In the 20th Century, Sicily has produced an inordinate number of Italy's finest writers, from Giovanni Verga and Luigi Pirandello to Elio Vittorini and Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Sicily is to mainland Italy what Latin America has come to be to the United States: an underdeveloped land with a fertile culture whose violent contrasts have produced a literature that is both naturalistic and surreal. Having lived for more than 2,000 years under the heel of numerous foreign invasions, Sicilians have become masters of deception and illusion, of appearing to accommodate power while secretly subverting it to their own ends. Lampedusa summed it up in his novel, "The Leopard," where the novel's aristocratic hero, seeing his feudal world crumble around him, declares: "We must change everything, in order that nothing change."
The great contemporary heir to this tradition is Leonardo Sciascia. He first made his mark in the early 1960s with a series of books that turned the detective novel into a metaphor for Sicily. Inverting the form of the classic crime novel, Sciascia's mysteries usually remain unsolved, ending with the death or defeat of the detective rather than the apprehension of the assassin. The novels are a perfect description of Sicily, where faceless powers work behind the scenes to maintain their grip on society and appear by day in the respectable guise of politician, businessman or priest.
The latest of his books to be published here, "The Council of Egypt," is a historical novel that looks for the origins of Sicily's paralysis in the drawing rooms of Palermo society in the 18th Century.
The novel begins with the discovery of an old Arabic manuscript left from the days of the Moorish occupation. A powerful prelate, Monsignor Airoldi, asks a poor monk with a slight knowledge of Arabic to examine the text. The monk, Giuseppe Vella, decides to play on the Monsignor's fascination with Sicilian history and concocts a fantastic lie. He tells Airoldi that the book (which is in fact a perfectly ordinary life of the prophet), is a history of the Arab invasion of Sicily. The Monsignor, believing he has made a historical discovery of great significance, immediately commissions the monk to translate the work. Vella is lifted suddenly from wretched poverty into Palermo high society and sets about reinventing Sicilian history.
The novel weaves the story of Vella's fraud into a larger portrait of Sicily on the eve of the French Revolution. The Spanish monarchy, which rules Sicily from its court in Naples, has sent a die-hard reformer, Viceroy Caracciolo, to govern the island. Most of the aristocrats complain bitterly about what they call "Caracciolisms," reforms that cut into the nobility's prerogatives. Vella realizes that his "translations" have potentially explosive consequences for the Sicilian aristocracy, whose claims to land and privilege are linked to their role in Sicilian history. He undertakes a second forgery called "The Council of Egypt," which purports to be an Arab history of the Norman invasion of Sicily. The lowly Benedictine becomes a political power, besieged by visits and bribes from Sicily's noble families.
Vella's status becomes more insecure when the aristocrats regain their position of strength. Taking advantage of rivalries at the Naples court, they succeed in having Caracciolo transferred from Palermo. No longer urgently needed to justify feudal privilege, Vella finds his work vulnerable to accusations of forgery. After skillfully dodging his critics, Vella impulsively confesses his fraud. Vella's downfall is parallel by that of the novel's other main character, Francesco Paolo Di Blasi, an aristocratic lawyer deeply taken with the radical ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire. Disillusioned by the failure of Caracciolo's reform, Di Blasi organizes a plot to create a Sicilian republic modeled on the French Revolution. The plot is quickly foiled and Di Blasi is brought to Vella's prison where he is tortured and executed.