Top 10 books on Sicily | Books
For decades ago, articles about Sicily were invariably accompanied by grim black and white images of bloody streets and blown up cars. The island was synonymous with Cosa Nostra, whose violent rule overshadowed all else. Organized crime is still a problem, but luckily some progress has been made. Today, democratically-minded Sicilians are gaining influence through thick and thin. Culture and tourism are at the heart of their vision for the future. Since Unesco recognized the Arab-Norman buildings of Palermo as sites of outstanding universal value in 2015, the institutions have endeavored to promote other lesser-known heritages. The baroque villas of Ragusa and Noto, long abandoned in decline, are now regaining their former glory. Publishing houses commission anthologies of forgotten medieval and Renaissance writers, art galleries curate exhibitions of underrated Modernist artists, while chefs and restaurateurs rename the vegetable-rich cuisine of the island to attract a growing vegan clientele.
My book The Invention of Sicily offers an itinerary through this rich culture. But this is by no means final. As the novelist Gesualdo Bufalino once said, Sicily is not “a homogeneous mass of race and customs”, but a place where “Everything is mixed, changing, contradictory, as we find in the most diverse, pluralistic of continents”. With that in mind, I have chosen 10 books that show the diverse character of the island, leaving the Mafia in the margins where it belongs:
1. Terroni: everything that has been done to make Southern Italians “southerners” by Pino Aprile
Terroni is a term, analogous to “redneck” in the United States, that northern Italians coined in the post-war years to distance themselves from their poorer compatriots to the south. Living in Tuscany, I am often shocked at how casually people use insult. Here, Aprile traces anti-South discrimination further back to 1861 and the founding of the Italian nation-state. Italy, he argues, is not in fact a unified country but a colonial project that the Savoyard monarchy of Turin devised to pay off its war debts by fighting Austria. Controversy aside, this is wonderful research and a valuable catalog of uncomfortable truths about the origins of southern Italy’s economic woes.
2. The Council of Egypt by Leonardo Sciascia
Sciascia is best known for his Mafia books. This thin volume translated by Adrienne Foulke is nevertheless one of the secret gems of Sicilian literature. It is essentially an eighteenth-century detective story, populated by an intriguing troop of Spanish nobles, Jacobin revolutionaries, forgers, smugglers and libertines. However, it is also a philosophical allegory on the fine lines which separate reality from fiction in Sicily, and the blurring of the borders between history and legend. Fans of Andrea Camilleri will surely appreciate the humor that is both affectionate and cynical.
3. Pump and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Cuisine by Mary Taylor Simeti
Sicilian cuisine is hotter and tangier than its regional counterparts on the Italian mainland; favoring the contrasts of extreme flavors with creamy umami sauces. Simeti’s 1989 book remains the most comprehensive English-language overview. It is not just a collection of recipes (though there are 100 of them), it is an impressive work of scholarship that meticulously describes the gifts centuries of mass migration have bestowed on the island.
4. The handsome Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati
Sicilian literature is full of satirical novels that poke fun at the patriarchal customs of the island. This one, translated by Tim Parks, is perhaps the best of them. The plot follows the escapades of the eponymous young playboy who, despite all his peacock, is unable to consume his various affairs. Brancati’s observations of male insecurity run deep, but the book is equally powerful as a political commentary on the toxic impact of machismo on Sicilian society.
5. Cavalleria Rusticana and other stories by Giovanni Verga
Born in 1840 in Vizzini, a small village near Catania, Verga is the best known of Italian realists. This 1999 anthology, translated by GH McWilliam, brings together stories from country life and short novels from Sicily, which together provide an intimate glimpse into 19th century rural life. Whether describing the daily routine of working the fields, superstitious rituals or revolts against greedy landowners, Verga speaks on an equal footing with her subjects like few of her generation.
6. Idylls of Theocritus
In the 4th century BC. BC, Sicily was part of Magna Greece, the ancient Greek Empire. Syracuse, then the most important city on the island, was one of the greatest naval powers in the world and a rival to Athens in terms of wealth and influence. Unfortunately, little literature survives from this time. The Idylls of Theocritus are a notable exception. These compositions, which reflect man’s relationship to nature, the destructive power of technology, and deforestation, among other topics, set a fascinating precedent for contemporary discussions of the environment.
7. The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa by David Gilmour
Lampedusa’s historical novel The Leopard fully deserves its reputation as a classic of Italian literature. Gilmour’s biography of its author, however, is equally vital reading. He uses unprecedented access to private notebooks to shed light on the psychological struggles of this introverted man who never succeeded in exorcising the ghosts of his aristocratic ancestors. This book judiciously places Lampedusa’s life in its socio-political context, but in a way that always respects the memory of its subject.
8. Conversations in Sicily by Mason Elio Vittorini
This novel, set during the rise of fascism, follows a man who sets out on a journey to Sicily to escape the “abstract furies” of modern life. There isn’t much to the plot. The narrator drinks wine with some acquaintances and chats with some craftsmen. His real concerns, however, are existential and spiritual in nature. The result, translated by Alane Salierno, is a powerful meditation on how to find meaning, and how to live well, when the world seems to be falling apart.
9. The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194: The Normans in Sicily Volume II by John Julius Norwich
For a few decades, between 1130 and 1194, Sicily hosted one of the greatest cosmopolitan experiences in history. The Norman De Hauteville dynasty arrived on the island as Crusaders. Once established, however, they presided over a tolerant, multicultural society that challenged the violent bigotry of the time. Their highly centralized state had three official languages and a constitution that prohibited discrimination on religious grounds, while the kings themselves commissioned extraordinary works of Islamic and Byzantine art. The Norwich Book remains the definitive English summary of Sicily’s Golden Age, and it’s a fascinating tale of how, amid bigotry and fundamentalism, the islanders have come to appreciate the differences from each other.
10. Ciao Ousmane: The Hidden Exploitation of Italian Migrant Workers by Hsiao-Hung Pai
The title of this poignant book refers to a Senegalese who, in 2013, died in a gas explosion while undertaking seasonal work harvesting olives in western Sicily. After the tragedy, journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai spent months getting to know some fruit pickers. Its report explains with brutal clarity how migrant workers are exploited on a daily basis as authorities turn a blind eye. Local activists, NGOs and charities have been calling for better conditions for decades. This is an important and informative account of why their efforts so far have been unsuccessful.
The Invention of Sicily: A Mediterranean History by Jamie Mackay is published by Verso. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.