Leonardo Sciascia: the myserious case of repeating oneself
Why did Sciascia repeat himself?
Motivated by his wonderful Stendhal and Sicily, I was going to read all his books in any order — meaning, the order in which they arrived. But the second book to arrive — The Knight and Death turned out to be… the first book (Equal Danger) retold. This repetition puzzles me. If it were different, or better, one could understand it. It is neither — and yet, Sciascia persevered in writing it through agony of terminal disease.
The story is familiar enough — and by now hackneyed by numerous Hollywood remakes — the evil capitalist power-elite fabricate the existence of a radical terrorist left-wing group in order to a) cover up its own crimes (for which the invented leftist group is being blamed) and b) defame the left, its politicians and its causes. Brilliant, evil, scary, probably sometimes true, even if, as a plot of a novel, a little old hat.
That Sciascia told the story once is mildly interesting — perhaps in his time, this plot idea was novel? At this point a reader setting out to familiarize himself with Sciascia’s work is forgiven to think that his next political novel might plumb another aspect of the nefarious deep of the anni del piombo. But that Sciascia chose to re-tell the same plot, the same situation, pretty much unchanged, begins to looks like… a pattern.
A pattern, perhaps an obsession: Sciascia’s point, it now appears, is not so much the general claim that the system is evil, but the specific claim that a terrorist leftist group might be its invention. The insistence on the scheme suggests he meant a specific situation. Perhaps a specific terrorist leftist group? Could he mean… The Red Brigades?
We now know that the Red Brigades were trained and supplied by the KGB. Why is not difficult to see: Italian state was weak, her politics unstable, her communist party was strong, her unions radical; a little terrorism just might have sparked a security crisis — and that just might create the opportunity for a takeover followed by Italy’s secession from NATO etc. etc. … a major breakthrough for the USSR.
We also know that Soviets thought (correctly, as it happens) that as a propaganda weapon the Red Brigades were possibly an embarrassment. Publicly, they denied involvement. In Eastern Europe, where radical politics was not encouraged, the press was told to refer to the red brigades as “fascists”. Sciascia’s novels… appear to play from the same script.
Why would he do that?
1) knew (or guessed) that the Red Brigades were fed by the same hand which fed the Italian communist party and generously supported radical Italian intellectuals (he had to: did he not read in the classics that “a revolution is a violent act by which one class overthrows another”?); in which case he is guilty of intentional obfuscation of truth for the benefit of — what? In the name of international loyalty of the left? To protect/ satisfy personal relationships? To assure for himself publication in the East? Whichever was the case, it must strike one as confused;
2) he genuinely didn’t know and only tried to protect the Left’s good name by suggesting that the dark blot on the image of the communist movement in the west — the Red Brigades — might only be a figment of imagination and therefore let us not jump to conclusions. But why would he do that? Why muddy the waters? Didn’t he want to know the truth? Perhaps he preferred for some facts not to come to light? Perhaps he didn’t want to be faced with an uncomfortable truth?
The mystery of what went on in Sciascia’s mind will remain forever unsolved. Whichever is the case, Sciascia’s motives appear compromised and the status assigned him by some — that of a moral lighthouse in a murky age — dubious.
What remains are his works and judging by the two I read this week, they are mostly unremarkable. His portraits of the evil agents of capitalism (the capitalists themselves, the security aparatchiks) are pale, flat, one-dimensional, strangely unconvincing. And not surprisingly — as a career leftist intellectual without any significant access to power he was probably describing a world of which he knew nothing (i.e. he was violating the principal dictum of every writer’s course: “write what you know”). Those who actually had met the powers that be in real life — writers like Le Carre, say — are much better at drawing them in all their terrifying ugliness
Barbara Tuchman, reflecting on the fate of her literary output at the end of her very long career, observed that her political writings died quickly and disappeared forever; and that what lasted were her essays on topics irrelevant to the moment, easily read as treating of universal problems of human nature: her tale of Black Death; her tale of the stupidity and hubris which led to the outbreak of World War One. In this category, Sciascia’s essay on Standhal in Sicily can hope to live for a few more centuries — certainly as long as people continue to read Stendhal.
The future of his fiction, however, looks uncertain.