Wednesday, April 18, 2018

“We are here, far from everything, far from reason and from justice…” - Gaetano Savatteri's La Conjuration des loquaces

Gattaeno Savatteri’s La Conjuration des loquaces (La Congiura dei loquaci, 2000, just begging for an English translation) is the Sicilian novel for which I’d been waiting: in the most literal way, because it took me two years to obtain a copy in French after reader JLS’ enthusiastic recommendation, and in that the novel concerns itself with a topic I’d hoped to find in a Sicilian work and which touches on some family history.

That subject is the immediate aftermath of the Allied liberation of Sicily in July, 1943 and the consequent strengthening of the Sicilian Mafia. The family history is simply that my father took part in this landing. Like many veterans, he seldom discussed the war, but he often fondly recounted his first meal on Italian soil: a plate of spaghetti at an outdoor terrace where he’d paid a young Sicilian boy to fan his plate with a palm frond to keep the flies at bay.

Far more than a palm frond would be required to address the many scourges of Sicily, and the American record here in the years during and after the war was decidedly mixed. The Allied forces indeed succeeded in driving out the Nazis. The Americans also helped to conquer Sicily’s centuries-old problem of rampant malaria, albeit by introducing vast amounts of DDT into the island’s ecosystem. But the darkest consequence of the occupation was the Americans’ embrace of some of the most notorious figures in Sicilian society, permitting the Mafia to flourish - a price for liberation that Sicilians have been dearly paying ever since.

Savatteri - novelist, journalist and specialist on the “Cosa Nostra” - bases his novel on an actual 1944 murder case related by his fellow Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, from whom Savatteri has taken the book’s opening epigraph and for whom the novel clearly serves as homage. In Savatteri’s version of the story, one Vincenzo Picipò, the young father of an ill child, having already had minor run-ins with the law, is fingered for the murder of his town’s mayor, whose body has been left in a pool of blood in the town square. Meanwhile, a young American soldier of Sicilian descent has arrived in the town on orders to investigate a theft of military trucks from the area, only to find that the mayor he was to interview has been assassinated the previous night. With a name alluding to John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano, a novel set in the same period and vicinity and also concerning an American soldier driven to want to help out the locals, Lieutenant Benjamin Adano is drawn into the events and into the labyrinth of Sicilian morality and justice.

That these complexities are rather beyond this 26-year-old’s experience is evident when Adano’s inquiry into the matter of the trucks and is met with a dismissive reaction from the local police adjutant:

“So you want to obtain information regarding some stolen trucks, you say? Do you know how many thefts of animals, misappropriations of grain, home burglaries, armed assaults on trains, livestock disappearances, extortions and kidnappings there are in this country?”
            He steered towards a wooden armoire, opened it and pulled out files…He continued to extract stacks of files from the armoire, throwing them on the desk.
            “Theft of livestock, insulting an officer, aggression, aggression, disobeying the rule of law, willful injury, homicide, theft of livestock, burglary, armed burglary, homicide, homicide, homicide…”

Thrusting the tower of papers into the arms of a nearby brigadier, the adjutant tells Adano,
“Go, Lieutenant, go with the brigadier. Maybe you’ll stumble upon some elements concerning your trucks. But let me caution you that it’ll consist uniquely of complaints versus X, of complaints without due process and without guilty parties, because here, guilty parties, there never are any.”

Accompanying Adano on his investigations is Semino, a Sicilian assigned to him who simultaneously presents a fawning obsequiousness and a scarcely veiled contempt for the American’s naivety. As they pursue the theft of the trucks, some of which they see being driven about in plain sight, they stumble one night upon the distraught wife and children of the arrested Picipò, and Adano is drawn into the family’s plight. Those with whom he speaks about the matter seem unconcerned. Witnesses have come forward to contradict Picipò’s alibi that he was home tending to his ill son. Others have sworn to having seen him out in the streets near the time of the killing. The accusation seems credible except that the protests of Picipò’s innocence from his family and, in scenes in which is interrogated, don’t add up to his being anything more than a petty thief and fall guy.

Picipò’s powerlessness manifests itself in one such scene in which he challenges his police interviewer’s assumption of guilt:

“…things will go better for you if you talk, otherwise you risk spending the rest of your life inside here.”
“But what must I say?”
“The truth.”
“Chief-Brigadier, where are you from?”
“De Salemi.”
“Then you are Sicilian, like me...”
“What of it?”
“Then don’t talk to me about truth. Whether I killed him or not, nobody gives a fuck.”

For Adano, grasping such realities is difficult. Entering the town’s pool hall one night, he overhears a voice in a corner reading Shakespeare aloud in “bitten off, uncertain, approximative” English, and strikes up a conversation with the reader. This young man, a worker in an agricultural consortium and amateur of literature, finds sympathy with Adano’s pre-war background as a student of literature. This somewhat improbable character – a beacon of intelligence in the town (and according to what I’m able to comprehend from Andrea Camilleri’s introduction to a 2017 Italian reissue of the novel, a portrait easily identifiable as Leonardo Sciascia) - serves as a kind of sibyl to Adano, communicating hard truths about Sicily’s intractable problems. When Adano asks him why he doesn’t quit the island for Rome or Naples, the man replies,

“Sometimes, I get the impression that the world reduces itself to Sicily, to this island, containing the island that is our village and, within it, ourselves, with our somber anger, our resentments, our lives and our deaths. You will go away and we will stay here.”

Ever the smiling, hopeful American, Adano tries to reassure the man:

“Everything will change one day or another. The war being over…”
“Here, the war has already been over for a long time. For many, it hasn’t yet begun. And the Fascists, flag flying, have come to find you. And also the Mafiosi, demanding their recompense. Certain among them have even received it. It could be - why not? - that things are changing. I’m not convinced that it’s in the right direction.”
            “You are too pessimistic…”
            “No, I was just born here.”

Savetteri’s omniscient narrator permits the reader to witness not only Adano’s explorations and Picipò’s incarceration, but also those malignant operations working to prop up Picipò as a scapegoat. Threats, bribes and blackmail all come into play as those with an interest in covering for the culpable scheme together to muddy the paths that might lead to the truth. Savetteri also cleverly divides his novel into alternating sections entitled “Day” and “Night” to underscore the oppositional struggle between those seeking the truth and the forces determined to bury it.

This is not a portrait of Sicily in which the light of day is likely to prevail. As in the mysteries of Sciascia and Camilleri, a kind of moral comprehension, rather than justice, may be the best one can hope to attain in a place so convulsed by corruption and violence. Determined to help the Picipò family, Adano visits them and, in a scene both tender and wrenching, makes a promise to help, even passing along to the eldest son his own father’s tattered copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The forceful epilogue to Savatteri’s tale demonstrates just how far such good intentions, however sincere, may carry.

I’ve left the title of Savatteri’s novel untranslated here. “Conjuration” in English primarily suggests the invocation of the supernatural by means of magic, a definition certainly in use here; in the pool hall. the lines Adano overhears from Shakespeare come from the witches’ scene in Macbeth. Savatteri also milks the word’s Latin nuances, its origins suggestive of plots and conspiracies. In addition, “conjuration” as a literary term refers to the convergence of actions leading to difficulties or even the destruction of a character, a meaning all too apt for this story of the unfortunate Picipò. As for “des loquaces,” the direct English translation “of the loquacious” might better be captured by “of the big talkers,” “loudmouths” or “blabbermouths.” It need hardly be articulated what happens to blabbermouths involved with the Mafia.

Like Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin, La Conjuration des loquaces acknowledges the American desire to help while unmasking American naivety. But the central focus of Savetteri’s story is Sicily itself and the extrajudicial and ingrown, tribal factors that make mockery of justice. No other work of fiction I’ve read concerning organized crime in Italy has revealed so penetratingly and movingly the sense of despair and futility in the face of such entrenched violence and impunity. Shakespeare and Dante, the literary giants who flank La Conjuration des loquaces, may well divide the world - but in the Sicily of Savetteri’s powerful, affecting and beautifully executed novel, what may most come to mind in relation to these writers is, in the case of the first, the weight of tragedy, and in the case of the second, the poet's descent into hell.

Gaetano Savatteri (unable to identify photographer to provide credit)

Friday, March 30, 2018

It's a Hard Rain's Gonna Fall: Nicola Pugliese's Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event

Morning Rainstorm Over Vesuvius and Pompei, Trey Ratliff 2006, Creative Commons license

If the descriptions “feverish” and “encroaching on the hallucinatory” applied by Anna Maria Ortese to her own writing in Neapolitan Chronicles can also be said to mark an aspect of Neapolitan writing more generally, one would be hard-pressed to find a greater embodiment of this style than Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event. This curious little work, Pugliese’s only novel, became an overnight sensation when published in 1977. Almost as quickly, it sank beneath the waters after the author forbade its republication following the sold-out first print run. Only after Pugliese’s death in 2012 did the book reappear in Italy, and now, thanks to crowd-funding publisher And Other Stories, it is available in an English translation by Shaun Whiteside.

In most respects, Malacqua and Neapolitan Chronicles would seem to have little in common. Relatively speaking, Pugliese lacks Ortese’s high-minded gravity and sense of fierce determination to right wrongs, and the sheer velocity of his writing and ability to shift on a ten-lira coin from story to story sets him light years apart from Ortese’s journalistic prose. Aside from the book’s division into four chapters, each representing one of the four days of rain referenced in the title, there is scarcely room in the torrential narrative for the reader to gasp for air: one scene gushes into the next, the cascade of pages seldom checked by so much as a paragraph break. Thematically, however, the two writers grasp a common Neapolitan subject: the seeming intractability of the Naples’ problems and its rootedness in an inertia and acquiescence regarding the state of things. Notably, both writers’ scathing critiques of this facet of Neapolitan life are matched by an underlying fascination with and fondness for the place - “a love of the city, a love of Naples, which is the truly unique characteristic of the sons of Queen Parthenope,” as Pugliese puts it - perhaps inadvertently omitting the daughters of the Queen, whom Ortese would surely have included had the line been her own.   

Pugliese delivers exactly what his lengthy title promises. Four solid days of rain flood Naples’ streets, undermine roads, cause buildings to collapse, provoke the book’s main character to exclaim, “Christ, was this city built on a void?” and mobilize the authorities to rush about in an almost comical attempt to do something. At the same time a growing anticipation of some consequent “extraordinary event” begins to take hold among the citizenry. Odd and disturbing phenomena accompany the deluge in this city where the surreal seems part of “the natural order of things.” Most significantly, amorphous voices wail and then go silent, prompting an urgent search throughout the medieval Maschio Angioino - the Castel Nuovo - from which they seem to originate. The perplexing discovery of several identical dolls at sites where people have died as a result of the downpour’s ravages offers a clue for investigators, but the absence of further such finds shuts that avenue of inquiry. Pop songs, suddenly emanating from five-lira coins and audible only to the city’s ten-year-old girls, amplify the intimation of something extraordinary to arrive.

Even with these distinctly surrealistic elements, however, Pugliese treads less in the footsteps of Anna Maria Ortese than in those of the late 19th century Neapolitan writer Matilde Serao. Like Serao, Pugliese takes an interest both intimate and wide-ranging in Neapolitans of all stripes. The vignettes that flow one to the next in his rushing narrative accumulate, as in Serao’s more slowly-paced work, into a panoramic, polyphonic portrait of Neapolitan society: shopkeepers, police officers, young lovers, porters, office workers, worried mothers, postal employees, city councilors, baristas, emergency personnel. Pugliese catches his swiftly sketched figures in melancholy and feverish moments of waiting, of contemplation, of pondering their predicaments and the unrelenting rain.

Coming and going throughout the novel is a more or less central figure trying to make sense of it all, the newspaper reporter Carlo Andreoli. Pugliese sets Andreoli apart from his fellow citizens only in the degree to which he is able to articulate the “distorted anxiety that climbs, and pants, and groans,” his recognition of this angst as a more or less constant presence raining down upon the city. The anxiousness – and the waiting for something “extraordinary” to result from such periodic disturbances of normalcy as a heavy rainstorm – fuse into an atmosphere described variously as a “grueling, progressive disease;” “a harsh and predetermined rancour,” an “irreversible obstinacy,” “the provisionality of an inconclusive gloomy and unbreakable presentiment which still drags glowing decorations down into the mud of anxiety.” The rain becomes a symbol of the usualness of the city’s afflictions: “Upon these things and upon these thoughts and upon these people there fell a rain which was the previous day’s rain and which might also be the next day’s rain, and the rain of other days to come.” Forming an unholy trinity with the sense of constant affliction is both an atmosphere of interminable waiting “as draining as an animal’s agony, as alive and dense as an interminable outpouring of blood” and a passive anticipation that something may come of it all:

…it was if during those hours an incomplete and distorted question had arisen over the silent city, just a hypothesis, the idea of a question. A question that refused to emerge, that refused to emerge at all, which everyone sensed deep in the tissue between rib and rib. As they breathed, they became aware of its concrete presence in the diaphragm. Over the city that dark presence, and with it fear, and foreboding as well: now perhaps the perspective on life would change, oh yes, be changed and disrupted forever.

Pugliese turns these entwined thematic elements into a literary effect that drums as steadily as the rain; the reader may be forgiven for feeling so redundantly assailed as to begin to attend the same discomfiting anticipation as Pugliese’s cast of Neapolitan characters.

Neapolitan life goes on, its minor deviations from the quotidian conjuring vexation about bigger ones to come, perhaps the threat of catastrophe – a deluge, an earthquake, Camorrist violence, even the perpetual promise of nearby Vesuvius to bury the city as it did Pompei and Heculaneum: a palpable and insistent tension between the routine threatening events that fray the city’s nerves and edges and some ultimate destruction - or salvation. Not all is gloom and doom. The “sunny fatalism” described by Pugliese’s fellow Neapolitan writer (and obvious literary influence) Raffaele La Capria in A Mortal Wound seems to have infected the city. The variations in the day to day offer diversion, alarm, stimulation, a frisson of fear, but deep down the population accepts that “it would start to feel like a siege, if we didn’t all know In the end it isn’t the first time it has rained like this. No, Naples has endured other rains, rains that were still more violent, yes sir. Which lasted longer. It pays its kickback, the city does, and it survives.”

Some readers might read that as optimism.