The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

November 3, 2011

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.


Afterwards by Gina Berriault

August 17, 2009

If you have not heard of Gina Berriault, you should feel sinned against. However, maybe you have heard the name. After all, she did win the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for her collection of short stories Women in Their Beds (1997). In 1997, she also won the Rea Award for the Short Story due to her outstanding achievement in the short story form. (“The Woman in the Rose-Colored Dress” is one of the great short stories of all time.) And, even if the name rings some distant bell, I suspect few of my readers, as well- and widely- read as they are, have cracked a novel by Gina Berriault. If I am right, it is a most unfortunate fact. This review is one attempt to remedy the underappreciation of Gina Berriault as a novelist.

I will admit to first developing an interest in Ms. Berriault when she won awards for Women in Their Beds. I had not heard of her before then, but quickly sought out one of her novels in when I heard someone lauding her as a writer’s writer. She was that, in at least two senses of the phrase. First, she was underappreciated among the general book buying public and so, in a fact if not motivation, wrote mostly for other writers who knew about her. Second, but more importantly, she was an incredibly talented writer who wrote with artistry and depth. Her skill with a pen has been matched only rarely. She is the kind of writer writers respect, the kind of writer writers want to be.

While Women in Their Beds is an outstanding collection of short stories, many of us prefer to read novels. Besides, that collection is an award-winner. However precious, it is not a sufficiently obscure literary gem to be treasured for its discovery as well as its contents. Her novels are.

If I were simply recommending one work by Berriault, I would start with her final novel, a short masterpiece: The Lights of Earth. However, I am not simply recommending Gina Berriault. This is a review of her short (143 pages) novel Afterwards, originally published in 1962 as A Conference of Victims.

Afterwards opens with the following:

The day was election day but Hal O. Costigan, candidate for Congress, was nowhere around to have his picture taken as the winner or the loser. By his own choice he was nowhere around to care. The day was warm and windless, the large flags at the polling places rustling a little toward evening. Inside garages swept clean and living rooms tidied up, women with an official look appropriate to the day sat at card tables and checked off the names of the voters. Everything was as it should be, except one: a dead man’s name was on the ballot.

We quickly learn that the married candidate for Congress, Hal O. Costigan, committed suicide shortly after being caught in an affair with a seventeen year-old girl. AfterwardsThis novel relates the afterwards.

The chapters are told from the perspective of several of the victims of his suicide. Naomi Costigan, Hal’s sister, is the focus of the first chapter. The second chapter introduces us to Hal’s lover who shares the name Dolores with Nabokov’s Lolita. Hal’s and Naomi’s younger brother Cort Costigan is the focus of the third chapter. Each of the remaining chapters revolves around one of these three characters, with Naomi receiving the bulk of the attention.

Naomi lives with her (and Hal’s and Cort’s) mother. Her mother is convinced Hal was killed. Ms. Berriault effortlessly exposes the family dynamics. After recounting a conversation with Cort in which the mother urges Cort to find Hal’s killer, she tells Naomi:

“…But Cort’s a coward. He’s got a birthmark on his back looks like a little eel.”

“It always looked like nothing to me,” said Naomi.

“An eel. He was always slippery.”

Naomi did not defend her younger brother. Their mother loved him and that was his defense.

Their mother also blames Hal’s wife, Isobel, for not going to the mayor and exposing the true nature of Hal’s death. In short, their mother is in denial.

Naomi is not. Her attempts to point out the truth of Hal’s suicide to her mother are unavailing. But Naomi’s acknowledgment of the facts does not save her. Like the rest of the family, she is preoccupied with Hal and his death.

Hal was very clearly the favorite child. Mother, sister, and brother all revered him. They had defined themselves in relation to Hal and, in the aftermath, they each struggle to find an identity of their own. The most freuqent subject of their thoughts is Hal. They tell the story of Hal to strangers. Almost compulsively, they talk about Hal with each other. The shadow of Hal’s suicide looms dark and cold over their lives.

Perhaps the truest victim is not family. Dolores was only seventeen at the time of the affair and suicide. In an effort to make sense of events, she asks her father why Hal killed himself.

“What you got to learn,” he said, pulling at a dusty boot, “is that everybody is a little bit crazy.”

He glanced at her sideways, a secret glance of satisfaction that said the most respected, the most popular, the ones on their way up, as Costigan, were no better than the dolts, than himself, a maintenance man in an oil refinery, and, in this glance that was without any sympathy for the dead man, he revealed a stoniness of heart she had not glimpsed before. It was not that way all the time, his heart. Only now, and was it his own little bit of craziness? She opened a can of beer for him and set it on the table with a glass, and when he glanced up, his fatherly love for her had returned to his eyes.

