and the Mafia and the US government made secret alliances to destroy left-wing parties and unions and murder communists. It was the time of littérature engagée, a time when most Italian artists, writers and filmmakers were clearly communist and participants of the revolutionary fervor. It was the time of Dario Fo and his superb satirical plays and of the cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci. Equal Danger, however, is not an example of literature of engagement. Subtitled A Parody, the novel pokes fun at all sides: at the police and the ministers, at the judges and the media; at the revolutionaries; at engaged novelists. The words left and right aren’t even used in their political context, the only political party, clearly modeled on the Italian Communist Party, being generically called the International Revolutionary Party. The only moment when the novel tones down its ironic tone is when Rogas interviews a series of men who were wrongly arrested due to judicial errors, and Rogas’ compassion for them pierces through the satire. In the ideological battle, perhaps the novel wants to say, it’s easy to lose sight of ordinary men. For a 130-page long novel, it’s ambitious for going after so many targets, and it’s remarkable how much content it packs between its covers.

The novel has something of the Kafkaesque in the way it pits the individual against a bureaucratic state. Rogas is a competent, caring, tenacious man who nevertheless is constantly thwarted by scandal-mongering public opinion, a cowardly police, and a backstabbing government. Using deceit and cleverness, Rogas opens many doors, but eventually he stumbles against power, and that’s that. Whenever he thinks he’s making headway into the truth, power is there to stop him. For instance, in one of his first leads he manages to discover that many of the victims had accumulated mysterious fortunes, but before he can investigate further he’s told to stop digging into their private lives lest the figure of the Judge be besmirched. Sometimes it’s just ordinary incompetence and chance that impedes his movements. At one point he tracks down a strong suspect, but the surveillance team in charge of watching the exits incompetently loses sight of him. These mistakes, no doubt, affect police investigations more than we’d like to hope. Rogas then nearly finds him again, but when another judge is killed and witnesses see young bearded men running away from the crime scene, he’s forced to abandon his lone killer theory. By the time Rogas, unhappily stuck in the political section, finally finds the killer, he’s completely disillusioned with his job.

I’ve mentioned that the novel is short but Sciascia’s pared down sentences allow him to include a lot of content. He writes long sentences, with few adjectives and adverbs, not stopping for needless descriptions. He also favours dialogue a lot. His novel, which isn’t divided in chapters, is mostly a collection of conversations between Rogas and dozens of characters. This would be worrying if Sciascia didn’t have an uncommon, playwright-level talent for dialogue. His characters come alive through their words and the way they say things. Outside Rogas no one has a lot of background information save Cres, the prime suspect. The fast-paced dialogues also allow the novel to change tones all the time and to include many perspectives in a condensed space. Rogas moves in many circles, from the street with its ordinary people to minister cabinets, to judges’ chambers and even novelists’ villas. One of the funniest dialogues occurs at the home of Nocio, an engaged bourgeois writer who’s sheltering the editor of Permanent Revolution, a radical magazine. Nocio dubs himself a revolutionary even though he lives in an opulent summer house; he hates the editor because his magazine is critical of his novels, accusing him of being bourgeois. Nocio absurdly asks Rogas to write a statement declaring that he’s not a bourgeois writer. Equally delightful is the conversation between Rogas and the minister of security. The difficulty of trying to find a side in the novel is made difficult because of the promiscuity between power and opposition. The minister attends parties with the editor of Permanent Revolution and other radicals. The minister longs for a revolution whereas the revolutionaries want the government to stay in power until the conditions are ready for a revolution. The minister increases police pressure on the revolutionaries in order to grant them protection, for one never knows when they won’t be in power one day to reward those who were loyal to them before the collapse of the old order. In this topsy-turvy world it becomes impossible to pick a side because everyone schemes and everyone craves power, and everyone’s in bed with each other. This novel is so promiscuous the reader may catch a STD just from holding it. But although the novel is mostly satirical in tone, it is not psychological realism. One of the finest moments in the novel takes place while Rogas meets his journalist friend, Cusan. Rogas confides in him his thoughts about a secret governmental conspiracy. Cusan, an engaged journalist and member of the International Revolutionary Party, instead of feeling elated at the idea of exposing the truth, secretly chastises his friend for getting him involved in such a dangerous affair. And who can blame him?

All these novels and character moments, however, are slowly converging towards the novel’s climax, the dialogue between Rogas and Riches, the President of the Supreme Court. It’s a fascinating conversation, brimming with erudition, mixing Voltaire, Borges and G.K. Chesterton – earlier Nocio had invoked Pascal’s wager to explain his belief in the revolution – and at points even resembles the conversation between K and the mayor in The Castle. When Rogas puts forth his theory about a wrongly-accused man on a vendetta, and President Riches categorically declares that “judicial errors don’t exist,” he’s but echoing the mayor in Kafka’s novel when he says that

there are only supervisory authorities. To be sure, they’re not intended to detect mistakes in the vulgar sense of the word, since there are no mistakes, and even if there is a mistake, as in your own case, who’s to say that it’s really a mistake in the long run?

