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il giorno della civetta

9 november 2017

Internet synopses of Sciascia's Giorno della civetta will tell you that it is the story of a murder investigation in Sicily, undertaken by a captain of Carabinieri. Captain Bellodi, from the north of Italy, finds himself up against the mafia, who have clearly eliminated a recalcitrant businessman who won't pay his protection money, and then systematically started to kill all potential witnesses to the killing. When the mafia don't officially exist, as in postwar Sicily, such investigations are tricky at best and lethal at worst.

But this synopsis includes only half the novel. In counterpoint, characters in Sicily and Rome engage in dialogues about the crime and its investigation. They appear to be commenting on the events in their "real world," but in a weird way they are meta-commenting on the context of those events, on the world outside of the novel, and even at times on Sciascia's characters and narrative. Italy itself, Sicily in particular, communism, fascism, and the postwar republic, literature, the mafia, and crime enter the meta-portions of the novel; so does what it means to be a cornuto, that quintessential Sicilian insult.

Such redoubling makes Il giorno della civetta postmodern, instead of a modernist procedural or a rhetorical, socially-engaged novel; and as often noted, Sciascia's literary devices make the novel both a procedural and a work of political rhetoric. Later, in A ciascuno il suo, Sciascia would weave digression and plot together more seamlessly to achieve political, rhetorical, and narratorial ends. But which is plot and which is digression?

In Sciascia's Sicily, even getting up in the morning requires a postmodern suspension of absurdity. The novel opens with a murder in broad daylight in a public square, witnessed by a literal busload of people. They do not see the killer hired by the mafia; to see him would entail their own death sentence (as it does for one hapless tree-pruner, up early in a side street, who bumps into the fleeing assassin). To live in a mafia-controlled country involves daily refusals to see that are worthy of the more science-fictiony expanses of the detective novel.

But Bellodi is an outsider, and he hasn't learned to unsee the obvious. When a momentary glimmer of evidence appears through the general deliberate blindness, he registers it, and begins to set a trap for the lower-level crooks who have carried out the wishes of the impeccably isolated mafia chiefs. The crooks fall out among themselves and incriminate each other, but it's almost too easy; they're idiots. When he comes to interrogate the capomafia himself, don Mariano Arena, Bellodi reaches an impasse. Not only will Arena admit nothing, but once he understands the evidence mounting against him, he uses his vast connections to make the entire case dissolve into a fog of impossible alibis.

But Arena knows that in some respects, he too has met his match. Arena explains to Bellodi that humanity is divided into five categories: "gli uomini, i mezz'uomini, gli omininicchi, i pigliainculo e i quaquaraquà" (93): men, half-men, homunculi, butt-boys, and … I am not sure how to translate quaquaraquà and not sure, after that sequence, that it needs much translation. And for Arena, Bellodi is "un uomo," a real man. He's not going to give Bellodi the satisfaction of imprisoning even the most quaquaraquà among his hirelings, but he wants Bellodi to know that, by challenging him to his face, Bellodi has earned his respect. Bellodi despises that respect, but he can't help but feel the acknowledgment of strength that lies behind it.

Sciascia, Leonardo. Il giorno della civetta. 1961. Milano: Adelphi, 2017.