Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989) is best known for his detective novels set in Sicily - though the point should be made that they transcend the genre of crime fiction. Given its title, SICILIAN UNCLES sounds like yet another work of crime fiction. In actuality, it is a collection of four stories (31 to 61 pages in length) that are historical in nature. But they too are part of Sciascia's lifelong body of work exploring the social and political milieu of Sicily. In these stories Sciascia depicts aspects of the anarchy that is Sicily in the context of four historical episodes.
The first story is "The American Aunt". Its setting is 1943 to 1948, beginning with the Allied invasion of Sicily. Many Sicilians already had relatives in the United States, and with the American occupation of Sicily the importance and influence of the United States increased. For Italy, the first major political decision was between the Monarchy and the Republic (behind which there loomed the specter of eventual Communism). Sciascia develops these two situations through the narrative of a young Sicilian boy whose aunt had emigrated to the United States (Brooklyn), made a providentially affluent marriage, and was now striving to order the affairs and channel the religious, political, and social views of her relatives back in Sicily. This is the most conventional story in the book and, to my mind, the best.
In "The Death of Stalin", Sciascia chronicles the continuously tested optimism and idealism of a Sicilian communist between 1939 and 1956. It is a good account of the confusion and anxiety that Stalin engendered among the European proletariat who had adopted the populist communist vision of a just workers' society, but it is only so-so as a story.
"Forty-Eight", the title of the third story, has become Sicilian slang for "disorder or confusion". It is derived from the events of 1848 when a revolution against the Bourbons resulted in a brief period of nominal independence but practical anarchy. The story is an entertaining, oft-amusing account, as played out in one small city, of the vacillating political fortunes of the monarchists versus the liberals between 1847 and 1860, when Garibaldi conquered the island (eventually to install, to the dismay of many of his supporters, a new monarchy). Especially noteworthy in the story are the arrogance and hypocrisy of both the nobility and the Roman Catholic Church.
Finally, "Antimony" is the story of a Sicilian fighting with the troops that Mussolini sent to Spain between 1936 and 1938 to support Franco and the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The narrator is essentially apolitical; he is fighting more or less as a mercenary, in order to make money inasmuch as he no longer can deal with the dangers of the Sicilian sulphur mines where he had labored. Eventually he realizes that "of all Mussolini's faults, that of having sent over thousands of Italian poor to fight the Spanish poor can never be forgiven him." In the end, the story has more to say about the strange dynamics of the Spanish Civil War than it does about Sicily. Arguably Sciascia tries to do too much with this story, but withal it is packed with noteworthy observations of history, philosophy, and politics.
SICILIAN UNCLES is not a five-star book, but it is commendable historical fiction, the sort that both instructs and entertains. As such, for the general reader I give it a moderate recommendation. However, for those with a special interest in Sicily (or, in the case of "Antimony", those with a special interest in the Spanish Civil War), my recommendation is stronger.