It is an often expressed opinion that overtly political novels become dated very quickly; in fact I read just that the other day in relation to Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge. Things change, is, I think, the general idea. Yet, while there may be some aspects of political fiction that, if you were not around at the time, or you’re not an expert on the subject, will be confusing or seem alien to your experience of the world, I do not accept that this means that it is unable to resonate with you. Yes, things do change, but one thing that doesn’t change is humanity. As far as I am concerned, behind all political systems, ideologies, and conflicts are pretty basic, universal, human motivations, such as greed and a desire for power. So, for me, political novels, or the good ones anyway, which would include the work of Leonardo Sciascia, are as much a study of humanity as anything else.
Sciascia’s Il giorno della civetta, or in English The Day of the Owl, is a short literary crime novel that deals with multiple murders in Sicily, Italy. It starts, quite literally, with a bang, as Salvatore Colasberna, the owner of a small construction company, is gunned down while running for a bus. The first hint that things are not going to be easy for those charged with investigating the crime is when the passengers on the bus flee before the Carabinieri [Italy’s national military police] arrive, and the conductor and driver play dumb when questioned. Something has them spooked. That something becomes clear [if it isn’t already] when the weapon used in the murder turns out to be a lupara, or sawed-off shotgun, the kind traditionally used by Mafia hitmen.
[From the film Il giorno della civetta, dir. by Damiano Damiani]
What is strange about Sciascia’s novel is that the point at which all the tension goes out of the work is when it becomes most compelling. What I mean by this is that you know, especially if you have read any of his other novels, that as soon as the Mafia are fingered [or at least suspected] as the perpetrators of the crime that they will not be punished for it, that people will be paid off or things will be covered up. In an ordinary crime thriller the mystery, the clues, the pursuit, and expectation of the eventual reward of seeing the bad guys getting their comeuppance, are the things that pull you along; the reader is essentially manipulated in order to create excitement. However, The Day of the Owl pretty much dispenses with all that; as a mystery, as a thriller, it is a total anti-climax. The Mafia will not be brought to justice, because, well, it’s the Mafia, and they are more powerful than the Carabinieri.
In the absence of traditional crime-thriller dynamics, what The Day of the Owl becomes is a book about futility. Bellodi, the investigating captain, is either naïve or an idealist. He thinks that the people responsible for a crime ought to be punished for it; and he isn’t afraid to arrest and interrogate members of the Mafia. The flaw in this admirable approach is that most people refuse to acknowledge that the organisation even exists. Indeed, throughout the novel it is described as the so-called Mafia; the native Sicilians, either due to a fear of reprisals or because of wanting to protect their own financial interests, consider the Mafia to be akin to the loch ness monster; it is a myth, a legend, and even a borderline racist slur. I found all this stuff fascinating. How can you challenge something that does not exist? That is Bellodi’s biggest dilemma.
In this way, The Day of the Owl, like 1984 and many great Russian novels, explores the nature of reality and truth; it shows how one’s understanding, one’s experience, of those two things – reality and truth – are not as concrete as many people believe. If you have read my other reviews you will know that this is something that plays on my mind quite a lot. As far as I am concerned there is no reality, or no concrete, unchangeable, unchallengeable reality, merely perception and interpretation; what you are told, what you are allowed to see, that is your reality. Furthermore, not only are many of the characters in Sciascia’s novel keen to disparage the idea that there is such a thing as the Mafia, they are equally keen, in an act of misdirection, to blame the murders, and in fact nearly all murders, on affairs of the heart. Indeed, Bellodi is criticised, at the end of the novel, for ignoring this possibility and instead going in search of a mythical bogey-man. The key point is, of course, that the murders are not affairs of the heart; but if the police, politicians, and the media push that interpretation then that is, in a sense, what they become. It may not be exactly the same thing, but this put me in mind of recent articles about manipulation of statistics in this country, about how a crime is only a crime, or only a certain kind of crime, if the police actually decide that it is.
In terms of Sciascia’s style, it is mostly tough and straightforward, but does also have lyrical moments. It is not, however, in any way similar to the classic hardboiled noir of Chandler or Hammett, or even Simenon, but that, for me, makes a refreshing change. Also unlike the work of those more famous authors, there is no charismatic central character; in fact, there really isn’t any great character depth or development at all, to the point that I was sometimes confused as to who was speaking, as everyone is essentially interchangeable. This is, of course, more of a problem, but not every writer is Tolstoy, and, besides, I think the Italian would have himself admitted that character wasn’t really his concern. He wanted to highlight what he saw as the problems facing Sicily, and Italy as a whole, with corruption and violence and avarice, things that, as I pointed out in my introduction, are by no means particular to a certain time or place. In this way, Sciascia’s small, potent anti-thrillers are the cold showers that are sometimes needed in order to wake you up not only to what has happened in the past, but what is still happening right now.