Le Ore di Spagna (The Time spent in Spain) by Leonardo Sciascia
While reading Le Ore di Spagna (The Time Spent in Spain) by Leonardo Sciascia (1921–1989), I thought of Elvis Presley. After his death – I mean the death of the unforgettable Elvis – one of his songs, Rubbernechin’, a stirring rock ’n’ roll number, was remixed by Paul Oakenfold and released as a new single in 2003. I urge you to see the video to appreciate the professionalism of this job. The entire piece was built starting from an old musical phrase.
Le Ore di Spagna is not a remix but a collection of articles, mainly about Spain, written by Sciascia from 1980 to 1985, and I think assembled by Natale Tedesco, a philologist from Palermo, who wrote the book’s introduction – even though it is not clear whether the series of articles was proposed by Sciascia himself or Tedesco or by the publisher, Pungitopo. Whatever. Natale Tedesco is not Paul Oakenfold, Le Ore di Spagna is not a stirring rock ’n’ roll but a number of disordered pages that lack coherence and seem to have only a commercial reason for using the name Sciascia, and of course Pungitopo is not RCA Records.
You can think that I’m blasphemous, but I believe that every task requires professionalism; it doesn’t matter if you are producing a song, a book, or even a pair of shoes or salami.
I chased Le Ore di Spagna for many weeks because it was sold out in the main online shops. Eventually I got to buy a second-hand copy, paying 30 euros for sixty written pages, some inexcusable mistakes and fifty photos, likewise disordered, untitled (there is only a list at the end of the book) and unexplained.
I thought it was worth buying Le Ore di Spagna because I like Leonardo Sciascia and I like Spain. So, this combination, together with the hope of understanding more about colonialism and post-colonialism, on which Sciascia is said to be an expert, thrilled me.
I have to explain more: I like Sciascia because he is intelligent – and, believe me, this adjective fits a limited number of recent so-called writers. Yes, intelligence is a pass no-pass filter, and so, forgetting many ideologically forced considerations, Sciascia is able to show us new perspective on various events, regardless of whether they are historical or current, ranging from the Mafia to Pirandello, from thriller stories to Stendhal, from the Moro affair to the theft of the Caravaggio Nativity, etc. He tells his stories always with a sort of acute and uncomfortable intelligence – sometimes very uncomfortable – which is unlike that of other politically correct essayists. Read, for example, The Challenge and Todo Modo (*), two merciless descriptions of Italian politics and the Italian Catholic clergy, and don’t forget that Sciascia, like Italo Calvino, though for different reasons, had the courage to resign from the PCI, the Italian communist party, in tempore non suspecto.
And I like Spain, though not because I’m a post-colonialism thinker, whatever that term means (I’m still trying to understand it). I’m proud of my Sardinian roots, as Spanish people are proud of theirs, and we share this common pride, without compromises. Moreover, Spain is a part of our history, of our Mediterranean closeness, and there is an affinity among some of the populaces of the inland regions. So, I think, people from Barbagia, like me, are more contiguous (in cultural terms, in terms of spirit, traditions and habits) with those from Extremadura or Castilla, for example, than those from Liguria or Campania.
Nevertheless, Le Ore di Spagna is a complete disappointment. Writing an article is an entirely different job from creating a good book. So, a collection of articles has to be carefully designed and then double-checked because, in the end, the resulting ‘account’ must be coherent, at least in terms of objective, voice and message. The risk is ending up with a sort of useless affabulazione exercise, a cultural jest, a series of statements/paragraphs meant only for elitist amusement and especially to impress, to hit, without the strong glue of the necessary focus and depth. Sciascia, or rather the Sciascia who appears in Le Ore di Spagna is nothing but a superficial affabulatore, a person who speaks too much and is pleased with himself.
Read his comments about Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, for example, covered in two articles, and compare them with the essay on Don Quixote by Simon Leys in his The House of Uselessness: Collected Essays (it is also possible to compare this latter collection of essays with Le Ore di Spagna, but I don’t want to be cruel so I’d prefer just to say something about Elvis Presley – it is enough).
