A new year should always be a time for new writers, and I don’t just mean the over-hyped newcomers who are currently filling every 2014 list, but those writers you always meant to read but never quite get round to. Luckily Granta has obliged by reissuing a number of Leonardo Sciascia books this January. As a fan of European noir, it is somewhat surprising that I’ve not made the effort to encounter Sciascia before, and perhaps also surprising that I decided to opt for The Wine Dark Sea, a collection of stories, rather than one of his crime novels, though Sciascia does comment in an afterword that “they seem to form, collectively, a kind of summary of my work up to now.”
The earlier stories in particular bear resemblance to folk tales. The first, ‘The Ransom’, even opens with a King travelling in a carriage, though this is simply a prelude to a story itself which takes place at a later date. That it concerns a father giving up his daughter to help his son-in-law evade punishment for a crime, however, has echoes of the folk tradition, and also introduces the endemic corruption that will be recurrent theme: the judge offers as a reason for marrying the daughter:
“…if I were to do all I were disposed to do and that is in my power to do on behalf of a brother-in-law, a relation, no-one would offer a word of criticism.”
The stories are dark but often funny. In ‘The Long Crossing’ desperate emigrants are fooled into believing they have been taken by boat to America. Their efforts to discover where they are are comic at the same time they are heart-breaking. In ‘Guifa’, the protagonist, a simpleton, easily outwits the police after killing a cardinal. In ‘The Demotion’ Sciascia casts a cynical eye at both religion and politics: a wife’s distress that the local saint has been demoted by the Pope is echoed in the husband’s shock that Stalin’s tomb is no longer going to be moved.
The later stories are often more obviously of the crime genre. ‘End-Game’, a story of competing murders, is, in particular, full of twists and turns. ‘Mafia Western’ is laced with the violent revenge its title suggests, and ‘Trial by Violence’ is, at times, written in the manner of a court report.
The title story, ‘The Wine Dark Sea’, is the longest, a mediation on the transitory nature of love. Its protagonist, Bianchi, falls in love with a young woman he meets on a long train journey. She is travelling with her aunt and uncle and their children; the children take up much of the narrative, and it is one of them who comments that the sea “looks like wine.” This is immediately dismissed by the parents:
“What on earth’s the matter with the child’s eyesight? He doesn’t seem to be able to tell one colour from another.”
Bianchi on the other hand suggests:
“Perhaps it’s the effect, almost like the effect of wine, which a sea like this produces. It isn’t drunkenness, but it overpowers the senses…”
He is referring to his own love, endorsing the poetic fancy of the child and its echo of a greater poetic fancy. When the family alight and the train moves on though, thoughts of visiting them quickly fade from Bianchi’s mind:
“…all his emotion of sorrow and of love was immediately blotted out by sleep.”
It’s no surprise in Sciascia that the pragmatic is victorious over the poetic!
As I haven’t read any of Sciascia’s novels, I can’t say whether The Wine Dark Sea provides a good introduction to his work; it is, however, well worth reading on its own merits.