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The Wine Dark Sea (New York Review Books Classics)

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A novelist, polemicist, occasional politician, and perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize, Leonardo Sciascia died in 1989. He left behind a formidable array of books, all of which revolve around the hallucinatory realities of Sicilian life. But the stories collected in The Wine-Dark Sea may be the best introduction to his work. They offer a kind of capsule history of Sicily, ranging through several hundred years and engaging the country’s events from their exhilarating and terrible underside. A good comparison might be the naif’s-eye view of Waterloo that Stendhal creates in The Charterhouse of Parma. (Sciascia recalls Stendhal in other ways, too; he shares the same adamant clarity, the same bone-dry wit, which may explain why he’s always been a hard sell in the United States.) These tales all have a certain riddling quality, whether they’re recounting a nugget of Sicilian history or staging one of Sciascia’s many comedies of ironic disillusionment. Included among the latter are “The Long Crossing,” in which an assortment of Sicilian immigrants are disbursed of their life savings and put ashore not in the New World but back on their own island. There’s also the superb title story, about the bottomless chasm separating Sicilians and outsiders, bridged only temporarily by a group of strangers traveling from Rome to Agrigento. “Philology,” the closest thing to a classic Pirandellian exercise, lets us eavesdrop on two mafiosi cramming for an upcoming session with a Commission of Enquiry. The subject: how to answer the question “What is the Mafia?” They consult a battery of dictionaries, arguing about the merits of various definitions and etymologies. At the end, the superior of the two adds his own footnote to the scholarship:

And we know that the thing itself, the association, was already in existence by the fact (this is my addition) that the mafiosi imprisoned in the Vicaria issued a directive in 1860 addressed to their friends outside, advising them to behave well and not commit such crimes as theft, rape and murder that the Bourbons could use … against the Garibaldi revolution.

This enlightened thug concludes his history lesson with a general point: “Culture, my friend, is a wonderful thing.” So too is fiction, at least in Sciascia’s hands. He offers little in the way of certainty, but his questions, posed with deadly accuracy, are worth the answers of a dozen other authors.

To Each His Own (New York Review Books Classics)

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Adrienne Foulke (Translator), W.S. Di Piero (Introduction)

Amazon Reader’s Review: “As one expects from Sciascia, this is a highly readable book with well-drawn characters, intriguing plot … all the makings of a delightful read. But as one also expects from Sciascia, the book is also a pointed political and social commentary. Follow the meanderings of a less-than-socially-observant professor as he tries to unravel the murder of a druggist and doctor on opening day of hunting season. Discover that the real mystery is who knows what when … and why everyone keeps their knowledge close to their breasts. If you like suspense that reveals the complexity of the human condition, this is definitely for you.”

Open Doors And Three Novellas (Vintage International)

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Sacha Rabinovitch (Translator), Joseph Farrell (Translator)

Sciascia, the elegantly learned and quite politically fearless Sicilian writer who died in 1989, wrote most of his fiction in the Sixties and early Seventies; but late in his life he wrote these novellas, in which his patented interests–the law, fascism, classic French and Italian literature, metaphysics–all recombine. Best here is the title novella–a magistrate’s sorrowful insistence on conscience during the Fascist period, refusing to sentence a man to death: a meditation on capital punishment, moral traduction, and cultural imprecision (“to see European history in the guise of the Russians who would like to be Germans, Germans who’d like to be French, French who would like to be half-German and half-Italian while still remaining French, Spaniards who would settle for being English if they can’t be Romans, and Italians who would like to be anything and everything except Italian”). Equally interesting, and somewhat fleshier, is “Death and the Knight”–a terminally ill police investigator’s world-weary slog through lies and much more obvious (though denied) truths. Sciascia (Sicilian Uncles, etc.) here is a compiler of Stendhalian asides and ruminations rather than a narrative-maker. But these are fine literary artifacts for all that: hung upon the police-procedural framework, the cloth is rich and dark if none too form-fitting.