"The Wine-Dark Sea" is a collection of thirteen stories written by Leonardo Sciascia between 1959 and 1972. While less well know in the United States than some of his Italian contemporaries-I think here of Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Umberto Eco-Sciascia enjoys a well deserved reputation in Italy as a writer of novels, stories and political commentary.
Sciascia was a Sicilian. This fact, more than any other, colors all of the stories in this collection. Each of these stories reflects, in some way, the particularities of Sicilian culture and society. There is, of course, the uneasy and often conflicting relationship that Sicily has had with the rest of Italy, particularly the northern part of that country. There is also the pervasive influence of the Mafia on Sicilian life, particularly the strong notions of honor and "omerta," the Mafia code of silence. And there is, finally, the interplay of the tightly knit Sicilian family, the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian state.
The best of the stories in this collection are marked by subdued irony, subtle wit and steely-clear insight into the idiosyncrasies that mark Sicilian life within the larger context of Italy.
In "A Matter of Conscience," a Sicilian lawyer traveling back home from Rome picks up a women's magazine on the train. He reads an anonymous letter to a priest, written by a woman from his hometown, asking for advice. The woman had an affair with a relative for six months, is tormented by her adultery and wants to know whether she should tell her husband. She relates that, "as a very devout person, I have confessed my fault on several different occasions." She then goes on-drawing the distinction between her Sicilian mores and those of the rest of Italy-as follows: "Every priest except one (but he was a northerner) has told me that if my repentance is sincere, and my love for my husband unchanged, then I must remain silent." From here, the story turns into a witty, ironic exploration of life in the lawyer's town as each of his colleagues becomes obsessed with the thought that he is the cuckold.
In "Mafia Western," a big town "on the border between the provinces of Palermo and Trapani" is embroiled in a bloody battle between two feuding mafia cells. It is at the time of World War I and, "the death-toll from assassination [is] comparable to the death-toll of its citizens falling at the front." In dry, matter-of-fact style, Sciascia relates this fictional tale, the interstices of his story relating the society within the society-the society of the mafiosi, the capo and the code of silence. Thus, a mother's son is killed and she knows his assassin. But she remains silent, picking up her son's body and bringing it back home. "The next morning she let it be know that her son died of a wound there upon his bed, but she knew neither where nor by whom he had been wounded. No word did she utter to the carabinieri about the man who might have killed him. But her friends understood-they knew-and they now set about very careful preparations."
In "Philology," two men that are to be called before the Commission of Enquiry investigating the activities of the mafia in Sicily engage in an ironic, witty discourse on the origin and meaning of the word "mafia". They are doing this in preparation for their interrogation, their dialogue a bit of dry, absurd humor that conflates the high intellectual pretension of philological discourse with the pragmatic, cold-blooded realities that underlie their preparations. As one of them says, "the fact is that everyone tries to establish the current meaning of the word before establishing its origin." After exploring possible Arabic and French origins of the word, and the deficiencies in education of the general public, who misunderstand the importance of etymology and meaning, he ultimately presents an ironically pragmatic, if high-sounding, statement of the meaning of the word "mafia": "Mafia implies a consciousness of self, an exaggerated concept of the power of the individual as sole arbiter of every conflict of interests or ideas; from this derives the inability to bear with the superiority, and even more, the authority of others. The mafioso expects respect and nearly always offers it. When crossed, he does not appeal to the law, public justice, but takes matters into his own hands and, should the remedy be beyond his own power, he will call on the assistance of like-minded friends."
"The Wine-Dark Sea," the longest of the stories in this collection, wonderfully depicts the cultural separation between Sicilians and other Italians. In this story, Bianchi, an engineer traveling to Sicily for the first time, shares a compartment with a Sicilian family and "a girl of about twenty-three" who is attached to the family "by ties of family, friendship or casual acquaintance." Over the course of their long train ride, Bianchi, if only briefly, manages to penetrate the seemingly deep cultural divide between him and the family, along the way also sharing a fleeting romantic connection with the young girl.
These are only some of the stories in this collection. There are others that are equally good. In particular, I think of "Demotion" (which provides a fascinating contrapuntal theme of Catholicism and Communism, Saint Filomena and Joseph Stalin) and "The Ransom" (which retells a popular Sicilian folk tale of familial duty, love and betrayal). With the exception of "Apocryphal Correspondence re Crowley," which, at best, is of nothing more than historical interest and utterly unremarkable, "The Wine-Dark Sea" is an exceptionally good collection of stories and a wonderful introduction to an Italian writer that, thus far, has been little read in the United States.