The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

I picked up this book on the strength of a review by The Mookse and the Gripes. The book is less a crime novel than a novel that uses a murder to shed some light on Italian and, specifically, Sicilian political culture of the post-war era.

Captain Bellodi hails from the North, so the locals distrust him. A man is gunned down while trying to board a packed bus on a busy street. The many witnesses are not easy to find. As the police attend to the dead man and try to get a handle on the scene, those who saw the shooting quietly disperse:

With seeming nonchalance, looking around as if they were trying to gauge the proper distance from which to admire the belfry, they drifted off towards the sides of the square and, after a last look around, scuttled into alley-ways.

The sergeant-major and his men did not notice this gradual exodus. Now about fifty people were around the dead man: men from a public works training centre who were only too delighted to have found such an absorbing topic of conversation to while away their eight hours of idleness.

The people who cannot escape so easily are no more helpful. A sergeant-major’s attempt to interrogate the bus driver and the conductor provides amusement rather than clues. He tries to strongarm the conductor with threats of making him remember names “in the guardroom”. The sergeant-major wants names.

‘You know this town better than I do…’

‘Nobody could know the town better than you do,’ said the conductor with a smile, as though shrugging off a compliment.

‘All right, then,’ said the sergeant-major, sneering, ‘first me, then you…But I wasn’t on the bus or I’d remember every passenger one by one. So it’s up to you. Ten names at least.’

‘I can’t remember,’ said the conduct, ‘by my mothers soul I can’t remember. Just now I can’t remember a thing. It all seems a dream.’

Living in a post-Godfather world, we know what all this scattering and trauma-induced amnesia means. There is no secret here for us to uncover, nor for Captain Bellodi. The question is what to do about it or, more likely, how to work around it to attain some justice.

Sciascia was a brave man to point out some truths which everyone else, contemplating belfries across the country, would not acknowledge. This book has been extremely important in Italy and, too, must have been influential in American film and literature. Sciascia was lauded throughout his life for giving voice to the corruption within Italian society and politics.

The views of the common man, at least the common criminal, are provided through an informer:

The informer had never, could never have, believed that the law was definitely codified and the same for all; for him between rich and poor, between wise and ignorant, stood the guardians of the law who only used the strong arm on the poor; the rich they protected and defended. It was like a barbed wire entanglement, a wall….[T]he informer asked only to find a hole in the wall, a gap in the barbed wire…Once over the wall the law would no longer hold terrors. How wonderful it would be to look back on those still behind the wall, behind the barbed wire.

These little twists in the tail, “it all seems a dream” and “How wonderful…to look back…”, are delightful. Sciascia jostles expectations slightly or adds just the garnish needed to turn a fine but ordinary observation into something deeper. The insight on what a culture does to one’s outlook is an enduring gift of Sciascia’s work.

The informer is wrong about the law, though, at least as enforced by Bellodi. The captain “regarded the authority vested in him as a surgeon regards the knife: an instrument to be used with care, precision and certainty.” Whereas the informer has been converted to a perverted, if realistic, view of law, Captain Bellodi has, so far, held fast to the idea that “any action taken by the law should be governed by justice.” To that end, he treats suspects and even known criminals with respect as men. For that, mafioso Don Mariano acknowledges Captain Bellodi as a fellow man rather than “a half-man or even a quacker”, though this recognition does not lead him to cooperate.

Their interview recalls to mind the diner scene in the movie “Heat” in which the Pacino and DeNiro characters meet as men, each respectable in their own way. The cat-and-mouse between Bellodi and Mariano ranges from the case at hand to, frustrating the sergeant who sits in, “the Church, humanity, death.”

‘What do you think of [the Gospels]?’

‘Beautiful words: the Church is all beautiful.’

‘For you, I see, beauty has nothing to do with truth.’

‘Truth is at the bottom of a well: look into it and you see the sun or the moon; but if you throw yourself in, there’s no more sun or moon: just truth.’

The interview is one of the highlights of the novel, though there are plenty of those. For me, even little asides regarding America (there are several) were amusing. But the true strength of the novel is in the many ways Sciascia broadens the scope of the novel beyond Bellodi’s hunt for justice with respect to a single murder. Whether the transformation of commuters into admirers of church architecture or an old man’s deriding of democracy and “the people” as “things dreamed up at a desk by people who know how to shove one word up the backside of another, and strings of words up the backside of humanity, with all due respect”, Sciascia helps the reader feel what it is like to live in an ostensibly free and democratic country which, in reality, is controlled by tyrannical forces on both sides of the law.

This was an important book at the time of its publication and remains an excellent read.

6 Responses to The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

  1. winstonsdad says:

    I ve his wine dark sea on my tbr pile a friend sent it me ,knoiw calvino help give him a foot up in the literary world as he was a fan of his writing ,all the best stu

  2. Kerry says:

    Winston’s Dad,

    I have another Sciascia on hand (To Each His Own), so I am looking forward to that one too. I didn’t know Calvino was a fan. I have been impressed by the Calvino I’ve read. It makes sense I would like Sciascia.

    Thanks for that bit of info!

  3. I noticed this at Trevor’s. Thanks for bringing it to my attention again.

    It sounds superlative. Everything good crime should be. I just came from commenting on the German crime novel you read, but here you have a great example of literary crime and how that can work.

    The truth at the bottom of the well quote is excellent. The irony, tragedy really, is how little has changed. Italy is still only a kind of quasi-democracy. Ostensibly free, but ruled from behind the scenes. Presently they have another technocratic government. Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.

    There’s an Italian word, dietrologia, in English roughly behindology. It’s the study of what lies underneath public events. The existence of the word itself says a great deal.

    I’m watching at the moment the marvellous Italian crime series (also a book, originally a book in fact, and a film) Romanzo Criminale (Crime Novel). It’s set during the anni di piombo, the years of lead (the 1970s) and it takes as read links between the government, organised crime, criminal gangs and terrorists. I doubt any Italian viewers blink at that. A lovely country, but extraordinarily dark in places. The literature, some of the cinema too, makes that apparent but so few tourists read or watch the local stuff.

    • Kerry says:

      Max,

      This one does fit the “literary crime” bill. Trevor has impeccable taste, so my own endorsement is mere piling on.

      I love that bottom of the well quote too (obviously). Sciascia is doing more than simply telling a story. In fact, the story is largely subservient to his (I would say) larger purposes. That’s my kind of book.

      Thanks for the perspective on Italy. I know far less about present-day Italy than I would like to or than I should, frankly. But the whole Berlusconi drama suggests that there is much more ugliness behind the scenes. (I extrapolate from what I know of American politics. The ugliness that sees the light of day is the tip of the cliched iceberg.)

      I love that word, too: “dietrologia”. We should import that word because, as the GOP debates going on right now illustrate, there is the political theater and then there is the reality of the way Washington operates. The outcomes of elections are too often and too much based on candidates’ positions on issues over which they have no, or almost no, control. Meanwhile, everyone studiously ignores, in public, the important questions with which America must deal because there are no easy, jingoistic answers.

      I will keep an eye out for Romanzo Criminale (assuming the book is in translation and the film has subtitles).

      • Italian politics make US politics, awful as they can be, look positively healthy. Then again, if we go back to the 1970s much European politics was distinctly iffy. Fascism, state sponsored terrorism (real state sponsored actual terrorism, not just that term used as a political brickbat), totalitarianism, all kinds of unpleasantness. All recent enough that some of those in power today were active then of course, and were in any event taught by those in power then..

        Romanzo Criminale exists as a book (which is in translation), a film and a tv series (which I’m currently watching). The series does come with English subtitles, but tracking down DVD copies seems quite difficult sadly.

      • Kerry says:

        Max,

        This is a good reminder when US politics look so drearily depressing at present. There are certainly worse forms of “democracy” and democracies functioning even more poorly. In fact, probably most are.

        I will be keeping an eye out for Romanzo Criminale in film or book, but always in English….at least for now.

        Thanks for your perspective on Italian politics. Something I know far too little about, my information generally being filtered through the entertainment-style coverage it generally receives in US media.

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