Friday, 10 June 2016

Book Review - The Day of the Owl / Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia

The day of the owl / equal danger by Leonardo Sciascia, with an afterword by Frank Kermode

Manchester: Carcanet, 1984                           ISBN 0856355666

Sicily is a unique place, historically, geographically, and socially. Those three aspects have intertwined to give the world some of the most horrible (mafia) and wonderful (cuisine) things. It has also given us some very good writers over the years, Leonardo Sciascia being one of them.

What he writes about in these two novellas is a state of mind, a culture, that is Sicilian. Nothing is as it seems, and the honest man is at a disadvantage not necessarily because he is honest or principled, but because no-one else can believe that he can be honest and principled.

In both these novellas, the main protagonist is a detective who is investigating multiple murders, and in both stories the detective is the only person involved who is disinterestedly searching for the truth of the matter.

What Sciascia lays bare in both books is the workings of the mafia system, which pervades all layers of society, including the pillars of the law. Both the mafia and the judicial system have their own mores, and those that don't fit in are excluded, via exile or the dreaded lupara. Bellodi, the police captain investigating the murder of a businessman in The day of the owl, causes much consternation because he doesn't follow the "script" - the police want the easy way out and a quick conviction, regardless of the facts, and those politicians in Rome that help the mafia become more and more concerned as Bellodi's investigation begins to get too close to home. As the story unfolds we see that Bellodi has cleverly got to the truth, but, being a "mainlander" and not well-versed in the ways of Sicily, we see his work fall apart through the machinations of those higher than him, and the story ends with him back in Parma as his case dies, yet he is determined to return to the island "Even if it's the end of me.".

In Equal danger Inspector Rogas has a very illuminating discussion with the President of the Supreme Court, where the President espouses the view that judges can by definition never be wrong: like priests delivering communion no matter how flawed, the fact that justice has been dispensed makes it right. This, well into a story where state powers are doing everything to move the investigation of the murders of several lawyers and judges in the direction that they want it to take to fulfill their pre-arranged narrative.

"But Rogas had principles, in a country where almost no one did." Those principles lead Rogas to investigate these crimes based on the facts, rather than pre-suppositions. What the reader sees in Equal danger is how power can subsume those with principles, and eventually drive them mad.

So these are "detective novels" with a difference. The social comment is severe, yet ironic and elusive, two factors heightened by the cryptic author's notes at the end of each work. It is the language - even in translation - that is the highlight of Sciascia's writing: his desriptions of the sere, bare landscape and people, the allusive language of hint, metaphor and suggestion, all add to the sense of foreboding and inevitable failure that hangs over the protagonists of these stories.

Sciascia has an excellent reputation, and reading these it's easy to see why.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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