Snippets–Sicily Edition (finally concluded)

Perhaps you already knew this, but I only learned on my recent Sicilian trip that while Archimedes may have been Greek, he was also Sicilian. He was born, lived, and was killed by a Roman soldier in Siracusa, which in English is, of course, Syracuse. Of course, his famous discovery that the volume of an object could be calculated by submerging it in water was made there, and I was told that Sircusan university students, perhaps in the days of streaking, paid homage to Archimedes by running down the streets naked shouting “Eureka!” (Every trip brings some regrets. I regret that I did not buy the Archimedes tee shirt that I spotted in Siracusa but nowhere else.)

We stayed on the island of Ortigia, which is the ancient center of Siracusa, connected to the mainland by two small bridges. Ortigia was filled with houses and businesses fronting on the narrow streets and alleys. Many of the structures had wonderful doors and sometimes glimpses through gates revealed tiny courtyards. It reminded me of the less touristy parts of Venice, but without the canals. I loved it.

I went out for a walk. Our hotel was on the water, and I thought that as I long as I could find the water, I could get back to it. I strolled along the waterfront and walked a block away from the water and then came back, easily finding the hotel. I then went in the opposite direction and walked perpendicular to the water. I came upon a major commercial street and turned on to it, looking at the shop windows and then going into a bookstore. Not surprisingly, almost everything in that shop was in Italian, but here and there was a book in English. I did not understand the organization of the store, but it looked like a good place to browse for books. I continued down the commercial street until I came to a square with a wonderful fountain. I turned and thought that I would run into the water. Wrong. I thought that the commercial street ran parallel to the water, but it angled away from it. Of course, getting a bit lost is part of traveling, but I was tired and wanted to get back and angry with myself for being disoriented. At the end of a narrow street, I saw the open doors of a church (I learned that it was deconsecrated until it was renovated) that seemed to be having an art exhibition. I went in and saw hundreds of pop art paintings of the same face. I learned that the artist was obsessed with a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation in Palermo, and this was his homage to it. But I wasn’t there for the art. I asked the woman in charge whether she could help me. And in this ancient place, she pulled out her smartphone, hit the Google map icon, and showed me that I was but a four-minute walk to my hotel.

The next evening the spouse wanted to see the commercial street. I knew how to get there, I thought. I got lost again, but after instructions from a handsome Sicilian man we found it. I went back into the bookstore and bought a novel by Luigi Pirandello, The Late Mattia Pascal translated into English. It cost more than I would normally pay for a book, but I considered it my souvenir of the trip. I read the book when I got home. Mattia Pascal runs away from an unhappy marriage and finds a newspaper story a few weeks later that states a decaying body found in his hometown has been identified as him. He feels liberated, but he soon finds that living as a non-person has disadvantages. The strange story is simultaneously dark and comic, and while it takes place in various parts of Italy, there are no Sicilian scenes.

I did not read any Pirandello novel or listen to any Bellini opera to prepare, but I did read some Sicilian literature in advance of the trip. I had read The Leopard by Giuseppe Lampedusa a decade ago. I remembered thinking that it was quite good, and I reread it. I now know a bit more Sicilian history, and some of the references made more sense the second time around. The book is set in the time of the unification of Italy and Garibaldi’s conquest of Sicily, but it was written in the 1950s, and many of Lampedusa’s observations of the Sicilian character were seemingly meant to describe Lampedusa’s Sicily as much as that of a century before. Since many of these descriptions are not flattering, I could see why not all Sicilians venerate the book. (And now that I think about it, my image of dry, brown, and dusty Sicily comes not just from The Godfather (see last post) but also from The Leopard.)

The Sicilian writer who most whetted my appetite for the trip was Andrea Camilleri. I don’t remember how or when I first discovered his Inspector Montalbano mysteries, but it was more than a decade ago. I have not read all of them, but I have read many. The characters are complex; the mysteries good; and the Sicilian atmosphere often seems to inform. And then there is the food. The books describe Montalbano’s lengthy meals, all of which sound delicious and made me want not just to visit Sicily but also to eat as much of its food as I could. (Camilleri is not just popular in his English translations. I saw rows of his books in Italian in different formats all around Sicily.)

I had admired Camilleri long before I went to Sicily, but reading in preparation for the trip introduced me to another Sicilian writer, the wonderful Leonardo Sciascia, who was born, taught school, and died in Sicily at the age of 68 in 1989. He wrote essays, historical novels, and plays, but he is most known for his crime stories. They are not traditional mystery stories, however. The solution to the crime seems apparent early in the story but remains unresolved at its conclusion. Beautifully written with obscure and philosophical dialog, the goal is not crime-solving. Instead, the crime is the setting for Sciascia’s characters to confront the meaning of justice and to maintain morality in a corrupt political world that is haunted by its fascist past and entwined with its mafia present. Camilleri, who in his own way tackles similar themes, seems to have been greatly influenced by Sciascia. Sciascia wrote powerful stuff, and when I saw a book in English by him in the Siracusan bookstore that I had not read, I snapped it up. It now rests on the top of my to-read pile. The Sicily trip was filled with many discoveries and one of them was the introduction to Leonardo Sciascia.


As we waited for a flight to Rome for the trip home the rain dripped from the ceiling of the Catania airport into plastic containers that seemed to be in their usual places. This was not a foreshadowing. The flight was fine.