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.