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Sicilian Seductions

SICILIAN CAROUSEL;\o7 By Lawrence Durrell; (Marlowe and Co.: 224 pp., $12.95)\f7

SOMETIMES THE SOUL: Two Novellas of Sicily;\o7 By Gioia Timpanelli; (W. W. Norton: 184 pp., $23)\f7

MIDNIGHT IN SICILY;\o7 By Peter Robb; (Faber and Faber: 326 pp., $23.25)\f7

May 30, 1999|GEORGE ARMSTRONG | George Armstrong was for 28 years the Rome correspondent for the Guardian and was a regular contributor to the Economist

"Sicily," writes Lawrence Durrell in "Sicilian Carousel," "is not just an island, it is a sub-continent whose variegated history and variety of landscapes simply overwhelms the traveller who has not set aside at least three months to deal with it and its overlapping cultures and civilizations."

From its position at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Sicily has lured travelers to its shores for thousands of years. Some have stayed days or months; some have stayed much longer.

In "Sometimes the Soul" Gioia Timpanelli gives a quick history of the island. The earliest recorded people there, she tells us, were known as Sicels and lived in the island's web of tunnels and caves. "[E]ventually they were replaced by Celtic tribes stopping on their migrations west and then Phoenicians gave them up to Sicilians, who left them to Greek pirates, and they to Romans, and they to the Arabs [then called Saracens], and they to the Normans, and so to the Spaniards, then to the French, and so on. . . ."

Durrell, of the three authors under review here, perhaps best understood the allure of Sicily, the Mediterranean's largest island, to the traveler. Durrell, who died in 1990, claimed to be an "islomane" and lived on Cyprus and Rhodes for years. Surprisingly, he neglected Sicily for many years, until the visit that makes up "Sicilian Carousel." More surprising, he joins a guided bus tour--mostly of the island's Greek heritage. The result is a travel book, first published in 1976 and recently reprinted in paperback, that is a delight to read.

At the Catania airport, he strikes up a conversation with a fellow Brit, named Deeds, who turns out to be simpatico and an amateur classical scholar. Deeds had visited Sicily many times during and after World War II. In a guided tour's co-travelers lottery, that was an amazing stroke of luck; Deeds could be Durrell's alter ego. When Durrell shudders at the sight of the others joining their tour, Deeds puts words to Durrell's thoughts: "Jesus, save me! But then after a time it wears off. You get to know them. . . . And after a couple of battles you don't want to part with them. You see, you'll be sorry when it comes time to say goodbye." Those were prophetic words. This reader also was sorry to say goodbye to the people on that bus tour, despite suspecting all along that Durrell had done a nifty bit of embroidering on their escapades (fair enough for a famous novelist).

Durrell darts back and forth between his memories of the other two Greek islands he adored and Martine, a woman he loved, now deceased, who wrote him long, rambling letters about his intended visit to Sicily, which he now took in homage to her.

When the group gets to Syracuse (Siracusa), once the world's largest Greek city, during a visit to the Ear of Dionysus, a giant cavern with a remarkable echo, it reminds Durrell of the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl. When he asks the Sibyl a question about Martine, the Sibyl is silent.

"What was Sicily, what was a Sicilian?" Durrell reflects. "The island was too big and too full of vigorously original character to be treated as if it was a backward department of a run-down postwar Italy. In every domain the resemblance to Greece was fairly striking. . . . How I regretted not having come here before."

Though nonfiction can capture the physical beauty of Sicily, the island's soul truly shines in fiction. The dust jacket of "Sometimes the Soul" carries an impressive endorsement from Frank McCourt: "You'll read these novellas for story but you'll go back for the magic of her word pictures and the music of her lines."

Both novellas are fables, fairy tales for grown-ups. The first, "A Knot of Tears," is about a beautiful Sicilian woman who lives in a tightly shuttered palazzo and never goes out. She has a female servant who one day persuades her to open one shutter, and a parrot flies in. When the woman sticks her beautiful head out the window, she is spotted by two lawyers, who bet they can win the beauty and oblige her to leave the house. The parrot's owner, a young merchant seaman, comes seeking his bird. Partly because the woman and her servant have grown fond of the parrot's chatter, they find excuses to keep the young man in the house to help them with chores. This beauty is no Miss Havisham.

"Rusina, Not Quite in Love," the second novella set in Sicily, is a blend of "Cinderella" and "Beauty and the Beast." Rusina, who is dirt-poor and lives with two foul-mouthed older sisters, goes to a rich man's house to be a companion to his aunt and uncle in order to pay off her father's debts. At this great house (where the front gate is always ajar), the rich man is so painfully ugly and disheveled that Rusina can not look him in the face. She is well taken care of in the house, which seems to have many "secret" rooms, none sinister. The owner eventually asks her to marry him. She refuses at first but eventually relents.

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