"Mattanza: Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily" by Theresa Maggio

A writer explores her obsession with an ancient Sicilian ritual steeped in the erotics of killing.

By Maria Russo

Published June 5, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

"I had found my island, and I wanted to stay forever," Theresa Maggio writes in "Mattanza," her valentine to tiny Favignana, off the coast of Sicily, where each spring for several years she witnessed the tonnara, a ritualized tuna hunt dating from ancient times. She's riveted by the mattanza, the moment at which the giant bluefin tuna, having been herded into an elaborate netting system, are hauled one by one onto the fishing boats and killed. In the process of documenting the history and customs of the tonnaroti, the tuna fishermen, Maggio lays bare her own quest to become part of life on the stark, beautiful island. Her quixotic desire is to be more than a tourist, more than a journalist -- to become a member of Favignana's eccentric cast of characters herself.

Maggio finds the ritual hunt close to mythical, with its songs and invocations, its bloody celebration of "the wheel of life, death and rebirth." The traps are set to take advantage of the bluefin's yearly migration to the Mediterranean to spawn, and Maggio dwells lovingly on this fusion of sex and death:

It is possible that some of the captured tuna that swims into Favignana's trap began life there when their parents, in a last-ditch effort to procreate, ejected their sperm and eggs as they were being killed. Sex, death, and begetting mingle in this briny vessel of primordial juices.

She's obviously turned on by the erotics of hunting and killing. De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess, but she lost me as she worked this theme. At one point, having gotten a strikingly masculine tonnaroto into her bed, she seizes the chance to ask the burning question: "How does it feel to kill a giant bluefin with your bare hands?" He's not impressed with the direction their pillow talk is taking, and she never gets an answer.

Scenes like that have an appealing element of self-deprecation; but in the end Maggio's self-exposure undermines the more serious aspects of her project. There's a neediness to the way she longs to be accepted by the tonnaroti, not to mention the women and older men in Favignana's piazza and cafes. In many ways she's butting her head against a wall, and she knows it. There's no easy social slot for her to fit into in Sicily, no place for an unmarried, independent woman in her late 30s who bicycles around town and crouches in boats, scribbling notes as the tonnaroti work. Again and again she's asked, "Why don't you get married and quit writing books?" The Favignani are warm and generous to her, and she does achieve her fondest hope when the rais -- the distant, autocratic leader of the tuna hunt -- tells her, "You are a tonnorota, a member of the crew." I'm sure it was a heartfelt moment, but she should know that Italians are prone to extravagance. The truth is, she'll always be a bit of a freak to them.

By not acknowledging the tension between the ways she feels accepted and the ways she'll never truly fit in, Maggio ends up sentimentalizing the Favignani and their vanishing way of life. Her account of the history of the Sicilian tuna fishing industry suffers from a similar tendency to gloss over ugly realities. She has done plenty of research, but the overall picture is so idyllic, with centuries of beloved, benevolent bosses and humble, satisfied workers, that it strains credulity. And while I'm as annoyed as the next Italian-American by knee-jerk references to the Mafia in discussions of anything Italian, come on -- there's not one mention of La Cosa Nostra in this book. Did this single corner of Sicily really remain pure?

Most disturbing, Maggio lets emotion color her treatment of complicated issues, notably the role of the Japanese in the tuna fishing industry. She casts them as wily, ruinous intruders whose interest in the time-honored rituals of the tonnara is not as pure as hers and whose taste for tuna meat is somehow deplorable. ("It was only the insatiable appetite of the Japanese for bluefin that kept the Favignana tonnara afloat in recent years ... The Japanese waited with sharp knives at Castiglione's slaughterhouse for the Chamber of Death to give up its fruit.") She's angry at a Japanese film crew for filming the mattanza and getting "the royal treatment" from the rais, "close to tears" when they're invited onto the boat one day and she's not. It's a tricky issue; I'd have liked less of Maggio's schoolgirlish resentment and more information on the politics of the tuna industry and the choices facing the tonnaroti.

Luckily, the Favignani resist Maggio's wish that they be either larger than life or less than complexly human. In the end, they emerge from "Mattanza" as people blessed to live in a naturally sumptuous place, hanging on to what they can in a world that's less and less under their control.

Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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