Wednesday, July 11, 2018

“Won’t the dead come to talk for just half an hour with this sick man?” – Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives Remixed

                                                                                         




Chris Clarke’s recent translation of Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives (Vies Imaginaires, 1896), the first English version in more than a quarter century, brings this remarkable book to a new generation of Anglophone readers. Though the influence of Schwob’s work extends widely, from Max Jacob to Rainer Maria Rilke to William Faulkner, Imaginary Lives in particular took hold in South America, where Jorge Luis Borges used it as a model for his A Universal History of Infamy, which in turn inspired J. Rudolfo Wilcock’s comic masterpiece The Temple of Iconoclasts and Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas

The ostensibly simple concept of Imaginary Lives seems so irresistibly attractive as almost to dare one to try one’s own hand at it. The idea of the work stems from Schwob’s meditations over the nature of biography. “The historical sciences,” he writes in his introduction to Imaginary Lives, “reveal to us only those points by which people are connected to public actions.” Instead, invoking “art in opposition to general ideas,” Schwob proposes a new approach, “a book that describes a man in all his irregularities” that would “relate the unique existences of men, whether they were divine, mediocre, or criminal.” Using for his models Plutarch, Vasari, Samuel Johnson and John Aubrey, and having an affinity with Walter Pater’s Imaginary Portraits, which appeared only a few years before Imaginary Lives, Schwob creates a series of 22 vignettes of about five pages each, written using a concentrated, gothic-baroque language reminiscent of that employed by Isak Dinesen in her “gothic tales.” These factual-fictional biosketches of persons real and imagined begin in the 5thcentury B.C.E. with the pre-Socratic philosopher Empodocles and end in the 1820’s with William Burke and William Hare of Edinburgh, who murdered 16 people in order to procure corpses for dissection. In between, Schwob portrays the lives of Lucretius, Petronius, Paolo Uccello, Pocahontas, Captain Kidd and Major Stede Bonnet among others, as well as several figures he manufactures from the margins of history, including an African slave, Septima; the impoverished, wandering 15thcentury “Katherine the Lacemaker”; and Gabriel Spenser, a moony young English boy recruited by a traveling theatre troupe to play female parts. Two other portraits In addition to those of Kidd and Bonnet give pirates a disproportionate representation in Schwob’s book, reflecting the author’s debt to Daniel Defoe, whom Schwob translated and whose A General History of the Pyrates served as yet another template.[1]

***

Italians are also represented significantly in Schwob’s book, a reflection of Schwob’s consumption a good deal of Italian literature, so I was thrilled to discover that Italian literature has recently repaid him in a brief but ingenious way with a new take on Imaginary Lives.[2] Swiss-Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy, who writes in Italian and has herself previously translated Imaginary Livesinto that language, has created a fascinating homage/dialogue with Schwob’s book entitled These Possible Lives (Vite congetturali, 2015). Her gentle tweak of title from imagination to possibility (or conjecture, as the Italian original precises) nudges Schwob a bit towards earth, and in fact puts him right in it, since of the three lives Jaeggy chooses to recreate, the last one, following Thomas De Quincey and John Keats, is Schwob’s own, from cradle to grave. 

By restricting her focus to three writers (more specifically three writers of a particularly Romantic bent), Jaeggy also leapfrogs simple homage and goes to the heart of Imaginary Lives as an act and style of writing, linking her portraits thematically by exploring the “irregularities,” “unique existences” and pathologies that led these figures to write. Modeling her language on that of Schwob, Jaeggy gives her three figures the Schwob treatment, building her portraits using an impasto of biographical peculiarities impossible to encapsulate more succinctly than Jaeggy has already done in her minimalist pieces, so I’ll just provide a flavor.

