"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 27, 2014

"The Day of the Owl" by Leonardo Sciascia (1961)

On the surface, the Italian novel The Day of the Owl is a first-class thriller, a police procedural in which a murder is solved. But appearances can be deceptive - this is not a genre novel and the author Leonardo Sciascia (1921-89; pronounced "sha-sha") far transcends the bounds of the usual crime novel. His book, written around 1960, is an indictment of the activities of the Italian mafia on Sicily and the roaring silence which at that time protected the gangster organization. The book's final aim is a moral one, rather than pure entertainment.

A man runs to catch a bus in the piazza of a small Sicilian town. A shot rings out, the man falls down. The bus driver tries hard not to notice anything, all the passengers who are already in the bus, quickly get off and disappear. When the carabinieri arrive, they can only question a fritter-seller, who stood near the spot where the man was murdered. "Has there been a shooting?" the fritter-seller asks quasi innocent (although the gun went off more or less next to his ears), like all the others pretending not to have seen anything in order not to become involved. The murdered man is the owner of a small construction company who was too honest to cooperate with the mafia (his brothers and co-owners of course also know nothing), and he has been killed with a lupara, a sawed-off shotgun that was the typical weapon of the mafia.

[A lupara, sawed-off shotgun as used by Casa Nostra for its killings - Photo Wikipedia]

The police officer in charge of the case is Captain Bellodi, a north Italian and an honest, incorruptible man. To Sicilians he is therefore a foreigner, a total outsider. So also his interrogation technique: instead of using force to obtain a confession - the normal method on the island - he intricately questions the suspects and tries to capture them in an inconsistency - like Commissaire Maigret. Initially, Bellodi is up against a wall of silence, but his technique works and he is able to force a breach in the wall which will allow him to find both the criminal and the puppet master behind the scenes.

But politics is against him. We get small chapters with discussions by unnamed politicians in Rome, who carefully monitor the investigation and are afraid Belloni is going too far - the politicians want to protect the man behind the scenes. Their single concern is to keep the truth from coming out. Because, as they say, of course there is no such thing as the mafia on Sicily...

Sciascia's novels, especially The Day of the Owl, showed differently and finally made it possible to discuss the problem of the mafia in Italy. As Sciascia says in the novel: "The only institution that really counts in Sicily is the family... The State is extraneous to them, merely a de facto entity based on force; an entity imposing taxes, military service, war, police..." Law is not rational but "something depending on persons, on the thoughts and moods of this man here, on the cut he gave himself shaving or a good cup of coffee he has just drunk."

This short, beautifully paced novel is a mesmerizing description of the mafia at work and a sharp tale of Sicilian corruption. The title is based on a quote from Shakespeare's Henry VI:
And he that will not fight for such a hope
Go home to bed, and like the owl by day
If he arise, be mocked and wondered at.

[Leonardo Sciascia - Photo Wikipedia]

Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989) was born in central Sicily. He first worked as a schoolteacher but starting in the 1950s, established himself as a novelist, essayist and controversial commentator on political affairs. Among his many other books are Equal Danger, To Each His Own, and the story collection The Wine-Dark Sea.
The Day of the Owl has been published by New York Review Books. Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Anthony Oliver.