In two short articles, Sciascia quotes (in order of appearance): Rafael Alberti, Pedro Salinas, Jorge Guillén, Luis Cernuda, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, Alessandro Manzoni, Antonio Zozaya, Ferdinando Carlesi, Vittorio Bodini, Michel de Montaigne, William Wordsworth, Jorge Luis Borges, E. M. Forster, Leo Tolstoy, Napoleone, Ludvig van Beethoven, Maurizio Scaparro, Julien Sermet, Henry de Touluse Lautrec, Miguel de Unamuno, Luigi Pirandello and Antonio Gasparetti. After this terrific showing-off of culture, what is missing is Don Quixote. The most basic questions that arise in a professional review of a novel – such as, what is this book about? – are forgotten, so the answers, of course.
From Le Ore di Spagna it transpires that Don Quixote is a gioioso e misterioso (joyful and mysterious) book; che da’ una particolare gioia a chi lo legge (which gives a particular joy to the one who reads it) and has infinite possibilità di lettura (infinite possibilities of reading); that it is un libro unico (a unique book); that it has una vitalità che va al di là delle pagine (it has a vitality that goes beyond its pages) and quell’ambiguità o polivalenza che sommamente e impareggiabilmente contiene, quell’impressione (that it encompasses extreme ambiguity and polyvalences…); etc. Ignoring all the clichés (infinite possibilities of reading, a unique book, etc.), what it is left is that Don Quixote is a joyful and mysterious book. Joyful? Don Quixote?
Sciascia tells us that Don Quixote is, among the ten or twenty greatest books in the world, one of the least read, in Spain and everywhere else. And he quotes Gonzalo Torrente Ballester who shouted in pain: “Spain is the country where Cervantes is less read.” This is one of the several contradictions of the book, since on another page Sciascia remembers that reading of Don Quixote has been compulsory in Spanish schools since 1921, as I promessi Sposi by Manzoni is compulsory in Italian schools.
However, it is not just a matter of spending time searching for inaccuracies. Sciascia praises José Ortega y Gasset because the philosopher non va mai fuori tema, va diritto al tema come freccia al bersaglio (doesn’t stray from the point but goes straight to the theme like an arrow to the target), yet Sciascia himself often gets side-tracked, and goes off at a tangent.
He says that l’oro puro è la verità, quello della verità. E della letteratura che della verità è figlia (the pure gold is the truth, is that of the truth. And literature is a child of the truth), yet in the same book he judges wonderful Pierre Menard’s idea that history is the mother of the truth (l’idea è meravigliosa: la verità storica, per lui, non è ciò che avvenne, ma ciò che noi giudichiamo che avvenne), confirming my idea that Sciascia read Orwell, if any, with the same attention he used to read Cervantes. By the way, Pierre Menard is the main character in the account Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote, by Jorge Luis Borges. Sciascia (page 31) explains the difference between Cervantes and Pierre Menard in this way: “Cervantes, for example, wrote (Don Quixote, Part I, Chapter IX)… ‘la verità, la cui madre è la storia, emula del tempo, deposito delle azioni, testimone del passato, esempio e notizia del presente, avviso dell’avvenire.’ While Menard, instead, writes: ‘la verità, la cui madre è la storia, emula del tempo, deposito delle azioni, testimone del passato, esempio e notizia del presente, avviso dell’avvenire.’” So, the same phrase appears in two quotations by two different authors: an inexcusable mistake that confirms the poor quality of the book.
And, in accordance with the title of the book, what about Spain? Sciascia declares that “Avevo la Spagna nel cuore (I had Spain in my heart – which incidentally is also the title of his first book) e l’ho ancora (and still have)” but Spain is only an ideological and confused construction, again a useless exercise of affabulazione around a broken dream and a lost war, a system of political beliefs, often a cliché. Everything is filtered and strongly amplified by Sciascia’s ego. In Le Ore di Spagna you meet and understand Spain as you meet and understand Don Quixote, meaning that Spain itself, its history and people, its problems, its turbulent greatness, is all missing. Only a strict circle of elitist intelligentsia exists (Caro Jorge Guillén, che da molti anni non vedo: ma indimenticabili sono le mie serate romane in sua compagnia…), or historical figures transfigured by ideology, like André Marty, who appears in For Whom the Bell Tolls too. Spain is only an assembly of disordered thoughts. Again: what is this book about?
My disappointment increased upon trying to understand Sciascia’s ‘post colonialism’. I didn’t understand anything, I have to confess. Yes, there is a link between Sicily and Spain, which Sciascia felt to be so close and familiar that it threaded throughout his whole production, starting from one of his first writing, Pirandello e il pirandellismo, through Avevo la Spagna nel Cuore, right up the last pieces published. He explains the meaning of this link, born of ‘centuries of domination, which have generated alienation, intolerance and hate, but also bonds, correspondences and crystallizations (this term is used and quite badly abused in the book)’. So far, everything is clear.