The “enigmatic sphinx” De Quincey drew from the West, taking inspiration from Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt and other in their peculiarities. De Quincey drew from the East, towards which he was, in Jaeggy’s splendid prose: “…driven forward by opium-fueled caprices. A pack of gods clutched him. The pyramids, hospice of the dead. He dreamed up the abominable crocodile head and the turbaned Malay, delighting in the sickness and horror of original matter, deposits of which could be traced back to the stars.” Jaeggy’s choice of De Quincey is something of an intellectual inside joke, given that Schwob translated De Quincey’s own fictionalized biographical work on Immanuel Kant, which Jaeggy herself translated into Italian. 

The section on John Keats begins in a quintessentially Schwobian mode by pondering the possible effects on a life’s trajectory of the kind of minutiae biographers sometimes overlook: 

In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy. Children also had toy cannons that used real gunpowder, and puzzles depicting the great battles of England. They went around chanting, “Victory or death!” Do childhood games influence character? 

But the author injects a new, skeptical tone in answering her question above: “We have to assume that they do, but let’s set aside such heartbreaking speculations for a moment.” She then goes on to furnish a catalogue of factoid-al, potential influences and guiding lights for Keats, among them his natural love of fighting, fascination with the cadavers procured from resurrection men during his medical studies (a nicely worked-in allusion to the Burke/Hare chapter from Schwob), a passion for a stranger he’d seen for a mere half an hour, and a transformation “in a single afternoon in 1813” when he attended a lecture about Edmund Spenser. 

Reaching Schwob, Jaeggy builds her skeletal sketch out of Schwob’s love of play; his discovery of Poe at an early age and then of François Villon and Robert Louis Stevenson; his intestinal illnesses and operations; his deep attachments, first to another melancholy school boy who committed suicide then to Louise, a probable prostitute to whom he was devoted for some two years before her death from tuberculosis (and to whom Schwob’s hallucinatory short fiction, Monelle, is dedicated); and Schwob’s subsequent and gradual withdrawal from friends. Drawing attention to her own project, Jaeggy also writes of Schwob’s conceiving of Vies Imaginaires

Those men who live like dogs, those sainted women credulous in the face of any clever monk, those who damn themselves, indulging in a longing for everything beneath them – this was the company that Schwob kept now. He realizes that he’s smiling when he reads his own words aloud to himself: ‘Don’t embrace the dead because they suffocate the living…’ 

Knowing he had but a short time to live, Schwob set off on a long voyage to Samoa to visit the grave of his long-time correspondent Stevenson, prompting Jules Renard to quip, “He lives his stories before dying.”

These Possible Lives is such a pleasure to read that I almost wished Jaeggy had followed the standard model and provided a longer volume with more lives (this one weighs in at scarcely 50 pages). But thin as it is, her own book is deeply satisfying, striking just the right tone and proportion and displaying impressive restraint that implies more of an interest in querying such an enterprise than in updating it. I am puzzled by the translator’s injection of the word “These” into the title, although it does seem to underscore the deliberateness behind Jaeggy’s limited selection. As if to further emphasize her selectivity, Jaeggy cleverly hints, in the De Quincey section, at her capacity to have created more by including a brief catalogue of a number of writers and others - including Wordsworth, Coleridge and Charles Lamb - whom she each tags with a particular particularity.   

It may seem odd that Jaeggy fails to devote any of her three portraits to female writers, as did others who spun off variations on Imaginary Lives. However, women stare out from the pattern contrived for the stories of these three men and leave the reader wondering at their own “possible lives.” In the catalogue referenced above, Jaeggy also mentions Anne Radcliffe, Mrs. Leigh Hunt and Lamb’s sister Mary, who “stabbed her own mother through the heart.” Women also feature prominently in their more intimate connections to Jaeggy’s three male figures. There is Wordsworth’s young daughter, dead at an early age, over whose grave De Quincey “knelt every night.” Fanny Brawne, “a matter of sorcery” for Keats and whose name Keats “didn’t want anyone to utter,” gets a full two pages. Compiling descriptions of Brawne, Jaeggy notes, “The history of female beauty is almost always told in the negative,” an observation almost inconceivable in Schwob. Of Schwob’s obsession with Louise, Jaeggy writes that “whenever he was left alone, [he became] frightened that the dead girl would die again. He sees her ghost laughing in the corners of the room, its watery eyes seem to suggest new games…but he can no longer hear the chirping and nonsense in her – the child aged in death.” A specifically romantic relation to the feminine is implied in each of these portraits. As fascinating and engrossing as these portraits may be, Jaeggy also seems to cock a knowing eyebrow at the palpable, decadent entwining of love and death among these Romantics. 

