Destination: Southern Italy

The grit -- and beauty -- of this land of Mafioso is captured in the mysteries of Leonardo Sciascia and the expat writings of Mary Taylor Simeti.

Published October 9, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

U.S. tourists, even Italophiles, hesitate to make their way into Sicily, Sardinia and the regions south of Rome. In contrast to the lushness of Tuscany and Umbria, the polish of Milan, and the smoky elegance of Venice, the Mezzogiorno (high-noon region) is perceived as being too poor, too coarse, too Mafioso and hotter than an inferno. Americans usually stop in Rome, where the traffic makes them wish they were back in Florence.

Much of southern Italy is poor, rough around the edges and Mafioso, but for those of us whose families emigrated from here, there is, under the skin of obvious problems, a heartbeat that feels unerringly true. It's not that the south is anything so simple as sincere; rather, there is a historical, political and psychological complexity to these regions that becomes both clearer and more complicated with each visit. I've spent months at a time in Calabria but always leave feeling I haven't stayed long enough.

Southern Italy's beauty is the rugged kind. Craggy hills crack the landscape, with drop-offs onto beaches that are sometimes crystalline and other times polluted. There are groves of lemon, olive and orange trees, and in the south, as in the north, you can enjoy the satisfaction of a room with a view. The best: from your train windows as the tracks line up with the beach somewhere south of Salerno. But take a short passegiata into any mountain village, seaside town or sprawling urban center and you'll see the scars. A good history book, like Norman Douglas' "Old Calabria"(1915) or Denis Mack Smith's "Modern Italy" (first published in 1959, but updated to 1996), can fill you in on exactly when the Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, Normans, French, Arabs and Americans controlled these lands, alternately saving them from and making them hospitable to generations of organized crime. There is no denying that life here is often more doloroso than dolce, yet this is a land of survivors.

So much has been survived. Invasions, mass emigrations, plagues, earthquakes and other insults, including that launched by the Northern League, a political party that has periodically since 1991 advocated secession of the north from the needy southern regions. These are survivors who often have had few options but simply to go on, accepting a lot, expecting little, and the result is a mind-set that is often contradictory -- defeated and resilient, morbid and witty, fatalistic and enterprising. Though historically bogged down by high rates of illiteracy, the south also has an eloquent literary tradition that can guide you into the soul of this conundrum of a place.

Begin with "The Leopard." For this posthumously published masterpiece, novelist Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Duke of Palma, drew on his family's history to tell the story of a decadent Sicilian aristocracy crumbling amid the social disequilibrium of the 1860s, after Garibaldi landed here and the island was swept up in the Unification of Italy. Featuring Don Fabrizio, paterfamilias of a vanishing world, this book by a first-time novelist broke onto the northern Italian publishing scene in 1958, the year after Lampedusa's death, when it was accepted by Feltrinelli editor Giorgio Bassani, who said, "From the first page, I realized I had found myself before the work of a real writer. Reading further, I understood that this real writer was also a real poet." "The Leopard" won Italy's prestigious Strega Prize and became a bestseller, and Burt Lancaster starred in the 1963 Visconti film.

"If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change" is the quote that opens "The Leopard," but Leonardo Sciascia (1921-89), in his short-story collections and mystery novels, reveals his fellow Sicilians as they were and are and probably always will be. Here is Sciascia's amateur sleuth, professor Laurana, in "To Each His Own": "Only his instinct, which in Laurana as in every Sicilian was sharpened by long experience and fear, warned him of danger. Thus the dog sniffing the tracks of the porcupine feels the sting of the quills even before he sights him, and howls mournfully."

Streetwise, brainy and politically sophisticated, Sciascia's books can be read as primers on the culture of secrecy and suspicion that permeates Sicily. Playing the role of innocent, Laurana, a middle-aged teacher who still lives with mamma, conducts a tireless (and hapless) investigation of the double murder that begins "To Each His Own"-- a town pharmacist and his friend, the doctor, head out at dawn on the first day of hunting season, but only their dogs return that night. Ultimately, the professor sheds less light on the crime than he does on the community's collective skepticism, as the victims' families and friends, in the absence of information, confide what they imagine were the motives for the crime.

They imagine eros, of course, and greed, but it is the suspected (and actual) collusion among politicians and priests, criminals and cousins that transforms this book from a standard whodunit into an exploration of the Sicilian soul. Laurana visits the father of one of the victims, who tells him, "There is something about my son's death that makes me think about the living, makes me a little concerned for the living."

"The murderers, you mean?"

"No, not the living men who personally, physically killed him. The living who alienated him from life, who brought him to a point where he saw certain things in life and did others."

In the original, Sciascia's language is spiced with the Sicilian dialect, which, like all the southern dialects, has an onomatopoeic quality. When Sciascia's pages, particularly the dialogue, are translated, some echoes, along with some humor, are lost. Still, the U.S. editions currently available from New York Review Books, are solid, nuanced and true to Sciascia's particular lyricism. In the title story of the collection "The Wine-Dark Sea," a civil engineer from the north, Signor Bianchi, travels south for the first time in a train compartment he shares with a Sicilian teacher and his extended family. As they admire the seascape rushing past them, Bianchi asks the teacher if his village is on the coast.

"It's in the arid Sicilian hinterland. Nevertheless, it has a beauty of its own, nothing as breathtaking as this, but the kind of beauty that grows on one, particularly in the form of nostalgia when one is away for a time. Here the beauty is so obvious that it would dazzle even an idiot." Moving deeper into Sicily with this family, the northerner opens up to the south, and indeed to his whole life, in unexpected ways.

The south has inspired more than a few excellent innocent-abroad tales. Mary Taylor was a recent Radcliffe graduate when she arrived in Sicily in the early 1960s. With her marriage to a Sicilian she added Simeti to her name, and Sicily became her home. Now an insider, no longer an innocent, Simeti has managed to stay unjaded, and in "On Persephone's Island: A Sicilian Journal" (1986), she releases Sicily from the cliché of its criminal underworld by tracing her Jungian-style quest into the island's more primal underworld -- the Greek mythology that played out on the Sicilian hills, plains and volcanoes. "Persephone had begun to make herself felt in my life." And so Simeti, with her family, traveled to the inland town of Enna to visit the Rock of Demeter, mother of Persephone, who each winter descended into the Underworld and each spring returned to Sicily, mirroring the divisions in Simeti's Sicilian life: the academic year spent in Palermo, the farming seasons spent growing and harvesting grapes and olives on her husband's family farm.

Chronicling four seasons of her family's life in their two homes, taking well-researched historical and literary detours to explore rituals and festivities that began in mythology and are still celebrated today, Simeti begins her calendar in November, with the celebration of I Morti or All Soul's Day. "For years I have puzzled over I Morti, convinced that to understand why it is the most beloved of the Sicilian feast days would be to grasp some basic truth about the Sicilian character."

She captures that character vividly in "Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes From a Sicilian Girlhood" (1994), which Simeti wrote together with Maria Grammatico, the Sicilian woman whose childhood is recounted in this narrative that is more powerful than the book's subtitle suggests. The 45 recipes "for almond pastries, biscuits, jams and cordials" are a poignant epilogue to the raw story of the 10 years, from 1952 to 1962, that she spent growing up at the San Carlo, a cloistered orphanage, where, to support themselves, the sisters sold sweets. Intricately hand-carved and painted almond fruits were their specialty, and the orphans, in exchange for board and never enough to eat, worked grueling days in the kitchen "preparing delicacies for other people's celebrations." As she tells her story, Grammatico, now owner of a successful pasticceria in Erice, is still probing. Recounting the memory of a nun who bought tangerines for herself but wouldn't share with the children, she says, "This is why I don't go to church! What kind of Christian charity is that? And as soon as you finish eating, you go into the church to pray. But for what, to whom are you praying?"

Grammatico begins her story with the line, "After the war we went hungry, we truly went hungry," and the traveler heading into the Mezzogiorno for the first time will find it helpful to keep this bit of context in mind. A few years ago, in my ongoing attempt to understand my deceased father's emigration from Calabria, I interviewed my uncle informally (as informally as a tape recorder allows), and he used almost the same words that Grammatico did to describe the postwar south: "We were hungry. Can you understand that? There was nothing." When archaeology student Ann Cornelisen arrived in Lucania in 1954, the exodus of men to find work in the industrial north had just begun. Alongside the women left behind, Cornelisen lived in the villages for years at a time, earning the trust of the women while they, in turn, earned her respect. "I doubt I could fight as they fight in enduring their days, or that whatever is human in me, that sets me apart from an animal, could survive their lives!" she writes in "Women of the Shadows." "They are women of tremendous strengths! One of their strengths, and not the least, is their silence, which outsiders have understood as submission." Cornelisen's empathetic profiles of five village women make her book a classic.

Among Italy's contemporary writers, Naples' Elena Ferrante is highly acclaimed, but her true name and identity remain a mystery, even as translations of her novels "Troubling Love" (1992) and "The Days of Abandonment" (2002) make their way around the globe. By now you've come to expect darkness in any Italian tale from the south, and Ferrante doesn't disappoint. But she's comic, too, if tragically so, as in "The Days of Abandonment," the story of a Neapolitan woman now living prosperously in the north as she struggles to keep her nerves, her children and her household together in the days and months after her husband has left her.

Finally, if you're headed south, especially if you're traveling on those eternally delayed trains, bring along a stack of Inspector Montalbano mysteries, which should keep you busy all the way to western Sicily, where they are set. Though these detective tales by Andrea Camilleri don't resonate as deeply as Sciascia's do, Inspector Montalbano is an engaging character as he navigates the enmeshed worlds of wealth, vice, politics and poverty that are contemporary Sicily, and he's especially good company when he stops for one of his frequent, and deliciously described, dinner breaks. Which suggests that perhaps we've arrived in a 21st century southern Italy, where, finally, by and large, there is enough food to eat.

By Anna Monardo

Anna Monardo's novel "Falling In Love with Natassia" was published by Doubleday in June 2006. Her first novel, "The Courtyard of Dreams," is largely set in Calabria. She teaches in the Writer's Workshop at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

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