Whenever I move to a new country, I not only read guidebooks and history books, but I also try to find some novels and stories which portray my new domicile, whether in its contemporary age or in the past. When I moved to Sicily, one of my clients mailed me a copy of Leonardo Sciascia’s short story collection The Wine-Dark Sea.
Although I love long, thick, heavy novels, I also very much appreciate short stories. Not because of their brevity but because of the mastery behind putting so much into a story of just a few pages. Leonardo Sciascia is one of those masters. The majority of the stories contained in this collection are memorable stories revolving around life in Sicily, crime and guilt, politics and the Mafia, and love. The language is of the highest literary brilliance, reduced to the necessary minimum, but full of humour in both prose and the dialogues.
The Long Crossing describes a 12-day journey by Sicilian émigrés, huddled under the deck of a boat whose captain promised to take them to America. (The stories were written between 1959 and 1972.) The Sicilians hoping for a better life have sold all of their belongings to pay for the passage. The more clever ones have taken out loans, knowing that they wouldn’t be around when the loan would become due. They have written down the names and addresses of relatives in the USA. They are optimistic. When they land 12 nights later and go on shore, they soon reach a road and remark its good surface, “but to tell the truth they found it neither as wide nor as straight as they had expected.” They are surprised to see so many Fiat cars. Finally they flag down a driver to ask for directions for Trenton, New Jersey, and only when the driver curses at them in Sicilian, the émigrés realise that they have just spent their life’s savings to be taken to the other end of Sicily. They sit down because “there was, after all, no need to hurry back.”
In Philology, two Mafiosi discuss the etymology and the meaning of the word “Mafia”, reverting to other languages from Arabic to French, to dictionaries and the opinions of learned men, before one of the gangsters concludes: “Culture, my friend, is a wonderful thing.” The Test describes the travels of a Swiss recruiter who is hiring Sicilian girls for a factory in Switzerland.
My favourite story has to be End-Game. A husband has hired a killer to finish off his wife. As the killer enters the marital home, he is shocked to see that the wife has been waiting for him. It turns out that she is much cleverer than her husband, and has not only seen through his plot, but has also devised a plan to convince or blackmail the killer into accepting her proposition to kill the husband instead. Her devious plan goes beyond that even. This is a very smart crime story with hilarious dialogue.
The title-giving story The Wine-Dark Sea is the longest one in the book, but no less captivating than the others. Describing a long train journey from Rome to Sicily, the dialogues of the people who randomly get together in a compartment, among them two rowdy but smart children, bring the trip to life as if the reader was sitting there, not able to suppress a smile at the witty exchanges. A romance between two of the passengers evolves, not unnoticed by the others. The discussions between the men reveal the tension between Sicily and the rest of Italy. There is more in these 40 pages than many novels can offer. As the protagonist Bianchi says at the end of the story, when all the others have disembarked and only he continues the journey: “Lord, what a trip!”
Enjoy that trip! Get this book, even if you have never been and will never come to Sicily. Some of these short stories are among the best stories in world literature. I forced myself to take a pause of a day or two after each of the stories, to let them sink in and to revel in each one of them. And now, I’ll put the other books by Leonardo Sciascia on my wishlist.