The cover of the New Directions paperback edition of These Possible Lives labels it “Nonfiction,” while the description and blurbs on the back refer to Jaeggy as “a master of the essay form” and speak of her “sensuous mini-biographies in light and shade.” There’s no reference to Schwob’s premonitory influence or recognition that these are fictions, making me almost wonder if Jaeggy and her publisher might have deliberately conspired to further the fact/fiction blurring in which Jaeggy revels. But whether such an intention is at play here or not, Jaeggy, having turned Schwob’s backwards telescope on himself, has certainly upped his game in a contribution that easily belongs atop the pile of its many predecessors – not merely an exercise in form, but a shrewd questioning of its appeal, one especially provocative coming from a writer whose other books apparently evince a deep interest in portraiture and self-representations. A next step might have been for Jaeggy to create her own “possible life,” an autobiographical sketch, a missing fourth chapter one can almost already discern as a question hovering phantom-like beyond the end of These Possible Lives. But that kind of exercise some other author can try. In the meantime, I look forward to reading more of Fleur Jaeggy’s remarkable work. 



[1]At a Schwob-themed event mounted by the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco, translator Chris Clarke selected the Bonnet chapter to read aloud, a bravura performance he should seriously consider taking on the road.
[2]Wilcock, an Argentine, wrote his Imaginary Lives-inspired work in Italian, so this is at least the second time Schwob has been so honored. 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Visit to Denestornya


Over the years the original outer ramparts had all disappeared, leaving only the main building to which had been added, at different times and in different styles, a series of later wings. The long rectangle of the main building was closed at each corner by massive stone towers which presumably had been added as a defence against the first cannon. Where the outer walls had stood, later Abadys, freed from the threat of siege, had planted flower-beds and lawns.

The last of the mediaeval defensive outworks, the tower over the gatehouse, had stood as late as the eighteenth century…[but] had to be demolished, leaving an empty space where once the great gatehouse had marked the entrance from the moat to the castle’s defended outer courts.

Here Count Denes Abady built a horseshoe-shaped forecourt, on the right of which he erected stables for thirty-two horses, while on the left there was a covered riding-school. In the apex of the horseshoe curve that joined these two buildings was an imposing gateway to the inner court through which could pass the largest carriages with all the parade of outriders and postillions. Over the doorway gigantic titans of carved stone lifted boulders menacingly as if they were always ready to hurl these down on anyone bold enough to venture that way; while towering above these giants was the figure of Atlas bearing the globe upon his back. On each side of the new great entrance were carriage-houses, tack-rooms, baking ovens to make enough bread for a hundred persons, a laundry furnished with a cauldron large enough to hold the dirty linen of a small town, and apartments for the equerries, footmen, coachmen, porters, grooms and huntsmen. The horseshoe court was built in rococo style between the years from 1747 and 1751, as an inscription over the door arch tells all those who pass below. The parapet, which half-hid the low curving roofs, was decorated on the outer side by large ornamental vases while on the inside, five metres apart, were placed statues of ancient gods and mythological figures, each with their traditional attributes and all writhing and twisting as if in ceaseless movement… 

Miklòs Bànffy, They Were Counted, 1934




In my dreams of one day being able to visit Transylvania, I’d placed high on my list of places to visit the Bànffy Castle at Bonţida – “Denestornya” in the fictional world of the castle’s most famous resident, the great Transylvanian writer Miklòs Bànffy. This March, with three companions, I managed to get to Transylvania. We began in Cluj-Napoca, where we visited the Bànffy family’s palace in town and the grand old New York Hotel, once one of the great literary hubs of eastern Europe. The first we saw amid the chaos of an occupying temporary travel expo, and the second lay shrouded in scaffolding, its once ornate interior, from what we could see through dusty windows, now in a shocking state of (hopefully temporary) disrepair. Leaving the visit to Bonţida for our return to Cluj - the castle lies some 30 kilometers outside the city - we drove out of the city and followed roughly the same route taken by Patrick Leigh Fermor on the 1934 road trip he describes in Between the Woods and the Water, making a loop through a bare majority of the medieval towns referenced by the Saxon name for Transylvania, Siebenbürgen. Over narrow roads shared by big-rigs and horse-carts, we made our way across wide plains and rolling hills; up into snowy mountain forests; past castles, fortified churches, factories and communist-era apartment blocks; though Romanian, Hungarian, Saxon, Székely and Tsigane villages; along the aisles and up into the bell towers of austere and baroque churches; and deep into fantastical salt mines, 19thcentury cafés and contemporary Dadaist bars serving blood-thick wine. 

Daily snow that had pursued us since our arrival finally pounced in Sibiu, an unexpectedly heavy overnight storm that delayed our return to Cluj until too late for the visit to Bonţida. I tried desperately to adopt the sanguine attitude taken by Fermor at his having to forego the magnificent art collection of Sibiu’s Brukenthal Palace (something we managed not to miss) and resigned myself to returning Bànffy castle to the shelf of dreams. But the morning’s clearing skies brought courage: we’d risk a run for Bonţida despite an extremely tight schedule for making our flight out. A quarter hour before the castle’s opening time, a kindly man standing by the gate, as though as he’d been awaiting our arrival, withdrew tickets from his pocket and let us in.

***

Though just short of 75 years have passed since war forced the Bànffy family to flee their castle and just over 100 since the period described by Miklòs Bànffy in his Transylvanian Trilogy, my first glimpse of “the Versailles of Transylvania” was like a punch to the gut. Emerging from the arched entrance-way at the bottom of the horseshoe-shaped building that had housed the property’s stables and riding school, I had a panorama of the estate. The overwhelming immediate impression was of a world obliterated. Crumbling stone walls flanked an enormous gap in one wing of the horseshoe. The exterior surface of the main building, formerly the Bànffy family’s living quarters, seemed flayed. Most of the windows gaped into voids; one lower sill disappeared into a charred black hole. Others had been filled in with what appeared to be concrete. Patches of snow lay across the grassy courtyard, mirrored overhead by passing white clouds of the departing snowstorm. The absence of any sign of life, aside from a dog sleeping curled up against the cold, gave the place an overpowering atmosphere of desolation and abandonment.







Upon closer inspection, the façade of the main building showed some recent attention. Enterprising artists had treated some of the windows as canvases, a disorienting juxtaposition with the decay. Up the building’s fractured and crumbling stone steps, we entered what had once been a grand entrance hall with a sweeping marble staircase. The stairs were gone. The landing had collapsed, as had an adjacent vaulted ceiling, half of its bricks having fallen and broken through the flooring, leaving a mountain of rubble. We wandered the downstairs rooms, each stripped to the bricks except for occasional bits of plaster etched with graffiti, the floors consisting of bare wood planks or exposed dirt. As though in defiance of this dilapidation, several contemporary art installations occupied the foyer, including dozens of bulbs suspended on long white cords hung from the ceiling and a large, decorative oriental fan that doubled as a barrier, blocking off a wing of the building. A few panels in Romanian, Hungarian and English provided information about the structure, but none of these signs of activity hinted at the life, as described by Bànffy, that had passed through these rooms during the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was as though nearly every trace of that world had been erased by intention and inattention, as in fact it had been. 


 

         










***

…the three young men retired to the library. This was a circular room in the tower above Balint’s own suite. All round the walls and even between the windows were fitted bookcases made of teak and fitted with doors of mirror-glass. These were full of all the volumes collected by generations of Abadys and, as they could not hold all the books, more cases had been built above them, also fitted with looking-glass doors. Above these, even more books were piled up, almost hiding the stone busts of the Seven Wise Men which had been placed there to look down on the baize-covered round table in the center of the room.





The earliest castle constructions at Bonţida appeared in the 12thcentury, and mention of the village itself reaches back a further 300 years. Over the ensuing centuries, structures have been built up and razed, moved along by successive waves of damage, including during the 18th century peasant revolt, the revolutions of 1848, and the political ravages of 20th century Europe, of which the castle, having absorbed so much, might almost be an emblem. In 1944, the retreating Nazis, in retaliation for Miklòs Bànffy’s work to forge an anti-fascist alliance, burned the main building, heavily damaging the structure and destroying its precious library. The interior furnishings were hauled away in 17 trucks to Germany, where they were promptly blown to bits by Allied bombing. Amateur attempts at restoration during the 1960’s did more harm than good, and the Ceausescu regime saw the estate used variously as a village pub, headquarters of an agricultural interest and grazing land for local shepherds. Near total neglect followed the collapse of communism in 1989; excepting the structural bones of the castle, what little remained, including statuary and carved bas-reliefs, was picked off by looters. 

***

Even Versailles, however, might appear desolate and forgotten on a snowy morning in March absent visitors, and in fact my first impressions of Bànffy castle were deceiving. The Transylvania Trust, an NGO set up some 20 years ago to manage restoration, has renovated most of the building where Miklòs Bànffy last lived and has restored of all four of the castle’s conical towers, the buildings’ red tile roofs, and the outlying kitchen structure, which now contains an “Art Café.” In the stables, the vaulted ceilings are being rebuilt and the columns supporting them plastered and whitewashed. Such progress gives hope that the seemingly impossible task of restoring the family’s former living quarters may one day be accomplished. The Trust has creatively supplemented limited funding from the European Union through historically-themed “Bànffy Castle Days,” movie nights inside the ruins, conservation symposia and a prestigious architectural restoration training program that has graduated over 1,500 students. This July the estate will host the fourth annual “Electric Castle,” a five-day electronica music festival featuring name acts from across the world.

 





***

One wonders what Miklòs Bànffy would have made of Bonţida today. Even in a week in Transylvania one can grasp that some problems the author articulated so powerfully still remain – corruption, political short-sightedness, illegal logging of the region’s vast forests, tension over ethnic divisions (Hungarian books, including Bànffy’s, seemed all but absent from bookstores, and just weeks before our trip the Romanian Prime Minister had been forced out after suggesting that if the Székely hung up Székely Land flags he’d hang the Székely up with them). But the progressive Bànffy would no doubt would have been gratified to see so much attention given to revitalizing his castle. I’m not sure the music of Electric Castle would have been to his taste, but as a designer of political pageantry and theatre sets, and an encourager and collaborator with innovative artists of his day, including Béla Bartók, I think he would have appreciated the spectacle. 

While our brief pilgrimage to Bànffy castle made for a poignant coda to the motifs of neglect and dissolution that run through Bànffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, the recent attentions seemed to affirm an unexpected and defiant optimism, and to underscore the author’s long view of the human comedy. Bànffy castle might well survive to hear the last laugh.

***

So, with time, the great house grew and was transformed and spread itself with new shapes and new outlines that were swiftly clothed with the patina of years, so that when one looked at it from afar, from the valley of the Aranyos or from the hills even further away, the old castle with its long façades, cupola-capped towers and spreading wings and outbuildings, seemed to have sprung naturally from the promontory on which it stood, to have grown of itself from the clay below, unhelped by the touch of human hand. All around it, on the rising hills behind and in the spreading parkland in front, vast groves of trees, some standing on their own while others spread like great forests, seemed like soft green cushions on which the castle of Denestornya reclined at its ease, as if it had sat there for all eternity and could never have been otherwise.











Below, a couple of videos from Electric Castle with some good views of the castle:





                                          



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)