mercoledì 17 dicembre 2014

How Sciascia challenges the detective novel genre

Leonardo Sciascia
by Olga Lenczewska


The detective novel is a rather popular and “light” genre of literature that usually serves to entertain the reader without imposing on him any particular ideology or making him reflect on his life. This is the case when it comes to Agatha Christie's novels or the stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle, to list two English individuals that are amongst the most popular crime novels authors in the world. The aim of these novels is to portray a crime story is such a way that the reader feels the suspense is growing and cannot stop reading the book until the very last chapter. At the beginning of the book we are always presented with a murder (or multiple murders) as well as with all the protagonists that are involved in the incident in one way or another. The psychological portrait of the characters is usually very detailed and complicated. Among these people there is always a clever detective or policeman (for example, Sherlock Holmes in Doyle's novels and Hercules Poirot or Miss Marple in Christie's books), whose ultimate goal is to solve the crime. Each chapter of a detective novel, moreover, is supposed to reveal a new trace, either through the investigator's private enquiry or an interrogation of the characters, which will eventually lead to discovering the murderer and his motives - the “truth” about the story.

The structure of the detective novel does not allow its author much flexibility and literary innovation. Perhaps that is why it has not been considered an ambitious genre. Despite this fact, one of the Italian novelists of the 20th century, Leonardo Sciascia, a Sicilian whose books belong to the canon of Italian literature, chose the detectve novel as the framework for the vast majority of his writings. Although Sciascia's books largely conform to the genre of the detective novel, there are ideological and structural elements that differ.

Sciascia’s novels, such as “A ciascuno il suo” or “Il giorno della civetta”, start with a murder or murders, continue with an individual trying to discover the truth about a murder case by investigating various traces, and end with the killer’s being revealed and the story explained. The incident is always depicted from a few different perspectives and the reader does not know what exactly has happened. Moreover, the act of the murder splits the plot into two parts – before and after, constituting a crucial turning point in the plot. The element of a puzzle – who killed and why – goes back to the classic detective novel of Doyle and Christie. Through deduction and linking various premises in Sciascia’s books, as much as in those written by Doyle or Christie, it is possible to unveil the real story.

However, not everything in Sciascia's novels conforms to the detective novel genre so easily. Often the murderer turns out not to be a single person but a whole criminal institution – the Sicilian Mafia – with all its legal and political tricks. Because of this fact the motives of the murders are usually political and social, not private. Moreover, Sciascia, unlike other crime authors, is aware that the state is not of much use when it comes to uncovering a murder story: “Lo stato – l'istituzione giudiziaria – non é in grado di conferire efficacia al paziente lavorio di ricostruzione dell'ispettore o del detective” [Ambroise, “Invito alla lettura di Sciascia”]. In Sciascia's crime novels the Mafia is portrayed as an institution that defines the mode of existence in Sicily. Against the standard detective novel, the writer goes beyond a simple plot and brings out the evil history of the island, represented by the silence and the collision between the Mafia’a own business and the welfare of ordinary Sicilian citizens. In such a way Sciascia demythologises and re-invents, or re-formulates, the genre of the detective novel.

To give an example, this social situation of the island is symbolically represented in the main protagonist of “A ciascuno il suo” (1966), professor Paolo Laurana. Laurana is the most frequently featured character of the book as well as a private investigator of the double murder which takes place at the beginning of the book. However, unlike the traditional detectives, he is not sufficiently equipped to perform his task because he is a literature teacher and has no experience with dealing with crime. He is presented by Sciascia negatively: he is an introvert, not very successful in his academic job, sexually repressed, and dominated by his mother. Laurana tries to reconstruct the relationship between Manno and Roscio, the two victims of the murder in “A ciascuno il suo”, by interrogating his friends and other citizens. He is not sure who is and who is not controlled by the Mafia, and therefore whom he can trust. Sciascia depicts this difficult situation “usando un rigoroso rispecchiamento di un paese della Sicilia dove la mafia controlla inesorabilmente uomini e cose” [Abruzzi, “Leonardo Sciascia e la Sicilia”]. In the novel the Mafia is opposed by a single person who is not even an investigator but plays a “game” of being one. Despite his honesty and desire to unveil the truth, Laurana fails to complete his task in the world of corruption and lack of definite ethical values. He does not in time realise the dishonesty of the people involved in the murder and in consequence his naivety leads him to death. The reader quickly realises that in Sicily the collision between the victims and the world of politics is so strong that Laurana is unable to change anything. Sciascia's honest and trustworthy detective is alone, and he is the only point on earth where corruption is rejected: his motive is ethical and abstract, and, therefore, incorruptible. The impotence of the investigator is opposed to the power of the Mafia, which reflects the general social and political situation of the Sicily of the 1960's.

In his hands the genre of the detective novel became a reflection on the political system and the social situation of Sicily. The collective and institutional murderer, the Mafia, is portrayed as an institution that defines the mode of existence on the island. The impotence and naivety of the detective Laurana from “A ciascuno il suo” symbolises the inability of the Italians from Sicily to take control over this collective murderer. Sciascia, therefore, re-formulates the genre of the detective novel by introducing the elements I presented above and, in consequence, bitterly unveiling the real situation in the Sicily of the 1960’s. His crime novels may be therefore said to constitute one big detective story which is based on real facts from the Sicilian life of the author and his neighbours.


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