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  • Writer's picturePete Jonson

Henry Thornton News&Views No. 36

Here we go again with John Julius Norwich’s book ‘Sicily’ written in 1961. This time we shall summarise his ‘Introduction’. Quotes are from our wonderful author, the rest is my comments made 70 years later,

‘Sicily’, said Goethe, ‘is the key to everything.’ It is, first of all, the largest island in the Mediterranean. It has also proved, over the centuries, to be the most unhappy.

I must say, despite the apparent unhappiness of the residents, of not picking unhappiness up, despite being there for 5 weeks.

It has belonged to all the great powers. ‘Even today, despite the beauty of its landscape, the fertility of its climate and the perpetual benediction of its climate, there lingers somewhere some dark brooding quality – some underlying sorrow of which poverty, the Church, the Maria and all the other popular modern scapegoats maybe manifestations but are certainly not the cause.

At least in the large cities, there are some gloomy people but there are also most who seems happy enough to me as I visit their shops.

‘It is the sorrow of long, unhappy experience, of opportunity lost and promise unfulfilled – perhaps, of a beautiful woman who has been betrayed too often and is no longer fit for love or marriage. Phoenicians and Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans, Goths and Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, Germans, Spaniards and French, all have left their mark on her.

Maybe the gloomy people dominate in the agricultural and industrial arenas?

‘The island is the scene of several tales of Greek mythology, including the abduction the Persephone by Hades, king of the underworld, which is believed to have occurred on the shore of Lake Pergusa near Enna.

‘But this is not a treatise on Greet mythology. It is time to return to the prosaic world of today. The celebrated words from The Leopard, from Giuseppe di Lampedusa … - encapsulate the island’s history to perfection and explain the countless differences that distinguish the Sicilians from the Italians, despite the almost infinitesimal difference that separate them. The two differ linguistically, speaking as they do what is essentially another language rather that a dialect, …

‘They differ ethnically, a surprising number having bright red hair and blue eyes – characteristically traditionally attributed to their Norman forebears, … I now have grey hair and green eyes, not many I got close enough to examine.

‘Wine is also a speciality. Sicily is now one of the most important wine-producing areas in all Italy’.

Now you’re talking my language, Mr Norwich. I have already sampled the wine and except for the really cheap drinks, it is lovely.

‘Sicily is bound to produce a question about the Mafia; and questions about the Mafia are notoriously difficult to answer, largely because it contrives to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Naturally I have no interest in fighting the Mafia! Lovely blokes so far as I can tell.

‘Finally, a word or two about Sicily’s writers. Two Sicilians have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Luigi Pirandello and Salvatore Quasimodo (the pen name of Salvatore Ragusu).

‘Pirandello’s play ‘Six Characters in search of an Author’ was an early example of the Theatre of the Absurd and provoked such an outcry that at its premier in in Rome in 1921 that he was forced through a side entrance; since then, however, it has become a classic and is now performed the world over.

‘Quasimodo’s poems are hugely popular in Italy and have been translated into four languages. But if you want the true feel of Sicily you should not go to these giants but to Leonardo Sciascia (pronounced Shasha) and Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.’ Then there is, lighter but still excellent, the crime novels of Andrea Camilleri, which have been adapted to make a superb television about his hero, Detective Inspector Salvo Montalbano.

‘As for Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, he is for me in a class… himself. The Leopard is certainly the greatest book about Sicily that I have ever read; indeed I would rank it with any of the great novels of the twentieth century. To anyone interested, I would enthusiastically recommend David Gilmore’s admirable biographically, The Last Leopard.’

But books can never tell us everything. No non-Sicilian, I suspect, will be able to penetrate the island’s mysteries altogether; the rest must simply do the best we can.

Henry is greatly enjoying reading Mr Norwich’s lovely book. I urge others to do also. Perhaps next week we shall return to travel, business or economics. We are coming soon to the end of a wonderful trip, mostly in Sicily which is well worth visiting.


And Fiona Prior contemplates birth, death, love and violence at Chiharu Shiota's 'The Soul Trembles'. More here.

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