Finding Sicily in Books

Castle of Erice, Sicily
Castle of Erice, Sicily, Photograph by John Keahey

Sicily Week at A Traveler’s Library

Destination: Sicily

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.

Sciascia in bronze on the street in Racalmuto
Photo by John Keahey

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.

  1. Sicily has almost never experienced self-rule, being the target of Carthagenians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spainards, French, and Italians.
  2. As residents of a perpetual colony, the people turned inward, trusting only family–not authority.
  3. 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.”
  4. The people of Sicily perceive their location as north of Africa rather than south of Italy.
  5. 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.)

Painted Cart, Sicily
Painted Cart, Photo by John Keahey

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 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.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

11 thoughts on “Finding Sicily in Books

  1. A different vision of life in Sicily may be seen in La Terra Trema, Visconti’s 1948 Neorealist film about the struggles of toiling Sicilian fishermen and their hard luck families. This production needs no Hollywood polish to make it consistently entertaining. Cast members are all local Sicilians (natural actors) who give the film a gritty, convincing feel. You are immersed in village life. Unless you understand rapid-fire, vernacular Sicilio-Italian, be sure to get a version with subtitles.

    1. Hey, Bro: Thanks for bringing this up.In Seeking Sicily, John Keahey lists not only books, but four movies about and set in Sicily. He has a nice bit of trivia about La Terra Trema, which was filmed in AciTrezza with locals playing the parts, as you say, EXCEPT for the girl who gets kissed because in those days no self-respecting single girl would kiss a man. So he brought in a minor actress for that role. Now here’s the trivia: In one of my favorite movies, Cinema Paradiso, that kiss scene is shown as the priest rings his little bell to signal the projectionist that the scene must be cut! By the way, Keahey refers to it as Golden Door, also–is that the English title?
      I intend to list all of the books and movies recommended by Keahey very soon.

  2. I immediately thought of the author’s namesake and former domain, Lampedusa, a small island between Sicily and Africa, apparently accessible with only moderate difficulty. It is the subject of one of the better pieces of literary travel writing/reportage that I have lately seen, appearing, in of all places, Poetry Magazine.

    A young woman goes to a remotish island being overrun by wave upon wave of immigrants fleeing strife in North Africa and not at all welcome by the islanders they descend upon. It shows what a thoughtful, intelligent and beautiful thing can be written when a poet writes about the world around her.

  3. How could I not comment? Sicily is one of my favorite places on the planet (I’ve been to several humdingers!), and Erice –shown in your lead picture — is one of the reasons why. But if Erice (a medieval town/fortress at the top of a very tall seaside butte that looks plucked straight from a fairy tale and is now a satellite tracking station/scientific conference site) is one reason, there are so many more. The breath-taking scenery, the (mostly) friendly people who live there, the street vendors who will brew you a coffee or glass of fresh-squeezed blood orange juice, the food, the writer Andrea Camilleri, the list goes on and on. But Sicily, like much of the rest of the world, is rushing to enter the 21st century. Hurry, before there are McDonald’s all over. And unless you enjoy crazy heat, don’t visit in the summer.

  4. Wow, what a fascinating book! Some things were a surprise to me — Sicilians almost never experienced self rule, their cultural and emotional separation from Italy. Very interesting.
    A friend in London emailed recently to say she’s thinking of getting married in Sicily. I told her definitely do Sicily than London. Sorry London! All this before I knew much about Sicily. I’m sending her the link to your post, Vera.

  5. what a fascinating book. It makes sense to read the authors of a place to get a feel for the place- and the culture- and the people- There were things I read in this review which I have never known before…makes me want to get ahold of the book and see what else I can learn.

  6. Still haven’t been to Sicily myself, though I’m always inspired by their cuisine. Keahey’s right – Sicilians really do have a different perception of themselves as Italians. I find their culture fascinating!

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