Sicily is far removed from the gracious suavities of Tuscany. With the souk-like atmosphere of its markets and obscure exuberance of life in the old Cosa Nostra towns, the Mediterranean island is halfway to Muslim Tunisia. The British Tuscanites who descend on the hills around Florence during the summer holidays as part of their ‘Toujours Tuscany’ dream – Tony Blair, Sting, David Cameron – are thankfully nowhere in evidence.
In our post-Godfather world no history of Sicily would be complete without mention of the Mafia. The word is said to derive from the Arabic mahyas, meaning ‘aggressive boasting’: for almost three centuries until the Norman Conquest of 1061, Sicily was an Islamic emirate. I had come to a small town in the Mafia-dominated west of the island to talk about the Sicilian detective novelist and essayist Leonardo Sciascia (pronounced sha-sha), whose work I translated. Sciascia was born in Racalmuto in 1921; for years, the Mafia spread its tentacles into the town’s sulphur industry, but the sulphur mines are closed now, and add to a derelict air. Sciascia’s father, employed in the Racalmuto mines as a bookkeeper, was the son of a caruso, or child miner. Unsurprisingly, sulphur’s jaundice-yellow is emblematic in Sciascia’s fiction of Mafia-related extortion and cruelty. In his first Cosa Nostra-themed novel, The Day of the Owl, published in 1961, the face of a bus conductor caught up in a shotgun vendetta is ‘the colour of sulphur’. In Sicily’s age-old burden of injustice and death Sciascia found a drama that served him well as a writer who cast an inquisitorial eye on political corruption in all its guises. He died in the Sicilian capital of Palermo in 1989, at the age of 68, a lifelong heavy smoker.
In Racalmuto my wife and I were put up in a hotel whose rooms were named after characters in Sciascia’s books.