Sicily Week at A Traveler’s Library
Book: Seeking Sicily (NEW November 2011) by John Keahey
John Keahey‘s effort to understand Sicily starts with a book, (But of course!) and continues with repeated travels and extended stays in Sicily. His wander lust, he tells us, was born even earlier, in a Carnegie Library. Clearly we are going to like this guy!
He says in Seeking Sicily, that he wanted to read native Sicilian writers, and started with Giovanni Vergas’ Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories, which descries rural life in 19th century Sicily. Luigi Pirandello, writing in the 19th and 20th century, added more understanding.
Then came the most important Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989). The main base of Keahey’s operations and home of his favorite literary key to Sicily is Racalmuto. This small town was birthplace and home base for Sciascia. Like many western Sicilians, Sciascia had Arab root. He once told a journalist that his family name was originally XaXa, “an Arab word meaning a soft material or netting.” Keahey visits the Fondazione Leonardo Sciascia, Sciascia’s grave, and his country home.
Keahey thinks Sciascia was a cynic until Sciascia scholar (and the author’s grand daughter) corrects him. “Oh, no, no, no,” she says with finality. “He was skeptical! Cynical has another meaning in Italian. To say someone is cynical is to say he has no principles!”
Sciascia, who frequently went against the popular trends of the day, says in one of his books, “Skepticism isn’t an acceptance of defeat,” but a margin of safety, of elasticity.”
And what does this have to do with Sicily? Plenty, it turns out. I helps explain the rise of the Mafia, the resistance to thinking of themselves as Italian, the surprising influence of the Arabs and why Sicily is painted as “irrational.”
Keahey explains the sculpture on the street of Racalmuto (pictured above) by saying, “Sciascia, in bronze, ‘walking’ along Racalmuto’s main street, a regular practice of his. He always had a cigarette in his right hand, but the sculptor removed it ‘to protect the eyes of young children who may bump into it.’
From his reading and his travels, Keahey provides us with important clues to Sicilian personality and culture.
- Sicily has almost never experienced self-rule, being the target of Carthagenians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spainards, French, and Italians.
- As residents of a perpetual colony, the people turned inward, trusting only family–not authority.
- Sicilians are not Italians. The author says, “Sicilians might be viewed in America and elsewhere as ‘Italians,’ but in their hearts and souls they are Sicilians.”
- The people of Sicily perceive their location as north of Africa rather than south of Italy.
- The original power of the Mafia grew out of close association with the authorities, and their more recent power came most notably from the Americans after the Allied invasion of World War II. (And we’ll be talking more about the Mafia this coming Friday. Their story is told by a famous travel writer.)
Seeking Sicily starts in Palermo at the ruins of Palazzo Lampedusa, palatial home of yet another author, Guiseppi di Lampedusa (1897- ). Travel note: the palazzo was bombed in World War II and after standing in ruins for many years, is currently under partial restoration. Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard is characterized as “a must read for anyone who wants insight into Sicilians and how they became who they are, separate both culturally and emotionally from the rest of Italy.” (Stay tuned. On Wednesday this week we’ll talk about the 196 3 movie, The Leopard, starring Bert Lancaster.)
But fear not, this book is not all academic analysis and literary review.As we accompany the author of Seeking Sicily, he experiences the grinding heat of summer, the joys of natural landscape and ancient ruins, and the rought-edged gray look of Palermo (suggesting a Norman heritage rather than a Roman one). He meets one of the few remaining cart painters, who decorates two-wheeled carts with vividly colored scenes, as seen above. Of this picture, he says, “A chance encounter with the real thing, on a Sunday morning drive, in the area of Partinico along SS113, perhaps 20 kilometers southwest of Palermo.”
Keahey even devotes a chapter to food and recipes.
In each place we learn more about Sicilian culture. In addition to the books and authors mentioned in the text, the author provides a lengthy biography and a detailed index, making it easy to find everything in you want to know about Sicily.
Perhaps I’m an easy sell, because I’ve always been fascinated by Sicily–particularly by the outstanding Greek ruins–but this book has me definitely yearning to book passage sooner rather than later.
Although I have never been to Sicily, I did go to Italy. If you’re looking for reading other than Sicily, I listed these suggestions for Italian reading a while back. The Browser.com interviewed one of “my ” Italian authors, Tim Parks, who picks Italian novels, one of which is Sicilian.
Disclaimers: the links to book titles are a convenient way for you to shop at Amazon. Just know that if you use them, even though they don’t cost extra, A Traveler’s Library will earn a few cents on each purchase, and we thank you! The video book trailer is the publisher’s creation and comes from You Tube. All photos used here are used with the consent of John Keahey. They are his property.