Dolores uses the suicide to fill her need for love. She tries to convince herself that Hal’s love for her left him little choice but to commit suicide. He could not leave his wife, but he refused to be without Dolores. This is the story she constructs for herself and various others who come into her life.

After an exchange in which one of her roommates compliments her as having “an expenseef look”, Berriault lays bare the tragedy of Dolores:

The flattery was demanding something of Dolores. She couldn’t reject it because she needed even flattery’s imitation of praise. It demanded that she confirm the truth of it and surprise this woman with the truth.

Her version is not the truth, though. Her story is mere facade, however, covering a yawning emptiness, the same emptiness she had earlier tried to fill with the affair with Hal.

Cort fares no better. Like both Naomi and Dolores, Cort is compelled to talk about Hal:

Even in the midst of pleasure, he had brought him [Hal] into the company and introduced him around to remind them all of the meaninglessness of their existence….He told about his brother every chance he got, like a derelict who claims high-class relatives. He had to tell everybody that he, Cort, was different, he was smarter than his listeners, who accepted life without questioning.

He knows he needs to leave the memory of his dead brother behind, to concentrate on life. The lesson of the meaningless of life he has taken from the suicide cripples him. Cort struggles to find pleasure in life, to find meaning in it. A love affair shortly after Hal’s suicide precipitates marriage and a child. Still Cort cannot escape Hal.

This story is an emotional tragedy. Naomi, Cort, and Dolores are irreparably damaged by Hal’s suicide, largely because they each idolized him or their relationship with him. If even Hal could not find reason to live, what is life worth? Each of the three struggles with this fundamental question. Having placed so much worth on Hal and their relationships with him, they are devastated by Hal’s deeming his life worthless.

The ending is as beautiful as it is devastatingly well-judged. Ms. Berriault brings some narrative tension to the story, setting the needs of Naomi against those of Isobel. Isobel never told Guy, Hal’s son, the truth about Hal’s death. This tension is masterfully played out and resolved.

Gina Berriault relates her characters’ tortured efforts to wring meaning out of Hal’s death and their own lives with deft insight into the human psyche. The action in Gina Berriault’s novels is almost entirely psychological. She does not tell happy tales of adventure. If you are looking for optimism and happy endings, Berriault will not oblige. Her focus is on truth. She writes efficiently and with unblinking, unsentimental realism. Her short novels are dense with wisdom.

Of the recent authors I have reviewed here, her style most closely resembles Maxwell, Bellow, and Ozick. As a final exhortation to read Gina Berriault, I direct you to this remembrance of Gina Berriault by Cynthia Ozick. Gina Berriault’s novels remain underappreciated treasures. I urge you to give her a try.


One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

July 20, 2009

I was debating whether to post my thoughts on this book, which I was glad I read but which I did not like very much. After reading the “Fired from the Canon” piece, I thought I may as well. I agree that ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE can safely be jettisoned from “the canon” or, at least, not be foisted upon unsuspecting readers.

OneHundredYearsThis go at Marquez’s masterpiece was my second attempt. The first time, I quit after having lost track of whether Jose Arcadio Buendia, Auereliano Buendia, Jose Arcadio, Aureliano Jose, Arcadio, Aureliano Segundo, Jose Arcadio Segundo, the other Jose Arcadio, or one of the other two Aurelianos…what was I saying? Anyway, these are the main male cast members. There is a little more variety among the principal women: three named Remedios (Moscote, the Beauty, Renata), an Amaranta, an Ursala, an Amaranta Ursala, a Rebecca, a Pilar, and a Sofia. The key is to sort them by generation and jiggle the handle.

So, Marquez pulled off the delightful feat of naming all his characters while only using a total of about five names. This does wonders for the environment, but it is extremely annoying. Combined with the rampant familial love, and I mean that in the unfortunate biblical sense rather than the “Little House on the Prairie” sense, I suppose it is some sort of political commentary. I get it, but it still is wearingly tiresome remembering which Jose Arcadio (or was it one of the Aureliano boys?) touched the ice. The redundant naming goes in the list of things that do not work for me. I will remember the device, but not fondly.

Nomenclature aside, I had already, before cracking this book, unfairly predetermined that magical realism is not my bag. Why even read this book then? The author won a Nobel, the book is considered a masterpiece…by people, I once thought I “should” read it. All I can say is that you ought to have better reasons than I did.

There are a few. This book does create its own world. I am not knowledgeable enough to say whether South America feels like this or to get all the inside South American references that I am sure were tucked in there, but the world inside ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE is a fully realized, if magical, world. Marquez made legendary the moment he came upon the voice for the novel. The voice incorporates his grandmother’s storytelling technique which, he explained, was to relate even the most fantastic and unbelievable events the same way she related facts. The book is fairly unique among my reading experiences. When a book can do that for you, it has achieved something.

There are also some gems in the book that I enjoyed. At one point, gypsies have come to Macondo and are putting on a circus. Jose Arca….A father has taken his children to see the wonders the gypsies have brought. His children coax him to pay their entrance into a tent where a giant guards a pirate chest. The contents of the pirate chest are the attraction:

When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars. Disconcerted, knowing that the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, Jose Arcadio Buendia ventured a murmur:

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”

Jose Arcadio Buendia, without understanding, stretched out his hand toward the cake, but the giant moved it away. “Five reales more to touch it,” he said. Jose Arcadio paid them and put his hand on the ice and held it there for several minutes as his heart filled with fear and jubilation at the contact with mystery. Without knowing what to say, he paid ten reales more so that his sons could have that prodigious experience. Little Jose Arcadio refused to touch it. Aureliano, on the other hand, took a step forward and put his hand on it, withdrawing it immediately. “It’s boiling,” he exclaimed, startled. But his father paid no attention to him…[The father] paid another five reales and with his hand on the cake, as if giving testimony on the holy scriptures, he exclaimed:

“This is the great invention of our time.”

It’s a good scene. Apparently, it is largely autobiographical. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s father took him to a traveling circus where the little Gabriel saw and touched ice for the first time. I would have liked more of these. Of course, even here, Marquez puts in a little of the ridiculous. Here the ridiculous is kind of funny. Vonnegut and Heller did great things with the ridiculous. Marquez’s ridiculous is more often merely ridiculous rather than ridiculously funny. Or maybe it is my sense of humor. Such things are very much matters of personal taste.

Some of the more magical scenes work too. There is a strike at a local factory, many people are shot and killed, the whole thing is completely covered up, and only one of our Jose Arcadio Aureliano Buendia/Segundo characters seems to know it ever happened. At least, no one else will acknowledge it or believe him when he tells the story. The magic works because many people were “disappeared” in South America, though rarely en masse. The magical works to enhance in some sense the realism. The ability of politically and economically powerful to disappear so many was (is) almost magical, particularly when their power also enabled them to rewrite history as if the disappeared never existed in the first place, and for those with firsthand knowledge to acquiesce to the re-written history. Perhaps, only magical realism can get at this particular political history or, if not the history, then certain truths within that history.

Other times, the magical overwhelms the realism. Perhaps the intended audience is more susceptible to magical thinking or is more imaginative than I am, but with magic, like, say, a name, too much of it can suffocate a story.

This is a political book. His targets are often capitalists and despots and career generals. He has good points. South America has had, if not its share, then more than enough dictators, corrupt leaders, and exploitation of the many by the few. Marquez explores this rich history and, I think, has something to say about it. Something important. Wars are fought for money, for power, and, importantly, sometimes only for the sake of warring because the combatants know little else. Opposition becomes opposition for the sake of opposition. The people fighting continue to fight because they are good at it and they are somebody while warring. End of war, end of stature. Marquez does address big topics and, more, does capture the tiresomeness of continual fighting, particularly to the commoners who have no say and generally suffer the most.

OneHundredYears2In addition to the big issues, the book also delves into one family’s life in one, small, backwater town, Macondo. I had trouble becoming engaged in the characters’ lives. Some were chained to trees for many years. Others lived in a single room for many years. Sure, they did not have pigs’ tails, but disbelief can only be suspended so far. I simply tired of the whole thing.

My complaint is not about characters who are not likeable, it is about characters to whom it is difficult to relate. They do not act believably. They do the impossible. Not always, but often enough that the story loses pull, my interest in the outcomes of their dilemmas flagged.

The same goes for the town. Most of the events were simply too outrageous to have much interest for me. The town felt more like a manufactured setting than a town. As a manufactured setting, it does have some value as allegorical/metaphorical device, but Marquez tried to have his allegory do too much. Or, perhaps, it was simply too much for me. That’s always possible.

I think this book is important. Perhaps not for what it is, but for what it has become. It has obviously influenced a number of other important writers and, for that reason alone, undoubtedly has a place in literary history. Whether it is great, I am undecided. I know I am very unlikely to ever re-read it. Of course, I am allergic to magical realism.

Having said that, I did enjoy Bulgakov’s THE MASTER AND MARGARITA with its own magic. I may have been more open to it because I had already fallen for Bulgakov and his WHITE GUARD. But too, Bulgakov’s magical masterpiece works in a way that ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE did not. Bulgakov’s magic is not simply a gee-whiz device, but truly serves to irradiate a dark and deep subject. Perhaps there is more to ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, but I am unashamed to say I missed it.

I am glad I read it, but I did not enjoy it. Your result may vary. For those who have not read it yet, do not blame me if you choose to give it a try. I am with The Second Pass on this: Fire it from the canon.