Three novels by Leonardo Sciascia


The Day of the Owl

To Each His Own

Equal Danger

Day of the owl cvr

The Day of the Owl (translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver)

Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl, published in 1961, deals with the investigation that follows the murder of Salvatore Colasberna, shot at 6.30 one morning as he was running for a bus.  He had been a partner in a small building firm with his brothers, and it seems he was killed for refusing to pay protection money to the Mafia.  The police investigate, but are hampered by the unwillingness of people to get involved.  Nobody wants to be seen as an informer (though anonymous letters of dubious quality are plentiful), and one person who does give information quickly winds up dead.  A labourer who was in a street close by when Colasberna was shot has disappeared, and there is a link between the two crimes.  However, it would suit certain parties if the enquiry found a domestic motive rather than a criminal conspiracy.  The reason is that, as the investigation proceeds, associations between the criminals and politicians become apparent, and the ripples spread ever-outwards.

The narrative highlights the undercurrents in Sicilian society in the years following the end of the war, where there were tensions between ex-partisans, Socialists, Communists, and those who had been complicit with the Fascist regime.  The politicians and their civil servants have a complacent attitude to the Mafia, partly from fear, partly because they take bribes, and partly because to acknowledge that there is an organised crime problem would show their ineffectualness, and they would rather pretend that the Mafia does not exist, or if it does, it is merely a mutual aid society, like Freemasonry.  Each side is as corrupt as the other.  

Captain Bellodi, in charge of the investigation, is from the mainland.  He brings an outsider’s perspective, and struggles to understand the hold of the Mafia in Sicily when Mussolini, in bringing the Mafia to heel, gave Sicilians freedoms that were denied elsewhere in Italy.  He is hamstrung by the political elite’s pretence that the Mafia does not even exist, and by their protection of its leading members who are part of their own social circle.

Bellodi interrogates a prominent citizen about his unearned income and the paucity of income tax paid on it, but knows that charges will never go anywhere: ‘There’ll never be enough evidence; the silence of both the honest and dishonest will always protect him.’  The last few pages find Bellodi on sick leave back in his home town of Parma, reading that the accused have been exonerated and his investigation terminated.  Yet the novel ends with his declaration of love for Sicily.  He muses on what should be done to try to rectify the situation, and his thoughts become a manifesto that Sciascia would have shared; Bellodi is of course a stand-in for the author, and it is Sciascia who is declaring both his love for his home, and simultaneously his detestation of what goes on there.

It is an angry book about the state of the Italian body politic after the war, and the complacent way in which corruption is allowed to flourish and undermine the basis of a decent society.  The towns are identified by initials, and Sciascia includes dialogue between unnamed individuals as they attempt to keep a lid on the growing crisis.  The effect is to suggest that the names do not matter, they are interchangeable, but the corruption is universal.  As an afterword indicates, the original draft was pruned and Sciascia had to tread carefully to prevent charges of libel, and he acknowledges that he did not have the complete freedom to write what he would have liked.  It is no wonder, when even such a vociferous critic has to be so cautious, that organised crime in Sicily has proved difficult to eradicate.

To each his own cvr 

To Each His Own (translated by Adrienne Foulke)

Published in 1966, To Each His Own is on the surface a more conventional detective story, complete with amateur sleuth, centring on the murder of two men – the town doctor, Roscio, and chemist, Manno – while out hunting.  It begins with Manno receiving an anonymous death threat which he opens it in the presence of the postman, and news of the letter’s contents soon spreads.   Manno is a private, unassuming, somewhat colourless man, keeping his opinions to himself and with no possible reason for anyone to want to harm him, so both Manno and the locals assume it is a prank and laugh it off.  All Manno can think of is that someone wants to disrupt his hunting.  As it is an activity he takes very seriously he is determined not to let that happen, with unfortunate results.

After the murders speculation rushes into the information vacuum and it is widely assumed that as he was killed after receiving the death threat, he must have done something to deserve it, and poor Roscio was slain simply because he was on the spot.  In the absence of any other foundation, speculation fixes on Manno as a philanderer, though there had been nothing in his past to suggest it, and a vigorous police investigation fails to uncover any licentious behaviour on his part.

A shy academic, Paolo Laurana, a bachelor who still lives with his mother, notices a possible clue in the anonymous letter as he catches a glimpse of it, and seeing that there is a lack of interest in finding the perpetrator decides, out of a sense of vanity that he has spotted a detail everybody else has missed, to spend his summer holiday carrying out some sleuthing of his own.  Not exactly a Poirot, he does this in an unsystematic way.  As he asks questions, he wonders more and more about the character of Rosello, the cousin of Roscio’s beautiful widow, and whether the letter casting suspicion on Manno might have been a smokescreen for the murder of Roscio at Rosello’s behest.  But it is one thing having a suspicion, another proving it, especially when those suspected are socially well connected and the suspicion is based more on a feeling about behaviour than on unambiguous evidence.

The further Laurana goes with the enquiry the more he finds cynicism, but also apathy and a reluctance to get involved.  Even though he is an exception, he eventually decides to drop it and keep his thoughts to himself.  Unfortunately by that stage he has given himself away.  Unlike the general run of fictional detectives, who tend to be immune from a murderer’s scrutiny while coming ever closer to a grand revelation, he does not appreciate that he is considered a danger, and is himself at risk.  His downfall comes when he falls in love with someone he had considered complicit and naïvely believes what she tells him, without considering the possibility that he is being manipulated.

Sciascia comments on the conventions of the classical detective whodunnit, pointing out that whereas they offer a series of clues which if read in the right way will provide the solution, in real life crime is difficult to solve not because of the inadequacy of the investigators but the inadequacy of the clues with which they work.  Chance plays a larger role than the cleverness of the detectives.  And so it is with To Each His Own.  Laurana cannot work out what is a clue or what is significant, and an assemblage of potential clues can be read in different ways, with prejudice and intuition as significant a part of the process of deduction as cool reason.

A more straightforward detective story than The Day of the Owl, nevertheless as one might expect from Sciascia, he is unflattering about Sicilian politics and society, both of which are portrayed as hidebound and stifling.  Politicians are ever-ready to ditch principles for party advantage, which is inextricably bound up with personal gain.  To Each His Own also takes aim at the church, which is shown to turn a blind eye to venial behaviour among its functionaries.  The Mafia is not foregrounded as in The Day of the Owl, but it lurks in the background within a wider web of corruption and self-interest.

Laurana’s fate indicates a certain cynicism on Sciascia’s own part in suggesting that those who delve too deeply will end up badly.  It is safer to shrug and accept things as they are, without questioning them.  The result is that the minority benefit while the majority are left in a state of passivity, with no means of defence.  Ironically, what Laurana struggled so hard to work out in a stumbling way is common knowledge among the more worldly members of local society, who casually pieced the clues together and learned more than Laurana ever managed.  In fact they regard him contemptuously as having been ‘an ass’.  By keeping their knowledge to themselves, the crime goes unpunished, but life can carry on in its normal comfortable way.

Equal danger cvr

Equal Danger (translated by Adrienne Foulke)

Like To Each His Own Sciascia’s 1971 Equal Danger opens with a shooting, in this instance that of District Attorney Varga, who is in the middle of a lengthy trial.  The books also share the same type of twist ending.  Sciascia again focuses on the political establishment and its willingness to sacrifice ethics to expediency, as well as on the judiciary’s lack of integrity.  The story does not specifically refer to Sicily or Italy more generally but is set in an unspecified place, to give it an air of universality.  It is clear though that it is shot through with Sciascia’s despair at the condition of Italy.  The result is a curious book, supposedly a police procedural which constantly threatens to sink under the weight of its satirical commentary

The assumption that Varga was killed by someone wanting to scupper the trial is quickly discarded when a judge is killed.  Inspector Roagas, who has been assigned to investigate the first murder, soon finds that he has a serial killer targeting members of the judiciary on his hands.   When he discovers that one victim was rather wealthier than his position suggested he should have been, Rogas smells corruption in high places.  He is warned off, having already been told to avoid any hint that the victims might have less than pure reputations, and told to search for the obvious madman who has a senseless vendetta against members of the law.  Rogas realises that there are vested interests who are more concerned for him to obtain a result that suits their interests than they are in the pursuit of justice.  He eventually realises that he is seen as a loose cannon and finds himself under surveillance.

What is the connection between the deaths, if not the result of random acts of insanity?  The obvious answer is that someone who had been wrongfully convicted of a crime is taking revenge on his prosecutors, and by cross-referencing court records Rogas finds a link in someone, Cres, who was accused by his wife of attempting to poison her.  He had been found guilty, although he argued that she had set him up.  Her disappearance while he was in prison suggests he might have been telling the truth, and Rogas concentrates on him as the possible perpetrator.  However, his men bungle the surveillance and Cres too disappears.

The plot at this point takes a curious turn.  After yet another murder, two young men are seen running away, and although there is nothing connecting them to the killing, Rogas’ superiors tell him to ignore the lone murderer angle and seek a political motive, as they believe that dangerous radicals are responsible for the spree.  Even though they had previously told him to focus on an unhinged killer murdering for no reason, he is demoted and told to work with (i.e. for) the head of the political section to redeem what is now considered to have been an erroneous line of enquiry.

He still holds to his theory about the killings as an act of revenge, but has to follow his orders, which take him into the realms of left-wing politics, and these are shown to be as murky and hypocritical as the establishment brand.  The editor of the magazine Permanent Revolution, presumably a Trotskyist organ, is shown to be a posturing fool who would be incapable of organising a popular uprising if it the barricades were already erected.  In fact political positions shade into each other, with parties of diverging ideological positions socialising with and ready to support each other when it suits them to do so.  It’s a game, with everybody in it for what they can get.  The public knows it, and holds the elite in contempt, but nothing changes.  The result is that everybody is ready to compromise principles, to the point where Rogas’ friend Cusan goes to a meeting with the Vice-Secretary of the Revolutionary Party, and is told, in the closing scene:

‘We are realists, Mr. Cusan.  We cannot run the risk of a revolution breaking out.’  And he added, ‘Not at this moment.’

Of course it doesn’t want a revolution ‘at this moment’ because it is cosily entrenched in a political system from which it derives huge benefits propping up a system that is clearly unjust.  In his personal life Sciascia was politically committed, but in his writing he was apparently a pessimist about political change that would benefit ordinary people.  Equal Danger shares the anger of The Day of the Owl, but the later work’s didacticism is heavy-handed and lacks the subtlety of his earlier book.

 That this is not standard detective fiction is demonstrated when, by chance rather than police work, Rogas sees who he thinks is Cres, living in the same building as the President of the Supreme Court, but he does not arrest him, even though his close proximity to the President makes him highly dangerous.  That is a bizarre way for an experienced police officer to behave, especially one as determined as Rogas.  But we do have a lengthy conversation between Rogas and the President, or rather a discourse by the President, in which he makes the preposterous claim that judicial error does not exist, drawing a bizarre parallel with transubstantiation.  Is it likely that a senior lawyer would say that, or even really believe it?

 He is a puppet for Sciascia who, as a professional politician himself, has here misjudged the line between his deeply-held views and their artistic expression.  The intellectually-inclined Rogas, we are told at the start, ‘had principles, in a country where almost no one did.’  Sciascia is surely aligning himself with Rogas, albeit in an ironic way, but then sardonically showing us that the conclusion to Rogas’ investigation is not a happy one for him.  At the same time the President symbolises insecurity in the system.  Rogas asks him if he feels ‘sufficiently protected, sufficiently safe’ which, while referring to the jeopardy from a lone killer, carries wider implications.  Rogas is asked in turn what he thinks, ‘with an arrogance tempered by anxiety, an anxiety masked by arrogance.’  Arrogance and anxiety go together in an amoral universe for those who hold power illegitimately.

 The afterword relates that Sciascia kept the manuscript in his desk for two years.  He doesn’t know why, he says, but hazards that it was because ‘I began to write it with amusement, and as I was finishing it I was no longer amused.’  That is one possible explanation, though it seems hard to believe that Sciascia was ever amused by the things he wrote.  The alternative is that he could see that it was flawed as literature.  Yet it was prescient.  Published as the Red Brigades terrorists were beginning the armed struggle that blighted Italy, the readiness in the book of apparently opposing factions to cooperate for mutual benefit was echoed in real life by Aldo Moro’s doomed attempt later in the decade at a rapprochement between the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party.  Political pragmatism can make for curious bedfellows.  Sciascia perhaps made Equal Danger’s setting anonymous because he wanted to argue that this sort of thing has universal application, that these problems are inherent in human nature.  It may happen elsewhere in the world, but as far as western Europe goes at least it really doesn’t.  Italy has always been, in this respect, unique.


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