He also says that in Sicily you cannot find Spanish books and, vice versa, no Spaniard wrote about Sicily during its Spanish domination. So: complete otherworldliness between the two entities. OK.
Then, out of the blue, Sciascia introduces the concept and existence (when, how?) of a ritrovata fraternità, a ‘found again, rediscovered brotherhood’ between Sicily and Spain, which lies in the shared roots between the two countries. Sciascia sees them in the Arab conquest of the Mediterranean, in what Arabs left. This alleged, rediscovered brotherhood between the two conquered countries is based on these past roots. Frankly, I think that this concept is unjustified, pulled out of thin air.
In the end, about this latter topic of colonialism and post-colonialism, which stirs me, I am left with only questions and no certainties:
- Centuries of domination originate common elements that you can find in the dominated country (words, myths, images, and yes, also bonds, correspondences and crystallizations) that are sometimes the tools of the domination in itself – be careful – and always one of its results. The proof of the domination (which is a one-way line of action, almost always) is that you cannot find Sicilian elements in Spain. But, why are we surprised to find these Spanish elements in Sicily (or in Argentina or in Sardinia, for instance), after many centuries of domination?
- Can Sciascia be considered a post-colonial intellectual simply because, when reflecting on the story of his land, he finds that in his own cultural story he has reached the level of maturity necessary to overcome any hatred for the past dominator and, instead, see all the elements that join it to him?
- Can he be considered post-colonial because he sees more elements of cohesion than of division, and because he underlines the value of the alleged shared roots?
- What does it mean to be post-colonial? To accept these elements as though they are part of your identity? OK, after many centuries of domination it could happen naturally. In fact, how could you avoid its natural osmosis, after so many generations? Or does being post-colonial mean considering these elements as a fair/partial reimbursement for the political and human damages experienced by your country? Is Leonardo Sciascia post-colonial in this latter sense?
- Are Tommasi di Lampedusa (The Leopard) and Salvatore Satta (The Day of Judgement) postcolonial writers, as Alessandro Carrera says in his Il Principe e il Giurista (The Prince and the Jurist)? Why didn’t they overcome the Piedmontese colonialism and affirm that entering the modernity of finally united Italy means that you have to renounce your identity, your soul too, even if you are gods (“They are coming to teach us good manners, but won’t succeed, because we are gods” — Tomasi di Lampedusa)?
- So, what does to be post-colonial mean?
- What is the difference between ‘domination’ and ‘colonialism’? Or better, are there different forms, different grades of colonialism or only one? I don’t think that in history we can find only one form of colonialism. Did the Spanish colonialism in Sicily look like the Piedmontese version in Sardinia?
- To be post-colonial, do you have to forget the actions, damages and effects of colonialism, or do you have to internalise them and learn from them, to avoid them in the future?
- Who is the Big Brother, who decides when is the time to forget, to become post-colonial?
- Why do we have to be postcolonial (in this case, by we, I mean, Sardinian people like me) when nobody officially recognises that 200 years of greedy, stupid and merciless Piedmontese colonialism spoiled Sardinian land and destroyed a millennia-old culture? And the merge with Italy was nothing but an act of forced violence?
- Isn’t this post-colonialism only a symptom of weakness? What kind of national spirit can we have if we accept a foreign dominance as a normal event, even more so if it is able to influence our identity by transmitting bonds, correspondences and creating crystallizations? Can I remember the French dominance in England, which lasted about 200 years imposing the French language onto the dominated nation? Not only wasn’t there a ‘post-colonial’ cultural movement, but quite the reverse, there was a strong and widespread effort, as quickly as possible, to wipe as soon as possible that ominous (for England) period from history and confound its real effects (partly by creating a fake hero, Ivanhoe, and considering the novel Ivanhoe as a historical book), just to preserve the national spirit intact.
- Isn’t Asterix but a new Ivanhoe, this time dedicated to defending the French image, ruined by the rapid Romans’ conquest?
- Isn’t that ritrovata fraternità nothing but a ‘Christian-like’ sentiment (in the end, we are all God’s children)?
(*)”Todo modo para buscar y hallar la voluntad divina” è la primera anotación gesuitica degli Esercizi spirituali di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola.