Monday, 20 January 2014

Leonardo Sciascia: I Pugnalatori

In 1975, with the publication of The Mystery of Majorana, about the sudden disappearance of physicist Ettore Majorana in 1938, Leonardo Sciascia received a proposal to write another book about a real person, in this case the life of Guido Giacosa, State Attorney in Sicily between 1862-63, involved in a bizarre and complex criminal trial that had become the subject of a recent study written by his great-granddaughter, Nina Ruffini. Taking an interest in the case, and after meeting Ruffini, Sciascia started doing his own research, taking trips to archives, and in the end came up with a true crime novella called I Pugnalatori (1976).

I’m a newcomer to Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989), Sicilian-born Italian novelist, short-story writer and essayist. Not too long ago I was riveted by his novel Equal Danger (1971). I don’t know much more about Sciascia, save that the man’s work has a knack to be adapted into movies that I like: To Each His Own (1967), The Day of the Owl (1968), Exquisite Corpses and Todo Modo (both from 1976), Open Doors (1990), A Simple Story (1991). It’s much easier to watch than to read books, especially in Sciascia’s case, since I make a point of reading them in Italian, a language that forces me to decrease my daily average of pages from sixty pages to a mere twenty. Thankfully his books are shortish, evening things out. The movies are especially good because of two frequent factors: the direction of Elio Petri and the acting of Gian Maria Volonté, one of the greatest Italian actors of the last century; they were even better when they collaborated, which was quite a lot. When I think of Sciascia I can’t disassociate him from these two men.

So having watched all these movies, when it came to decide the next book I steered away from re-enactments and chanced upon this novella. My first impression is that it’s totally different than Equal Danger. One of the big differences is history. There’s no escaping history in I Pugnalatori. Whereas detective Amerigo Rogas ambled through a political investigation in a nameless country, Guido Giacosa comes up against a crime produced in the turmoil of then-recent Sicilian history (in the movie adaptation of Equal Danger, one can clearly see the map of Sicily on the wall of a police precinct, even if the island is never alluded to; a clever touch, I thought). Although I’m not particularly well-versed in Italian history, from what I understand up until 1860 the island of Sicily and Naples formed a joint kingdom called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, ruled by the House of the Bourbons. But as part of the unification of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi invaded, conquered and annexed it to the Kingdom of Italy, under the rule of King Victor Emmanuel II. In 1862 Giacosa, from Piedmont, was made State Attorney of Palermo. Just a few months later he met the greatest challenge of his career when he tried to solve a unique crime that occurred on the night of October 2.At the same hour,” we’re told, “in several points in the city almost equidistant between them, a thirteen-pointed star was painted over Palermo’s map, thirteen people were gravely injured by knife, almost all of them on the belly’s lower part.” In a sequence that seems to predate Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, he describes how each of the 13 victims were attacked, their names and professions, the location, the circumstances. The language is very formal, objective, like a police report. We’ll get back to this objectivity; but more on the crimes first.

At first, and on the same night, only one of the attackers is arrested One of the victims is being attacked right when officers are passing by, and a chase ensues that ends with the suspect captured. This man is identified as Angelo D’Angelo. The other 12 victims, injured at the same time as D’Angelo’s target, are unable to identify their attackers or provide reasons for the attacks (a note on the title: pugnalatore comes from the word pugnale, meaning dagger. A pugnalatore is someone who stabs with a dagger. I looked up the word daggerer, but no dictionary has it, and it’s an ugly neologism, so let’s use stabber henceforth. But why did the English language evolve without needing a word that describes someone who stabs others with daggers? Did the British have a different choice of weapons? Or were they more diplomatic?). But even without the victims’ help, they manage to quickly identify and arrest the other stabbers. Things escalate when they discover who hired this small army and why, and the Giacosa’s investigation leads him to suspect, without being able to prove, that Prince Sant’Elia, “extremely rich, extremely respected, senator of the Kingdom of Italy,” is behind the attacks. He is an unlikely suspect: an aristocrat devoted to the crown, a fierce defender of the unified kingdom, a public man who doesn’t get involved with extreme parties, a good Catholic. But although Giacosa tries to make advances in the investigation of this citizen above suspicion, he’s basically targeting an untouchable man, enjoying immunity. As a senator, Sant’Elia couldn’t be arrested or interrogated without the Senate’s direct permission, which Giacosa never received. So he only managed to sketch motives.

His theory was that the crimes were political. Sant’Elia was in fact a member of the exiled Bourbon faction, and planned the crime as a form of terrorism to prove the new government’s inability to maintain order, in spite of the fact that the stabbers were quickly apprehended. In fact the only disorder, if you will, happens when Giacosa’s investigation collides against the power and vested interests of Sant’Elia, who uses his influence, statute, money and power to raise obstacles to the court proceedings. In the end, as tends to be the case when powerful are involved, he got away scot free, whereas his minions were given sentences. Defeated, Giacosa returns to Piedmont, to continue his career as lawyer.

Although the aspect of the true crime makes this novella curious, I have to say it’s not a book that enthralled me as much as Equal Danger did. I would say that its language was the main motive. Sciascia deliberately used an objective, precise language, heavily quoting documents of the time. I think this leads to the novella’s main weakness, namely the anodyne and sometimes dull language employed. It is redolent with names, dates, places, ranks. From time to time, and those are my favourite moments, the Sciascia wit transpires. For instance, when Angelo D’Angelo is running away from the police, he enters a shoemaker’s shop, thinking the workers will hide him. “And in the shop, trusting in the solidarity that could not help existing towards one chased by the police, the attacker thought he could find a way out: he entered, lifted a labourer from a stool by the working bench; and put himself in his place as if he were working. But officer Graziano, having entered a few moments later, and found himself in a not yet finished scene: with a glance he realized that the man to arrest was the one who showed the least tiredness (…)” I like this passage for the way the narrator shows the mind of the criminal at work, or at least the Sicilian criminal, betting on people disliking cops enough to help anyone who’s in trouble with them.

Still I think I see a reason why he opted to mix documents with his own writing, instead of writing a full essay or a full fictional story. As much as this is about 19th century Sicilian politics, it is also a commentary on modern Italian politics. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novella is how it does not purport to belong to the historical genre. Were he writing historical fiction, he’d be restricted by the facts, and any intention to write about modern history would have to be under the form of allegory. But then why not speak directly about it? Instead of beating about the bush, he brings this preoccupation to the fore. It starts slowly, with the facts trickling out of the documents, but then the modern narrator’s voice becomes more and more opinionated. Here’s, for instance, his reaction to the 12 victims’ inability to identify their attackers:

And it’s true that glancing at police reports from then to our days it’s rare to find a victim of stabbing or sawn-off shotgun who gives away the name of the attacker or gives information to identify him (we speak, to make ourselves plain, of Palermo and Sicily): but thirteen in a single night who reply in the same way and who in the same manner describe, even if summarily, the man who has attacked them, was a bit too much even for the Palermo police.

In no time he starts making more comparisons between past and present, finding more similarities. There’s the rule of silence, Omertà, enforced then and now. The suspects kept their mouth shuts for their families’ sake, who were taken care of in return for silence. He sees corruption in the trial similar to modern corruption. Even the price to kill a man hasn’t changed, with adjusted inflation. More urgent for the time the novella was written in, Sciascia sees this crime as a sort of forerunner of the “strategy of tension” employed by the Italian authorities between the 1960s and 1970s. During Italy’s years of lead, when the country was an ideological and physical battleground between far-right and far-left groups, with intelligence services, CIA, Catholic Church, and Mafia all in the mix, it is believed that the Italian government sponsored state terrorism – bombings, assassinations – to create an atmosphere of fear in order to manipulate public opinion against their political opponents, who could be anybody from communists to anarchists to unionists to feminists to peaceful ordinary citizens and artists. This was called the strategy of tension, which Sciascia links back to the possible plot of using the 1862 crimes to bring back the Bourbon dynasty into power. This in turn helps him support an even more interesting thesis. “According to a journalist friend, the history of Italian from the unification to our days was in great part conditioned by the rivalry, by the declared or veiled enmity, between Sicilians.” How true or plausible this is only an Italian could ascertain. But as one of the centres of organized crime and secret societies, I think it’s a theory worthy developing. Guido Giacosa has a similar view when he states that the history of Sicily is “nothing but a continuous sequel of baronial conspiracies to throw out the new ruler and put the old one back in place, and to start all over again to conspire against the old one to put back the new one.” But is this Giacosa speaking from official documents or something the narrator invented for him to speak? It’s very convenient and goes in the direction of what was written before. So perhaps it’s not all as objective as it seems. But if history is just a power struggle between factions, who can be right or wrong about anything? What do we know save perhaps what some want us to know?

The novella certainly raises interesting questions about history. But for all that, I fear this is a flawed book. This essay-novella form leaves something to be desired regarding its ability to retain the reader’s interest. And the characters are like lifeless puppets. I can’t help think Sciascia intended it that way the moment he decided to follow the facts dryly. He knew what better suited what he wanted to express. But having enjoyed Equal Danger so much, I’m certain he expresses things much better when he’s not constrained by fidelity to historical truth.


  1. Miguel, you should read The Moro Affair before you judge Sciascia too harshly for being constrained by "fidelity to historical truth." It's excellent, powerful in both thought and prose. As far as this novella, I'm glad to hear about it even though you thought it a disappointment (I don't remember having heard of it before). I hope to try some of Sciascia's short stories in Italian sometime this year, but I'm afraid that your 20 days a page pace will be more like 5-10 a day for me. Aiuto!

    1. Richard, I'll read it, then I'll watch the movie with Gian Maria Volonté ;)

      Isn't that book a different beast, though? A work of non-fiction? As opposed to this novella, a mixture of fact and fiction?

    2. Yes, nonfiction. My version (NYRB) comes with The Mystery of Majorana, which I also enjoyed.

    3. I really can't think of a better writer to write about Italian politics and Moro's assassination than Sciascia, though. He has such a fascinating way of looking at the way crime and politics work together.

  2. I second Richard - this is really interesting to hear about. In English, I have a constrained view about what Sciascia was doing.

    1. Indeed I deliberately chose a book that wasn't available in English. I like my blog to feel special, Tom!