According to Riches, judges are modern priests, serving the absolute:

Let us consider, then, mass: the mystery of transubstantiation, the bread and the wine that become the body, blood and soul of Christ. The priest may even be unworthy, in his life, in his thoughts: but the fact that he was invested with this duty makes the mystery be fulfilled at every celebration. But, I say but, it may happen that transubstantiation doesn’t occur. And so is a judge when he celebrates the law: justice can not not reveal itself, not transubstantiate itself, not fulfil itself. At first, the judge can ponder, dilacerate himself, say to himself: I’m not worthy, I’m full of misery, stuffed with instincts, turbid in his thoughts, subjected to every weakness and every error; but the moment he celebrates, he can’t. And even less afterwards. Do you see a priest who after having celebrated mass he asks himself: who knows if this time the transubstantiation will be fulfilled? No doubt: it was fulfilled. Certainly. And I’ll say more: inevitably. Think of that priest who, doubting, at the moment of consecration has blood on his dress. And I can say: no sentence of mine has ever left my hands bloody, has ever stained my toga… (1)

Leonardo Sciascia
In Italian the novel is called Il Contesto (The Context). The English titillates the reader with action and thrills but the novel is remarkably serene and uneventful. What is the context? The word, I think, is only used when Rogas and Riches talk. Riches has devoted his life to writing a treatise that explains why there is not such thing as judicial errors, including the historico-social context that, in the 18th century, first allowed intellectuals to put into question the infallibility of the Judge. His refutation of the judicial error is also a refutation of the Enlightenment, from which sprang men like Voltaire who first contested the authority of the Judge. Now for me, context is also a very modern word, usually not far from another very modern word: relative. When we tend to say something is relative, we mean we need to see things in their context. This expression has pretty much become part of our daily vocabulary and mental framework, a framework Riches repudiates with his nostalgia for absolute values. But whereas Riches continues to pine for them, the events and questions taking place in the novel show that nothing can be set on stone. What is justice and right and wrong if not questions of context? Why does Rogas pity a killer like Cres and despises a servant of justice like Riches? It’s these questions, that only novels can pose, that makes Equal Danger such a gripping and powerful work.

1) Translated into English from my poor Italian. No doubt the words and sentences flow better in Adrienne Foulke’s English translation.


  1. I guess I missed this one. I have read several Sciascia books. You make it sound better than any I read, and those were good. I should revisit sometime.

    1. Tom, it was one of the best novels I read in 2012, so good I read it twice. What books have you read?

  2. I believe the answer is To Each His Own, The Day of the Owl, and The Wine-Dark Sea. The puzzle is why I stopped there.

    If I can keep up on Andrea Camilleri surely I can knock off those Sciascia books. Except I am three behind with Camilleri.

    1. Tom, that's still more than I've read.

      But I'm really up to date on his film adaptations - five and counting; just finished watching The Day of the Owl, with a young Franco Nero who strangely looks a lot like Terrence Hill, and a Lee J. Cobb dubbed in Italian. Lovely movie.

      The adaptation of Equal Danger, with Lino Ventura, is pretyy good too.

  3. Miguel, I read this last year but enjoyed it a lot less than you did--in fact, I felt it was the weakest of the three or fours Sciascias I've read to date (not bad--just not all that satisfying). That being said, I'm glad you wrote about this at such length because 1) I needed a good reminder to revisit Sciascia soon, and 2) this gives me a chance to put in an enthusiastic word for Carlo Emilio Gadda's 1946 & 1957 That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana: a stunning example of the second type of anti-detective novel that you mention in your post. Camilleri doesn't do much for me (one OK book and one semi-dud so far), but I'll prob. give him another try some day. He's fairly entertaining. P.S. I love Chandler's wordsmith tendencies and pace and vision of L.A. (where I lived as a young kid); I think you were a little rough on him here, but I'm pretty sure he can take it.

    1. Richard, trust me, you don't want to see me ranting about Chandler ;)

      Thanks for Gadda's reference.

      What other Sciascia novels did you read? And what did you find lacking in Equal Danger?

    2. Miguel, The Day of the Owl and To Each His Own plus the excellent nonfiction The Moro Affair which comes with another short nonfiction piece which I can't remember the name of right now. What did I find lacking in Equal Danger? I didn't find the conversations as engrossing as I think you did, perhaps because of the playwright comparison thing (i.e. I often find theater dialogue artificially stilted). Also, I think something about the tone--slightly more humorous and less dark than usual with S--kind of bothered me somewhat. Nothing major, but I wasn't motivated enough to write a review up at the time and the details are now escaping me, I'm afraid.

    3. Richard, the novel is subtitled a parody, so the comical tone is intended. I've never read these novels but have seen their film adaptations, so I think I see what you mean, the tone is more serious. But the outcome is equally dark - three good men who are, in their own different ways, crushed by immense powers they dared to confront. What I like in Equal Danger, is that instead of stopping at the Mafia, he takes the conspiracy of silence all the way up to the government, making it far more chilling. Perhaps it just appeals to the Kafka fan in me, and my infatuation with crackpot theories :)

    4. Miguel, I didn't mind that Sciascia wanted to write a parody of sorts; I just didn't appreciate the vibe as much. A matter of taste. I do appreciate some of the things you did in the novel (i.e. the ones you mention in your second to last sentence here), but I'd
      be way more fired up to read The Day of the Owl or The Moro Affair again and/or something new by him rather than Equal Danger. At least we won't have to fight over that book if there's ever only one copy left of it in the world! P.S. I really need to watch those Sciascia movie adaptations--all of them.

    5. Richard, the quality of the film adaptations ranges from pretty good (Cadaveri Eccellenti) to so-so (Una Storia Semplice), but I found all six I watched enjoyable. Also, Gian Maria Volonté, a great Italian actor, starred in four of them, and he's always amazing to watch!